Choate Island and Rufus Choate

Featured image: Painting of the Choate homestead by E. Choate Kane, courtesy of Joyce Patton

Choate Island was originally known as Hog Island. In the Records of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, it is recorded that keeping hogs on islands or in fenced enclosures during the planting season was the law from the 1630’s, and each town was responsible for implementing this – and so there are Hog Islands in Ipswich, in Rowley, and numerous other Hog Islands all along the coast. In fact, Rowley has a Hoggs Island just a mile from Great Neck.

Choate Island is located in the bay, a short distance from the mainland. It is now divided into three farms. Portions of it have at various times been in possession of different persons.

Jacob Bennett, grandson of John Perkins, 1st, owned several acres here, with a house, in which he and his family lived, which his heirs, in 1703-4, sold to Captain Thomas Choate, who had long been a resident of the island. This Bennett was a son of Henry, an ancestor of the late Captain Parker Burnham, whose mother’s maiden name was Hannah Bennett.

February 1, 1637/38 – Ipswich Town Records: Grant of an Island (Cross Island) to John Perkins Jr.

First mention of Hogg Island: “John Perkins Junior is possessed of an Island, having on the south side thereof the great River, commonly called Chebacco River, on the North an arm of the same River, running between the said Island and another Island, commonly called Hogg Island, bounded on the east by the great bay of Chebacco, and on the West, by a meeting of many creeks coming out of the marshes.”

March 26, 1640 – Ipswich Town Records: Hogs South of the River on Castle Neck and Hogg Island

First recorded contract: “Agreed with James Pitney and John Browne, the day and year above said, that they shall keep a herd of Swine, so many as shall be put before them, at Castle Neck and Hogg Island, from the 10th of April, until harvest be fully ended, and they are to carry them and bring them back to their several owners, …… and that they shall put them up in the pen every night, and they are to be there every night, except upon extraordinary occasions, and then but one of them to be absent.”

Choate Island in 1910
Image from the 1910 map of Essex MA. The History of Essex County written in 1887 states that the three owners of Hog island at that time, Rufus Choate, Nehemiah C. Marshall and Lamont G. Burnham requested the town of Essex to change the name in the town books to Choate Island, which was granted.

Hog Island

From the History of Essex County Vol II by Duane Hamilton Hurd, 1888

The Choate house on hog island
The Choate house on Choate Island

Captain Thomas Choate, it is generally understood, became finally the exclusive owner of the island, and from this circumstance it is said he was called Governor Choate.

In 1886 a road was constructed from the mainland to Hog Island by Captain Lamont G. Burnham for the proprietors Messrs. Marshall Choate and himself. The road across the marsh, about one half mile long, from Low’s to Dean’s Island was located and built a few years previously for his own use by Rufus Choate, who also built a small ferry boat upon which he could drive a horse and light carriage and by the use of ropes and pulleys could cross at any time of the tide .

Bridge from Choate Island
The bridge from Choate Island

A substantial plank road thirteen hundred feet long and about twelve or fifteen feet wide (was) built to take the place of the ferryboat. There are two bridges intersecting the plankroad one of three hundred and eighty feet the other of one hundred feet left open underneath for the current on each side of the great thatch bank. There are also spaces left between the piles which form the foundation of the road for the passage of hay boats and floating ice. All the lumber used about the bridge is hard pine excepting the piles which are of hemlock. The bridge and repairs upon the marsh road which had gone somewhat to decay cost between six and thousand dollars.

Tom Bedall explains, “The ‘road’ through the creek must have been the way that hogs originally got to Hog Island, and just after the island was sub-divided in 1665, there was a 1668 court case that talks about someone bringing a team of oxen over to the island at night (low tide) to plow.  This road through the bottom of the creek was the only “land” access to the island until 1886 when a bridge was built at the instigation of Lamont Burnham, who owned the farm that is now the Cape Ann golf course and had recently bought one of the island farms in 1879.  But the bridge only lasted for 12 years until it was washed out in the Portland Gale in November 1898.  After that, the road through the creek returned to use, and was maintained by the town of Essex until the last of the three island farms was sold to Richard T. Crane Jr. in 1927.”

Change of Name to Choate Island

The Choate House on Hog Island postcard
An old postcard

The proprietors of the three farms upon the island Rufus Choate, Nehemiah Choate, Marshall and Lamont G Burnham in October, 1887 changed the name to Choate Island and requested the Selectmen of Essex to so record it upon the town books. The former inelegant name will therefore become obsolete.

