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.


6 thoughts on “A Tale of Three Sarahs

  1. Patricia Sumpter

    My parents are buried next to a Foote. I will be diligent in reading and remembering the names when next I go to the cemetery . I was born in Suffern, New York and we traveled route 17 to travel from Wellington to New York twice every year. When Route 80 was built my dad found that easier to take. My mom missed traveling on 17. Oh the things I remember! Thank you again for a great piece of history.

    Patty Sumpter

  2. Armchair Historian Post author

    I just finished reading a lovely little volume called “A Journey to Ohio in 1810.” It is a printed transcription of a journal kept by 20-year-old Margaret Van Horn (later Dwight) as she made the overland trip from New Haven, CT to Warren, OH. That is roughly the same amount of miles as the trip from Albany, NY to Wellington, OH that Sarah Foote made forty years later, *after* the Erie Canal opened. The 1810 crossing took 44 days, or more than six weeks. (Sarah’s post-canal crossing took a little over three weeks.) Both routes take somewhere in the neighborhood of eight or nine hours in a car today.


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