1850-1: Harriet (Coit) Towner to Daniel Coit Towner

What Harriet Coit Towner might have looked like

These two letters were written by Harriet (Coit) Towner (1798-1881), the wife of Rev. James Towner, to her son, Daniel Coit Towner (1831-1855), who attended the University of Michigan in 1847/8, and then graduated from Amherst College in 1851 and became a Chicago lawyer, studying in the firm of J. Young Scammon and E. B. McCagg. There are frequent references to her daughter, Mary Burnap Towner (1829-18xx) who married John A. Bassett in 1852. After his death in 1854, she married James C. Larimore.

Harriet was the daughter of Daniel Coit (1762-1832) and Ruth Eastman (1769-1832). Harriet’s husband, Rev. James Towner (1797-1844), was the son of Dr. Erasmus Towner (1766-1813) and Zipporah McNeil (1775-1855). He graduated from the University of Vermont in 1823. He was for a time a teacher at the Wolfeborough Academy in New Hampshire. Later, he came West and settled in Michigan City, La Porte, Indiana, where he was pastor of the First Congregational Church and taught a select school. From 1838-40, he was principal of the Michigan City Institute. He also held the office of lighthouse keeper at Michigan City from 1841 to until his death in March 1844, at which time his wife took over the job until replaced in 1849.

The first letter contains Harriet’s opinions as to the probability of the South’s willingness to dissolve the Union following all of the agitation of the slavery issue occasioned by the recent passage of the Compromise of 1850. She states that she thinks it improbable because they recognize it is not in their best interest to do so.

Michigan City Harbor Map in 1839

The second letter contains references to a $50,000 harbor improvement project at Michigan City which was, at the time, the principal grain market for northern Indiana. A local history reported that, “There was at that time no harbor at Michigan City, but large quantities of wheat and corn were shipped from that point, and the vessels would come to anchor about a half mile from shore and stretching a cable from the vessel to the pier were loaded by means of lighters pulled and pulled back and forth. By working night and day vessels could be loaded in about twenty-four hours; laborers were paid at the rate of a shilling an hour during the day time and eighteen cents during the night.” Apparently, however, the harbor was never really improved until after the Civil War.

Stampless Letter 1

Addressed to Mr. D. Coit Towner, Amherst College, Amherst, Massachusetts

Michigan City
December 24th 1850

My dear son,

Your welcome letter mailed the 13th reached me this morning. More than three weeks had elapsed since I had heard a word from you; consequently was feeling exceedingly anxious, fearing you were ill. Rejoice to learn you are well, tho’ from the frequent invitations of friends, to dine, sup &c., should not wonder if you were sick by this time. Oh that ride with that unruly horse made me tremble all over, & Aunty said she expected nothing but you would venture, till some of your limbs if not your neck would be broken! I wish you would exercise prudence, & not “risk your neck for a sleigh-ride.” Why was the animal’s mouth all bloody? Should not think you gained much in the adventure. Your only compensation — lame back, arms, & probably a severe cold! Would you not have thought to have suffered as much from sawing wood, would have been a pretty hard case. It only shows what a youth will do for self-gratification.

I am greatly obliged to Mrs. Colton for her kindness to you, & would be still more so, if she would not offer you cider to drink! I don’t believe in Temperance people’s using it as a drink at all. Cold water is the drink for all!

And so you have seen Mr. Allen again. Did he speak of Mary? Oh if he only knew about Mr. Coulton’s interference in his behalf & what mischief he wrought, guess he would not thank his Rev. brother-in-law.¹ Don’t know all Mr. Colton said or did, but in his endeavors to interest Mary in Mr. Allen (after he could not get her himself), he quite over did the matter, & so disgusted her that I very much doubt whether she could or did act herself while in Allen’s presence. Mr. Colton is a good man, but so injudicious in some things. Perhaps you can obtain light from Mary on the subject, but you need not tell her what I have written. I am really vexed with Mr. Colton for I think highly of the Allen family & would like to cultivate their acquaintance. Wonder how he dare venture South since refusing to approve the “Union Meeting” in New York. ² His Southern customers will hardly receive him courteously.

