1848: Ashbel Wells Riley to George Stillson Riley

The following letter addressed to George S. Riley was written by three different individuals. The first part of the letter is in the handwriting of Anna Hammond Riley (b. 27 April 1830 at Rochester, NY), George’s half-sister. Anna was a roommate of Susan Huntington Gilbert, the future sister-in-law of Emily Dickinson, while attending Miss Kelley’s School (for young women) in Utica, N.Y, in 1848. In 1853, some five years after this letter was written, she married Cyrus Bentley, a brilliant young Chicago attorney who earned distinction representing the Cyrus H. McCormick Company in their legal battles. The middle part of the letter was written, I think, by Anna’s mother, Charlotte Stillson Riley (? – 1870) — a sister of George’s mother. The third part of the letter, dated incorrectly as June rather than July, was written by Ashbel Wells Riley (1795-1888), the father of George S. Riley.

Theodore Dwight Weld

The letter was started in Utica but was finished at the residence of Theodore Dwight Weld, the prominent abolitionist, in Belleville, New Jersey. The Weld residence was a 15-room house on a 50-acre lot fronting the Passaic River. Here, Weld and his wife, the former Angelina Grimke, ran a boarding school in the bosom of a Quaker community where every kind of “ism” was practiced, according to Anna Riley. Because Ashbel W. Riley shared Weld’s abolitionist sentiments and probably contributed to the publication of his writings, he was a welcome visitor to Belleville. Most likely, Riley and Weld shared lodging on the lecture circuit as well.

Stampless Envelope

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Utica, July 6th 1848
Thursday morning

Dear Brother George

Mother arrived here safely Tuesday noon somewhat fatigued with her journey – found her better than when I last wrote. I do not like the idea of going east for I do not think it will improve my heath and besides, I am not sick enough to go to the sea shore.

Mother says I must go, but I do not wish to. I would much rather be in some quiet spot. We have all our things packed waiting to hear from father. We are all ready. I am very sorry to hear your health is so poor and some afraid your journey will be too long for you. You must be careful and not get sick again. I hear nothing from R. I am going to write to day. When we hear from Father, I shall finish this letter and direct.

July 8th Saturday evening

Dear George,

I am in a strange place and in a land of strangers. We are in Jersey state in Bellville where they tell me you once visited, at a Mr. Weld’s – quakers – abolitionists, temperance, grahamites, and all this to the extreme – perfect altruist abolitionists standing their stage. They are good people, and worthy, and have a most beautiful situation. I have seen many things new and strange since yesterday at 12 when we left Utica and I cannot tell you how many times I wished myself in Utica since I left there, or in fact at any place where I might be alone and quiet. Oh! I do so much wish Mother could have been contented to have _________. I believe I should wish wings to fly to some spot away from all these (to me) uninteresting scenes. As for N.Y., I never had the least desire to visit the city and I can assure you what little from pleasing ideas I had all vanished when I found myself promenading those celebrated streets, Broadway, &c.  Away with those noisy cities. In the words of another, give me a lodge in some wilderness wild…with a few friends, books, &c. I can then be happy.

We met Father in New York, took the ferry across to Newark, N.J., then the stage to this residence which we expect to leave. We are undecided to go where Monday.

Belleville, N. J.
June [July] 10, 1848
At Theodore Welds

Dear George

Your mother and Ann came to NY Saturday morning. I brought them here on that day. We are going today to Orange in this state. To morrow to Yonkers up the Hudson [River] 12 miles. Where we shall go next, I do not know but think I shall take them up the [Long Island] Sound into some of them towns in Connecticut where I lectured when they came.

We hope that we shall hear that your health is improved. Write as soon as you get this to me at New York. I suppose Anna has written you all about things. It rained yesterday. Consequently, I did nothing… I will send you ten dollars more to Detroit so you may enquire there. Yours truly, — Ashbel Wells Riley


Obituary of Ashbel Wells Riley:

Gen. Ashbel Wells Riley, who died at Rochester, NY, Tuesday, aged 93, was a leading temperance lecturer and anti-slavery advocate long before the war.  He was born at Glastonbury, Ct., and won his title in the old-time militia.  He was in command of the 23d New York regiment at the time of the nullification troubles in South Carolina, and offered Andrew Jackson the use of his troops.  For this he was afterward thanked by the President in person.  (Tuesday, April 17, 1888, The Wellsboro Agitator, Wellsboro, Tioga Co, Pa.)

