1838: Elisabeth Wells to Rev. Nathaniel Wells

How Elisabeth Jane Wells might have looked in 1839

How Elisabeth Jane Wells might have looked in 1838

This letter was written by Elisabeth Jane Wells (1816-18xx), the daughter of Rev. Nathaniel Wells (1775-1858) and Eunice Hemmenway (1777-1853) of Deerfield, Rockingham County, New Hampshire. Elisabeth’s parents had numerous children; she mentions only two others in this letter: Moses Hemmenway Wells (1814-18xx) and Abigail (“Abby”) Theodosia Wells (1819-18xx). In 1847, Elisabeth married Rev. John Pinkerton Humphrey (1817-1889), son of John and Rebecca (Brewster) Humphrey. Humphrey was an 1839 graduate of Dartmouth College and an 1844 graduate of Andover Theological Seminary. He was a Congregationalist minister.

Elisabeth wrote this letter during her final term as a student at the Ontario Female Seminary in Canandaigua, New York. We learn from this letter that she anticipates returning to the seminary to be a teacher following a summer vacation at her parent’s home in Deerfield, New Hampshire. The “Miss Votee” described at length by Elisabeth in this letter was Anne Rebecca Votee (18xx-1855) who became her sister-in-law — the wife of Moses H. Wells — in 1844. Catalogue records show that Miss Votee was one of seven assistant teachers working at the Seminary in 1839 and that she was still working there in 1843 with Elisabeth in 1843. Anne was the daughter of Capt. Charles Votee and Aura Ives of New York City.

Also mentioned in this letter is Madame De St. Laurent who was the Seminary’s instructor in French and Spanish, Harp and Guitar.

1839 Letter

1839 Letter

Rev. Nathaniel Wells, Deerfield, New Hampshire

Ontario Female Seminary in the 1830s

Ontario Female Seminary in the 1830s

Canandaigua [New York]
March 3rd 1838

Beloved Parents,

It has been a long time since I last wrote you but I suppose you would not feel anxious as I have written several times to Deerfield since I wrote you. Spring has again returned to Canandaigua and is it true that in a few weeks I hope to be at home — to be received to the embraces of my dear father and mother, brothers and sisters? Yes it is true. This is a subject with which almost all my conceptions both working and sleeping are connected when free from restraint. How often for the last month have I in imagination been with you. At one time the scene of meeting has been present and then again I would be sitting at my accustomed place at the table or climbing over the dear New England hills, or engaging in the domestic duties of the family. I have to think of rising with the sun and employing myself as I used to in preparing breakfast for the family and in helping Abby in all her business. Although it has been more than a year since I have been engaged, yet I believe I have not forgotten how nor lost my relish for such duties. Indeed, if circumstances would allow, I should like to spend a portion of each day in performing these duties. It has sometimes seemed strange to me that anyone should think them degrading. He who combines the elements together from the delicious juices of fruits, who sendeth the former and the latter rain to bring forth food for man, who clotheth all things with order and beauty, does not think these things beneath His dignity and shall we who are but the creatures of His workmanship elevate ourselves above our Maker? No, I think those domestic employments which especially constitute the sphere of female action are really dignified and that one who possesses a refined and exalted taste may make them a source of great improvement — physical, intellectual, and moral.


I turn aside again from the duties which employ the most of my rime to converse with my dear father and mother. Aunt Hetty received a letter from Sidney saying that it was thought that as many as two hundred had passed from death into life in Northwood [New Hampshire]. I felt anxious to hear something of the state of religious feeling in Deerfield. I have heard nothing since I received Abby’s letter. I was cheered by the intelligence which it contained. Much as I lamented the death of H. N. ___lly, I could not help rejoicing in that mercy which has thus blessed it. O, I wish that I might hear that God is doing great things in Deerfield.

We have had some precious tokens of the presence of God’s Spirit in the [Ontario Female] Seminary this winter. We have reason to think that six of our number have indeed given their hearts to the Savior. Many more have appeared anxious by inquiring to know what they should do to be saved. The school never has been so interesting since I have been here as it is this term. There never has been so little exhibition of vanity and thoughtlessness. God is pouring out his Spirit on many of the churches in this vicinity.


You will observe by the manner in which I have written this letter that my time is pretty much occupied. It is so, and I suppose it will be thus until the close of the term. I don’t know but I have been in too much haste to get through. I should not have hurried quite so much if I had not expected to be able to continue the pursuit of my studies after graduating. The young ladies at this Seminary never have enjoyed so good an opportunity for studying the languages as they do this term. Madame de St. Laurent is liked very much as a teacher in French. She is quite accomplished but not pious. It seems very pleasant to see her with her mother and sister. They all room together and appear very happy in each other’s affection. Her only brother is at the Academy so we have the whole family here except Madame St. Laurent’s husband.

57769The remaining part of this term will be spent in reviewing our studies and in preparing composition for examination. You will suppose me very anxious but I am not. I think very little solicitude in regard to my last examination. For the good of the school and on Miss [Hannah] Upham’s ¹ account, I should like to do well. as well as on your’s and my own. We have a very interesting class — all professionally pious. The last of the six hopes that her heart was changed a few weeks ago. She has appeared remarkably well ever since. We all expect to engage in teaching.

