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As I’ve learned more about my ancestors I’ve also taken some time to follow the branches of the tree down, learning about their siblings’ descendants. I’ve come across some interesting stories; this is part of a recurring series of diaries about distant cousins I never knew.

My great-great-great-grandmother was named Fidelia Churchill. She was born March 3, 1822 in Pomfret, Vermont. Fidelia’s roots in Pomfret went back as far as anyone’s. Her maternal grandfather, John Chedel, had been the second English settler of Pomfret, coming from eastern Connecticut in 1770. Her mother’s older sister, John’s daughter Rachel, was the first English child born there, toward the end of that year. Sadly, in 1777 six-year-old Rachel Chedel became one of the first English people to die in Pomfret as well. Fidelia’s mother Azuba, not born until 1782, never knew this older sister, but named her first child Rachel in honor of her and their mother, who also died young.

The grave of my 3x-great-grandmother, Zebedee P.'s sister Fidelia Churchill Perkins, in Taftsville, Vt.
Fidelia was the youngest of ten children, born twelve years after her eldest sibling Rachel. This diary concerns her brother Zebedee Plummer Churchill, born four years before Fidelia on May 15, 1818, and the story behind his three marriages in the context of his times.

Evangelism

The name “Plummer” does not appear anywhere in the family tree, nor does it appear among the Churchills' neighbors in Vermont or back in Massachusetts. It appears likely that Zebedee Plummer Churchill, whose father’s name also was Zebedee, was given that middle name in honor of the famed Methodist preacher Frederick Plummer (1787-1854).

Rev. Plummer, a native of Haverhill, Mass. like Samuel Ladd, started out as an itinerant preacher in New England as a young man. He first visited Woodstock, Vermont and Pomfret in 1810, baptizing 500 people in a mass ceremony. He then helped organize a Methodist church on the Woodstock green, and made regular visits to the area in the years that followed. He later went on to considerable fame in the Philadelphia area. Though he lived only a few weeks in Woodstock, Vermont, so great was his influence there that he is one of only three Christian ministers profiled in Henry Swan Dana's History of Woodstock, Vt., published in 1889, or thirty-five years after his death.

The green in beautiful Woodstock, Vermont, where Elder Frederick Plummer captivated the population over two centuries ago
The preacher Frederick Plummer was an early figure in what became a cultural tidal wave. Although the Second Great Awakening had been going for some time, as shown by Rev. Plummer’s early popularity, it really picked up after 1816, the “Year There Was No Summer.” A massive volcanic eruption in Indonesia in April 1815, following a series of other large eruptions, caused a dramatic rise in atmospheric dust. This came during a period of already-low solar activity and resulted in a major drop in temperatures in the northeastern United States, eastern Canada, parts of Western Europe (especially France) and China.

On about June 6, 1816, the temperature was in the eighties in New England. In a single day, it dropped over forty degrees and significant snow fell over Vermont. Late June brought a short heat wave, with temperatures approaching 100 degrees, but July and August were very cold, with regular hard frost and periodic snow in Vermont. John Quincy Adams, sitting far to the southeast of Pomfret, Vermont, would write that a fire was needed virtually every night that summer. In September, following the appearance of “sun haloes,” New England was hit days and days of driving rain. It today is believed that, as with Tropical Storm Sandy this fall, the end of a Caribbean hurricane joined up with a more typical nor’easter to create more significant rain.

All of this led to a very bad harvest in Vermont. In the aftermath some 15,000 Vermonters moved west to places like upstate New York and Ohio, in search of more fertile land, reversing a long trend of population growth in Vermont. The event changed Vermont’s future forever, as future migrants from Massachusetts and Connecticut looked west, instead of north as many migrants had between 1763 and 1816.

This trend was amplified with the coming of the Erie Canal and the railroads, and never again would Vermont experience a large population influx, until perhaps in recent decades as people have sought refuge there from urban life. To this day it is the least populous state in New England and the second-least populous state in the United States. It also is the most rural state and has the lowest birthrate in the United States. Vermont has no billboards on its roads, and Montpelier is the only state capital with no McDonald’s.

Zebedee P.'s largely unspoiled hometown of Pomfret, Vermont
Among the families who left Vermont after the cold summer of 1816 was the family of Joseph Smith, who later would found the Mormon church. Many people thought the strange weather was a sign from God, and the evangelical preachers of the Second Great Awakening did little to dispel this notion. They suggested that the emergence of the United States, billed as the first major democracy since Caesar – and Jesus Christ – was a sign of the millennium, Jesus’s return to earth. In the years that followed, religious evangelicalism and experimentation would flourish in the United States, and to a very high degree in upstate New York (the "Burned Over" district), where the Smiths and many other New England farm families relocated.

