Friday, November 16, 2012

Maternity, Gender and Class: A Comparison of the Spauldings of Buckland and the family of Hart Lester Pomeroy of Pittsfield, Mass.

by Kate Corbett Pollack

For the past year, I have been transcribing and writing about the letters in our archives written by the Spaulding family of Buckland, Massachusetts. The APHGA also has in its archives a letters collection written by members of the Pomeroy family of Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Dottie H., an APHGA member, and descendant of Hart and Lester Pomeroy graciously lent us the collection which we scanned and photographed and returned to her.   

Portrait of Lemuel Pomeroy.
Readers may know of Hart Lester(1781-1852) and Lemuel Pomeroy (1778-1849). The couple was married on June 2nd, 1800. Lemuel Pomeroy gained prominence as a small arms manufacturer and businessman who was contracted by the United States government and the state of New York in the early 1800s to provide weapons for the military. He was one of Pittsfield’s most wealthy and prominent citizens, and is memorialized in books for his contributions to American history and industry. He also owned a large woolen mill in Pittsfield. I discovered that the APHGA did not have very much in the database about his wife, Hart Lester of Preston, Connecticut. Like many women from her era, researching her life and genealogy is difficult and requires creativity, due to a lack of information. Having access to letters written by the Lester women in the late 1700s is invaluable, and provides a truly fascinating look into their lives. They also mention family members who otherwise may have remained unknown to us. Unlike the Spauldings, who were a rural family of modest means headed by a minister, the Lester-Pomeroys were a very wealthy, socially connected upper-class family. Many of their concerns and experiences were completely different from those of the Spauldings, who lived in the same region during the same era. The brutality of survival did not plague the Lester-Pomeroy family in quite the same way. However, certain things the two families did have in common. While I noticed many contrasts in the lives and letters of these two groups of women, I also noticed similarities.

Portrait of Hart Lester Pomeroy.
The Hart Lester letters include the correspondence of Hart, her sister-in-law Damaris Lord, and a yet unnamed aunt, some written before Hart was married and living in Plainfield, Connecticut, where the Lester family was from. It is also where Reverend Josiah Spaulding (1751-1823) grew up. A 1798 letter written to then 17-year-old Hart Lester by her aunt reveals that Hart was attending Plainfield Academy:

With Pleasure my dear Harty I received your letter…it is very nice, I am very glad to find you are at Plainfield under the tuition of A gentleman whose abilities I think capable of rendering you great advantage, I hope you will pay strict attention my dear girl & not think more of the tutor than you do of your studies, I only give you A little warning Harty as I hear he is A fine young Man, I think he has A fine chance to fix his choice among so many fine girls unless his heart is steel’d, but enough of him…

At first I thought that Hart was being privately tutored by a professor or teacher in the Plainfield area, because women did not usually attend this type of school in the late 1700s. Academies were for men. However, the History of Windham County, Connecticut: Vol. 1-2 in its chapter on Plainfield Academy reports that “the school was organized for both sexes”, and mentions Hart Lester directly:

“It may not be irrelevant to notice among the young ladies, Miss Catherine Putnam, granddaughter of General Putnam of the Revolution, who married Francis Brinely, Esq. of Boston; the Misses Lester of Preston - one of whom married Hon. Lemuel Pomeroy of Pittsfield, Mass.; …with many others who have adorned society by their example and their influence.[i]

Plainfield Academy was founded in 1770. It endured through the Revolutionary War, and gained prominence as a superior academic institution, attracting students from all over the region and abroad. Plainfield through the late 1700s became a lively place full of bright young people from families respectable enough to send their children to the prestigious academy, which charged tuition. There young men were prepared for college, specifically Yale, or business. Young women received enough education, separate from the male population, to be considered eligible marriage material. From History of Windham County:

“Society in Plainfield was quickened and elevated by Academic influence. The brilliant young graduates who served as teachers found in this rural town a select circle of accomplished and attractive young women and usually carried away a wife, or left their hearts behind them.”