I feel a little anxiety when I think of entering on the office of teacher. Much is expected and much required of a teacher here. I do not mean much labor. No, they have comparatively an easy task and enjoy much leisure. But a teacher here should possess a rare assemblage of good qualities. Patience, firmness, an affectionate manner, and a fervent desire of doing good are essentially necessary. But I will not trouble myself about that at present. I will trust in that promise, “My grace is sufficient for thee.” My mind has been too much occupied in thoughts of going home to suffer me to indulge in much anxiety about anything.

April 3rd

I find that it is just a month since I commenced this letter. I dd not intend that it should be so long before I finished when I commenced it but my mind has been very much occupied of late. My dear father knows what it is to prepare for a last examination and he will excuse me. I know I received a letter from Moses this morning and have just answered it. He was well — said that he had received a packet of letters from home — spoke of Pa’s labors and Mother’s sickness. He supposed that I had heard about the last but I had not except as it has been accidentally mentioned in the letters which have been received from Deerfield and Abby merely mentioned the fact of her fainting when she wrote last. I feel solicitous to know how she is & hope that when spring opens and the birds sing and the flowers bloom she will be well again. When she see Moses and I at home again & family, she will feel a little sensation of happiness and possibly it may have a beneficial effect upon her health.

Moses mentioned that Pa’s health had been remarkably sustained under his accumulated labors. This surely is cause for gratitude with us all and it is pleasing to hear of the interesting state of religious feeling there and the region round about. O that all our kind friends in Deerfield would accept the gracious offers of salvation which are revealed in the gospel.

Faculty at Seminary in 1838

Faculty at Seminary in 1838

Soon, very soon, only six weeks and I hope to be at home to converse about these & things so interested to us all. Soon I hope to meet my dear Father and Mother around the mercy seat. My most sacred remembrances of home are connected with that sacred hour when all were accustomed to meet around the throne of grace and there as a family offer up our united thanksgivings and supplication. Surely none could be willing to live without family prayer if they knew its power in binding together the family circle and diffusing a spirit of love through the breast of all who there participated in it. Shall I really enjoy those seasons again? Ah, I must not be too sanguine. I often think of that text, “Boast not thyself of tomorrow.” All our brightest hopes and most joyous anticipations may be blasted in a moment. How pleasant it is to reflect that although this should be the case, yet all things work together for good to them who love God. How blessed would it be if we could at all times say Thy will be done. I pray for me, my dear parents, that I may possess this spirit, that I may carry it with me into all the circumstances of life, may not only be resigned to the will of God as displayed in the leadings of Providence but may I labor to do His will myself and to labor that others may do it.

Changes — great changes — have taken place in Deerfield since I left and I suppose I have changed but it is not as you would have anticipated, I apprehend. A year can do wondrous things that each succeeding year mind find us reflecting more and more clearly the image of Him who is the sanctifier of our souls.

Faculty at Seminary in 1843

Faculty at Seminary in 1843

We shall probably arrive in Deerfield on Saturday the twelfth of May. Miss Upham expects to go with us also, her two nieces [possibly Martha A. and Charlotte M. Upham of Portsmouth, N.H.] and Miss [Ann Rebecca] Votee. We hope the journey to New England will be very beneficial to Miss Votee’s health. If it should not be better, she will be unfit to leave this country this fall as she now expects. She has been all that a sister could have been to me. I know you will be grateful to her for her kindness and the happiness she has bestowed on me. If you should see her, you will not find her accomplished Miss but an intelligent superior woman — one that might be charged with a Newal ____ as [Lady] Huntington. She is not one who looks to the outward appearance but to the mind. She has been like us poor — has been obliged to struggle with the pinchings of poverty and labored with her needle for her support. Her father was a wealthy sea captain and sustained his family in luxury and refinement while he lived but he met with many losses and in his untiring efforts to regain them, wore away his life. I should suppose possessed of superior talents from her description. After his death their property was wrested from them by friends and they were left destitute. It is Ann’s talents and piety which have raised her to what she now is.

Aunt Hitty and Miss Hiddreth expect to start for New England about a fortnight before we do, I suppose we shall meet Aunt Hitty in Deerfield. Mother will not feel anxious about me when I return — I shall have so great a company with me. There will be six of us. All are well at the Seminary. We have now school scarcely this day or two. Nearly all the young ladies are attending the examination at the Academy.

Your affectionate daughter, — E

My dear mother,

Do be careful of your health at least until your daughter’s return. I feel very much anxiety in relation to it. I thank you very much for the few lines which you wrote in Abby’s letter & what can produce a more pure feeling of joy in a daughter’s heart than expression of solicitude or rather of kindness from a beloved parent. I wish you would always write post scripts in all the letters. I have written another letter before this just now and am becoming rather tired. My health is very good. Five weeks I suppose will see me through my studies here — that is, as a pupil & that the privilege which I have enjoyed here might never cease to influence my future character and make me permanently useful. Your ever affectionate daughter, — Elisabeth

¹ Hannah Upham (1789-18xx) — a native of Deerfield, New Hampshire — was a teacher and served as the preceptress of the Ontario Female Seminary in Canandaigua, New York. She took the position in 1830 when the fledgling school struggled and by 1835 had increased enrollment to 180 young ladies. She retired from the school in 1848 at 59 years of age.

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