Ann Dumville and her daughters Jemima, Hephzibah, and Elizabeth were not history makers in the way we traditionally think of such figures. None of these women held high political office nor stood firsthand as a participant in a pivotal moment that would echo across the ages.
Yet it is the personal accounts of the Dumville women that give great insight into a time beset by political passions and dramatic social change.
Anne M. Heinz and John P. Heinz are coeditors of Women, Work, and Worship in Lincoln’s Country, a collection of the Dumville family letters. The editors answered questions about this archive and the ordinary, yet remarkable women whose correspondence offers an invaluable perspective on life in the mid-19th century in the heartland.
Q: How does the book improve our understanding of the everyday lives of mid-19th century rural Americans?
Heinz & Heinz: The virtue of the Dumville letters is that they provide first-person accounts of the lives of ordinary women as they were perceived by the women themselves. Including their sorrows and their joys. The letters paint with a small, fine brush—we see the detail of their daily lives as they lived them. We can read the letters as lessons in American social, political, and cultural history, as essays on the comfort provided by religion during personal loss and national conflict, as a comment on the roles of women, as a picture of the antebellum Midwest, or as all of those things.
Most published letters—indeed, most that are saved long enough to be published—were written by public figures, noteworthy scholars, or famous authors. The Dumville letters are a small counterweight to the dominant elite, masculine perspective. While men wrote letters that dealt with politics and business, women were the primary authors of family correspondence. Most of the women’s letters have disappeared, of course, as have most letters written by men. In many cases, no doubt, that is not a great loss, but some family correspondence is very informative about the nature of daily life. The Dumvilles saw and felt the ravages of cholera and typhoid, which were constant threats; they confronted the conflict concerning slavery and the resulting dissension within their communities; the vicissitudes of weather governed their finances as crops flourished or failed; a wave of new immigrants transformed the norms and social structure of their towns. It was a life of privation and risk, but the letters are remarkably hopeful.
Q: How did the Dumville archive come to be housed in the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library?
Heinz & Heinz: Most of the letters were donated to the Library in the late 1990s by a great-granddaughter of Ann Dumville’s employer, Major Burke. Later, additional letters were found and donated. In the 1940s, the Burke family loaned at least some of the letters to MacMurray College, which was then preparing its centennial history, published in 1947. The Dumville daughters had attended MacMurray’s predecessor. Shortly before Ann Dumville died in the 1870s, her daughters married and moved away. Where the letters were housed between the 1870s and the 1940s is a mystery. Ann was Major Burke’s housekeeper and had lived in his home toward the end of her life. In the book, we suggest that the letters may have been left behind in the Burke residence when Ann died and the daughters moved, but this is speculation. We don’t really know where the letters were for 60 or 70 years.
Q: How did this family come to settle in rural Illinois?
Heinz & Heinz: The Dumvilles emigrated from England in 1840. Ann’s husband had worked as a weaver in the north of England. The family had very little money, and they were looking for economic opportunity. Thomas hoped to establish a farm in Illinois on land near Carlinville, at a place called Sulphur Springs. The original intent was to establish a utopian community. Thomas died in 1842 and the community failed. His widow and three young daughters soon after moved to Carlinville seeking employment.
Q: When thinking of the issues of “Lincoln’s Country” in the mid-1800s, one often refers to the debate over slavery which was sparked by the Senate race between Lincoln and Douglas. Was there division amongst the Dumvilles when it came to the issue of slavery?
Heinz & Heinz: In the 1856 presidential election, Hephzibah declared herself to be a supporter of the “Know-Nothing” Party, which was pro-Southern, anti-immigrant, and anti-Catholic. She was young and still unformed politically at that time. The mother, Ann, and the older daughters were strong abolitionists. By the time of the Lincoln-Douglas debates in 1858, Hephzibah had become an abolitionist Republican and a supporter of Lincoln’s candidacy. She was very disappointed when Douglas won the senatorial election.
“It seems Mima that with all your Quaker like sobriety of appearance, you have had to dip into the political whirlpool. I am not at all surprised at it, it seems to be the order of the day, ‘all men and maidens, young men and children’ all seem to be affected by the prevailing sentiment. On a ‘big day’ here the town is vocal with Buchanan Fremont and Filmore men. You may tell Mary that I am Descidedly a Know Nothing, and if I had the privelige of voting (which I do not desire) I should vote for Filmore. . .” (Sept. 27, 1856).
Former president Fillmore was then the presidential nominee of the Know-Nothing Party. Fremont was the Republican candidate.
Q: Did women write more openly about their political opinions to each other in letters than they may have spoken about such issues in “mixed company?”
Heinz & Heinz: Marilyn Motz’s True Sisterhood: Michigan Women and Their Kin, 1820-1920 suggests that 19th century women were seldom much engaged by politics. Motz read hundreds of women’s letters. We suggest in the book that Hephzibah’s degree of political engagement may have been exceptional. The letters show the process of Hephzibah’s political engagement. Initially, she may have been experimenting with her political identity, differentiating herself from the Democratic allegiance of several acquaintances. She refers to conversations with friends about the politics of the day. “I was invited to a sewing. . . Mary Rues and myself entertained our selves by pretending to try to convert Maggie to Filmoreitism.” (Nov. 13, 1856)
Q: What was the role of religion in the lives of the Dumville family?
Heinz & Heinz: Religion was central. The letters are full of references to religion, including accounts of the “conversion” experiences of both Jemima and Hephzibah, commentary on the effectiveness of particular preachers, discussion of the content of sermons and religious periodicals, reports on the recruitment of new members of the church and on the success of fundraising for missionaries and church construction, and so on. The Methodist church’s commitment to education for women expanded the horizons of the Dumvilles. Ann wrote to Jemima when the daughter was hired as a teacher:
“There is scarcely any position in life so desirable to one who wishes to be useful as that of a teacher. In the position you occupy you may if faithful and prayerful become an instrument in the hands of God not only of prepareing many for usefulness here but instrumental in leading many souls to Christ that shall be stars in your crown of rejoicing in the better world.” (May 2, 1853)
Religion and death are two of the principal themes in the letters, and those two themes are closely related. It was seen as important to prepare for death by living in a state of religious grace and to die “a good death” at which one welcomed a transition to “Glory.” Jemima consoled Hephzibah on the death of Sarah, their 12-year old niece, December 20, 1859:
“We with you hope dear Sarah is singing among the angels. Let us prepare for that glorious company.”