Biographical Sketch of Ashbel Wells Riley:

From Semi-Centennial History of the City of Rochester
by William F. Peck (1884)
pages 665 – 669

ASHBEL WELLS RILEY. Prominent among the living pioneers of the city of Rochester, is the subject of this sketch, General Ashbel Wells Riley. He was born in Glastenbury, Conn., on the 19th day of March, 1795, and has, therefore, now reached the great age of almost ninety years. While he was an infant his parents removed to Rocky Hill, directly across the Connecticut river from the place of his birth. There his father died while his son was still in early youth. A discharge from the revolutionary army, signed by George Washington, and yet preserved, certifies that his father faithfully served six years in the revolutionary army. The early life of, the son and a younger brother was quietly passed at Rocky Hill, devoted to the assistance of his mother in rearing her family, and the acquirement of such education as was available in the common schools of the neighborhood. When he had reached a proper age, although a choice was offered him of a college education, through the kindness of a relative, or of entering the navy under favorable auspices, his mother deemed it best that he should learn a trade; he accordingly learned the carpenter’s trade, finishing it when he was about eighteen years old, at which time he removed with his mother to the town of Preston, Chenango county, N. Y. There he engaged in teaching school, being the first person in that town to be examined for the work under the existing school laws. After about a year in Preston he went to Cayuga county, where he remained about a year in the town of Scipio and the village of Auburn, and then, in company with his mother, made a tour of several of the eastern states, visiting their former home at Rocky Hill. Following this he went to Buffalo, where he worked at his trade about six months, and then spent a similar period in attendance at the West Bloomfield academy. At the close of his studies, he removed permanently to Rochester, in the year 1816, when there were but three hundred inhabitants in the village. During the greater portion of the succeeding seven or eight years he worked here at his trade, and, as a contractor, built many large buildings, among them the Rochester High school, in 1827.

In the year 1827, Mr. Riley, in company with the late Josiah Bissell, purchased a large tract of land on the east side of the river, embracing two hundred. and forty acres, now mostly covered by a populous portion of the city of Rochester. The price paid for the tract was $35,000. Mr. Bissell died about two years after the purchase was made, and the property passed into the sole possession of Mr. Riley. He was chosen one of the first five trustees of the village, and was also elected in 1834 as one of the first board of aldermen of the city; he is now the only living member of both these bodies.

Mr. Riley’s military career, in which he gained the honorable title by which he has been known so many years, began soon after he reached his majority, when he enlisted as the first foot soldier from the village, joining a company that was raised in the vicinity of Penfield; this company was a portion of the First rifle regiment, which subsequently became the Eighteenth. Mr. Riley was made sergeant of his company, from which office he rapidly advanced. In 1825 he was elected lieutenant-colonel of the First regiment of riflemen, (afterward the Twenty-third), of which Benjamin H. Brown was colonel, and in 1831 was placed in command of the regiment. He was afterward elected brigadier-general over the three regiments located in this vicinity, and finally was appointed major-general, succeeding General Bowen Whiting, the distinguished attorney, of Geneva. He and his associate officers were selected to act as escort to the Marquis de La Fayette on his journey from Rochester to Canandaigua, and the Twenty-third regiment because, under General Riley’s command, one of the most efficient military organisations in this section of country. Indeed, it received from Governor Marcy, who reviewed it in 1832, the compliment of being the best regiment in the state. While under his command, the regiment volunteered to General Jackson (then president of the United States) to go south and aid in quelling the nullification troubles. For this prompt offer of service General Riley subsequently had the satisfaction of receiving the personal thanks of “Old Hickory” in the capitol at Washington.

