1834: Sarah Dwight Woolsey to Charles Frederick Johnson

How Sarah Woolsey might have looked.

How Sarah Dwight Woolsey (1805-1870) might have looked.

This letter was written by Sarah Dwight Woolsey (1805-1870), the daughter of William Walton Woolsey (1766-1839) and Elizabeth Dwight (1772-1813). Woolsey was a New York merchant and engaged in importing sugar, cotton, and hardware. His sugar refinery, established in 1838 — the year before his death, was the oldest and largest ever built in the United States. The refinery was housed in a structure eleven stories high and constituted an entire block of itself in South street near Montgomery Street in New York City. Woolsey was also an officer of the New York Chamber of Commerce and of the Manufacturing Society of New York City. His financial interests included a directorship of the Merchants’ Bank, and he was president of the Eagle Fire Insurance Company. He was also one of the governors of the New York Hospital; board member Boston & Providence RR and of a bank at New Haven; treasureer American Bible Society; and member of the Council U of NY. Sarah’s older brother, Theodore Dwight Woolsey (1801-1889) was the President of Yale College from 1846 to 1871.

Sarah wrote this letter prior to her marriage to Charles Frederick Johnson (1804-1882), the son of Robert Charles Johnson (1766-1806) and Catherine Anne Bayard (1770-1806) of Stratford, Fairfield County, Connecticut. Charles lost his parents when he was only two years old; his mother died on 9 April 1806 and his father on 24 September 1806. Due to the death of both his parents, Charles F. Johnson and his older siblings were raised by their uncle, Samuel William Johnson (1761-1847) and his wife Susan Pierrepont (Edwards) Johnson (1771-1856) at Stratford, Connecticut. Charles was raised with his first cousins, two of whom attended the Litchfield Law School. One of these cousins was William Samuel Johnson (1795-18xx) who became a New York lawyer and married Laura Woolsey (1800-1880) in 1824. Laura was the older sister of Sarah Woolsey; hence the reference to Charles as “cousin.” William and Laura are mentioned frequently in this letter suggesting that Sarah was close to them and helped care for their young daughter, Susan (“Suzy”) Edwards Johnson, born in 1825. The other cousin with whom Charles was raised was Robert Charles Johnson who came to Owego, Tioga County, New York in 1830 and formed a law partnership with Thomas Farrington. Charles F. Johnson and his cousin Robert eventually financed many early manufacturing industries in Owego NY. Robert C. Johnson was, for a time, married to Mary Eliza Pumpelly, the daughter of James Pumpelly.

Notice in Richmond Whig Paper of 6 November 1849 announcing patent of new telegraph by Johnson

Notice in Richmond Whig Paper of 6 November 1849 announcing patent of new telegraph by Johnson

Charles Frederick Johnson graduated from Union College in 1823 and, like his cousins before him, attended the Litchfield Law School in 1824. He inherited large tracts of land in western New York from his father in the Susquehanna Valley, and cut it into various farm plots and sold it to the first settlers. Johnson then settled in Tioga County, New York with his wife in 1837 where he had a 200-acre farm called Meadow Bank on the west bank of Owego Creek. He never pursued a legal practice and was an inventor and writer instead. He is attributed with inventing the “first and only town clock ever seen in Owego” which was placed in the steeple of the First Baptist Church; it was constructed by him and John J. Speed of Ithaca. Johnson also made some literary efforts and translated Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura in blank verse and it was published in New York in 1872. He lived in Tioga County until 1876 at which time he moved into the home of his daughter Mrs. Anna J. Bellamy of Dorchester, MA where he lived until his death in 1882.

Sarah is credited with organizing the “Owego Book Club” in Tioga County in May 1858.

Though the letter is not dated by year, it had to be either 1828 or 1834 as those are the only two years in the correct timeframe in which June 17th falls on a Tuesday. Since Charles and Sarah were married in April 1835, I’m going to conjecture that the letter was written in June 1834.

