Two hundred years ago, probably no more than a mile from where I now sit, a young woman living in a log cabin penned a letter to family and friends in Massachusetts, to reassure them she was alive and well. In a strange way, this post serves a similar function. I have somehow managed to produce only one addition to this blog since the pandemic began nearly two years ago. But I recently acquired the extraordinary, double-sided note Betsey Manley wrote that day in July, 1822 and it was too wonderful not to share.
It has been so long since I wrote something like this that I had to go back and remind myself of all the things I knew and forgot about Betsey Manley. She was born in Otis, Massachusetts in the early summer of 1798, a deacon’s daughter. Regular readers of the blog may remember that most of the earliest settlers of Wellington came from the Berkshire region of Massachusetts. In 1816, Betsey married Josiah Manley, who went by his middle name, Butler. After five years of marriage and with three small boys in tow, they set out by oxen-team to settle in what is now northeast Ohio. They spent three years doing the back-breaking labor of clearing a “heavy timbered farm,” until disaster struck.
According to Betsey’s lengthy obituary in the Wellington Enterprise, “Sickness with its blighting hand, spread a veil of sadness over this once happy household. Mr. and Mrs. Manley were both stricken down. Dr. Johns was their attending physician. Mr. Manley died August 21st, 1823, at the early age of 32 years, his being the first death that occurred among the settlers in Wellington. At the time of his death, Mrs. Manley was so ill the fact of her husbands [sic] death was kept from her for a week” (5-15-1879, pg. 3). Josiah Manley’s headstone, and a biographical sketch later published about their son, Frederick, both indicate this first death took place in 1824.
But all of that was yet to come when Betsey took up her pen on a July day in 1822. I have transcribed both densely-written pages, including notes in the margins, adding a few bracketed punctuation marks where I felt the text was otherwise confusing. It reads as follows:
Wellington July th 22 1822
Dear Friends Although separated from you the distance of several hundred miles my mind often takes wing and in imagination I view you enjoying all the necessary blessings of this life at your pleasant dwellings but cannot realize that I am never more to enjoy your agreeable company[.] I think much more about going dear friends since I have lived here in the wilderness than ever before in my life. I will proceed to give you a short account of our circumstances here in the woods[.] We have a good log house much more comfortable than I expected a house of the kind could be made[.] had one hundred weight of shugar [sic] and two pails full of Molasses the first of April[.] Milked a cow through the winter have three cows this summer[.] have wheat flour in our Chamber to supply our family till late in the fall as good as I ever saw[.] have had seven hundred [pounds?] of good Pork & a plenty of Lard. A plenty of wild fruit Abounds in the woods[.] in short we have lived far more comfortable than I expected when I left Otis. I was pleased with the Idea of moving here & do not lament the pains we have taken to get here[.] We have a very good society Meetings regularly Attended every Sabbath[,] every other week within a quarter of a mile of us. We seldom have preaching but are hoping for better days have as flattering prospects as could be expected in [scratch out] so new a settlement[.] there has never been but a little sickness in the town before the present year some instances have occurred by reason of wounds[.] Capt Joseph [illeg] has had a leg taken off was brought very low [illeg] hours to human appearance beyond all hopes of recovery[.] he is now so far recovered as to begin to walk with Crutches. I take much satisfaction visiting with our Otis Neighbors do not feel myself among strangers but living with those with whom I have ever been intimately acquainted. Our Nearest Neighbor was formerly from Lee Mass. they are people of considerable property live in good style & as good kind obliging neighbors as I ever saw without exception a great blessing indeed[.]
[Upside down on upper right header margin] Please to send this letter to Bolton when an opportunity presents.
