[Note: This post is an expansion of an article published in the Williston Bulletin in 2000. A few of the quoted documents have appeared elsewhere in this blog.]
Anyone pursuing the history of Williston Seminary’s first four decades might assume that the task involves the study of dry, formal documents, the records of austere men shaping the serious minds of New England’s youth under the benevolent gaze of a saintly founder. Fortunately, we have an antidote. At a time when telephones and email were not even a dream, students wrote long, lively, personal letters, dozens of which are preserved in the Williston Northampton Archives. Most we have in manuscript; a few are copies or transcriptions of documents in private hands.
While much was happening in the 19th century world, most students’ letters barely acknowledge events away from school and home. Their concerns were necessarily more local: classes, friends, money. These letters let them speak with their own voices, and provide a fascinating window into their daily lives.
Their writing was hardly that of finished scholars. Samuel Williston once admonished that “Bad orthography, bad penmanship, or bad grammar— bad habits in any of the rudiments— if they be not corrected in the preparatory school, will probably be carried through College and not unlikely extend themselves to other studies and pursuits.” Perhaps to prove his point, we have mostly left the writers’ syntax alone, making only minimal corrections. Indeed, as student Abner Austin wrote his family in 1856, in a sentence spectacularly devoid of any punctuation whatsoever, “Mr. Williston is not the teacher he has nothing to do with it no more than you have he is the founder of it therefore it is called the Williston Seminary.”
By mid-century many New England towns were connected by rail, but in 1854 the line had not yet reached Easthampton. That April, Charles Carpenter wrote his father,
I arrived safely at No. H. on Tuesday morning. On the way, met (in the cars) with a young fellow, like myself, Williston-bound. Had to wait in No. H. all day — crowds of students came up in the train — and several stages and teams were in readiness to convey them over. Ten of us got into a three seated wagon. It was most terrific going — mud and melted snow formed a horrible coalition — Could hardly get out of a walk, a single step. We suffered the greatest trouble, however, in fear that other students would get ahead of us and engage the rooms; but after two hours we arrived — “put” for the “Sem.” The Chief Boss of the Institution, Mr. Marsh, is absent, on account of dangerous family sickness — and everything went hurly-burly.Continue reading →
Among the Archives’ collection of student letters are three by Albert Montague, class of 1843. Albert was born in the village of Sunderland, Mass., in 1822, to a large and reasonably prosperous farming family. Having attended the Amherst Academy, Albert enrolled in newly-founded Williston Seminary at the start of its second academic year, in September 1842. Typically of many students at the time, he interrupted his education during the 1843 farming season, then returned for one term the following fall. At the time he first enrolled he was nearly twenty years old, This was not unusual in the Seminary’s early years. He was enrolled in the “English” (i.e. Scientific, as opposed to Classical) curriculum. Since at this time the students were not grouped into annual classes, and academic transcripts were not yet kept, it cannot be determined whether Albert completed his studies.
The three letters, dated September 5 and December 22, 1842, and October 26, 1843, are addressed to Albert’s younger sister Phila (1828-1869). They are the oldest student documents we possess and, sadly, are in such fragile condition that they should not be handled. Fortunately someone — we don’t know who — produced an accurate transcription many years ago. The first letter has unique qualities. Written on both sides of a very large (ca. 17 x 21 inches) single sheet of paper, much of it comprises Albert’s daily diary of his first days at Williston Seminary.
The first and third of the letters are reproduced here. Some punctuation and spelling idiosyncrasies have been corrected, but by and large the syntax is Montague’s own.
Letter no. 1
Easthampton, Sept. 5 1842
Although it is but a short time since I left home I thought I would commence writing as I want to give you the substance of my proceedings for awhile to come in the shape of a diary and not knowing but that I might have a chance to send as I wish to before long for the class in Astronomy was organized last Thursday I found I had not the right book as it was the small work that I needed and I had the large one. So I wish you to tell Father to say to Mr. Adams that it is not the right one. And that I wish to return it as soon as I can get it to home as he said I could exchange it if it is not the right one as I presume Father recollects and I also wish him to tell Mr. Adams that if he has sold so many books to come here to Williston Seminary as he tells for it must have been to those that come from that way and not to those that lived near Northampton for we can obtain books here much cheaper than at Amherst, viz.Grays Chemistry which we gave .75 cts. for in Amherst can be obtained here for .55 cts., for it is so that Father must speak to Mr. Adams about it the first chance he can get.
