At some point after the death of Isaac Howk in 1805, his entire family decided to leave Lee and Kinderhook far behind and make a new start in the western territories. There are tantalizing hints in the historical record as to why they might have made that choice. In 1816, an advertisement in the Berkshire Star announced the court-ordered sale of “all the real estate of Alanson Howk and Electa Howk, Minor heirs of Isaac Howk, late of Lee, deceased” (6-6-1816, pg. 3). Another son, Isaac Howk Jr., had a biography included in Sketches of Prominent Citizens of 1876 that mentioned he had attended Williams College, “but his means were limited, and did not admit of his completing the full course of college studies” (pg. 291).
Did the family fortunes deteriorate after Isaac’s death? Farming was already on the decline as a viable means of supporting a family in post-Revolutionary Massachusetts. To make matters worse, the years 1815 and 1816 were some of the most terrible weather years ever experienced in the Berkshires; a destructive hurricane in the fall of 1815 was followed by snowfall and killing frosts the next summer. “The weather proved too much for some and led to a large migration to the Midwest from western New England” (One Minute a Free Woman, pg. 20). Whatever their reasons, the six living Howk children, two of their spouses and possibly two small children, family matriarch Fiche Van Deusen Howk, and the former slave called Dean left behind all that they knew and set out in 1818.
Who made that long and difficult journey to the nameless swath of forest then classified in official documents only as Township 3, Range 18? Of Isaac and Fiche’s seven children, four came to this area. The eldest son, Richard Howk, seems to have settled elsewhere in Ohio with his wife, Electa Ingersoll Howk, and their two young sons, Henry (b. 1812) and George (b. 1815). Third son, Isaac Jr., continued on to Indiana and became a respected lawyer and state representative, but died just shy of his fortieth birthday. Eldest daughter Catherine, called Caty by her relatives, died of consumption at Lee when she was seventeen, and was left behind with her father in the family plot there.
Fiche Van Deusen Howk, widow of Isaac, was by 1818 probably in her mid-fifties. Her son John was twenty-seven. Her daughter, also called Fiche, was already married and so is included in The History of Lorain County passage as “Josiah Bradley and wife.” She was just twenty-three. Next came son Alanson, nineteen. And at seventeen, daughter Electa was the youngest immigrant in the family. We have no way of knowing Dean’s precise age, though her classification in later federal censuses suggests that she was of a similar age to Fiche Van Deusen Howk, her former owner. Recall also from Memorial to the Pioneer Women that by the time she lived in Wellington, she was referred to as “Granny” Dean.
While no known letters or other primary source documents have come down to us to describe the Howks’ journey into Ohio, we can get a small sense of what the destination was like. At the beginning of this piece, I quoted the passage from The History of Lorain County that tells the story of the Howks’ arrival in the fall of 1818. John Howk, a cousin who emigrated with his own branch of the family in 1834, later recalled that his father “had moved into this quarter when it was so new that a trail had to be chopped through the woods for his wagon” (The Wellington Enterprise, 9-12-1894, pg. 8). Henry Bradley, a nephew by marriage to Fiche Howk Bradley, also relocated from Lee to Wellington as a child in 1835. In his 1907 memoir he reminisced, “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… The timber wolves, bears and deer were very numerous, often to our great discomfiture, and they were many nights troublesome” (A Brief Autobiography, quoted in Moving with the Frontier, pg. 37). Remember that these two narratives describe a period nearly two decades after the first Howks and Dean settled.
The 1820 federal census indicates that by that point in time, Josiah Bradley and his wife, Fiche, were living in one household with their new baby girl, while the rest of the Howks were living together in another place. Sometime in the early 1820s, according to local tradition, youngest Howk daughter Electa became the first bride in the new community when she married newcomer Amos Adams, Jr. Tax records from the 1820s and 1830s indicate that sisters Fiche and Electa lived close together on the west side of the township, while brothers Alanson and John lived on adjoining plots of land on the east side. By 1832, both men were paying taxes on a sawmill that they apparently co-owned with Amos Adams Sr. (their sister’s father-in-law) and Albert Adams. Since the Howk brothers were occupying two lots of land diagonally crossed by a river that is still there (albeit in diminished form) today, it seems likely that is where the sawmill stood.
