History Happening

The newly opened Wellington underpass. Photo by author.

The newly opened Wellington underpass. Photo by author.

There is an oft-repeated story which tells of Britain’s King George III writing in his personal diary on July 4, 1776, “Nothing important happened today.” The story is false; George never kept a personal diary and the anecdote probably has its origins in a similar sort of remark written by France’s King Louis XVI on July 14, 1789, the date of the storming of the Bastille. But still the tale is told, I think because people are drawn to the idea of a hated monarch not yet realizing that his world had changed so profoundly.

History is not the past. It is today. The seemingly inevitable events we read about in textbooks, carefully labeled and separated into neat time periods, were experienced by people as an ongoing series of small and chaotic moments. It was as impossible for them to judge what would be considered “important” in the future as it is for us.

I am reflecting on this because a small but historic event occurred in the village this morning. The Wellington railroad underpass finally opened, after several years of construction. This may seem unimportant, and unrelated to the subject of this blog. But consider that for the first time since 1850, vehicular traffic is tonight flowing through Wellington unobstructed by trains. Something that has been a norm of life for 165 years silently ended.

I find myself thinking about our mid-nineteenth-century counterparts, those who were here the day the first trains ran through. Did they hold some sort of celebration? Were remarks offered by notable townspeople, commenting on how the railroad would undoubtedly spur the town to grow and change? They had no way of envisioning what a Wellington of 2015 would be like, any more than we can foresee Wellington in 2180.

History is today. Remember that while you are living it.

Decorative vignette inset into the wall of the new Wellington underpass. Photo by author.

Decorative vignette inset into the retaining wall of the new Wellington underpass. Photo by author.

Our Great National Feast of Thanksgiving

"A Thanksgiving Toast." Undated holiday card (likely early twentieth century).

“A Thanksgiving Toast.” Undated holiday card (likely early twentieth century).

Thanksgiving is upon us once again. Hard to believe this is my third annual Thankgiving post. I want to start off with a heartfelt, “Thank you!” to all those who attended my recent talk. I was surprised and gratified by how many people attended, and by the kind comments of all who took a moment to speak with me after the program. You have inspired me to get back to work!

Often, when we read about the history of the American Thanksgiving holiday, the year that is offered as the “first” official Thanksgiving (after 1620 in Plymouth, of course) is 1863. We have all heard the story of how President Abraham Lincoln, at least partly in response to a twenty-year-long campaign by author and magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale, proclaimed a federal holiday of thanks for recent Union victories including the battles of Gettysburg and Vicksburg. What is less often noted, however, is that for decades prior, Thanksgiving had been proclaimed as an annual holiday by the governors of America’s individual states. In 1847, for example, twenty-four of the twenty-nine states celebrated on the last Thursday in November. Thanksgiving was by no means a novel concept in 1863.

The Lorain County News, which was Wellington’s only local newspaper at the time of the Civil War, commented on November 25, 1863 that Thanksgiving was “a venerable day of family reunions, joyous meetings and congratulations, tender reminiscences and emotions, praise and prayer.” The paper reflected on how especially sad this particular Thanksgiving would be in light of the year’s massive loss of human life, but added, “In all the past visitations of this joyous anniversary we have never had greater occasion than now for hearts full to overflowing with gratitude…since last thanksgiving [sic] day the rich prospect has dawned upon us of a redeemed nation, a people loyal and true to the government and a proclamation of freedom to millions of human beings” (pg. 2).

On that federally-appointed Thanksgiving of 1863, all Wellington businesses were closed and the village joined as one for a single religious observance at the Congregational Church in the morning, followed in the evening by a “well-attended thanksgiving [sic] prayer meeting at the M.E. Church.” The townsfolk had previously subscribed $50 to provide Thanksgiving food to soldiers’ families. Each of the twelve that had a young man at the front received “a good wheelbarrow load of edibles” including flour, potatoes, sugar, tea, crackers, beef, and “a pair of dressed chickens.” This admirable donation was valued at more than $4 per family. In addition, Rev. Mrs. Shipherd spearheaded the collection of “greatly needed articles” that had already been forwarded “to the suffering contrabands, the freedmen, women and children of the South” (LCN, 12-2-1863, pg. 3).

A very joyous holiday to you all. May we count our blessings and be truly grateful all the year ’round.

