John Morrison: Indentured Servant, Ornamental Gardener, and Unlikely Family Friend

Today, the layout of the Porter-Phelps-Huntington Museum’s North Garden closely resembles its original eighteenth-century design. At the time of its creation, the North Garden’s design differed from the traditional kitchen garden arrangements that were prevalent throughout colonial Massachusetts. Unlike the typical Hadley kitchen gardens, the North Garden was carefully planned and featured exotic flowers and crops. The unique North Garden was designed and maintained by John Morrison. Morrison arrived in the Colonies as a conscript in the British Army during the Revolutionary War. Upon his arrival to America, he found himself taken as a prisoner of war. He eventually ended up in Hadley, Massachusetts at Forty Acres. It was here that he spent the rest of his life.

Looking from the North Garden towards the Porter-Phelps-Huntington House

Looking from the North Garden towards the Porter-Phelps-Huntington House


In June of 1776, John Morrison and the Seventy-First regiment of Highlanders arrived outside of Boston Harbor. Unaware of the evacuation of Boston by the British Troops, the Highlander’s ships were engaged by American vessels upon their approach to port. After a two-hour navel engagement, the British ships sailed towards Boston were they hoped to find refuge in a British-controlled port. As they sailed closer to port, they were attacked again by the same American vessels from the earlier skirmish. The Highlanders suffered even more casualties and their commander, Lt. Col. Campbell, decided to surrender to the Americans.[1] John Morrison was among the two hundred sixty seven Highlanders taken as prisoners of war.[2] Approximately one year later Morrison arrived at Forty Acres as an indentured servant.

Throughout Massachusetts, the recruitment of local men into militias had put a strain on the available labor force. The shortage of able-bodied farmhands posed a serious set-back to the planting and growing of crops on farms throughout the area. As a result, farmers petitioned the local Committees of Safety for permission to use captured enemy soldiers as labor in their fields.[3] John Morrison was one of the captives sent to supplement the diminishing labor force on farms across Massachusetts. On March 23, 1777 Elizabeth Porter Phelps mentioned in her diary that “one of the Highlanders” whom was captured by her cousin Colonel Porter, was sent to live and work at Forty Acres.

Upon his arrival, John Morrison was initially put to work in the fields. Back home in Scotland, Morrison was an ornamental gardener. With his experience, Morrison eventually  was given the responsibility of creating and maintaining the gardens at Forty Acres. Most families in Hadley at the time had gardens but, they were most often just extensions of their vegetable plots. It is likely that the Phelps were the only family in Hadley with their own private gardener. According to Elizabeth Pendergast Carlisle, author of Earth Bound and Heavenbent, formal gardens, like Morrison’s, were a rare sight in rural Massachusetts. They were more common in the South. She further claims that Southern gentry often relied on indentured servants to serve as formal gardeners, citing George Washington and his formal gardens.[4] This trend extended to the North as evident by Morrison’s labor at Forty Acres. Prior to Morrison’s tenure at Forty Acres,  Elizabeth had described gardening as sporadic and casual.[5] Morrison’s North Garden was carefully planned; it was laid out in a rectangular shape with four subdivided paths, a circular rose-bed at the center, and was lined by fruit-trees along its sides. The meticulously designed North Garden brought a sense of elegance to the rural landscape that surrounded Forty Acres.

After the Revolutionary War, John Morrison remained at Forty Acres. He would eventually be considered a member of the extended Phelps Family.[6] Due to his trusted position and his excellent gardening skills, he was able to request that family members purchase specific seeds from Boston for the North Garden. In 1789, Elizabeth Porter Phelps wrote to her brother in Boston, “Mr. Morrison…wishes once more to request you purchase some flower and kitchen garden seeds—of which I send enclosed in a list.” Two years later in 1791, Charles Phelps wrote his son to update him on the status of Morrison’s garden and pass upon his requests for seeds. Phelps wrote, “John has his hotbed at work—and his cucumbers planted.” He continues the letter by requesting his son get “½ ounce Dutch cabbage seed – and ½ ounce early York Cabbage – and send home.”[7] It appears as if, the family greatly appreciated Morrison’s garden and went to great lengths to procure the specific seeds that John requested.

Morrison was obviously a very skilled gardener and while living at Forty Acres his “exclusive business was ornamental gardening.”[8] However, letters between Charles Phelps and Elizabeth Phelps illuminate another side of the ornamental gardener. According to family letters, Morrison was some-what of a notorious drunkard. His relationship with alcohol led to periods of prolonged absences which frustrated family members. He would allegedly skirt his duties at Forty Acres to instead nap on top of Mount Warner—the hilltop at the edge of family’s estate. It was on top of the Mount Warner where he would recover from his bouts of drinking. The secluded area was a great spot for a nap but, it also gave John a vantage point to admire his work in the garden from a distance.[9] The planned and orderly garden, inspired by European-style gardens, would have stood out from the rural New World landscape that surrounded it. Today, if one hikes to the summit of Mount Warner, it is possible to find “John’s Rock”, a boulder which Morrison regularly used to rest his head during his naps.

Morrison lived the rest of his life with the family at Forty Acres and eventually was buried alongside family members in the Old Hadley Cemetery. After Morrison’s death in 1815, Elizabeth Phelps referenced the declining state of the gardens due to Morrison’s absence. She wrote, “…Our gardens look like a forsaken place…[they] look like a desert but a great variety of pretty flowers which if there was anybody to dig the ground and arrange them would appear well…” In 1949, James Lincoln Huntington, the founder of the Museum, reflected on the remains of Morrison’s garden, “The Plan of the old garden can still be traced; the lilac to the left of the flagstones leading to the south door and the bed of lilies-of-the-valley are believed to been planted by him [Morrison]”[10] John Morrison was an unlikely resident of Hadley—brought to Forty Acres as a prisoner of war and indentured servant. However, he is one of the many to have made their home at Forty Acres. His legacy continues today; visitors to the Porter-Phelps-Huntington Museum are free to explore the North Garden where one can imagine Morrison working to bring a slice of the Old World to rural Hadley.

Morrison's grave located in the Old Hadley Cemetery. The gravestone reads "John Morrison a Scotch Highlander captured with Col. Campbell in Boston harbor June 1770 died in the family of Cha. Phelps Sept. 13 1814 aged about 65"

Morrison's grave located in the Old Hadley Cemetery. The gravestone reads "John Morrison a Scotch Highlander captured with Col. Campbell in Boston harbor June 1770 died in the family of Cha. Phelps Sept. 13 1814 aged about 65"


[1] Lieutenant-Colonel, Campbell to General Howe. June 19, 1776, in American Archives: Documents of the American Revolutionary Period, 1774-1776.

[2] Thacher, James, and Samuel X. Radbill. 1862. Military journal of the American revolution: from the commencement to the disbanding of the American army : comprising a detailed account of the principal events and battles of the revolution with their exact dates, and a biographical sketch of the most prominent generals. Hartford, Conn: Hurlbut, Williams & Company. 44

[3] Pendergast Carlisle, Elizabeth Pendergast. 2004. Earthbound and Heavenbent: Elizabeth Porter Phelps and life at Forty Acres, 1747 - 1817. New York, NY. 89

[4] Pendergast Carlisle, 177

[5] Pendergast Carlisle, 178

[6] Pendergast Carlisle, 90

[7] AC Archives, PPH Collection Box 4 Folder 5

[8] AC Archives, PPH Collection Box 21 Folder 5

[9] Pendergast Carlisle, 270

[10] Huntington, James Lincoln. Forty Acres: The Story of the Bishop Huntington House. New York: Hastings House. 1949. 12-13