The historical context of this letter was post-slavery Jamaica where former slaves (“labourers”) were being hired to work on the sugar and banana plantations of their former masters. In response to the need for spreading Christianity and educating the people of Jamaica, Oberlin College promoted the sending of missionaries there beginning in the late 1830s and for many years to come.
Most of this letter was written by Jane (Gordon) Beardslee (1817-1848); a small portion was written by her husband, Rev. Julius Oliver Beardslee (1814-1879). Julius was a graduate of Oberlin College who went to Jamaica in the fall of 1838 as a missionary of the Congregational Church. Beardslee labored in the schools and churches of that denomination for twenty years in Jamaica but eventually split with other missionaries from Oberlin and adopted the teachings of Alexander Campbell. For the last 12 years in Jamaica (making 32 in all), he did missionary work as a Campbellite [Note: His gravestone says 25 years. Note also that the family surname is spelled variously as Beardslee or Beardsley]
Jane and Julius had four children; the oldest two are mentioned in this letter. At ages 8, 6, and 4 years of age, respectively, Gordon, Emma, and Matthew all died within a week of each other of scarlet fever less than three months after their father took them to reside with the Gordon family in Hoosick Falls, New York, and returned to the mission in Jamaica. That was in the fall of 1848, presumably right after the death of his wife Jane. Only their youngest son Thomas grew to adulthood and it is said he served in the Union army during the Civil War. Julius married twice more before his death in California in 1879.
Jane’s father was Joseph Gordon (1780-1863), a mechanic from Glasgow who introduced the mechanical arts of the power loom for the manufacture of cloth in the United States. It is recorded that in 1817, Gordon “assembled twenty power looms from plans he had brought with him from Scotland and which he claimed to be the second set of power looms ever built in the country (after six built the previous year in Rhode Island).” These looms were in David Page’s cotton mill on Otter Creek in Middlebury, Addison County, Vermont, and made it so successful that it became the biggest factory in the state by mid-century.
Apparently Joseph Gordon went into business for himself as one source says that in 1820, “he manufactured cotton at Schaghticoke in a humble way and sold his goods from a wagon in the streets of Troy. He later built the four-storied Caledonia Cotton Factory of brick, on the south bank of Falls Quequick, and equipped it with one hundred and fifty-four looms, containing seven thousand spindles. He employed fifty men and turned out 30,000 yards weekly. In 1826, he became a cripple through a fall, and was forced to sell his mill to the Crocker, Knickerbocker House, & Merritt Corporation, which ran the business until 1868.” [Source: The Hoosac Valley: its legends and its history, by Grace Greylock Niles]
Jane’s mother was names Agnes W. (Davidson) Gordon (1776-1852). We learn from this letter that she was still living when the Gordon family relocated from Middlebury, Vermont, to Hoosick Falls, New York, in 1844 — a distance of roughly 90 miles.
Jane wrote the letter to her sister Jennette (or “Nette”) Gordon who apparently died single in 1855. She also mentions a couple of other sisters: According to the 1860 US Census, Agnes Gordon (1810-1876) was a teacher at Ball Seminary (est. 1843) in Hoosick Falls. Margaret Gordon (1810-1856) was married to Andrew Russell (1806-1855) in the 1830s. A brother, Rev. Thomas Gordon (1807-1851) is frequently mentioned. He served on the first board of trustees for Ball Seminary in 1843 and he was the pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Hoosick from 1841-1850. He died in the 14th year of his ministry. All of the Gordon family mentioned above are buried in the Old Maple Grove Cemetery in Hoosick Falls.
Addressed to Miss Jennette Gordon, Hoosick Falls, Rensselaer County, New York, U. S. A.
