1840: Hannah Whittier Johnson to Mary Webster Whittier

What Hannah Whittier Johnson might have looked like.

This letter was written by Hannah Whittier Johnson (1814-1850), the daughter of Seth Johnson (1764-18xx) and Elizabeth Whittier (1781-18xx). She married Dr. Stephen Madison Gale (1809-1882) in 1843. He received his Medical degree from Harvard in 1837.

Hannah wrote this letter to her cousin, Mary Webster Whittier (1817-1880), the daughter of William Whittier (1795-1836) and Mary Webster (1799-1825), who married her cousin Samuel Anson Whittier (1816-1872) in October 1838.  Mary was born in Methuen, Essex County, Massachusetts. In 1840 when this letter was written, Mary and Samuel lived in Portland, Maine, as did Samuel’s parents, Samuel Whittier (1785-1848) and Hannah Hall (1791-1844), and their two unmarried children, Marantha Whittier (b. 1815) and James Lawrence Whittier (1819-1859). James’ death in 1859 was reported to have been a suicide by hanging.

Hannah mentions having received a letter from her Aunts Susan and Abiah. These were half-sisters of her mother: Susan Frye Whittier (1803-1857) and Abiah Whittier (1798-18xx) who were living in Methuen, Massachusetts.

This is a great letter written by a woman from Massachusetts who was employed by a family living in Marietta, Georgia in 1839-40 as a private tutor for their five girls. In the letter, she pours out her frustration and anger about the way she is treated by her employer to her cousin residing in Portland, Maine. The “romance and reality” of her situation no longer holds any charm for her and she is anxious to leave the South. She says that she is resented by her employer and community for the manner in which she interacts with their slaves which leads them to treat her suspiciously for fear she may create “mischief.” Unfortunately she only gives the first letter of her employer’s surname so without more research, I can’t say who that was.

Near the end of the letter, there is notice of, and reaction to, the sinking of the steamship Lexington in Long Island Sound in January 1840. This ship was carrying passengers and cotton from New York to Boston when it caught fire and sank killing all but four people.

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Addressed to Mrs. Samuel A. Whittier, Portland, Maine

Marietta [Georgia]
January 25, 1840

I wish you a “happy new year” my dear good cousin, and am most happy to learn myself that your unusually good health favors the hope, that you may anticipate such an one for yourself. Had the good luck to lay my hand yesterday on a letter from Aunt Susan, or Aunts Susan & Abiah, for it was a joint production, and one after the old stamp – a medley I assure you – acceptable enough. I could not help smiling when I read the sentence, “I suppose you have heard all about Nancy’s wedding, so I will not describe it.” The truth is, nobody has written about it but all have taken it for granted that I have heard. However, I will not fret about it, for I shall soon know in a most agreeable way.

Your letter, dear Coz, caught me about 10 degrees below zero in spirits. How could you guess so nearly as to write just when I needed it most? Now I will tell you a secret. It came a short time after I had decided to take back tracks to dear Old New England. Don’t be astonished – ‘tis nothing new to me, for I have long doubted the propriety of casting myself off from all social and religious enjoyments, and I may as well add nearly all means of usefulness, for a little self. Yet such was my desire to make my circumstances a little more easy that I think I should have endured another year, if I could feel that my services give a satisfaction. Not that I cannot teach these children, as far as books are concerned, but I have received hints sufficiently broad to know, that they do not think my manners polished enough &c. These and a few other things have stirred up my Whittiers till I have just politely informed them that I don’t remain another year.

Now should I begin to unravel the whole yarn of my story it would be so long that this paper would not contain it, so I think I had better leave it for some of those long evenings next fall when I can explain as I go along. I have one feeling to record, which is this, I know that not one of my friends would stay in my place, or blame me for my decision (I had almost forgotten that you live in a land of liberty). But I did feel that I owed it to my friends to stay if I could & I have tried as hard to stay as _______ effort, could do. Have put up with living a perfect hermit – being looked down upon – hearing very cutting remarks about the North and the Yankees &c. &c. too numerous to mention. But I will not bear it when people cannot put confidence in me in the manner of controlling 5 children without continually bringing their little stories to me and enquiring how it is. Every one knows that children who perfectly hate study try all ways to get off and will tell their own side of the story. They have allowed then to come to them with complaints against my most reasonable requirements, I believe almost daily. Then father or mother would come to me. I would explain the matter. “O all right, Miss Johnson, be strict enough – punish if they need it.” Of course then I did punish when I could not help it. Then the children call me cross. Then the parents say, “I am sorry the children do not seem more fond of you,” but then it’s always so “with children.” I cannot endure people who are so fickle; say one thing to my face and another behind my back. Nor will I be ______ up to duty every now & then as though I had not ambition enough to be faithful without.

