Intellectual with much promise seeks career change…

In 1834 a young Bowdoin College professor wrote to the U.S. Senator from Maine, Peleg Sprague, looking for a favor (two favors, actually).  He was hoping that Sprague could assist his very talented friend, George Cooke, in obtaining a commission to paint one of the four vacant panels in the Rotunda of the Capitol in Washington, DC.   He also hoped that Sprague could help him in obtaining the Modern Language professorship at the University of Virginia.

Sadly, George Cooke was not tapped to contribute to the paintings in the Capitol.  Instead, these commissions went to John Vanderlyn (Landing of Columbus), William Powell (Discovery of Mississippi), John Chapman (Baptism of Pocohontas), and Robert Weir (Embarkation of the Pilgrims).  George Cooke (1793-1849) did go on, however, to become a distiguished American painter under that patronage of the industrialist, Daniel Pratt.  His most famous work is the Interior of St. Peter’s in Rome currently on display at the University of Georgia.

And the Bowdoin College professor?  Well, Sprague apparently was not much help there either. The young man ended up teaching at Harvard, publishing a few poems and translating some Italian.  His name was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

The following is a transcription of the letter from Longfellow to Sprague:

Feb. 23rd 1834

Hon. Peleg Sprague

Dear Sir,

I must apologize for troubling you with a letter at a time when you are so much engaged, as at the present moment.  I certainly should not do so, were it not in behalf of a friend, and upon business which, in a certain sense, is of a public nature.

I see by the papers that four American artists are to be employed to execute paintings upon national subjects for four vacant panels in the Rotunda of the Capitol.  A very intimate friend of mine, Mr. George Cooke of New York, is very desirous of this opportunity to distinguish himself.  He already enjoys a high reputation as a portrait and landscape painter, and I have every reason to believe that he will become equally celebrated in historic painting.

I passed nearly a year with Mr. Cooke in Italy, and I can bear witness to his ardent and assiduous application in his profession.  He passed, I think, four years in Europe and returns home full of zeal and enthusiasm for his art, and burning to distinguish himself by some great work.  His age cannot be far from thirty-five so that he is in his prime – a man of fine powers and long experience.  His style of painting is exceedingly finished and beautiful, and his coloring very excellent.

I believe our Representative is one of the Committee, to whom this subject is referred.  If you should have leisure to speak with him, I must beg of you to mention Mr. Cooke as a man who would not be likely to disappoint the expectations of the Committee.

Will you excuse me, Sir, if having thus far pleaded the cause of my friend, I take the liberty of asking a favor for myself?  From reasons which I need not mention, I have become desirous of leaving Brunswick.  My ardent desire is to obtain an appointment as Secretary of Legation in some foreign Embassy; but this I suppose is impossible at the present moment.  I have no friends in power under the present Administration, though I hope hereafter to procure such a situation.  En attendant a gentlemen from Virginia – a friend who is much interested in my success in life – informs me that in all probability I should be able to procure the professorship of “Mod Lang” in the University of V[irginia].  I have requested Mr. Cooke, who is acquainted with Mr. Rivers, Senator from Va. to write to him upon the subject, to see if there is a vacancy.  If you will ask Mr. Rivers (who is one of the Gov. of the University) what the state of the institution is, and what the salaries, or prerequisites of the professors are you will do me a great favor.

I hope, Sir, you will not think I have presumed too far in this letter.  I should not have written were the subject of much importance to me and I will request you, in conclusion, not to put yourself to any inconvenience in these matters, but let them wait you leisure.

I am, Sir, very respectfully,

Your Ob’d Ser’t,
Henry W. Longfellow

The letter can be found in the Peleg Sprague Collection.


The Dower of Olive Wadsworth

On a spring day in 1822 young Olive Wadsworth married her distant cousin, Ahira Wadsworth, in Bristol, RI.  Both the bride and groom hailed from Duxbury so it is a bit of a mystery as to why they chose to marry out of state but perhaps Ahira, a merchant, had reason to be in that port.  Olive was 20 years younger than her new husband and must have felt a bit daunted at the prospect of entering his house, already the home of his  children by his first wife, Deborah Sprague, who had died nine years earlier.

The house to which she entered was a lovely two story Colonial located on Washington Street.  It was large and elegant with eight rooms and intricately carved woodwork.  The house was used for both living quarters and as a store.  Life must have been fine for Olive until five years into her marriage when Ahira went bankrupt.  The Wadsworth’s property was seized and sold off.  The house was sold to Capt. Martin Waterman and much of the adjoining land bought by Benjamin Holmes.