I like it here very much and wish my father was of such means so that I could stay 3 years which is the time required to fit one for College I believe. 3 of my lessons I recite to Mr. Kimball the best teacher I ever saw. He is always good natured, mild, pleasant and sociable and in fact he has numberless good traits of character about him and one in particular which shows a very sound mind, vis. he has just got Married.
There are about 130 scholars connected with the Seminary and nearly 40 of them are handsome misses. In my grammar class there are nearly 40, Chemistry class nearly 25, Astronomy class about 15 and geometry class 7. There is 20 in the club of which 2 of them are teachers viz. Mr. Storrs & Mr. Clapp. We do not live quite so well as I did at Amherst but it does very well to study upon.
Last Saturday afternoon as there was no school 8 of us went on to the top of Mount Tom but it was a hard afternoons work but I think I got paid for it as I could see Cabbot (Holyoke), Springfield South Hadley Belchertown and various other cities too numerous to mention.
I have had 5 papers from H. W. Taft, Esq. done up in 2 wrappers so that I saved 3 cts postage. But I am getting off my subject as well as writing up hill. When I commenced I did not intend to write but 6 or 8 lines before commencing my diary. Well then to commence. Arose this morning about 20 minutes before the bell rang. The bell rings at 5 for the students to get up. Study until breakfast time which is 20 minutes before 7. Had griddle cakes with molasses to put on them. At ¼ before 9 went into prayers. After prayers came into my room and studied until noon. At noon or about 25 minutes past 12 went to dinner. Had fish for the rest of them which smelt as strong as the fish cellars in Boston. I made out with wheat bread and butter. Recited almost all the afternoon. Had warm wheat bread and well salted butter (but no molasses) and apple pie sweetened with —. In the evening had the the headache so that it troubled me a little. About 9¼ o’clock commenced writing and at ¼ after 10 am about ready to get into bed. In Haste. Must close for this night.
Tuesday, Sept. 6. Arose this morning about 4 o’clock. And after lighting a lamp went to studying until it was light enough to do the chores. Went to breakfast when the bell rang. Had griddle cakes for breakfast, beef steak for dinner and bread and butter for supper and the remainder of the day was spent nearly as yesterday. Every day I like better [so] that the longer I stay I shall be more loth to [leave] when I am compelled to. I dreamed a night or 2 ago that I had returned to Amherst to school which I did not like much but soon awoke and found myself in Williston Seminary. It has been a good hay day today: wonder if our folks are haying, wonder if they have got out the rest of the manure; wonder if Austin has took his stint [?]; wonder if the water mellons are all gone and last though not least wonder if the folks are all well and if Phila helps mother all she can and tries to improve her manners and mind daily.
Sept 7 As it is Wednesday today the school closed about half past 2 and I went over to the Town Hall to hear a Black Abolition lecture. I thought he did very well. There is going to be another one on Friday evening next by the same gentleman. Had a boiled pat for dinner but there was was wheat bread and decent butter on the table.
Sept 8 Some 2 or 3 scholars have come in today so that the exact number is 142 that daily assemble here. There are 10 lessons recited in the forenoon each day and about the same number or perhaps a little less in the afternoon. Apple sauce for supper tonight which was not so wholey prepared for the table as Father would call if it was not wholey mashed. Here pains is taken to hash, warm apple pie, warm baked apple and warm everything which I have not been use to at home but do not have any warm tea, no warm biscuit or warm molasses. We met today to form a Lyceum but adjourned until tomorrow afternoon at ½ past 4 as no Constitution was prepared. I expect if I join I shall have to pay 25 cts as admittance fee to defray expenses. I have not heard from home yet. I should like to. I wish I had some of Mother’s tea. I live well enough though and feel well. Have not been homesick in the least.
Friday Sept 9 Have just returned from the Town Hall where I went and heard another Negro lecture and a pretty fair one too. There has been one scholar (Smith) expelled here today for High Crimes and other misdemeanors. He is a pretty fair little fellow but full of the — His offense was in the first place bad conduct at prayers upon which Mr. Wright obtained raw hide and he (Smith) told Mr. Wright he was not to be whipped by him and consequently he was ordered to leave the premises in one hour.
Saturday Sept 10 Nothing occurred worth relating today and as I have not much more room to write and do not intend to send until Tuesday I must save it so that if any extraordinary event takes place I can record it. I should like to hear from home. How do you get along there? Give my love to Grandmother and ask her for an apple for me but do not pick one from under the tree.