Brainerd [Brainard, Jamaica]†
September 8th 1844
My dear sister Jennette,
Your letter came to us 4 or 5 days ago & glad as I was to get it, in spite of myself, it cast over my heart such a gloom as I could not throw off for days. I felt the dreaded hour had come at last, that day of separation of so many hearts bound to each other by the strongest ties. How do Father & Mother bear it? And how do you bear it yourself. Jennette? But why should I talk so. The separation must come & I am sure it is within the most favorable circumstances. Father has found such employment as will suit his taste & Mother will have you & Thomas & H. & Mary & Margaret & Andrew & their children, & you know that M. is a daughter to Mother. But you will all sigh for “Sweet Home.” They are more to be pitied than we are here. We have a home though it is far from our father’s house.
Dear Nette, let the pleasing circumstances in the case have their due weight. You will be homesick of course but think how delightful it will be to have Agnes & Ma & Pa come home to make you a visit. I feel anxious for you to get into your own home for God knows that though you are in the house of the kindest brother in the world, that you will never feel settled until you are properly arranged in a lovely little white cottage which may be managed by yourselves. How much I have desired to be with you when you are arranging & to see the house & how everything will be placed & put in order. What things have you sold? Have you disused of the sideboard? Any of the chairs or tables? Write me all little particulars. You fill so much of your small sheets with lamentations over your neglects of writing & ailings at the loss of Gordon & Emma that you don’t write me any of the thousand little every day occurrences which would take me into the midst of you & make me feel more than anything else that I was visiting with you. I do not feel disposed, dear sister, to blame you for neglect in writing for I know that you have had for months your heart & hands full. And I fear now that you will find so many letters to write to the absent ones at the north that I shall get no more than formerly. I hope better things, however. For my own part, I intend to multiply letters upon you for if you care for them at all, they will be a comfort to you in Hoosick.
Tell me who in Middlebury deplored your departure besides Mrs. S_____ and if you then expect to receive a visit from any of them. We had a letter from Prof. Adams ¹ accompanying yours. He says he “would rather any family in Middlebury would leave with the exception of one. He speaks of a call from the Tutor & Jennette.
Emma stands here begging to get up. I told her that I was writing to Aunt Jennette & asked her if she wanted to send her a kiss. She answered “yes” & ran away.
Mr. Beardslee has gone to Mr. Renshaw’s ² & taken Gordon with him & Emma is asleep & the boys have gone to bathe & Emma has strayed away my thimble so that there is nothing left for me to do but sit down & write to you. It is a long time since Gordon has been able to go anywhere with his father merely because he has part nothing to wear. You will scarecely believe me when I tell you that he has not had a frock but those he brought with him from America & the one which cousin M. sent him, until within two weeks. He was literally in rags & I was ashamed to have people see him. The dress which M. sent him was the only one he had & he was obliged to wear aprons with sleeves as the sleeves of that were so badly worn as not to admit of mending. His checked aprons which he brought from home were well patched & were becoming quite too small for him. He had not a shoe to his foot. A quarters advance on the board of Mr. Hall & Sons enabled to get 12 yards of brown linen of which I made 6 pairs pants, 2 frocks, & 3 aprons so that he has now quite a fitting up. Both Gordon & Emma wear palm leaf hats. They are both quite well just now & as fat as pigs. Emma is particular. She sits here now eating rice & milk. She has just waked from her nap. She is a great talker as I must have told you before.
Gordon did something which did not please her & she told him, “Gordon, Ma punish you.” She is saying now, “Ma Keter bity me.” She is all spunk but as affectionate as ever. She is her father’s darling & she in her turn is as fond of him. Gordon is in deep trouble to know how he & his horse are to go through all that water. He is quite determined to go to America. He came up from Aunt Ruth’s yesterday with a message from her to you. “A plenty of howdie to Miss Jennette & her Papa & Mama. The children are both great friends of Aunt Ruth. Emma calls her Root. Gordon calls her “grandy Ruty.”
You will winder sometimes how we are getting on with the boys. I can only say soso. They do pretty well but by the time study hours are through, I am well & tired & sometimes almost wish that we could have a comfortable living without them. But they will in the course of the year bring us more money than we get from the people. Provisions are big i______ to come in & we are hoping for a good supply from the people. THey have done well in that line for two weeks past.