What papers do you read? Wish you would read the “National Era.” Then I think you would not be so apprehensive of a dissolution of our glorious Union. I have no fear of that. The South know full well that it would not be for their interest, & they will be careful to prevent such an issue. They would fain hold up such a scare-crow to frighten the North, & bring them to yield to their terms. I’ve read the President’s Message. It is very smooth & for the most part, I like it very well. Hope the measure for the reduction of postage will be carried into effect as speedily as possible.

I will soon send you an “Evangelist” which has an amusing article entitled, “Men’s RIghts,” which after you’ve read, please see to Mary. By the way, I’ve not yet told you that the same mail that bro’t your letter, bro’t also a long one from Mary enclosing a pretty note from Hetty. So we’ve had a richer feast than any Thanksgiving dinner! Letters from my dear absent ones, I prize above every earthly good — I mean when we must be separated — (Turkeys, oyster soup, & tripe not excepted!) Yesterday I made a chicken pie & even Aunty said it was unexceptionable. So you may conclude it was good, & how I wished in my heart you & Mary could have shared it with us. I also made mince pies. Of those, we’ve not yet tasted. We have every comfort that heart could wish, only it is hard to be so long separated from my earthly [friends] and my dear children. Coit, if you have wanted money, why have you not written sooner? Believe I’ve asked you several times when I should send more. Aunty has gone over to Mr. Miller to get $50 which I deposited with him till you should call for it. Hope he will obtain a draft in time for me to send in this by next mail. Think I can also send you $50 of this quarter’s salary which I trust will come early next month. Shall I do so, or do you prefer not to have it so soon?

I often think of you & feel that I am ignorant of your situation & circumstances, so far as knowledge of your particular comforts are concerned. I know nothing about your wardrobe, & wonder whether you are provided with all you need to make you comfortable this cold winter? And so you are anticipating with pleasure the close of vacation, & commencement of another term! Hope it will be a pleasant and profitable one, & that in your next vacation you will arrange so that you & Mary can be together a part of it, at least.

I thank you for so long & good a letter & hope another will be forth-coming ere the close of another three weeks. You see I keep up the line of correspondence on my part. Almost weekly I send you a whole or half a sheet. Wish you would send through Mary as I do, & should hear more frequently from you.

I wish you a merry & happy Christmas, tho’ it will be past ‘ere this reaches you, but I also wish you a happy new year & hope this will reach you in season for the salutation (it ought to). We are invited to dine at Mr. C. A. Barker’s tomorrow (Christmas) & to a party at Mr. Dresden’s for Thursday eve. The Cutter, of course, we shall not accept.

Thursday morning. There are to be two weddings at Doct. [Sylvanus] Everts, viz. their daughter Julia [Elvira Everts] to Mr. [George G.] Stevens of St. Charles, Illinois [on 26 December 1850], and Miss [Lydia A.] Dutton — a young lady who has been spending some months in the family to one of the Doct’s sons, [Eudorua Everts,] who is also a physician.

Sarah Flint was last week married to William Miller, grocer, & on the same evening Mrs. C. A. Barker made a party for her niece (Miss Chapman) & invited all the young people in town. Many attended the wedding at Mr. Kellogg’s & then went to the party.

I have told you of the Wells’ troubles, ³ have heard nothing new. Mrs. Wells does not look as tho’ she would ever smile again. Everyone thinks the boys ought ‘ere this to have been established in business, but somehow they are not, tho’ I believe P’s uncle at Whitehall has got him into some iron works, how or where I know not. I am aware, mt dear, that a youth without a father to advise & aid him & limited resources, is in rather a straitened situation. Still if he has an education, with respectable talents & energy & perseverance of character with an unwavering trust in God, he can command a good situation in the line of business, & if he is so disposed, he can contrive a way to obtain a profession, tho’ it may occupy a longer time than if he had plenty of funds at his command. Such a one often becomes not only great in the world’s estimation, but exceedingly useful. I believe Mary feels & I’ve no doubt you do, that your dear father left you a richer inheritance than wealth!

“My Father blessed me”

“My father raised his trembling hands,
And laid it on my head:
‘God bless thee, O my son, my son,’
Most tenderly he said.

He died & left no green or gold,
But still I was his heir —
For that rich blessing which he gave
Becomes a fortune rare.

