History | Freeman Family Letters from 1829--1852
At the end of a dirt path winding gently south from the Old Sturbridge Village green, a worn yet tidy farmhouse sits humbly upon the land. For some 23 years of its long life, it belonged to one Pliny Freeman Sr., who settled here with his wife, Delia, and their two youngest children in 1828. Today this dark-red, gambrel-roofed home is open to visitors: the sparely furnished
“best” room with its family mementos, including Pliny’s 1811 commission as a captain in the Massachusetts militia proudly framed, and his simple writing desk; a first-floor bedroom, papered in a bright, blue-striped pattern; the buttery and the kitchen, with its big hearth and iron implements, where so many meals for family and friends were prepared.
What remains when a generation passes? Personal keepsakes and household wares, perhaps, but if we’re very lucky, words, as well: a family’s own words, committed to paper, in all their unguarded intimacy, preserved and protected by the generations yet unborn. So it was with the Freeman family. From 1829 until his death in 1855, Pliny Freeman Sr. corresponded with family members near and far; 132 years later, a collection of the surviving letters was donated to Old Sturbridge Village by Kenneth Perrin, Pliny’s great-great-grandson.
Sitting in the Village’s research library one afternoon this past spring, I was afforded a rare privilege: As I held pieces of the Freemans’ correspondence and turned the pages — Pliny Sr.’s neat and graceful hand, a ribbon of faded ink unspooling across once-sturdy paper grown delicate with age — I saw their lives revealed in all their vulnerability. I’d come upon that “low door in the wall” that serves as portal to both past and future; time receded, and in that moment, I reached back across the centuries to touch the spirit of this family. Taken together, these letters are eloquent testimony of the enduring bonds of family love; they speak to us as witnesses to the everyday joys and sorrows, triumphs and hardships, experienced by this typical New England farm family of the early 19th century.
Pliny Jr., in his early twenties, the family’s second of their seven children, left Sturbridge in the spring of 1829 to seek his fortune in Parma, Ohio, where his uncle Samuel Freeman, Pliny Sr.’s older brother, had settled some years earlier. It was a difficult start for Pliny Jr., a housewright by trade, in that customers back in Massachusetts still owed him payment, leaving him short of funds and somewhat dependent on his extended family, as noted in this letter home, written in August of that year:
I was rejoiced in receiving the favour of your letter August seventh … I have not much at present to write. I am full of trouble as you may expect, after losing all I have, or rather all that I depended on to buy me some land or tools to work with. Without money or without tools I cannot find but little employment, but with good friends I can get along without any trouble at present. But I should like to … pay my way if possible.
The following spring, Pliny Sr. wrote his oldest son, Silas, a stagecoach driver living in Sutton, Massachusetts, to tell him of a further misfortune that had befallen Pliny Jr. over the winter—and to chide him for neglecting his filial duty:
I have been in expectation that you would call at our house before now. I hear nothing from you except that you were at Sturbridge once since I have seen you. We always feel anxious for the welfare of our children. I wish to inquire after your health, whether you have frozen your feet or any other of your limbs, how your business prospers, whether your dividends at your company settlements are favourable, but I see no opportunity to make these inquiries … Misfortunes often happen when we least expect them. When Pliny was returning from work on the nineteenth of January … he made a blunder in stepping over a log, dropped his broad axe edge upwards, and fell on the same which cut a gash in the calf of his left leg three-and-a-quarter inches long and to the bone … The letter was dated February 22, at which time he was confined to his bed—and had been ever since the cut—and was no better. Has had a surgeon two or three times from Cleveland. I hope we shall hear again soon … You must take some opportunity to call soon.
By May 1830, Pliny Jr. was mending slowly, and although grateful for the care that Samuel’s family was taking of him, was still missing his family in Sturbridge:
I was happy in receiving your kind letter March eleventh. [I have had] the pleasure in reading it a number of times and expected that I should hear again in a short time. Yours was thankfully received April twenty-third—nearly two months. It seemed to me like two years … As it respects my leg … if you had been with me and lifted me from bed to bed as I have been and watched with me nights when my leg was the most inflamed, when poultices were applied once in two hours part of the time and sugar lead dissolved in water once in thirty minutes for three or four weeks, then you would have known more than I can tell you. I had made up my mind from what the doctor said that I must lose my leg; don’t think I felt so low about it as [did] Uncle’s folks. I had undergone so much with pain I thought that I would give away my leg to get rid of the pain … My leg is gaining slowly, can sit on the side of the bed with my feet on the floor a short time at once.
In that same letter, Pliny Sr.’s brother Samuel enclosed a note mentioning his own sons as they assisted their cousin—and paused for an observation of the world outside his window:
You would be pleased to see the process of moving him from one bed to another. You would see Lyndon [age 27] placed at his shoulder, Henry [age 14] at his lame leg, Charles [age 20] at his well leg, and Laurens [age 12] at the back side of the bed to keep it from sliding … He has got so much better that they all have some sport in doing it … While I am writing a charming shower has commenced. All nature is dressed in fresh robes of green.
In July 1830, despite the comfort and assistance of his extended family, Pliny Jr. was desperately missing home:
You informed me that Silas was at home the time that you wrote. I wonder why he does not write. It has been ten months since he has written to me. Please to tell him (for me) I think that he has neglected a brother’s duty for not writing. I think that communications ought to be kept up between brothers and sisters only 600 and 50 miles distant. Lyndon says, “Tell Silas that I will give him a York sixpence if he will sit down and write one hour and send it to me.”
And in November, Pliny Jr. counted his blessings but was nevertheless filled with longing: