Bolton Art Colony & Gershom Bartlett

by Hans DePold, town historian
(Published in Bolton Horizons, June 2010; Revised Jan. 2015)

The Muses, according to Greek mythology, are spirit sources of the knowledge, insight, and inspiration needed for the creation of literature and the arts.

A quiet town in northeast Connecticut might seem an unlikely haven for artists, but artists have favored Bolton since the early 18th century. In addition to Bolton's local talent, artists came briefly from afar or to remain and work into their twilight years. There were places to stay, companionship, and people appreciative of their talents. Bolton Notch was a particular early attraction, and sculptors, stone carvers, and masons would return again and again to select slabs of granite from its rocky outcrops. This stone, actually a form of schist, became known as "Bolton Granite" and was famous for its toughness. The work of these artists and craftsmen, who have been called the earliest of American folk artists, can still be seen in the many carved monuments in our ancient graveyards.

I found references as far back as 1982 of researchers looking for the "Hook and Eye Man," whose gravestone carvings are easily recognized by their bulbous noses, turned down mouths, row of vestigial teeth at the bottom of the face, raised eyebrows, usually a four-lobed crown, and three curved wings of curls beside the face. The finials are most frequently pinwheels or four-leafed clovers and often a small heart can be found near the bottom of the legend. The footstones are often easily recognized, having a pattern of three or four diamonds on them. These stones are found throughout eastern Connecticut but are most common west of Mansfield, becoming very scarce in the northeast and in coastal communities. The identity of the "Hook and Eye Man" was a mystery until Dr. Ernest Caulfield identified him in a 1980 report, "Wanted: The Hook-And-Eye Man (Gershom Bartlett)." It took longer still to track him down to Bolton.

Gershom Bartlett was born in Bolton in 1723, three years after Bolton was founded. All his 10 brothers and sisters were also born in Bolton. He married Margaret Darte, the daughter of Bolton residents Daniel Darte and Jemima Shayler Darte, in 1748 in Bolton. They had 12 children, all born in Bolton; the last was born September 22, 1771. They say Bartlett was the first person to quarry at Bolton Notch. Among the many stones he carved is the one he carved for Bolton's first pastor, Rev. Thomas White, in 1763.


Bartlett carved stone in Bolton until he moved to Pompanoosuc, Vermont, in 1772 where he took up carving on slate. They say he returned to Bolton after his wife died in 1777. He died in 1798, the year before American folk portrait artist Ralph Earl took up residence in Bolton. Ralph Earl is likely the anonymous painter of the portrait of the famous Bolton Minister George Colton. Today Bolton still has a colony of local artists.

Artists were never outcasts but you would not have wished an art Muse on a friend because artists in the past were so poor. It didn't seem right to pay good money to an artist who was having much more fun than any human being deserves.

Artists like to cluster and share values concerning what is important in life and what constitutes beautiful art or writing. Certainly sharing knowledge, tricks of the trade, and stylistic forms helps everyone in an art colony grow in skills. Artists learn from each other and they need inspiration. And so each member of the Bolton Art Colony is very often a Muse for the other members.

Now the Bolton Artist Colony can lay claim to two famous folk artists who lived in Bolton: Gershom Bartlett and Ralph Earl.

Gershom Bartlett's Family Tree

I found 12 books and articles dating back as far as 1982 searching for the Hook and Eye Man's identity. Enfield, Windsor, East Hartford, and Farmington mention Gershom Bartlett as one the artists who spent some time there studying and working. Researchers once thought he started in Enfield and worked his way down into Connecticut; no one even mentioned Bolton as the place to look until recently. Ernest Caulfield appears to be the one who identified Gershom Bartlett in the last few years. Gershom Bartlett never took up permanent residence in any of the other Connecticut towns where he worked. He loved the schist of his Bolton quarry, which some called Bolton Granite due to its strength, and he brought it by wagon wherever he worked.

It is now verified that Gershom's father, Samuel Bartlett, was one of the founding fathers of Bolton, all of whom were already landowners living here and who then petitioned to incorporate the Town of Bolton. Since the incorporation took place in 1720, approximately two years after the founding fathers began the process, that proves Gershom Bartlett, who was born in Bolton in 1723 (as the Bolton birth records show), could not have been born in Massachusetts and brought here later as some people have claimed.

Samuel Bartlett and Sarah Ward were married in Northampton, Mass., on April 09, 1706. Their first child, Sarah Bartlett, was born a month earlier, on March 12, 1706, here in Bolton. It could be that Samuel and Sarah just ran off together and were young pioneers of Bolton. Then they married in Northampton and returned to Bolton. They had 11 children, on average one every other year, and all were born in Bolton.