Still in my weary hours of toil
To earn my daily bread,
It gladdens me in thought to feel
His hand upon my head.†

The next verse is not yet applicable to you my son, but there I do believe you can adopt, especially the two first, can you not? The 3d perhaps has not yet become your experience, & may not in all its force, but still to me, it is beautiful. The two first ones so appropriate & expressive, I could not forbear to copy.

Presume by Aunty’s staying she will bring the draft, so I can send by the morning’s mail, which I wish much to do. Hope this will reach you by New Year’s! Only think, 1850 has almost gone & its records are being sealed up for the judgement!

Evening. Mr. Miller could not get the draft today, so letter will be a day later. Am sorry, but you should have written sooner. Aunty sends you, “A Happy New Year.” I must now write to Mary to send with this. How I wish they could have gone so as to reach you 1st day of 1851.

Good bye, my dear son. Your mother, — H. C. T.

Stampless Letter 2

Addressed to Mr. D. Coit Towner, Amherst College, Amherst, Massachusetts

Michigan City
March 11th 1851

My very dear Son,

Yours mailed 4 inst. reached me this morning and tho’ I had yesterday carried to the office a long letter to you, which I suppose went this morning, I resume my pen to write you again. I could just as well have sent the money you desire in that letter, had I known you wanted it. However, I have sent to Miller to get it ready so that it will only be one day later. Think you must have received the other $5 in a day or two after yours was mailed — at least I hope so.

True, my son, you did write me a long, good letter, for which I thank you, & in return I have sent you one as long, & more closely written, besides enclosing a half sheet to Mary of which you can reap the benefit! In fact, it seems as tho’ I did little else, but write. And most of my productions go to you & Mary. They ought to do you some good & probably will, so far as they are worth anything. It is a great privilege to be allowed, even this mode of communication, separated as we have been for years.

I am aware the weeks are passing rapidly away. Still, to look forward, it seems a long time to August. Some five months, I suppose, before I shall see my dear children face to face! Little did I think seven years ago that you would both be so far & so long from home — two, three, five years! Indeed, we shall need a long time to become thoroughly acquainted with each other. The two years that Mary spent at home, after returning from school, were precious to me. Everyday her society became more & more necessary to my happiness, & it was only because I considered it would be for her advantage, and to have her near you, that I consented to let her go. As yet, I’ve seen no cause to regret it, As much as I loved to have her with me, I could not bear to think of having her mingle much with the society of the young people in Michigan City.

When I reflect how young you left home, & that your lot has ever since, been cast among strangers, my heart is filled with wonder, love & gratitude to our covenant God, that you may have got along as well as you have, & that you have been so bountifully provided for, You say “your course this College has not been perfectly smooth; you have been misunderstood, abused, ill-treated” &c. This, I sincerely regret, & would that I could have endured all, in your stead. But most of all, do I grieve that my beloved son should so far forget the teachings of his Lor & Savior, as to return in any instance, evil for evil! “Love your enemies, do good to them that hate you, pray for them that despitefully woe you & persecute you!” “When recoiled, recoil not again!” To follow such teachings is always safe. I wish you would tell me which of the Professors called you by that approbation epithet, “Toothen fellow” & why he did it, if it is not too much trouble. I acknowledge it makes me feel indignant, but not as much as I pity the man who would allow himself to speak thus, whether with or without cause, of any youth who was not given up to vicious habits & practices. I’m not surprised that you felt injured & demanded redress, but it strikes me that it was beneath the dignity of a CHristian & a gentleman to tell a teacher, “You lie.” Could you not have expressed yourself more to your own satisfaction in some other terms?

To those young men who solicited your contribution to the “Indicator” — would it not have been more Christ-like to have complied, & by so doing, “leaped coals of fire upon their heads?” I can’t say, dear Coit, that I approve of that kind of independence which is regardless of the good or ill opinion of others. We are dependent creatures — not only dependent on God, our maker, but on each other, & it is our duty to treat all our brethren of the same great family. We should try to gain the good will of all, without however deviating from the path of right. Do as you would be done by, treat others as you would wish to be treated, is always the wisest, safest course.

A hasty impetuous spirit is ever leading its possessors into deep waters. I know from experience the misfortune of possessing a quick temper, & the difficulty of controlling & bringing it into subjection. It is the labor of a whole life — unless others have been more successful than I have.

