by Martha Sonntag Bradley
and Mary Brown Firmage Woodward
“This Silent Conversation”
Zina Baker Huntington’s Watertown Letters, 1820-35
“The road was not so long as I expected.”
—Zina Baker Huntington
[p.1] It was midwinter. Winds from the northwest off Lake Ontario brought snow flurries and heavy gray clouds that lay like a featherbed over the frontier village of Watertown, New York. Yet it was warm inside the house. Zina Baker Huntington sat at a table near the fire built by her husband, William, and his father, William Huntington, Sr. Her pen was poised above the date she had just written: 18 February 1806.
It was her first letter to her parents, almost 200 miles away in Plainfield, New Hampshire, since she had left home, weeks earlier, as a nineteen-year-old bride. Since the wedding, on 28 November 1805, she had missed her family and had thought about them many times, but not with the aching longing she now felt. She dipped the quill into the inkwell and continued: “Honored parents, It is with pleasure I sit down this evening to converse with you, tho we are at a great distance farther than we have ever yet been.”1 She was worried. Her mother, Dorcas Dimick Baker, was pregnant with her twelfth child and had already lost a two-year-old daughter, Diantha, almost twenty-one years earlier on 1 January 1785. [p.2] That same day in 1785 Dorcas gave birth to another daughter, aptly named Experience, who had lived only a few days. Zina was born a year and a half later on 2 May 1786 in Plainfield, with a twin sister, Lina.
Nineteen-year-old Zina was the first child to leave home. Dorcas and Oliver Baker, a physician, had their other eight children with them: twenty-four-year-old Heman, Zina’s twin Lina, and the six younger children: seventeen-year-old Oliver, fifteen-year-old Semantha, twelve- year-old Dimick, ten-year-old Dorcas, seven-year-old Lodema, and five-year-old Elizabeth. The new baby, Mary L., would be born safely on 23 April 1806, eight weeks after Zina wrote her letter.
Zina’s new home, Watertown, soon-to-be seat of Jefferson County, had been settled only four years earlier by groups of kin from New England and eastern New York. Drawn by the abundant available land, they left behind family and friends in small communities where farms had been divided so many times they could no longer support the next generation.2 Watertown’s new settlers had broadly similar goals: to recreate the type of communities they had left behind.
Thirty years later, Watertown would have over 2,000 residents; but at the time, it boasted fewer than twenty homes and commercial structures.3 When William and Zina arrived earlier that winter, the fields and rolling hills were covered with a blanket of snow. Everywhere they looked, dense forest land bordered cleared fields. Already, split-rail fences, set against wandering cattle, marked the boundaries along the fields. Pastures stretched back to the wooded hills or down to the tree-lined creek. Beyond the fences, narrow roads winnowed their way to log houses, barns, and an occasional stone house. In their kitchens, Watertown’s farm women stood before hearths where bread baked. On cool cellar shelves, cream rose from the morning’s milking and crocks of butter cooled from the previous day’s churning.
The newlyweds were staying with William’s parents, William Sr. and Presendia Lathrop Huntington. A soldier in the Revolutionary War, William père had been born in Tolland, Connecticut, in 1757. He and Presendia had moved to New Hampshire in 1784, then became some of Watertown’s original settlers in 1802.
One chronicler eulogized the efforts of this founding generation, capturing the entrepreneurial spirit in the air:
[p.3] It is a singular fact that the village of Watertown, in common with the whole county of Jefferson, while it vies in wealth and enterprise with the most favored portions of the State, owes very little if anything to imported capital. In most instances the wealth now existing has been acquired on the spot, by those who at an early period were thrown upon their own immediate exertions for support; and from the ashes of the timber that covered the land, and the first crops which the virgin soil yielded in kind profusion, they received the first impulse, which, seconded by industry, prudence and sagacity has not failed to bring its reward, with a strong conviction that the place would at a future time become an important village.4
The Gazetteer of Jefferson County portrayed Watertown in 1813 as a town of 200 dwellings, “eight school-houses, eight grist and saw-mills, one paper-mill, one wool-carding machine, five distilleries, two breweries, a printing office, and a weekly paper, and a large number of common mechanics.”5
William, Presendia, and their eight children settled on a piece of property in the eastern part of the town.6 Much later in 1821, William helped establish yet another town on the periphery of Watertown— Huntingtonville. He built a dam across Black River to Huntington Island and erected a large sawmill and shingle plant, a scythe factory, and a clover mill. Clearly, the Huntington family made a mark on the area.7 Between 1840 and 1850, William Huntington Sr.’s mills and factories were destroyed by a series of floods of the Black River. Eventually the dam gave way altogether and Huntingtonville as a manufacturing town ceased to exist.
Watertown’s economy always depended on its propitious location along the south bank of the Black River. Hills rose to the south and the east, and rolling farmland spread across the valley floor, fed by a series of streams. Mill Creek, Sandy Creek, and Black River itself provided abundant water power for local industries. The rich, dark loam was strewn with rocks, and dense forests of sugar maples, beech, basswood, and elms lined the fields and river banks.
Zina was in good spirits when they reached the Huntington home, encouraged by the sight of stone farmhouses and other signs of progress. “The road was not so long as I expected,” she wrote to her parents. “We had a very agreeable journey. We was on the road nine days, had agree-[p.4]able weather all the way. I caught a very bad cold on the road which lasted a short time. My new father was very kind or I suppose I should not have had prudence enough to preserve my health.”8 William Sr. accompanied William to Plainfield. His mother, Presendia, was nursing several of the Huntington children, who were sick with influenza, but she warmly welcomed Zina, introduced her to local society, took her to church, helped her set up house, and became her friend. Nevertheless, Zina yearned for her own mother and father and lamented the distance between them. “I want to hear from you,” she wrote, “I hope you will write at the first opportunity, … It is now late in the evening and my eyes are some sore yet. The next time I write perhaps I shall write more so I conclude wishing to know your health, hoping you enjoy it perfectly.” Her mention of her supposed “imprudence” where her own health was concerned was a subtle compliment to the reliance she had always placed on her father’s medical skills.