Tis not as has sometimes been said, that people here expect much less of a teacher than at the North – they expect much more in this family, and I found it so at first and have labored accordingly, Should not be ashamed to have any northern teacher examine my work, but they give me no credit and seem to expect more than I can possibly produce in this time. One of the servants told me that Mr. Ring, the former teacher, was precisely in my predicament and said he would not stay any longer to be imposed upon. He staid one year. Beside all this, they are extremely jealous of my intercourse with the negroes (which by the way has been almost nothing) but my manner of speaking to them is so different from theirs that they will treat me kindly and take the liberty to speak to me sometimes. This they do not like at all. I do not find fault with them continually and this favors the idea that I shall do mischief among them.

Now, methinks you are sick of complaints & say, “Do stop and say something else.” Well, pretty soon I will. You need not think that I am going to fret myself to death because I do not happen to please these haughty Southrons. I know I have pleased others & think I can again where people regard principles & habits of usefulness more than outside show. So I try to make myself happy to think of seeing again my dear, dear friend who can love me notwithstanding my coarse meanness (pray, do not become so polished that I cannot enjoy your company before next autumn). Now I am smiling through tears at the very thought of greeting such a goodly “gang” (as they say of negroes here). They wish me to stay till May – my year is up the first of April. I shall probably stay as I expect to return with a Mr. Ellis – a graduate from Cambridge who is teaching in Mr. C. Alston’s family who will stay till that time. I do not feel sorry that I have now experienced both the romance and reality of going south to teach, and am thoroughly satisfied, that better is a little with confidence & love than much with prejudice & discontent. Now I have scarcely room to say what I feel of my dear Uncle & Aunt’s kindness and tell her how happy her few lines made me. Thank them for me most affectionately and I am sure the blessing of the Father of the fatherless will rest upon them. Shall certainly “Set my face toward Maine” by next fall after visiting all to the west of you. Till this time, your most loving, — H. W. Johnson

Are you not ashamed to come to Georgia and steal a negro and then refuse to give up the offenders to justice? I have just read about in a Charleston paper what troubles between Chase hostile stakes. When will it end?

I have not written a word to Methuen [Essex County, Massachusetts] a word about coming home & do not care to have them know it just yet. It will produce so many queries & _________, as they think I am so pleasantly situated. I have never made any complaints for I hoped to stay another year at some rate, but Mrs. A. resolved to travel next summer & will take her daughters with her so I do not suppose I should have been wanted, and I have spared them the trouble of telling me so. I shall feel sorry to have the children taken from study – they are doing so finely in my view.

I now and then fancy I hear the merry jingle of your sleighbells but our mild & balmy atmosphere is much more agreeable to me that I scarcely envy you. I hear tis unusually cold with you as it has been here. Tis said yet not a spice of snow have I seen – ice rare and thin. Strange to tell I mind the cold much more than people here & feel quite pinched up with a little white frost.

(Sabbath morn) Have just finished the account of the dreadful disaster in Long Island Sound – the burning of the Lexington, How distressing! How unexpected to those ill-starred passengers. Why was I not there? My heart sinks within me to think I must soon pass over that very tract perhaps to share the same fate. If my Father has so decreed shall I ask why? Rather let me say prepare me for death. Let it come in any form and at what time the great disposer of events sees fit to send. The frequency of these calamities should certainly produce upon us some solitary effect. Our friends perhaps were not there but those of somebody were as dear to them as ours to us. Tis Sabbath day here but no stout church calling bell has greeted my ear this morn and no one can go to church as we have it once in two weeks. I hope you are able to go this winter, dear Mary, if so, you know how to prize the privileges. I believe we learn the value of most of our privileges by contrast. Have scarcely room to say give my love to cousin James – Marantha – Uncle [Samuel] & Aunt [Hannah], yourself and better half, whom I admonish you to treat most dutifully.

2 responses to “1840: Hannah Whittier Johnson to Mary Webster Whittier

  • Stephen Sakellarios

    In a letter written by Elizabeth Hussey Whittier to Matthew Franklin Whittier (sister and brother of John Greenleaf Whittier), on June 19th, 1841, three months after the death of Matthew’s wife, Abby, she writes: “I am very sorry Whittier’s is to be no longer thy home. Abby spoke a great deal of the younger Mrs. Whittier said she loved her very much…” (quoted from “The Life and Works of Matthew Franklin Whittier, by Lloyd Wilfred Griffin, a thesis, May, 1941, University of Maine, Orono) It appears that Matthew Franklin Whittier and his first wife, Abby Poyen Whittier, lived at “Whittier’s,” which I believe was an inn in Portland, Maine; and that Abby was close friends with the recipient of this letter.

    I would be interested in any further information about these people, especially any letters or diaries which mention Matthew or Abby.

  • Stephen Sakellarios

    As of 8/7/12, I’ve learned that Mary Webster Whittier was married to Samuel Anson Whittier, son of Samuel Whittier who owned the American House on or near Congress Square, Maine. Matthew Franklin Whittier and his wife Abby would have presumably lived in the American House from fall of 1840 until Abby’s death in late March of 1841. Again, I’d appreciate any new information on this.

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