If you would like to watch the presentation I made on January 9, 2018 to kick off Wellington’s Bicentennial Lecture Series, please click here.
Into the Wilderness: A Massachusetts Household Emigrates to Ohio
Inaugural Lecture of the 2018 Wellington Bicentennial Series
Patricia Lindley Center for the Performing Arts
January 9, 2018 | Doors open at 6PM; lecture begins at 7PM
In 1818, a Dutch farming family from the Berkshire region of Massachusetts left behind all they knew and traveled west on foot to begin a new life in the Ohio country. Many of us have heard stories of the founding of Wellington, but what you may not know is that one member of that settler household was a woman of color, a freed slave who had formerly belonged to the family she now accompanied “into the wilderness.”
This talk is free and open to the public. If you would like to indicate your interest in attending, you can do so on the Wellington Bicentennial Facebook page. And please take a look at the other monthly lectures and presentations scheduled for the remainder of the year!
For the past several years, as I made the journey home to Massachusetts from Ohio, I drove right by the town of Lee. Regular readers of the blog well know that many of Wellington’s earliest settlers came from Lee and surrounding communities in the Berkshires. I have long wanted to stop and take a closer look, and this year I was finally able to plan a visit.
I did a bit of preliminary research to try and identify eighteenth-century landmarks in the area. I was interested to see any buildings or structures that might have existed when the Howk family–1818 immigrants to Wellington–lived in Lee. There are not many left. The church at the center of the town was erected in 1857, though there is a marker on the adjacent green indicating where an earlier meeting house was built in 1780.
The church and town green are at the base of Howk’s Hill, and I was able to drive around the golf course that today occupies the 125 acres which once comprised Isaac Howk’s homestead. There is a lovely parsonage on the same road (now West Park Street) that the Howks would have passed on their way to meeting each Sunday. Hyde House was erected in 1792 and is still a private residence today.
I then made my way to Fairmount Cemetery. What a strange experience it was, to wander around this Massachusetts resting place and and see so many familiar Wellington names: DeWolf, Foote, Bradley. I had no precise information on whether any stones stood for the people I have researched, but I was extraordinarily lucky. One of the very first markers I saw after parking belonged to Sarah Foote Sherrill (1808-1885).
As I made my way on foot further back into the cemetery, I passed further back in time. By the time I reached the area farthest from the street and main gate, I was in the eighteenth century. I discovered an older back road, now grassed over, that led to the oldest stones on the grounds. At first, I could not find any stones belonging to members of the Howk family. But I did discover a large marker for an Ingersoll relative of my husband’s. When I brought him back to show him the stone, I found to my astonishment that it was just feet from the final resting places of Isaac Howk and his daughter Catherine.
Catherine, called Caty by the family, died of consumption at age seventeen and is interred next to her father. Her stone is not as legible as Isaac’s. I could not help but imagine the rest of the Howk family taking leave of these stones before departing Lee for the Ohio country, never to return.
It was a too-brief, but nonetheless thrilling, visit. I hope to return again and delve deeper into the historical connections between these two towns.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Just northeast of the center of Wellington, there runs a small road that currently dead-ends into the village’s main train line. There are fewer than ten homes situated on DeWolf Street, and I would venture to guess that not many of the residents suspect their road is named after one of the village’s earliest and most respected settlers. Other than his headstone, Matthew DeWolf has only this memorial. But his family’s story is deeply entwined with the founding and growth of Wellington, and contrasting Matthew with one of his younger relatives offers an interesting case study on societal changes here over the course of the nineteenth century.
Matthew DeWolf was born in Otis, Massachusetts in 1792. He and many members of his family eventually emigrated from Berkshire County to Wellington Township. Though sources offer a wide range of dates for the trip, the ones I find most persuasive suggest that Matthew, his wife Mary, young son Homer, brother Whitman, and sister-in-law Alice all journeyed west together in January 1827, shortly after the latters’ marriage. It is possible that Matthew’s younger sister–recorded as Pamelia, Parmelia and Parnela–also traveled with them, though some sources seem to indicate that she arrived in Wellington first.