“As to my mind, I feel quite content and happy,” Zina cheerfully wrote. “I live verry agreeable My new mother I like verry well. They live in peace.”9 Presendia had just taken Zina to her first social event—a church meeting where she met neighbors and the people who would become her friends. “We had a verry agreeable time.” Then she added an ambiguous postscript, which she knew her parents would interpret at once: “P.S. I expect we shall live by ourselves next fall and I shall stand in great need of some help, and I want Daddy should come and see us in the fall and try to help us a little, &c.” Thus Zina announced her first pregnancy.
Rather pompously, William added a note of his own to their first letter. “My friends, I should wish to converse with you but time and distance will not admit. I suppose you wish to know something respecting our business [his and his father’s] which is not yet determined. I expect that we shall work together this summer and then I expect to work by myself.”
Presendia used the space at the end of Zina’s letter to pen Dorcas a note the same day, adding her own reassuring commentary on Zina’s new life:
To the remotest ends of the earth even in this wilderness we are sur-[p.5]rounded with the bounties of providence. … We have been brought together in health and harmony. Now my dear brother and sister you are surrounded with blessings but you have your crosses. You have yielded to unavoidable fate, given away a dear member of your family which is added to mine. … If you and we all live till next fall, we depend on seeing some of you here. Zina is in good health and appears to be perfectly contented.
As spring came to northwestern New York, Zina and William Huntington cleared their land—felling the trees and brush, burning out the roots, and hauling off all of the debris before plowing and planting. Their new marriage, with its questions of family and gender, was entangled with economics, class, and religion. Traditional expectations about gender dictated the borders of their male or female world. Zina and William slipped comfortably into roles carved out for them by generations before them; but in subtle ways, the frontier also placed new demands on them, facilitated variation, and created the impetus for change. In addition to its physical demands, it also made new demands for social change.
It is significant that Zina and William lived and worked alongside brothers and sisters, mother and father, in a kinship network—a complex of homes, fields, and resources defined by familial relationships. The roads between their homes and the footpaths they took to borrow tools or share stories were like threads binding them together. Kinship remained the basis for social organization. Sharing and strength extended from the family to the community. At the outset of the nineteenth century, the American middle class defined itself largely through domestic values and family practices exercised through the family economy. Their domestic-based system of production bound family members together through the common enterprise of subsistence agriculture. The “corporate” nature of the family economy provided specific roles for men and women crucial to the well-being of all.
In contrast to the deeply seated norms of the corporate family economy was the mentality of these emigrants from New England towns.10 During this period of rapid expansion of the western regions of the United States, men’s and women’s roles fluctuated. The process of uprooting and settling a new area stimulated innovation, resourcefulness, and reshaped expectations. This all played out on the frontier. In a new [p.6] community like Watertown, past and future merged. Anything seemed possible, and men and women reordered their resources.
The first sphere of Zina’s life was her family household. Her responsibilities as wife, mother, cook, and housekeeper were clear. In addition, she helped in the domestic production of goods for market—cloth, eggs, and woven hats. Her activities in religion, education, and town building drew her into the public arena. Her work exhibited a seasonality—patterns defined by the harvest, the weather, and the round of family activity. Her life fits neatly into three seasons: During an informal apprenticeship of nearly twenty years, she learned from her mother the mysteries of conception, gestation, birth, and childrearing, how to be a farm wife and mother, how to provide for her family’s physical needs, and how to feed, clothe, and nurse them in illness. For the next twenty-eight years, Zina helped William rear a family, build a farm business, and a community in Watertown. But she dedicated the final years of her life to her faith, living her last five years as a religious refugee, moving with the Mormons through Ohio and Missouri, and dying in Nauvoo, Illinois.
In Watertown the functions of family, church, and society flowed into one another, related in organization and purpose. Like other rural women of her time, Zina moved within the boundaries of both family and culture. But the family was key. Outside the family, dry goods stores, taverns, and public houses were the chief centers of socializing. Watertown’s churches performed an inclusive socializing function, bringing people together from different neighborhoods and across town borders. Churches stood at the moral center of the community. Still, the principal work of socializing Watertown’s children and youth for their adult roles was conducted at home. Conditions of the frontier undoubtedly reinforced this tradition. The household was the primary, almost solitary place of production in this preindustrial economy. These farmsteads were virtually self-sufficient, and the well-ordered farmhouse was a miniature model of the larger society. There, family members knew their roles, shared common assumptions and experiences, played a vital part in the successful manufacture of goods, and became citizens in the political and ecclesiastical community.
Despite some changes on the frontier, Zina’s and William’s worlds were largely defined by gender. Women’s work was private, domestic, [p.7] and oriented around the cycles of nature and the cycle of family life. To William were left traditional male responsibilities—building home and barn, providing a living for the family, and working their farm.
Familial fertility enhanced the family’s chance for economic stability and social status. The Huntington children would care for their parents as they grew older and for each other when they were unable to care for themselves. Zina’s ten children were her primary contribution to this process. She gave birth without anesthetic, breast-fed them all, cleaned them, fed them, and did her own work with one ear cocked for the sound of the baby in the cradle, one eye on the toddler at her feet. The naming of five of her babies after her father-in-law (William), her mother (Dorcas), her mother-in-law (Presendia), her brothers Oliver and Dimick and brother-in-law, John, and an aunt and sister (Diantha) reflected her commitment to carrying on not only the patrilineal but matrilineal names.