Farewell, Union School

Architectural detail of the old Union School, now part of McCormick Middle School, Wellington, Ohio. Photo by author.

Architectural detail of the old Union School, now part of McCormick Middle School, Wellington, Ohio. Photo by author.

Back in January 2014, I wrote a post about the Union School, built in 1867. Over time, the stately brick Italianate was obscured behind multiple additions, and the overall structure is today known as McCormick Middle School. When I wrote that post nearly two years ago, plans were afoot to construct a new middle school and demolish this building. That plan has now come to fruition. The new building is complete on the north side of town, and the old one is due to be torn down by year’s end.

Today, the Southern Lorain County Historical Society, i.e. The Spirit of ’76 Museum, sponsored an open house at the school that they called, “The Last Lunch.” They opened the building up to the public for self-directed and guided tours, while serving a free final lunch to the community in the cafeteria. Tonight there is a farewell dance in the gymnasium. It was a wonderful event and the school was full of people, taking photographs of their former classrooms and reminiscing over childhood adventures.

Exterior view of the old Union School, now part of McCormick Middle School, Wellington, Ohio. Photo by author.

Exterior view of the old Union School, now part of McCormick Middle School, Wellington, Ohio. Photo by author.

I am not a Wellington native and never attended McCormick. Instead, I was hunting for evidence of the nineteenth-century core of the complex. While the original Italianate structure is clearly identifiable on the exterior, there is virtually no evidence of it inside. All architectural details, including a central, curving wooden staircase, have been eradicated or hidden behind drop ceilings, drywall, and decades of paint.

Architectural detail of the old Union School, now part of McCormick Middle School, Wellington, Ohio. Photo by author.

Architectural detail of the old Union School, now part of McCormick Middle School, Wellington, Ohio. Photo by author.

Though the Italianate section of the building looks rather large from the outside, it is comprised of only two floors: the ground level is almost entirely filled by the cafeteria, and the second story has two large classrooms, with curving walls that proved impossible to effectively photograph. The central staircase was apparently entirely enclosed in stages over the course of the twentieth century due to fears of fire.

Former exterior wall of the Union School, now enclosed in the basement of a later addition. Photo by author.

Former exterior wall of the Union School, now enclosed in the basement of a later addition to McCormick Middle School. Photo by author.

McCormick Middle School is scheduled to come down in the next two to three months. For the first time since 1867, that plot of land on South Main Street will sit unoccupied. At about the same time, the new railroad underpass will open; for the first time since 1850, vehicles will move unobstructed by train traffic through the center of the village. It is the end of a Wellington era, in more ways than one.

Exterior view of the old Union School, now part of McCormick Middle School, Wellington, Ohio. Photo by author.

Exterior view of the old Union School, now part of McCormick Middle School, Wellington, Ohio. Photo by author.

Program Announcement

Winter image of the 1868 Methodist Church, located at 127 Park Place, Wellington, Ohio. This photograph must have been taken after the 1885 construction of the Town Hall and Opera House, visible to the left of the church. Note the wrought iron fence around the park, no longer extant. Photo 970089 of "Wellington Family Album" Collection, Herrick Memorial Library. Permission to display generously granted by the library.

Winter image of the 1868 Methodist Church, located at 127 Park Place, Wellington, Ohio. This photograph must have been taken after the 1885 construction of the Town Hall and Opera House, visible to the left of the church. Note the wrought iron fence around the park, no longer extant. Photo 970089 of “Wellington Family Album” Collection, Herrick Memorial Library. Permission to display generously granted by the library.

I have been asked to deliver the talk at this year’s Annual Meeting of the Southern Lorain County Historical Society, i.e. the Spirit of ’76 Museum. If you are interested in attending, it will be held on Thursday, November 12th at 6PM, at the First United Methodist Church of Wellington. There will be a dinner, a brief review of the year’s accomplishments, then…well, me. I’ll be speaking on the Howk family and their journey from Massachusetts to Wellington in 1818 with an emancipated slave called Dean. My working title is, “Into the Wilderness: A Massachusetts Household Emigrates to Ohio.”

Tickets are $12/person and that is for the dinner (your choice: chicken or pork with vegetables, salad and dessert). Reservations are requested no later than November 6th. Full details will soon be coming to museum members in their October newsletter, including a form to complete and mail in with check payment. If you aren’t a museum member but are interested in attending, contact the museum directly or leave me a message below and I will put you in touch with the appropriate parties. Hope to see you there!


