Signer #47, Betsy Tewksbury
(b. New Jersey, Circa 1814—d. Elmira, New York, after 1880)
All too often, we are forced to ponder over the aftermaths and the Blue Mondays. It might be difficult to stand in the middle of an impact crater and imagine what the meteor looked like. It might also be hard to visualize a bombshell based upon the pieces of shrapnel it has left in its wake. But the surviving archival fragments of Signer #47, Betsy Tewksbury, require a recuperative approach like this.
Some earth-moving event clearly affected the Tewksbury family in the second half of the 1840s. While the exact details of this misfortune remain unclear, its aftereffects are apparent. Since we can’t study the shell, we have to try to look at the shrapnel.
How Betsy Tewksbury and her family were forced to respond to this evident crisis reveals much about the real-world economic frustrations that underwrote the Seneca Falls Convention and Suffrage activism thereafter.
Not to ignore an ongoing pattern—there is some disagreement regarding the correct spelling of Signer #47’s name. Remarkably, the 1908 “Our Roll of Honor,” the first volume of The History of Woman Suffrage, and The NAWSA Handbook all concur on “Tewksbury,” a surname that varied endlessly in the census records I encountered (809, 835). But the “Roll” spells #47’s given name as “Betsey,” whereas The History and The NAWSA Handbook decide on “Betsy.”
Searching for traces of Signer #47, one of the first hits I got was the 1916 death certificate of her daughter Eliza Tewksbury Jenney. Eliza’s widower, Samuel Jenney, affirms on this document that his mother-in-law, "Betsy Edwards," was born in Vermont. Those same dataspaces for Eliza’s father are conspicuously left blank. His first name is omitted; the phrase “Don’t Know” occupies the space where his birthplace should be. Eliza’s date of birth is listed as September 22, 1846, so she would have been less than 2 years old at the time of the convention, in July 1848.
Hits for a “Betsy Tewksbury” also surfaced in Elmira, Chemung County, in the 1875 and 1880 editions of Boyds’ Elmira City Directory, with entries for “Tewksberry Betsy” and “Tewksbury Elizabeth,” respectively (263, 244). The address listed for both individuals is “500 Oak,” making it safe to assume that these are variant spellings of the same name. Both directories stipulate that Elizabeth/Betsy is “widow Moses.” Beyond revealing the name of a potential spouse, her identification as a widow suggests that, by 1875, Moses was known or presumed to be dead. This contrasts with the possibilities of his being estranged or his whereabouts being unknown.
Searches for a “Moses Tewksbury” at Seneca Falls and, more broadly, in New York State yielded additional results. The 1827 Directory for the City of Rochester lists “Tewksbury, Moses, cooper, Harford-st” (32). The 1830 federal census also includes a “Moses Tukesberry,” living in Rochester.
By 1840, there is a Moses Tewksbury residing in Seneca Falls. As I’ve mentioned in previously installments of this blog, the 1840 census only recorded the names of male heads of household and then simply took a head count for everyone else under the same roof. According to this entry, Moses lives with 2 males under 5 years of age, 1 male between 20 and 30 (Moses), 2 females between 5 and 10 years, and 1 female between 20 and 30. It's safe to presume that the young adult female living with Moses is Betsy, and all others are their children.
After the 1840 census, I could not find a single additional trace regarding the existence of Moses Tewksbury. But I could add one tentative amendment. If Moses was Eliza Tewksbury’s biological father, given her birth in September 1846, this means that he was still alive and present in the region as late as the winter of 1845-6.
Both Moses and Betsy are missing from the 1850 census—even after searches in Seneca County and throughout the region. There are, however, 7 minors with the surname "Tewksbury" living in area households. Polly Tewksbury, age 17, lives with the Kenyon family in Seneca Falls; Martha Tewksbury, 15, lives with the Sweet family in nearby Waterloo; William Tewksbury, 12, lives with the Higbee family in Seneca Falls; Isaac Tewksbury, 11, lives with the Sears family in Seneca Falls; Adeline Tewksbury, 9, resides in the Fuller household in Seneca Falls; George Tewksbury, 6, lives with the Wood family in Waterloo; and Eliza, 4, lives with J.P. and Eliza Edwards in Waterloo. A “Boatman,” J.P. Edwards’ birthplace is listed as Connecticut, but given the surname “Edwards” (Betsy’s birth surname), it is a possibility that he has some familial relation to Betsy and Eliza. Eliza Edwards serving as Eliza Tewksbury’s namesake and aunt presents itself as another possibility.
