A History of Stepfamilies in Early America
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A History of Stepfamilies in Early America

Lisa Wilson

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📖 eBook - ePub

A History of Stepfamilies in Early America

Lisa Wilson

About This Book

Stepfamilies are not a modern phenomenon, but despite this reality, the history of stepfamilies in America has yet to be fully explored. In the first book-length work on the topic, Lisa Wilson examines the stereotypes and actualities of colonial stepfamilies and reveals them to be important factors in early United States domestic history. Remarriage was a necessity in this era, when war and disease took a heavy toll, all too often leading to domestic stress, and cultural views of stepfamilies during this time placed great strain on stepmothers and stepfathers. Both were seen either as unfit substitutes or as potentially unstable influences, and nowhere were these concerns stronger than in white middle-class families, for whom stepparents presented a paradox. Wilson shares the stories of real stepfamilies in early New England, investigating the relationship between prejudice and lived experience, and, in the end, offers a new way of looking at family units throughout history and the cultural stereotypes that still affect stepfamilies today.

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Chapter One: Remarriage

Experience has taught me the dreadfull truth how: heavy it is to live alone how hard it is.—Daniel King, Diary, 1767
In January 1786, Boston lawyer and politician James Sullivan found himself with seven children, wracked with grief, and loath to lean on his fifteen-year-old daughter. His wife had just died. Lying next to her corpse, Sullivan wrote to a friend, “For the space of nine hours illness the skill of physicians was exhausted in vain attempts to save a life dear to many, but infinitely so to me and her seven children.” He worked hard to appear strong for his children, but “a life of gloominess and anxiety now awaits; and had I not now the double charge of these orphans, my earnest prayer would be to go down with her to the silent tomb.”1 Three months later, Sullivan wrote, “My dear children demand much from me, and deserve every thing—I am obliged to appear quite otherwise than I am, to keep up their spirits.”2 James Sullivan found a permanent solution to his problem in the person of Martha (Langdon) Simpson, a widow whom he married before the year had ended.3
Love and money entered the calculations of most eighteenth-century couples contemplating marriage, but widows and widowers had some unique needs.4 Widows with property worried about their dead husbands’ estates, since remarriage would mean that new husbands would assume ownership of the women’s property.5 Accordingly, a cautious widow who did not need the support of a husband might feel no hurry to remarry and might not choose to do so at all.6 Widowers, conversely, felt pressure to retie the knot to provide their children with replacement mothers. By the end of the eighteenth century, for the middling sort, the quality of this care became central. Sentimental middle-class norms of the time required child-centered parenting directed by a loving mother rather than a simple caregiver.


Widows and widowers approached the idea of remarriage from different perspectives. Documents left by a man and a woman from New Haven, Connecticut, offer a rare glimpse into precisely what those inner thoughts were in colonial America. Thomas Clap, a minister, found himself mulling over the possibility in 1737, while Mary (Fish) Noyes, a boardinghouse owner whose late husband had been a minister, did the same in 1773. Both of them penned lists of what they hoped for in an ideal new spouse/stepparent. Clap’s intended audience may have been his descendants. His list was appended to a handwritten biography of his wife, likely created for his children, and the style reflected his time and occupation. He focused on religion and remarriage, looking for the biblical ideal of a pious helpmeet. His biggest fear was marrying a shrew. Noyes may have intended the list for herself, but she ultimately shared it with her future husband. The list and a series of letters she wrote that touched on the issue of remarriage reflected the new sentimental style popular at the end of the eighteenth century. She yearned not only for a man who was religious but also for one with the manners to qualify him as genteel.7 The widow’s biggest fear was marrying someone who would be an unscrupulous stepfather to her children.


