In four-part harmony, the popular folk-singing siblings from New Hampshire rambled across mid-1800s America — singing out against slavery and alcohol and for the rights of women and workers.
They traveled to England with abolitionist Frederick Douglass and entertained President Abraham Lincoln and his family at the White House.
One autumn night in 1855, their tour stopped for a full house in Milwaukee. After the show, a delighted fan caught up to the singers. He wasn’t an autograph-seeking groupie, just an educator and old friend from out East named William Pendergast. They accepted his invitation to visit the next day.
During their “pleasant talk,” the brothers told Pendergast they were singing their way to Kansas, where they planned to found a utopian village, “join the ‘Jayhawkers’ and squelch the ‘Border Ruffians’ ” — a militant proslavery group crossing into Kansas to clash with abolitionists.
Pendergast had another idea: “Why not skip all that blood and poetry, go to Minnesota, the most favored country on the Earth, and found a city that you will always be proud of?”
And the singing siblings — John, Judson and Asa Hutchinson — did just that: picking out a central Minnesota town site, 60 miles west of what would become Minneapolis. Today, Hutchinson, in McLeod County, is home to nearly 15,000 people.
Hutchinson’s progressive original town constitution or “articles of agreement” — drafted in a tent on Nov. 20, 1855 — set aside eight lots for schools, 15 acres for a park and five acres for “Humanity’s Church.”
Saloons, bowling alleys and billiard halls were banned. And “it was solemnly decreed that in the future of Hutchinson, woman shall enjoy equal rights with man,” Pendergast recalled in a 1901 essay and lecture available online at tinyurl.com/earlyhutch.
A fiddle sealed the deal. Pendergast said that initial exploratory committee, including the Hutchinsons and other land speculators, was split evenly between “poets, artists, optimists and dreamers on the one side and plain practical men on the other.”
B.E. Messer, a musician, was elected secretary at the town-founding meeting in the tent.
“He seized his fiddle, which was never far from his person, and struck up ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ ” Pendergast said. “The Hutchinsons, and all who could sing, joined in.”
Not everything was rosy, though. Judson Hutchinson, the youngest of the brothers, was the comic songwriter in the group. Suffering from spells of despair and hallucinations, his mental illness dated back to at least 1850. After composing many of the group’s songs, including the slavery reform anthem “Right Over Wrong,” Judson hanged himself in 1859 in the cellar of his brother John’s Massachusetts cottage. He was 43.
Two years later, his siblings performed a private White House concert where President Lincoln, holding the hand of his 8-year-old son, Tad, requested the Hutchinsons’ dark shipwreck tune, “The Ship on Fire.”
When the group went to the Union lines to sing abolition songs during the Civil War, Major Gen. George McClellan put a halt to it, arguing that freeing slaves wasn’t the war’s sole objective. Lincoln overturned his decision, saying the abolition tunes were just the kind of songs he wanted soldiers to hear.
Band members fluctuated over the years, with Jesse Hutchinson stepping aside to handle business affairs while his kid sister, Abby, took his spot on stage and sang contralto. The band eventually split up into subgroups, including the Tribe of Asa and the Tribe of Jesse.
Those spinoffs of the original Hutchinson Family Singers survived for generations. In 1993, Elizabeth Hutchinson Fournie — Asa’s granddaughter — died at 107. She was part of the Tribe of Asa and the last of the Hutchinson family singers.
A bronze statue of Asa, John and Judson Hutchinson was dedicated in 2005 on the sesquicentennial of the founding of their namesake town. The three brothers stand back to back to back just south of the Crow River on Washington Avenue in their town’s center.
“Their style of singing is admirable,” a New York Tribune reviewer wrote in 1843. “Simple, sweet, and full of mountain melody. Their voices are all rich and dear, and their whole execution is in a most chaste and grateful style.”
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org .