1841: Harriet Caroline Johnson to Elisha Johnson

How Harriet Johnson might have looked

How Harriet Johnson might have looked

This letter was written by 17 year-old Harriet Caroline Johnson (1824-1905) to her brother, Elisha Johnson (1818-1891) of Plymouth, Litchfield County, Connecticut. They were the children of Elisha Johnson (1773-1852) and Hannah Gates (1788-1872) of Winsted, Litchfield County, Connecticut.

Harriet married (1st) Mervin Woodworth in February 1845 and (2nd) Jason Madison Clemence in 1878. Elisha married Catharine Tallmadge  (1825-1889). A biography for Elisha appears on the Connecticut State Library website that reads:

Elisha Johnson, a prominent member of the Hartford County Bar, died at his residence in Hartford, February 18th, 1891, after a brief illness resulting from an attack of bronchial pneumonia. He was born in Barkhamsted in this state, May 1st, 1818, and after the customary experience of the young men of his day in the district school, on the farm, and as a teacher, he entered the law school at Yale, and after completing his course he qualified for practice in the office of Gideon Hall at Winsted. He located at Plymouth, where he built up an excellent practice, and was for many years elected judge of probate, and was sent to the state Senate from the sixteenth district, in 1849, 1850, and 1852. In 1855 he removed to Hartford, where he continued in the active practice of his profession until his death. He was for two years recorder of the Hartford City Court and judge of the Police Court for three years, and was a member of the original board of police commissioners, which organized the police force in 1860. He was elected to the state Senate from the first district in 1860, 1861, 1870 and 1871, and to the House of Representatives in 1869, 1875 and 1876. He was for many years chairman of the school committee in the West Middle District of Hartford, and served for eleven years as chairman of the high school committee. He was appointed a member of the state board of health in 1886, and continued in that office until his death. He was one of the original members of Trinity Church Parish, and was an active officer and liberal supporter of his church during his whole life. For nearly twenty-five years, and until a short time before his death, he was the superintendent of its Sabbath school. While residing in Plymouth he married Miss Catharine Tallmadge. Her death in August, 1889, was a shock from which he never rallied, and his rapid decline in health from that time was painfully evident to his friends. Three children – two daughters and one son, survive them.

In the letter, Harriet tells her brother of a visit by their cousins Rebecca Gates and Helen Gates. She also tells him of “eight or ten men” taking several head of cattle out of their new barn and driving them to Tolland where they were sold. The description sounds too brazen to be a theft; more likely it was a repossession for indebtedness by their father during the “hungry forties” — a time of severe financial hardship.

Stampless Letter

Stampless Letter


Addressed to Mr. Elisha Johnson, Plymouth, Connecticut

Winsted [Litchfield County, Connecticut]
August 9th 1841

Dear Brother Elisha,

Having a few moments leisure, I thought I could not improve them better than in writing to you. We have lived in hopes for more than a week of receiving some news from you but have not as yet. But are in hopes we shall when next we visit the Office. I have no news of importance to communicate excepting that we received a visit from our cousins Rebecca Gates of Derby & Helen Gates of Ripley last week. They were well and also their friends were well when they left home. Cousin Helen left Ripley the 15th of June [and] arrived in Derby the 19th. She says it is uncertain when she returns but thinks as soon as September. She is very anxious to see you. She says write to him and tell him to come to Derby the last of next week and I certainly will be there. Elisha, cousin Helen is a very pretty girl — about 23 years of age. She is not as handsome as some, but a very sensible girl. Cousin Rebecca says tell him we should be extremely happy to receive a visit from him, and we think certainly you had better get her brother. William, the sailor, is now in Derby and I think you will enjoy yourself to go.

I suppose you would like to hear how we get along about the cattle. The Thursday night after you left about 2 o’clock, eight or ten men came and forced the door open, cut the ropes, and move the cattle away. Martin was by the barn and saw them coming. He called Benjamin (for the cattle were in the new barn) but it did no good, there was so many of them and so few of us that we could do nothing. They drove the cattle to Tolland and they were sold the Tuesday following for between sixty and seventy dollars. Father has not as yet done any thing about it. What he is _____ting to do, I do not know. We have not ascertained for certain who they all were but are certain Aurelius Fowler & William Bushnell were here and that the Browns and George Andrews and John Paine assisted in contriving the affair. Elisha, what shall we do? I do think it is a most despicable shame. They ought to be “rowed up salt” ¹ — excuse my eloquence — but it is the spontaneous effusion of my heart. Martin says state the affair to Esq. Butler and bet we know his opinion.

I was in the [Pleasant] Valley last week. Did not see G___cas but heard that she was well. Miss Susan Cooper is in the Valley. I saw her but formed no acquaintance. She does not look as well as Mary but resembles her, I think. She is quite a modest appearing young lady. Emily visited to Mr. Kilborn’s on Wednesday afternoon. I think she shall return the visit in September. She says she made it her rule to come once in two months. She was here in July. She would like to know what part of the month and indeed we should be very happy to know.

Elisha, what was your conversation the evening you left Mr. Kilborn’s? Orrin Brown sit by the wayside and heard it. He says if he could see Johnson, he would tell him to do his courting in the house [and] not take the girls outdoor. What think ye about it? A. seems to feel very bad about it.

Our people have nearly done haying. Think they will finish in about a week. Mr. Wentworth’s family are much better. Mrs. Wentworth is quite smart at Julia Ann [who] has rode out once or twice. Be sure and come home in September and stay longer than you did before.

With a world of good wishes, I sign myself your sister Harriet.

P.S. Write, do write soon. We want to hear from you.


¹ The entire expression is “rowed up salt river” which is said to originate as follows:

“Salt River is a small stream in [Kentucky], which empties into the Ohio River about twenty miles below [Louisville]. In the neighborhood of Shepherdsville, where the phrase of ‘rowing up Salt river’ originated, it is filled with rapids, snags, rocks, and sandbars. Of course, the navigation is extremely difficult, and rowing up Salt River is a matter not to be sneezed at. The labor attending it was so well known to those residing in the vicinity, that it became common among them, whenever any one spoke of some very arduous undertaking, to tell him that he would find it harder than trying to row up Salt River. When some bully had received a sound whipping, it also became common to say that he had been ‘rowed up Salt River,’ and the same remark was likewise applied to a defeated political party. If the defeat was overwhelming, they were said to be ‘rowed very far up Salt River.'” [Source: Salem Gazette of Massachusetts on 27 Jan 1835]


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