1834 Letter

1834 Letter

Addressed to Charles Frederick Johnson, Esq., Owego, Tioga County, New York

Tuesday, June 17th [1834]

I have been so ill ever since your departure dearest cousin as to be unable to sit up until now. My indisposition came on during Sunday night and kept me a prisoner during yesterday – but I am sure it will do me nothing but good, and that i am much more likely to be well than I have been for some time past. I had notwithstanding a comfortable day yesterday. I took [William] Wordsworth and some other employments — and [my sister] Laura spent two hours with me. We talked much of you. How she and William do love you. I love them for it. I asked after poor little Plato and heard that he was your companion ___ voyage and very glad was I for I feared that it being Sunday you could not find something to put him in — and would leave him to the honors of the Canal Boat. So I was much pleased to learn that he was under your own care where I am sure every animate thing is safe. Theodorus’ epithet only applied to the inanimate. I was also rejoiced when that William agreed with me as to the dangers of the canal route, for I thought you perhaps had charged yourself with him only because I importuned you – not that you were all convinced enough of Plato. You must tell me of him.

After you left me, dearest, I repaired with Suzy to my room. She was soon asleep and a sleeping child has always something to _____ _____ful that it seems to me like a protection. I was alone in the house except one of the female servants and I enjoyed my home for I thought of you and read our portion of the prayer book and then fervently did I pray that you might be under his care whose eye never slumbers, and that you might be more & more his child. I love to join our welfare in such moments. How happy we are, dearest, in each other. How deeply blest and “what shall we render for it.” It was in the night about 1 of that I was taken ill and was not relieved from suffering until 10 in the night but after that I had only weakness to contend with & some fever, which continued thru’ last night. This morning after the rest were up, I slept sweetly and feel somewhat better. I think of going down to dinner. I have really ransacked [William] Wordsworth for “Phantoms that to gain their fill of promised luster, wait in vain.” ¹ I pursued the s____ this [Samuel Taylor] Coleridge whose works were sometimes published with those of Wordsworth, but it is not in either. Where did you see it?

Wednesday evening. 18th

I can write with pleasure now dearest because I am much better. I think I shall remain so. I came downstairs yesterday afternoon and walked out a little way this p.m. — the first time since I leaned on your arm returning from church on Sunday. How I do miss you my love. I am not yet realized to your absence, but feel a constant expectation of seeing you at a certain hour, or of hearing the servants knock at my door & tell me, “Mr. Johnson is below ma’am” — which they always so with a peculiarly intelligent air as if they know they were conveying some information by no means indifferent. Laura came yesterday again and said she felt it her duty to make up your loss to me. She was very kind in making the exertion for me while I was ailing but tho’ she can do more than anyone but you, she can by no means make up your loss. Even tho’ I am perfectly satisfied you should be where your duty calls you and know that your personal attention is much needed, do I wish the void to be filled by anything whatever. Your letters and thoughts of your returning along with me and mingling with everything (‘se mer clan en todo”) can do more to make me feel that you are still with me, tho’ absent. It is not so much to reverize or muse upon you as to employ myself in occupations or trains of thought which you would enjoy & approve. Good night my love. I am happy in thinking you are safely arrived this afternoon and can again read our portion with me. It is the 48th — “Great is the Low and greatly to be practed.” Good night again my dear Charles. “sue tu duermas con diaz. Que dias queda contigo.” You must learn all the Spanish I use.

Saturday 21st.

I have received your most welcome letter, dearest cousin, and hasten to finish mine with the more pleasure. I can now call myself well. Indeed, this morning Susy & I went to Brooklyn, which walk tho’ somewhat imprudent, necessity imposed upon me. Susy has staid with me ever since you went away and while I was sick was a great comfort as you may suppose. I think my morning’s exertion has not been hurtful to me. When I arrived at home and found your letter, all fatigue was gone in the pleasure for I did not count upon it till tomorrow with much precision. Could you know the pleasure it gave me you would be rewarded for the effort. The poor Doctor — comfort him my love as much as you can. I wish I could help you to make his little troubles lighter by adding another to the list of his sympathizers. The dear little dog. I forgive him eating your glove. I am sure you would have lost it or its fellow if he had not.

