William Brooks Cabot Writes Home

By Rick Teller '70, Williston Northampton Archivist

Recently, through the generosity of Mr. Eric Brothers, the Archives acquired two letters written by William Brooks Cabot, class of 1876, to his mother in Brattleboro, Vermont.  In August, 1874, Cabot had just arrived at Williston Seminary, and was enrolled in the Middle Class — the equivalent of the modern 11th grade — in Williston’s Scientific curriculum.   The following transcriptions retain William’s occasionally idiosynchratic punctuation and free-form sentence and paragraph structure.  He was, after all, just 16 years old and, in fairness, somewhat ahead of his peers (then and now) in matters of spelling.

Detail of Cabot’s first letter, Sunday, August 30, 1874, on school stationery (Click all images to enlarge)

It was a Sunday.  William had just moved out of a dormitory and into a boarding house where he had already arranged for his meals — the school had no dining hall of its own at this time.

Easthampton, Aug. 30th [1874]

Dear Mother

I am sorry father was not at home to decide what course I should take with regard to my studies.  I shall take Geometry, Drawing, Zoology, & German, though if possible I shall take Latin instead of Zoology.

We have changed our rooms & are now boarding where we take our meals.  I only pay $5 $6.00 per week in all, which is about twenty five cents more than I paid – or rather, was to pay at the Sem.  It’s much more convenient for meals & we have carpets & towels, & do not have to do our own chamber work, as we did at the Sem.  We paid our tuition yesterday.  My bill was $26.00.

We have to attend chapel at a little before nine in the morning.   We do all our studying in our rooms, which I like very much.  At 7:30 P.M. the chapel bell rings, and we must go to our rooms immediately.  Once in a while a Prof. will happen around after dark, to see if we are all in our rooms, but we have not been honored by a visit as yet.

We are living at a Mrs. Embury’s, where there are five of us.  One is from Moline, Ill. & another from Scranton, Pa.

William’s housemates can be identified as Frederick William Keator, class of 1876 Classical, from Moline, and Edwin Hunter Lynde ’76 Scientific, from Scranton.  For a newly-enrolled kid who had, to this point, grown up in southern Vermont, these may well have seemed like exotic places.  As he would no doubt later discover, while the majority of students hailed from the Northeast, in 1874 Williston enrolled students from as far away as Louisiana, Alabama, and the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii).

William continues,

The German Student Lamp, a kerosene-fueled desk lamp that produced a soft, non-flickering light. (Photo: eBay)

I have so far spent about ten dollars besides tuition, for R.R. Fare, books, &c.  I use a kerosene lamp to study by & think it better for my eyes than gas.  I have a lamp with a burner like the German Student lamp & it gives a very good light.

I guess we will both take the optional course, as then we will not be examined & I expect plenty of study even then.  The class is larger than usual this year – I mean the Junior – & I think the greater number take the Scientific course.  I don’t expect to use my rifle more than three or four times this term and perhaps not at all.  I have to get permission from one of the Profs. before I can take it out even to shoot at a mark.

Yesterday six of us went over to Mount Tom, which is only about two miles.  We walked over & came back in the cars.  Most of the boys were rather lame this morning but I didn’t feel it at all.  Tell Mollie I wish she would give W. E. Waite’s pistol to him.  It is in one of the drawers of my bureau.  I forgot it the morning I came away.

It seems astounding in 2019 that Williston would permit students to own firearms at all, or that William would be indignant over needing permission even for target practice, but in the mid-19th century, it was probably taken for granted.

I have been to church twice today.  We are all obliged to go to the same church, unless the parents expressly desire that they should attend some other.  Although it is against the rules some of the boys are out as late as they please, almost every night.  I do not know yet whether I can take Latin instead of Zoology or not but I hope I can.

With much love to all,


Captain Henry E. Alvord. No photograph of the egregious Captain Hill has been reliably identified.