Thomas Clap was born in Scituate, Massachusetts, in 1703. His father, a church deacon, hired a tutor to prepare his bright young son to enter Harvard and train for the ministry. After graduation and a short stint as a teacher, Thomas accepted a pulpit in Windham, Connecticut, and began looking for a wife. He set his heart on the young daughter of Windham’s previous minister, Stephen Whiting. When the couple married in 1727, Mary Whiting was only fourteen, extraordinarily young for a bride at the time. The match was based on love—she came to the union with little property. By 1736, Mary had given birth six times and buried four of her children; pregnant again, she likely died of “consumption” (tuberculosis) on 9 August. Three years after her death, Clap left Windham for New Haven, accepting a post as the rector of Yale College, a title later changed to president. This move not only helped his career but also took him away from painful memories.8 Unlike most widowers, he had difficulty contemplating remarriage and remained single, despite his familial obligations and the urging of friends, until 1741, when he wed the twice-widowed and well-connected Mary (Haynes) Lord Saltonstall.
Around the time of his first wife’s death, Clap began a diary, titling it “Memoirs of Some Remarkable Occurances of Divine Providence,” in which he focused on the death of his wife and his mourning process. He wrote most of the entries on the ninth day of the month, commemorating the day of his wife’s passing. On 9 April 1737, exactly eight months after her death, he penned “Rev. Thomas Clap’s Thoughts on a Second Marriage.”
Mary’s death hit Thomas Clap so hard that it came close to being his emotional undoing. According to the “Memoirs,” her death “has been a very Sore and Distressing Affliction and great Tryal to me. All the afflictions which I have ever met with in my whole Life put together are small in Comparison to this. My Spirits have been much sunk and my Body Emaciated by it.” By February 1737, however, he sought to control his feelings. He felt a detachment from the world that he thought a good spiritual development, but his excessive mourning had made him unfit for the sacred work of the ministry, “and therefore of late I have found it necessary to Curb and Restrain my Grief. and to Endeavour to Recover my Spirits to their Natural & Usual Order, or otherwise I should not be so Capable of Serving God and Answering the Good End of Affliction.”9
Thomas described Mary as having been a perfect helpmeet, “a woman of . . . such Great Prudence” that she never took a “wry Step.” She was “neat & Saving” and as a result “he feared no Spoil.” She was “kind and Compassionate to the Poor.” She dressed simply, spoke softly, and had a “pleasant and Excellent Temper and Disposition.” They never fought: “neither did one Unpleasant nor so much as Short Word ever pass between us upon any Occasion whatsoever.” Though they occasionally had differences of opinion on “lesser matters,” after discussion she was “always free and Ready enough to fall in with the Opinion or Inclination of her Husband.” If she had any fault “it was sometimes in not Insisting so much upon her own Inclination, so much as a Wife may Modertly do.” When she had just cause to correct her children or servants she did so with “proper and moderate Smartness.” She made her rebukes with a “few short & Pungent words” rather than “continually Fearing & Discouraging of them.”10
Friends and family urged Clap to find a second wife and to do so quickly, not only for his own sake but also for that of his children: “Some of my Good Friends have some time ago told me that it is my Duty to entertain tho’ts of Endeavoring after a Reparation of my loss.” Even his pious, dying wife had urged him to remarry. As he cried at her bedside she reminded him that “I shall be Happy” in heaven and that his loss “may be made up in another”: “Get another Wife as soon as you can,” she advised. According to Clap, she wanted him to ask “God to Direct You to get a Kind Loving and Religious Wife.” She even urged him to begin their separation as she lay dying. She acknowledged that she would “envy” any woman that would be lucky enough to be his wife but now, close to eternity, “I don’t want to be your Wife any longer.” “A better Husband” was now waiting for her in heaven. Mary also pushed Thomas to remarry for the sake of their children. His new wife would need to “be a good Mother to the Children.”11 Thus, although Mary was a typical seventeenth-century helpmeet, her relationship with her husband and children foreshadowed the values that preoccupied the middling sort at the end of the eighteenth century.
After wrestling with his heartache for eight months, Rev. Clap determined to force “myself to entertain some some General tho’ts” about remarrying, “tho I have found it one of the Hardest things that ever I Engaged in and a Revival of my Griefs.” To clarify his thinking, he listed the pros and cons of remarriage, though his “affections have been so strongly wedded to her that it seems exceeding hard for me to think of any other.” He idealized his wife to such an extent that any flesh-and-blood replacement would fail to meet her example. Perhaps fittingly, then, he began with “Considerations against entertaining any Prospects of Altering my Condition.” He argued first that “I have once been Entirely Pleased and Satisfied [in marriage], and it seems very unlikely that ever I should be so Please[d] & Satisfied again.” Even if he found a woman with the same qualities as Mary, “she would not be the same to me.” In fact, if the new woman deviated from her predecessor in the slightest way, “it would be a great Revival of my Grief and of the Sense of my former Loss.” In addition, he considered the idea of asking for such happiness again to be expecting too much of divine largesse: “I have already had my full share of all the Comforts and Satisfactions of the married State, and why should I desire anything further.”12
He also was emotionally scarred by the deaths of his wife and children and knew remarriage could bring a return of similar pain and heartbreak. “Tho the marriage State was designed for the Comfort of mankind, yet in this State of sin and misery there are many Troubles & Sorrows accompanying it. The care and concern for each other and for their children, especially in times of Sickness and Distress, the sorrow of losing their children of parting with each other and seems to take away or abate all that is comfortable & pleasing in the State.” He continued, “If I should have another wife and should be in any measure pleased & Satisfied with her as I was with the former, I fear it would have a tendancy to bring [my] affections back into this world again.” His mourning had made him more appropriately focused on the spiritual rather than the corporeal world, “but if I should have another Wife and more young children, my heart would be engaged to and for them. I should be loath to part with them.” The widower also worried about stretching his financial resources to accommodate more children, wanting all of his children to have a “competency”—that is, enough money to live comfortable lives. Currently, “tho I have but a little of this world yet it may be a Competency for” his two living daughters. But if he had “another number & Stock of children I might be much more Concerned for them.”13
Turning to “some Considerations why it might be most Convenient for me to Entertain tho’ts of marrying again in Convenient Season,” Clap weighed the potential for the healing of his broken family. He reasoned that God might see fit to give him another kind companion, and perhaps he had a duty to remarry. After all, according to the Bible, “it [is] not best for man to live alone”; he needed a “help meet.” Dependent on hired help, friends, or relatives to manage his household, Clap realized, “I have now a Family to take care of and none can act the womans part in it, so well as one that acts in the Relation & Capacity of Wife.” Remarriage might increase the burdens of his household with new children—“I should be under much more care and Concern to Provide for them &c.”—but expanding his family could also expand his joy: “The wise Author of our natures has implanted in us such an affection of love & Complacency in them, as that we are in a great measure paid for all that we do for them as we go along.”14 In the right light, his concerns could appear to be solutions to his household cares and loneliness.
Having decided to remarry, Rev. Clap set aside the ninth of the next month (and subsequent months to come) to spend the day in prayer for the strength to look for a new wife and for the good fortune to find a specific kind of woman. He asked God for a woman who had the same characteristics of the virtuous first Mrs. Clap. She should have “great Prudence” and care for his domestic affairs in such a way that his “heart may safely Trust in her.” He wanted a woman whose “temper” and “opinions” perfectly “harmonize[d]” with his own and who had made the “choise of Christ for her Husband.” She should be a “natural” mother to his children and “love my children for my sake, and wisely and carefully Educate and Govern them with the Authority and Tenderness of a natural Parent.” He prayed “that she may always seek and rejoyce in their Good and find something of the Pleasure and Satisfaction in them of a Natural mother in them.” He understood that he had set the bar high and wondered whether it would be possible to “find such a Virtuous Woman with all these Qualifications[.] I am wholly at a loss.”15
Exhausted as he watched the sun rise, Clap ended his solicitations with a desperate plea that God not let him be “mistaken or make a wrong Choise.” He worried that he might choose a shrew, even a wicked stepmother. He begged God to keep him from an “angry, Fretful” woman who would cause “jarring or Discord” in his household. It would be “better to Dwell in the Wilderness” then to be married to “a Contentious and Angry Woman.” He concluded, “Lord thou Knowest my Temper & Disposition” and how much he wanted to be “joyned” to an “agreable Consort.” If he married “a Disagrable one,” it would be hard for his “nature to bear it.” He let his tears mix with the ink of his document, demonstrating, he said, his fragile state more clearly “than words” could. He had ended his day of devotions by “overwhelming myself with Fears.”16
More than three years passed before God answered Clap’s prayers in the form of an experienced mother from a politically well-connected family. Mary Saltonstall brought six children to the marriage as well as a considerable estate. Although love rather than money had determined Clap’s choice of his first wife, his second wife was a wealthy widow. He left no record of the role that her money played in his choice, and that marriage produced no children, so his worries about the further subdivision of his estate proved groundless. There is also no record of how the new Mrs. Clap treated her stepdaughters.


