What prompted two New Hampshire teachers to emigrate to Jacksonville, Illinois in the 1830s? After visiting Boscawen, I sought answers in genealogies and local histories at the New Hampshire Historical Society. Though many of the details are still a bit hazy, Sarah Crocker’s story has a bit more depth and takes some surprising turns.
In the fall of 1833, when Sarah Crocker arrived in Jacksonville, she had just celebrated her thirty-sixth birthday. Was it her maturity, combined with her experience as the first preceptress of the Boscawen Academy and a teacher at the Ipswich Female Academy that led Mary Lyon to recommend her to the trustees of the JFA? Not likely. In a letter to Catherine Beecher that same year, Lyon outlined her ideal qualifications for Western teachers:
“My hope is not in women considerably advanced in age, who expect to remain unmarried; it is in young ladies scarcely out of their teens, whose souls are burning for some channel into which they can pour their benevolence, and who will teach two, three, or four years and then marry.” quoted in Thomas Woody, A History of Women’s Education in the United States (New York: The Science Press, 1929), 21.
Sarah hardly fit this mold, though she did marry Elihu Wolcott within two years of her arrival. Did she promise Lyon to make every effort toward matrimony? There’s little in the sources to tell us about her personality or the finer details of her life, but a picture is beginning to emerge.
Born in Londonerry, New Hampshire on August 17, 1797, she was the fifth of nine children (eight daughters and one son). Descended from seafarers and farmers from Choate Island, near Ipswich, Massachusetts, her parents joined a group of relatives who emigrated to New Hampshire in the 1780s. Stories of daring permeated the family lore, as her grandfather and uncles told of exotic locales from their time at sea. Her grandmother, Mary Choate, refused to flee advancing British troops during the Revolution and disciplined her children and grandchildren by saying “the bears would be after them.”
The family enjoyed a privileged position in Londonderry, where they were “distinguished for learning and piety,” and frequently elected to public service (from Rev. Edward L. Parker, History of Londonderry: Comprising the Towns of Derry and Londonderry, N.H. (Boston: Perkins and Whipple, 1851. Reprinted by the Town of Londonderry, Londonderry, NH, 1974), 125-126).
We know little of Sarah’s early life, except for her upbringing in a strongly religious household. Her father, John, was a deacon in the Congregational church. Her mother, Margaret, experienced a religious conversion at the age of sixteen, on August 12, 1780, when lightning struck her family home on Choate Island. Margaret witnessed the wrath and saving grace of God when her youngest sister Lydia was rendered unconscious and revived only after her mother “breathed into her mouth” (E.O. Jameson, Choates in America, 1643-1896 (Boston: Alfred Mudge and Son, 1896), 63).
Sarah first shows up in the sources in 1824, as a student at the Adams Female Academy, when she was twenty-seven years old. Several prominent men of Londonderry (including Sarah’s Uncle William) established Adams Female Academy because, according to one Londonderry historian, the young women of the community “began to wish for better advantages and went to academies in other towns” (George F. Willey, The History of Londonderry, vol. 2: Excerpts from Willey’s Book of Nutfield, Jessie I. Beckley and Melvin E. Watts, eds. (Londonderry: Town of Londerry, 1975), 22).
Yet, I’m not sure what to make of this non-traditional student. Her father died in 1814, when Sarah was seventeen. That same year, the prominent men of Londonderry established the Pinkerton Academy to prepare young men for college. Her older sisters began to marry, but perhaps Sarah and two other sisters who remained single into their 30’s, felt obligated to care for her mother. Her presence at Adams, however, and her willingness to travel to Boscawen and Ipswich, demonstrates a certain tenacity. The first principal of Adams, Zilphia Grant, and one of the first teachers, Mary Lyon, likely fueled that ambition. Clearly, Lyon took enough notice to recommended Sarah to the JFA trustees.
In her 1833 letter to Catherine Beecher, Mary Lyon noted that female teachers heading west had to first secure permission from male relatives. Was this necessary in Sarah’s case? All we know is that Sarah did not travel alone. When she went to Boscawen, she was likely introduced to the community by several cousins, including Samuel Choate, who periodically served as town clerk (Choates in America, 96; Charles Carleton Coffin, The History of Boscawen and Webster, from 1733 to 1878 (Concord, NH: Republican Press Association, 1878), 489-490, 625). When Sarah departed for Jacksonville, her younger sister Elizabeth tagged along and after two years married James Palmer, just months before Sarah married Elihu Wolcott in 1835. In 1839, their young brother John joined the sisters in Jacksonville. There is, however, one more interesting twist to the story. Sarah’s cousin, David Choate, was a well-known educator in Ipswich and a personal friend of Mary Lyon’s. The same age as Sarah (he was born in 1796), David was without means but said to possess “rare intellectual gifts.” He advanced his education, became a sought after instructor, and from 1836 to 1844, he served as one of the first trustees of Mount Holyoke College (Choates in America, 198). So in 1833, when Sarah and Elizabeth chose to move, was it David who tipped the scales? Was it he who recommended his cousin? Again, we may never know.