Bidwell Lore – The Correspondence of Barnabas and Mary

Last week we introduced you to Barnabas and Mary Bidwell’s home in Stockbridge, The Elms. In 1806 and 1807, Barnabas spent much of his time in Washington while Mary remained in Stockbridge.  Letters between Barnabas and his family during his time in Washington provide both scenes of everyday life in Stockbridge and the political intrigue of Washington City. Below we share six letters written between February 1806 and September 1807. 

Washington, Feb. 24, 1806, Barnabas writes:
“On Saturday I dined at the President’s, and was surprised to find Col. Burr [1] one of the party. He is on his way northward, it is said, and has been several days in the city. The conversation was general. Between him and the President there was perfect politeness. Our winter has been very different as to the state of weather from yours. It is spoken of here as remarkably mild and pleasant. There has hardly been ice enough to supply the icehouses. If yours is in a state of readiness to receive it, I trust you have not forgotten to have it furnished with ice for the approaching summer.”

December 17, 1806, Barnabas gives the following update:
“Col. Burr’s [2] conspiracy appears to have more foundation, than until lately, I apprehended. Measures are taken to arrest him, and detain his boats and provisions, which are going down the Ohio, under the pretext of forming a settlement on a large tract of land in Louisiana. There is some apprehension that the seizure of New Orleans is his object. Health and happiness to you and yours, is the wish of your friend, B. Bidwell”

 January 3, 1807, Mary Bidwell writes to describe the wedding of her aunt:
“On Tuesday evening Mrs. Spring renounced her title to that once dear name and assumed that of Vallett, perhaps more dear, time only can tell. Dr. West was engaged to perform the hallowed rites, but indisposition prevented. He recommended Judge Sedgwick. The old gentleman was diffident, Aunt, delicate, was peculiarly embarrassed. In this dilemma my pen was the only resource. Perhaps you may think me too officious. I had not indeed a moment to reflect. But seizing my pen stated the circumstances to the Honorable, and requested his assistance in this exigence. He returned a polite assurance of the pleasure he should feel in uniting the aged lovers, at my request. In five minutes, the Judge, appeared as magistrate, requesting I would permit Catherine and Laura, to witness this novel scene. Hunt was instantly deputed to attend the ladies. The cabalistic ceremony was brief, but comprehensive, each, merely avowing, to perform the duty of a Christian, in their respective characters. What more could be enjoined? Mr. Vallet insisted that the Judge should accept the customary fee; but he politely declined, adding ‘they must consider that as a part of the blessing.’ After supping upon turkey, etc, etc., our sleigh conveyed the happy pair to ‘Spring Hill.’[3] Dr. West has at this moment called to take tea. I must therefore close assuring you that I am, Ever yours, M. B.

Stockbridge Feb. 9th, 1807, daughter Sarah, age 11, writes:
I thank you my dear Papa for the compliment you paid me. “In your letter of Jan. 17th, respecting my correspondence with you, Sir. I feel that you confer a great favor in writing to one so young, so much your inferior, – and so incapable of entertaining you. I enjoy much pleasure in thinking of you, my dear Sir, and often long for your return. I wish, to ask many questions, and, Mama has not always time to answer them, tho’ she frequently stops when I know it is inconvenient. I should be unhappy indeed, in your absence, if I had not such a good Grandmama and Mama.

I regret that I cannot say we have as good a Preceptor this winter as Mr. Taylor was. Last week, on Friday, I began a schedule of Particular Geography, and finished it on Wednesday. I have 18 certificates.

For our evening amusement I have been reading the ‘Elements of Morality’, a very entertaining book. In the morning when Grandmamma and Mama cannot attend, I have read a ‘Father’s Memoirs of his Child’ by B.H. Malkin. I borrowed the latter of Miss Catherine Sedgwick. It is a surprising account of remarkable talents in a boy who died under 8 years of age. Grandmamma requests you to accept her maternal love. Josiah and Brother Marshall intent writing you by this mail. I am, dear Papa, most truly and sincerely, your affectionate daughter, Sarah G. Bidwell. “   