In the unpublished manuscript records of the First Congregational Church of Wellington, the following passage appears on May 12, 1827: “Mr. Matthew D. Wolf & his Wife Mary & Mrs. Alice D Wolf Wife of Whitman D Wolf from the Church of Otis & Jonathan Niles from the Church of West Stockbridge, After their Letters were read the Individuals were examined in regard to their experimental knowledge of religion and their views of truth and duty—the Church votd to receive them as members of this Church” (mss. pg. 11). Two years later, Matthew’s father, James DeWolf, was also examined and admitted to what was then known simply as the Church of Wellington (mss. pg. 19).
Matthew DeWolf was known to his contemporaries as a religious person, deeply committed to societal reform. He is recorded in numerous written recollections as the keeper of a “temperance tavern” on what is today the corner of North Main Street and East Herrick Avenue. (DeWolf owned much of the land in the northeast quadrant of the town, which is why the street bearing his name is located there.) The name suggests a public house in which no alcoholic beverages were permitted. DeWolf’s building is also said to have served as a regular meeting spot for the church, as well as one of the village’s first schoolhouses. J. B. Lang, the Wellington correspondent to the Lorain County News, wrote in his obituary, “Mr. DeWolf during some of the first winters of his residence here, occupied his time in teaching school, and it was the fortune of the writer to attend one of his schools, which was an excellent one, he being one of the first teachers in the country who discarded corporeal punishments in the school room” (7-19-1865, pg. 3).
Homer DeWolf, Matthew and Mary’s only child, died unmarried around 1840, when he was no more than twenty-five years old. Mary DeWolf died circa 1855/6 and was interred in Wellington’s Pioneer Cemetery on what is now West Herrick Avenue. If Homer is buried near her, his marker has not survived. Matthew, by then in his mid-sixties, decided to remarry. He proposed to a local tailoress called Betsey Webster Manly, also born in Otis, Massachusetts. Betsey had been a widow for more than thirty years, but she accepted Matthew’s hand.
Betsey was the daughter of a deacon from Berkshire County. She had married first husband Josiah Manly on her nineteenth birthday. Her obituary is worth quoting at some length: “They remained [in Otis] till 1821, then with their little family of five members, bade adieu to the old home, and with an ox team set out upon a journey to the Westward, Wellington being their destination. Forty days and nights were passed before this long and toilsome journey came to an end…Russell Webster, a brother of Mrs. Manly, had a log cabin nearly completed, which was to be the future home of this family…The cabin had some extra furnishings which had been brought from the East. There was one chair, a small stand, some sheep skin mats spread upon the white puncheon [i.e. split log] floors, a candle stick, with snuffers and tray, and a tallow candle burning in the socket, an article the other settlers had not seen in use since leaving their homes in the East” (The Wellington Enterprise, 5-15-1879, pg. 3).
In the summer of 1824, sickness had passed through the village. Young Betsey and her husband both fell gravely ill. Dr. Daniel Johns was their attending physician. Josiah died August 21st, the first death recorded in Wellington. Betsey was so sick she was not told for a week that her husband had passed. Josiah Manly has two headstones: a simple, older stone in the Pioneer Cemetery, and a later joint stone with Betsey in Greenwood Cemetery. I presume that Josiah was not disinterred–why would the older stone have been left standing?–but rather Betsey wished to honor her connection to him on her own marker. It is curious that Betsey would choose burial in Greenwood given that her parents, siblings and presumably both of her husbands were all located in the older graveyard. Perhaps by the time of her passing in 1879, that small space was full.
(In later life, Betsey became mother-in-law to David Hoke who, in 1890, murdered his employer then committed suicide in a grocery store on North Main Street.)