Sunday Sept 11 Attended church both parts of the day and a Sabbath School concert at ½ past 5. Rev. Mr. Lord of Williamsburg preached here in the afternoon. Mr. Bement preached in the forenoon and as he is very slow I got almost asleep once. Mr. Kimball gave his class in Arithmetic a sum in addition which I should like to have you do and as you have been half through the book I suppose you will have the answer by the time I come home. The sum is – A tree came up in the spring and grew the first year without any sprouts. The next year there was a sprout and every year succeeding it there was a new sprout to the old tree and likewise a new sprout to each of the sprouts that was a year old. How many trees was there at the end of 20 years? I will give you the answer when I get home. How does Francis get along: does he have the ordering of the business? If I thought he did I should rest contented here and think the work would be done to the best advantage or at least in the easiest way. Do you have to hire much? Often do I imagine Father and Francis and perhaps some 2 or 3 hired men at work on a fair day and puttering around on a rainy one. Do not hire more than you can help.
Is business any more lively in Great Swamp since the President has signed the tariff bill? Heard it was in Boston. Mr. Temple our teacher in Euclid at Amherst Academy is here on a visit to Mr. Storrs. I think he does not recognize my countenance as he has not spoken to me and I think he would if he knew me. Give my best respects to brother and sister Hubbard, to Grandmother and Aunt Lucy. My respects to Uncle Moses’s family. I wish you would write me a letter. If you cannot let Father & Mother or Harriet write. I want to hear how you get along.
Letter no. 3
Nearly thirteen months have passed since Albert’s first letter. He has been home for the summer, and now lives in an Easthampton boarding (“boring”) house instead of the Seminary dormitory. He is preparing to leave school in December and hopes to do some teaching.
Easthampton, Oct. 26
As an opportunity presents itself I will write a few lines and state a piece of the leading events that have occurred since I left home. The first day after I came I felt rather dizzy but did not study much but the next day I felt as bright as a new cent and have felt well ever since. We have lectures in Chemistry now so that I do not have to study quite as hard as I did before I went home. And we also have writing schools or take lessons of about half or three quarters of an hour long daily. The rest goes along in about the same old track as it did before I went home. We have our food provided for us at the boring house as usual but of all the butter that was ever made I think this must be the poorest. The next day after we got down here we had some butter of which I eat one mouthful at a meal which was quite sufficient for me. Such frowy [frowzy] butter as that Phila you never tasted of and I hope you never may for I veryly believe it was some that Noah’s wife put up and had left over after the Ark rested on Mount Ararat. We had it on the table 3 or 4 meals and all began to grow uneasy and Kingsley made a motion that we use it for boot grease. After supper that night the teachers staid and probably gave word not to have it set on as we had no more of it. Then we had good butter for a day or two when I we had salt mixed with a little butter and buttermilk but not enough to hurt it much and tonight we had butter that was not quite as frowy as that last week probably made in the time of the revolution. So you see I have not eaten much butter of late and shall eat my bread butterless rather than eat such butter.
Well about what I am to do this winter I should like to have Father get me a school if he can but I suppose that the schools are all taken up before this time. If not I wish he would try and if I do not not get a school this winter I suppose that Father is intending I shall go to school. If not I would like to have you inform him that such are my intentions.
I was exceedingly glad to see Martha tonight. Dexter and I had got started to go down to Mr. Shoals and met her with Diana and Lucretia Shoals coming up here. Some how Martha seems like our folks than Diana does or any of Aunt Rhoda’s folks do.
I was very glad also to get that letter and I wish you would give my respects to Harriet and thank her for filling out that letter after you had got through. But I suppose she has family cares to attend to that she has no time to write the days she has got her carpet out. Tell her to cut it big enough so that she will not have to work so hard to get it down as Martin and I did to get one down on Friday before the ever memorable 9 of June and tell her to get it down and I am of opinion that I shall be there in three weeks to tread upon it.
Is A. N. Smith going to teach our district school this winter? Who is going to the Meadow School and Plumtree School? I wish you would write and tell me all the news not forgetting the sick hog and Francis or any other folks in which I am interested and give my best respects to Grandmother and Aunt Lucy and tell her we had a rainy day when the moon was in the right place proving to all minds or at least I think it does that we are liable to have rainy days when the moon is in certain parts of the heavens (be sure if it is cloudy). I must now close. Give my respects to all inquiring friends and to Uncle Moses whether they inquire or not and if they inquire give them a double portion. Remember me to Francis and ask him how much 5 dollars less 62½ cts is and remember me to your brother.
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