On Thursday came our Sally with Gerard & the baby — Mr. R. following in the evening. She was coming to see me but Laura sent for me and I took tea with her in Warren Street. ² She was very kind and looked & acted so seemly. Very well in health & good spirits. I rejoiced to see her. The next day they proceeded to Connecticut. I certainly shall make her the visit on her return. Aside from the pleasure of knowing more of our sister, I think a day or two in the country would revive me. I get worn out every spring and the city summer offers no cure. Think ____ of this and when any little thing comes to your mind which you fear might not be agreeable to me where you are, think of the luxury of our health — and if that with you is not enough to make up for a few exteriors what must I be — & how unworthy of your heart. You were happy love when you wrote. I know you were for it is perceptible. And I am equally so, Last evening I asked the Owego party to tea, but A. C. came and made their apology.

Anthony is much pleased with his dog which arrived safely. I have not yet taken your legacy of books for I am determined to finish some on hand before beginning any others. Cholmans & Mrs. Marcel Conversations etc. The Cook on the Creed I have begun with much pleasure.

William Woolsey Johnson (1841-1927) was Charles and Sarah's son. An 1862 graduate of Yale, he taught mathematics at the US Naval Academy for 40 years.

William Woolsey Johnson (1841-1927) was Charles and Sarah’s son. An 1862 graduate of Yale, he taught mathematics at the US Naval Academy for 40 years.

Dearest, I will close this that it may go this evening. If there be a mail at night or early in the morning. I fear, however, that tomorrow being Sunday you will not receive this before Wednesday, so I will fill the little remainder. Could you have been here this week it would have been delightful to me for since I could go downstairs, my time might have been yours interfering with no one’s claims. But I am glad you are at your post, and if you continue well, the call on your time & energy will not be disagreeable even if it should interfere with more congenial pursuits. You will be able to get everything in trim for the future so as to not to have the same to do over again next summer. Tell me of the Englishman in your employ [and] if you find him what you expect.

And now, goodbye. Ever yours, — S.

I will always let you know exactly as to my health. I make the worst of it, so do not be uneasy.

¹ This line is from a poem by William Wordsworth called “Once I could Hail (howe’er serve the sky)” written in 1826.

William Walton Woolsey

William Walton Woolsey (1766-1839) ca. 1821

² Longworth’s (1834) American Almanac, New York Register & City directory records William Samuel Johnson, Attorney, with an office at 37 Liberty Street and a residence at 29 Warren Street. In the same directory, William W. Woolsey, merchant, is recorded as having a business located at 44 Merchant’s Exchange on Wall Street, and a home at 59 Greenwich (on the site of what is probably now the Battery Parking Garage). A book entitled, The Old Merchants of New York City claims that Woolsey’s house “stood on the corner of an alley way, was large, and in its palmy days was one of the most desirable houses in New York. It was the abode of good old fashioned New York hospitality. In 1825, Mr. Woolsey presided at the great Erie Canal meeting held in the city.” [p. 384]

³ Charles F. Johnson’s Meadowbank Farm was on the west bank of Owego Creek near its junction with the Susquehanna River. In the map below from the 1850s can be seen at least four structures belonging to C. F. Johnson near the road that is now Route 17C.

Portion of Tioga County, NY  Map west of Owego

Portion of Tioga County, NY Map west of Owego (click to enlarge)

One response to “1834: Sarah Dwight Woolsey to Charles Frederick Johnson

  • Stephen Barneby

    I ran across a record mentioning Charles Frederick Johnson, Jr. (1836-1931) in a probate court record involving the estate of James Catlin (1789-1862). Charles F. Johnson was named as “special guardian” to James Catlin’s youngest son, Edmund Catlin (1844-1933). Not sure what this might have entailed – perhaps seeing to his education, as the Johnson family was so tightly connected to Yale University.

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