Bidwell Lore: Love, Marriage, and Politics in the Early Republic, Part III

Welcome to week 24 of Bidwell Lore! We conclude our three-part series about Mary and Barnabas with some wonderfully illustrative letters between the two.  This correspondence gives you an idea of the type of person Mary was and hints at the great affection Barnabas and Mary felt for each other. 

A February 26, 1805, letter from Mary includes:
We now have, near forty cord of wood, drawn since I last wrote you. John employed Enoch Humphrey and Park in chopping while he with our horses and Edward H with Captain Whitney’s for six days brought wood as fast as the strength of the animals would permit.
Mama [1] enjoys good health, and supports the cold with less complaint than I do. She requests much love to you. John and our dear little boys add their suitables. Judge Bacon continues low, I am told. We have not seen him since you left home.
Silk handkerchiefs you will want soon. I am myself very destitute. It is doubtful when you will again be in Boston. Perhaps it would be best to purchase a piece before you return.  I almost promised in my last to swell my memorandum no further, this being especially for your honor. I do not apprehend it a violation of my word.”

Mary Bidwell writes on December 23, 1805: 
“The subject of importing slaves, I observe, is brought up at your board. I am confident you will oppose with your utmost energy this wicked inhuman traffic. Assuredly this is first in the black catalogue of our crimes as a nation, and it must soon draw down the vengeance of an offended righteous God, not only upon the barbarous wretches who barter human flesh, their fellow men! – But upon all who do not bear testimony against this abomination. ‘Who stoppeth his ears at the cry of the poor, he also shall cry himself, but not be heard.’  I should not perhaps have written so much upon this subject if I had not known that your sentiments, my dear friend, were perfectly congenial to mine upon this important point.”

On Tuesday, December 31, 1805, Mary writes:
“Yesterday your good brother [2] sent me an excellent pig, I have invited Capt. and Mrs. Whiton, their two oldest daughters, Mr. Blair, Mr. Taylor to tea and sup upon your Brother’s present this night. I am sensible roast pig is not exactly the dish for fashionable supper, but tho not above fashion here, we are independent enough to deviate from its rigid laws whenever we choose. With regret I mention that Lawson is yet at home.” 

Portrait of Mary Gray Bidwell by Joseph Steward, hanging in the Museum parlor.

Stockbridge, January 16, 1806. Mary writes:
“Doctor Sergeant [3] called upon Mama this evening and seems much encouraged. Her cough has not quite left her. The interview with Col. Hawkins must be very entertaining. I am astonished at the progress of civilization produced by the benevolent exertions of our government among our savages. Let their enemies (the enemies of the government) revile. It is the only consolation they can enjoy while they possess such bitterness of spirit. If the most generous efforts to increase the sum of human happiness and diminish the evils and woes, which involve our fellow men of whatever nation, will not entitle to applause then Mr. Jefferson cannot deserve it for his exertions in the cause of suffering humanity. But the future generations and these “children of nature” too, will do him the justice which some of his contemporaries refuse.”

Stockbridge, January 26, 1806. Mary writes:
“Some of our neighbors, Dr. Pomeroy, Major Brown, etc. seem pleased with my proposal for establishing a winter subscription school if a majority, cannot be obtained to employ a capable instructor. Cousin Isaac Spring left us this morning. We have been much gratified with his visit. He appears to be a worthy man, and possesses more information than I should, from his limited advantages, imagine. His heart seems deeply impressed with a sense of gratitude to you. He entreated me to present his respects to you, and his ardent wishes, that your benevolent exertions for the poor Africans might be successful, persuaded of your patriotism, and many excellencies, he hopes your efforts for the general good will not intermit. Col. Williams, Mr. A Williams, Mr. Walker, and Mr. Phelps, have all called on me since I last wrote, and each request respectful salutations to your honor.”

Stockbridge, March 31, 1806. Mary writes:
“Again, my dear friend, I write from the chamber of sickness. I hope, however, soon to exchange it for a less gloomy apartment, for gloomy it is, notwithstanding the uniform calm, cheerful submission of the dear invalid. As our election approaches, the annual slanders, calumny and detraction of the Federal presses, are hurried into circulation with a zeal and activity worthy of a better cause. For the honor of the Republican cause, I hope, such weapons will be exclusively Federal. This night there was a Republican caucus at the building denominated “The red school house.” General attendance has been given, and Mr. Hunt, who has just gone out of the chamber, assures me, he has never observed such a spirit of firmness indignation and resolution, as in this assembly. With pain I add, that Mrs. Sedgwick’s derangement returns with her increasing strength.”

