Monday, March 2, 2009

Polly Potter Kirtland

The couple was married in 1793, and Polly’s blue silk damask wedding gown – the height of late 18th century fashion – remains on display as a gift for posterity at the Mahoning Valley Historical Society in Youngstown, Ohio. There is a rumor that Polly was in love with a sea captain of whom her parents disapproved and whose letters to her they intercepted. The story has little credibility given Jared Potter’s liberalism and the parental readiness to grant daughters greater freedom in the selection of a husband that prevailed in post-revolutionary America. Did Polly, then, love Turhand?

It is difficult for today’s women to comprehend the mindset of their compeers in the 18th century, but most young women of that era viewed marriage in the same way modern women view a profession or career. Women were barred from access to higher education and apprenticeship training in most crafts, their only choice being the narrow one between marriage and spinsterhood. Thus a good marriage was an accomplishment, inasmuch as it conferred upon them all of the practical necessities of life that we now associate with a good job: financial support and security in old age; as well as the more obvious ones: love, companionship, children.

For the first ten years of their marriage, Turhand journeyed back and forth between the new frontier of Ohio and Wallingford, spending his summers in what would become Poland, Ohio, constructing the dwelling he and his family were to inhabit. The leading member of the profession of civil engineering in the early days in eastern Ohio, Turhand laid out townships, towns and roads and – along with John Young – surveyed the original village of Youngstown. He journeyed back to Wallingford to spend the winter months with Polly and his growing family: Jared, born 1793; Henry, born 1795; Mary Beach, born 1798; and Nancy, born 1801.

By 1803 the family home was ready. Poland was, by frontier standards a habitable community, and so Turhand brought his family to Ohio and located them in what is now Poland village. They journeyed in two covered wagons across the country and over the Pennsylvania mountains – a journey of one month. The whole party consisted of Turhand, Polly, and three children: Henry, Mary and Nancy, a hired man, and two hired girls. (Jared, the eldest son, and been left behind in Wallingford to be educated by his grandfather.)

So we have Polly, a cultivated, informally educated young woman of 31, already the mother of four, leaving the comfort and refinement of her home in New England, her parents and firstborn child, forced to make her home in the harsh though beautiful land known as the Connecticut Western Reserve. This relocation, we are told, was so great a sorrow to her she declared that if she had to leave her eastern home she “would never return for even a visit,” – a promise she faithfully kept.

But in marriage the authority of the husband to choose the family domicile was unquestioned and it is unlikely Polly endured a life of permanent frustration after her initial outburst. Human beings are, above all, creatures of adaptation and she undoubtedly found many consolations in her new home which were rich and satisfying. Her curiosity and appreciation for the natural world, learned from her father, would stand her in good stead in the Ohio wilderness.

As a former New England gentlewoman she would have refined the skills all housewives shared. To plain sewing and cooking she would add a concern for grace and style. Her gentility determined that she would have wine and silver on her table and that she would update and remodel her clothing to conform to the latest fashions.

As Poland grew and thrived, Turhand became a judge and magistrate. But what of Polly? It is tempting to imagine her as a sort of medic for the community, given the medical knowledge she had probably acquired from her father. If this is the case there is no record of it. Instead we are told that Mrs. Kirtland was “quite a lady, one who wore rich silks and entertained each Sabbath with a turkey or chicken pie dinner.” She was also known for her potent Cherry Bounce, using fresh cloves, cinnamon and bourbon.

1810 was an emotionally turbulent year for the Kirtlands. Polly was reunited with her son Jared, whom she had last seen in 1803 at the age of 10. Jared, a young man of 17 journeyed to his parents’ home in Poland because of an illness of his father, Turhand. Turhand’s illness turned out to be quite minor, but – ironically and tragically – it was during this time that his grandfather, Polly’s father, Jared Potter, died as the result of a bizarre accident. Passing through a field of rye he threw some of the kernels into his mouth and one of them lodged in his pharynx. He died of the resulting infection some days later.

Jared stayed in Poland for a year, filling the vacancy caused by the death of the local schoolmaster. He was very interested in the flora and fauna of the area, and of course was reunited with his parents. Of Polly and Turhand Kirtland’s six children, all but one grew to adulthood, married and produced children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren for the couple.

The first son, Jared Potter Kirtland, became a famous man, a physician like his grandfather, and is still recognized as one of the greatest forces in education and natural sciences in the Western Reserve. Kirtland’s Warbler and Kirtland’s Water Snake are both named in his honor. Surely the influence of his mother, Polly Potter Kirtland, during his early and formative years contributed to the development of his questioning mind? (A friend of his said of him that he was the happiest man he ever knew, the reason being his great interest in people and things.)


E.A. Koltonski said...

I have been doing some research on county seat battles in the Reserve and Thurhand came up a few times in the sources. It is great to have the story of his family fleshed out more. Behind every man, great or not, it often a great woman.

steve said...

Very interesting info. I am researching JARED POTTER KIRTLAND, the son. Am particularly interested in his time in Poland. Anybody have any files on him? Does anyone have a thorough genealogy on the family? I've seen graves in Poland, but can't tell who belongs to which subsets of the family. Thanks,

Anonymous said...

Have you seen the book ,Poland, 200 Years and Counting by Robert Wilkeson? It has the family genealogy. Also try - most of the Kirtland family are on that site.
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