Mary Fish was born in Stonington, Connecticut in 1736, to the Reverend Joseph Fish and Rebecca (Peabody [Pabodie]) Fish. Joseph Fish was the minister of the North Society in Stonington and ran an Indian school there, while Rebecca was descended from some of the first families of New England. Mary married John Noyes, a Yale graduate and minister, in 1759, and the young couple lived in New Haven with her in-laws. Over the next six years, John and Mary had four children, but John was unable to lead a church because of his poor health, and he died of consumption and “fits” in 1767, leaving Mary a widow at the age of thirty-one. She and her children continued living with John’s parents after his death.17
John left Mary with a comfortable estate, and she had no shortage of suitors, but she was cautious about doing anything to jeopardize her future and that of her children. She received her first marriage proposal in 1769, turning it down after some hesitation. Three years later, Naphtali Daggett, formerly an assistant pastor at the church where her father-in-law occupied the pulpit and now the president of Yale, asked for her hand. Though his status should have recommended him, she nonetheless declined. He did not respond well, refusing to accept her rejection and labeling it simply “female Play” in a letter to her father. As a result, Mary turned him down again, this time more forcefully. Apparently prompted by this ugly incident, Mary sat down in August 1773 and wrote out her thoughts on second marriages. She already had enough money: she needed to over...

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APA 6 Citation
Wilson, L. (2014). A History of Stepfamilies in Early America ([edition unavailable]). The University of North Carolina Press. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/565078/a-history-of-stepfamilies-in-early-america-pdf (Original work published 2014)
Chicago Citation
Wilson, Lisa. (2014) 2014. A History of Stepfamilies in Early America. [Edition unavailable]. The University of North Carolina Press. https://www.perlego.com/book/565078/a-history-of-stepfamilies-in-early-america-pdf.
Harvard Citation
Wilson, L. (2014) A History of Stepfamilies in Early America. [edition unavailable]. The University of North Carolina Press. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/565078/a-history-of-stepfamilies-in-early-america-pdf (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Wilson, Lisa. A History of Stepfamilies in Early America. [edition unavailable]. The University of North Carolina Press, 2014. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.