Possibly Arranged May-September Marriages

My family, it seems, named their son after Rev. Plummer. But they didn’t leave Vermont, not for another century. They hardly left their hometown. Thus Zebedee Plummer Churchill married Orleana Boutwell in Pomfret in 1846.

This was not the May-December, or even May-September marriage; they were pretty close in age. For all I know, I owe my existence to this marriage. In 1849, three years after the marriage of Zebedee P. and Orlena Boutwell, my great-great-great-grandfather Lyman (a widow in his forties) married Zebedee P.’s sister Fidelia (an “old maid” of 27). They may have met through Zebedee P. and Orlena. The ties between the Perkins and Boutwell families were strong: Orlena’s mother, Sylvia Perkins Boutwell, was Lyman’s first cousin. Sylvia’s brother, Alvora Perkins, also married Sarah Boutwell, who was the sister of Orlena’s father, John Boutwell (this marriage will be important later in the tale). So one set of brother and sister married another set. Though it’s likely that most people in the area knew each other back then, I wonder if Lyman would have married Fidelia if his cousin and her brother hadn’t been married. Maybe they first met at the wedding?  

Zebedee P. and Orlena had four children, a boy who died very young and three girls. But in 1854, a month before her 30th birthday, Orlena herself died. Eight months later, in February 1855 Zebedee P. (then 36) married Emily Maria Ordway (then 19), the oldest child of Hiram and Maria Ordway, in February 1855. Not quite May-December, more like May-September.

I would love to know more about how it was decided that Zebedee P. and Emily Ordway would marry. By the standards of the time Emily was controversial: at 19, she was the never-married mother of a four-year old boy. Nearly twenty years later, when the little boy himself married, he identified Caleb Williamson as his father. (Caleb Williamson was another near neighbor. In fact, his family and Zebedee P. Churchill’s family appear on the same page in the 1850 census records; Emily and the Ordways are on the following page.) Emily’s son was born in February 1851, and thus would have been conceived well before her fifteenth birthday. Caleb Williamson was 32, born the same year as Zebedee P. Churchill. He also was married with several children, including a daughter not far from Emily’s age.

Zebedee P.'s second wife, Emily Ordway, in the 1850 census, a few months before having a child at 15. The tick marks for her and her sisters indicate they attended school within the year. The Churchills and Williamsons appear on the preceding page.
I don’t know if it was common knowledge in Pomfret that Caleb Williamson had fathered Emily’s child, but there is no indication he ever accepted responsibility for the boy. In any event, by 1874, when the child himself married, he was willing to declare to the town clerk in Pomfret that Caleb Williamson was his biological father. By this time Caleb Williamson had left Pomfret, but didn’t go far: he never lived more than about 20 miles away.
Zebedee P. and Emily settled near the Ottauquechee River in Woodstock
I wonder if the marriage between Zebedee P. and Emily was based on real affection at its inception, or if it was a pure business deal. The recently-widowed Zebedee P. had three young daughters and needed a new wife; the teenage mother Emily might not have too many suitors. Whether based on love or expediency, they married and Emily’s son soon took the name Churchill, which he kept all his life.
The old school in Pomfret, Vermont, now the town offices. The Churchill children took their lessons in this building; now it houses vital records for many a Churchill.
Whatever the genesis of their relationship, Zebedee P. and Emily were married nearly 40 years, until she died of heart failure in January 1894. They had six children of their own and remained prominent in the Pomfret/Woodstock area. Zebedee P.’s relatives gave money for the funeral when Emily's brother was killed in the Civil War and both Zebedee P.’s first wife, Orlena, and Emily are buried with him in Woodstock.

Pre-Nups

Zebedee P.’s third wife, however, was another story. This was Sarah Emeline Perkins Furber. Sarah was the daughter of Alvora Perkins and Sarah Boutwell. Remember them from above? Sarah’s father was the brother of Orlena’s mother, and her mother was the sister of Orlena’s father. That made her Orlena’s double first cousin. Back when she was 18, she had married Benjamin Furber, whose first wife had just died at only 19. They had two children. Presumably Zebedee P. had known her all that time, some 50 years. Benjamin Furber had died in March 1896, about two years after Emily Ordway Churchill died. And so it was that Zebedee P. and Sarah Emeline married on January 21, 1898. He was almost 80 at the time, she was almost 70.

I’d like to say it was happy that these two found each other late in life, but apparently it wasn’t. Within five months of the marriage, Sarah Emeline moved out of Zebedee’s house and went to live with her daughter nearby. Zebedee P. took a room with a widow who had two grown sons. They never lived together again, though each recognized the marriage in the 1900 census and she called herself “Emeline S. Churchill.”