Known for his commitment to temperance, Matthew DeWolf was also apparently an ardent abolitionist. He, his brother-in-law Abner Loveland (who married Pamelia/Parmelia/Parnela DeWolf in 1826), and Dr. Eli Boies were among the twelve Wellington men arrested and indicted for their role in the famous Oberlin-Wellington Slave Rescue of 1858. DeWolf and Loveland were considered men of means, so they were fined $20 each and only spent twenty-four hours in jail. Historian Nat Brandt asserted in his The Town that Started the Civil War (1990) that most of the Wellington men were indicted not because of direct action on the day of the rescue, but because they were known to be conductors on the Underground Railroad. He included DeWolf, Loveland and Boies in that group.
Matthew DeWolf died in the summer of 1865 and was buried next to his first wife, Mary. As I mentioned, the couple’s only child had died decades before. But one historical source claims that DeWolf raised a nephew. It is tempting to wonder if that nephew was James DeWolf, son of Whitman and Alice, who was born in Wellington in 1829. James was sometimes mistakenly referred to as Matthew’s son. Is that because he lived in Matthew’s household? Or is it because humans love to craft narrative around the events that they observe, and the more shocking and ironic that narrative, the better?
For James DeWolf was very unlike his well-respected uncle, one might say the polar opposite. He first appears in the public record in the late 1860s, charged with selling liquor. In 1868, his saloon on the south side of Liberty Street burned to the ground. The Lorain County News noted that most of the saloon’s contents were saved, excepting “two valuable billiard tables” (2-12-1868, pg. 3). Four years later, James was sued by a wife for selling intoxicating liquors to her husband; the case was to be heard by Mayor Noah Huckins but was settled out of court. A drunken brawl the same year left a customer with a nearly-severed ear and the bartender shot in the shoulder. In 1875, a suspicious death at DeWolf’s saloon resulted in a murder inquiry, but ultimately no one was charged with the crime.
Mrs. Lydia Boies met James DeWolf. In a letter now held in a private collection, she wrote: “Saloons were then not lawful, nor were they forbidden in Ohio. They were simply refused a license & were regarded as incompatible with the good of society. A young gentleman (De Wolf) opened a saloon for money making. We—that is, we that were accustomed to watch and pray for everyone were terribly aroused and began to ask ‘What can we do about it?’ We found also 2 or 3 others in town. One morning I received a message from Mrs. [Jerusha] Reed asking if I would join her in leading an attack with axe and hammer on De Wolfs and other saloons. Now I am physically & constitutionally a coward unless where I see duty or God leading, and my cowardice served me here. I replied that De Wolf kept a bull dog and and gun which he declared would be used on any one molesting him, and also I said violence was only to be used as a last resort. We then met and planned a series of visitations in person to every saloon keeper. Mrs. Reed & I visited a German who said ‘I will give up if oders will.’ De Wolf refused, and in after years it proved his ruin” (mss. pgs. 12-13).
Local amateur historian Robert Walden never met James DeWolf, but he did know James’ wife and daughter, Jessie DeWolf Seeley. Walden wrote: “James, universally called Jim…made a radical departure from the straight and narrow. He opened a saloon called ‘The Morning Star’ next door west from the Foote old frame livery stable on the south side of Herrick Avenue West. As its name suggested, he kept it open when occasion suggested until the wee hours of the morning. It was the scene of wild celebrations.” Walden noted that it was after the suspicious death in his establishment that James sold The Morning Star and left Wellington for nearby Clarksfield Hollow. “Many of the laborers were Irish and West Clarksfield had several saloons but there was an overflow crowd at Jim’s place in Clarksfield Hollow on Saturdays” (Notebook, #A159).
James DeWolf’s wife eventually divorced him and he began living on the second floor of his new saloon. It was there, in December 1900, that he died in a fire that made headlines all over the state. The Stark County Democrat was one among many that reported, but did so in unusually gruesome detail. “Dewolf, a single man, was asleep in an upper room, was unable to make his escape, and prished [sic] in the flames. His head and limbs were burned from his body, and only a portion of his trunk was found in the ashes. He was smothered by the smoke and in attempting to get out of the building, fell headlong into the burning embers” (12-18-1900, pg. 2). Several of the newspaper accounts referred to DeWolf’s business as a tobacco and confectionery store, rather than as a bar.