Service was her second contribution to the family economy. Zina’s days were a constant round of spinning, weaving, planting, and cooking, whether she was sick or well. Besides a household garden that had to be tended and harvested, Zina prepared the food she produced for storage—turning apples into cider, preserving meat in brine, rendering fat for tallow and lard, and producing candles and soap. Her productivity was measured by yards woven, flax spun, bushels of potatoes harvested. She cooked three meals a day, even in the blistering heat of August, over a cast-iron stove that consumed wood continually, and washed dishes and clothes in water that she had to carry into the house and heat over the same stove.
Like her mother, she prepared her children physically and socially to assume their responsibilities in the workplace. Indulging young children is a twentieth-century phenomenon. When Dorcas gave birth to Mary on 23 April 1806, Zina wrote: “I understand you have an addition to your family. I wish you much joy with her, and hope she will be a comfort in your old age.”11 It was a sentiment that captured the purpose and hopes of parenthood.
Zina’s children participated in vital household work from an early age on. There were fires to be made and fed, water to be hauled, and vegetable gardens to be grown. Flax had to be cultivated, harvested, hackled, [p.8] and woven into clothing. Sheep had to be tended and sheared; their wool carded, spun, and woven into cloth. Tallow was prepared for candles and soap. Some of these tasks—dipping candles, carrying wood and water, weeding the garden, sweeping, washing dishes, churning butter, milking cows, and splitting wood—were assigned to the children as soon as they were physically able. They were praised for their endurance and competence, the same traits valued in adults.
Zina marked the passage of time by the development of her family. The births and deaths of her children became mental landmarks for dating other events. Few women could afford two wardrobes—one for pregnancy, one for other times. With each pregnancy, Zina had to adapt her clothing. The simple gowns and petticoats of a farm woman typically had fourteen yards of fabric in the skirt alone, and “letting out” seams and tucks easily accommodated changes in body size. She also had to sew for her children. A new baby needed gowns, diapers, bonnets, swaddlings, and blankets.
In addition to the fatigue of the pregnancy itself and the extra work, Zina suffered from migraine headaches during each pregnancy. Other women might simply have appeared florid or perspiring, or experienced headaches from elevated blood pressure. But Zina’s case was more severe. Bloodletting was a popular therapy for many symptoms accompanying pregnancy, and doctors frequently applied it to births that seemed at all unusual. Her doctor placed her in a chair, then positioned a leech on a vein of her arm. He would remove the leech or leeches when she fainted. Zina claimed relief from the headaches, but probably the bedrest that accompanied this treatment also helped her feel better. In some extreme cases, doctors bled women to unconsciousness to ease labor pains. Doctors also bled women to alleviate headaches, cramps, convulsions, localized aches and pains, and fevers.12
Although Zina believed she received excellent care from the local doctor and her mother-in-law, she missed her father-doctor and mother, and keenly felt the miles that stretched between them. Although Dorcas was forty-six years old, she and Zina moved for a time through the same rhythm of life, sharing the travails of child birthing. “We received your letter in a verry short time after you wrote it and was verry glad to hear from you it being the first time since I left your house,” Zina wrote in [p.9] August when she was entering the last weeks of her pregnancy. “It appears as tho I was not but a little ways from home.”13
Zina made time to write—not because she had the free time, but because her soul needed to. Into her letters, she poured her heart—her housewifely cares, her adult responsibilities, and her growing ability to cope with those responsibilities.
We have got through with our flax and have begun to pick our wool and shall have it carded, as to my spinning it I do not know what I shall do. If it agrees with me pretty well I intend to spin as much as I can. There is about thirty pounds of all. All I have wove this summer is about one hundred and twenty six yards, twenty seven yards I had for weaving and spinning and twenty one and half out of it I bought flax and made myself so that almost fifty yards out of it I have had myself. … The rest I have now I have about twenty one that is not made up. Three sheets I mean to make if I can but I will tell you just how it is about getting things to keep house with. I am here and I have nothing in this world to get any thing with. This little cloth I have it seems as tho I cannot spare but which way to turn I do not know.14
In upstate New York, women traditionally pulled flax in the fields themselves, taking off the seed, and spreading the flax in the field or on the banks of a pond to rot so that the fiber could be separated from the stalks. Men helped dry the flax over an open fire to “scutch” it. The broken stems were then separated from the fiber—a laborious process that frequently was delayed until winter. During those long winter months, Zina prepared the flax for weaving, spun it, and carded it to weave. If she chose, she would then dye the cloth with red maple or sassafras bark, and sew the clothes her family needed. The manufacture of raiment was an incredibly time-consuming process. Because they had so little clothing, old shirts, pants, and socks had to be patched and darned continually. Sewing and mending were considered “light” labor because they could be done sitting down. Typically, Zina saved mending for evening hours after supper when, sitting around the fire, she taught her children to read the Bible, sing favored hymns, and play musical instruments. William played the bass violin, Zina Diantha the cello, William D. the cornet, and Dimick the drum.
[p.10] Although appreciative of Presendia’s help, Zina also begged her own mother for some assistance before the baby’s birth: “I wish you could see our circumstances at this time. I believe if you knew the great necessity I am under you would contrive some way or other to help me. How do you think I can get my chears [chairs] and pot and plates and all my crockery and a great many things that I cannot do with out? If ever I need help I do soon.”15 She craved sweets and asked her mother to dry apples for her; she also longingly mentioned cheese. But overall in William’s estimation during this period, his young wife was “perfectly contented with her situation.”16
When her parents were able to send her a package by William’s brother Dyer, who came to Watertown from New Hampshire in August 1808, Zina enumerated the contents with unmistakable delight: “One pair of cards [for carding wool] handkerchief, sheet linen, three pieces of a woolen sheet, 2 petticoats, some calico, a great mess of dried apples, a little slip and a little bag full of a good mess of yarn, 2 dollars, a blanket. I thought I was rich! I can never be too thankful.”17 Although it is likely there were other gifts in the twenty-two months after the twins were born, these are the first she mentions in her letters.
