Missy Wolfe didn't start out researching the life of Puritan matron Elizabeth Fones Winthrop Feake Hallett. She wanted to learn about a Colonial-era Indian massacre in Cos Cob.
"During the course of that, I kept coming up with references to Elizabeth and William Hallett," Wolfe says. "How they knew this guy who did the massacre, and how their daughter married him, and how Elizabeth was defamed as an adulteress. One thing snowballed into another. ... You can't make this stuff up. The story just went on and on and on."
After seven years of research into what she called "a 1600s soap opera," Wolfe has published "Insubordinate Spirit: A True Story of Life and Loss in Earliest America 1610-1665" (Globe Pequot Press, 272 pp., $16.95).
Wolfe, of Greenwich, is an amateur historian. She has degrees in business, design and art history, and works at an antique appraiser's office. Still, her well-researched book, which is exceptionally unstuffy and entertaining for a history volume, has won the approval of historical societies throughout the northeast.
It tells the story of Elizabeth Fones, who came to America from England, following her first husband, Henry Winthrop, a headstrong fool who died young doing something stupid — he drowned his first day in Salem, Mass. She rebounded with Robert Feake, who invested in lands around Greenwich, became mentally ill and withdrew from his family. With Feake gone, Elizabeth took up with William Hallett, and lived out of wedlock with him until they could get married.
All by themselves, the loves of Elizabeth would make a good story. But Wolfe weaves in noteworthy landmarks in colonial history — the Indian massacres, the colonial turf wars in Connecticut, the oppressiveness of religious institutions, the drawing of town and state lines, the growing influence of the Quakers — to intertwine Elizabeth's stormy life with the greater historical scheme.
"You would think that life in the 1600s was hard to begin with, but then you layer on politicians using and abusing you, the constant competition between the Dutch and English, and add in the Indian massacres that were launched from her property and how her daugher married the leader," Wolfe says in a phone interview. "She's not a perfect heroine, but she certainly has a dramatic story. She lived in a dramatic time. I call it the Wild Wild East."
Wolfe's goal, from the start, was to tell whatever story she wound up telling as objectively as possible. "I wanted to strip away interpretations of the story that came after. The English colored it one way and the Dutch colored it entirely differently," Wolfe says. "The Dutch were really more tolerant. They saved her life."
A great deal of Elizabeth's good fortune, and misfortune, stemmed from her connection to the Winthrop family, one of the founding families of New England legendary for their strict adherence to doctrine. This relationship was tested by Elizabeth's adultery with Hallett, a man who deserved and got her lifelong devotion, even as it drove them out of Connecticut and onto Long Island.
Elizabeth owned slaves and the Indian massacres did not bother her. "That's hard to swallow today, but she is highly admirable on many other dimensions," Wolfe says. Even those readers who dislike this about Elizabeth will see she is mild in comparison to other colorful figures in the book, especially her first father-in-law, the oppressively strict John Winthrop, and the men who conducted the Indian massacres.
"They were certainly what I'd call radicals. Daniel Patrick was just a lout. John Underhill was a religious zealot," she says. "They were Calvinists. They believed in predestination, that their fates were set and nothing they did could affect it. Over time, that theory bothered a lot of people, because it gave people license to do terrible things. They used that as a cover."
Wolfe's descriptions of all the characters are full-bodied and often contrary to established historical interpretations. This applies most markedly in Wolfe's dissection of Anne Hutchinson, whose criticisms of the Puritan religious leaders led to banishment from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In Wolfe's telling, Hutchinson was not merely the proto-feminist that history has named her, but also a snob who wanted separate church entrances so she would not have to share doors with inferiors, and who believed she had psychic powers. Hutchinson and the misogynist John Winthrop brought out the worst in each other.
Winthrop, not Hutchinson, is the heroine in Wolfe's telling. "After all she went through, she forged a solution to her problems. She decided to throw her lot in with the Quakers," Wolfe says. "It's almost like Job in the Bible, who thought God was very unfair. She could have raged and turned away from God. But no, she didn't do any of that. She sought to conduct a new engagement with God on new terms when the old terms didn't work out.
"This makes her quintessentially the American personality," Wolfe says. "You go through an experience that is not positive and you create a new way of doing it."