This dispersal of Tewksbury children in Seneca County in 1850 squares with the unidentified individuals living in Moses Tewksbury’s household in 1840. In that census, William and Isaac would have by counted as the 2 males under 5 years old. Martha and Polly would have been recorded as the 2 females between 5 and 10 years of age, while Adeline, George, and Eliza would not be born until the 1840s.
If this is evidence that Tewksbury children were resettled some time in the 1840s, their inclusion in the census suggests that this relocation was not a short-term, month-to-month solution. That it’s officially recorded in this manner indicates, rather, that it was a prolonged, non-temporary set of arrangements. I could find no concrete cause behind the Tewksbury family’s diaspora, but Moses’ permanent absence from local records after 1840 indicates that he was dead or had left the region permanently by 1850. That, by 1916, Samuel is unable to identify Eliza’s father by name, as well as his place of birth, might indicate that Eliza had grown up without being very aware of him. She had then, conceivably, never passed this information on to her spouse.
The psychological and practical challenges of finding surrogate homes for one’s seven children could only have been a daunting, traumatic task for Betsy. The practice of doing so is, in fact, an emerging trend among Declaration signers profiled thus far. Sophronia Mack Taylor, Signer #24, appears to have faced the necessity of relocating children—although she was faced with this dilemma after 1850 and the Convention. Judith Wellman identifies Betsy Tewksbury as a member of the local Methodist community (Road to Seneca Falls 206). Functioning as a communal safety net, could sympathetic fellow members of Betsy's congregation have volunteered their homes in order to come to the family's aid?
It appears that the absence of a traditional male breadwinner in the Tewksbury home forced a Devil’s bargain. It's easy to imagine that this period of Betsy's life was one of endless worry, exhaustion, and frustration. Did Betsy Tewksbury's own culturally enforced inability to support her family and enjoy economic self-reliance drive the undeniably tough decision to resettle her own children? And if Betsy Tewksbury had been rendered a de facto single parent by the time of the convention, it's important to ask how much this experience informed her involvement in the Seneca Falls Convention and her signature on the Declaration. If this is in fact the case, a protest against the barriers to women's economic independence was then very much present and in the crowd at the Seneca Falls Convention.
In the 1860 census, an “Elizabeth Tuxbury,” 49 and a native of New Jersey, resides in Waterloo with Mary E. George, a 26-year-old milliner. In the 1870 census, a “Betsy Tukesbury,” a native of New Jersey, now 50, lives with innkeepers Joseph and Mary Leigh in Aurelius, Cayuga County. Attending the wandering age and birthplace of these two records, it is hard to assert that this is Signer #47 and not a separate individual.
By her 70s, Betsy Tewksbury appears to have lived out her life in Elmira, Chemung County, with her daughter Adeline/Addie and her son-in-law John Dunn. Addie and John had married some time before the 1860 census. John would make a living in the soda business, an emerging industry. His occupation on the 1880 census is listed as “Making Mineral Water,” and the 1888 Hanford’s Elmira City Directory names John’s occupation as “mineral waters and ginger ales” (173).
I could find no record of the whereabouts of Polly, Martha, or George Tewksbury after the 1850 census. These absences could be the result of relocations, deaths, or name changes related to marriage.
By 1880, Eliza has moved to Dexter, Michigan, with Samuel Jenney, an Aurelius native and a dentist. They have a daughter, Ethel. At the time of her death in Detroit 1916, Eliza is slated to be interred in Cayuga.
And like Signer #34, Mary L. Minor, and Signer #83, Robert Smalldridge, Betsy Tewksbury sent children off to war.
