Monday, October 19, 2015

Enos Severance

When we moved to Vermont in 2011, I had no idea that I would become interested in local history. As it is, there are so many palpable signs of the past here that it is hard for me not to think about it. Our house was built by the original settler of this land, Enos Severance, in about 1798, when John Adams was president and Thomas Jefferson was vice president. Although the house was remodeled in 1974, it retains some of its original features. It was a basic post and beam farmhouse with an enormous hearth in the center of the ground floor. The hearth is gone, but its foundation is still in the basement. We have the original ceiling beams, the original pine planks on the second floor, and some of the original doors and hardware.

Born in 1770, Enos Severance was the fifth of ten children born to Ebenezer Severance and Azuba Smith in Northfield, Massachusetts. At that time Vermont was mostly a wilderness. Although the legal background is still murky, there were conflicting claims on the land by colonial New York and colonial New Hampshire. Starting in 1749, the colonial governor of New Hampshire, Benning Wentworth, sold land grants here, the first of which was named Bennington, after him. Middlebury was chartered in 1761. When New York began to make grants of the same land as the New Hampshire grants, a legal battle ensued, and purchasers of the New Hampshire grants, who were primarily small farmers and land speculators such as Ethan Allen, formed a militia to protect their property from New York. The issue was later resolved in 1791 in favor of New York, when a settlement was paid to New York by Vermont, enabling Vermont to become the fourteenth state. Because the French and Indian War (1754-1763) made Vermont an unsafe place to live, not much settlement took place during that period. This was immediately followed by the American Revolution (1765-1783), which also destabilized the region, with Lake Champlain serving as a conduit for the British forces in Canada. It was not until after the revolution that settlement picked up in earnest.

I have no evidence about what prompted the Severances to move to Vermont. Possibly they were attracted by the cheap land. In those days, modern agricultural methods did not exist, and it is also possible that they had exhausted their soil in Massachusetts. In any case, Enos's eldest brother, Samuel, arrived here in about 1786 and purchased land in East Middlebury, where he soon started a farm and married his neighbor's daughter, Mary Kirby, who had recently settled from Litchfield, Connecticut. In 1793, Enos and Samuel's father, Ebenezer, began to purchase land in our neighborhood on South Munger Street. In 1796 and 1797, Enos purchased adjacent land to the north, which became his farm, where he built his house. Samuel sold his property in East Middlebury and moved to land adjacent to the south side of Ebenezer's. In all, the Severances had several hundred acres along South Munger Street. Ebenezer's original house still stands, as does Enos's, but Samuel's appears to have been replaced by a new building, with a later Severance house dating from about the 1850's still standing next door.

Not many people were living in Middlebury in the late 1700's. Ebenezer Severance, as one of the few mature men, became a town selectman. Everyone appears to have been religious, with much of their social life centering around the Congregational Church, which was built in 1806, but whose members held meetings elsewhere prior to that. The same building stands today, and you can hear its bell from our house three miles away. It is difficult to imagine how physically demanding life must have been for the Severances. They had no power equipment for farming, no electricity, no inside plumbing, and twenty-below-zero temperatures during the winter. They had to cut their firewood by hand, and they probably made their own clothes. Worse yet, death was always nearby, with children not surviving childhood and adults dying before reaching the age of 60 in many cases.

In 1801, at age 30, Enos married Lydia Petty. Their first child, Philena, was born in 1802, and at age 27 she married a reverend and moved to Bristol, Vermont. Their second child, Roxana, was born in 1807 and lived in the house for most, if not all of her life. Lydia died in 1813 at the age of 49, and Enos married his second wife, Chloe Emerson, in 1814. Chloe bore him one daughter, Lydia, in 1815 and died while Enos was still alive. Enos soon married his third wife, Abigail Field, who outlived him. He died in 1842 at the age of 72, and his third daughter, Lydia, married later that year at the age of 26. Upon Enos's death, Abigail remarried and stayed on in the house until her death in 1869. Roxana then apparently married for the first time, at age 62. She and her husband, Edwin Landon, remained in the house until her death in 1877.

These were all ordinary people about whom we know little today. At his death, Enos owned about 80 acres, the house, a barn and the woodshed that we just replaced. He had an orchard, of which at least one tree is still alive - we ate a couple of its apples this year. According to family records he was also a beekeeper, though there is no evidence of that now. Several of the Severances, including Enos, his first wife, Lydia, and Roxana are buried in the Case Street Cemetery, about a mile from here.

You can infer some of their culture from their marriage patterns. Apparently it was unacceptable for a woman to live in a house without a male head of household. Thus, the younger Lydia married as soon as her father died, Abigail remarried as soon as Enos died, and Roxana married as soon as Abigail died - presumably Abigail's last husband no longer occupied the house. Conversely, there may also have been pressure for single men to be married. From the little evidence that I have, it is impossible to know whether there was attraction between the couples in every case; among the older couples it seems more likely that the marriages were simply an expedient way of keeping everyone paired up, and they may hardly have known each other before they married. The rural conditions and slow transportation further complicated the situation by making the plausible marriage choices extremely limited, and I would guess that everyone married someone who lived less than five miles away or attended the same church. From the church documents that I've seen it is clear that being an upstanding Christian was strongly emphasized. For example, the son of one of Enos's neighbors was reprimanded by his father for doing woodwork on a Sunday, when all work was strictly forbidden.

I don't know what the collective agricultural activities of the Severances were. The soil here is full of clay, and over time it seems to have shown itself best suited for hay. In this county over the years sheep, beef and dairy cattle have done well. Many grains don't grow well, as is attested by a contemporary farmer who is switching to rice after attempting unsuccessfully to grow other grains. With poor soil, little industry and a consistently small economy, most of the settlers who arrived in the late 1700's and early 1800's had left by the late 1800's. Enos's youngest brother, Moses, lived briefly with his father in his old age, but he then moved on to Ohio.

It is comforting to ponder simpler times, and the idea of a simple life appeals to me as much as anyone. There are people in Vermont now and people who would like to move here who would prefer to throw back the hands of time and live under circumstances in which they can proceed slowly, not feeling the pressures of the modern world, and perhaps even having more genuine relationships than they are likely to find in our competitive, fast-paced civilization. However, it is easy to idealize those conditions, and it would be instructive to transport Enos Severance to the present and ask him what he thought. There is little doubt in my mind that he would soon want a tractor, a car, electricity, a chainsaw and many tools that were unavailable when he was alive. If he were given the benefit of a modern education, his intellectual horizons might expand enough for him to consider belief systems other than the one that dominated his entire life. If you look at the past this way, it is less tempting to idealize it and make false assumptions about its merits.

This last point sums up how I feel about Christian sentimentalists such as Marilynne Robinson. I would not object to her fiction, other than its tendentiousness, if it were sold as light reading for escapists, but because of her academic credentials and popularity among educated readers she has somehow been elevated to the ranks of major thinkers. To me, this is an indication of how unclearly even the so-called intelligentsia may think. There are countless ways to imagine comforting ideologies in which one might live more happily, and Robinson's choice, besides being no better than many others, resorts to idealization that is both historically inaccurate and lacking in applicability to the present. In my view, the credentialled people who embrace her work are only demonstrating their inability to think deeply or imagine anything beyond their existing prejudices. Whether they are willing to admit it or not, they are engaging in escapism pure and simple.

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