While Zina labored to equip the house, William worked to build it. He obtained lumber, “got his nails and half a box of glass and his door trimming and about all his materials nearly on the spot. His brick is about ready to burn, he and his daddy has made a kiln together and they lay out to put fire to it tuesday.”18 He scheduled carpenters two weeks in advance to commence building.
William provided a more detailed description of his efforts at business in a letter to his brother-in-law, Heman Baker, which also gives a colorful description of Watertown:
Watertown has become a County town, is both Centural [sic] Noted, is a place of Great business. We have great privileges here more than we left, all but the Cyder [cider]—there is amply growing in town this Season—No doubt but we shall have fine Country for fruit—You would wish to know Something of my Business—as respects my farm I told you of having an hundred acres lying by the City as we call it—I have concluded not to have it But have an hundred acres lying joining Daddy with about ten acres of improvements. I have it by paying three hundred Dol-[p.11]lars—it makes a convenient farm verry good land and well watered—have pine timber sufficient for building in half mile of a mill—After I got home I worked for DaDa till Snow was gone—then went to work by my self—Chopt and Cleared three acres for planting—with the ashes I made Better than a Barrell of potash which sold for most thirty Dollars—have planted my corn, Potatoes and other Sauce Sufficient for our family. In my Chopping I fell a pine tree which made Six thousand Shingles Sold them for two Dollars per thousand—with part of the money I Bought four nice Sheep, have of the remainder of the tree made shingles for my house. The Shingles I made chiefly in foul weather after planting. I went to work with DaDa at Brick and have made 30 thousand—and am now about to Set them on fire. I am calculating to Build a house 20 by 24 as Zina told you. I have got materials together for my house.19
William contracted with the carpenter to frame his house for $20, while brother Dyer would do the finishing work. As planned, the house would have clapboard siding, glazed chimneys, wood floors, and partitioned-off rooms all paid for with money William earned by producing brick and potash. Until the structure was completed, he planned to divide his time between producing brick and potash for sale and working on the house. During the settlement period when the forests were particularly dense, the manufacture of potash was one of few products that could produce a profit.
In the meantime, William built up his livestock as well. At the time of his letter to Heman, they owned “one pair of two year Stears [sic], one Cow and Calf and four Sheep. I find,” he wrote, “I have that Disposition which is frequent among mankind that is to get wriches [sic] which if not carefully attended to will take wing and fly away.” He encouraged Heman to remember that they were at a critical junction in their lives. “We have entered uppon the stage of manhood. Let us endeavor to be prudent Honest and industrious men.”20 If William sounds a little self-congratulatory, it may be excused. At age twenty-two, he had become a successful adult: he had married and impregnated a wife, was providing her with a comfortable house, had turned his labor into hard cash, and was accumulating both real and personal property at a satisfactory rate. The production of a child also fit this pattern of what adults were expected to do.
[p.12] Like Zina, William felt the weight of the unrelenting cycle of work with the added burden of responsibility and decision-making. Their fortunes rose and fell with the local economy, as they struggled to survive and make a surplus. William wrote an accounting of his progress in a letter to his father-in-law on 4 March 1807: “We live, move and have being while thousands of our fellow creatures are Daily Paying the Debt of nature to which we are all subject to sooner or later.”21
Like Zina’s letters, William’s are filled with local tidbits of horror and violence: one man froze to death on the plains in Northumberland two miles north; in Utica another became intoxicated and was found frozen; yet another was found dead in the road at Deer River. He told of the trial of Steven Arnold, a child murderer, likely to be hanged in Watertown. William also bemoaned his increasing indebtedness although his business for potash was steady.
Henry and myself are now thrashing wheat for father for every tenth bushel I get my wheat for bread. I make more than a bushel a day—I get my flour by getting [one] for every fourth pound. I am undetermined what business to follow next Season father wishes for me in the brick business but money is scarce brick will not demand money. I can if favoured with health Clear ten Acres of land that when Cleared Boarding and finding my Self is worth one hundred and fifty. Ten acres is allowed to make one ton of potash which is now going at one hundred and 40 Dollars.22
Two months after this letter on 20 October 1806, Zina delivered twins: a son and a daughter. Five months later, William reported to his father-in-law, “A general time of health has continued so since your visit here.”23 So Zina had probably had her wish: her father’s professional and personal ministrations during childbirth. Dorcas, still nursing baby Mary and managing a large household, did not come. In fact, as late as 13 March 1820, Zina wistfully wrote Dorcas, “O, my dear mother, how we long to see you all. Must it be so that you will never see our habitation?” Zina made at least three trips to her parents, but apparently Dorcas never saw her daughter’s new home. Still, the two maintained an intimate relationship through the mail, their “silent conversation,” as Zina labeled it.