You see that I am writing little & little but I do not allow quite so long intervals to elapse between my times of writing as you. I will not, however, be _______. This is Sabbath evening & it has been raining all day & I suppose that this is the beginning of wet weather — still more yet, I mean, for there were but few days here last year at this time in which we have not had more or less rain. Sickness is more prevalent among us now than it has been for a long time. The dysentery is raging fearfully in some parts of the country. A poor woman at Dee-side died last night of it after being ill only 24 hours. I became quite uneasy about Gordon on Friday evening. He was unwell all day & at night had high fever. We dosed him with Calomel & ____ powders at night & castor oil in the morning so that before night yesterday he appeared quite well & now seems better than he has done for some time past. I don’t know how it is but the least thing that ails the children alarms me very much. I think it is owing in part to the climate & part to the fact that I could not call on good Dr. Allen should they need a doctor. But on Friday night I realized in part how better a thing it would be to part with Gordon & it kept me awake nearly the whole night & made we nearly sick the whole day yesterday. The heart clings closely to the few we have here in this lone land to love.
I had a good kind letter from Miss Parson yesterday. I think she is more to be pitied than I am. She has just gone among strangers & seems to feel lonely enough. I do hope that she may not remain long at the South. Why does not Agnes write her oftener? It is too bad that so confiding a heart should not find more satisfaction in those it loves. I mean to write her as often as I can. I should feel inclined to write oftener if it was not so that it puts her under the necessity of paying postage both ways which I do not like to do. Hovey is some better & is acting as agent for the West India Committee.” We had a good letter from him the other day. Real fun. We have but few letters from any quarter now. We are looking for one from Thomas. He is the most punctual correspondent we have.
I had a bottle of honey the other day from Mrs. Evarts. She is as good & as kind as ever & she is one of the most kind, benevolent beings in the world. Mrs. Preston sent me a pound of fresh butter last week & Mrs. Renshaw has done the same several times. So you see that I am standing on better terms with the mission families than when I first came to Jamaica.
Mrs. Preston is a kind-hearted being. I fear much that we will not have her long among us. SHe is in very poor health & said in a note last evening that she had been raising some blood within a day or two. Mr. & Mrs. Venning are going on as usual doing well with the school. ³ Jonathan Yaukers who had been visiting the Islands said they had not seen so interesting a school during their travels as this. My head is aching so dear wiser, I bid you good night.
I did not intend to leave this sheet so long unfinished but Emma has been quite unwell. She has taken with fever from a severe cold which she had taken. She was ill several days. She is now, however, much better. Beside, I have been over with Mrs. Preston. Returned last last evening. She has been bleeding at the lungs & become suddenly prostrated & for a week now has not been able to leave her bed or speak above a whisper. What the result will be we cannot tell. They called Dr. Clarke who you remember attended ____. He came over to see her but did not give any opinion. Has not been there since though he promised to be there 5 days ago. Mr. [James A.] Preston sent this morning for Dr. [Isaac] Iffla who stopped here on his way over & will call again on his return when we hope to know what will be the probable result of this sickness. It is unusually sickly times just now. Dysentery is raging & making dreadful ravages. Dr. Gray 5 miles from us died two weeks ago. One of his children died a few days before him & one since & Dr. Iffla told us this morning that two others of his children were dying yesterday. His wife has been down with the same disease but has recovered.
Here comes Emma laughing heartily & calling out, “My Gordon bity me.” They are having a play together. She is reaching after Gordon’s book & says “take Gordon’s book.” Now she is taking her father’s knife saying, “Nef cut him.” She is a great talker & talks much plainer than Gordon did at her age. Both of the children talk like regular crows. Emma calls Edy “Edy O” meaning Edward & “cockote cooker.” She has a very course voice & on the whole is a very coarse girl.
Mr. Beardsley has been troubled several days with a bowel complaint & looks rather ghostly. He is better, however.