Contrabands, i.e. liberated slaves, farming Edisto Island, South Carolina, in 1862. From James M. McPherson's "Battle Cry of Freedom" (illustrated edition, 2003) pg. 305. Original image in the collection of the U.S. Army Military History Institute.

Contrabands farming Edisto Island, South Carolina, in 1862. From James M. McPherson’s “Battle Cry of Freedom” (illustrated edition, 2003) pg. 305. Original image in the collection of the U.S. Army Military History Institute.

WELLINGTON. CONTRABANDS.–One of our young men having purchased a lot of timbered land, and made a large contract to furnish wood for the C.C. & C.R.R., finding it difficult to obtain the needed help, went in search of it, first to Canada, where he could find help–but the pay must be in Canada money. That wouldn’t do. So he went to St. Louis and there made arrangements for Contraband help. To perfect the arrangement he was obliged to make a contract with the Government Agent, binding himself and the contrabands to a faithful performance of specified duties. When it was announced, on the arrival of the Saturday night train, that ‘Col Stark and his black brigade were coming,’ the four corners of the Centre were thronged with those who were curious to see the freshly arrived contrabands from Missouri. They were eight in number; five able-bodied men, one woman, and two children, the youngest a little girl say seven years old. They marched up, rank and file, (carrying their beds and baggage,) and took up their quarters over the Sabbath at the popular Wellington House, and thence have removed to a comfortable log cabin on Mr. Stark’s land, and commenced labor as freedmen for very liberal wages and a comfortable support” (Lorain County News, 4-15-1863, pg. 3).

The term “contraband” was first applied to human beings in 1861. According to James McPherson’s seminal study of the Civil War, Battle Cry of Freedom, General Benjamin Butler declared three slaves who escaped to his lines to be “contraband of war” and therefore not subject to return under the Fugitive Slave Act. It was a decision that infuriated both the South and also Democrats in the North who were not in favor of black emancipation. But the Lincoln administration allowed Butler to proceed with the policy and slaves were soon pouring into Union positions, pleading for a kind of asylum. Their legal status remained extremely murky; General Butler himself wrote to the War Department asking for clarification as to whether such people were, in fact, free (pgs. 291-292).

There were nearly four million souls living in bondage in the United States in 1860. Historians do not agree on how many eventually liberated themselves and became known as contrabands; certainly anecdotal information and estimates from several urban areas suggest a number in the many tens of thousands. As the war progressed, the army struggled with the question of how best to support and employ the swelling numbers. In 1863, the Freedman’s Inquiry Commission was established to address the most pressing issues. The army began to create “home farms” to employ former slaves, and then to relocate large groups around the country to work, including cotton harvesting for the benefit of Northern and British textile mills. McPherson wrote, “The quality of supervision of contraband labor ranged from the benign to a brutal paternalism, prefiguring the spectrum of labor relations after the war. Part of the freedmen’s wages was often withheld until the end of the season to ensure that they stayed on the job, and most of the rest was deducted for food and shelter. Many contrabands, understandably, could see little difference between this system of ‘free’ labor and the bondage they had endured all their lives” (pg. 619).

And so back to our 1863 notice. The mental image it conjured, of eight weary travelers carrying all their worldly possessions through a gawking throng of strangers, haunted me and made me yearn to know more. The most obvious path forward was to investigate the named employer, Mr. Stark. He was described as a young local man who had just purchased a tract of forested land. I looked at corporation tax records for Wellington for the years 1863 and 1864 and found nothing. I then broadened my search to include the seven Lorain County townships that border Wellington. I found a single tax payer called Stark: Julius P. Stark purchased one-hundred-fourteen acres of land in Penfield in 1863, then sold the parcel off in 1865.

Detail from "Atlas of Lorain County, Ohio" (1874), pg. 43. The circled lot belonged to Julius P. Stark in 1863. It was bordered on the north by what is today Route 71, on the west by Route 48, and the south by Route 45. Photo by author.

Detail from “Atlas of Lorain County, Ohio. 1874.” Pg. 43. The circled lot belonged to Julius P. Stark from 1863 to 1865. It was bordered on the north by what is today Route 71 and on the west by modern Route 48. Photo by author.