When Ahria died in 1867 Olive sued both the Watermans and the Holmes for her dower rights – something she claimed she did not relinquish to creditors in 1827.   An agreement was drawn up between Rufus, son of Benjamin Holmes, and the widowed Olive regarding the land:

The following are the bounds of the Dower of Olive Wadsworth in all the real estate of Rufus Holmes of Duxbury, as agreed upon by the parties Sept. 17th 1867.

To wit.  Begin at the NW corner of Andrew Stetson’s garden in George Partridge’s line; thence, in said line, N 75 1/2 W about forty rods to the corner, then S 12 W, as the fence now runs, Eleven rods & five links to a post & stake, then S 75 1/2 E to a stake by the said Stetson’s garden fence, then by said fence N 12 E eleven rods & five links to the first bound.  And said Holmes is to have a right to enter upon said Dower land to remove, for his own use, all the growing crops, now thereon, and shall furnish a convenient way to said Dower land, to said Olive, if he objects to her passing over his rye now growing on the same.

Ten years later, in 1877, Olive sold off the rights to her small holding to Rufus Holmes for the sum of $25.

Martin Waterman’s widow’s agreement was much more severe.  According to former Duxbury Town Historian, Dorothy Wentworth, “Lydia Waterman, widow of Martin, had to share her home of 40 years with Olive Wadsworth, widow of Ahira.”  The house was literally split in two by an imaginary line running down the center of the house.  It is uncertain whether Olive ever took up residence – one hopes not!

Olive lived a long, and we hope somewhat happy life.  She and Ahira had six children: Harriet, Henry, Horace, Helen, Hamilton and Harrison.  She clearly liked the letter “H” (Ahira’s six children by his first wife have no such naming scheme).   Three of her children, unfortunately, died young.  In her widowed years she lived with her son, Hamilton, who was a shoemaker.  Her exact death date is uncertain, but she was still “keeping house” at the age of 83 in the 1880 US Census.

The above transcribed Dower description and the real estate deeds of the Holmes family were recently donated to the Drew Archival Library by Arthur Beane.

Thank Goodness for Henry A. Fish

Rough Draft of Fish Map , 1923

Henry A. Fish is not a name that comes immediately to mind when thinking about Duxbury history, but it should.  His unpublished “Notes” as well as his published booklet entitled Duxbury Massachusetts Ancient and Modern: A Sketch with Map and Key (1923) are quite possibly the most used items in the Drew Archives. 

He was born in 1853 in New Ipswich and married Alice Carson in 1880.  The couple settled in Duxbury, living in the Prior Farm house on Depot Street.  The house was in a perfect location for Henry, who worked for the nearby Old Colony Railroad.   For a time he supplemented his income by making brooms and brushes and sold farm equipment.  He also dabbled in photography.  During his later years, however, he became too ill to work.  While his wife, Alice, took in boarders to pay the bills,  Henry filled his days researching local history.  It is my understanding that Alice was completely unaware of what he was doing and was rather surprised to see the published pamphlets arrive at the back door. 

I refer almost everyone who comes to the Archives to the “Fish Notes” and “Fish Map.”  While there are certainly errors that have been pointed out by historians over the years, the overall work is quite impressive and very comprehensive.  He was lucky enough to live at time when many of the “cellar holes”  of the original Duxbury settlers were still visible.  His map carefully plots out where each cellar hole was located and to whom it belonged.  For those decendents and genealogists looking for where  exactly their ancestors lived, the map and key are invaluable. 

So, here’s to you Henry, and thanks!

The Cost of Edward and William Ellison

Carolyn Ravenscroft, Archivist

In 1820 young William (1811-1858) and Edward Ellison (1813-1866) of Boston tragically lost both of their parents and two of their siblings to “spotted fever” (possibly typhus).  Their older brother, James, while greatly concerned with their wellfare, was ill-equipped to care for the boys.  Luckily, William and Edward were part of a much larger family consisting of numerous aunts, uncles and grandparents.  One such aunt was Sarah Alden  (Hickling) Bradford, the wife of Capt. Gershom Bradford, living in Duxbury.  The Bradfords had four daughters but no sons.  An arrangment was made whereby the Ellison boys would be cared for by their aunt Sarah while their room and board would be paid for by their grandmother, Elizabeth Hodson Hickling, possibly out of the estate of their parents.  Their legal guardian, however, was a man by the name of Mr. James.

By all contemporary accounts both Sarah and Gershom Bradford were the best of folks and most likely cared for their young charges well, even “adopting” Edward.  Although, in a letter from elder brother James Ellison, we get the impression that William was a handful.

