Signer #65, Experience Gibbs: "The Puritan Name"
(Circa 1822-March 17, 1899)
While an Episcopalian, the given name of Signer #65, “Experience,” smacks of a New England Puritan lineage.[i] Experience, it appears, was a common given name of both male and female children in the 18th and 19th centuries. Royal Ralph Hinman’s 1846 Catalogue of the Names of the First Puritan Settlers of the Colony of Connecticut chronicles no fewer than nine early Connecticotians bearing the name “Experience.”[ii] Marveling over babies punished with exasperating names like “Aberycusgentylis and Joackaminshaw,” Charles W.E. Beardsley’s 1880 Curiosities of Puritan Nomenclature still pauses to remark upon the name's looming contradiction: “Even Experience is found -- a strange title for an infant” (224, 147).
The tactic of inflicting a newborn with a painful first name is rooted in Puritanical logics of nomenclature identical to that of Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue.” An actually used Puritan moniker such as “Fly-fornication” (like Sue) would ideally toughen a child up, encourage self-reliance, and temper poor “Fly-fornication” from the pulls of worldly distraction – namely, dating. And the name "Experience" doesn’t hold a candle to other sadistic Puritan eccentricities like “Humiliation,” “Wrestling,” “Damned,” “Jesus-Christ-came-into-the-world-to-save,” and so on. [iii] Rather than lifting the curse and naming his son “Bill or George – any damn thing but Sue,” Beardsley reports that one “Humiliation Hinde” christened not one, but two of his sons “Humiliation” as well. [iv]
Nevertheless, the presence of an “Experience Gibbs” on the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments begs an important question: what traces and subcurrents of Puritanical cultural and intellectual tradition were present at Seneca Falls in July 1848? Are the events of the Seneca Falls Convention ultimately indebted to radicalism of the New England Puritans (a radicalism that dared to educate women as often as it persecuted them)? Can Seneca Falls be linked back to the dissent and defiance-unto-death of Anne Hutchinson? Do the feminist counterpolitics embedded in Anne Bradstreet’s The Tenth Muse finally reach a boiling point at Seneca Falls?
And while members of Experience Porter Gibbs’ family might have been considered Seneca “locals” by 1848, they were relatively recent transplants from New England. The Declaration of Rights and Sentiments is, in fact, the first archival evidence (that I could obtain) demonstrating Experience Gibbs’ presence in the village of Seneca Falls. Experience is one of three sisters who are signers of the Declaration.[v] Directly before Experience’s signature at position #64, her sister Ann Porter is the 63rd signer. Four spaces up, Ann and Experience’s sister, Eliza Martin, is the 59th name entered on the roll. Together, the Porter sisters make up three of the final nine signatories of the women’s section of the Declaration.
Before they settled at Seneca Falls, archival evidence suggests that their childhood had been an itinerant one. The 1860 census of Seneca Falls identifies elder sister Eliza’s birthplace as Vermont, setting the date of her birth at approximately 1821. In the 1870 census, Experience’s birthplace is listed as Pennsylvania. Her birth year is 1822. The 1850 census data for the Gibbs family includes a 65-year-old male, Joseph Porter, residing in the same household as Experience. Possibly the father of Experience, Eliza, and Ann, Joseph lists his occupation as “farmer.” His birthplace is identified as Connecticut.
Whether choice or necessity motivated the Porter family’s exodus from New England, they would remain permanent residents of Seneca Falls. The 1850 census indicates that Experience had married Ansel Cook Gibbs, four years her senior. Experience’s and Ansel’s children are listed as Charles, 8; Eliza, 5 (likely named after sister Eliza); and Arthur, aged 6 months. Arthur had been born during the interval between the Convention and the taking of the 1850 census.
