What Does this Photograph of the Farmington River have to do with Downton Abbey?


Farmington River Dam Site, about 1930. The Connecticut Historical Society, 1974.50.797

Inscriptions on the back of this 1930s photograph of the Farmington River provide quite a bit of information about it. The dam in the foreground is said to be in the same location as the dam for the first gristmill on the river, established in 1701. In the 1930s, there was still an active gristmill on the site, known as the Winchell Smith Gristmill. Smith, a noted playwright, invited the filmmaker D.W. Griffith to film a scene from the movie “Way Down East” there in 1920. The building was later a popular restaurant and bookstore, both now closed. I used to enjoy sitting outdoors there on a summer evening, sipping a drink and watching the swallows and cedar waxwings catching insects out over the river.

So what does all this have to with Downton Abbey? In an episode last season, the staff of Downton Abbey took the evening off to go to the new American film at a local theater.

Catherine had her miniature taken

One of CHS’s great friends recently donated another Charlotte Cowles letter to add to what we already have. Of course, I was pleased as punch! In this letter, again written from Farmington to her brother Samuel in Vermont, she indicates their mother is dictating what to write, but I still hear Charlotte’s voice. She relates an accident suffered by Cousin Austin, when his wagon was overturned by a carriage driven by a man who had just “called at the last tavern”. No wonder Horace, her father, attends Temperance meetings! Continue reading

The Real Cinque?

Cinque, chief of the Amistad captives, New Haven.  CHS collection. 1931.13.0

Cinque, chief of the Amistad captives, New Haven. CHS collection. 1931.13.0

This portrait is of the freed Amistad captive Cinque. Or at least that is what we are told. How do we know that this is what he actually looked like? Cameras were in their infancy, so we cannot look at another image to compare. And the toga-like garment and the scenery, was that all the artist’s imagination or is there some basis in fact? Continue reading

An Anti-Abolition meeting

What would one do on a January day in 1836? In Farmington, one might have attended an Anti-Abolition rally. We know from Charlotte Cowles that one was indeed held in that town, and although Charlotte could empathize with slaves and indeed help them to freedom in the north, she was prejudiced against those who did not hold with her abolitionist feelings. Continue reading

The true price of slavery

Kenyeh (Kagne) the little gitl at the top right of the page, is the African who stayed with Charlotte Cowles

Kenyeh (Kagne) the little gitl at the top right of the page, is the African who stayed with Charlotte Cowles

When the men and children aboard la Amistad decided to take over the ship and return home, they initiated one of the more memorable events in Connecticut’s history. Steven Spielberg even made a movie about it. But some people actually lived it, like Charlotte Cowles of Farmington, Connecticut, and we are fortunate that she wrote about it. When the Africans were finally set free, they settled for a time in Farmington, and one of the children, a girl called Kenyeh, lived with Charlotte’s family.

Charlotte’s letters to her brother are full of anti-slavery sentiments and relate her many activities against the institution. She also writes about helping slaves escape north, so we know she knew Africans and African Americans. However, it is not until she meets the Africans from the Amistad, who had never been enslaved, that she truly understands the horrors of slavery. I will let her tell you in her own words: Continue reading

Anti-slavery meetings in Farmington

Charlotte Cowles describes anti-slavery meetings she attended in June and July, 1834. Ms 101754.

Charlotte Cowles describes anti-slavery meetings she attended in June and July, 1834. Ms 101754.

On July 21, 1834, Charlotte Cowles wrote to her brother Samuel what she called a “very mean letter.” Evidently it was not as well composed as she would have liked. What I find fascinating is that at the age of 14, Charlotte was already attending anti-slavery meetings.

And first, I will give you an account of the Anti Slavery meetings which have been held here. The first was on the evening of Monday June 30. An address was delivered by Mr. Amos Phelps of Boston, who, as you probably know, is the Agent of the Anti Slavery Society. Esq. Pitkin gave notice that he should make some remarks at the next meeting, and the assembly retired without meeting with any disturbance.

The last comment is interesting, because Charlotte knew that vandalism and violence sometimes followed similar lectures and meetings. Amos Phelps (1804-1847) was a well-known anti-slavery advocate who is perhaps best known for his book Lectures on Slavery, and Its Remedy, published by the New England Anti-Slavery Society in 1834. You can read the text here. Knowing Charlotte’s reading interests, I would not be surprised if she obtained and read a copy as soon as it was available.

She reports on another meeting:

Friday, July 6th was a most beautiful day. At two o’clock we had an address from Mr. Holley which was very good of course. There were a great many strangers, but most of the Farmington people went to Unionville, to hear an address from Mr. Asahel Lewis, after which they had a supper

under the trees, and all came home about five o’clock.

These meetings appear to have been as social as they were political, at least based on this description. I wonder why most of Farmington went to hear Mr. Lewis instead of staying closer to home? Sounds like a research project to me!

