Tuesday, October 22, 2013

A Visit With Relatives Back Through Time, by Susan Kinsella

I had the most wonderful visit last week with my great-great-great-grand-aunt, Hannah Davis! She died more than 150 years ago but that didn’t prevent me from catching up on the family news and having a good cry with her, as well.
You see, Hannah wrote a letter to her sister Phebe Taylor in 1830 and it was saved by family members down through the years. Phebe was my great-grandfather’s grandmother. My own grandmother, Ethel Taylor, saved this and other letters from being thrown out when my Grandpa (Lloyd) Taylor’s family was closing up his father’s home.  Eventually these letters reached my mother, Aunt CB, who continues taking the archiving responsibility seriously.

The thing is, although my mother had noted that the letter was to Gideon (and Phebe) Taylor (BW Taylor’s grandparents; BW was Lloyd, Floyd and Florence Taylor’s father), and she had carefully preserved it in acid-free protective materials, she had never had time to read its difficult writing in full. When I visited my parents for my Dad’s birthday (October 15, 2013, in case you still want to send birthday wishes!), I suggested that my mother pull out one of the archived letters so I could transcribe it.
I thought I’d be able to do 2 or 3 letters while in Rochester for this visit but, oh my, they require a lot of work! The writing is faded and often tiny, with some different writing conventions from what we see today. Spellings and punctuation are often erratic, the paper is brown and blotched from “foxing” (“age spots” often found on vintage papers), and there are ink blotches, tears and holes in the paper, as well. Mom, Pat, Tom, Jim and Julie have all done the tediously heroic work of reading and transcribing family journals and letters, for the benefit of all of us. This was the first time that I had tackled one so old. But what a treasure!
First I noted the characteristics of the letter. It was on a sheet of paper 16x12.5 inches, which is similar to a traditional paper size that was developed by the Arabs who standardized papermaking more than 1,000 years ago. It is about the size of two sheets of copy paper laid side by side. The paper had been folded in half so that it looked like two pages of a big book.
On one side is a long letter written by Hannah to Phebe, in two columns, one on each page of the folded paper. On the other side, half the paper holds two additional short letters, one from Daniel Walbridge, Hannah and Phebe’s brother, and the other from his wife, Roxana. The remaining half of the paper on this side was used to create the “envelope” for the letter – basically, the letter was folded so that all the writing was on the inside and just an envelope-sized outside blank area showed, which was then addressed to the recipient. In this case, the letter is addressed to “All” (perhaps general delivery?) in “Batavia, Gennesee Co.” in New York State, and mailed from Wolcott, Vermont on December 21, 1830. The postmaster has written “25” into the top right corner, indicating he was paid 25 cents, a pretty hefty stamp rate for those days (about $4.50 in today’s dollars) but typical for letters that would travel over 400 miles.
Hannah’s letter is the primary one, dated December 13, 1830, “Tuesday evening.” Her handwriting is beautiful, so elegant and regular, with well-balanced horizontal lines. She was 25 or 26 at the time, writing to her sister Phebe, who was 11 years older. Hannah and Phebe were sisters in the Walbridge family, which lived in the Wolcott, VT area, a town the Taylors had founded years before with a dramatic snowshoe trip in to homestead what was then wilderness. Phebe had married Gideon Morehouse Taylor (referred to as “Morehouse” in Hannah’s letter) and they had moved to the Batavia/Oakfield area in western New York.
Hannah starts out assuring Phebe that “we are all well and hope these lines will find you enjoying the same blessing.” But then she plunges right into telling Phebe that “sickness and death is in our land and has come very near to us. It has entered our house and taken our dear little infant from us.” As a mother myself, immediately upon reading that, my eyes filled with tears for Hannah.
Hannah tries to be positive, as it seems she felt her religious upbringing expected. But it is clear that she is grieving her baby, her first child, and she returns to referencing him throughout the letter’s other news. She must have received a letter from Phebe earlier in the year because she exclaims, “Dear sister, O how I rejoice to hear that you had the privilege of writing with your babe in your arms but it has pleased the Lord to take mine to himself. How can I tell you the painful feeling my heart bore when I saw the flower begin to fade. You are a mother, you can realize how strong by nature we are tied to our children . . . .”
She continues with asking for Phebe’s “prayers that I may not complain with the dealings of God” and asks about her sister’s religious news. But she cannot hide how heartbroken she is. Her baby had died only a few days before, living just “eight weeks and two days when he left this world.” He had lain in distress and pain for two days and had several convulsions. Then, she says, “Saturday, between four and five, he with a smile gave up his breath. I had named him for father [Oliver].” How anguishing!
Hannah then goes on to fill Phebe in on family news. “I visited at father’s last Friday. They were all well. Father was making a sled. Mother was sewing. Cynthia and Elvira [Hannah and Phebe’s sisters] were piecing up bedquilts. Betsey [another sister] has a daughter about four months old.” She reports on friends who have married, including those for whom “I had the pleasure to see the knot tied. They were married at an evening lecture.” (No doubt this was a religious meeting.)
Then Hannah worries that she “shall weary you before you read one half [of the letter], but if I could see you I could talk faster than I write.” Isn’t that always the truth! She says she’s looking forward to seeing Phebe next fall and assures her that, “I have long neglected writing but you must not think you are forgotten.” She signs it, “I remain your affectionate sister Hannah Davis.”
The next day, Daniel Walbridge, their brother, two years younger than Phebe and 9 years older than Hannah, adds a shorter letter on the other side of the paper. He, too, assures Phebe that “we are all well” and describes a sweet domestic scene. “I have been to work with a yoke of steers today. Now I am setting in our new house by the fire in the kitchen. . . . We moved in it in the fall. It is all done but the plastering.”
Daniel goes on to say, “Roxana (his wife) is sewing by the fire and Martha and the rest of the children are in bed after a long time . . . . Near my house the snow is not more than three or four inches deep.” Then comes the bad news: there was a disaster at the grist mill that mustered all the local men to help the mill owner keep up with his farm work, and last fall, Aunt Polly died, “gone the way of all the earth.”
After Daniel’s note, his wife, Roxana, adds a short message, saying that, “Hannah and Daniel have left me a little room and I will try to fill it up with something they have not written.” She tells of visiting her family and friends in Peacham, VT in July. However, “although I had the privilege of seeing them, yet my own Father has not the pleasure of seeing me nor never will he again behold his children or any of the surrounding beauties of nature since the Lord has seen fit to take from him his only remaining eye.” Apparently he already had one blind eye and then had gotten hit in the face with the branches from some bushes, which caused an infection in the other eye, which left him completely blind.
Each of the women – Hannah, Phebe and Roxana – had had a baby that year. Hannah’s did not survive, although she later had two more children, one who again was named Oliver and this time lived, and another son, named Pardon. They could not have known, though, that Daniel would die five years later, at 39, and Hannah’s husband, Michael Davis, would die three years after that, only 38 himself. Hannah is listed in the 1840 census; Pat says women were listed only if they were heads of household because their husbands had died. Hannah is not included in the 1850 census and her sons born after this letter are listed then as living with an uncle’s family, so it appears that she died before 1850. She would have been no more than mid-40s, in that case.
But I sit here, reading her letter again, 183 years after she wrote it. Presumably, she has no idea of me. But I feel as though I have been sitting before the fire in the stone hearth in her kitchen, drinking tea with her and catching up with all the family news. And I am so grateful that Aunt Hannah wrote to her sister about her life, and that her sister and the family members after her saved this letter, so that I – her great-great-great-grand-niece – could cry with her about her baby, hear the news about her family, and feel as though her life touched mine nearly two centuries later.


