Hannah Parkhurst Cabinet Card
Cabinet Card, Sister Hannah Parkhurst
H. P. Granger, Photographer, Lebanon, NH, ca. 1880
Collection of Hancock Shaker Village, Pittsfield, MA.

Sister Hannah Parkhurst

Hannah Parkhurst was born October 11, 1812 in Sharon, Vermont, the daughter of Eisha and Hannah (Huntington) Parkhurst. She had a twin sister Harriet, who died at the age of eight months.

Hannah Parkhurst, Shaker deaconess, eldress, and trustee, was 21 years old when she came from Sharon, Vermont to join the Enfield Shakers. Community membership records indicate that she came alone. However, when Hannah arrived in 1833, she was only the latest member of her extended family to become part of the Shaker family. Her maternal grandmother, Martha Hibbard Huntington, and her uncle, Lorin Huntington, had been living at the North Family for years, and her aunt, Achsah Huntington, was associate eldress in the Church Family.

Hannah settled in at the North Family and remained there for more than a decade. In 1841, her mother Hannah (Huntington) Parkhurst joined the gathering order and lived there until her death in 1874. When Hannah’s younger sister Sarah arrived, she went into the Church family, signing the covenant on December 27, 1842. Hannah finally moved to the Church in December of 1845 and signed the covenant on February 23, 1846, 13 years after coming to the Shakers.

In 1849, Hannah was appointed a family deaconess and served in that capacity for ten years. In 1859, she returned to the North Family to serve as its eldress. Within a year of that appointment, the family faced a staggering financial crisis created by the dishonesty of their trustee, Austin Bronson. When he apostatized in 1860 he left the family $12,000 in debt. As a result of this disaster, several changes of leadership were announced. William Wilson was brought from the Second Family to serve as trustee, and Rebecca Robinson and Eliza Carlton of the Church Family were named to the order of eldresses.

Hannah continued to live at the North Family, but without a leadership role. In the 1870 U.S. Census her occupation was “Housekeeper;” and in the 1880 U.S. Census, “Tailoress.”

Hannah Parkhurst’s Shaker life was a quiet and secluded one, so it was hardly imaginable that she would find herself the subject of newspaper headlines. Nevertheless, the July 28, 1881 edition of the New Hampshire Patriot and State Gazette reported that Enfield Shaker Hannah Parkhurst was in line to inherit a large fortune from the estate of an uncle and was wanted in Concord “to establish her claim.” The local Granite State Free Press added details: “There is a current report that Hannah Parkhurst, one of the leading Shaker sisters at the North Family, has lately heired a fortune by the death of an uncle in Canada – said to be anywhere from $10,000 to $100,000.”

Although no discussion of this potential windfall has been found in surviving Shaker records, Hannah Parkhurst, North Family Trustee Frank Nowell and Office Deaconess Caroline Slack did travel to Concord on August 27th, presumably to meet with the estate lawyers. They returned home on August 3rd with no follow-up news.

Had such an inheritance been received by an Enfield sister, it would have dramatically changed the community’s circumstances as they faced the final verdict of the 20 year-long Conant court case that decided against them in 1882. The debt of $20,000 which they had to shoulder would have to be met, not by an inherited wealth, but by borrowing money, selling land, and dramatically reducing the community’s standard of living.

Her appointment as an office sister is not noted in surviving records. When, however, in 1886 the Shaker Central Ministry announced that Shaker sisters would be permitted to serve as trustees, Hannah Parkhurst and Isabella Russell were appointed North Family trustees.

Hannah Parkhurst continued to live a consecrated Shaker life at the North Family until her death from heart disease on April 15, 1887 in Enfield, New Hampshire. She was 75 years old. Along with her mother and sister Sarah, who both predeceased her, Hannah is buried in the Church Family Cemetery in Enfield.

Original author: Mary Ann Haagen