Stockbridge, December 16, 1806. Mary writes:
“Yesterday Mama, Sally and your old rib [4] drank tea with Mrs. And Miss Edwards. I have never seen the Squire [5] more courteous, attentive and agreeable. Polite enquires for you were not omitted. Burr [6] had mentioned in a letter to his sister your calling upon Mr. Dubois. The defeat of the Prussian Monarch, which Mr. Edwards had just heard, occasioned some very candid judicious remarks, Bonaparte he thinks is an instrument in the hands of Providence to reduce the Anti-Christ, [7] and probably, the revolution in France will either in this, or succeeding generations, restore the Jews to Palestine, and render that despised people more respected, as the French were the first government that ever noticed this persecuted nation with any civility. Charles has been obliging and pleasant generally since you left home. Tho Hunt,[8] I believe, is not perfectly satisfied with his maneuvers abroad. He is now unwell, tho not really sick. Yesterday he was too much indisposed to labor and spent the day at his father’s. Our little boys harnessed the horse, and waited on us both out and back.”

Stockbridge, December 29, 1806. Mary writes:
“Again I have the pleasure of returning a grateful acknowledgment to the friend of my heart, for his truly endearing packet received last Friday. By mail this day I dispatched a pitiful line, written while the party from Judge Sedgwick’s were entering our hamlet. The only moment I could command for that purpose in the course of the day. Melinda was then, and is yet to ill to attend to domestic concerns, or got to school. Doct. Jones has visited her once and administered an emetic. She had attended school for several weeks past. The diminished size of our fluctuating family admitted her absence for six or seven hours in the day, Mondays excepted.
Capt. Whitney is again very ill. I much apprehend this distressing disease will terminate fatally. Mrs. Bement is recovering. Clark Whitney is yet very low. For your animated defense of the rights of the poor oppressed Africans, I thank, and honor from my heart. If they are seized as legal forfeitures, and sold as slaves, the United States would assume the guilt of this iniquitous traffic. You can hardly be too zealous on such a subject, a subject, which involves the rights and happiness of such a multitude of your fellow men. Should a majority of your honorable body, thus legalize this oppression, what a disgrace would it reflect upon the name of Republican! But it is a satisfaction to know that you, and yours, are exculpate from the guilt of this atrocious sin.

Above is an 1847 painting by Frederick Church, titled View Near Stockbridge, Mass.  This was painted just a few decades after Mary and Barnabas wrote their letters.

On January 1, 1807, from Stockbridge. Mary writes:
Most sincerely and affectionately, do I invoke the richest blessings upon my dear friend, not as the compliment of the season, but as the warmest sentiments of my heart. This benediction I must acknowledge can boast less of benevolence than that ante-deluvian [9] quality – selfishness.  Now I presume your honors are, one and all, making your best bows, to our worthy and venerable chief magistrate. (Jefferson) It is assuredly one, in the number of my best wishes, that you may never do homage to a character less deserving.
From the intrigue and address of Col. Burr, I seriously apprehend, more than I would express to any one, except my bosom friend; but I hope his career will be seasonably checked. Mr. A. Williams, Mr. Phelps and Capt. Whitney each request an affectionate salutation. Is there a prospect of war with Spain, or Britain, unless we quietly submit to the aggressions of the former, or the piratical degradations of the latter upon our unoffending seaman? These interrogatories are often made. I am not authorized to answer.”

From Washington on January 1, 1807, Barnabas writes to Mary:
“Permit me, my dearest friend, to present you the compliments of the season. I most cordially wish you a happy New Year. This letter is the first paper, which I have dated in the New Year. Indeed it is early in the morning. Today the House do not sit, having yesterday adjourned to Friday, to give an opportunity of complying with the custom of attending the President’s annual Levee. [10] About 12 o’clock I intend to pay my respects to the chief magistrate, or more properly the Chief magistrate of the nation. After two hours attendance at the Levee, I am engaged to dine with Mr. & Mrs. Cutts [11]. But my first attention, on this anniversary, is due to the friend of my heart, the mother of my children, the companion of my life, the participator of my hopes and fears, my joys and sorrows. Accept, my dear Mary, my most affectionate and cordial salutation. I am called to breakfast. Before another mail I shall write you again. A suitable remembrance to your Mama, the dear children, the family, and such of our neighbors, as honor me by enquiry after your bosom friend, Barnabas Bidwell”

Stockbridge, January 13, 1807, again from Mary:
Last Friday, my dearest, best friend, I had the unexpected gratification of your affectionate salutation at the commencement of the New Year. Accept in return the warmest gratitude of my heart – a heart truly yours – Yours by every tender and endearing tie! Each returning year has indeed brought me additional cause of tenderness and gratitude – affection for the best of husbands, and gratitude to the disposer of all events for bestowing such a friend, upon a creature so forgetful of his mercies, but who wishes to appreciate as she ought the value of this blessing while it is indulged. Not merely the first – but the labor of my pen on the first day of the year, was devoted to the friend of my heart, in particular you may observe my attention is not inferior to yours.”