I have always felt exceedingly anxious that you should find friends in your teachers & still hope you will overlook the past and treat them with politeness & respect. All of them.

On going into town yesterday, found that Porter had despatched a messenger to inform me that he expects to leave for the East tomorrow morning. Instead of going directly to Boston as I had supposed, he goes first to New York. Your package he will send to you by Express, either from Troy or New York [City]. He was perfectly willing to take charge of it & I trust it will reach you safely — perhaps about as soon as this letter. I can not pay the charge as I know not what they will be & then I think you will be quite as likely to receive it without, as with. I just penciled on the inside of the envelope of my letter, at the office, that I should send by him. Guess you will be glad to get the shirts after so much delay — hope they will suit.

I have recently bought five cords of good Beech, body wood @ 1.50 per cord, & paid for it all (by borrowing the money of Aunty, till next month) & got a man sawing it. So we are provided for. I hope we shall not be ousted from our good home for a long time to come. You probably know that we have an appropriation of fifty thousand for our harbor, but if old Maj. Bowen & his white-headed boys are to manage the concern, it won’t amount to much so far as benefiting the harbor is concerned. I do wish it could be judiciously managed so that we could have a safe harbor.

C. Blair has bought the Wells’ warehouse. John Barker & [C. E.] DeWolfe occupy the Morson Warehouse & are preparing to build a bridge pier on the west side of the west pier, so as to be independent of [William] Blair. Chauncey & Lyman Blair have dissolved [their partnership] — the former is settling up his affairs. The Wells feel badly that their warehouse is sold — so they have lost their home & also — I should think the boys might stir about & redeem the dwelling iof they wished to — believe they could have it for $600 or so.

Only think, yesterday I sent you a letter of six closely written pages & here I am now near the bottom of my fourth! Aunty is in town assisting some ladies in making clothes for a poor family, the husband & father of which was shot at a house of ill-fame between here & New Buffalo a few weeks since. He was a very wicked man. ‡

She send much love & feels impatient for August to come. Think I shall not write you more than once more this month. Two such long letters in one week must suffice for a long time, don’t you think so? Fear I shall encroach too much upon your time to make you read such long letters & so frequent.

Let me know when you receive the package & money too.

Your truly affectionate mother, — H. C. Towner

P. S. Shall take this over & if Miller has the money ($5) ready, shall enclose & send by tomorrow’s mail, When you receive your package by porter, you will have Aunty’s picture & I think perhaps you better keep it till you see Mary & if she returns to the Inst, she can take it to Hetty who will take it home. Ot it may be that you & Mary wil return via of ____ & take it there yourselves.


¹ The “Reverend brother-in-law” was probably Rev. Erastus Colton (1806-1892) who took over the pastorate of Rev. Towner at the First Congregational Church in Michigan City after Towner’s death in March 1844. Colton was married to Jennette Maria Allen (1817-1849), the daughter of Levi Allen (1777-1861) and Electa Hall (1785-1862).

² The Union Meeting was held at Castle Garden on the battery in New York City on October 30, 1850. The purpose of the meeting was to show visible support for the Compromise Bill that had been passed in Congress which incorporated a strong Fugitive Slave Law. It was this particular part of the omnibus package that many Northerners objected to and could not bring themselves to obey.

³ I believe Harriet is referring to the Jabez Ransom Wells family of Michigan City, Indiana. Jabez was an attorney and a commission merchant who appears to have lost his fortune, resulting in the sale of their home and their business.

† This poem appears in the Friends Intelligencer, Vol. 37, which was published in 1880. I could not find the name of the author or the publication in which it first appeared.

‡ The 27 February 1851 issue of the Plain Dealer (Cleveland) carried the following article:

Fatal Affray, Michigan City, February 26. About half past 12 o’clock today an affray occurred at the half way house, on the road to New Buffalo, between two men named Wheeler and Counterman. The former drew a pistol and shot the latter, who died in a few minutes. Wheeler will probably be arrested soon. The cause of the quarrel is not yet known.


One response to “1850-1: Harriet (Coit) Towner to Daniel Coit Towner

  • mrdakin

    Thank you for posting and transcribing these letters from Harriet to Daniel. Amherst College has a few letters from her to him during the same period. She’s a lively writer!

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