Matthew DeWolf was seventy-three years old when he died. His nephew, James, was nearly seventy-two. The men shared a family name and hometown over the course of roughly equal life spans, but ultimately took quite different paths. It would be overstating matters to suggest some symbolism of a decline in Wellington’s civic life; that The Temperance Tavern, serving also as a church and school, gave way over the decades to the rowdy drunkenness and criminality of The Morning Star. Wellington grew and changed, to be sure, but it did not steadily decline from a wilderness paradise to an urban den of iniquity. Still, I find something deeply compelling in this family–and town–story.
There once was a girl called Lepha. She was born into a farming family in a small, rural settlement in western Massachusetts. Like every other human being, she must have had hopes, dreams, and wishes for her future. I can tell you nothing about these. Sadly, the event that I can tell you about in the most detail is Lepha’s tragic death. I could tell you a great deal, too, about the man whose actions ended her life, his family history, his accomplishments in the thirty years that he went on to enjoy, years she did not have. But I am not going to do that. This is Lepha’s story, and out of respect for her, that is where my focus will remain.
Lepha Irene Sherman entered the world in 1843. She was born to Kelley and Susan Sherman, farmers in the tiny northern Berkshire County community of Florida, Massachusetts. Lepha appears to have been the youngest of eight children. The details of her early life are lost to us. Like another woman I once wrote about, even her name has not come down to us clearly. She appeared in birth, marriage and census records as: Leafy, Liefa, Leapha and Lepha. After her life was cut short, she appeared in print as Sepha, Aletha and Alepha; one paper claimed that she was “familiarly called LENA” (Elyria Democrat, 1-10-1866, pg. 2).
Massachusetts conducted a state census every decade on the five-year mark, i. e. between federal census decades. We can therefore see that sometime between 1850 and 1855, Lepha’s uncle and paternal aunt, William Towner and Phebe L. Sherman Houghton, moved from Pownal, Vermont to Florida, Massachusetts. They took up residence very close, possibly next door, to the Sherman family. They brought two sons. The eldest, Isaac, was five years older than his cousin, Lepha. By the Fourth of July, 1861, Isaac and Lepha were married. She had just turned eighteen.
Fifteen months later, Carlton L. Houghton was born. The baby survived only ten months. The Pittsfield Sun reported that the death of the “son of Isaac Houghton” occurred August 20th, 1863. In the documentation bookending his boy’s brief existence, Isaac was identified as both a farmer and carpenter. (In 1855, there were fourteen saw mills in Florida, a good option for employment during the off-season.) I can find no record of Isaac serving in the Civil War, though The History of Berkshire County, Volume One noted that forty-five local men served and of those, eleven did not come back (pg. 700).
By the 1865 Massachusetts census, both Lepha and Isaac disappear from the rolls. Their respective families continued to farm side-by-side in Florida, but I can find no mention of either of them in all of Berkshire County. According to testimony offered after Lepha’s death, she relocated to Ohio early that year “for the purpose of procuring a divorce from her husband” (Elyria Democrat, 1-10-1866, pg. 2). If this statement is accurate, it obviously suggests that Isaac remained alive. But I can locate no further trace of him in the historical record.
Why did Lepha leave her husband? It is impossible to say. We can conjecture about her youth–she was barely twenty-two–and whether she had ever wanted to be married to her first cousin. Perhaps she did not wish to be a farmer’s wife. Her choice of comparatively urban Wellington as a new home is an interesting one. I was very curious to learn how she came to settle so far from her birthplace. Regular readers of the blog will no doubt be thinking of the many other families who emigrated from Berkshire to Lorain County. Given that Lepha’s married name was Houghton, I initially suspected she was related to the Houghtons of Wellington. But research revealed what I believe to be the more likely scenario, namely familial networks on her mother’s side.
