In a Carpenter's Own Words: Letters of Seth Williamson, 1810-1835

By Fix, Edward B. | The Chronicle of the Early American Industries Association, Inc., December 2003 | Go to article overview

In a Carpenter's Own Words: Letters of Seth Williamson, 1810-1835


Fix, Edward B., The Chronicle of the Early American Industries Association, Inc.


Only an exceptional life left testimony enough for a full biography and the most exceptional of men often left no clue to their inner thoughts.

HISTORIAN KENNETH LOCKRIDGE1

Seth Williamson was not an "exceptional" man, and there is no biography of him. Threads of his life surfaced in a few public records: a marriage listing in a church archives, some real estate transactions, a pension application after the War of 1812, a short probate will, and a cemetery headstone telling of his birth in 1782 and his death eighty years later.'2 I lowever, in a lifelong correspondence with his younger brother, John M. Williamson, Seth left in letters a descriptive expression of his thoughts, feelings, and observations on his life. These personal letters present a revealing chronicle of life as a tradesman in early-nineteenth century America.3

Seth Williamson was born into a family of carpenters in post-Revolutionary Long Island, New York. His family tradition predestined a life as a tradesman. Seth's father, three uncles, and paternal grandfather, along with a number of cousins and subsequent generations of relatives, were carpenters. In fact, Seth's Uncle David's family produced at least four generations of carpenters. Seth's family resided in Stony Brook where his father, Jedidiah, built a prosperous carpentry business.' Seth's boyhood was spent alongside his brother, John M., going to school and serving carpentry apprenticeships under the thumb of their father. Seth made carpentry his life's vocation but his brother, intrigued by education and politics, followed a different path and made his living teaching school and serving in various distinguished government positions.·"' However, it is worth noting that John M. never forgot his roots; in his later years, he listed his occupation as "carpenter" in the federal censuses.6

Shortly after his marriage in 1805, Seth and his wife, Catherine, left Long Island and moved up the Hudson River to Scotchtown, New York, a small hamlet outside the county seat of Goshen in Orange County. It was here, in 1808, that he purchased twelve acres of land and pursued his livelihood of carpentry.7 Six children-Jane, James, Maria, Lettyann, John, and Harrison-were born in Scotchtown to Seth and "Caty" and four lived to adulthood. After his wife's death, Scth remarried but had no other children. It was also in Scotchtown where Seth remained throughout the period of letter writing to his brother. John M., on the other hand, resided primarily in his birthplace of Stony Brook, Long Island, alongside most of his immediate and extended family. When serving in the state legislature in Albany, he often visited Seth on his way home down the Hudson River. John M. died a bachelor at the age of ninety in 1878 and was the last of those living who helped rebuild the town's church after a devastating fire in 1811.8

Seth wrote many letters to John M. over the course of his life. Thirty of them survive and comprise the middle years of Seth's life from age twenty-seven to fifty-four. The letters begin in 1810 witli four of them in a five-year span. No letters were uncovered from 181 .? to 1820, but twenty exist from 1821 to 1832 with at least one every year and most times two or three. The final five letters, dated 183.5, gain more context by the addition of three other letters to John M. from Scth's two daughters and son-in-law. all of Seth's letters run from one to two pages and begin with "Dear Brother" and often sign off with "Affectionately" or "Your Brother."

The thirty letters, when woven into a thematic pattern, provide an insightful picture of Seth Williamson's world. Many themes run through the letters, one being the dynamics of community-work, family, communication, and observations. A second topic reveals a consequence of emigration, the isolation associated with leaving the home soil and establishing roots in a new locale. A final subject explores sickness and death, and their ravaging effects on individuals and family. …

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