Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Spaulding Sisters

By Kate Corbett Pollack

As the events between Reverend Spaulding and Josiah unfolded and culminated in the severe outcome written about in November’s article, the lives of Josiah’s four sisters was also developing with a fair amount of tragedy. Their experiences were not uncommon for women of this time. The APHGA is very fortunate to have copies of these amazing letters written by Josiah’s sisters and their descendents over the course of the 19th century, starting in 1801 and going to the 1850s. Information on individual women in this time period is severally lacking. Often, a woman is referred to in records as simply wife or daughter, and a researcher cannot learn anything about her, not even a maiden name, let alone her thoughts and feelings. Primary source material written by women themselves to their closest friends and family is a valuable look into their emotional lives, and to the hardship experienced in this era.

Mary Spaulding, the oldest of the Spaulding siblings, was born in Uxbridge, Massachusetts, in 1785. She married Isaac Pomeroy on March 8, 1810, in Buckland, a small village in western Massachusetts, when she was 24 years old. She then moved with him to Southampton, leaving her family and her sisters, with whom she was very close. Nancy Spaulding, then aged 21, wrote to Mary on March 27th, 1810, shortly after Mary left to start her new life with Isaac [punctuation added]:

But though I retire to my chamber to converse with a sister yet I find her not there, but silence reigns through the whole apartment. How then shall [I] be able to converse with her? My thoughts must take their flight on eagles’ wings over distant hills and vales to thy abode my sister and by the kind assistance of my pen and ink endeavor to converse a little with thee there. The absence and loss of thy company I sensibly feel.

Nancy would be married the next year, to John Coleman of nearby Shelburne Falls. Sadly, reports indicate that he was a severe alcoholic and later caused them to lose everything they owned. Together they had three children: Thankful (1816), Josiah (1823), and Deborah (1827). Josiah Coleman was born the same year as youngest Spaulding sister Lydia’s first child, Mary Howes. 1823 was also the year Reverend and Mrs. Spaulding passed, and the caged Josiah Spaulding was transferred to Lydia’s house where she was forced to care for him.

Mary Spaulding and Isaac Pomeroy had their first child in 1811, and named her Mary Ann. Mary’s younger sister Deborah happily writes at the time of Mary Ann’s birth to her sister:

I want verry much to hear from you and your sweet babe. I wish I could see her- that lovely girl once more you must kiss her for me. Lydia wants you should write her a letter…and write if Mary Ann talks yet.

By 1814, Mary was pregnant with her second child. Her first child, Mary Ann, died during Mary’s second pregnancy and she named the new infant Mary Ann as well. This was common in early America, when children often died. Mary Ann survived to adulthood and had her own children, naming a daughter after herself, and continuing the tradition of the name. On June 30th, 1815, Isaac Pomeroy passed away at age 33 in Southampton, leaving Mary Ann fatherless and Mary a widow. Isaac’s sister, Deborah Pomeroy Trowbridge, had developed a friendship with Mary Spaulding and wrote her many letters over the course of their lives, continuing to do so long after Isaac’s death. Deborah married Rufus Trowbridge, a minister, and moved to Buckland from Southampton, the opposite of Mary. There she became friends with Mary’s sisters, and joined them in writing to her. Deborah responds to seemingly every tragedy in Mary’s life, and it is clear that she understands and shares her pain and loss.

On June 29th, 1815, the day before her brother Isaac died, Deborah Pomeroy Trowbridge writes to the couple. She comments about departed friends and the death of their first child:

The loss of friends I very well know. I can easily call to mind the heart rending wounds at giving the parting hand to my deceased friends, every Son & Daughter of Adam must experience adversity…I hope that will call to mind your pleasant child with all its attracting charms and lovliness, its sickness and hour of Death-to have it torn from your arms by the king of terrors, and laid in the cold grave…

The language and grim style of writing may strike the reader as harsh, but death was commonplace for this family. They lived during a time before vaccinations, public health, and better doctors put an end to many of the diseases that frequently took people’s lives. It seems clear from this letter that Deborah did not even know that her brother was sick, let alone close to death. The illnesses common in those days often hit hard and killed quickly, with little warning. Cholera, for example, could kill a healthy person in twelve hours. It really did appear that God was striking people dead.

Buckland and Southampton by modern standards are not very far apart, about 30 miles. In the early 1800s, travel between rural villages thick with woods and impassable dirt roads made visits and communication difficult and infrequent. The only way a letter could be delivered was if the writer knew someone who was traveling to the town where the person lived. There was no such thing, in those days, as putting a letter out for the mail carrier, or in a mailbox. Mary had no way to communicate with Isaac’s sister to tell her that he was dying.

