The historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich once famously observed, “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” What she meant, in part, was that the construction of history texts relies mainly on written records. Until the modern era, most women were illiterate and so their stories could only be told through the writings of others, usually men. Those females most likely to make their way into the pages of history books were therefore those who ‘misbehaved’ and were consequently recorded in court cases, church tribunals, or the printed accounts of newspapers. “Those who quietly went about their lives were either forgotten, seen at a distance, or idealized into anonymity. Even today, publicity favors those who make–or break–laws” (Well-Behaved Women, pg. xxii).
Every so often, a woman of the past was able to compose her own narrative. Lydia Kellogg Boies was one such individual. She left to posterity ten sheets of paper (of which one is missing), written in her own hand, describing her life in Wellington, Ohio. That letter is now held in a private collection but I was privileged to obtain a transcription of it. It was addressed to Mrs. S. K. Laundon late in the nineteenth century, as Laundon gathered source materials for the Wellington section of Memorial to the Pioneer Women of the Western Reserve (1896), which I mentioned recently. The reminiscence allows us a small window into female relationships and activities that would otherwise be hidden from our view.
A native of Massachusetts, Lydia Boies came to Wellington around 1842 with her husband, Dr. Eli Boies. The couple built a small house just west of the village, and Eli worked with Dr. Daniel Johns in providing health care to the local populace. In the letter, Lydia noted that when the railroad began construction of a line through town in the late 1840s, the Boies family sold their property and briefly moved away (mss. pg. 4). They returned in time to be included in the 1850 federal census with four young children, three of whom would die within the span of just one year. Though this strikes the modern reader as an incomprehensible tragedy, it was distressingly common–though no less agonizing–for parents of earlier eras.
One of the people most frequently mentioned in the Boies letter is Jerusha Benedict Reed, wife of local merchant John S. Reed. An 1835 emigrant to Wellington, Reed hosted something called the Maternal Association at her home, a group of local women who met to discuss how best to raise children of Christian faith and strong moral character. Both Boies and Reed were dedicated members of the Congregational Church and ardent supporters of the Temperance Movement. Lydia Boies also noted that the ladies of Wellington had a sewing society and that at one point, she sought to have that society provide aid to fugitive slaves (mss. pg. 8). Boies shared anti-slavery sentiments with her spouse; Dr. Eli was known to be a member of the Underground Railroad and was held in county jail for twenty-one days for his participation in the Oberlin-Wellington Slave Rescue.
It is difficult to say from a reading of the text whether Mrs. Boies and Mrs. Reed were friends. Boies certainly wrote about Reed with a great deal of respect, especially insofar as Reed’s religious convictions were concerned. Lydia recalled in particular the tragic loss of Reed’s small son, who was apparently crushed to death. Rather than expressing sorrow, anger or regret, Jerusha claimed to be only grateful that she had time to offer one more prayer for her child before he passed (mss. pg. 17). By 1855, she had also lost a second young son and her husband, when John Reed drowned “while bathing in Black river at the sawmill near the Pittsfield line” (The Wellington Enterprise, 4-24-1895, pg. 5).
Jerusha Reed left Wellington in 1861 and moved to Oberlin. By 1862, the Boies family had also relocated there. Lydia Boies attributed that decision to her husband’s desire to see her comfortably settled before his own death; the text seems to imply that Eli Boies was ill and knew that his own time was short (mss. pg. 11). Whether his inclination to move his soon-to-be widow and two surviving children to Oberlin was in any part due to her relationship with Jerusha Reed is unknown. Mrs. Reed later moved to Michigan and then settled in Sandusky by 1870, remaining there in the home of a daughter until her death of heart disease in 1878. Mrs. Boies spent ten years in Oberlin before she, too, moved to live with one of her children in Michigan. If the two women ever saw each other again or exchanged correspondence after their Wellington years, it is not mentioned in the letter.
There is an interesting corollary to this story. When Jerusha Reed was widowed in 1855, her brother, Ethel Benedict, left the family homestead in Connecticut and moved to Ohio to “take charge of his sister’s business interests” (Enterprise, 11-1-1893, pg. 5). He eventually bought her Wellington property. In 1873, the Lorain County News reported that Benedict was relocating the wooden store and adjacent house that John and Jerusha had called home for two decades of their marriage. On the corner of Main and Liberty Streets, Ethel Benedict would instead erect an enormous brick business block. Jerusha Reed may have spent a third of her life on that plot of Wellington ground, quietly admired by other local women like Lydia Boies. But ultimately, the name written in stone in the town’s architecture and memory belongs to her brother.