Thursday, October 2, 2014

A-Cousining, by Susan Kinsella

Milky Way and Air Glow Over Lake Elmore
Elmore, VT Website
I first met my cousin Andrew Jackson Olmstead when he was just 20 years old. I cannot tell you what he looked like, although I can imagine him. 

I see a lad of medium height with a strong but lithe body, clearly coming into his own as a young man but still with some of the boy in his face. He is good-looking, of course – after all, he is my cousin. His dark hair curves rather straight and long down to his chin that is stubbled and haphazardly shaven, as though he cannot stop long enough to do the sporadic whiskers justice. His dark eyes sparkle merrily beneath long, luxurious lashes and, no matter the topic, he cannot keep his mouth from sneaking into a grin. Yes, he has the uncertainty and awkwardness of a boy on the threshold of manhood but, at the same time, there is a joyousness that cannot be contained. 

Still, I have never seen a photo of him, and it is unlikely that I ever will. For if I were to meet him now again, he would be nearly 200 years old. My memory of him when he was 20, though, is just as fresh as the letter he wrote to his cousin, Daniel Rockwell Taylor, my great-great grandfather, in early March of 1848.

“Dear Cousin Daniel R. Taylor,” Andrew Jackson begins. “I now have an opportunity to write you a few lines to remind you that there is just such a creature on this earth as I am and I am alive and well and a’kicking.” 

Oh, yes, I have read enough of these old family letters now to know that most of them devote an uncommon amount of space to apologizing for taking so long to write and then reporting on everyone’s health. Of course, for families such as these ancestors who worked farms homesteaded out of virgin forests in the wilderness, health was everything. After all, while they did have some draft animals to help them, most of their work – indeed, their survival – relied on the strength of their own bodies. 

Elmore Church Against Elmore Mountain
Andrew is writing from his family’s farm near Elmore, in the far north of Vermont near the Canadian border with Quebec. His mother, Betsey Walbridge Olmstead, is the younger sister to Daniel’s mother, Phebe Walbridge Taylor. Phebe and Betsey had grown up near Wolcott, VT, a town founded by Phebe’s husband’s family only a few miles from Elmore as the crow flies. However, traveling from one town to the next in such rugged, mountainous parts of Vermont was likely to be rather roundabout. 

Yet the cousins of the nine Walbridge siblings’ families seem to have made great efforts to know each other and stay in touch. When Phebe married Gideon Morehouse Taylor and a few years later they moved with their children to Oakfield in western New York State, the family connections stretched all the way there right along with her. 

In fact, Andrew Jackson’s older brother, Seth (22), is visiting Daniel Taylor’s family at the time of this letter writing, and the letter is nearly as much to him as to Daniel. And, as you might expect with a 20-year-old boy, Andrew is rambunctious, randy and wants to see the world. The kind of letter he writes to his cousin, only six months younger, is definitely “a boy’s letter.” 

“I should like to go to York state and see the folks and the Country too,” he writes to Daniel in far off “York State.” Then he writes a message for his brother, who apparently has been visiting their Taylor relatives for an extended time: “Tell Seth that I have heard all about that gal and suppose that it is her that has made so much of a Yorker of him.” In fact, he wonders whether the gal that may have caused Seth to delay his return is “one of those Dutch gals” that apparently Seth mentioned in a previous letter. He adds, "Tell him if it is he must strap down his pants when he goes to see her." Whether this truly refers to a girl who is Dutch or possibly to a girl who is “Pennsylvania Dutch” (who were actually “Deutsch,” i.e. German) is unknown and, in any event, apparently immaterial. When Seth marries a few years later it is to a Vermont girl. 

Despite the “wink, wink” messages in the letter, Andrew Jackson seems to still be forging his friendship with his cousin, Daniel. Apparently that was helped immensely when Daniel visited Vermont a year or so before. Andrew assures him, “We are all the same ugly ignorant sort of folks that we were when you was here and as for being Polite we have improved just none a’tall.” 

Summer Hayfield, Elmore, VT
by Bob Burley
Daniel may have come with his mother and some of his siblings to Wolcott, where he had been born and his parents had grown up, although the others are not mentioned in the letter. Perhaps Phebe wanted to see her father and her siblings again. Her mother had died in 1843 and her husband had died the following year. In any event, Daniel’s family seems to have made a lasting impression on Andrew, who says, “It seems as if I should know all of your folks now if I should see them or meet them in the road.”