Zebedee P., married but boarding with another family at the age of 82 in the 1900 census
Sarah, wife No. 3, living with her daughter's family. The Henry Boutwell next door is the brother of Zebedee P.'s first wife, Orlena Boutwell. They both were Sarah's first cousins. Small world.
Around the time Sarah moved out, she and Zebedee P. signed a contract. Under its terms he paid her $300 and she was discharged from her duties to care for him as spouse. Under the contract she also disclaimed any interest in his estate to which she might have a legal claim as his widow. This contract purported to reflect an agreement they made at the time of the marriage.

Zebedee P. Churchill died in Pomfret on December 17, 1902. He was 84 years old, and was laid to rest alongside his first two wives, Orlena and Emily. Not long after the litigation began. In July 1903, Sarah Emeline appeared in probate court and offered to return the $300 to his executor and reclaim her rights to his estate as widow. Several of his children sued to enforce the contract, saying she had agreed to it, had taken the money, had not reversed course during Zebedee P.’s lifetime, and had done nothing to care for him in his last years.

Zebedee P. Churchill at rest with his first two wives, but not the third, in Woodstock, Vt.
Surprisingly, Sarah Emeline won in the trial court, and again on appeal to the Vermont Supreme Court. In Sawyer v. Churchill, 77 Vt. 273 (1905), the court in essence found that, because they agreed at the time of their marriage that Sarah Emeline would be freed from all wifely duties any time Zebedee P. gave her $300, the contract was contrary to public policy in promoting the “permanency” of marriage relations, and thus void.
The Court announces its decision
The court conceded that separation agreements may be enforceable after the parties have tried a marriage in good faith. Nonetheless, it voided this contract as “tainted by an understanding, contemporaneous with the marriage, looking to a possible or probable separation in the future, and, in the nature of things, tending to bring such a separation about.”  The court continued, “To avoid harsh phraseology, the marriage appears to have been experimental, so far as the parties thereto could make it so; a travesty of marriage and a mockery of marriage vows.” Doesn’t sound like they “avoid[ed] harsh phraseology” to me.

The contract being voided, Sarah Emeline returned the $300 and got the minimum widow’s share of Zebedee P.’s estate guaranteed by law, which presumably was worth far more. She herself died in August 1906.

*              *               *

So there’s the nineteenth century for you. Children named for itinerant preachers, spouses dying before the age of 30, married men impregnating fourteen-year-old girls, second marriages to people half your age, third marriages to your first wife’s cousin, and prenuptial agreements the courts refused to enforce because they wanted you at least to try with your marriage.

Still, as we’ll see in tomorrow's Open Thread, it all worked out for the best, you could say.

Tomorrrow: (March 22 Open Thread): A descendant of Zebedee P. and Emily well worth remembering.

Originally posted to Genealogy and Family History Community on Thu Mar 21, 2013 at 07:20 AM PDT.

Also republished by History for Kossacks and Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (37+ / 0-)

    Republicans...think the American standard of living is a fine thing--so long as it doesn't spread to all the people. And they admire the Government of the United States so much that they would like to buy it. Harry S. Truman

    by fenway49 on Thu Mar 21, 2013 at 07:20:56 AM PDT

  •  This was supposed to be (11+ / 0-)

    up a few days ago. I was doing Tuesdays but this week things got all messed up. With our latest snowstorm (yes, on March 19th) and meetings to go to and so on.

    Republicans...think the American standard of living is a fine thing--so long as it doesn't spread to all the people. And they admire the Government of the United States so much that they would like to buy it. Harry S. Truman

    by fenway49 on Thu Mar 21, 2013 at 07:39:30 AM PDT

  •  Annulment (14+ / 0-)

    The way to get around such things was sometimes annulments. In the Catholic church, in particular, all sorts of forgiveness and dispensations are available for a price. And not just long ago: Some years back, I met a woman whose father, a very wealthy and prominent man, had been married in the Catholic church five times. The trick was annulments rather than divorces.

    That said, I do find some divorces even early on. Usually, adultery was grounds. There's way too many cases where abuse (with or without drunkenness) was NOT deemed suitable grounds for divorce.

    Mark Twain: It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.

    by Land of Enchantment on Thu Mar 21, 2013 at 07:51:28 AM PDT

    •  Not sure (11+ / 0-)

      if their religion (they were Methodists, I guess) had annulments.

