UMASS Amherst Emily Esten has just completed another project in the Research Library. This time Emily worked on Manuscript Collection #135 (Mss 135) and produced a full finding aid in addition to her reflections below:
Matthew and Rachel Howland were the power couple of 19th century New Bedford: Matthew, co-owner of George Howland & Sons, worked diligently to make the family whaling business a success. While his brother, George, was the face of the business, Matthew monitored the fitting and repair of all the vessels, the sale of oil in foreign ports, the running of the candle-making factory and the hiring of captains and crews. His wife, Rachel, stood as “queen of New Bedford society,” serving as a minister in the Society of Friends for over 50 years and donating to the city of New Bedford through multiple acts of philanthropy. As an activist, Rachel founded multiple institutions for the betterment of society – the Ladies City Mission Society (1868), Association for the Relief of Aged Women (1866), Children’s Aid Society (1891) were just some of the contributions. She was an important individual in the abolitionist movement on a local, regional, and national scale.
Though the collection gives no information on how they met, it does contain the beginning of their relationship. From 1840 to 1842, Matthew sent multiple letters to Rachel, who lived in Burlington, New Jersey. The first letter, written November 20, 1840, appears to be in response to one of Rachel’s. Though not explicitly stated, one can infer that Matthew had proposed a courtship correspondence with her, which she turns down in favor of “at least another year must pass away without further communication.” Matthew, obviously hurt by this, professes his love and his promise to wait for her.
His regular correspondence, however, begins in 1841, waiting the appropriate amount of time before apologizing for the previous letter and asking Rachel to burn it. His letters then go onto detail his life as he takes on responsibility within George Howland and Sons, and the Society of Friends’ meetings he attends.
Several visits are made by Matthew to Rachel’s home of West Hill. It appears they refer to the manor house as “the asylum,” though no explanation is given as to why. Though the collection lacks Rachel’s side of the correspondence, we can infer that her feelings do change for Matthew, as he changes his salutation from “Esteemed Friend” to “My Dearest Chelly” in a letter dated October 1841. We also learn some of Rachel’s fears in marrying Matthew – primarily, the fear of leaving her entire life behind in New Jersey for the “strange land” of New Bedford. Matthew reassures her that he will do as much as possible to make her feel at home here once they are to be married.
Their engagement begins in January of 1842, though it is not official until Matthew’s uncle Isaac sends his approval for the marriage a month later. Very little is stated about the marriage itself, but primarily focuses on events near the chosen date – specifically, Matthew’s excitement of a trip to Niagara with friends Samuel and Sarah.
For an unknown reason, Rachel requested to delay their marriage until September. (One can assume that Michael’s responsibilities in New Bedford, which had significantly increased, were taking a significant amount of time.) Matthew agrees to this request somewhat reluctantly, as it means they cannot attend an event in Niagara. The date September 8th is mentioned as the future date for marriage. Though the letters end in August, records elsewhere indicate that the couple did indeed get married on that date. The final letter of correspondence from October 1847 refers to Rachel as his wife, mentions their daughter Susy [Susanna], and is signed “thy sincerely attached + loving husband.”
The Howlands were major players in New Bedford’s economic and social scene, and their story starts right here – in Mss 135. Matthew’s letters to his future wife preserve a story of friendship, of love, and most importantly, of ambition.