I had already examined the Lorain County News, looking at all Wellington notices for a year after the publication date of Stark’s mention. Now I returned to the newspaper and searched all issues from 1863 to the end of 1865 for any mention of Penfield. I soon stumbled on this: “A GOOD WOMAN IN TROUBLE.–A poor and worthy colored woman lost, near Penfield’s shop, on Monday of last week, a purse containing about three dollars.–The money had just come from her husband who is at work in a distant State and was about to be used in the purchase of winter stores, which the family sorely needs. The loss was a great one and cost the distressed family many tears. Will not the finder of the purse leave it at Fitch’s Bookstore and lest the money should not be recovered, will not those who have generous hearts hand to the post master, as they call for their mails, a contribution, in behalf of the suffering family, of a few pennies to each person” (Lorain County News, 9-30-1863, pg. 3).

Admittedly, Penfield was a family surname in the area. It is unclear from the article whether it refers to a shop in the village of Penfield, or simply a shop owned elsewhere by someone called Penfield. (The placement of the notice is also ambiguous; its nearest column heading is ‘Oberlin,’ but the piece immediately above it describes an incident that occurred in Amherst.) I decided to check federal census records to see if the Penfield post-war enumerations contained any reference to black residents.

In 1860, there was not a single person of color included in the twenty-two page listing of Penfield’s citizens. But by 1870, that had changed. Five years after the Civil War ended, there were two separate black households in Penfield, in which ten people lived. The first household was home to William Brown and his wife, Sarah, both aged thirty. Their daughter, Mary Ann, was listed as fifteen years old and the only non-white student in the township. William and Sarah were both born in Kentucky, their child in Mississippi. Though William owned no land, his personal estate had an estimated worth of $350. He was by no means the wealthiest man in his neighborhood, but neither was he the poorest.

The second household was larger and less well-off, with two families cohabitating. Jacob Brown, 68, and his wife Rena, 66, were originally from Georgia and North Carolina respectively. George Taylor, 29, was from Tennessee. His wife, Lucinda, 27, was from Georgia; two of her children, Betsy (3) and William (2) had also been born in Georgia. Baby Sarah Ann, just two months old when the census was taken on July 7, 1870, had been born in Ohio. No one in this household owned any real estate or personal property of note. Each of the three adult black men included in the census was listed as a “farm laborer.”

1870 Federal Census for Penfield, Ohio showing William Brown, farm laborer, and his family. Pg. 12, household #89.

1870 Federal Census for Penfield, Ohio showing William Brown, farm laborer, and his family. Pg. 12, household #89.

1870 Federal Census for Penfield, Ohio showing Jacob Brown, farm laborer, and his family. Pg. 16, household #117.

1870 Federal Census for Penfield, Ohio showing Jacob Brown, farm laborer, and his extended household. Pg. 16, household #117.

Were any of these people part of the group that traveled to Ohio from Missouri in 1863? It is tempting to note that the Lorain County News highlighted a “little girl say seven years old.” Seven years later, Mary Ann Brown was recorded as fifteen years of age in the Penfield census. Of course, that proves nothing. In the absence of further documentary evidence, there is no way to know what happened to the contrabands. Indeed, by 1880 Penfield again had zero residents of color. What became of the William Brown family, the Jacob Brown family, and the Taylors? Further research is clearly needed.

There is at least one more contraband connection to Wellington. In 1899, The Wellington Enterprise published a two-column obituary for David “Davy” Jackson, born into slavery ca. 1840 in Virginia. Jackson fled to General Philip Sheridan’s army as it moved through the Shenandoah Valley in the fall of 1864. Eventually, he fell into the service of then-Captain Albert C. Houghton (1841-1931), who later wrote Jackson’s obituary. When Houghton was severely injured at the Battle of Five Forks in 1865, Jackson nursed him back to health and returned with him to Wellington Township, living on the Houghton family farm for a decade. He attended the District No. 4 school one winter and Albert’s younger sister, Edith, attempted to teach him to read. “He took great pride and dignity in ”spounding the scriptures’ to the few colored boys in the village who had come from slavery land with their heritage of ignorance” (10-11-1899, pg. 4). David was not the only African-American man living in Wellington in the postbellum years; the 1870 federal census shows nine black residents and seven more classified as “mulatto,” i.e. persons of mixed racial ancestry.

1870 Federal Census for Wellington, Ohio showing David Jackson, farm laborer, living with the Houghton family. Pg. 14, household #108.

