Born to Be Wild

One founding family’s centuries-long journey

Hans Veth/Flickr
Hans Veth/Flickr

American Bloods: The Untamed Dynasty That Shaped a Nation by John Kaag; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 288 pp., $28 

One November afternoon, while jogging on the edge of a swamp about two miles from his house in Massachusetts, John Kaag encountered a lone wolf. As he ran frantically homeward, he discovered a rock cave in his own back yard that he had never noticed before. His wife, though, knew about it. “That cave has a name,” she told him. “The Bloods called it ‘Wolf Rock.’ ”

Thus Kaag introduces readers not only to the family at the center of his book but also to the work’s governing metaphor: the Bloods’ “wildness,” their wolfish nature. Wolves and wildness reappear throughout the narrative, in epigraphs that introduce the book and its various chapters. Both themes appear in quotations Kaag selected from Henry David Thoreau and tie explicitly to the Blood family. “In wildness is the preservation of the world,” Thoreau wrote; in his attribution, Kaag adds, “conceived on a walk to visit Perez Blood.” “We need the tonic of wildness,” Thoreau commented in Walden; “written three miles from Blood Farm,” Kaag notes.

Kaag, a philosophy professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, decided to write about the Bloods after finding a privately published family history, The Story of the Bloods, in a hidden room in his house—a dwelling built in 1745 by one Josiah Blood. So who were the Bloods? Why should we care? According to Kaag, the family “embodied the risks and rewards that were taken in laying claim to the lands that would become the United States,” as one of the “first and most expansive pioneer families” at “the very core of a nation.” Kaag starts with the tale of a Blood who stayed in England but nevertheless remained a wolf “on the prowl”: a thief named Thomas Blood, who in 1671 tried and failed to steal the Crown Jewels from the Tower of London. Each successive chapter focuses on one or another of Thomas’s relatives (they aren’t all his direct descendants), exploring their life stories set against the concerns of the day, such as their involvement with Native peoples or with the institution of slavery. Additionally, as a philosopher himself, Kaag refers when appropriate to the contemporaneous writings of political philosophers, most notably Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Isaiah Berlin, and Karl Marx, as well as to the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Thoreau.

The progenitors of the family in North America were Thomas Blood’s nephews—Robert, John, and James, whom Kaag terms “notorious hell-raisers.” Robert is the brother Kaag emphasizes, for he established Blood Farm, the original 3,000-acre tract on the border of Concord that included the small portion that now belongs to Kaag and his family. Robert married Elizabeth, the daughter of Simon Willard, a prominent leader of early Concord, and prospered, fathering a large family.

Next comes Thaddeus Blood, a minuteman in April 1775, born almost two decades earlier in what is now Kaag’s house. Emerson interviewed him in 1835 about the historic events at Concord’s North Bridge. Thaddeus turned out to be less helpful than his interlocutor had anticipated, telling Emerson simply, “The truth will never be known,” although he did indicate that he had seen and heard the first shot fired by the British as it rippled the water next to the bridge.

Kaag’s attention then turns to Thaddeus’s son, Perez, perhaps the prime example of the wildness theme in the Blood family. Perez lived a frugal, isolated existence in the woods of Blood Farm, gazing at the stars nightly through a treasured telescope. When Thoreau visited Perez, as he did regularly, he was “utterly captivated,” as was Emerson, by Perez and the view through that telescope.

With the next generation, the theme shifts to a different sort of wolfish behavior. A son of another branch of the family, Aretas Blood, born in Vermont in 1816, became a successful industrialist. Aretas moved around, ending up in Manchester, New Hampshire, having achieved great financial success during the Civil War. At this point—as we begin to wonder about female members of the family—Kaag introduces Aretas’s wife, Lavinia, and their daughters, who became leaders in late-19th-century charitable associations.

Another Blood son born in Vermont, the law-abiding James Clinton Blood, co-founded Lawrence, Kansas, in 1854 under the auspices of the New England Emigrant Aid Company, the abolitionist organization that also involved John Brown in those early days of “bleeding Kansas.” Another James Blood (middle name Harvey)—and especially his reputed wife, the notorious Victoria Woodhull—displayed entirely different priorities. James Harvey and Victoria traveled widely, promoting spiritualism and claiming that she had the power to heal illness, before she founded a stock brokerage firm, engaged in insider trading, and ran for president.

The final chapter features Benjamin Paul Blood, a “seer-mystic” who described in an obscure 1874 publication what seems to have been the first psychedelic trip in the United States. Kaag contends that Blood was an “enduring guide” to William James, observing that “philosophers have overlooked and therefore discounted the wild—which is to say euphoric and horrific—realizations of men like Benjamin Blood.” He confesses that he did not fully understand James’s friendship with Blood “until I met the rest of the American Bloods.”

Ending the book much as he began it, Kaag recounts his young son Henry’s startling encounter with an unidentified long-tailed animal [read: wolf] in the woods near his house in October 2022. He saw it, too, warning Henry, “Let’s all be careful—it lives in there,” as the animal retreated into the darkness. In this way, Kaag the philosopher tells us he no longer lives “too much in my head” and reveals the effect of the Bloods’ wildness on him.

Kaag’s early references to philosophers like Hobbes and Locke are refreshing, for few works focusing on early American families try to establish an intellectual context for their lives and actions, except those featuring prominent clergymen such as Increase and Cotton Mather. Thoreau and Emerson are ever present in American Bloods, which is understandable given their presence in Concord; indeed, their names head the longest entries in the book’s index. But as we delve deeper into the narrative, philosophers seem less relevant—and frankly, Benjamin Blood is weird. Kaag’s motif with regard to the wild, wolfish qualities of the Bloods is unconvincing because it does not apply to all of his subjects. He admits that James Clinton “had a healthy respect for the rule of law,” and clearly the theme accords more to James Harvey’s wife, Victoria, than to himself. We might give Kaag credit for attempting such an unconventional approach to historical writing, but unfortunately, in a narrative as episodic and disjointed as this one, the Blood clan fails to emerge as something greater than the sum of its parts.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Mary Beth Norton retired from the Cornell University history department in 2018 after teaching there for 47 years. She is the author of six books on early America, the most recent of which—1774: The Long Year of Revolution—won the George Washington Prize.


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