At first you might suspect that Sarah Ward was from Bolton because all her children were born here, but we are talking 1706, which is 14 years before Bolton was founded and 19 years before the Congregational Church began recording births! Yet I found these Bolton records on the Internet Archive. (One of the first responsibilities of every new town administration was to create the early birth and death records of their inhabitants. That is why we have Bolton vital statistics from just before incorporation of the town. It was a Connecticut requirement for incorporation.) The most important of the birth dates have been verified by Bolton's assistant town clerk.

Samuel Bartlett died in Bolton on November 19, 1746, when his son Gershom was 23 years old. We need to confirm if Gershom Bartlett carved his father's stone. It is probable that Sarah Ward Bartlett died here also but we do not yet know when or if Gershom carved her stone.

The children of Samuel Bartlett and Sarah Ward Bartlett are:

SARAH BARTLETT, b. March 12, 1706, Bolton, Tolland Co., Conn.

HAZEDIAH BARTLETT, b. September 22, 1708, Bolton, Tolland Co., Conn.

EXPERIENCE BARTLETT, b. August 03, 1710, Bolton, Tolland Co., Conn.; d. March 21, 1749, Colchester, New London Co., Conn.

SAMUEL (III) BARTLETT, b. July 18, 1712, Bolton, Tolland Co., Conn.; d. July 07, 1740, Bolton, Tolland Co., Conn.

EDMUND BARTLETT, b. June 17, 1714, Bolton, Tolland Co., Conn.

JONATHAN (CAPT.) BARTLETT, b. August 01, 1716, Bolton, Tolland Co., Conn.; d. January 17, 1759, East Windsor, Hartford Co., Conn.

ELEANOR BARTLETT, b. March 03, 1719, Bolton, Tolland Co., Conn.; d. 1795, Bolton, Tolland Co., Conn.

EUNICE BARTLETT, b. January 20, 1720, Bolton, Tolland Co., Conn.; d. February 07, 1725, Bolton, Tolland Co., Conn.

GERSHOM BARTLETT, b. February 19, 1723, Bolton, Tolland Co., Conn.; d. 1798 Bolton, Tolland Co., Conn.

EUNICE BARTLETT, b. February 07, 1724, Bolton, Tolland Co., Conn.

JOSEPH BARTLETT, b. April 14, 1725, Southampton, Hampshire Co., Mass.
We do not know the day GERSHOM BARTLETT died or for certain where he was buried; we need to verify this in the Bolton death records of 1798 and the cemetery records.

Here is Gershom Bartlett's own family:

GERSHOM BARTLETT was born February 19, 1723 in Bolton, Tolland Co., Conn., and died in Bolton, Tolland Co., Conn. He married MARGARET DARTE, daughter of Daniel Darte and Jemima Shayler, before 1748 in Bolton, Tolland Co., Conn.

Children of Gershom Bartlett and Margaret Darte Bartlett are:

JOSEPH BARTLETT, b. January 23, 1748, Bolton, Tolland Co., Conn.

LUCEY BARTLETT, b. November 18, 1750, Bolton, Tolland Co., Conn.

MARGARET BARTLETT, b. September 06, 1752, Windsor, Hartford Co., Conn.

GERSHOM BARTLETT, b. June 09, 1754, Bolton, Tolland Co., Conn.; d. June 03, 1755, Bolton, Tolland Co., Conn.

GERSHOM BARTLETT, b. March 03, 1756, Bolton, Tolland Co., Conn.; d. 1839, Norwich, Windsor Co., Vermont

SARAH BARTLETT, b. January 22, 1758, Bolton, Tolland Co., Conn.

ELIOT BARTLETT, b. December 16, 1760, Bolton, Tolland Co., Conn.; d. Norwich, Windsor Co., Vermont

JONATHAN BARTLETT, b. June 13, 1762, Bolton, Tolland Co., Conn.

MARY BARTLETT, b. July 12, 1765, Bolton, Tolland Co., Conn.

MOSES BARTLETT, b. January 24, 1767, Bolton, Tolland Co., Conn.; d. July 30, 1768, Bolton, Tolland Co., Conn.

MOSES BARTLETT, b. February 09, 1769, Bolton, Tolland Co., Conn.

JARIUS BARTLETT, b. September 22, 1771, Bolton, Tolland Co., Conn.

Gershom and Margaret stayed in Bolton until 1772 when they moved to Pompanoosuc, Vermont, where Gershom continued to carve (but on slate) until late in the 18th century. Why did they leave? Did they sense a war was about to break out and move deeper into the wilderness to get away? Was he a Tory like Ralph Earl?

Margaret Darte Bartlett died in Vermont in 1778. But it is said that Gershom died in Bolton, so he may have returned to his Bolton family and died here in 1798. It is also possible he died in Vermont because several of his children died up there. This has to be investigated further.