Stockbridge, September 21, 1807, Mary writes to Barnabas:
“By intelligence, which you have doubtless received from the messenger dispatched for Judge Sedgwick, you will I presume, my dear friend, be prepared to hear that our excellent neighbor is numbered with the congregation of the dead. She was unusually well, or rather comfortable, last week until Saturday morning, when she appeared rather languid, but took a seat at table as usual. Her attendant Betty [4] tells me, she was alarmed while dressing her this morning by the appearance of a livid spot over her right eye. If the family noticed it, they imagined it occasioned by some slight contusion. She supported her customary pleasantness through the day, Sally Fairman [5] happening to be in Mrs. Sedgwick’s room, with her, towards evening, when Catherine with other company, were in a high sense of mirth in the front parlor. Sally inquired if the noise did not disturb her? ‘No, I am pleased to find they are cheerful and happy,’ was her reply, or words to that effect.  I relate this characteristic anecdote, to show you that she retained this self-rewarding philanthropy to the last. She retired, as usual that evening, and without special complaint, at two in the morning, she seized with a fit, similar to those, which have so long afflicted her. She endured twenty of these distressing paroxysms, it is judged, before nature yielded under this severe conflict. Cato, was dispatched after the Judge, and another messenger for his sons at Albany, a little before eight yesterday morning, and in fifteen minutes after, Mrs. Sedgwick closed a life of uncommon suffering; commencing as we have reason to hope, a happy immortality! When I reflect upon the unmurmuring, and even cheerful submission, which she uniformly exhibited in her lucid hours, under a most distressing personal calamity. When in considering her many virtues, this is added to the number.  I feel I must pronounce her, one of the most exalted of her sex.

The family is deeply afflicted. Catherine fainted yesterday repeatedly.  The unconfirmed state of my health prevented my going over while Mrs. S. was living, as the street was very damp from rain of the proceeding night. But I called on the family to offer my assistance in the forenoon; and omitted attending the morning service for that purpose. Today, I sent to know if I could be useful, but finding my services were not required, I rode with Sally and Marshall as charioteer since the sun softened the air. Tomorrow morning I am informed my assistance will be acceptable. Mr. Watson has this day been called to Hartford to attend his expiring mother. (Sedgwick son-in-law.) And now, my friend, I render you my affectionate thanks for your letter from Northampton. To find you arrived so seasonably was very gratifying.  The indisposition you felt, just before you left home, authorizes me to repeat my parting injunction and entreaty, ‘be cautious of your health’ and employ a physician seasonably. The frequent deaths in our neighborhood, seem calculated to enforce the conviction that we too are indeed mortal. How many deaths, my dear friend, have I loved to announce! Soon may the pen of another record mine! My health indeed, at present, is as good perhaps better, than when you left home. Levi has conducted rather more to my wishes the week past. Mr. Hunt has engaged a cow. Mr. Kasson returned this evening and will continue a few days in the office. You have another clerk added to the number – Mr. Sherrill from Richmond. I promised Sally the opposite page, but I shall find a spot for a post scrip tomorrow. I will now say only good night. M. B.”

Stockbridge, Sept 22nd, 1807, Mary continues:
“It is now Tuesday 2 O’clock P.M. Judge Sedgwick has not yet returned. The funeral obsequies are appointed tomorrow at 10 O’clock A. M. I passed the forenoon at the house of mourning. Catherine is very ill – distressed deeply. I shall wait with fond solicitude for the weekly mails. Your clerk Sherrill enters the office the first of next week. We are all as usual except Marshall.

He has a boil, poor fellow on his kneepad. I hope that good will be effected by this evil, not being able to run off, he will seek amusement in his studies. He joins his Grandmamma in affectionately greeting his dear papa. Judge Sedgwick has this moment arrived. May we, my beloved friend be preserved to meet again in health. ever yours, M. What can you say now in vindication of Judge Marshall?” [6]

In February of 1808, Mary Gray Bidwell died, and in October of 1809 her mother, Sarah Spring Gray. died, ending a chapter in the life of The Elms. In 1810 Barnabas, accused by members of the Federalist party of stealing money while working at his position of Berkshire County Treasurer, fled to Canada. These stories will all be told in future installments of Bidwell Lore

  • [1] Burr was the nephew of Timothy Edwards, who took Burr in when his parents died. Barnabas and Mary Bidwell purchased their Main Street house from Timothy Edwards.
  • [2] The River God, Solomon Stoddard, of Northampton, had 8 children by two marriages, one wife a relative of Rev. Cotton Mather. One daughter married the Rev. Timothy Edwards another married Rev. William Williams, brother of Ephraim Williams, Sr. who was the great uncle of Mary Gray Bidwell. Rev. Timothy Edwards was the father of Rev. Jonathan Edwards, whose daughter Esther married Rev. Aaron Burr, and were the parents of Vice President Aaron Burr. Barnabas’ sister Jemima Bidwell Partridge married William Partridge, brother of Dr. Oliver Partridge of Stockbridge, whose sister married Dr. Erastus Sergeant. Their sister Sophia Partridge married Elijah Williams, youngest son of Ephraim Williams, Sr.  
  • [3] Prospect Hill Road, the majority of the land owned by the Williams, Spring, Gray, families, etc.
  • [4] Mumbet, aka Elizabeth Freeman
  • [5] Married James Gray Hunt another cousin of Mary Gray Bidwell, October 1807 and owned a dress shop at 28 Main Street.
  • [6] Judge Marshall, Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, and a Federalist, was one of two judges sitting on the bench for the Aaron Burr treason trial, who was found not guilty.

Next week we will start a three-part series about Mary Gray Bidwell