In the Bradford Family Collection we also have Sarah Bradford’s household account book that sheds some light on what it cost to raise and educate her two charges..

  • Excerpts from Sarah Alden Bradford’s Account Book:

Wiliam and Edward to S.B. Paid Dec. 26, 1820.

20 cents for mending shoes

8 cents for mending shoes

7 cents for mending shoes

25 cents for pulling a tooth

25 cents for too writing books

11.37 1/2 for suit of clothes each

25 cents for writing books

1 dollar for school book and quills

1 pair of shoes 1.58 cents

1 pair of shoes 1.50 cents…

1821 William and Edward went to Boston October 4 returned October 21.  Rec’d part pay for their board 63 dollars, dito 25 dollars…

  • Letter written in 1825 by James Ellison to his Aunt Sally [Sarah Alden Bradford] concerning William, then age 14:

Boston, March 26, 1825

Dear Aunt,

I received your letter on Thursday when I immediately went to Waltham to see Grandmother [Elizabeth Hodson Hickling], after having read your letter to her, she seamed very much pleased with the idea of William’s going into Mr. Weston’s store .  I have also had a long interview with Mr. James, he highly approves of it.  He is very anxious to have William go with Mr. Weston, provided he is such a man, as I, knowing him, took the liberty of representing him, to be – he is very anxious to know what the terms are.  You say they are good, in a note received from him this morning he says ” I have concluded to let Mr. Weston send his terms first & then propose ours if he does not grant enough – If we propose too much at first, he may go back.  Let him write to me.”  He seems to be desirous that William’s Interest should be promoted as far as possible.  And from that reason, he wishes Mr. Weston to forward him his terms, so that hereafter, if any thing should happen, he may produce them, to show that he has done his duty as a Guardian.  You will please act in conformity if it meets your views.  In my own opinion, there could nothing be done now for William than this, if he behaves himself and applies himself to his business, it will result finally greatly to his advantage. If he should want any thing & I can be of any service in making him a good man, do not hesitate to write me & fail not, Dear Aunt, in impressing upon him the importance of keeping his mind employed all the time – lay before him, that he is now about learning that which according to his attention to, will render him a good or miserable man.  In a store there are great temptations to a young beginner that better boys than he have been ruined merely by idleness & by listening to language of those, whom retail shops particularily collects, but it is useless for me to say much, for I know that out of respect to the memory of my dear Mother, you will impress him with the Importance of good behavior & industry, but being a Brother, it is totally impossible for me to be silent on a subject which so deeply interests him.  If he goes with Mr. Weston, which I hope he will, I shall take his proportion (if agreeable to all concerned) of the rent and deposit it in the Savings Bank, because it will be of great advantage to him at some future day, when he might be in great want of it…

James Ellison

William Ellison married Almeda Partridge of Duxbury in 1834.  The couple had  three children: Peleg Sprague, who would later change his name to William, (b. 1835) ; Elizabeth H. (b. 1838) and Laura B. (b. 1840).  His descendent was William “Bill” Ellison, one of the great benefactors of the town of Duxbury in the 20th century.

Edward Ellison moved to Bangor, ME and was involved in the tin trade.  He married the widow Lucy Mills Milikin in 1839.  The couple had four daughters: Mary, Sarah, Almeda and Helen.

Charlotte Bradford vs. Louisa May Alcott

Charlotte Bradford (1813-1890)

Carolyn Ravenscroft, Archivist

During the Civil War Charlotte Bradford of Duxbury traveled to the South to become a nurse.  She worked for a time aboard the Transport Ships (“Floating Hospitals”) organized by the United States Sanitary Commission and later worked in Washington, D.C. area hospitals under Dorothea Dix.  During her tenure as a nurse she kept a daily journal and wrote numerous letters home.

One of her most interesting letters is to the Editors of The Commonwealth (c. 1863), a Massachusetts newspaper.  In it she describes her feelings toward Louisa May Alcott’s recently published serial, “Hospital Sketches.”  Charlotte was none too pleased with Alcott’s description of life in a Union Hospital.

What is particularly interesting about this critique is the fact that Charlotte most probably knew Miss Alcott, or at least of her.  One of Charlotte’s cousins was the Transcendentalist, George Partridge Bradford, who was a great friend of Broson Alcott.  Her other cousin was Sarah Alden Bradford Ripley, the owner of the Old Manse in Concord and Alcott neighbor.  Perhaps Charlotte did not know that Tribulation Periwinkle, Louisa’s pseudonym in Hospital Sketches, was actually Alcott.