1870 Federal Census for Wellington, Ohio showing David Jackson (second line from bottom) , farm laborer, living with the Houghton family. Pg. 14, household #108.

1880 Federal Census for Wellington, Ohio showing David Jackson, laborer, living with the Vischer family. Pg. 30, household #359.

1880 Federal Census for Wellington, Ohio showing David Jackson (bottom line) , laborer, living with the Vischer family. Pg. 30, household #359.

Jackson saved enough money from his wages to both support family in Virginia and start a business (of lumbering, coincidentally). The business failed and David went to work as a coachman for Wellington organ and piano merchant William Vischer (1838-1914). For seven years, he lived in a small red house behind the Vischer residence, which once stood at 216 South Main Street but was demolished in 2009. All told, Jackson remained in Wellington for nearly two decades before relocating to Detroit, where he died as a result of an industrial accident at the age of fifty-nine.

Though Albert Houghton clearly felt affection enough for Jackson to write and publish such a lengthy tribute, his racial attitudes could hardly be characterized as enlightened. The obituary concluded, “To those who knew Davy Jackson thoroughly it was noticeable that his face, although black, his heart was white as his spirit that shone through it.” Contrabands may have escaped the institution of slavery during the war, but the movement to achieve true equality under the law, and end discrimination based on the color of a person’s skin, would sadly continue for many generations to come.

ETA: I have been informed by a knowledgeable local historian that there was a Fitch’s Bookstore in Oberlin in the 1860s. That suggests the notice about a woman losing her purse and money did occur in Oberlin, rather than Penfield.

A Tale of Three Sarahs

Handwritten letter from Sarah Foote, Wellington, Ohio, 1830 (R) and undated handwritten transcription of that letter by Sarah A. Sherrill. Private collection. Photo by author.

Handwritten letter from Sarah Foote, Wellington, Ohio, to Captain Alvan Foote, Lee, Massachusetts, November 9, 1830 (R) and undated handwritten, bound transcription of that letter by her daughter, Sarah A. Sherrill (L). Private collection. Photo by author.

I was born and spent the first half of my life in Massachusetts. I still travel home a few times each year to visit my family, and every trip takes me along the same route, following the New York Thruway to the Mass Turnpike through the Berkshire Mountains. Since I began writing this blog, every time I make that trip I think about what the journey was like in the early nineteenth century, when so many people left western Massachusetts to start again in Ohio. I recently had the opportunity to look at the most extraordinary collection of objects, which beautifully illuminate the challenges and excitement of cross-country travel in the 1800s. They also happen to shed light on the lives of three women, all called Sarah.

Sarah Foote was born in Lee, Massachusetts in 1808. Three of her brothers–William, Alvan Jr., and Elisha Percival–all emigrated to Wellington (established in 1818) when she was a teenager. In the fall of 1830, Sarah set out on a journey to visit her siblings in their adopted village. She traveled without a chaperone, connecting periodically with groups of strangers for companionship as she moved farther from home. Though she was a twenty-two-year-old unmarried female, her voice in the letter she sent back to Lee describing her experiences is clear, strong, determined and witty.

The letter survives to this day. The stained and slightly tattered paper is closely packed with Sarah’s small but legible hand. A single sheet, measuring 12.5 by 15.75 inches, it was folded in half to form four pages of writing surface. Three of those contain the letter and the fourth was kept mostly blank to serve as the external “envelope” when the correspondence was folded and sealed. Though the wax seal has not survived, the hole in the paper where it was once adhered is still tinged red.

Handwritten letter from Sarah Foote, Wellington, Ohio, 1830. Unfolded view. Private collection. Photo by author.

Handwritten letter from Sarah Foote, Wellington, Ohio, 1830. Unfolded view. Every available inch of paper was used, including the far left margin and the center fold; the bottom of the left “page” has an addendum that is inverted to distinguish it from the text above. Private collection. Photo by author.

Sarah’s travelogue begins with her departure from Albany on October 13, 1830. (There is no mention of how she made the trip from Lee to Albany.) She cruised for eight days along the Erie Canal on a boat called the Pilot Line Victory. The letter gives a day-by-day account of each settlement the boat passed–Schenectady, Canajoharie, Utica, and Rochester, to name just a few. I lived for two years in western New York and was delighted to read her description of a place I know well, Lockport. “I wish I could stop to tell you something about 5 double locks where the canal is cut through solid rock 2 miles[,] the greatest curiosity I have seen yet. A little shower and a fine rainbow added to the beauty and sublimity of the scene very much” (mss. pg. 1).