Zina had not planned for twins, and her Christmas letter to her parents reported the health of the babies, her own, and her general satisfac-[p.13]tion with coping so well. “Through the goodness of God it is that I am now restored about to my health in general,” she wrote. “I have had a pretty severe time.” William had paid a nurse the large sum of four dollars for five weeks. “My two little babes had verry sore mouths but have got over it now and both appear to be pretty well. The boy has got teeth a cutting which makes him a little more troublesome. The girl is pretty quiet. William is verry well and he rocks the babes while I write. The folks at the other house is all well.”24 In addition to her other duties, it was Zina’s and William’s turn to board the schoolmaster and his sister for the next two months; William’s brother Dyer also lived with them. Zina summarized hastily, “I can do nothing but my chores and take care of my babes. I cannot write a great deal.”25
As a compliment to Dyer, perhaps in a faint echo of the custom of godparents, William and Zina allowed him to name the twins. The names he chose were Chancy Dyer and Nancy Dorcas, and he returned the compliment handsomely by giving each newborn a sheep.26
In March 1807, when the twins were not yet five months old and suffering from whooping cough, Zina found time to write another hasty letter of news and thanks.27 Her own health was good, although she phrased it as a quasi-complaint: “I have got so fleshy that I can’t wear my black gown nor any of the rest hardly.” Her sister Elizabeth had sent Zina one dollar to spend on the babies. “I am going to buy my little babes each a frock with her dollar. I want to see her verry much. Tell her my little babes will play and laugh some and I wish she could see them. She would be verry well pleased. The boy is the fattest. Tell Dorcas and Dema they must send the little babes a little string of beads and send them by Henry.”
Although she wanted to see her mother, she could not bear the thought of leaving her children behind. “Nancy can stand alone against anything … She is the strongest child I ever saw for her age. I have had milk aplenty for them yet. The boy has gained of the girl. He is fat as butter and she is a very lively thing. This is wrote very poor indeed for sometimes I have one in my lap and sometimes two and sometimes a poor pen.”28
Zina had fretted over demands for her precious linen the previous fall because she felt she needed the cloth for her baby; now, with twins doubling the demand, she ingeniously made clothes from her own dresses. [p.14] “Their frocks are made of my old red gown which they wear this winter … When my babes was born I had one white frock made of my white cambrick shawl and a little shirt made out of it and one frock out of cheap sort of calico, one yellow and tan petticoat and a white one made out of an old charded toe blanket all full of holes.” A large pocket handkerchief typical of the times provided the fabric for two shirts, one swathe, and two bellybands. From an old sheet, Zina made “18 clouts” [diapers]. The rest of the layette she “peaced up out of anything I could get. I had nothing else but made out comfortable.” Displaying her resourcefulness, she trimmed two little caps with edging from a treasured handkerchief. She had also “made Wm one frock, two pair trousers, three shirts and myself two and three sheets. … I just cut out four shirts for my babes.” With a certain amount of pride, Zina summarized: “I think I do pretty well to do all my work and board Dyer.”
She also, in her new status as a fully adult woman and the mother of a family, counseled eighteen-year-old Semantha: “I suppose you are a great big girl now and what company do you keep? You know I always wanted you should keep the best of company or none. I want to see you verry much and talk with you.” In fact, if one theme dominates Zina’s letters, replete as they are with household matters, reports of her industry, her babies, and her boarders, it is her yearning for her parents and siblings.
Knowing that Zina’s twin, Lina, was seriously ill and might possibly die, Zina drew on her faith for solace: “My heart feels as tho it would burst out of my bosom, but may we not forget God. Remember that tho we are at such a distance we can call on the same God, and I hope we have all together.” Zina worried that her parents were lacking in faith and anxiously exhorted them: “I beg of you … to be reconciled to put your trust in God and go to him for support.” Lest it sound like a lecture, she humbly described herself as “growing stupid [about] this sometime,” implying she was perhaps even less in tune with the spirit. The winter before she had worried about her lack of baptism, suffering doubt because of an extended illness and confessing a need for religious guidance. “I believe in some measure,” she said, even though the local church “has no preacher. We have no preaching. Only once in a while a minister comes along, but [the] Methodists are plenty.”29
Though buried in the concerns of her new household and young [p.15] family, Zina’s heart speaks between the lines. “Oh how I want to see you all. I would not have you think that I am homesick for I am not. I am entirely contented I would not come back to live for any thing but I should be verry glad to see you.”30
Less than two weeks later, sorrow entered Zina’s home. Nancy, a strong, lively child, took sick and died suddenly on 16 March 1807, not quite five months old, from complications due to the whooping cough. “Alas she is now no more,” Zina wrote sadly a month later.31 “My little Desirable babe is taken from my breast and she now sleeps in death. She has gone to him who gave her.” Providing a context for her grief, Zina added other incidents of violence and misery: the accidental shooting of a little girl, an accident that took off a man’s leg, marital arguments, and a woman’s murder of her four children followed by her own suicide. Again she expressed a longing for her family, even though she insisted that she was content. Still, she qualified her relationship with her in-laws by saying, “I do not call [William’s parents] Father and Mother yet and do not know when I shall. I do call them so sometimes to other folks.” Her mother-in-law had chided her for over-reacting to Nancy’s illness and for other ways Zina had dealt with her children.
The harsh realities of birth and death brought swift maturity to twenty-one-year-old Zina. After a summer of bitter grieving, she became pregnant in September. Dimick was born 26 May 1808, but Zina’s sister Lina died in August 1808, and William’s mother, Presendia Lathrop Huntington, had a bad fall, lingered in pain for some time, and died on 20 March 1810. Nine months later, in December 1810, William’s father married Presendia’s sister, Elvira Lathrop Dresser, widow of Amasa Dresser. Zina gave birth to another daughter on 7 September whom they named Presendia Lathrop for her grandmother. On 29 September 1813, William Sr. and Elvira had a daughter, so William Jr. had a baby sister younger than some of his own children.
Increasingly, Zina sought consolation in her faith, in worshipping the same God as her mother and sister. In early August 1808, two and a half months after Dimick’s birth, she poured out her anxiety about her dying sister:
Once more I am permitted to write to you and inform you that I am on [p.16] the land with the living and blest with health and prosperity while Lina is now drawing [her last] breath as it were and I fear it is drawn. oh the feelings of my poor sister I can never know them only by experience, but oh the soul how is that? Pray for her soul. Oh my prayer is that the Lord Jesus would be better to her than parents, husband or children. … Oh my heart akes for her but more for her soul, … My heart feels as tho it would burst out of my bosom, but may we not forget God. This is the work of his hands, but remember that tho we are at such a distance we can call on the same God and I hope we have, all together.32
Her anguish was so real that it must have been only with wrenching effort that she encouraged her family to “give her [Lina] up willingly and cheerfully into the hands of him who gave her.”