William’s second letter, written on a Sunday three weeks later, introduces Captains David Hill and Henry Alvord.  Regular readers of this blog may have already met Captain Alvord; he was clearly, at best, stiff-necked over rules.  David Hill taught Physiology and Physical Education.  He had been wounded in the Civil War.  Everything written about him suggests that, frustrated by having missed the final two years of opportunity to inflict suffering upon rebels, he was a martinet who projected his resentment on his students.  Within days of his arrival at Williston he had instituted military drill, including marching and bayonet exercise, as the daily warm-up activity prior to gymnastic practice.   (Present day athletes might consider this the next time they complain about calisthenics.)

Why Captain Hill could not, nearly a month into the fall term, find “time” to accommodate an earnest and talented student’s application to take his course remains an open question.  But documents indicate that he and Alvord largely occupied themselves in meddling with administrative matters, particularly when they could undermine colleagues who did not share their views.

Williston Sem. Sept. 20

Dear Mother

I was glad to receive yours of the 18th, also Mary’s of the 16th.  Capt. Hill did not get time to examine us in Physiology until yesterday.  He gave me three written questions which I had to answer upon paper, & when I finished these he asked me a few questions verbally & then said that he would look over my paper when he had time.  So I do not know whether I have passed or not as yet.

“Prex” – Principal Marshall Henshaw (served 1863-1876). Hill and Alvord would engineer his removal in favor of the wildly unsuccessful Principal James Morris Whiton.

I do not suppose that my report for the month will be very good, as I have had a good deal of extra studying to do, especially on my Physiology.  One of the Profs. – Capt. Alvord – has come here to room; so we will have to observe study hours rather more strictly than we have been in the habit of doing.

Yesterday Prex. gave notice that we must be in our rooms at 7 P.M. instead of 7:30 as before.  This is because the days are getting short, & they are afraid to have us out after dark.  The students use tobacco as much as they please, & even some of the little boys in the English Class strut around with cigarettes in their mouths.  Almost all the students who have been here any length of time, smoke.  The Faculty never say a word about it.

I have just sent two weeks washing (12 pieces) by the man who takes the other boys clothes.  His wife can do up shirts better than any I ever saw.

There seem to be more parties, etc. going on at B. than usual.  I wish I could be there to attend one or two.  We have been having a good time evenings after getting our lessons, but Capt. Alvord’s coming ends that, as it is considered just as bad to be out of your own room as out of the house after study hours.  One of the boys rooming here is from Illinois & is one of the best fellows I ever saw.  His name is Keator.  I believe he said he was about 18 years old.  Is a first rate scholar & neither smokes, drinks nor swears; which is rather remarkable for this place.  Yesterday I took a long walk out west of the village & might have shot three or four partridges if I had taken my gun.

It costs a great deal to get along, as there are so many little things to get, but I have enough money to meet my expenses for about two weeks longer.  How does Ranger get along?  There are hardly any dogs here.  Tell Mary to write when she has time.  With much love to all.  W.

William Cabot did not return to Williston for his senior year.  He enrolled in the Sheffield Scientific School at Yale, but left before finishing there as well, eventually completing a Civil Engineering degree at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1881.  He went on to a long career in mining and engineering out West and ultimately in Brooklyn, but he is primarily remembered as an important amateur explorer and anthropologist who worked primarily with Native Americans in Labrador and Northern Quebec.  There is a good biographical article at this link, including  a photograph — no images of William in his student days have come to hand.

Edwin Lynde returned to Scranton to build blast furnaces and had a long career in the steel industry.  The fastidious Frederick William Keator eventually became an Bishop in the Episcopal Church and a college president.  By the Spring of 1885 both he and Lynde had moved to other boarding houses, very possibly to escape the pernicious influence of Captain Alvord.


One thought on “William Brooks Cabot Writes Home”

  1. Rick: A very interesting account of Mr. Cabot and his experiences in Easthampton. Any idea where he was boarding? He mentions ” . . . at a Mrs. Embury’s . . .” If your archives include any details of where that might have been located, please let us know.

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