1836: Elisabeth (McKnight) Persico to Ellen (McKnight) Brayton

How Elisabeth Persico might have looked

How Elisabeth Persico might have looked

This letter was written by Elisabeth (McKnight) Persico (1802-1842), the daughter of John McKnight (1774-1855) and Catharine Stall (1777-18xx) of Reading, Pennsylvania. Elisabeth was married to Gennarino Persico, a miniature portrait painter and drawing teacher who came to the United States from Naples, Italy. He came about 1820 and worked in Reading and Philadelphia before settling in Richmond, Virginia, in the 1830s. The Persico’s operated a young ladies boarding school in Richmond until Elisabeth died in 1842. Not long afterwards, the school failed and Gennarino liquidated his holdings and returned to Naples.

Elisabeth wrote the letter to her sister, Eleanor or “Ellen” (McKnight) Brayton (1804-1877), the wife of Milton Brayton (1801-1880) — a merchant in Western, Oneida County, New York. Milton was the son of George Brayton (1772-1837) and Sarah Swan (1777-1841).

Sisters Sarah McKnight (1803-Bef1886) and Mary Ann McKnight (1805-1881) are mentioned in the letter. Sarah was married to Davenport Orrick and Mary Ann to Jacob Graeff.

Near the end of the letter, Elizabeth thanks her brother-in-law Milton Brayton for the post script added to her sister’s recent letter which no doubt emphasized his continued stand against slavery, which she humorously refers to as the “unmentionable question.” In life, as in Congress, the gag rule was often employed between northern and southern relatives prior to the Civil War in an effort to maintain harmony.

Elizabeth Prentice, a teacher employed by Mr. & Mrs. Persico in 1840, described Mrs. Persico as follows:

I hereby return my thanks to Nature for making her so beautiful. She has a face and figure to fall in love with.

Stampless Letter

Stampless Letter

Addressed to Mrs. Ellen Brayton, Westernville, Oneida County, New York

Richmond [Virginia]
June 1st 1836

My dear Ellen,

Notice in the Enquirer (Richmond, VA) on 10 May 1836

Notice in the Enquirer (Richmond, VA) on 10 May 1836

I am so much behind hand with all my correspondents that I have determined upon adopting a plan which one of our young ladies from Boston has found effectual — that is to write a page of a letter to each one to whom I am indebted and lay them aside, not finishing any and at my leisure do so. By that means she says she has within a very short time dispatched 36. As I have not quite so many to write, I shall try the plan with home, [sister] Sarah, and yourself hoping before I close to receive a letter from the two latter both of whom I rather think are in my debt. We had a letter from [sister] Mary Ann a few weeks since in which she mentioned that you would in all probability be at home this summer, as well as Sarah. This caused the first uneasy sensations visible in C____ who thought it quite impossible such an event could take place and she not be present. And as it would be very inconvenient for me to leave home this vacation for such a distance, I besought her grandfather to write her word to content herself where she was. Consequently, he has lately written her word that he was well satisfied with her improvement and thought it advisable to continue her here. We think her studious and attentive. She stands well in all her classes. I have adopted a plan with her which I like though I do not know whether you would approve it. I have not permitted her to sew or engage in any thing that would distract her mind from her books. To her wardrobe, I have attended myself in every particular so that all her time might be devoted to study. With the exception of an occasional Biography or Sunday School book, she has not read any thing else than the course of history through which her class in now in progress.

June 2d

A miniature portrait by Pesico

A miniature portrait by G. Persico

It is rather an odd time of night (eleven) to resume my pen laid down yesterday morning, but I am tired of sewing. Mr. Persico fast asleep on the sofa, perfect quiet in the house, and I am waiting for one of the family who is out. I cannot do better than to add to your letter somewhat that that which it may contain be soon dispatched ‘ere it become very old news.