She forces herself to a more cheerful tone in the rest of the letter: “I have got to be about as large as my mother. You will be surprised when you see me. I will measure round the lower part of my body and round my arm [with a string] and put it in this letter so that you may not be scared when you see me.”33
The death of her father in August 1811 again sent her in sorrow to her religious beliefs: “Oh my beloved Mother, his name draws tears from my eyes,” sadly she wrote. “One of our number drops away after another and I am yet spared and placed alone from you all. First to hear the death of a sister and next of a father. O, that I could behold your faces. Yet I am spared to speak to you once more in this silent way.”34 Intensely, the good daughter warns her family to live righteously in preparation for their impending deaths. “You all behold the messenger which seems to hover round your windows. O my dear friends, I hope you will no longer delay to attend to these things if you have not.”
Compounding her depression were other reminders of life’s precariousness. Many were sick in Watertown; numerous children had died. One woman had lost three children and her husband. “She was helpless and had to be carried from the grave in a chair … how distressing.” Numbed by grief, she reproached herself: “It is a dull time as to religion. I am dull myself. I am surprised at myself.”
Almost two years later, as summer approached, Zina struggled against a heightened desire to see her surviving family members in New Hampshire, hoping she could comfort her still-grieving mother: “I feel [p.17] sometimes to wish myself there. It seems as tho I could reconcile you, but alas, it must be the convincing power of the almighty. My feelings are such as my pen cannot describe, neither could my tongue. Sometimes I think I have that comfort that the world cannot give nor take away but I do not know but I am deceived. I think my greatest concern is that I may live more to the glory of God.”35 More and more, the language of the spirit colored her writing and expressed her search for comfort and peace of mind.
Exacerbating Zina’s mourning were financial stresses in the marriage. In an 1811 letter to his parents-in-law, William complained that “money is more scarce than it ever was known to be.”36 Later that year, he had to sell the farm he had purchased so proudly only a year before. He remembered: “[I] was prospered in the things of this world untill 1811 sold my farm had possession of it for one year.”37 William was one of hundreds who suffered from an agricultural depression that lasted from 1808 to 1812.
Almost immediately, though, William and Zina purchased a house at Burr’s Mill two miles from William’s parents. According to Zina, they had a “verry nice barn and a verry good log house … which If I live I expect to see how it will feel to live in a Log house of our own.”38 In apparent contradiction to her own discouragement, Zina encouraged her widowed mother to “feel reconciled and … exercise great fortitude and calmness in what ever you are called to meet with in this world of affliction.”39
Between the year of her mother-in-law’s death in 1810 and 1818, Zina bore four more children. Zina’s fifth child, an unnamed son, was born in February 1813 but lived only a month. Zina described this child’s passing in a letter to her mother four months later: She contracted measles a week after the birth, and the baby was also taken very ill: “My babe was taken out into the other room and took a verry bad cold and brot on a sore mouth and was very sick, had fits two or three days and Expired the day before it was three weeks old. The next day … it was buried. I was not able to set up much.” Confined to her bed with grief and weak with sickness, Zina did not leave her room for four weeks. “I could get no strength a distress at the stomach, an uncommon lameness in my legs which then grew worse and sent for a doctor he come and doctored me first for the [p.18] spleen after finding I was not so much troubled with that he tried for worms and finding that wasn’t the case he was at a stand.”40
On 3 August 1815, Zina’s third daughter, Adaline Elizabeth, was born. She would live to age eleven. Three years later on 28 February 1818, Zina gave birth to her seventh child, William Dresser Huntington III. Zina particularly longed for the companionship of her mother and sisters as she gave birth to her children, and her letters lament their absence during these crucial female life-cycle experiences.
Against these quiet domestic landmarks, a national conflict set a quickened pace. On 3 June 1812, James Madison, fourth president of the United States, issued a message to the Congress calling upon “the free-born sons of America” to follow “the Lord of Hosts” and do battle against the British “in a righteous cause.”41 The vote in the House of Representatives the next day was 79 to 49 in favor of war. As soon as the declaration of war became official two weeks later, express riders set out for all seaports and the western frontier to seek recruits and make the public aware of the confrontation.
The fundamental cause of the war went back fully thirty years to the war for independence from Great Britain, which left England humiliated, its military power diminished, and its political leaders forced to recognize its rebellious colonies as a sovereign nation. In important ways, the War of 1812 tested the limits of that new relationship; and upstate New York, originally the frontier that separated the United States and Canada, played a key role.
American settlers like Zina and William had steadily advanced into lands northwest of the Ohio River and into upstate New York along Lake Ontario. British policy among the Indians of these regions during the first decade of the nineteenth century anticipated an American invasion into Canada in reaction to England’s maritime policy.