      The Catholic annulment racket is well publicized. RFK's son, Rep. Joe Kennedy II, essentially lost his political career in the late 90s when his ex-wife wrote a book about his pressuring her to get an annulment so he could marry wife No. 2 in the Catholic church. His son, Joe III, is my Congressman now, having replaced Barney Frank this year.

      Republicans...think the American standard of living is a fine thing--so long as it doesn't spread to all the people. And they admire the Government of the United States so much that they would like to buy it. Harry S. Truman

      by fenway49 on Thu Mar 21, 2013 at 08:09:21 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  "for a price" (6+ / 0-)

      seems to be the key. They just flipped me off and told me my kiddos were 'bastards'. 'Twas then I said my farewells to organized religion. I think it was more than the divorce. I'd married in the "Greek" rather than Roman pile o' bricks. I have this stupid idea that God is God if indeed he is God.

      fen: I'd wondered about the snow you got - glad to see ya today.

      “Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a Republican. But I repeat myself.” ― Harry S. Truman

      by brook on Thu Mar 21, 2013 at 04:31:34 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Who needs 'em? (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        brook
        'Twas then I said my farewells to organized religion.
        Monday night we had about 4-5 inches of snow. Tuesday morning I got up early, shoveled out the car for my wife, and she drove to work just to find they'd cancelled school and forget to notify her. Second time this winter that's happened.

        South of us they got more last night. They're saying we might get a decent storm on Monday or Tuesday. Isn't it spring? Funny thing is we had virtually nothing in December and January.

        Republicans...think the American standard of living is a fine thing--so long as it doesn't spread to all the people. And they admire the Government of the United States so much that they would like to buy it. Harry S. Truman

        by fenway49 on Fri Mar 22, 2013 at 05:33:10 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  "who needs 'em?" (0+ / 0-)

          I used to tell Mom only the very young and the very old did.

          What a bummer for you two, you shoveling and then your wife driving to a closed school. Snow's beautiful when fresh and observed from a distance. At least at my age.

           It has been a cold summer and fall here on my lovely bay. Fall is usually our summer, but not this year. I have hopes for Spring.

          “Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a Republican. But I repeat myself.” ― Harry S. Truman

          by brook on Fri Mar 22, 2013 at 12:48:44 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  Well written story (12+ / 0-)

    and commentary on all-too-common situations. Those that long for the good old days don't have a clue.

    utahgirl

    •  Wresting a living from a VT farm is very hard (11+ / 0-)

      Even now, with tractors and a host of useful machines, wresting a living out of a Vermont farm is tough duty.  When they were doing this with hand tools and horses, it was brutal.  Looking to my ancestors, it is clear that a life match was not necessarily a love match as we now understand it.  There is much in my family's history in which I take pride and think the people were admirable, but I would not trade places with any of those 19th century tradesmen and farmers, and I thinking of the male role.  Being a working class woman or farmer's wife in those times must have been incredibly hard.

      •  They spent so much time pregnant (7+ / 0-)

        On top of everything else, delivering the babies at home, much more death during childbirth than nowadays. Families changed pretty fast when birth control became available, no matter whether Rick Santorum approves.

        Mark Twain: It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.

        by Land of Enchantment on Thu Mar 21, 2013 at 08:15:52 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

      •  True (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        annan, salmo
        Even now, with tractors and a host of useful machines, wresting a living out of a Vermont farm is tough duty.  When they were doing this with hand tools and horses, it was brutal.
        I recently read a book on the history of skiing in Vermont. It quoted a 1920s write-up on the state by some federal agency that essentially referred to Vermont as a hardscrabble rural backwater full of grim subsistence farmers. According to the skiing book, many of the people there still appreciated the beauty and pleasures of the place. I'm not sure when they found the time for that.

        Anyway, then the ski craze began and Vermont became a vacation destination. But I still know people there who scrape together a modest living by doing about six different things.

        Republicans...think the American standard of living is a fine thing--so long as it doesn't spread to all the people. And they admire the Government of the United States so much that they would like to buy it. Harry S. Truman

        by fenway49 on Fri Mar 22, 2013 at 05:45:02 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

    •  so true. (5+ / 0-)

      I can wax nostalgic with the best of 'em, but the past can be highly overrated.

      “Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a Republican. But I repeat myself.” ― Harry S. Truman

      by brook on Thu Mar 21, 2013 at 04:34:03 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Very interesting story, thanks for telling it. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    fenway49, Pariah Dog

    I have one question, though. Why do you spell Fidelia with an F when it's Ph on her gravestone?