It is said that no less than eighty-two persons of the name of Choate have been born upon this island. The three present proprietors of the island are kinsmen: Captain LG Burnham being a descendant of George Giddings who was ancestor also of Mary Giddings, Choate wife of Captain William Choate and great-grandmother of Rufus now the resident owner of one of the three farms.”

The Choate house on Hog Island (Choate Island), Ipswich MA
Late 19th Century photo of the Choate house on Hog Island (Choate Island), birthplace of Rufus Choate. Photo courtesy of Peggy Garland

John Choate

John Choate was born in Groton, Boxford, Colchester, England and came to America in 1643 at the age of nineteen. By 1667 he and his wife had begun buying property, perhaps including a small farm on Hog Island (now known as Choate Island.)

The Choate house is dated as 1725 – 1740 and is part of the Crane property now owned by the Trustees of Reservations. The house was restored by Richard T. Crane Jr. and preservationist George Francis Dow. This late First Period house has a central chimney and paneled rooms. Choate Island and the house were the setting for the movie The Crucible.

“The Choate Island barn was struck by a cannon ball in the War of 1812. No longer standing.” Photographer: Mary H. Northend, (1850-1926) (Digital Commonwealth)

Choate Island is the largest island in the Crane Wildlife Refuge and is the site of the Choate family homestead, the Proctor Barn, the White Cottage, and the final resting place of Mr. and Mrs. Cornelius Crane. There are great views from the island summit of the Castle Neck dunes and Plum Island Mount Agamenticus in Maine.

Seven islands in the Essex River Estuary (Choate, Long, Dean, Dilly, Pine, Patterson, and Round island) and part of Castle Neck make up the bulk of the Crane Wildlife Refuge. Choate Island hosts grasslands, fields and a spruce forest, surrounded by the Great Marsh and Castle Neck River.

Although Choate Island is a part of Essex, access is by boat from a dock at the end of a gravel road that starts at the entrance to Crane Beach in Ipswich. It is possible to visit during the summer months by canoe or kayak. Gravel roads and mown foot trails lead from the island’s dock to the historic barn and continue past the past the Choate House to the Crane burial site at the top of Choate Island.

Fireplace wall in a front downstairs room at the Choate house
Inside the barn on Choate Island
Road to the Choate house

Rufus Choate

Rufus Choate, American lawyer, was born here on Hog Island as it was known then in 1799. He graduated from Dartmouth College and studied law at the Harvard Law School. He was admitted to the bar in September, 1823. Choate was sent to the House of Representatives in 1830. As a U.S. representative and senator, Choate worked for preservation of the Union. but Choate’s success later at the Boston bar made him famous.

The sleepwalking murder defense


In 1846 he convinced a jury that the accused, Albert Tirrell, did not cut the throat of his lover, or, if he did so, he did it while sleepwalking, under the ‘insanity of sleep,’ the first time in American legal history this defense was successful in a murder prosecution.

From the New England Historical Society we read: “Tirrell came from a respectable family in Weymouth, Mass. He was married with two children, but in 1845 he left his family for Maria Bickford, 21, a prostitute in a Boston brothel on Mount Vernon St. They lived together as man and wife, though she never abandoned her profession. Tirrell wasn’t happy about her choice not to retire. On Oct. 27, 1845, she was found murdered in her room, her throat slashed so savagely her head was nearly separated from her body. Tirrell fled to New Orleans. Ten days later he was arrested and brought to Boston for trial. The Boston newspapers sensationalized the trial, concluding Tirrell was guilty. Choate argued no one had witnessed the crime, and all the evidence was circumstantial. Further, he argued Tirrell had no motive to kill Mary Bickford, but if he did, he would have done it while sleepwalking. The jury took two hours to deliver a not guilty verdict on March 30, 1846.”

In 1859, Choate was suffering from Bright’s Disease and on the advice of his physician, he sailed to Europe with his son. His condition worsened during the voyage and, after landing in Halifax, Nova Scotia, he died on July 13. He was buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Boston.

The following are some of his most famous addresses: “The Puritan in Secular and Religious Life” (1834), “The New England Character” (1834), “Of the American Bar” (1845), and “Daniel Webster” (1853).

Richard T. Crane Jr. purchase Choate Island
Richard T. Crane purchased Choate Island from the Choate descendants.