Mrs. Renshaw & her little girl are both suffering from sore eyes & Mrs. Evarts’ little George is sick/ My health is very good though I do not feel as strong as when I was at home or when I first returned. Emma is on my back now & you must excuse my bad writing.
Dear Nette, I have often thought of late how apropos my visit home was just at a time when we could all be at home together. But really I now feel for your sake & for Father & Mother it would be better to be at home now. Rather I might say to be at home always. Be particular when you write & tell me all your thoughts & feelings just as you used to do when we were together with all little items of intelligence which would interest me if I were with you. Don’t give way to homesickness but make yourself as happy as possible & that you know is done by striving to make others happy. I often think what a blessing you have in a cheerful happy Mother – one who is always young & can enter as cordially into all your feelings & interests as I can. I would give a Kingdom if I could have her here. I trust Father will not long be as far from the Factory as now. Certainly not during the winter. (Emma has just come in all covered with coffee grounds which she has been eating so I must leave & go & ___ & walk her.)
September 27th [this portion by Rev. Julius O. Beardsley]
My dear sister,
I am truly obliged for your kind remembrance of me inyour last letter and it would be ungrateful in me to allow this sheet to be sent off without a few words in return. It rejoices my heart to know that I have once in my life acted the part of the Good Samaritan & that a heart so sensitive as thine has received the oil and wine in such a time of need. I trust you will not soon have occasion for the like again, for the heart of the castigator has often relented for its unwanted severity. I cannot vouch, however, for the future, so I would advise you not to give any occasion, though you may be assured that the milk of human kindness is ever flowing in the heart of your brother & shall be at your service when needed.
I am sorry that my caution should have been too late, yet I think as you are so far removed from the object of affection, [paper torn] actual advances were made on either side, you are on the whole quite safe. I almost wish I had a twin brother for you, you seem to be so taken by resemblances. I think I must have grown handsome by a removal to the tropics. I am sure I was never so flattered in my own country.
You have greatly obliged me by announcing that my old friend, Aunt Cynthia, is alive & ____ng. May she live to ___k for many years to come. The time has almost come round — five years — when “Basses” apples must be ripe again, which you say were green when you wrote. I hope Bro. Thomas & I would find better picking now. Probably Hoosick would reward our toil better. How I would like to be there on the Anniversary of our wedding day — would we not have a glorious time — pickings & all? I reckon.
I love to think of you as being in Hoosick though I was never there. I suppose it is because Jane likes it so well & that good brother Thomas is there & cousin Andrew & Margaret so that you are in the midst of kindred & have the prospect of a comfortable home. I am glad you left Middlebury cheerfully & trust ‘ere this you feel quite at home in Hoosick. We are glad to hear how you all get on & hope you will not fail to write as often as possible. We are disappointed in not getting a letter from Bro. Thomas for a long time. He must be unusually engaged in pastoral labors.
28th. I was obliged to stop here yesterday to get out and see if I could get a mule to send for a barrel of flour to Annotto Bay. I have never sent there for provisions but they have good flour there now $9 per barrel & we are out so we send there. I rode out & took Emma with me which I had promised to do in the morning. I was surprised to find how she could entertain one with her chat, though I knew she was making great improvement in talking. As we passed where the road had been bolted — that is, the brush cut, she said, “body [paper torn] is high for me.” She called most of the common trees & bush by name — such as “guava” “pear” “mango” “bamboo” & when we came to the river by Cold Spring, she said, “plenty joggers in river.” She remembers what passes from day to day. The day previous Dr. Iffla borrowed my horse “Pimento” to go to Elliott [Station]. As we rode along, Emma says, “Pa, Doctor ride Mento.” “Doctor ga’op (gallop) Mento.” I suppose she noticed that the horse was quite wet when he returned.
We have not tried to teach Gordon to read much till within a few days & not very regularly at best, He now knows most of the large letters but does not seem to take too readily. He is such a little man. It almost seems that he ought to read without learning the alphabet.
