1838: William Bross to Margaret Bross

William Bross in later life

This letter was written in 1838 by Williams College student William Bross (1813-1888) to his sister, Margaret Bross (1819-1856). They were the children of Moses Bross (1792-1882) and Jane Winfield (1795-1868) of New Milford, Susquehanna, Pennsylvania.

In the letter, William mentions the disappearance of his twin brother Stephen who also attended Williams College.

William Bross married Mary Jane Jansen in 1839 and went on to a career in journalism, becoming the editor and part-owner of the Chicago Tribune before 1860. He also served as the Illinois Lieutenant Governor from 1865-1869 during which time he had the honor of being one of twelve pallbearers in the Lincoln Funeral Car. When asked what maxims most influenced his life and helped him achieve success, William said, “The Proverbs of Solomon and other Scriptures. They were quoted a thousand times by my honored father, and caused an effort to do my duty each day, under a constant sense of obligation to my Saviour and fellow man.”

The Dr. Brewster house in Pittsfield, Massachusetts where William Bross took room & board while teaching there in 1837-8.

Margaret Bross was born near Port Jervis, Sussex Co., N. Y., in 1819, moved with her parents to Milford, Pa., where she attended the Academy until the age of fifteen years. She entered Troy Female Seminary in 1832, and graduated in 1836. Following her graduation she was employed for three years as governess in the family of Charles Edmonston, of Charleston, S. C., at a salary of $400 per annum. In 1839 she filled the position of Vice-Principal in Ridgebury Academy, Orange Co., N. Y., of which her brother, William Bross, was principal. She contributed occasionally to newspaper and magazine literature and was justly accredited with superior intellectual gifts. In 1843 she married Chauncey Thomas and was the mother of four sons, three of whom grew to manhood: William Russell Thomas and M. Bross Thomas graduated at Williams College; Chauncey Thomas, at Annapolis Naval Academy, and became a Real Admiral; William Russell Thomas is assistant editor of the ” Rocky Mountain News ” in Denver, Colorado: and the Rev. M. Bross Thomas is Professor in the University in Lake Forest, 111. Noble men of a noble mother, whose character was moulded by the far-reaching influence of Mrs. Emma Willard.

Ad for New York Life Insurance & Trust Company, 1837

From this letter we learn that William Bross has taken out a five-year life insurance policy on himself for $500 from the New York Life Insurance and Trust Company. An advertisement for the company placed in the New York Evening Post advises readers that they may “insure their own lives, or the lives of others, and either for the duration of life or for a limited period.” A premiums table accompanies the ad showing that a 25 year-old person would have to invest 100 for each year of a limited duration policy, which must be how William calculated his $500 investment. The company further states that the monies collected would be held in trust and that any sum over $100 would pay 4.5%. William hoped to use these earnings to pay his college debts. Surprisingly, we also learn that the policy would prohibit William from traveling south of the Virginia or Kentucky border into the slave states of the deep South.

Stampless Letter


Addressed to Miss Margaret Bross, Care of Charles Edmonston, Esq., Flat Rock, Buncombe County, North Carolina

William College
[Williamstown, Massachusetts]
Tuesday, February 6th 1838

My Dear Sister,

I have been favoured with two letters from you since I last wrote you. I intended to have written from Philadelphia but I was very busy towards the close of my school. I trust you will pardon me for negligence this once. As you have more leisure than I, you can sometimes afford two letters to my one. You must not look at tis time for much of a letter for I can’t stop to cull my words or make many new pens.

You will want to know how I succeeded with my school. I believe I gave good satisfaction without an exception to my knowledge to the district. I had 60 scholars a great part of the time, averaging between 49 & 50 for the school. The small scholars were taught by a lady in the room above; viz. — those under 10 years old. So you see I must not be troubled with small trash. My scholars were on the whole sociable and pleasant & I lived on familiar terms with Ahem, while I exacted the most perfect obedience and good order in school hours. Many of them were good singers. We therefore had some fine singing at noon.

I had three young ladies of 18 years & upwards — one of whom had taught school — and from this, they went all along down the teens. The three first mentioned & many others were first rate yankee girls. I had also several boys of 18. My being thus particular in the description of my school may perhaps lead you to suppose that there “was some heaving of sighs of regret” when I left Pittsfield, as your fancy painted them in Williamstown. I think not, though perhaps it would not have required a Physician to have discovered some lachnymolial symptoms when I parted with some of my scholars. But if tears there were, they were not those of regret, but those of friendship.

I have formed some acquaintances in Pittsfield whom I value very highly. I had an excellent place to board (Dr. Brewster’s).¹ He has a son in the Junior class — a friend of mine; a sorrel-headed daughter also of sweet sixteen who can sing sweeter than a nightingale. So you see, I was in favourable circumstances to enjoy life agreeably. I did so.

But all this is small compared with the religious privileges I enjoyed. I was in a revival most of the time while I was in Pittsfield. There were meetings every evening for six or seven weeks of a most interesting character. You may judge they were so when I tell you that about 250 were reckoned hopeful converts. The revival commenced in the Methodist CHurch nearly opposite Dr. Brewster’s. They had the best minister I ever heard preach in the Methodist denomination. Christians of every name are much awakened. There have been quite a number of conversions in the Congregational Church.

I find much seriousness in College. One young man professes to have met with a change. He is the son of a representative in congress — a very fine young man indeed. There is also much feeling in town. Christians are humbling themselves before God, and praying for the salvation of sinners. May the Lord grant that when I write again, I may be able to tell you of precious times here, of multitudes saved from the power of sin.

I was not a little anxious to hear how you would receive my last letter. It was surely a crazy one. I felt when I wrote it just like indulging in a little merriment at your expense. I was a little afraid you would be offended, and was pleased to find that you took it kindly. I certainly intended no harm, nor to wound your feelings in the least, though from what I recollect of my letter I dear I did.

Stephen went to New Jersey sometime in November & I have as yet received not a scroll from him. I know not what he means by not writing to me. I almost think him unkind. I believe he is teaching in Mr. Allen’s district.

I thank you for the pains you took in sending me the advertisement. I wrote you immediately but I don’t know whether it will do any good. I think from the reading of it, they want the teacher now. Besides, I am about to get a policy on my life in the New York Life Insurance Company which would prohibit my going south of the southern boundary of Virginia & Kentucky. I do this in order to raise money to pay my debts. I have not as yet got it, but have sent on for it & expect it next week. I shall get it insured for five years in the sum of $500.

I hope, dear sister, you are in good health & spirits, and above all that you are living near to Christ. We ought to become more conformed to his image as we grow in years. At best, our life is short & we shall need to improve it all in subduing our passions & preparing for heaven. Excuse my poor writing. I am much hurried at present but I could put off writing no longer. I shall expect an answer to this as soon as it reaches you. I will endeavor to be more punctual in the future.

From your ever affectionate brother, — William Bross

K. J. Cox is in Troy Female Seminary


Dr. John Milton Brewster

¹ William Bross took room and board with the family of Dr. John Milton Brewster (1789-1869) while teaching select school in Pittsfield, Massachusetts during the winter of 1837-38. Dr. Brewster moved to Pittsfield in April 1837 where he practiced medicine for thirty years. He was an anti-slavery advocate and welcomed Gerritt Smith, Elihu Burritt, Henry Wilson and many other anti-slavery men into his home. William makes reference in his letter to two of Dr. Brewster’s children: John Milton Brewster, Jr. (1817-1902) who also attended Williams College, and Flavia Jerusha Brewster (1822-1893) whom he called the “sorrel-headed” daughter who “can sing better than a nightingale.”


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