1834: Jacob S. Willetts to Gideon Frost

This portion of an 1834 letter was written by Jacob S. Willetts to his brother-in-law, Gideon Frost — a merchant on Pearl Street in New York City.  The letter was written upon Jacob’s arrival with his family in Indianapolis, Indiana after traveling by canal boat, riverboat, and stage from their previous home in Skaneatles, Onondaga County, New York.  The Willetts and the Frost’s were Quakers (“Friends”) and Jacob played an important role in establishing the Friends Society in Indianapolis. Jacob was a farmer and co-editor of The Indiana Farmer and Stock Register in Indianapolis. An ardent abolitionist, Jacob took charge of the Freedman’s Aid Society in Indianapolis during and after the Civil War.


Indianapolis, Indiana

[My Dear Gideon]

…We had fine weather most of the time and travelled by water [all] except 85 miles.  We were detained 2 days on the Erie Canal by a break at a lock and arrived in Buffalo at the close of a heavy storm and the troubled waters of Erie began to assuage and waiting one day there had a fine passage the next and as comfortable as the crowded state of the boat would admit — being over 500 passengers and nearly as many barrels bulk of freight and the boat but of middling size.  I have seen crowded boats on the Hudson [River] but 1000 on the North America [steamboat] will not compare with 500 here as the boat is not much more than 1/2 as large & perhaps every passenger averaged his barrel of freight which took more room than himself.  To form an idea of a crowded boat on Lake Erie, add an equal number of barrels freight to a full boat of passengers on the Hudson & you will come pretty near it.

We reached Cleveland on 1st day — the 12th — and left at sunset and travelled through the Ohio Canal 310 miles in 5 days reaching Portsmouth on 6 day evening.  Here we first saw the famed Ohio River. But instead of the impetuous flood overflowing towns and sweeping away houses and every moveable thing in its ferocious course, we found it a calm and diminutive stream 50 feet or more below the marks of its former devastations — It scarce affording water enough to float boat of the smallest class.  A little rise of water floated past this eleven boats yesterday, the first that have come down from Pittsburgh in many weeks.  We took passage on a little steamer drafting about 18 inches but two stories high and enclosed like a house with windows on the sides but little promenade room.  We stopped a day in Cincinnati and were surprised at seeing so large a city.  It is handsomely laid out and compactly built, well paved and handsome and spacious buildings mostly of brick and stone, quite equal if not superior to the generality of buildings in New York [City].

We again took the steamboat and set foot in Indiana at Madison, a thriving little town of 2 to 3000 inhabitants.  From thence to this place we came in a stage and such a jolting and shaking we never before experienced. The road having been logway and many of them rotted away makes the travelling very bad.


  • Gideon Frost was born on 11 January 1798 in Glen Cove, Nassau County, New York. He died on 25 February 1880 in Matinecock, Nassau County, New York and was buried in the Friends Cemetery in Locust Valley. His parents were Caleb Frost and Sarah Halstead. He married Mary U. Willetts on 24 April 1823. She was born on 24 February 1803 and died on 15 December 1847. She was the sister of Jacob S. Willetts, the author of this letter.
  • Besides being a business man, Gideon Frost had an interest in science and education which compelled him to establish the Friends Academy (or Friends College) in Locust Valley, New York in 1876. Early in his career, he and Jacob Willetts, as well as other members of the Friends Society in New York taught in a school for poor Blacks.
  • The North America steamboat, owned by James A. and Robert Stevens of Hoboken, New Jersey, operated on the Hudson River and had a reputation for speed. She was one of the first steamboats on the Hudson to burn anthracite coal in her boilers.

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