Sources in Rural Women’s History, Part I: Letters from the Edge: Life on the Rural Margins of Industrial New England

Earlier this month, in honor of the upcoming thirty-fifth anniversary of Joan M. Jensen’s publication of her landmark collection of primary documents, With These Hands:  Women Working on the Land (1981), the Rural Women’s Studies Association sponsored a roundtable highlighting innovative uses of primary sources for studying rural women at the 2015 annual meeting of the Agricultural History Society in Lexington, Kentucky.  This panel showcased recent research and discussed the unique sources employed to investigate the diversity of women’s experience in the rural United States and Canada.  Today we are featuring the work of one of those accomplished scholars (and RWSA co-chair), Katherine Jellison.  Stay tuned for future installments in this series, “Sources in Rural Women’s History.”

Letters from the Edge:  Life on the Rural Margins of Industrial New England

By Katherine Jellison, Ohio University

Historians of the Civil War and Reconstruction eras owe a particular debt to an often-overlooked group of record keepers:  homesick women.  Americans were on the move—fighting war in the South, seeking industrial employment in the Northeast, and looking for new farmland in the West.  In this period of extensive geographic mobility, literate Euro-American women became record keepers by necessity.  As Joan Jensen notes in her introduction to With These Hands, “Letters home kept women in touch with their families.”   She also notes that New England women, who enjoyed over a ninety-five per cent literacy rate by mid-century, were particularly active in maintaining home ties through the written word. For one pair of New England sisters—Emma and Caddie Sherman—“home” in the 1860s and 1870s was wherever their father Chauncey (“Cheney”) Janes Sherman resided.  The sisters’ vivid letters illustrate a number of significant themes of the period, including the extent to which frequent relocation from the countryside to the city and back again remained a central characteristic of life in the industrial Northeast.[1]

Writer Lillian Smith once noted that Civil War-era newspapers—all focusing on an identical set of political speeches and battles—reflected the war’s “group sameness,” while women’s personal writing of the period recorded the “individual differences” in how particular families, neighborhoods, and communities experienced the war.  The Sherman sisters’ correspondence strongly supports Smith’s argument.  I discovered their letters a year ago while renting a Maine vacation cottage that their great-niece Marion Echols built in 1960 and christened “Timberock.”  In a letter that Emma wrote from New York City on June 25, 1860—a full century before the cottage where her letters now reside was constructed—she was not concerned with sectional strife or the upcoming presidential election but with the breakdown of her parents’ marriage.  Writing to her brother George’s wife Sarah at Sarah’s parents’ Conway, Massachusetts, farm home, Emma reported that Cheney and Marion Caldwell Sherman “had agreed to separate . . . entirely” and described her unemployed, 53-year-old father as now “dying by inches” in New York.  The solution, however, was simple:  He would take refuge from urban failure in the countryside of his native Brimfield, Massachusetts.  Indeed, until his death twenty-four years later, Cheney Sherman remained in south-central Massachusetts, boarding with neighbors or relatives in exchange for farm labor and receiving gifts of clothing and sympathetic letters from his children.[2]

Finding refuge in the countryside remained a major theme in Emma’s correspondence—and later that of her younger sister Caddie—for the next two decades.  Writing from New York in 1862 to her father in the farming village of East Brimfield, Emma only briefly mentioned the war news—including casualties at the recent Battle of Second Bull Run—before launching into lengthy discussion of family matters.  Her husband Johnnie—unemployed in the city for two months—would soon be joining the Union Navy, and her brother George had “broke[n] up housekeeping” in Springfield, Massachusetts, following the recent death of his wife Sarah and their infant son.  Emma noted, however, that while George had left for employment as a machinist at the Colt Armory in Hartford, Connecticut, he had placed his five-year-old daughter “little Emma” in a more wholesome environment—her maternal grandparents’ Conway, Massachusetts, farm home.[3]