At about the beginning of his military career, General Riley also began to take a practical interest in the advancement of the cause of temperance, the anti-slavery movement, and other reforms – a work to which he ever afterward gave up a large share of his time, his means, and his best efforts. He first made his influence felt for temperance in the different military organisations which he commanded, never accepting an office in any of them except upon a temperance basis, This resulted in almost eradicating intemperance from the regiment and brigade which he commanded. Neither did he hesitate from lifting up his voice, whenever and wherever it seemed most effective, against the curse of slavery, and that, too, during a period when it was anything but a source of honor to oppose the institution. From about the year 1826, during a period equal to the lives of most men, General Riley has devoted himself, heart and soul, to these reforms. In the cause of temperance he has traveled in most of the English-speaking countries of the world, going always at his own expense, making no request for compensation or aid, and often offering to pay those who differed with him for their time spent in listening to his potent arguments.

In this connection the following copy of one of General Riley’s peculiar handbills will be of interest “One thousand able-bodied men wanted! to hear an address in behalf of drunkards’ wives and children, by General Riley, of Rochester, N. Y., late one of the vice-presidents of the New York state temperance society. He will pay wholesale dealers and owners of distilleries and breweries that are now in operation, 25 cents an hour; retailers of liquors 18.75 cents per hour, and other able-bodied men 12.5 cents per hour, if they are mint satisfied at the close of the meeting.”

He spent about a year and a half in Great Britain, and considerable time on the continent, delivering in those countries about four hundred lectures, while those of his different tours throughout America are almost innumerable. He procured the dies and had an appropriate medal struck, of which he has distributed more than six thousand to persons who would sign his pledge. Many of these persons he has met and heard from years after their pledge, in the enjoyment that always comes with temperate living. The influence of this life-work, to which General Riley has always made worldly riches and advancement subject, is simply inestimable for the general good and morality of humanity. As an eminent writer once said of him, “He has been to reforms what the white caps are to the waves – always in the ascendant.” General Riley speaks extemporaneously, and, although not an orator in the polished and educated sense, he never fails to hold the interest of his hearers. In a series of Pen Portraits of Illustrious Abstainers, written by George W. Bungay, we find the following terse criticism of General Riley’s eloquence and platform manner: –

“General Riley’s speeches were strings of beads, coral, common glass, and gold, with here and there a rare jewel, and even diamonds in the rough. The thread of his discourse shone amid sparkled with wit, humor, sarcasm, pathos, and eloquence when he shook the brilliant rosary before an audience. His hearers laughed and cried alternately. Sometimes they were ready to shout his praises, at other times to pelt him with showers of unmerchantable eggs. Without trying to think in a direct line, or caring to speak logically, his lectures as a whole were arguments. He would leap over the laws of rhetoric, in his eager earnestness, as a blooded steed would a five-barred gate to get into good clover or good company.”

It will also be appropriate to quote from remarks made by General Riley himself at a reform meeting held in the spring of 1883, in Rochester, where he spoke as follows relative to his life-work: –

“I have long been a business man and property holder in Rochester, but I have never paused to weigh the consequences of doing right in a plain case, to the business which I chanced to be in. My mother taught me when a child the lesson of the modern ditty, ‘Dare to do right;’ and I have ever obeyed her injunction. And though I have suffered in the world’s estimate for doing right and opposing wrong; though I have sometimes lost money, and sometimes reputation by opposing Masonry, liquor-selling and slavery in past years, my family have not suffered hunger, and I own a residence in this city now as good as my neighbors, and have means to live in it.”

“It is ever best in the long run to do right, though the words of our Savior were true when he warned us that men would hate us for doing right. ‘If ye were of the world, the world would love his own, but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you.’ There never was a man in the city of Rochester so thoroughly hated as was Josiah Bissell; and yet there never was so general mourning at any other funeral as at his. His life was one protest against Sabbath-breaking, liquor-selling, slavery and the secret lodge, and hence he was hated while living, and universally honored and lamented when he was dead.”