In the New York Town Clerks’ Register of Men Who Served in the Civil War, William Henry Tewksbury’s parents are listed as “Moses” [Tewksbury] and “Betsy Edwards.” According to this document, William enlisted in the Union army in August 1862 and served in the 126th New York Infantry. A précis of his service reads, “Taken Prisoner at surrender of Harpers Ferry & Paroled/ Wounded at Gettysburgh, July 8, 1863. Served at Spotsylvania.” By 1870, William is living in Fayette, Seneca County, as a farmer with his wife, Mary, and their son, William. The 1910 census locates William’s family in Waterloo (both of William Sr.’s parents are listed as hailing from Vermont). William died in April 1913.
Regarding Isaac Tewksbury’s war record, The Pensioners’ Index and The Clerks’ Register tell slightly varying, equally grim stories. After his enlistment in October 1861, The Pensioners’ Index claims Isaac was “Captured at Hanover C.H. June 1864/ no further information Register, also none [sic] as Tukesberry.= Also borne as Tewksbury…Absent, Prisoner of war since June 1, 64. M.R. Oct. 31. 64.” The Clerks’ Register reports that Isaac was “Taken Prisoner at Spotsylvania C.H. Paroled.” The separate battles in which Isaac is recorded to have been taken prisoner might be the result of a transcriber's error. The Battle of Hanover Courthouse took place in Virginia in 1862; it is probably mistaken here for the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, also in Virginia, in 1864. A “Special Schedule” of “Surviving Soldiers, Sailors, and Marines, and Widows,” attached to the 1890 census, claims briefly that Isaac Tewksbury as “Prisoner Andersonville” for a period of “9 months.” In the 1880 census, Isaac Tewksbury, a “Laborer,” lives with his spouse Catherine and four children in Fayette, the same town as his brother William.
Boyds’ Elmira City Directory. Hall Brothers, 1878.
Boyds’ Elmira City Directory. Hall Brothers, 1880.
Directory for the Village of Rochester. Elisha Ely, 1827.
“Dunn Family.” U.S. Federal Census, 1880. Elmira, Chemung, New York. Ancestry.com.
Hanford’s Elmira City and Elmira Heights Directory. 1888.
History of Elmira, Horseheads and the Chemung Valley. Galatian & Co., 1868.
“Jenney, Eliza - Death Certificate.” State of Michigan, Vital Statistics, Detroit, Wayne County. June 22, 1916.
National American Woman Suffrage Association. NAWSA Handbook. 1893.
“Our Roll of Honor. Listing Women and Men Who Signed the Declaration of Sentiments at First Woman’s Rights Convention, July 19-20, 1848.” Library of Congress, Washington.
Stanton, Elizabeth Cady, et al. History of Woman Suffrage. Susan B. Anthony, 1889.
“Tewksbury, Isaac.” Special Schedule…Surviving Soldiers, Sailors, and Marines, and Widows.” Federal Census, 1890. HeritageQuest.com
“Tewksbury, Isaac.” New York Town Clerks’ Register of Men Who Served in the Civil War. Ancestry.com
“Tewksbury, Isaac.” US Civil War Pension Index: General Index, 1861-1934.
“Tewksbury, Moses.” Federal Census, 1830. Rochester, Monroe, New York. Ancestry.com.
“Tewksbury, Moses.” Federal Census, 1840. Seneca Falls, Seneca, New York. Ancestry.com.
“Tewksbury Family.” Federal Census, 1850. Seneca Falls, Seneca, New York. Ancestry.com.
“Tewksbury, William Henry.” New York Town Clerks’ Register of Men Who Served in the Civil War. Ancestry.com.
“Tewksbury, William Henry.” NUS Civil War Pension Index: General Index, 1861-1934.
“Tukesbury, Betsy.” Federal Census, 1870. Aurelius, Cayuga, New York. Ancestry.com.
“Tuxbury, Elizabeth.” Federal Census, 1860. Waterloo, Seneca, New York.
Wellman, Judith. The Road to Seneca Falls: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the First Woman’s Rights Convention. University of Illinois Press, 2010.