Sources and further reading:

23 thoughts on “Choate Island and Rufus Choate”

  1. Ms. Davis,
    There is a picture of the painting on the ” Stories from Ipswich” website. I have had the picture for many years and it has no real significance for me. I bought it because I liked. The picture is up for sale, if you are interested please let me know.

    Thank you,
    J. Patton

    1. Hi J Patton,
      I am doing my own Choate family history and wondered if anyone ever replied about that paining you have of the Choate family home?

    1. John Choate was my 7th great grandfather! Very interesting to find this information… some I’d never heard before. Thank you for sharing!

    2. I am a descendant of the Choates as well. We went out to the island a while back and it was so interesting to see the house in person!

  2. I have been studying the Choate family since I purchased the Choate House in Derry New Hampshire.i will visit Ipswich this winter to gain more family history for Londonderry – Derry three hundredth anniversary.

  3. I would add that there is an important history of slavery attached to this island and family. There was an active shipyard here and it employed slaves. Caesar is identified as one. I believe his name appears in the Choate family history.

  4. Interesting article. My ancestors are Choates , Burnhams and Giddings. My husbands Marshalls , Burnhams. Thanks for posting.

  5. Very interesting article. I came across your blog while researching Hannah Choate Marshall Story. I have a piece of sheet music composed by her. It is in the bound volume belonging to Emily P. Choate.
    Circa 1840-1870. Any information on these two women would be appreciated! thanks, Jane

  6. Very interesting, my ancestors are Choate’s my great grandmother was a Choate living in Louisiana.

  7. I am also a descendant of the Choate family, whom came from England and settled in Ipswich mid 1600s; a Choate bought Hog Island, his son also settled there, famous Boston Lawyer, Rufus Choate was born there. Yes, lots of great history, along with not so “proud” history of owning slaves. But one Choate who lived on the island gave his slave(s) the option to “go free”. So it’s nice to know that perhaps he finally saw the light and that it was wrong. The Choates were instrumental in our independence from England; we have some amazing family members who did great things: doctors, lawyers, lovers of art, the outdoors, architecture, etc. Real neat and fun to research and find lots of info on them, including the Hog Island (renamed Choate island via Rufus Choate’s work.) history!
    Also the Choate Bridge in Ipswich- very historic and one of a kind stone bridge here in MA, and the country!
    I am also a Daughters of the Revolution, due to our military men who served in the 1700s for our independence!
    My lineage also goes back to The Mayflower-The Winslow’s, Eatons, and Mary Chilton, who is known as the 1st person (she was 13!) to step onto the Plymouth shore/PRock. She is buried in the famous Kings Chapel cemetery in Boston. Very cool.

    1. Hello, if you get info on this book, please share! I believe you and I are relatives, as my grandmother was a Choate. 🙂

      1. Hi Marjorie, Yes if I get info I will most definitely share. I appreciate the link Mr. Harris shared, but I’m in Iowa . I’ll try the state library first and if they don’t have it I’ll see if one of the libraries listed above has a sharing program. We could quite possibly be related .

      2. We are definitely related! I’ve used to go back to the 1500s. Also done some good genealogy research, including using the book, “The Choates in America 1643-1896” by EO Jameson. I have the 1st edition, owned and signed by Rufus Choate, MD 1896. Good stuff! 🙂

  8. I am a descendant of Henry Bennett, father of the Jacob Bennett who sold several acres of land and a house to Thomas Choate in 1704. Does anyone know if their is any eviddence of Jacob remaining on Choate Island?

    1. Sue Nelson’s Partial List of Historic Houses created in 2006 refers to a property on Fox Creek Rd. as Bennett’s Farm at Wigwam Hill, but this is uncertain . Henry Bennett, born in England, was one of the early settlers of Ipswich. “In 1654 Henry Bennett bought of Jonathan Wade a farm of two hundred acres situated in what is now the southeastern part of Ipswich, and having for its southern boundary Castle Neck Creek, part of the present dividing line between Ipswich and Essex. The other bounds were on lands of Mr. Symonds, Mr. Saltonstall and the Rev. Nathaniel Rogers. This farm he occupied more than forty years. He sold his farm to John Wainwright in 1698 and died in 1707. Bennett also owned land on Hog Island (Choate Island), Castle Neck and Plum Island for agricultural purposes and keeping hogs or sheep.

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