As I’ve learned more about my ancestors I’ve also taken some time to follow the branches of the tree down, learning about their siblings’ descendants. I’ve come across some interesting stories; this is part of a recurring series of diaries about distant cousins I never knew.
My great-great-great-grandmother was named Fidelia Churchill. She was born March 3, 1822 in Pomfret, Vermont. Fidelia’s roots in Pomfret went back as far as anyone’s. Her maternal grandfather, John Chedel, had been the second English settler of Pomfret, coming from eastern Connecticut in 1770. Her mother’s older sister, John’s daughter Rachel, was the first English child born there, toward the end of that year. Sadly, in 1777 six-year-old Rachel Chedel became one of the first English people to die in Pomfret as well. Fidelia’s mother Azuba, not born until 1782, never knew this older sister, but named her first child Rachel in honor of her and their mother, who also died young.
The name “Plummer” does not appear anywhere in the family tree, nor does it appear among the Churchills' neighbors in Vermont or back in Massachusetts. It appears likely that Zebedee Plummer Churchill, whose father’s name also was Zebedee, was given that middle name in honor of the famed Methodist preacher Frederick Plummer (1787-1854).
Rev. Plummer, a native of Haverhill, Mass. like Samuel Ladd, started out as an itinerant preacher in New England as a young man. He first visited Woodstock, Vermont and Pomfret in 1810, baptizing 500 people in a mass ceremony. He then helped organize a Methodist church on the Woodstock green, and made regular visits to the area in the years that followed. He later went on to considerable fame in the Philadelphia area. Though he lived only a few weeks in Woodstock, Vermont, so great was his influence there that he is one of only three Christian ministers profiled in Henry Swan Dana's History of Woodstock, Vt., published in 1889, or thirty-five years after his death.
On about June 6, 1816, the temperature was in the eighties in New England. In a single day, it dropped over forty degrees and significant snow fell over Vermont. Late June brought a short heat wave, with temperatures approaching 100 degrees, but July and August were very cold, with regular hard frost and periodic snow in Vermont. John Quincy Adams, sitting far to the southeast of Pomfret, Vermont, would write that a fire was needed virtually every night that summer. In September, following the appearance of “sun haloes,” New England was hit days and days of driving rain. It today is believed that, as with Tropical Storm Sandy this fall, the end of a Caribbean hurricane joined up with a more typical nor’easter to create more significant rain.
All of this led to a very bad harvest in Vermont. In the aftermath some 15,000 Vermonters moved west to places like upstate New York and Ohio, in search of more fertile land, reversing a long trend of population growth in Vermont. The event changed Vermont’s future forever, as future migrants from Massachusetts and Connecticut looked west, instead of north as many migrants had between 1763 and 1816.
This trend was amplified with the coming of the Erie Canal and the railroads, and never again would Vermont experience a large population influx, until perhaps in recent decades as people have sought refuge there from urban life. To this day it is the least populous state in New England and the second-least populous state in the United States. It also is the most rural state and has the lowest birthrate in the United States. Vermont has no billboards on its roads, and Montpelier is the only state capital with no McDonald’s.
Possibly Arranged May-September Marriages
My family, it seems, named their son after Rev. Plummer. But they didn’t leave Vermont, not for another century. They hardly left their hometown. Thus Zebedee Plummer Churchill married Orleana Boutwell in Pomfret in 1846.
This was not the May-December, or even May-September marriage; they were pretty close in age. For all I know, I owe my existence to this marriage. In 1849, three years after the marriage of Zebedee P. and Orlena Boutwell, my great-great-great-grandfather Lyman (a widow in his forties) married Zebedee P.’s sister Fidelia (an “old maid” of 27). They may have met through Zebedee P. and Orlena. The ties between the Perkins and Boutwell families were strong: Orlena’s mother, Sylvia Perkins Boutwell, was Lyman’s first cousin. Sylvia’s brother, Alvora Perkins, also married Sarah Boutwell, who was the sister of Orlena’s father, John Boutwell (this marriage will be important later in the tale). So one set of brother and sister married another set. Though it’s likely that most people in the area knew each other back then, I wonder if Lyman would have married Fidelia if his cousin and her brother hadn’t been married. Maybe they first met at the wedding?
Zebedee P. and Orlena had four children, a boy who died very young and three girls. But in 1854, a month before her 30th birthday, Orlena herself died. Eight months later, in February 1855 Zebedee P. (then 36) married Emily Maria Ordway (then 19), the oldest child of Hiram and Maria Ordway, in February 1855. Not quite May-December, more like May-September.
I would love to know more about how it was decided that Zebedee P. and Emily Ordway would marry. By the standards of the time Emily was controversial: at 19, she was the never-married mother of a four-year old boy. Nearly twenty years later, when the little boy himself married, he identified Caleb Williamson as his father. (Caleb Williamson was another near neighbor. In fact, his family and Zebedee P. Churchill’s family appear on the same page in the 1850 census records; Emily and the Ordways are on the following page.) Emily’s son was born in February 1851, and thus would have been conceived well before her fifteenth birthday. Caleb Williamson was 32, born the same year as Zebedee P. Churchill. He also was married with several children, including a daughter not far from Emily’s age.
Zebedee P.’s third wife, however, was another story. This was Sarah Emeline Perkins Furber. Sarah was the daughter of Alvora Perkins and Sarah Boutwell. Remember them from above? Sarah’s father was the brother of Orlena’s mother, and her mother was the sister of Orlena’s father. That made her Orlena’s double first cousin. Back when she was 18, she had married Benjamin Furber, whose first wife had just died at only 19. They had two children. Presumably Zebedee P. had known her all that time, some 50 years. Benjamin Furber had died in March 1896, about two years after Emily Ordway Churchill died. And so it was that Zebedee P. and Sarah Emeline married on January 21, 1898. He was almost 80 at the time, she was almost 70.
I’d like to say it was happy that these two found each other late in life, but apparently it wasn’t. Within five months of the marriage, Sarah Emeline moved out of Zebedee’s house and went to live with her daughter nearby. Zebedee P. took a room with a widow who had two grown sons. They never lived together again, though each recognized the marriage in the 1900 census and she called herself “Emeline S. Churchill.”
Zebedee P. Churchill died in Pomfret on December 17, 1902. He was 84 years old, and was laid to rest alongside his first two wives, Orlena and Emily. Not long after the litigation began. In July 1903, Sarah Emeline appeared in probate court and offered to return the $300 to his executor and reclaim her rights to his estate as widow. Several of his children sued to enforce the contract, saying she had agreed to it, had taken the money, had not reversed course during Zebedee P.’s lifetime, and had done nothing to care for him in his last years.
The contract being voided, Sarah Emeline returned the $300 and got the minimum widow’s share of Zebedee P.’s estate guaranteed by law, which presumably was worth far more. She herself died in August 1906.
* * *
So there’s the nineteenth century for you. Children named for itinerant preachers, spouses dying before the age of 30, married men impregnating fourteen-year-old girls, second marriages to people half your age, third marriages to your first wife’s cousin, and prenuptial agreements the courts refused to enforce because they wanted you at least to try with your marriage.
Still, as we’ll see in tomorrow's Open Thread, it all worked out for the best, you could say.
Tomorrrow: (March 22 Open Thread): A descendant of Zebedee P. and Emily well worth remembering.