[Along left margin] Excuse my writing Oliver assists by holding my pen
Butler is making calculation for rolling up a Log barn this week his wheat is harvested & stands in stacks in the field[.] he has corn much taller now than any I ever saw in Mass. have had a good supply of green sauce since the fourth July have a very good Garden[.] have had twelve pounds flax this spring to make into Cloth A Crop of flax in the field but some injured by the worms and drouth [sic][.] Wool will be an article which we shall much need before we shall be able to keep sheep on account of the wolves which are very plenty[.] Butler has much the same health that he has enjoyed for some years past[,] not as good as I could wish to begin a new heavy timbered farm with but should his limbs or health be taken as in the Case of Capt. R. our flattering prospects would cease to shine our little property would not defray the expenses of such an instance but a few weeks [scratch out/blot] 150 dollars in one week to his physicians. Russel [Webster, Betsey’s brother] has not as good health as he had last summer but keeps to work calculates to go to making potash this fall his respects to you all & calculates to visit you a year from this time[.] I have enjoyed remarkable good health the most of the time since I have been in this wilderness[.] have staid [sic] a good many nights with my little Children (Butler & R[ussel] gone from home) not alarmed by being awoke with the howling wolves[.] My work is much harder than ever before have Considerable company & a large family[.] We board a little Girl to go to school with Frederick & Henry one mile & a quarter through the woods[.] they are as healthy as I ever saw Children little Oliver has lately had a very severe sore mouth the worst that I ever saw he is getting well fast. Uncle Jeremiah I should be very much pleased to see you with your family here should you think of moving into the woods[.] the Land which Uncle Elder & Cousin William own is good & very profitable you could [illeg] with them if you should think it best[.] I think of a great many things that I should be glad to write but have not time[.] I write to you all as one accept my best wishes for your prosperity [illeg] my sincerest thanks for numberless favors do not fail of writing to me you know not how much I think of you & My Dear Parents Brothers Sisters &c. When at Cazenovia [New York] last fall Uncle made me a present of one dollar[,] Aunt a flannel sheet[.] O that I could be sent thankful to my Earthly friends for blessings & to my God who grants them he moves hearts
[Along left margin] Butlers best Love to you all[.] I enjoy myself as well as ever I did in my life but no substantial happiness
There is so much to unpick in this fantastically evocative and maddeningly contradictory letter. Betsey feels nothing by half-measures. Her neighbors are as “obliging…as I ever saw”; her children “as healthy as I ever saw,” but also one is suffering from “a very severe sore mouth the worst that I ever saw.” Perhaps most intriguingly, she feels strongly enough to end the letter with a note in the margin that claims she is both enjoying herself “as well as ever I did in my life” but then adds the disclaimer “but no substantial happiness.” She takes great care to reassure her loved ones that her family is comfortably settled and well provided for, but doesn’t shy away from mentioning–more than once–the wolves that sometimes wake her in the night with their howling.
There are few mentions of other people in the settlement, all frustratingly vague. Betsey tells her readers she is boarding a girl who attends the nearby school with her oldest boys, Frederick and Henry, but we learn neither the girl’s given name nor with which family she emigrated. We hear that a Captain Joseph has had a leg amputated due to unspecified injury. That name does not appear in either the 1820 or 1830 census records for Wellington.
Perhaps most intriguingly, Betsey describes her nearest neighbors as people “of considerable property” from Lee, Massachusetts. She spends three lines praising them without once noting their family name. Her 1879 obituary indicates that when the Manleys first arrived in the settlement, they “shared the hospitalities of Mr. and Mrs. Bradley, whilest their new cabin was being finished.” I have written at some length about the Howk family of Lee–of which Fiche Howk Bradley was a daughter–and the possible financial decline that led to their emigration west. If they were the near neighbors Betsey so admired, that likely puts the Manley homestead somewhere in the northwestern quadrant of the town. Fiche and Josiah Bradley most likely lived along what is today Route 18W, on a bluff near the modern intersection with Pitts Road.
As I sit here this cold January day, typing on a laptop while exchanging texts via smartphone with my own sister back home in Massachusetts, Betsey’s 1822 wilderness existence seems very far away. Then again, my son is underfoot, home from school due to the severe cold and I find my eyes returning again and again to my favorite line of the letter, a small addendum in the margin that references Betsey’s infant son. “Excuse my writing Oliver assists by holding my pen.” Perhaps some human experiences–love, loneliness, the joys and frustrations of parenthood–transcend the centuries.