The day after her view of Lockport, October 21st, Sarah’s canal boat arrived in Buffalo. At this point in the voyage west, travelers had the option of either boarding a steamer to traverse Lake Erie, or going overland. Sarah was very much in favor of land transportation, but she had fallen in with a few of the canal boat passengers and they persuaded her to take the steam boat with them. It was a decision she immediately regretted. She purchased a “deck” passage, meaning that she had no cabin of her own. It was cheaper, but also less private and comfortable. “No place to sit down and nothing to do but stand there amongst the poor creatures [Swiss immigrants also taking the steam boat] and watch my trunk” (mss. pg. 2). Sarah became violently seasick and the boiler on the ship malfunctioned, causing some small injuries. The fall weather created stormy conditions on the lake; water was washing over the decks and Sarah was soon soaked, as well as sick. She eventually decided to pay nearly as much as her original ticket to upgrade to a cabin passage. “I pitched in at the cabin door[,] fell on the floor and there staid [sic] till morning[.] The boat rocked terribly and it seemed as if we should go to the bottom every moment” (mss. pg. 2).

But the nightmare did not end at the destination. When the steam ship arrived at Dunkirk, the crew tried for more than three hours to put in to the harbor, but because of the stormy weather and perhaps the lack of the boiler, they could not do it. Incredibly, they ultimately decided to turn the ship around and return to Buffalo. After two miserable days and a night aboard, Sarah found herself back where she had started. She was adamant that she would not take the water route a second time, even when the captain refused to refund her passage. Undeterred, Sarah simply found a man and sold him her ticket for $2.00, recouping some of her financial loss. She then parted company with her traveling companions–all of whom had decided to take the ship again, as soon as it was repaired–and bought a ticket for a stage coach bound for Erie, Pennsylvania.

"Map Showing Present and Proposed Canal System," (1903). The New York Thruway follows the Erie Canal route very closely. From the website www.eriecanal.org.

“Map Showing Present and Proposed Canal System,” (1903). The modern New York Thruway follows the original Erie Canal route very closely. From the website www.eriecanal.org.

It took nearly a week of riding day and night, as well as waiting in several places for connecting coaches, for Sarah to reach Elyria, Ohio. She waited again nearly five days before she had the opportunity to hitch a ride in “a waggon [sic] drawn by 4 oxen driven by Lyman Howk for W[ellington]” (mss. pg. 3). Twenty-two days after departing Albany, Sarah finally arrived in the village at sunset on November 3, 1830. Three weeks is about half the time the same trip would have taken prior to the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825. It is a journey that takes approximately nine hours in a motor vehicle today.

Sarah liked what she saw of Ohio. “I am now pleasantly situated in a good log house at [brother] William’s by a good fire and enjoy myself very well—-feel that I have great cause for gratitude to the Author of all good who has kindly spared my life and preserved me thus far on my long journey—I attended meeting Sunday in the log school house—-Mr Talcott attended but was not able to preach[,] health very poor—They are building a brick school house[,] the upper room for meetings[,] two rooms in the lower part for schools” (mss. pg. 4). The brick building that Foote described was, in fact, Wellington’s first town hall, and her writing is documentary evidence of its previously only conjectured construction date.

The letter she sent home on November 10th was addressed to Captain Alvan Foote, her father, so-called because of his service to the Massachusetts militia. The text was full of comments directed to Sarah’s younger sisters, Eliza and Huldah. Sarah concluded the letter with a list of all her expenses on the journey, with instructions that Huldah, aged nine, “must reckon it while I tell her.” Total cost of the cross-country expedition was $14.70, slightly less than the $18.50 one pays today in tolls on the New York Thruway.

Sarah Foote eventually concluded her visit to her brothers and returned to Lee, Massachusetts. Eight years later, she married Reverend Edwin Jenner Sherrill (1806-1877). They spent nearly four decades in “Canada East,” which is the southern portion of the modern-day province of Quebec. It may have been in Quebec that their eldest daughter, also called Sarah, was born in 1839. It was Sarah Sherrill who transcribed her mother’s long letter into a bound volume for posterity. The transcription is undated, but likely occurred before the younger Sarah’s marriage to William Bullock in 1887, since she signed the title page, “Copied by her daughter, Sarah A. Sherrill.”