I could not help wishing today that you had some of the fine strawberries, cherries, peas, asparagus, and radishes on which we have been feasting for the last week or more. Today I had a fine large cherry pie for dinner and picked a number of strawberries out of my own garden. Tomorrow I expect to pick from my bushes enough gooseberries as large as any you ever saw to bottle for next winter’s use, and I still have several bottles of last year’s growth quite as nice as fresh ones off the bushes. Today (June 18th) I had a letter from Sarah who is undecided as to the time of going home but says, “I am waiting for Davenport’s health to be better when I shall decide and write to Men and yourself so that your movements may be regulated accordingly.” It really costs me quite a pang to think that I shall be obliged to defer my visit north to another year and miss seeing this dear sister who for four years and more I have not beheld.

Ad in the Richmond Whig, 1 October 1841 for Mr. & Mrs. Persico's School

Ad in the Richmond Whig, 1 October 1841 for Mr. & Mrs. Persico’s School

On my visit home last year, there was an aching void in the family circle and my enjoyment was comparatively little to be sure. I saw my dear parents and brought C home with me which was my chief business, but Mary Ann and her children were not there and I do not know how it is this afflicted sister by her afflictions and meekness has endeared herself and little family to my heart more than when she was in prosperity. Since then, dear little Clara has gone and no doubt taken in much mercy from suffering in this world.  You will perceive by the date above that more than a fortnight has passed since I commenced this and until this morning I have had really no time to finish off this poor letter. In the meantime, I have sent one to Mary Ann and one to Sarah. You, being younger, are served last.

I had a letter from Ann Brayton a few days since in which she mentions the severity of Cynthia’s disease have passed off & her recruiting at home daily. I trust she may be entirely restored when this reaches you. Remember us affectionately to her and all the family in W____. Mrs. C is with Ann upon the present occasion and I am glad of it. I hope much good may come of her visits to W. and may she find that the place where they have laid her Lord. I hope Ann will furnish an heir to the estates and possessions this time. I wish anybody from your country ever came here and went back again, then I might hope to send a little offering to the little stranger.

I have been reading with great interest lately two books which if you have [not] read will be worthwhile for you to read: [Jacob] Abbot’s late work, “The way to do good” and Life of Rev’d Joseph Emerson.

Ad in Richmond Whig on 4 July 1843 annouincing auction to settle claims against Persico

Ad in Richmond Whig on 4 July 1843 annouincing auction to settle claims against Persico

Cath says Ann does not mention the receipt of a long letter written by herself to Cynthia and directed to Ab___ some months since. I do knot know that it is of much account but she requests me to mention it and also says I must beg the western folks to let Ann Brayton come on and spend next winter with her in Richmond. My dear Ellen, if this prospect meet your and br. Milton’s approbation, we should be very happy to have her come and can find means to get her here from N.Y. very well. A southern climate during the winter season would be very beneficial to her, I have no doubt, and she would have many advantages if she chose to continue her studies during her visit. C is improving daily under Miss Judkin’s — the best teacher I ever knew and decidedly pious. Yesterday morning, C with Miss Judkins and one or two of the young ladies in family attended a prayer meeting at 5 in the morning at the church held every Wednesday. Her habit of late rising has been overcome and I have no difficulty in getting up to 6 o’clock breakfast.

I hope your eyes are better than formerly or you will need specks to read this. Thanks to Milton for his post script and smiles at his yankee way of telling her he has not changed his sentiments on the unmentionable question.

We have had delightful weather for a week past — just pleasantly warm — but we may look for excessively hot suns after this. Our river has attracted thousands by the swelling over its banks — an unusual occurrence here, and though no damage to the city has occurred, yet the low lands so productive in wheat and corn crops has suffered and the country people predict a famine next year.

We all send much love to Br. Milton, Ann, Henry, and little M K. and want to see you sadly. I rejoice to hear that your health is so good. Tell Ann I have recently heard from our friends the Terrills.

Affectionately your sister, — Elisabeth


2 responses to “1836: Elisabeth (McKnight) Persico to Ellen (McKnight) Brayton

  • mike

    I found this to be very interesting as I am researching McKNIGHT, MILTON BRAYTON. I have in my possession a Mt Penn Airtight parlor stove that has some connection to Milton as he worked at Mt Penn Stove works as the secretary.

  • Robert Stagg

    Gennarino Persico subscribed to John James Audubon’s octavo edition of the Birds of America. Audubon describes a visit with him, his wife and 20 students at a “tea” in Richmond in a letter to his son, Victor, written 15 April 1840.

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