Two clues survive in the testimony offered after Lepha’s death. Elyria papers reported that her body was taken to New London “by a relative” for interment. The Cleveland Daily Leader wrote, “The evidence given by Charles Hannenway, cousin of deceased, revealed no new facts” (2-27-1866, pg. 4). I could find no evidence of such a person as Charles Hannenway. It then struck me that the name in the testimony was reminiscent of ‘Hemenway,’ a family I have written about before. The Hemenways came from New London, and one of brothers was, in fact, called Charles. Further digging revealed that they originally emigrated from Berkshire County and at least two of the Hemenway siblings were born in Florida. Lepha’s mother’s maiden name is recorded in her marriage documents as “Hemingway.” Susan Hemenway Sherman died in October 1863, just weeks after her infant grandson, Carlton. Perhaps the loss of both her mother and child drove Lepha to leave Massachusetts behind and start over in Ohio with help from her maternal cousins.
Lepha boarded in Wellington and “ran a sewing machine” in Levi Bowman’s clothing shop on the west side of South Main Street. She lived in the village for a year, as the Civil War drew to a close. Did she attend the memorial service when President Lincoln was assassinated in April? Did she get up in the middle of the night to watch his funeral train pass by the depot in a driving rain? Did she stroll through the fairgrounds with friends that September? We have no way of knowing. The obliquest of mentions appeared in the Lorain County News, in a description of her workplace: “A look through the clothing establishment of L. Bowman, of this place, will satisfy any one that some things can be done in Wellington, as well as others. Mr. B. is manufacturing all his own clothing, and at the present time giving employment to four men and eight or ten women. He has a very large stock of clothes and gentlemen’s furnishing goods, which will be sold as low as similar goods can be bought in the state. Give him a call, and satisfy yourselves” (8-30-1865, pg. 3).
Among those “four men and eight or ten women” employed at Bowman’s were both Lepha and A. J. Brown. He is referred to as “Asa” and “Andrew” Brown in later reports, while the Lorain County News dismissed him as “one ‘Jack’ Brown” (1-10-1866, pg. 3). Jack was allegedly separated from his own wife by 1865. In examining the 1860 federal census for Wellington, I found three J. Browns. Two were named John, a thirty-eight-year-old unmarried shoemaker and a forty-six-year-old laborer with a wife and five children. The third man, Jackson Brown of New York, was a twenty-four-year-old tailor with a young wife (Marion, 22) and small daughter (Emma, 3). His name, age and profession lead me to believe that he is the person at the center of the calamity that followed.
The two co-workers began a relationship and by early winter, Lepha was pregnant. Was the affair secret? The woman with whom Lepha boarded, Mrs. Amelia R. Herrick, claimed that she knew Lepha was expecting as she “had had morning sickness and had symptoms of approaching maternity” (Cleveland Daily Leader, 2-27-1866, pg. 4). As a side-note, I have been unable to find Amelia R. Herrick in Wellington records. There was an unmarried educator in town named Armenia Herrick; she was sister to Charlotte Herrick Howk. In 1860, Armenia was sixty years old and fostering a nine-year-old niece. By 1870, she had moved in with another sister and nieces–five unmarried women in a single household. Widely respected in the community, Herrick was the subject of a lengthy 1879 obituary in The Wellington Enterprise by co-editor Mary Hayes Houghton; not surprisingly, it says nothing about Armenia keeping boarders, nor hints at any connection to the 1866 scandal.
Trial documents tell the rest of the story. Jack approached Mary Mason, who resided in Wellington more-or-less continuously from 1853 until her death in 1903, but had moved for a brief period to Elyria that September. She later testified that she had known Lepha for nearly a year prior to the latter’s death. Did the girl send her lover to Mrs. Mason to ask for help or did he know, and apparently trust, Mrs. Mason on his own? There is a vague reference in the court transcript which suggests that Mary Mason had visited the same doctor on several previous occasions; it may be that she was known as an individual who would discreetly assist women “in trouble.” Regardless, it was eventually arranged that Mrs. Mason would meet Lepha in Cleveland after Christmas and escort her to a clandestine, illegal abortion.