The Gibbs family flourished on canal trade, accommodating the business and daily needs of water-going merchants and travelers. The 1880 census lists Experience’s occupation as “Keeping House” and Ansel’s as a “Grocer & Livery Man.” The Seneca County Courier-Journal later gives some context regarding Ansel’s business endeavors. He “came to this village in early life and was one of our most active business men for many years…he opened a grocery near the upper lock, in the ‘40’s, when canalling was at its height and did a large business then, which gradually declined with the lessening of traffic on the canals.” After his success as a grocer, Ansel also purchased and operated local mills with his business partners. An 1874 Seneca Falls village directory advertises the family business: located at the “Canal cor. Lock.” A.C. Gibbs & Son offers clientele “groceries and provisions, saloon and canal stables, also storage and forwarding” (74). The 1894 village directory is more explicit, describing Ansel Gibbs and “w. Experience Porter” as specializing in “livery, sale and exchange stable State, wholesale and retail dealer in groceries, provisions and general supplies, dealer in whiskey, wines, &c” (294). The Gibbs family, it seems, did not advocate for temperance. For those of us unfamiliar with the term "livery" -- the livery could feed, stable, and rent out horses – certainly for those bound inland from canal-travel or, perhaps, for anyone getting a vessel towed up the lock. By 1870, Ansel and Experience seem to have become quite well-off. The census values their wealth at a considerable $11,400.
Experience Porter Gibbs died in March 17, 1899, aged 77.[vi] A local obituary praises Experience as “a good and true woman, a loving, thoughtful wife, and a tender and considerate mother…She was a kind neighbor and a steadfast friend. In her home she exalted womanhood and motherhood. Her life was one of simplicity and devotion to duty. She lived for and loved those by whom she was surrounded” (quoted in Wellman 223). After Experience’s death, Ansel moved to Olean, New York, to live with the family of his son Arthur. He died in 1904 at 86 due to complications from asthma.[vii]
[i] Wellman 206.
[ii] See Hinman 169, 191, 212, 213, 218, 282, 296.
[iii] See Norwood “Bizarre Puritan Names.”
[iv] Bardsley 151.
[v] Wellman 224.
[vi] New York probate records for Experience Gibbs.
[vii] See Seneca County Courier-Journal.
Bardsley, Charles Wareing Endell. Curiosities of Puritan Nomenclature. Chatto & Windus, 1880. Print.
Cash, Johnny. “A Boy Named Sue.” Youtube.com. Accessed 19 Dec. 2017. Sound file.
Child, Hamilton. Reference Business Directory of Seneca County, N.Y., 1894-95. Syracuse, N.Y. : E.M. Child, 1894. Archive.org. Accessed 19 Dec. 2017. Print.
“Death of Ansel C. Gibbs.” Seneca County Courier-Journal. Seneca Falls, New York. 7 April 1904. p. 5. Print.
Evans, William & Wesley Crofoot. “A.C. Gibbs & Son.” Seneca Falls & Waterloo Village Directory, 1874-5. Truair, Smith & Co. p. 54. Print.
Hinman, Royal Ralph. A Catalogue of the Names of the First Puritan Settlers of the Colony of Connecticut. E. Gleason, 1846.
Norwood, Joseph. “A Boy Named Humiliation: Some Wacky, Cruel, and Bizarre Puritan Names.” Slate.com. Accessed 19 Dec. 2017.
“Gibbs Family.” New York Census, 1850. Seneca Falls, Seneca, New York. pp. 61 A-B. Print.
---. New York Census, 1860. Seneca Falls, Seneca, New York. p. 69. Print
---. New York Census, 1870. Seneca Falls, Seneca, New York. p. 182. Print
---. New York Census, 1870. Seneca Falls, Seneca, New York. p. 180A. Print.
“Martin Family.” New York Census, 1860. Seneca Falls, Seneca, New York. p. 24. Print.
“Probate Record: Experience Gibbs.” New York Surrogate's Court. Seneca County, New York. 17 Jan 1900. Print.
Wellman, Judith. The Road to Seneca Falls: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the First Woman’s Rights Convention. University of Illinois Press, 2010.