In some ways, we know even less about Dean’s life in this period than we could conjecture previously. Federal census records show one free female person of color living in John Howk’s household in both 1820 and 1830. Fiche Van Deusen Howk was also apparently living there. What sorts of work filled Dean’s days? Did she cook, clean, make candles, mend? Did she wash clothing in the river that ran next to the house? Did she play any role in agricultural functions? John Howk owned two horses and a steadily increasing herd of cattle during Dean’s lifetime (sixteen head in 1832, for example). Someone must have looked to their daily maintenance, particularly if John was operating a sawmill and cultivating crops. In both census enumerations, Dean was the only person of color residing in the township. In 1820, the white-to-black ratio was forty-four to one, but a decade later it had grown to two-hundred-twenty-three to one. Not unlike her time in Lee, Dean may have felt conspicuous in her “other”-ness.
We do not know when Fiche Van Deusen Howk or her slave-turned-servant Dean were born. Neither do we know when they died, nor where they are buried. Both women disappeared from John Howk’s household by the 1840 federal census. (John married in January 1838; he was nearing fifty years of age and his new wife, Mehitable Fox Couch, was a widow who was herself dead by 1843. Perhaps John felt the need to marry after the passing of the two other female members of his household.) All the Howk children who emigrated to Wellington in 1818 are interred in the so-called Pioneer Cemetery on West Herrick Avenue. John and Mehitable, Alanson and his wife, Theodocia Clifford Howk, and Amos and Electa Adams are lined up in a neat row. Fiche Howk Bradley is nearby, next to a damaged stone that was once likely that of her husband, Josiah. There is no surviving documentary evidence associated with the cemetery so we can only speculate as to the burial sites of Fiche and Dean, two women whose lives, while in obvious ways very different, were intimately entwined for perhaps half-a-century or more.
Did Dean and Fiche get along well? Did they like each other? They seem to have been of a similar age, and certainly shared a lifetime of common experiences, though not all of them positive. Did Dean travel with the Howks to Ohio because she had played a role in raising all of the children, and so was held with some esteem or affection within the family circle? It was certainly an arduous undertaking for a woman of her years, and one would like to believe that if she had preferred to stay in Berkshire County, she could have found a position as a servant within another household. Is Fiche buried near her children in a now-unmarked grave? Would Dean have been allowed burial in the same cemetery, even if the family had wished it? These are the unanswerable questions I continue to ponder.
I would like to acknowledge the contributions of several individuals to the research that made this article possible. Their efforts have only strengthened the work, but any errors that have found their way into the text are entirely my own responsibility.
Dr. Emily Blanck, Associate Professor of History at Rowan University and author of Tyrannicide: Forging an American Law of Slavery in Revolutionary South Carolina and Massachusetts (2014), offered me insight into the piecemeal process of slave emancipation in Massachusetts in the 1780s.
Ruth Piwonka, Town Historian for the Village of Kinderhook, New York, alerted me to the existence of larger black communities in western Massachusetts in the eighteenth century. She was also helpful to me in understanding Dutch naming customs and pointed me toward resources on the Van Deusen family.
Mal Eckert of the Lee Historical Society and Will Garrison, Curator of the Berkshire Historical Society, were generous with their time and energies in assisting me to more precisely locate “Howk’s Hill” and Isaac Howk’s homestead in Lee, Massachusetts. Richard C. Leab, Senior Assistant in the Local History Department of the Berkshire Athenaeum, found some period maps that also illuminated the answers to this question. Mary Morrissey, Co-Chairperson of the Lee Historical Commission, provided me with documentation on the home of John Howk (brother of Isaac) still standing in Lee today, though much modified over the years; she also kindly connected me with the Davidson family of Lee, present-day owners of the house.
Jennifer Fauxsmith at the Massachusetts State Archives, and Elizabeth Bouvier at the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Archives, fielded several legal reference queries and facilitated my access to Isaac Howk’s probate documents on an all-too-brief research visit to Boston in December 2014.
Mick Howk and Robert McFadden, two descendants of the Howk family, kindly fielded questions about their family’s genealogy and pointed me toward helpful sources. I sincerely hope they are pleased by the “results” of their efforts.