Death colored the women’s experience, and is mentioned in almost every one of their letters written in over a fifty-year period. It is not a subject that they gloss over. Sisters Mary, Nancy, Lydia and Deborah Spaulding, and Mary’s sister-in-law Deborah Pomeroy Trowbridge, wrote to each other quite candidly about their feelings. Death seemed to connect them and bring them closer. The sisters did not, unlike their brother Josiah, who had more access to education, question male authority or religious belief. Deborah’s husband Rufus Trowbridge was studying to become a reverend, and he wrote many letters to Isaac about religion. The men in the family were all as religious as Reverend Spaulding. Their letters, in contrast, are primarily about their thoughts on Christianity, wars and battles (the war of 1812 was a topic), and their careers and education. The explanation that epidemic disease and the deaths of their children were part of God’s plan was clearly accepted by the women. They do wonder at parts of this doctrine, but, like the men in their lives, they believe they have offended God and should not question anything for very long, lest they further offend him.

Deborah Pomeroy Trowbridge’s May 20th letter (undated but before 1823, possibly 1814-16) to Mary Spaulding Pomeroy further details death and sickness, and addresses another fact of the women’s lives - the brutal physical hardship and labor required of housewives at this time. Deborah was about 29 or 30 at this time.

I feel myself to be getting old and allmost worn out with hard work. What does it avail to us to labor so much for the Body when it must soon moulder in the grave to be food for the worms, we have this day been called to attend the funeral of Orlando Colman. He died Saturday night…Your sister has trouble enough to kill one-there is some sick in town now. Mr Forbes is dead, Mr Brackets have buried an infant today, William Farnam’s wife is dead…

Amazingly, Deborah lived to be 90! This was very unusual, and she far outlived the Spaulding women. Lydia only lived to be 39. Mary was 53 when she died, and Nancy 51. Forty was considered “old age” in these days, especially for women. (Josiah lived to be 79). The Spaulding and Pomeroy women were the wives of farmers and ministers, and they were poor. Lydia married wealthy Ezra Howes, but even he started out as a farmer. Every rural household in this area was a small farm of sorts, and the labor for women was back-breaking. The 1876 History of Pittsfield, (Berkshire County), Massachusetts tells us about domestic life in the years 1790-1810 for this region:

There were few appliances and inventions to relieve the labor of the housewife. The work of cooking, washing, sewing, and the like, was done by main strength. The cook must lift the huge iron pot, which hung on the crane out-swung before the blazing fire; and deposit and withdraw the baking in the deep, brick oven…The Laundress performed her task by pounding the soiled clothes in a barrel of water with a heavy pestle…Water was to be drawn by the cistern or well…And when all this was done, came the spinning, weaving, the brewing, the candle and soap-making. With all this, and the large families of children, which were almost the rule, it is no wonder that the percentage of mortality among women was large, and that those who sustained themselves were accounted marvels of capability.[1]

By 1816, Mary Spaulding Pomeroy had suffered so much loss and hardship that she had all but lost the will to live. 1816 was a year of pandemic typhoid fever. By the accounts in the women’s letters, death was widespread. They had no effective medicine to help with this sickness. Mary’s 1816 letter to her parents implored them to send medicine for little Mary Ann, who was seriously ill:

My little girl is some better today, how long it will last I do not know, but I should be glad if you would send her some of that cordial in a vial or something that will strengthen her…oh that wee might be prepared to go and meet our departed friends in a better world is what I hope and wish, for sickness and trouble seem to be my lot.

Mary Ann was two years old in 1816. The medicine Mary is asking for (a “cordial”) was just about worthless. There really was not much else available. It does not seem that Mary returned to Buckland after the death of her husband, but was taken in by the Pomeroys. Mary was, if letters are an indication, someone whom others were very fond of. It appears that after the deaths of Isaac and the first Mary Ann, Reverend Spaulding was not helpful to Mary, who was alone in Southampton, and did not invite her back home to Buckland after this tragedy. The Pomeroys of Southampton seem to have adopted her.

As we have seen, little Mary Ann thankfully survived this illness. Whether Mary’s parents sent her the cordial is unknown.

Mary Spaulding’s letter to her parents from May 1816 is a far cry from an earlier, November 1801 letter to her brother Josiah Spaulding, Jr. From this letter, written when Mary was 16, we gain insight into her personality. Her penmanship is measured and beautiful[2] and she seems calm.

My Dear Brother,
It is with pleasure that I now retire from all other employments to write a few lines to you…

She comments on what she sees as extravagant behavior of other young people in the area enjoying Thanksgiving festivities instead of attending a religious conference. She admonishes herself quickly, however:

…but I must stop have I not neglected the same am I any better I am not. I have spent many years in the pleasures of sin…sickness and sorrow and trouble may attend us the rest of our days. It will be nothing more than what we deserve for we have provoked God to strip us of all the mercys we now enjoy and consign us over to everlasting misery.

Mary closes the letter saying they ought to repent their sins before it is too late and may they be prepared for heaven. She adds a mischievous PS, perhaps unable to help herself, and asks her brother if he has heard the latest gossip:

PS I will inform you of the death of Betsy Stinn, she died not long before Thanksgiving & it is expected that Lydia, her sister, is or will soon be married to the gentleman that courted Betsy. & what do you think of that, it has occasioned considerable talk here…

Of course, about nine years after this letter, when Mary is about 25, Josiah would be put in a cage by their father, around the same time as Mary and Isaac’s wedding. Glimpses into Mary’s personality are rare, as the intense tragedy of her life overshadows everything else that she might write about. In the years 1810-1812, the sister’s letters are more lighthearted; they talk about deaths in the villages, but also about dress patterns, seeds and gossip. It is possible that Josiah was caged in or around 1812. The sisters do not write about this, however.