Stockbridge, February 26, 1807. Mary writes:
“By your letter I find the jaunt to Monticello was far different from a party of pleasure. If however, by tour, by giving a little free country air, benefits your health, I am at least glad.
Mama, John, and the three children never omit love and respect. Marshall stands second in the boy’s class, Josiah [12], only above him. Indeed he has once been at the head. Tho’ yet he does not love his school. They, with Melinda all do well. We have exchanged one Park for another.
I repeat my thanks for your kind remembrance even while crowded with business. The many instances of your uniform attentive affection experienced in the course of twelve years, ought indeed to excite a return of love and gratitude. Be assured they are not all forgotten, or wholly lost upon your ever affectionate M. Bidwell My letter by Joe, I hope you have got. Yours just come has been 12 days on its passage.” 

Portrait of Pamela Sedgwick, 1795, by Joseph Steward.  Steward is also believed to have painted the above portrait of Mary Gray Bidwell.

Mary’s letter to Barnabas describing the death of Pamela Sedgwick, wife of Theodore Sedgwick, closes with words that seem to portend her own passing in a few short months.

Stockbridge, September 21, 1807:
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. 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 [13] has this day been called to Hartford to attend his expiring mother. 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.  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.

What can you say now in vindication of Judge Marshall?” [14]

These letters written by Mary Gray Bidwell over two hundred years ago reveal a remarkable person. She was tremendously well informed about many contemporary issues, politically savvy, very progressive, erudite, passionate – especially about ending slavery – loving, and supportive. A brilliant partner to her brilliant husband.  

 As late as October 24, 1807, Mary continued writing from Stockbridge to Barnabas, then Massachusetts’ Attorney General in Boston. She joyfully described her cousin’s wedding which she hosted in his absence, catering to a large group of family and friends with great joy and enthusiasm. However, mingled among Mary’s letters are brief mentions about her own health – most especially in her letter about Pamela Sedgwick’s passing.  We don’t know precisely what illness beset her, but she had gone to Saratoga “for the waters,” and consumption – tuberculosis – was commonplace.  Within just a few short months these harbingers of fate would be fulfilled, leaving Barnabas without the companionship and support he would need to deal with the political struggle that would soon unfold. Pamela Dwight Sedgwick’s passing in September 1807 was but the first of three deaths that would cast a dark cloud over the life of Barnabas Bidwell. Mary Gray Bidwell died February 1, 1808, barely three months after her happy letter describing her nephew’s wedding. Sarah Spring Gray, Mary’s mother and Pamela’s first cousin, died in October of 1809; the last family connection to Judge Sedgwick, and possibly the nexus of the tragedy that would haunt the next 20 years of Barnabas’s life until his death at age 72.

In this journey of discovery of the life of this remarkable woman, Mary Gray Bidwell, words have ever so slightly pulled back the veil of mystery around her life. It is only through her own words that we have truly been allowed to know Mary as a person.  Even so, I found that for me to finish the journey, the true unveiling of a complete portrait of Mary Gray Bidwell was achieved by standing in the parlor of her in-laws home, the Bidwell House Museum, drinking in Mary’s lively portrait and melding her words with the artist brush strokes.

As my mind drifted back two hundred years immersed in this image of Mary Gray Bidwell, the words written by William Wordsworth in a poem about his sister echoed in my head: “She gave me eyes; she gave me ears; and humble cares, and delicate fears; a heart, the fountain of sweet tears; and love, and thought, and joy” [15]

Next week we will share a short article about Mary’s time in Saratoga

[1] Sarah Spring Gray.
[2] Adonijah Bidwell Jr., who we learned about in the July installments of Bidwell Lore.
[3] Dr. Erastus Sergeant, son of missionary Rev. John Sergeant, was the first doctor in Stockbridge and Mary Gray Bidwell’s cousin.
[4] According to the second chapter of Genesis, Eve was created by God (Yahweh) by taking her from the rib of Adam, to be Adam’s companion.
[5] Squire Timothy Edwards, son of the Rev. Jonathan Edwards, was Vice President Aaron Burr’s uncle.
[6] Aaron Burr, a “cousin” of Mary’s.
[7] For Puritans, the Anti-Christ was the Pope and his demise and the restoring of Jews to Palestine would be the fulfillment of the Bible scripture.
[8] Thomas Hunt was Mary’s cousin whose maneuvers likely involved alcohol.
[9] Of or belonging to the period before the Flood, very old, old-fashioned, or out of date; antiquated; primitive.
[10] Jefferson started the practice of having less formal gatherings to get away from the Federalist’s more regal events.
[11] Congressman Richard Cutts, whose wife Anna was the sister of Dolly Payne Madison, wife of future President James Madison
[12] Rev. Josiah Brewer, father of US Supreme Court Justice David J. Brewer.
[13] Sedgwick son-in-law.
[14] Judge Marshall, a Federalist, Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, was one of two judges on the Aaron Burr treason trial, which ended in a not guilty verdict for Burr.
[15] The Sparrow’s Nest, William Wordsworth.