It does not, perhaps, need further details to show that the reform work carried on by General Riley has been eminently unselfish. He has pursued it for neither glory nor for gain, but because he believed it the right thing to do, even if at his financial loss. He has, moreover, been a Christian but little less radical than in his reform labors. He was nurtured in the Congregationalist faith, but has long been a member of the First Presbyterian church in Rochester. He was chairman of a meeting held here many years ago, having for its object the abolition of mail carrying on Sunday. While the measure did not succeed upon a basis of its Christianity, it did subsequently result in mail carrying but six days in the week upon all except the great through lines, because it would save one-seventh of the expense to the government. In this line of reform General Riley established a line of boats on the canal, in 1835, to run six days each week. This enterprise cost him $20,000, which he considered an excellent investment. For the cause of religion as a whole he has done much in this city, building one early church at his own expense, and giving substantial aid to others. One wooden church, 40 by 80 feet in dimensions, for which there was an imperative necessity through a division in the third Presbyterian church in the village, was erected on General Riley’s garden, and in the short space of five weeks. This will serve to indicate the man’s energy. Once having decided that it is necessary and right for him to do a certain thing, it is an insurmountable obstacle that can prevent its consummation.

It is not as reformer alone that General Riley has lifted his hand and opened his heart. When the cholera epidemic broke out in Rochester in 1832, he was the youngest member of the board of health, and a large share of the repulsive labor connected with the terrible scourge fell to him. The first victim (an unknown tramp) was buried in the night, General Riley performing the work almost single-handed. Out of 116 deaths by the dread disease, he placed eighty of the bodies in their coffins, eleven of which were in one day. But he never shrank from nor complained at the labor. He accepted it as his duty, and did it, passing through the ordeal unscathed.

In his semi-centennial historical address, delivered in Rochester in June, 1884, Hon. Charles E. Fitch made the following beautiful allusion to General Riley’s unselfish labor during the cholera epidemic: “I had thought to observe faithfully the proprieties, by refraining from anything like eulogy of living citizens, but I am sure you will pardon an allusion to one who, amid that dreadful scourge, bore himself with a dauntlessness, before which that which faced the Redan battery or climbed the frowning crest of Molino del Rey pales and grows weak ; who met the pestilence with equanimity, when others fled before it; whose step never faltered, and whose hand never trembled in the ordeal; who was as gentle in his bedside ministrations as he was fearless in the chamber of death, and who, with his own hands, placed over eighty victims in their coffins. Ah! that is a sublimner type of courage which walks undismayed in the footsteps of the plague than that which rushes upon the foemen’s serried ranks in the frenzy of battle, amid the plautlits of a nation. And the citizen-hero, General Ashbel W. Riley, the sole survivor of the whole body of village trustees – for he was a trustee sixty years ago – and the only living member of the first board of aldermen, although the frosts of nine decades have silvered his locks, still walks our streets, erect in form, stately in his bearing, with his mind yet vigorous, and the blood of health still coursing his veins, as the results of temperate habits amid cleanliness in living.

This sketch has already exceeded its prescribed limits, and perhaps enough has been said to enable the reader to picture to himself the life and character of General Ashbel W. Riley. He is a reformer; but, unlike many aspiring to that title, he has always backed his theories not only with the utmost fearlessness, but with all his might and means. This means a great deal and has won for him the respect of those who differ with him, as well as those who are in sympathy with him. He is now one of the oldest citizens of Rochester, and in spite of the fact that he has spent more than one liberal fortune in support of what he believes to have been his duty, he still enjoys a competence for his declining years.

General Riley was first married in 1819, to Betsey Ann Stillson, of Brighton. She died four years later, and in 1827 he married her sister, Charlotte Stillson. She died in 1870 and in the following year he married his third wife, in the person of Mary E. Hoyt, of Rochester. There were born to him by his first wife two children, but one of whom, his son George, is living. By his second wife he had two sons Ashbel W., jr., and Justin Gamaliel, and one daughter, Anna H. His youngest son, J. Gamaliel, died in 1873. His daughter married Cyrus Bentley in 1853, a lawyer then and now residing in Chicago. One of his surviving sons is in the treasury department at Washington, and one is George S. Riley, of Rochester.

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