Pat said...

Thank you Sue--so well written! I feel like I am looking through a thread of time and can see into her household as she leans over her letter and tries to see more clearly by the firelight. Tired from the day's work, but wanting to send news and thoughts and stories to her sister so far away in Western New York.

Can't wait to read more of the Walbridge letters and learn more about this remarkable family.

I do so appreciate all of your time and effort to transcribe this family missive.


Aunt CB/Mom said...

It has been my privilege to care for these family treasures! Luckily I worked to do the same for my hospital history and learned what to do!
I have more Taylor journals than Baker but all are informative and tell us lots that we never knew before! I thought I had asked m y parents ALL i needed to know, but , too late, I realized that there are unending stories!
All of which may find their way to this BLOG!!

Tom K. said...

Sue, great to read about this letter. Thanks.

Evelyn said...

Beautiful buttrfly picture, first of all! How ever did you catch such a perfect moment?

The letter, and the way you write the article, are wonderful. I know how difficult it is to read the old letters. I transcribed 75 Civil War letters and they were new compared to 1830!

Trevor Putvain said...

Dear Sue, my name is Trevor Putvain and I am a life long resident of Wolcott Vermont. I came across this blog while researching my wife's family. I just today discovered that Hannah Walbridge and Michael Davis are my wife's great great great grandparents. Your post not only provided me with the name of Hannah's father, but has also provided the residents of Wolcott with valuable historical insight. I can tell you that as a child growing up in Wolcott the Taylor family featured heavily in our local history lessons. If you would like I have information regarding the connections between the Taylor and Davis family (Thomas Taylor was the brother in law of Thomas Davis, so it looks like Phebe and Hannah married cousins, one a Taylor and the other a Davis, but then again, their probably weren't a lot of other families other than Davis, Taylor, and Walbridge in town at the time) I also have grave photos I could share if you are interested. The power of the internet never ceases to amaze me that this letter written in Wolcott so many years ago can now be seen again. I wonder if it would at all be possible to acquire a copy of the transcription so that I could donate it to our historical society?
Trevor Putvain: Wolcott Vermont.

Susan Kinsella said...

Trevor, how wonderful to hear from you! Pat and I would love to be in touch with you. Would you please email her at herdeg5@comcast.net?

You will also probably appreciate a couple other earlier stories on this blog. One, about a Civil War ancestor, is at http://taylorbakercousins.blogspot.com/2012/11/as-we-used-to-go-cousining-by-pat.html

The other, about the founding of Wolcott, is at http://taylorbakercousins.blogspot.com/2010/06/thomas-taylor-and-mary.html

Pat also found a book on Amazon, Roxana's Children, that is a wonderful collection of stories about what happened to a family that included, I think, some of Hannah's nieces and nephews.

We would be glad to share the transcription of Hannah's letter with you that I did. It's not a "professional" transcription, but it's a description of the letter and then as close and literal as I could get in reading it.

Pat (Boston) and I (San Francisco) have been talking about making a trip to Wolcott next summer. It sounds like it would be a genealogical treasure trove for us.

Looking forward to being in touch! Oh, which of Hannah's sons is your wife descended from?

Dawn W said...

Hello Sue, Like Trevor I recently came across your blog while doing research. I am a 4th great grand daughter to Daniel and Roxana Walbridge. I would love to speak to you regarding your Walbridge letters. I can be contacted at wdawnw555@gmail.com. You might be interested in reading my blog as well, it's about Peacham, VT where Roxana (Brown) Walbridge was from. They are letters I write to her about life, I have not updated it in awhile but its at http://peachampicketfence.blogspot.com/. I look forward to speaking with you. Regards, Dawn