Teachers in this era of New England history were young, unmarried men (as I wrote about in last month’s blog post). Hart could not expect to have her own career, and her education served only to make her into a respectable lady who could marry well. The “advantage” Hart’s aunt was speaking of in the above letter was the opportunity for a prestigious marriage, which she did achieve with her betrothal to Lemuel Pomeroy in 1800, only two years after the letter was written. Hart was 19 at the time of her marriage. By 1801, she had given birth to the first of her eleven surviving children. Hart was either pregnant or nursing for the next twenty years of her life. Despite Hart’s wealth, education and social class, her role was ultimately to bear children, as many as possible. Hart’s Congregationalist background taught that this was women’s life purpose. Plainfield Academy was also a Congregationalist (Puritan-Calvinist) school, founded by members of the church. At that time, it was the only religion in the area. There were no other churches, and religion was not kept separate from education, nor was it separate from the state and town governments at this time.[ii] Most areas of Hart’s life would have been affected by her religion, although the letters in the Lester-Pomeroy collection do not mention religion as much as the Spaulding sisters’ do. It is possible that this family did not have the need to cling to it quite as much due to their wealth providing a less grim life for them.

Wealth and status aside, the lines between the Spaulding sisters and the Lesters start to blur in other areas. The Lester-Pomeroy women may have been wealthy, well-educated socialites who did not worry about having enough to eat or toiling over a burning hearth all day, as the Spaulding women did, but the hardships of childrearing and their limited ability to participate in the public sphere of life isolated them in much the same ways. The reality of childrearing is key to understanding the experience of women from this or any era. Dr. Judith Walzer Leavitt’s essay “Under the Shadow of Maternity”, mentions Mary Vial Holyoke:

“Take, for example, the life of Mary Vial Holyoke, who married into a prominent New England family in 1759. In 1760, after ten months of marriage, she gave birth to her first baby. Two years later, her second was born. In 1765 she was again “brought to bed” of a child. Pregnant immediately again, she bore another child in 1766… during the next twelve years she bore five more children. The first twenty-three years of Mary Vial Holyoke’s married life, the years of her youth and vigor, were spent pregnant or recovering from childbirth. Because only three of her twelve children lived to adulthood, she withstood, also, frequent tragedies… Mary Holyoke had little choice in her frequent pregnancies: her life reveals how the biological capacity of women to bear children historically has translated into life’s destiny for individual women.[iii]

Mary Holyoke and Hart Lester both belonged to upper class New England families. In my genealogical research of New England, what first struck me was the enormous size of families common in the 1600s through the early 1800s. Family sizes were sometimes upwards of twelve children. A second wife in some circumstances would be brought in shortly after the death of the first and continue the pattern of constant childrearing, picking up where the first wife left off. This created gaps in sibling ages of up to thirty years. By the early 1800s, average family size was about seven surviving children.[iv] Throughout the 1600s this was also the average:

“In the early-17th century, women usually married between ages 20 and 23. (The aged [sic] dropped somewhat in succeeding generations and was younger in some locales than others.) They probably spent up to 20 years bearing children and most of their adult life raising them. There were some large families of 10 to 15 children, but the average family had six or seven. Many children died from disease in infancy or early childhood (only about half of Colonial infants reached adulthood). Most couples lost one or more children.[v]

The above information does not factor in the instance of the second wife, however. It is referring to the childrearing of individual women. The addition of a second wife would also mean that she would be responsible for the deceased first wife’s children, of which the average was seven, as well as her own. It is also possible that a second wife would be bringing children from a previous marriage to the new family, and statistics don’t always factor this in. A genealogist will notice these patterns. Family size dropped as developments in women’s equality, public health and access to family planning, among other factors, progressed into the twentieth century. As we have seen in last month’s blog post on Mary Howes, the opportunity for college and career offered some women the choice of a different life, one where they had more control over their own destinies. Hart Lester attended a prestigious secondary school academy, but that was the end of her educational options. The expectation was that it would make her more eligible for marriage to a socially and financially prominent man, and as soon as she graduated, marriage and childrearing commenced. Her role as a woman of wife and bearer of children was not very different from the role of the women of the Spaulding family.