Economically, the settlers of the western frontier, along with Americans from other regions, had felt this pressure on the part of the British and were incensed at the stifling of American trade and the open infringements of American rights at sea. While it is true that western Americans were not engaged in the same way with overseas exports as their eastern counterparts, they needed purchasing power for their land, for manufactured goods, and for products they imported for their homes and suste-[p.19]nance. William’s failures during the five years preceding the war typified the economic disruption felt throughout the western region. These issues heightened because of the agricultural depression that had already impacted the Huntingtons’ fortunes and forced the sale of their first farm. Prices in the West had peaked in 1805 but, by the beginning of the war, had dropped severely. Westerners, therefore, gave enthusiastic support to policies of economic coercion and finally war to compel the British to repeal restrictions on American commerce. William, although as staunch a patriot as any, saw the conflict primarily in terms of its economic impact on him. In his undated autobiography, he summarized his feelings in a sentence: “War was declared in 1812 which was unfavorable for me sickness and de[a]th come in to my family, one scene of Misfortune after Another rolls Uppon me untill I was reduced Lo as to property.”42
In addition to economic issues, relations with Native Americans, land acquisitions, and control over naval power were also critical issues for the Huntingtons and their neighbors. “The success of the ensuing Campaign,” added the Secretary of the Navy, “will depend absolutely upon our superiority on all the Lakes—& every effort, & resource, must be directed to that object.”43 The nation already had a naval base at Sackett’s Harbor, New York, on Lake Ontario, thirteen miles east of Watertown. There was little action on Lake Ontario in the early months of the war; but soon troops moved through the area, disrupting community life; and by the end of 1812, the United States had enough ships to challenge the British for control. Thereafter, the balance of power teetered between the two nations, depending on the progress of their ship building programs and the deployment of their ships. Furthermore, all reinforcements for the Great Lakes were routed through Sackett’s Harbor. American vessels were concentrated there as the nucleus of the American lake-fleet. In October 1813 the Secretary of War moved to Sackett’s Harbor where he directed the war for the next two months.
Living in such proximity to an important center of the conflict, the Huntingtons kept abreast of the war’s developments. Hostilities so close to home directly threatened their family’s security, and the British attacked Sackett’s Harbor at dawn on 29 May 1813. British Commodore Yeo’s fleet landed 750 troops under the command of Colonel Edward [p.20] Baynes. Defending the harbor were 400 regulars and 500 militia under the direction of General Jacob Brown of the New York militia.
The American militia, though covered by their defensive works and the surrounding forest, were too rattled to hold fast and soon fled; but the regulars applied a steady stream of fire that forced the British to withdraw. “I do not exaggerate,” said one British soldier, “when I tell you that shot, both grape and musket, flew like hail.”44 The British suffered 260 killed, wounded, and missing; American casualties were about 100. Although the British attack was considered a failure, a young American naval officer imprudently burned a large quantity of American supplies when several excited men told him that defeat was imminent. General Brown was furious, calling this “as infamous a transaction as ever occurred among military men.”45
Some of William’s and Zina’s neighbors were among the militia, although apparently William delayed his arrival until most of the fighting had passed. Jefferson County’s first uniformed militia was the Watertown Rifles, formed in 1813 of men from the eastern part of the county. Most of Watertown’s men from youth to middle age joined. William Huntington served for a few weeks in the Rifles’s fife and drum corps, which joined other militia defending the town.
“At Sackett’s harbor it has been verry sickly among the soldiers and is yet,” Zina wrote her mother in June 1813, a year and three weeks after the battle.
There has been several Deaths there this week past. You live where you do not see the effects of war. We have had some alarms this past week. One day in particular the streets were filled with men and women, no one felt easy at home. The women would stand in the door with their husbands, some crying, some holding their husbands all in tears. The vessels were in sight on the hill about one mile from here where I went to see. As for my part, I was somewhat composed altho I knew that I was likely to be killed as anyone but still I was not distressed. My opposition to the proclamation of war has distressed me sometimes. I have never informed myself with politics any great until this disgraceful and abominable war has commenced, and thus you see my feelings, so amen to this.46
The war disrupted the strict routine of Zina’s life—her work, caring for [p.21] her many children, weaving, and preparing food had to continue despite the stress. To Zina, William’s absence and anxiety over their safety tried her already strained sense of calm.
Zina serenely continued:
Respecting war it does not trouble me any I do not feel any afraid of Indians or of being disturbed not at all I expect you have heard of a battle in June or July which was distressing indeed. I could stand and hear small arms and cannon hear every round distinct a continual roar but my being unwell and Dimmick being sick I persuaded Wm not to go until we had heard the battle awhile.47
Dimick’s illness was not a passing case of the sniffles. One day as Zina turned from a trough of lye she was preparing for soap, probably during the summer of 1812, Dimick, just four, climbed in and almost drowned. Lye is a sharp caustic and can inflict fatal burns, but Zina does not report the extent of his injuries. She is more concerned with his next ailment. He and Presendia both contracted measles around Christmas 1812. Dimick’s case “settled” in his eyes and caused blindness for the next six months. Zina kept him in a dark room and spent hours rocking him on her lap. He was barely recovering when she wrote, picking up on 3 September her letter begun in June: “Yesterday was cloudy, and I have had two windows in the kitchen uncovered [for] the first day for six months and I now feel some hopes of him. I would mention that his pain in his eyes has been such that he would dance and scream spat his hands and spat his head and seem like one distracted.”
Writing to her mother on 5 March 1817, Zina announced plans to start construction on a new home. She wrote, “We are expecting to build a nice stone house early this spring and we are quite well prepared. We have our stone all on the spot but a very load. We have lumber enough to finish all off and it is all paid for so far and we have a good yoke of oxen to turn any time. We are in comfortable circumstances as yet.”
During the summer of 1820, fourteen-year-old Chancy, twelve-year-old Dimick, and their father cleared the site for a new family house —a spacious 1.5-story stone house.48 The house was typical of New England homes, with a hall running straight through from the front door to the back. On one side was a large kitchen-dining room, and on the other [p.22] a parlor in front and a parlor-bedroom in back. A large weaving room was built behind the kitchen, segregating the women’s workrooms to one side of the house. The bedrooms were upstairs.