The copy of the letter in the Drew Archival Library is incomplete.  There is at least one page missing.  I have not verified if the letter was actually sent or whether the Editor’s chose to publish it.  Charlotte’s description her hospital work, soldiers and diet is a bit different from what we read in her diary.  Although she claims to have a good appetite in her letter, it was, in fact, not very good.  She was a vegetarian and dispised the Army rations she was forced to eat.  She also came up against surgeons on more than one occassion and was dismissed from the Armory Square Hospital for insubordination.  Her time in Washington was difficult and often times far from the rosy description she gives to the Editors. Despite her own tribulations, however, Charlotte obviously did not like anyone anyone speaking ill of the conditions publicly.

The following is Charlotte’s copy or rough draft of her letter to The Commonwealth.

Mr. Editor,

Your paper of the 19th was handed me today and it is so seldom that I see one from Mass. that I greeted it as a friend from home.  “Hospital Sketches” on the first page caught my eye, but I read it with no little pain and was tempted to give you a sum of my own experiences, it has been so different from the feeling expressed there.  I have been a nurse in hospitals in and near Washington for nearly a year and have heard much said about self denial and sacrifice, but I have had no sympathy with that at all.  My motives for coming and here were not, I am sorry to say, of the self denying sort.  I had no great idea of the good that I could do for I have no doubt there is many a woman at the North who would be glad of the privildge of coming who could do more and better than I can.  I came simply from the love of taking care of the sick and my interest in the war and so perhaps was better prepared to offer [?].  I must say that I cannot recall a year of my life that I have passed more pleasantly.  It is not, I think, that I have ben favored in the choice of hospitals for I have served in six different ones, including some of the worst as well as the best.  I have eaten off tin plates nothing but army rations and sometimes without a knife or fork but what of that?  I fared the same as the soldier and preferred that to partaking of the nicer victuals from the surgeon’s and stewards tables.  But I am blessed with a good appetite and it was rather and amusement and difficult to realize that I was sitting in the cellar of the Capital eating off an unwashed table or eating in this primitive style in its magnificent rooms above stairs.  Let no one criticize even that hospital too severely.  It was a temporary one in a building entirely unsuited to the purpose excepting in its fine and spacious rooms for the beds, but when it comes to perparing food for 1000 men best no one find fault untill he has been behind the scenes and seen what it invovles.  A hospital is a vast machine that requires a great many springs to be put in motion before it works evenly and smoothly.  In Armory Square Hospital which Miss seems to consider a model I have not a year since had the better part of many a meal from not going a the first sound of the bugle. I have eaten after the surgeons as well as before an found how essential it was to my comfort that they should be punctual at their meals.  A word in regard to the bread.  I know that the aeratated bread is used somewhat and that, when a day or two old is certainly much like sawdust but the army bread that we get in Washington is certainly excellent and superior to most homemade bread.  But what are such petty annoyances to one who has the priviledge of going into a ward in the morning and meeting the smile of welcome that greets her.  I have always heard it said that men did not know how to be sick, had no patience, but I was soon convinced of the fallacy of that doctrine.  I never saw such patience and fortitude as shown by our soldiers indeed the cheerfulness and even fine spirits of the soldier is almost proverbial.  I have in my mind’s eye a young man who had lost altogether the use of his lower limbs, could not even sit up in bed, but as he lay on his back or leaned on his elbow, his face was radiant with smiles.  I at first thought he must have heard some pleasant news.  I shall never see him again but if ever I am sick and inclined to be impatient I believe that face will be a lesson to me.  Then how pleasant to go round with the dressing tray and as one after another receives the refreshment of clean water and bandage to watch from day to day the gradual healing of the wound and listen to their kindly, pleasant talk for they are all your friends.  The sorrow is  that of the hundreds that I have watched and tended I shall probably never see ten again but I have met some curious instances showing that the smallest act of kindess is appreciated.  A young man came one day and spoke to me whom I did not recognize “you may perhaps remember” said he “I am the one whom you gave 2 soda crackers one day ’cause I could not eat my dinner.”  And let me say that though I do not doubt there is a great profanity in the Army yet in hospital I have rarely, except in delirium, heard a soldier utter an oath and in these few instances it was always followed by “I beg your pardon I did not know you were there” showing the respect of our people for women.  I must not forget the pleasant though sadder task of administering to the wants of the sick.  To bathe the aching head and moisten the fevered lips or even to speak a kind word are trifles but they are a solace to the weary, worn out soldier.  I have seen the tears glisten in more than on manly eye…

Charlotte Bradford’s diaries and letters are part of the Bradford Family Collection.  She lived her entire life, other than her three years in Washington, DC, in her family’s home on Tremont Street (The Gershom Bradord House).