Clearly, Andrew was reveling in “a-cousining,” a term another of his and Daniel’s cousins, Dustan Walbridge, used later in a yearning letter home from the Civil War. It was apparently a common term in the 1800s. Even Ralph Waldo Emerson was said to put aside his writing and delight in jaunts with his cousins, cutting “all mental work off short” and laying “down his pen when the cousins came a-cousining and literally took to the woods.”*

Perhaps Seth went home with Daniel’s family to New York after their visit to Vermont. That appears to be one way that the cousins got back and forth for visits, so it is reasonable that Andrew expected one of the Taylors to accompany Seth’s return trip. Andrew says to his cousin Daniel in his letter, “I shall expect to see some new cousin when Seth comes home in the spring. If I don’t, I shall be disappointed. Tell Seth not to come home till some of your folks will come with him.” 

Although, truly, Andrew is torn. He’s itching for an adventure himself and he would rather do the traveling than wait for someone to come to him. So, after telling Daniel he “should like to go to York state and see the folks and the Country too,” he jokes: “I should like to see Daniel ranging the fields and woods with an old gun (under the pretense) of hunting or gaming.” 

Barn on East Elmore Road
Elmore, VT Website
Throughout the three pages of the letter, Andrew manages to both write the news and then add critiques of his writing. These are included almost as crib-notes in the margins along the sides and at right-angles to the text. Most are highlighted with a hand-drawn picture of a finger pointing to the comment. 

In the first one, he tells Daniel, “Warm it when you begin to read it.” Remnants of red wax show over the words, suggesting how the letter had been sealed. I am guessing that he’s suggesting that warming the letter would both better melt the wax and possibly also improve the readability of the ink. But why would he need to explain that to someone for whom this was the normal way of sealing letters? Could Andrew have maybe written something in a fluid that produces invisible writing (possibly milk, vinegar or onion juice?) that only shows up when the paper is warmed? If so, it is not visible now. 

Andrew inserts one of his hand-drawings directly into the text when he remarks, “Oh Daniel, I have a little bit of news to tell you but I suppose you have heard of it before now. I have got another Brother and he is well and smart and Mother is about the house as comfortable as we could expect.” Hmm, I thought, had his mother just had another baby? But, looking at the birth dates in the family tree, that didn’t fit. 

Then I noticed that his 17-year-old sister Phebe has just gotten married. (Phebe Taylor Olmstead seems to be named for her aunt, Daniel’s mother, whose name is Phebe Walbridge Taylor.) Is Andrew referring to his new brother-in-law? But why would that affect his mother’s comfort? Is she missing her daughter Phebe’s help at home? Are the newlyweds living with her family? The letter doesn’t tell us, but the likelihood that he’s referring to his sister’s marriage is increased by his reference to Phebe, herself, in the same paragraph: “Tell Seth, Phebe says if you don’t write soon she will come out there and take you for breech of promise.” Apparently Seth is not keeping up with his family’s letter-writing expectations!

One of the other notes that is emphasized with a pointing finger, written up the side of the letter, made me laugh out loud. It seems to sum up this young cousin’s playful nature. Andrew wrote, “Please be so kind as to burn this up as soon as you read it.” Thank goodness Daniel Taylor did not comply!

Andrew goes on with what seem to be some silly riddles, as well as comments about school. In the fall, he’d had many papers and compositions to write, but now, in mid-winter, he hasn’t gone to school for three weeks. And then he suddenly signs off with the phrase that so totally charmed me and made me fall in love with him: “The pen and ink are so poor, I will break off as short as a goat’s tail.” 

Ahh, Andrew Jackson Olmstead, thank you for writing this delightful letter in 1848 so that I, too, could someday go a-cousining with you, as well!


* Little Journeys to the Homes of the Great, by Elbert Hubbard, 1916


Pat said...

Loved this small slice of life back in 1848! So wonderful that you transcribed the letter, Sue, AND did such a marvelous write up about it.

Over 165 years ago, and yes, they DO seem so alive to us.


Lucille/ Mom said...

Wev are so fortunate that we have these letters! How many were tossed, who knows, but these were found by Ethel Baker Taylor while clearing out the house that Bryant Waller Taylor [ my grandfather] had lived in before dying. She was of a "history, reading, saving" nature and it is to her we owe out thanks!
These letters allow me to follow the humor of these cousins thru the ages. I well remember the same type in letters written to my father, Lloyd Taylor, from BW, his father. In his 8o's, BW wrote him a letter on birch bark and sent it!!

Evelyn Taylor said...

Sue, What a wonderful writing! The letters that we come acrosa from long ago are informative, but also very provocative. We have so many questions that cannot be answered, so we try to fill in the blanks with our ideas.
The term "a-cousining" was so interesting and certainly apropos to your Cousin's Blog. Today's messages are in a different form, but accomplish the same purpose.

Julie said...

Loved the story, so soon following your trip to Colorado to go "a-cousining" with me. Filling in those unanswered questions was fun and interesting and sounded oh, so real. Too bad we no longer "write" letters but send e-mails instead. How will our ancestors interpret our interactions 150 years from now, I wonder...