Sarah Foote Sherrill returned home to Massachusetts from Canada East after the death of her pastor husband. She died in 1885 of cancer and cirrhosis of the liver, and is buried in Lee’s Fairmount Cemetery. Her daughter and transcriber, Sarah A. Sherrill Bullock, died in 1922 in New York City. The letter and its bound copy remained together and were recently purchased by a private collector. Though their authors lie elsewhere, they have both now come back to Wellington.

Headstone of Sarah Foote Sherrill (1808-1885) in Fairmount Cemetery, Lee, Massachusetts. Photo from website Findagrave.com.

Headstone of Sarah Foote Sherrill (1808-1885) in Fairmount Cemetery, Lee, Massachusetts. Photo from website Findagrave.com.

While Sarah Foote was visiting her brothers in Wellington in 1830, she wrote home, “[Elisha] Percival has got the prettiest children that ever lived” (mss. pg. 3). One of those pretty children was his daughter, Sarah, born in Wellington just a year before the letter was drafted. When this third Sarah of our story was seventeen years old, her father sold his Ohio property and moved the family overland to Wisconsin. Like her paternal aunt, this Sarah Foote also kept a detailed journal of her expedition. It was carefully preserved by her children and later published. The full text can be found in several different places online.

While Sarah Foote (later Sherrill) arrived in Wellington in 1830, Sarah Foote (later Smith) departed from it in 1846. “Wednesday morning and pleasant. Many of our friends and neighbors gathered to see us off and after the usual exchanges of good wishes, goodbyes and sad farewells we were on our way at 10 o’clock. As we passed the old school house it was the saddest of all leave-takings though a silent one” (April 15, 1846 entry). Was this “old” school house that Sarah Foote Smith said good-bye to with such grief the same building that had been under construction when her Aunt Sarah visited the village sixteen years earlier? We know that Wellington’s first town hall was demolished in 1846, reportedly because of its age-weakened foundation.

Like her aunt, Sarah Foote wrote in a clear and direct style, carefully noting the costs of the trip via horse-drawn wagon and observing the conditions around her. The family arrived in Wisconsin in May of 1846 and by the next year, Sarah was married to William Champlin Smith (1824-1887). Genealogical sources vary on the exact number, but the couple seems to have had between ten and twelve children; the last was born in 1874, when its mother was forty-five years old. Sarah Foote Smith died in 1912, aged eighty-three, and is buried in Nepeuskun Cemetery in Rush Lake, Wisconsin.

All these women–both the two authors and the daughter who sought to preserve her mother’s words–clearly felt the value of written memories. I do not mean the abstract idea of creating an historical record for the benefit of future generations. Each Sarah Foote chose to set down her personal experiences because she knew they would be welcomed by her immediate family. Sarah Foote Sherrill sought to reassure her relatives in Massachusetts that she had survived the rigors of solitary travel and found her brothers flourishing. Sarah Foote Smith explicitly mentioned her intention to “show [her Wisconsin journal] twenty years from now when it may be interesting to those who shared the events.” But Aunt Sarah also begged her little sister, Eliza, to “just read this letter to our folks and then burn it[,] for no one else can read it I am sure but you” (mss. pg. 3). How fortunate for us today that Eliza did not comply.

Henry Martin Bradley’s “Autobiography”

Henry Martin Bradley (1824-1918).

Henry Martin Bradley (1824-1918).

One of the comments I received in response to my previous post was a request for more information on what Wellington was like in its earliest days, particularly for its youngest inhabitants. As I explained in response, it has been challenging to locate primary, or even secondary, sources on that topic. But it later occurred to me that I had run across at least one relevant account that I had not written about previously, so I thought that might make an interesting subject.

Henry Martin Bradley was born–as were so many Wellington settlers–in Lee, Massachusetts. He was related by marriage to the Howk family, one of the first groups of people to arrive in the area in 1818. His own family moved west in May 1835, the month Henry turned eleven. He attended school in the village, but moved to Seville, Ohio at age seventeen. He later continued on to Michigan and then Minnesota, where he became a prominent businessman.

At age 83, Bradley wrote A Brief Autobiography (1907). In it, he described his memories of early life in Wellington. Apparently one of his sons was so embarrassed by the work that he rounded up all the copies he could locate and destroyed them, making the title hard to find today. I am indebted for most of the above information to one of Bradley’s descendants, Stuart V. Bradley, who wrote his own 1976 senior thesis about his family’s history and quotes Henry’s book at some length. I would encourage you to visit his family history website, found here.