Fearless Charlotte Cowles

Charlotte Cowles' letter to her brother Samuel about an electrical machine demonstration. September 10, 1833. Ms 101754

Charlotte Cowles’ letter to her brother Samuel about an electrical machine demonstration. September 10, 1833. Ms 101754

Charlotte was only thirteen when Caleb Wright gave a demonstration of his electrical machine in Farmington on September 9, 1832, an event probably held at Union Hall in Farmington Academy. She was fascinated by the technology, and like many young people, thought she was invincible. Her reaction reminds me of a cat that does something ungraceful and then licks itself as if to say “What? I meant to do that.”

I was very much entertained last evening, by the exhibition of a splendid electrical machine owned by Mr Wright, said to be the largest in the United States. Various wonderful experiments were tried, such as combustibles set on fire by applying them to cold water. — a house demolished by lightning, — light machinery moved by the power of electricity, — lightning and the northern lights imitated, &c. I suppose you have seen the miser’s plate, with a piece of money on it which any one may have by taking it off. Each one seemed to be determined to have it, but none succeeded. Mr Wright told us that it was impossible, but still the people were resolved to try. When the plate came round to the ladies, a great many of them tried, but all drew back their hands as quick as flash. Well, Thinks-I-to-myself, I’ll not be frightened by a little spark of fire; so when the plate come to me, I was determined to persevere, and touch the money; my hand was actually within a quarter of an inch of it, when a little flame with a slight explosion burst from between the plate and my hand: a tingling sensation ran up my arm and through my head, and the next I knew of my hand, it was up in the air at least half a yard above the plate.

From Charlotte’s description, it sounds as if the men and women were seated in different sections of the room. Would that have been common at a mixed gathering like this? She makes similar comments at the political meeting she attends later on. That would be an interesting research topic.

Caleb Wright of Hartford made his electrical machine and it or a copy was donated to Yale for use in the Natural Philosophy “department.” Wright also became caretaker of the Steward Museum, parts of which can still be seen at the Old State House museum in Hartford. I am always fascinated by the connections that can be made from the contents of a single letter.

Charlotte Cowles Letters, an introduction

First page of Charlotte's letter of April 17, 1833. Ms 101754

First page of Charlotte’s letter of April 17, 1833. Ms 101754

At last, I can write about my favorite young woman of the 19th century! Her name was Charlotte Cowles, and we recently acquired a number of letters she wrote between the ages of 13 and 21 while living in Farmington, Connecticut. I don’t know if she meant to be humorous, (it may be my modern perspective) but I find her writing delightful.

In a letter from April, 17, 1833, she starts by admonishing her brother Samuel, who is in Windsor, Vermont, for neglecting the family. He has not written for fourteen weeks. This theme about timely letters is one that appears repeatedly in her letters.  Like many of her early missives, she talks about family news—Ma being sick and Pa going to Providence. She then tells Samuel:

“I am as much of a reader as ever, but have not had much to do with novels yet. I do not suppose they are very useful to any one; and I never intend to read many.”

All I can think when I read that is the polemics in magazines of the 19th century about the dangers to young ladies; reading novels would corrupt their minds and souls! Evidently Charlotte believed that, too.

Unlike many writers of the same age and time period, Charlotte is not afraid to express her opinions in her letters, at least not to her brother. She does not have a good opinion of her cousin Isaac Andrews. All Isaac is doing in Berlin is driving about. Charlotte comments,

“but that is not very profitable employment for a youth of nineteen.”

She also has an opinion about Samuel’s friend Henry Seymour who left his employment without telling family or friends. She writes,

“Now he reaps the reward of his folly; and doubtless many like disappointments will happen to him, before this instance of youthful rashness is forgotten.”

It is very likely that Henry was older than Charlotte (she was 13 in 1833), so she is taking a rather motherly approach to his indiscretion.

Some of Charlotte’s letters are more revealing than others, and I look forward to posting about my favorites in the weeks to come. Thanks to all the individuals and the Farmington Bank for helping us secure the money to purchase these fascinating letters. You can read all of Charlotte’s letters, and their transcriptions, on Connecticut History Online.

Auction Angst

The auction house said they would call before 11:00 am. It was 11:01 and I was in a panic, only to have the call come in at 11:02. We were bidding on an amazing collection of letters written by a young woman, Charlotte Cowles, of Farmington, Connecticut. We have plenty of other collections of letters, but these were different.

Charlotte, the daughter of Horace Cowles, grew up in an abolitionist home and her family actively assisted runaway slaves on their way to Canada. She attended abolition meetings; she commented on changing opinions in the community; she reported on anti-slavery meetings; and she read anti-slavery literature including the book Slavery As It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses by Theodore Dwight Weld.

Her comments in these letters, written to her brother Samuel between 1833 and 1841, include the “new” custom of singing at funerals, local elections, the exhibition of an electrical machine, the explosion of the Steamboat Essex, and the arrival of the new minister, Noah Porter. It is these intelligent observations that make this collection truly valuable for local and social history.

The end of the story? We had the winning bid! My stomach did a final flip-flop and my hands were shaking from the adrenaline, but this wonderful collection is coming back to Connecticut, thanks to the CHS and the help of many friends of the Farmington Historical Society. Thank you!