WWI through a girl’s eyes.

In preparing for our upcoming WWI Letter Reading I took a closer look at a diary we have at the Drew Archives.  It is a small blue day book that once belonged to a Duxbury summer resident, Eleanor Stearns Young, in 1916 .  Fourteen year old Eleanor was a faithful diarist for the first quarter of the year, recording her skating and sledding adventures with her best friend, Phyllis Winch Twombly (Phy); her crush on Atherton (Atty); her “peach of  dress” and her desire for a “tin lizzy.”  But peppered throughout her tales of sunny winter days are hints of a sadder, darker world.  Her diary gives us a sense of what it was like to be a young adult during the tumultuous days of WWI.  Below are a few examples of her entries:

Wednesday, January 12, 1916

Going to Chin-Chin.  Good bye.  Went, had a simply corking time.  Montgomery & Stone were corking.  They had a clown band.  Simply great.  Grandma enjoyed it greatly.  Vera still presists in teasing me.  Father has a cold.  He gave me a ten dollar gold piece. I have got 152 dollars in the bank.  When I put this in I will have $172.  Gosh I am sure some rich kid.  Be able to buy a tin lizzy soon.  Mother is going to Mrs. T’s for a dinner next Wednesday.  Phy is coming over here.  My dress is getting on.

Thursday February 3, 1916

Damn those Germans.  The last raid in England they killed almost one hundred people.  Mostly women and children.  They are planning a new offensive to take Dunkirk and Calais.  They won’t get it though.  Phy to supper.  Got a little cold.  Went to bed early.  Gee, I could smash those Germans.

Monday, February. 21, 1916

10 below this morning.  Great fun riding lying down.  Awful cold. K. and G went too.  Just three of us.  Coasted all the afternoon.  Slept like a top.  The Germans on West Front capturing a few trenches.  Nothing new.

Friday, February. 25, 1916

Grandmother home from New York.  Brought me a red Chinese wrapper.  Great.  Went to school. Bad day.  Phy came to supper. Dressed in costume I am going to wear tomorrow night.  Germans are still giving it.  Kaiser is sending them on to slaughter like pigs.

Wednesday, March 1, 1916

Verdun attack calmed down a little.  Went to school.  Phy has bought of some of her spring clothes.  One of her hats looks awfully well on me.  Striped skirts are all in style.  Am going to have one suit.  Just wait til I get speeded up.

Friday, March 3, 1916

Germans on fresh drive for Verdun.  Oh well.  I guess we are very sure of a few things wave.  Katie came. I am having five white shirts made over from mother’s. Such is life.  I must be getting fat

Tuesday, June 6, 1916


I am fifteen years old.  Lord Kitchener dead. He was on his way to Russia. The ship was torpedoed in the North Sea.  I am afraid this is a very disheartening thing to happen.  I never felt this sort of thing but I do now.  It seems so awfully queer.  There seems to be a black shadow always behind one.  The President of China is dead also.  This is an awful world. 

Shopped all the morning.  I got thirty dollars from Gram and Gramp.”

Eleanor’s diary does not continue after a few entries in early June.  Perhaps she left her diary her Brookline home when she packed for her summer house on Harrison Street.   Perhaps it became lost or she simply lost interest.  Whatever the reason, we are glad she wrote her mind for at least a few short months in 1916.

To hear Eleanor’s words come alive or hear other WWI letters, join us in the Wright Building on May 20, 2010 at 7pm.  The even its free of charge and, as always, refreshments will be served.  See you there!

Four Generations of Duxbury Women

Four Generations of Duxbury Women

Four Generations of Duxbury Women, c. 1850

It is not often you come across a daguerrotype depicting four generations.  This one is especially fine considering the importance of the women photographed.

Starting on the right, we have Judith Winsor Hathaway (1778-1881).  The story goes that Judith was such a lovely young woman that the painter/doctor, Rufus Hathaway, fell in love with her at first sight.  Next to Judith is her daughter, Polly Hathaway McLauthlin (1796-1879).  Polly was married to Lewis McLauthlin, the groundskeeper of Ezra “King Caesar” Weston’s estate.  Next is Judith Winsor McLauthlin Smith (1821-1921). She was married to shipbuilder, Sylvanus Smith.  Judith was active in political and social causes throughout her life.  She was an abolitionist and a suffragette.  In 1920, at the age of 100, she was able to cast her first vote.  Finally, on the left we have Frances Smith (1849-1916).  Like her mother, Frances was a reformer and spent her life working in Boston as a social worker and for many charitable organizations.

The photograph is from the Smith McLauthlin Collection.