    Some DKos series & groups worth your while: Black Kos, Native American Netroots, KosAbility, Monday Night Cancer Club. If you'd like to join the Motor City Kossacks, send me a Kosmail.

    by peregrine kate on Thu Mar 21, 2013 at 09:33:26 PM PDT

    •  All the records (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      peregrine kate

      I've ever seen have it with the "F." Birth, marriage, death records, local newspapers, census records, published family history book, handwritten notes my grandmother gave to my aunt, etc.

      I have no idea why the gravestone has "Ph." My theory is that there was a miscommunication with the mason and no money to fix it. Her daughter, my great-great-grandmother, was flat broke and in debt in those years.

      Republicans...think the American standard of living is a fine thing--so long as it doesn't spread to all the people. And they admire the Government of the United States so much that they would like to buy it. Harry S. Truman

      by fenway49 on Fri Mar 22, 2013 at 05:23:23 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Makes perfect sense, then. (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        fenway49

        Shows how much it helps to have multiple sources for each of your ancestors. You are fortunate in that regard.

        Some DKos series & groups worth your while: Black Kos, Native American Netroots, KosAbility, Monday Night Cancer Club. If you'd like to join the Motor City Kossacks, send me a Kosmail.

        by peregrine kate on Fri Mar 22, 2013 at 06:56:57 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  New England (0+ / 0-)

          has long been good at keeping records. But I've had a lot more trouble tracking things down with Irish or New York family.

          Republicans...think the American standard of living is a fine thing--so long as it doesn't spread to all the people. And they admire the Government of the United States so much that they would like to buy it. Harry S. Truman

          by fenway49 on Fri Mar 22, 2013 at 12:44:56 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  ooh, ooh, a name I recognize! ORDWAY! (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    fenway49, Pariah Dog

    My mother's sister married an Ordway in Hood River OR about 1944. I know nothing about his family, 8-).

    They had two children, Earl who had one child; and his sister who had two, I think (gets confusing, at some point (i can't believe I can't remember her name!) took in Earl's daughter and grand-daughter)). I have pretty much lost track of both of these cousins, although Earl did send a card when my mother passed about 10 years ago...

    "real" work : a job where you wash your hands BEFORE you use the bathroom...

    by chimene on Fri Mar 22, 2013 at 12:34:44 AM PDT

    •  Ordway (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      chimene

      is not quite common here, but it's a name you see. We had a sports radio host for many years named Glenn Ordway. He was just removed from his show a few weeks ago.

      Most Ordways, as I understand it, started out in New England. In the early 1800s some moved to Upstate New York, and from there headed further west between 1820 and 1950 or so. Pretty standard northern migration pattern.

      Republicans...think the American standard of living is a fine thing--so long as it doesn't spread to all the people. And they admire the Government of the United States so much that they would like to buy it. Harry S. Truman

      by fenway49 on Fri Mar 22, 2013 at 05:52:05 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Hazards of Pioneer Life (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    fenway49, annan

    Examples from the Menominee County Journal archive from the last week in February, 1898:

    Anton Hanson, while chopping a tree, had it 'kickback' and was struck in the jaw and had a couple of teeth knocked out and other injuries.

    Thomas Golder was struck in the eye by the wire end on a bale of hay when cutting the wire.  He may lose sight in the eye.

    Dr. Van Domlin, the tapeworm expert, removed a 130-foot long tapeworm from a Wilson man.

    C. H. Swanson killed a panther with his axe while out in the woods.  The panther was ready to make a leap for Mr. Swanson when it received the death blow.

    While working on the river, Edward Yenar had one of his hands nearly cut off.  He was clearing the ice out of a pile (logs) hole when an axe slipped out of a fellow workman's hand and cut Yenar's had so badly, 13 stitches were required.

    One didn't live off the grid back then.  There was no grid.

    Don't look back, something may be gaining on you. - L. "Satchel" Paige

    by arlene on Fri Mar 22, 2013 at 05:28:24 AM PDT

    •  Wow (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      annan

      In a couple of weeks I was planning to write up the story of an ancestor who was the first English colonist to settle an area of northern N.H. His wife was about to have their 5th child and he marched the whole family 30 miles, shotgun at the ready for bears and wolves.

      They finally reached a rude hut, the only building in their new "town." His wife gave birth that first night (probably spurred by the 30 mile walk) while the older kids slept in the grass outside. They found signs the local natives had been there recently, so he hollowed out a pine trunk and used a long branch to paddle the family, newborn and all, six miles down an icy river to a fort. But that was 1770, not 1898.

      Republicans...think the American standard of living is a fine thing--so long as it doesn't spread to all the people. And they admire the Government of the United States so much that they would like to buy it. Harry S. Truman

      by fenway49 on Fri Mar 22, 2013 at 05:50:02 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

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