While the countryside served as a haven from urban job competition for Cheney Sherman, it was also the site of intense physical labor.  Writing from her lodgings in Harlem to her father on September 5, 1864, Emma reported that her husband Johnnie had made it through the Battle of Mobile Bay without “a scratch” and would be using a portion of the $15,000 owed him for capture of a Confederate vessel to purchase a home of their own where Cheney could come live with his daughter and son-in-law and “not have to work much longer.”  Approximately a week later, however, Emma’s husband came home to New York seriously wounded, and she wrote to her father in East Brimfield on October 10 that she, Johnnie, and their two-year-old daughter Carrie were in nearby Chickopee, Massachusetts, where they hoped a “change of air” might ease her husband’s suffering before a possible return to the Brooklyn Naval Hospital.  Emma’s plans for ending her father’s toil on the land ultimately came to naught.  Writing on black-bordered stationery from the home of her brother’s in-laws at Conway, Emma mused on August 16, 1865:  “Father I am very sorry that you have to work as hard in your old day’s [sic] . . . How much Johnnie and I anticipated having a pleasant home so that we might have you with us.  You were always connected with all our future plans but it was not to be so.  [H]is death has made a sad change.”[4]

Like her father before her, Emma now sought escape from her woes in the Massachusetts countryside but instead found there a life of hard labor.  During her visit to western Massachusetts in the summer of 1865, Emma met the man who a year later would become her second husband.  Unlike her marriage to Johnnie, this match was one of convenience rather than love, and subsequent letters to Cheney Sherman from both Emma and Caddie indicate that Emma’s second husband was an undependable provider and an indifferent stepfather to Emma’s daughter Carrie.  Writing from Williamsburg, Massachusetts, near the Conway home of her brother’s in-laws, Emma reported to her father on August 19, 1869, that her husband Clark was “hard at work this summer . . . farming most of the time and getting out timber.”   Apparently dissatisfied with this work, Emma’s husband soon moved his small family to Little Rock, Arkansas, where he labored on the police force until the city’s hot weather and high cost of living caused him “to dissipate.”  As Caddie described the “dreadful” situation in a long letter to their father, her sister’s Arkansas sojourn brought both Clark and Emma “to their senses” and made them realize “that all this western life and success was a myth.”  Back in Massachusetts, Emma continued her life as a farm laborer’s wife, while Caddie worried in a letter to their father on February 11, 1872, that “country life” was not good for Emma:  “[It] is hard work and it begins to tell on her.  [M]akes her grow old.  Clark is a good enough fellow but not the one for Em I am sorry to say.”  When Emma herself wrote her father from the tiny western Massachusetts village of Florence on October 28, 1878, she was working as a seamstress, 16-year-old Carrie was earning $5.50 a week at the local silk mill, and Clark was once again searching for work, now hoping to rent or labor on a farm near his father-in-law Cheney.[5]

Located at various sites throughout the state of Massachusetts—the very birthplace of America’s industrial revolution—members of the Sherman clan resided in the boundaries between agrarian and industrial America.  They also frequently resided on the edge of poverty, which sometimes necessitated industrial employment (in a silk mill, gun factory, or on a naval steam ship) and other times required labor on the land.  As the Sherman sisters’ correspondence suggests, for these and many other New Englanders, one’s identity as a farmer or industrial laborer—or as a rural or urban dweller—remained necessarily flexible during this period of geographic mobility, national crisis, and economic change.

[1] Joan M. Jensen, “Introduction, “ in Joan M. Jensen, ed., With These Hands:  Women Working on the Land (Old Westbury, NY:  The Feminist Press, 1981), xvii-xviii.  The author thanks Sharon Wood for photographing the Sherman letters and Sherry Gillogly for her genealogical research on the Sherman family.

[2] Lillian Smith, “Autobiography as a Dialogue between King and Corpse,” in Michelle Cliff, ed., The Winner Names the Age:  A Collection of Writings by Lillian Smith (New York:  W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1978), 190-191; Emma Sherman [married name?] to Sarah Dexter Sherman, June 25, 1860.

[3] Emma Sherman to Cheney Janes Sherman, [September?] 1862.

[4] Emma Sherman to Cheney Janes Sherman, September 5, 1864; Emma Sherman to Cheney Janes Sherman, October 10, 1864; Emma Sherman to Cheney Janes Sherman, August 16, 1865.

[5] Caroline M. (Caddie) Sherman to Cheney Janes Sherman, May 13, 1866; Cheney Janes Sherman to Emma Sherman, August 5, 1866; Emma Sherman to Cheney Janes Sherman, August 19, 1869; Caddie Sherman to Cheney Janes Sherman, May 28, [1870?]; Caddie Sherman Spooner to Cheney Janes Sherman, February 11, 1872; Emma Sherman to Cheney Janes Sherman, October 28, 1878.

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