Henry wrote that his parents, William and Lucy Ball Bradley, purchased “one hundred acres of land heavily timbered with beech, maple, oak, ash, hickory, elm, walnut, and other timber. This location was four miles from the center of the township where there was then a village consisting of two stores, two hotels, two churches and a school house, also other business buildings incident to such a central business place in a new settlement in the early days. In going from the settlement through the dense forest to our new home, we found the roads hardly passable because of the swamps and the clouds of mosquitoes which seemed to be waiting to greet us as new comers.”

“My parents were of strict morals and of real piety. Like the other children of the family, I was trained up in the observance of all outward duties, and in fear of those sins, which in modern times are too often deemed accomplishments. I was not suffered to speak the name of God but with the greatest reverence. We had family worship every day. The Sabbath was strictly observed as a sacred day–always attending church service at the village about four miles distant. As for morals, my parents and their family lived irreproachably.”

“Once settled in our new home in the dense forest, the work of clearing the land of the heavy timber, and preparing the virgin soil for crops was the first essential. The timber wolves, bears and deer were very numerous, often to our great discomfiture, and they were many nights troublesome. I was a little over eleven years old, but was at this time introduced to an axe, and having learned the art of using it, was required to continue its use together with other necessary implements in removing the large standing timber, and preparing the soil for crops.”

“The work of clearing the land and preparing the soil was attended with much very hard manual labor. The first thing was chopping down the standing timber, then cutting the bodies of the trees into lengths of about fourteen feet, trimming up the tops, piling the brush into snug piles to dry and to be burned a little later. Then the logs of the bodies of the trees and larger limbs of the tops were, with the help of about three or four men and an ox team, drawn together and rolled up into piles for burning. All small stuff on the ground was picked up and piled on the log heaps before burning. When burning these log heaps, great care was necessary to keep the ends of the logs turned into the center so that all should be consumed together.”

“After the burning there would be a quantity of ashes left on the ground. It was my duty to save them by scraping them into a pile carefully while hot, and when cold to haul them to leaches prepared for the purposes of extracting the lye by applying water to them, and then boil the lye down into black salts. From the Ashes saved in clearing five acres of such land there could be about three hundred pounds of black salts secured, which, when taken to market, would sell for from seven to eight hundred dollars.”

“In the season of eighteen hundred thirty-six [when Henry was twelve years old] the lye extracted and reduced produced of black salts about three hundred pounds. It was my duty to take them to market in order to procure flour and groceries for the family. This was done by procuring a crotch of a small tree of the proper shape and preparing it for this purpose with a cross piece, and then placing a trough of the proper size on to it to contain the salts. With the ox team it was drawn to market, two and one-half miles through the woods to a place where black salts were reduced to pearlash. From the sale of this a barrel of flour and other groceries were to be obtained and conveyed home. Instead, however, of receiving the barrel of flour, as expected, I obtained an order for a barrel of flour on a man five miles away from our home, and took all of the next day with the ox team to get it home where it was so much needed. On arriving home at night, the second day with this barrel of flour, there were two men there waiting to borrow as much of it as was possible. Mother was not disposed to lend this hard earned necessity, but father was kind hearted and accommodated his neighbors to a reasonable amount” (Henry Martin Bradley, A Brief Autobiography, pgs. 5-11, quoted in Stuart V. Bradley, Jr., “Moving with the Frontier: The Bradley Family of America 1644-1918,” pgs. 37-38).

Stuart Bradley also recounted, though he did not quote directly, a reminiscence of Henry’s about his brother, Charles, two years his senior. Henry was responsible for herding home the cows at night, which were allowed to wander in the woods during the day. He would shake the large bell of the oldest cow to frighten away any wolves that came too close. His older brother was responsible for milking the animals when they were safely penned. Charles was once punished by being sent to round up the cows in the dark in Henry’s place. He became lost, was treed by a wild pig, but in the morning found himself at a neighbor’s homestead five miles distant. A search party had been organized when the cows returned home without the boy, but they were dismissed when he finally made his way back later that day (pg. 38).

Additional source material about Henry Martin Bradley and his family, including a family genealogy that he compiled and the full text (with illustrations) of Stuart V. Bradley’s senior thesis, can be found here.