During the 1830s, single women who emigrated from New England to Illinois required permission from male relatives or religious leaders. In the case of Sarah Crocker, the sources say little of the family dynamics that led her westward. Emily Price, on the other hand, left a significant clue.
During my visit to the Webster Historical Society, Marjorie pulled a file of hand-written sermons by Emily’s father, the Rev. Ebenezer Price, who served the community from 1804 until 1837. On August 29, 1822, when Emily was thirteen, her father delivered a sermon titled “Female Excellence” for the annual meeting of the Cent Society. A Cent Society was a common women’s organization where members contributed one penny a week toward benevolent causes and, according to Rev. Price, the town boasted two such groups (as well as female gleaning societies to aid missionaries and – for the younger women – reading societies that provided funds to male students studying for the ministry, missions overseas and at home, etc.).
It begins as a typical sermon highlighting the story of Lydia, a merchant who forsakes a lucrative business in purple cloth to become a Christian. Prescriptive writing for women in the early nineteenth century advised them to be pretty and accomplished, but not too pretty and accomplished lest they be coquettish. On the other hand, they must not be too learned or grave. Price’s words reflect these sentiments as he highlights women’s pious nature (with a brief reminder of Eve’s transgression in the Garden of Eden), and the importance of religious life above all else. He said:
“The female character may possess much, which the world may deem the richest ornament, the most to be desired, and yet fall short of the highest excellence of character. For neither wit nor beauty, comely prostration, sweetness of temper, brilliance of imagination, enlarged mental powers, refined education, or great accomplishments will singly, or all combined, though justly admired … can produce a substitute for vital religion, the love of God, or heavenly wisdom! The highest excellence of the female character is still wanting. Without a heart renewed, the gold is dim.”
But then Price surprises contemporary readers by highlighting women from the Bible whose piety did not depend on motherhood, including Lydia, a wealthy merchant mentioned in Acts, and Deborah, the female judge and warrior from Judges. He then exemplified female virtue in three contemporary women: Hanna More, a playwright and (gasp) Bluestocking; educator Isabella Graham; and G. Harriet Howell, British philanthropist, all distinguished for their work in the public sphere. Thus far in my reading of sermons on female education and activity, this is fairly unique. Price encourages all women, regardless of station, status, or education, to work for the “cause of Christ,” but he does not single out married mothers or domestic activities.
Price extolled those women who left behind:
“their Mothers, their sisters, and their native country, to penetrate the dark forests among savage tribes; – to cross the boisterous ocean and pitch their home by tents among the worshipers of demons; or go to the lands of darkness, where nothing is found to cheer life, but the isolating hope that their Lord will make them the humble instruments of doing something for the conversion for the World.”
Imperialist deigns aside, one wonders what kind of an impression this made on young Emily. Born in 1809, she was the third of five children and the youngest of three daughters. With so many females in the family, is likely Emily’s parents reinforced notions of “female excellence” within the home. Rev. Price had a penchant for reform. In 1815, he headed up the Boscawen Moral Society for “the suppression of immorality of every description, particularly Sabbath breaking, intemperance, profaneness, & falsehood.” He was also involved in temperance activities and educational reform. In 1809, Rev. Price joined a group of prominent men in refining common schools known for their harsh discipline and poor conditions. One historian of the town noted, “The old theory, that man must be a master, gave place to the new idea that he must be a teacher… There was a marked improvement during the second and third decades of the century. The schools, the whole community, moved to a higher plane” (Charles Carleton Coffin, The History of Boscawen and Webster, from 1733 to 1878 (Concord, NH: Republican Press Association, 1878), 285). After nearly two decaces of improving the common schools, in 1828, he became a founding Trustee of the Boscawen Academy and hired Sarah Crocker as the first preceptress. This means Sarah likely spent time with the Price family during her time in Boscawen, making an impression on young Emily.
By the late 1830s, one town history notes that economic struggles prompted many to emigrate West in search of opportunity. It could be that Emily believed her prospects for a teaching job or marriage to be diminished. Or, after living in the somewhat confining mountains and valleys of New Hampshire for twenty-six years, craved a bit of adventure. At the very least, Emily knew of Sarah’s move to Jacksonville and possibly corresponded before making her own decision to emigrate (there’s no proof of this, as of yet). Furthermore, within the Price household, moving West as a single woman was considered part of God’s larger plan and well within the approrpiate bounds for female behavior.