1838: Isaac W. & James W. Brinckerhoff to Philip Viele

This letter was written by 17 year-old  Isaac W. Brinckerhoff (1821-1910) and his 18 year-old brother James W. Brinckerhoff (1820-1904). They were the sons of Walter Brinckerhoff (1794-1878) and Eliza McChain (1797-1828). Both Isaac and James mention their sister, Sophia Brinckerhoff (1819-1846). They also mention their young half-brother, William Brinckerhoff (1837-1903) who’s mother was Eliza Ann Coulter (1799-1865) — Walter’s second wife.

James W. Brinckerhoff married Mary Jane Thompson (1824-1908) in April 1844. In this letter, we learn that James attempted to learn the jeweler’s trade but market conditions compelled him to give it up and take a clerk’s job at the American Home Missionary Society on Nassau Street. Later City Directories indicate that James continued to reside in NYC and labor as a clerk. In 1877, his residence was at 117 E. 28th Street.

Moffat's Building at corner of Broadway and Franklin in NYC (1850)

Moffat’s Building (in distance) at corner of Broadway and Franklin in NYC (1850)

Isaac W. Brinckerhoff was married three times, his first wife being Lydia McChain (b. 1827) whom he married in May 1845. We learn from this letter that Isaac dreamed of becoming a lawyer as he studied Latin and prepared himself for college while clerking at the Tract House in New York City. I believe, however, that Isaac remained at the Tract House for a number of years and eventually became a Baptist Preacher. He was among the first teachers who volunteered in 1862 to travel to Port Royal, South Carolina, to begin the education of slaves liberated by Union troops during the Civil War. Later, became Rufus Saxton’s Superintendent of Freedmen in St. Augustine and have a major role in the Freedmen’s Bureau.

Isaac and James addressed their letter to their uncle, Philip Viele (1799-1881), an “early attorney and prominent citizen” of Fort Madison, Lee County, Iowa. He was educated at Union College and studied law in Waterford, New York. He relocated to Fort Madison in June 1837 and took an active part as a Whig in the local politics. He was defeated in a bid for Congress in 1852 but in 1859 became a member of the State Board of Education. He also served four terms as the mayor of Fort Madison. Philip was married to Catherine Gertrude Brinkerhoff (1800-1869).

Dr. John Moffat's Bottle

Dr. John Moffat’s Bottle

Mention is made in James’ letter of a curative elixir which was probably manufactured by his uncle, Dr. John Moffat, who made his fortune in patent medicines. A newspaper article published in 1892 upon the death of his spinster daughter, Miss Maria Moffat, claimed that the doctor was worth $60,000 at the time of his death in 1863. Dr. John Moffat (1788-1863) was the husband of Rachel Maria Brinckerhoff (1793-1879) — a sister of Walter Brinckeroff.

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Addressed to Philip Viele, Fort Madison, Lee County, Wisconsin Territory

New York [City, New York]
August 20th 1838

Dear Uncle,

I take this opportunity for the first time to indite a few lines to you. Not having written a letter for three years, you may perhaps find some mistakes which you will please overlook.

We are all well at home. Sophia has gone to Peekskill to spend the rest of the warm weather with her friends and to enjoy the air and retirement of the country. Little William grows very fast although he is rather thin on account of teething and warm weather.

I am still employed in the Tract House having been promoted to the situation of first clerk (there being only one at present) on a salary of $350.

I began the study of the Latin language about a year since, studying in the morning till breakfast and reciting in the evening. When I began, I recited to a Mr. Walker — as assistant employed in the Tract House who for one year was a member of Amherst College. About the first of June, he was taken with bleeding at the lungs so that he was compelled to leave the city and go to Massachusetts. In his absence, I have recited to Mr. Odell — a cousin of ours — and now to Mr. James McChain, ¹ another cousin who has lately graduated from Yale College, with whom I am making rapid progress having gone as far as the second book of Caesar. Considering the time allotted to study, I think is quite rapid. I have some thoughts provided nothing hinders of going to school next spring and preparing for College with a view at the expiration of that period all things concurring to pursue the study of Law!! If you have any advice to give on the subject, it will be thankfully received.

Nothing more at present. Your affectionate nephew, — Isaac W. Brinckerhoff

N. B. I see by the Fort Madison Patriot you are nominated as a candidate for the legislature. I wish you success remembering the words of the departed [Davy] Crockett, “Be sure you are right, then go ahead.”

New York
August 20, 1838

Dear Aunt,

I take this opportunity to write a few lines to you in Isaac’s letter to Uncle Viele. Not being used to writing, I hope you will excuse all blunders.

Sophia received your letter a few weeks ago and we are glad to learn that you are all well and so well pleased with your situation in the far West.

Moffat's Advertisement

Moffat’s Advertisement

We are all well except William who has been afflicted with whooping cough but has got entirely over it. He has four teeth through. He begins to creep and we hope soon to walk. I have been complaining for a week past with Bowel complain, but have been taking “Life Pills and Phoenix Bitters” and hope soon to be better. Sophia has been spending a few weeks in Troy for her health but came home not much better, the hot weather not agreeing with her. She has determined to spend the rest of the summer among her friends in Peekskill and we hope she may come home in improved health and strength.

About a year ago I went to learn the Jeweler’s trade but in six months the affairs in the money market became so deranged that all classes from the rich merchant to the poor mechanic had to suspend operations. I am at present a clerk in the office of th American Home Missionary Society but I hope to get some trade in the fall. But there is not much prospect.

Uncle and Aunt Moffatt and cousins Sophia and Maria are ruminating through the State of New York and the West. They had some hopes if the roads were not too bad, and Aunt could stand the fatigue, that they might reach your pleasant place in the Valley of the Mississippi. When we last heard from them, they were in Detroit and all well. Perhaps while I am now writing they may be enjoying the hospitalities of your roof.

I perceive in a late number of the Fort Madison Patriot that Uncle Viele is nominated to the Legislature. I hope he may succeed. Who knows but that in a few years his voice may be heard thundering in the Senate Chamber or the Hall of Representatives. But I mustbring this letter to a close as I have nothing more to say. Give my love to Uncle Viele and tell him that we hope soon to see you both coming eastward.

Your affectionate nephew, — James W. Brinckerhoff

P. S. Please to direct all communications to 150 Nassau Street.

P. S. S. Pa and Ma wished me to add before I closed this letter that they send their love to you and promise to write in a few days. — J. W. B.

¹ James McChain (1819-1869) was the son of John and Elizabeth McChain of NYC. James graduated from Yale in 1838 and from the Union Theological Seminary in 1841. He was ordained pastor of the New School Presbyterian Church at Franklin, New York in January 1843. In October 1843, he became the pastor of the Presbyterian Church at Abingdon, Virginia, and remained there until his death from consumption in 1869. He was married to Jane C. Gibson in March 1845. 


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