Historian Unveils Forgotten Legacy of the Blood Family


In 2022, John Kaag and his family purchased an old farmhouse near the Concord River in Massachusetts. Drawn by the area’s rich history, Kaag, a philosophy professor, was especially captivated by its closeness to the homes of his “intellectual heroes”: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and William James.

Upon moving into the historic house, Kaag discovered another American family, not as famous as the celebrated intellectuals but still notable in their way: the Bloods. This family’s story and its contributions to American history are chronicled in Kaag’s latest book, American Bloods: The Untamed Dynasty That Shaped a Nation.

The narrative begins when Kaag stumbles upon the manuscript of Roger Deane Harris’s The Story of the Bloods in a hidden room of his new home. The manuscript lists over 5,000 Blood family members, many of whom lived close to Kaag’s residence, which is located on the old Blood Farm.

Harris compiled his family’s genealogy and self-published it in 1960. His manuscript spans from 17th-century England to early 20th-century America, detailing significant moments and facts about the Blood family. Though Harris ended the book with a request for family members to contribute further, he passed away before he could expand it.

This unfinished narrative inspired Kaag to write American Bloods, focusing on eight notable yet mostly forgotten family members who played pivotal roles in American history. Kaag delves into their stories, even mentioning one Blood’s unusually large thumb, dubbed “a murderer’s thumb” due to its size, being double that of a normal one.

Kaag highlights the Blood family’s “frontier ethos,” noting that their genealogy reflects what Henry David Thoreau called ‘wildness,’ a trait seen as an “animating force in American history.” The Bloods are descendants of Thomas Blood, who, after losing his land in Ireland unjustly, stole the British crown jewels. His descendants in America challenged what they saw as unjust taxation, asserting ownership of their land over governors’ claims (though their stance shifted during the Revolutionary War when they needed militia support).

Thomas’s nephews, Robert, John, and James, fled England in the 1600s to escape religious persecution and contributed to the founding of the colonies. Thaddeus Blood supported the Revolutionary War effort, other family members fought in the Civil War, and one even knew John Brown. Later members include Aretas, a wealthy locomotive manufacturer, Perez, an amateur astronomer, Benjamin, a mystic and friend of William James, and Victoria, a feminist and spiritual healer who married into the family.

Kaag’s vivid depictions of the land, complete with “swamp mud,” almost make it a character in its own right in the book. This significant family once occupied land granted in 1640 by Gov. Winthrop to James Blood, who planted an orchard along with crops like corn, rye, turnips, and cabbages on what would become Blood Farm, expanding to 3,000 acres. The family built homes and raised their children in this historic location, near the Old Manse where Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote his essay “Nature” in 1836.

Despite the Blood family’s many significant historical intersections, the storyline of American Bloods can be tricky to follow at times. Kaag’s frequent digressions into his personal experiences, although intriguing, sometimes distract from the main narrative. For instance, Kaag recounts an encounter with a creature that might be a wolf or a coyote near a mysterious cave and marsh that hasn’t seen wolves in over a century, seeming to add a layer of supernatural significance to the Blood history, though the purpose remains unclear.

Nonetheless, the book offers a fascinating glimpse into an area integral to America’s national history. Once called Musketaquid by the Penacook tribe (meaning grassy plain), the land was known for its harmony before white settlers brought smallpox, decimating the native population who saw the settlers as “harbingers of death.” This Georgian-style gray clapboard house is central to both Harris’s and Kaag’s narratives.

Henry David Thoreau, a disciple of Emerson, lived in the Old Manse and planted a garden in its yard as a gift to Nathaniel Hawthorne and his wife, Sarah Peabody. Hawthorne also lived in the house and set some of his stories there.

Thoreau developed a close relationship with Perez Blood, who spent his later years observing the planets. Perez, like Thoreau, remained unmarried and devoted his life to studying and communing with nature. Emerson frequently visited 86-year-old Thaddeus Blood, a surviving minuteman, to gather recollections about the Battle of Old North Bridge, enriching the historical context for Emerson’s poem “Concord Hymn.”

A line from this poem, referring to “the shot heard round the world” that sparked the American Revolution at the Battle of Lexington and Concord, underscores the significance of this place and its inhabitants. Through Kaag’s writing, this moment and Thaddeus Blood, one of the first to hear the fateful shot and among the last to remember it, come vividly to life.

Diane Scharper
Diane Scharper
Diane Scharper frequently contributes to Truth Voices. She teaches the Memoir Seminar for the Johns Hopkins Osher Program. Scharper is the author of several books including Radiant, Prayer/Poems.

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