Across the yard was a large barn for cows, horses, and oxen; a path lined with peonies led to a creek bed that ran down the hill by the side of the house. A dairy house was built over a stream diverted from the creek. Milk, butter, and cheese reserved for the family’s use were stored and cooled here. Like homes left behind in New England, the Huntington residence had an English flower garden in front. Beside it was an apple and cherry orchard. Sugar maples, which they tapped in the spring for syrup, contributed to the family’s self-sufficiency.49
In this home, Zina gave birth to her last three children. Her fourth daughter, namesake Zina Diantha Huntington, was born on 31 January 1821. “Diantha” was a family name. Before her mother’s birth, a two- year older sister named Diantha had died.50 Zina Diantha would later remember a “pleasant childhood, but how time and experience changes us from having our hearts set uppon the things of this world to that of a better.”51 On 14 October 1823, thirty-six-year-old Zina Baker delivered her fifth son and ninth child, Oliver Boardman. On 11 February 1827, Zina and William had their last child, John Dickenson. Adaline had died the year before, so their household numbered seven children ranging in age from twenty-year-old Chancy to this newborn son.
The census taken in Watertown in 1830 painted a picture of the town’s growth and demographic configuration. The town was virtually equally balanced between women (948) and men (1,098) and had 500 more inhabitants than two years earlier, an increase of nearly 25 percent.
The town’s 321 buildings included 224 dwellings, three stone churches (Methodist, Universalist, and Presbyterian), public buildings (a courthouse, jail, and county clerk’s office which handled legal transactions); and a number of commercial establishments (an arsenal, a cotton factory, a woolen factory, three paper mills, three large tanneries, three flouring mills, one furnace, two machine shops, two fulling-mills, three carding machines, two distilleries, an ashery, two pail factories, one sash factory, two chair factories, a hat factory, four wagon shops, two paint shops, four cabinet shops, eight blacksmith shops, four tailor shops, seven shoe shops, three saddle and harness shops, eight taverns, fifteen dry goods [p.23] stores, two hardware stores, two hat stores, two book stores, two leather stores, one paint store, two drug stores, and two jewelry stores), two weekly papers, seven public schools, six physicians, and ten lawyers.52
Ironically, it was rapid growth and the transitory nature of life on the frontier that created anxiety in men and women like William and Zina Huntington. Their urgent need for stability and a good life made them emotionally receptive to the impact of the religious revivals of the second and third decades of the nineteenth century. Societal and economic fluctuations and instability made upstate New York a likely place for sweeping and widespread social restructuring. Death, war, and economic shifts, by reminding them of their vulnerability, rendered men and women open to change and motivated them to seize new opportunities. A unique combination of social, religious, and economic forces created a new way of being that brought the traditional, patriarchal household structure, the corporate family economy, and community religious life into confrontation with the aggressive, acquisitive economic life of Jacksonian America. More importantly, it brought traditional structures to a confrontation with religious revivals.
Humbled by the loss of parents and children, frequent illnesses, and seemingly uncontrollable cycles of financial decline and success, the Huntingtons began the second decade of the nineteenth century refined by the process of life. They were receptive to religion’s succor. Here old and new ways combined, and a diversified religious climate offered an endless variety of new sects, each claiming jurisdiction over the only true path to God.
1. This is the first of a series of letters spanning almost thirty years (1806-35) written by Zina Baker Huntington and her husband, William Huntington, to Zina’s parents, Dorcas Dimick Baker and Oliver Baker, in Plainsfield, New Hampshire, now part of the Zina D. H. Young Collection.
2. The classic statements on the demographic dimensions of the settlement process are Kenneth A. Lockridge, “Land, Population, and the Evolution of New England Society, 1630-1790,” Past and Present 39 (1968): 62-80; and James A. Henretta, “The Morphology of New England Society in the Colonial Period,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 2 (1971): 379-98. This model has been criticized for its neglect of migration by Darrett B. Rutman, “People in Process: [p.24] The New Hampshire Towns of the Eighteenth Century,” Journal of Urban History 1 (1975): 268-92. Daniel Scott Smith, “A Malthusian-Frontier Interpretation of United States Demographic History before c. 1815,” in Urbanization in the Americas: The Background in Comparative Perspective, ed. Woodrow Borah, Jourge Hardoy, and Gilbert A. Stettlere (Ottawa: National Museum of Man, 1980), 15-23, integrates “land/population pressure” with migration.
3. An 1804 map by Dyer Huntington, William Jr.’s brother, showed eleven houses, a schoolhouse, three barns, a saw-mill, a distillery, and a framed-in store. Reproduced in Gazetteer of Jefferson County, N.Y. (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse Journal Company, Printers and Binders, 1890), 729.
5. The Gazetteer of Jefferson County, 703. The same periodical described Watertown in 1824: “Watertown is a very prosperous and opulent township, having good roads and all the conveniences of social life. Population, in 1821, 2,766, of which number 604 are employed in agriculture and 314 in manufactures; taxable property, $270,428; acres of improved land, 13,012; 354 cattle, 758 horses, 5,880 sheep; 27,901 yards of cloth were made in families. There are four saw-mills, 10 grist-mills, three fueling-mills, four carding machines, two cotton and woolen factories, two paper-mills, one furnace, one iron works, three trip-hammers, four distilleries, and three asheries” (ibid).
10. See Nancy Grey Osterud, Bonds of Community: The Lives of Farm Women in Nineteenth-Century New York (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991); Joan M. Jensen, Loosening the Bonds: Mid-Atlantic Farm Women, 1750-1850, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1986); and Nancy F. Cott, The Bonds of Womanhood: Woman’s Sphere in New England, 1780-1835 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1977).
41. Bradford Perkins, Prologue to War: England and the United States, 1805-1812 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963), 403; William Jeffrey Welsh and David Curtis Skaggs, War on the Great Lakes (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1991); Reginald Horsman, The Causes of the War of 1812 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1962); Donald R. Hickey, The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989); George F. G. Stanley, The War of 1812 (Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1983).