Jane is teasing me to let her go back to Elliott [Station] today (Sat.) & spend the Sabbath. Now I love to gratify in most things but I really feel that I ought to exercise a little of the authority of the husband in a case like this as I fear the exposure & anxiety & constant exertion which she always puts forth to the utmost at such times will do her injury. I don’t think Mother would let her go were she here. Now what shall I do? I don’t think I am selfish in the matter. I am thinking — I did not say hoping, did I? that the rain may come & prevent her going. How providential that would be & I could reserve all my authority for another occasion. I shant decided just now till I see if the rain comes.
Nette, you remember old Alex Smellie — the would be “daddy?” Well he has at last got tired of my plain dealing & gone off, joining with old Edwards at Sue River & Old Bishop near Richmond & among them they support a young Brown fellow to preach & baptize for them. He makes it his home with Alex. & the Old Man has put up a small class house close by his own house on Dublin Castle. They have taken one “exkommunnikit” from our church & two or three of the nearest trash of the Congregation who could not get into the church here & received them to table at once. I don’t know what they may do but guess not much with our people. Alex. has little influence here.
The Dr. said that Mrs. Preston is in a critical situation; that tubercles are in in the act of forming upon her lungs. The prospect of her living long I should judge to be, in his mind, not very hopeful. — Julius
[Jane resumes letter]
28th. Dear Nette,
Julius has finished his share of this letter & I must finish what remains in order to send it to town on Monday as we shall then have an opportunity.
Dear Nette. I have been reading your letter again & it gives me pain to see how much you afflict yourself for the sake of those you love. I dreamed last night that I was with you & that I was going to leave Gordon with you. I sometimes wish he were with you for that influence that these boys exert upon them is not the most favorable. They are ill brought up boys though I suppose better than most children of the planters. The greatest trial I have with them is their quarreling among themselves. Did we ever do so? If so, I have forgotten. I almost always feel sad at closing a letter but this morning more than usual. I think I should feel better if Agnes & Matt & James were to see it but Father & Mother , Thomas & H. will & perhaps Margaret. Not that I think my letters so interesting but I know that they would excite some interest with them. Won’t T & H write soon? They are in our debt.
¹ Professor Adams was undoubtedly Charles Baker Adams (1814-1853) who was a professor of Chemistry and Natural History at Middlebury College (1838-1847).
² Missionary Charles Stewart Renshaw.
³ In his book, Civil Engineer and Minister of the Gospel, Edwin Octavius Tregelles made the following entries in his diary in October 1844 on his trip to Jamaica — only a month before Jane wrote this letter.
[August] 16th. Charles Stewart Renshaw has built a neat chapel and dwelling house here [in Oberlin, Jamaica], so combined as for the chapel to be used at meals. He is an American missionary, and with his wife, a young Friend from Philadelphia, gave us a most cordial welcome.
[August] 19th. Accompanied by C. S. Renshaw, we proceeded eight miles to Brainard, another American Missionary station, where we met with a kind reception from Julius O. and Jane Beardslie. Here we saw a good school of eighty boys and girls, taught by Charles B. Venning, from Kent, on the British and Foreign school system — the first we have visited in Jamaica. It is grievous to see schools going to decay in districts where rum shops are increasing. About 500 persons came to the meeting at half past four, chiefly of the labouring class, and some of their masters. At the close, J. O. Beardsleie said a few words to the people as to a notion they had that we came to ‘give them free of the land.’ They had heard, he said, that day, what was far better, the means of redemption and how they might become heirs of the kingdom of heaven.
[August] 20th. We proceeded five miles farther north to Elliott station…. At Elliott station, James A. Preston and his wife live in a very simple thatched cottage, forming part of the meeting-house, which was similar to the prayers’ houses on the other islands.
† Brainard was a small village in Saint Mary parish in the northeast part of Jamaica. Its geographical coordinates are 18° 12′ 0″ North, 76° 54′ 0″ West.