What is also similar in the letters of the Lester and Spaulding women is their bond. Like Mary Spaulding’s sister-in-law Deborah Pomeroy Trowbridge, Hart’s sister-in-law Damaris Lord Lester fills the role of an actual blood sister, and there is no differentiation in how she is addressed, or what her role is: she is a sister to Hart, called one, and treated as one. Deborah Pomeroy Trowbridge was not only a sister to Mary Spaulding Pomeroy; she was considered part of the family by Nancy, Lydia and Deborah Spaulding, as well. What struck me during the course of transcribing the 144 letters of the Spaulding family was this incredible closeness and bond between the women (written about in my December 14th, 2011 post The Spaulding Sisters). No important anniversary was left unremembered by the women, and they wrote to each other through the hardest of times, speaking candidly of death and offering mutual support. Damaris and Hart’s relationship was similar. From a September 21, 1800 letter from Damaris Lord Lester to Hart Lester Pomeroy referencing the death of a friend:

“I received yours [letter] My Dear Sister by Mr. Belcher for which I return you many hearty thanks… I hope you will ever feel inclined to pour balm in the bosom of the afflicted the wisest of all the sons of Adam said it is better to go to the house of Mourning than to the house of feasting, and I think I can truly say for one when I have attended those trying scenes have felt and inward satisfaction very different from the sensations of Mirth & jollity lest us, My Dear Sister bear a part in the joys and sorrows of all our friends…”

Damaris was telling Hart about her personal experience with the mourning process in this letter. Another aspect of the Spaulding and Lester-Pomeroy letters is the scarce mention of the men in their lives. The APHGA has many more letters written by the Spauldings, and it is in their letters where I have noticed this more, mostly because of the sheer amount of material. Evidently, it was not unusual for the time period, as written about by Dr. Carol Smith-Rosenberg in her seminal work “The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations between Women in Nineteenth-Century America”:

“Several factors in American society between the mid-eighteenth and the mid-nineteenth centuries may well have permitted women to form a variety of close emotional relationships with other women. American society was characterized in large part by rigid gender-role differentiation within the family and within society as a whole, leading to the emotional segregation of women and men. The roles of daughter and mother shaded imperceptibly and ineluctably into each other, while the biological realities of frequent pregnancies, childbirth, nursing, and menopause bound women together in physical and emotional intimacy.[vi]

We are very fortunate to have letters written by these families in our archives at the APHGA, and their examination can contribute exponentially to the study of American History; specifically providing insight into the private world of America’s women in the 18th and 19th centuries. We cannot look up Hart Lester or Mary Spaulding in a history book; we cannot learn about their lives in the same way we can learn about their husbands’. The experience of genders, however, is critical in aiding our understanding of America’s past.

[i]  Larned, Ellen D. History of Windham County, Connecticut. Vol. 1-2. Worcester, MA: Author, 1874. Excerpt from

[ii]  "Town History."Plainfield History.Plainfield Historical Society, 2011.Web. 16 Nov. 2012. .

[iii]  Leavitt, Judith Walzer, and Jane SherronDeHart. "Under the Shadow of Maternity: American Women's Responses to Death and Debility Fears in Nineteenth Century Childbirth." Feminist Studies 12 (1986): 129-54. Rpt. in Women's America: Refocusing the Past. By Linda K. Kerber. New York: Oxford UP, 2000. 184-91. Print. 185.

[iv]  "Achievements in Public Health, 1900-1999: Family Planning." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2 Dec. 1999. Web. 16 Nov. 2012. .

[v]  Gormley, Myra Vanderpool, CG. "Colonial Love and Marriage."Colonial Love and, 2004.Web. 16 Nov. 2012. .

[vi]  Smith-Rosenberg, Carol. "The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations between Women in Nineteenth-Century America." Signs 1.1 (1975): 1-29. JSTOR.Web. 16 Nov. 2012. 9