On December 30th, the two women went to the office of “Doctor” Hosea W. Libbey. I will spare you, dear reader, the gruesome details included in the subsequent indictment. Suffice to say that Libbey had no degree nor formal medical training of any kind, and was a charlatan even by the standards of his own century. The injuries he inflicted on Lepha in a locked office, away from Mary Mason’s eyes, led to the younger woman suffering severe internal hemorrhaging on the return train to Elyria. Mary brought Lepha to her house, where the girl was put to bed and never recovered. She died on January 4th, 1866. As mentioned, her body was taken to New London for interment. I have not been able to locate her grave, but I suspect she is resting among her Hemenway relations in the Grove Street Cemetery.
Ironically, the only person for whom this story’s ending is clear is the one who encountered Lepha Sherman Houghton for just ten minutes of her entire life. Jack Brown, father of the child, and Mary Mason, the woman who risked her own reputation to help, were both arrested for their complicity in the crime. I do not know anything further about Jack Brown’s fate; if I am correct in believing him to be “Jackson Brown” from the 1860 federal census, I also know nothing of what happened to the spurned Marion Brown or their daughter, Emma. Mary Mason continued on in Wellington until her death in 1903 and is buried with her husband in Greenwood Cemetery. What impact the scandal had on her interactions with her neighbors, we can only guess. (It is interesting to note that all mentions of the trial featured in the Lorain County News were submitted by the Elyria correspondent; not a single line was ever printed in the Wellington column, as if the village were trying to disavow any association with the shameful episode.) Hosea W. Libbey, just thirty-two years old at the time, was tried and convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to eight years of hard labor; later documents show he served six weeks of that sentence before being released by the Pardon Board. He went right back to medicine. Though he periodically resurfaced in newspaper accounts of lawsuits, arrests for theft, and even the auction of his home and goods to settle debts, he continued with what seem to have been profitable practices in Cleveland and Boston. He secured patents and produced several publications. When he died in 1900, it was covered in both Ohio and Massachusetts newspapers; no allusion was made to his manslaughter conviction.
How unjust that we should have a portrait of Libbey, but not of Lepha. She was “of attractive form and features, and…deported herself in a manner that indicated a good character and industrious habits,” we are told. Her landlady, even after Lepha’s public disgrace, characterized her as “steady, industrious, healthy, robust.” Whatever her sins, if sins they were, surely she did not deserve the excruciating, isolated death she received, surrounded only by acquaintances terrified that her end meant the beginning of their legal troubles. It is unclear whether even Jack was present when she passed. An editorial decried “the almost inhuman neglect of her body after life was extinct,” and indeed, we can only speculate as to where her body ended its journey.
That editorial, in the Elyria Democrat, delivered this scathing summation of the affair: “In all such cases, when woman yields to the more powerful influences of men, there is abundant cause for the exercise of two eminent virtues–pity, and contempt. Pity for the weaker and fallen one, and loathing and contempt for him who compassed her ruin by artful wiles, and then with cowardly instinct, seeks to hide his own shame by urging his victim to pursue a course that puts her life in peril” (1-10-1866, pg. 2). The assumption that Lepha was “weak” and seduced or coerced by Brown belittles her and negates her agency as a thinking, feeling person. In reality, we can have no idea of the true nature of the relationship between the two. Were they in love or lust, both or neither? Did they hope to marry or was the intimacy of a more casual nature? Did Lepha prefer to be independent, free of a father and husband’s control for the first time, or was she perchance hoping that sex would bind Brown more closely to her? It is possible she was entirely relieved to learn that an abortion was available in nearby Cleveland; but maybe, instead, she remembered little Carlton on the long train ride north and mourned the loss of a second, unmet baby. “Well-behaved women seldom make history,” the saying goes. Equally important to remember is that the simplified history we think we know rarely bears any resemblance to the complex and confused experience of actually living it.
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-three 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.