by Robert F. Welt
Melissa had finished her exam and was filling the rest of the period by reading a folded letter from Ohio to Connecticut written in 1838, one I had not yet shared with the rest of my students.
"Oh, Mrs. Woodbridge died. That's too bad." Melissa was noticeably upset. The rest of the class as a little taken aback. They didn't know what she was talking about.
"Don't you remember Mrs. Woodbridge? Mrs. Burrows wrote to her in the letter Mr. Welt had us read last week. Remember...the letter from Ohio? And now she's dead."
At this point one of the boys in my the class responded, "Melissa, that letter was written 150 years ago. Of course she's dead."
"I know that," Melissa replied, "but after reading about her, I began to feel that I knew her. And I'm sorry she died."
The letter to which Melissa referred, which I had used in an earlier lesson, was written in 1836 and mailed from Ohio City to Connecticut....
Melissa's interest in the 1838 letter she was reading led her to try her hand at transcribing it and preparing a display. She made a typed copy of the letter (with spelling, capitalization, and punctuation corrected), and then mounted both the original and the copy on poster board. Finally, she added some interesting facts about the year 1838: Congress created the Iowa Territory, the Cherokees were forced to endure the Trail of Tears, Martin Van Buren was our eighth president, and the federal debt was $3,308,000. Melissa's exhibit was on display in the guidance office for several weeks so that other students could see what we were doing in class.
The stampless cover Melissa transcribed is not in very good condition, but it is, nevertheless, quite legible. It is addressed to Mr. Edward P. Brownell of East Haddam, Middlesex County, Connecticut. A manuscript 25 is in the upper right corner and the notation "Brooklyn, Dec 3" is in the upper left. Mr. C.M. Teeman, a past president of the Illinois Postal History Society, explained to me that 25¢ was the rate for over 300 miles and that the postmaster wrote the date and place of mailing and the correct rate on the cover. He was also supposed to mark it "Paid" if the sender had paid the postage, though as Mr. Teeman pointed out, the postmasters sometimes forgot this detail, resulting in both the sender and recipient paying the rate.
The letter, which was signed by Elisha Clausel Blish, begins [spelling uncorrected]:
Brooklyn Cuyahoga County Nov. 25, 1838
I now take this opertunity to inform you that i am well and hope that these lines will find you enjoying the same i am now in Brooklyn three miles south of Cleaveland at work in a steam Engine shop where i expect to remain until spring when the proprietors of the establishment as soon as navigation opens in the spring propose on moving it to Milwaukie in Wisconsin territory which is about eight hundred miles or over by water.
The comment about "as soon as navigation opens in the Spring" may require explanation. Although my school is located in a coastal community with a river, most vessels leaving Groton are going out into the open ocean. Frankly, we just don't think about rivers, lakes, and canals freezing.
Finally, the statement referring to "Milwaukie in Wisconsin territory" is a reminder to my students that the United States grew slowly over the years. I will ask the kids to find out how many states were in the Union when the letter was written. When they count the list in the back of their text, they may be surprised to find there were only twenty-three, fewer than half of our present number.
Mr. Blish continues:
i am building now an Engine of about ten horse powers for them to take there as they have sold the one they have here and i expect to go and put it in operation for them there and whether i shall stay there in their employ or not i cannot tell at present as i have had some pretty good offers to go as an enginneer on lake Erie but i do not like the water very well therefore i think that i may remain with them for awhile there....
One concept that is no longer self-evident to students is the use of water as a means of inland transportation. Today, if I planned to go from Buffalo, New York to Cleveland, Ohio, I would drive or fly. It is very unlikely that I would go by boat. No so, however, in the Nineteenth Century. As Mr. Blish points out, he could have had a number of different jobs working on steamboats plying Lake Erie, carrying both passengers and cargo. A look at the map of canals existing in the country in 1840 shows that it was possible to go all the way from Cincinnati, Ohio to New York City, entirely by water! Unfortunately for our letter writer, he does not seem to like being on the water, but with the growth of the steam engine business, he still had an opportunity for jobs on dry land.
Mr. Blish's next comments were what caught Melissa's eye:
I want to come to Connecticut but i can't come under two or three years at least Mr. Francis A Burrows informed me about three weeks ago of Mrs Woodbridges death which was not unexpected to me for i have expected to hear of her death long before on the account of old age and the ill health that she enjoyed when i left there i was also informed that she left in her will some forty or fifty dollars which is to come to me and if that is the case i wish you to forward it....
The Francis A. Burrows of whom Mr. Blish speaks, was from the Groton, Connecticut area. He was born on January 18, 1802, the son of Daniel Burrows and Mary Avery. In 1826 he married Abby Ann Lord, the daughter of George Lord and Ann Randall, in East Haddam, Connecticut. Readers will note that Mr. Blish's letter was sent to East Haddam. Evidently there is a close connection between the Burrows family and Brownells. In 1830, following the lead of many Nutmeggers, he moved to the former Western Reserve, settling in Ohio City. Mr. Burrows served as mayor of Cleveland (named after another Connecticut settler) from 1837-42. I point this out to my students to help reinforce the idea of western expansion and the influence of New England on what is now the Midwest.
One line in the letter that will probably elicit some comment is that regarding Mrs. Woodbridge and the "ill health that she enjoyed." We hardly think of sickness as being enjoyable, but the English language is a dynamic tongue, and words sometimes change their meanings over time.
Mr. Blish's closing comments refer to a topic that may be a little esoteric for many of my students, the Panic of 1837. This economic depression was the worst up to that date in our nation's history and certainly was a factor in Van Buren's loss of the presidency, even though the blame for the slowdown probably should be placed on his predecessor, Andrew Jackson.
times are very dull and money scarce therefore not much business doing give my respects to Mr. Staples's family in Westchester and others in that vicinity that may inquire of you and tell them that a few lines from them would e very acceptable from any one this Winter as i shall be farther off next summer...
Elisha Clausel Blish
Brooklyn Nov 25, 1838
From steamboats to revolts, this letter covers a wide range of issues and presents the teacher with a number of different lesson options. But, before getting too academic, let's remember that Melissa's original reaction was to Mrs. Woodbridge's death. We can learn from youngsters like Melissa; people should be our first concern.