Justin Morgan Deserves Fame For Music, Not Just His Horse

Front Page / Jul. 22, 2010 1:28pm EDT

By Mim Herwig

The year 2010 is a good year to celebrate the name of a good man who came to Randolph 222 years ago. If you think that was a long time ago, you are right. It was only eight years after three Randolph men were killed and seven were taken prisoner by the Indians who burned Royalton.

The name of that new arrival was Justin Morgan, whose fame down through the years derived from being the owner of “Figure,” the progenitor of the first American breed of horses—the breed that later bore his name. Justin wore a great variety of hats during his half-century of existence, but first and foremost, he was at heart a musician. Morgan and his life will be the focus of a unique celebration Sept. 11 (see side article).

Justin was not one of the first onslaught of young men, armed with little but axes, whose aim was to subdue the wilderness and then create a community centered about church and school, just like the ones they were leaving. They would chop acres of primeval forest in order to plant crops that would sustain them, build a shanty adequate to their needs, and then retreat to civilization for the winter.

Justin came a bit later. He was a 41-year-old husband and father when he sold his property in West Springfield, Mass., loaded his household possessions and family onto a big ox-drawn sled, and headed, on the snow, for Randolph (Center), where neighbors and relatives were already settled. (Randolph Center was known as Randolph for more than a century.) There, in 1788, they moved into a log house on land owned by friends on the Brookfield border of town.

His family consisted of his wife Martha; daughters Martha, 12, and Emily, 4, and his only son, Justin Jr., 2, with baby Nancy being born later that year. There had been two other little girls who had died at ages four and five. But Justin knew of worse sorrows—his brother Caleb lost six of his eight children in an epidemic. Justin’s own mother, Thankfull Day, had died when he was nine, a year after her 13th child was born.

Every pioneer, be he doctor, shoemaker, or singing-master, had to farm to some extent if he and his family were to survive. In spite of his other activities, Justin always thought of himself as a farmer.

At the age of 31 he was managing a stable of stallions for breeding purposes in West Springfield. In 1783, he advertised Diamond, who is thought to be the sire of the dam of Figure. Then in 1788 it was advertised that True Briton, apparently Figure’s sire, “will cover this season.”

Having a horse in those days was the equivalent of having a car, or more likely, a truck, today. You couldn’t go anywhere without one. And like automobile salesmen, horse owners became adept at trading. Thus, among the 15 books he possessed at his death was “The Trader’s Companion.”

In fact, he paid considerable attention to book learning. Where the average owner of 1000 acres might have only one book, and that the Bible, here was a “man of slender means” owning a library of up-to-date books! Justin’s treasured library covered poetry, Shakespeare, a dictionary, geography, sermons by his well-known pastor, arithmetic, elocution, the art of writing, grammar, and a singing book which included eight of his own compositions.

Clearly, Justin was a learned man for the times, quite able to teach winter school, when farm work had slacked off, or school for writing, which was most important.

But it was singing school that satisfied his soul, we imagine, as he journeyed from one community to another, teaching groups to sing the four parts harmoniously. Good singing was a main source of enjoyment and an indispensable part of church worship. Fuguing tunes, which were like our rounds, gave pleasure to singers and singing-master.

Goodness knows when Justin found time to compose. We don’t know how many he wrote, but nine have survived, and the tunes that are still sung today. They were recognized by musicians of the times and published in several singing books during his lifetime. The longest of his pieces, the “Judgment Anthem,” was said to be the most popular anthem in New England at one point, and others were popular, too.

Justin was also Randolph’s town clerk (keeping the books in his handsome handwriting), but we may be surprised to learn that back in Massachusetts he was licensed as a liquor retailer in his own house. But hold on—rum was the beverage of the day; even prisoners got their quota.

In Massachusetts, he also served as tax collector, in 1784 and 1787; but in those days the collector himself was held responsible for the taxes he couldn’t collect. Morgan, unable to collect from six men, apparently had to sell land to pay those taxes, and this may have tipped the scales in favor of a new start in Vermont.

Yet another daughter, Polly, was born three years after their arrival. But all was not well. Ten days later, his beloved wife Martha died of “consumption,” as tuberculosis was then called.

It must have been about then that he composed “Despair,” which was in extreme contrast to “Sounding Joy,” an earlier composition. Note that the name he uses here, “Amanda,” had a general meaning of “one who is loved.” He wrote:

Oh, now Amanda’s dead and gone,

I’ll seek to live unseen, unknown,

Oh, unlamented let me die,

Steal from the world, and not a stone

Tell where I lie.

That fall he sought solace as singing-master along the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania, presumably leaving his brood in the charge of the oldest daughter, 16-year-old Martha, and numerous relatives.

Before long, Martha was married and Justin had to make thoughtful choices about the futures of his other children. He placed them in the homes of friends who could give them a good education and wise counsel.

Justin sold his famous horse, figuring the land he bought with the money would have more value to his children. His health was failing, and he carried a pack of opium to dull the pain of consumption.

However, Justin did not die in Woodstock, as some have claimed, but at David Carpenter’s farm where two of his children were living. It was where John Osha lives now.

Justin’s original slate gravestone, matching his wife’s in the Randolph Center cemetery, mentioned neither the horse nor his musicianship. About 60 years ago, Morgan horse people were aghast to learn that, and got permission to replace it with a stone giving him credit as owner of the famous horse. The original stone can be seen in the Randolph Historical Museum.

Now, when you hear the name Justin Morgan, remember that he was a recognized musician, teacher, and town clerk, who also owned and trained the famous horse that trotted down through history bearing his name.


The music of Justin Morgan will be heard on Saturday, Sept. 11 at the Randolph Center Church as a part of special "Morgan Week" activities.

The 7 p.m. performance will be sung by the chorus Sounding Joy (named for a Justin Morgan song), and other friends.

There will be a discussion of the music, and its place in American musical history, during the hour-long program.

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