Despite their hardship, life for this family continues. By 1836, Mary Spaulding Pomeroy’s daughter, Mary Ann, is married to her cousin David Pomeroy and has her own daughter, also named Mary Ann. Her firstborn, David Alonzo Pomeroy, only lived to be 4 years old, and died in 1839, the same year as Mary Spaulding. They died a month apart. Deborah Trowbridge writes to Mary Ann and David Pomeroy to extend sympathies for the death of Mary’s mother and their young son. Deborah has become close with Mary Ann, the daughter of her beloved friend, and keeps up a correspondence with her. Deborah Trowbridge, who lived until 1876, witnessed quite a bit of the Spaulding and Pomeroy family’s trials. She knows, at this time, that Mary Ann must need more than a little comfort, and assures her that things will be better in heaven. She writes on April 17th, 1839:

We shall soon pass this vale of tears and meet our dear friends in the world of spirits, this is not our rest... I feel glad [that] you have the Company of your dear Aunt Deborah in your trials…

She is referring to Deborah Spaulding, the late Mary’s sister, who has come to care for her niece and nephew. The strength and bond of these women continues to tie each other together in the hardest of times. On January 19th, 1840 both Aunt Deborah Spaulding and Deborah Pomeroy Trowbridge wrote a letter to Mary Ann and David Pomeroy; each writing on the same page. Aunt Deborah had returned to Buckland by this time, and both she and her friend were wondering how Mary Ann and David were doing almost a year later:

We have commenced now a year, while many of our dear friends the last year was called to bid adieu to all things below the sun; it is one year since Death began to werke in our family circle.

Aunt Deborah adds,

Kiss little Mary for me, I want to see her much.

Mary Ann Pomeroy, like her mother, Mary Spaulding, experienced the death of her children. David Alonzo, as we have seen, died in 1839 at age 4. Mary Ann Jr., born in 1836, only lived to be 24 years old. Leora Caroline, born 1841, died when she is 15. Deborah Jane (Jennie), born 1845, was the only child who lived a full life, living to be 71. Mary Ann Pomeroy, daughter of Mary Ann and David Pomeroy, left behind a diary that she kept in 1850, when she was fourteen years old. Her life was not much different than her grandmother Mary Spaulding’s, and her writing echoes the 1801 letter that Mary Spaulding wrote when she was 16. Mary Ann Pomeroy, writing 49 years later, also does not expect to live very long and believes, like her grandmother did, that God was taking the villagers because he is angry. Her daily accounts center around going to revivals and prayer meetings.

Her entry for April 1st, 1850 reads:

...what reason have I to hope in the mercy of God, what reason to hope that I have been born again, surely I am nothing in myself when I look unto my own heart I find it is deceitful about all things and desperately wicked…

She writes an entry for her birthday:

Sabbath Day
May 5th
This day is my birth-day. Fourteen years old, before another birthday may arrive I may be numbered with the dead. Fourteen years of my life are fled. I shall never live fourteen years longer.

Mary Ann did not live another fourteen years, as she predicted. Epidemic disease was still a huge problem in 1850. By the late 1800s, medical science began to make advancements enough to put an end to this type of strife that was, for so many years, a common experience for Americans.

There is one branch of this family that managed to escape Buckland and its terrors- the descendents of Lydia Spaulding. That story will be another post.


“Cholera Epidemics in the 19th Century” Contagion: Historical Views of Diseases and Epidemics. Harvard University Library Open Collections Program,

“Changing Medical Practices in Early America,” by Laurie Trask Mann. Updated 12/03/2008.

Baldwin, Thomas W, compiler, Vital Records of Uxbridge Massachusetts to the Year 1850 (Boston, Mass.: Wright & Potter Printing Company, 1916) 62, 144,

David Pomeroy Household, 1850 U.S. Census, Southampton, Hampshire County, Massachusetts, P 65, Dwelling 73, Family 82; National Archives microfilm publication M432_320.

Marriages article, Salem Gazette, Salem, Massachusetts, 19 Jul 1831, Page 3

Vital Records of Worthington Massachusetts to the Year 1850 (Boston, Massachusetts: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1911)

O’Donnell, George T. “Causes of Typhoid Fever in Massachusetts,” American Journal of Public Health 10(6) (1920): 517–520.

Pomeroy, Albert A., History and Genealogy of the Pomeroy Family Collateral Lines in Family Groups ; Reprinted Higginson Book Company, 1912, Salem, Massachusetts p 267, 381, 397


  1. I now have a belief in where some of my own strength began, and my mother's and her mother's. These remarkable women knew each other, and when moving away kept each other in mind. Glad the letters were never lost and are available to all of us.

    1. I am also glad. We can learn so much from these letters. Women do pass strength down to each other and provide so much support! I do not know what the Spaulding sisters would have done without each other.


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