Sarah Skinner, Getting Used to Darkness
The Society recently was given an 1834 letter that had been sold as a postage collector’s item, a “cover” that pre-dated the use of stamps. Folded, it was addressed to Abraham Skinner, Esq. of Brookfield, Massachusetts.
Inside, the letter was preserved:
Acton Feb. 8, 1834,
I have neglected, longer than I intended to do, to inform you of your mother’s health. She is pretty comfortable this winter, would be very, were it not for the continued pain in her eyes. She has not had the least perception of light for several months. Her situation is in many respects less uncomfortable since she has become more accustomed to perfect darkness. She grows familiar with the house, and walks with much less confusion, is some part of the time, able to busy herself with knitting, which she considers quite a privilege.
She wishes to be affectionately remembered to you.
I am much oblidged to you for the papers, which you had the goodness to send me.
Respectfully yr Cousin,
One cannnot help being touched by the letter and feeling admiration for Mrs. Skinner who, while dealing with pain and disruption, felt privileged to be able to knit. We set out to learn more about Mrs. Skinner, her son Abraham, and the writer of the letter.
Mrs. Skinner and Her Family
Abraham Skinner, Esq. of Brookfield, Mass. was born in Acton on July 25, 1789 to Dr. Abraham and Sarah (Faulkner) Skinner. According to Phalen’s History of the town of Acton (page 98), the father, Dr. Abraham Skinner, was Acton’s third physician. He had come from Woodstock, CT, for reasons we have not yet been able to discover, and started his Acton practice in 1781. He married Sarah Faulkner in March 1788.
Sarah (or Sally) Faulkner was the daughter of Francis Faulkner and Rebecca Keyes whose large family lived in the landmark Faulkner House in South Acton. Francis was prominent in Acton. He ran the Faulkner mills, represented the people in the Provincial Congress of 1774 and the Committee of Safety, attained the rank of Lt. Colonel in the Revolutionary War, and served the town in numerous roles, including a 35-year stint as town clerk. According to Shattuck’s history of Concord and surrounding towns (pages 292-293), Francis and Rebecca Faulkner had eleven children. (We were able to confirm ten of the births through Acton vital records; one is harder to pin down.) Sarah was the third child.
Dr. Abraham and Sarah Skinner had four children, Abraham (born 1789), Henry (born 1792), Maria (born 1794), and Francis (born 1797). Fletcher’s Acton in History gives two different identities for Dr. Abraham’s wife, an odd mistake given that Fletcher seems to have known Henry’s aged widow. Perhaps the doctor was married earlier elsewhere, but we found no record of it. All Acton records show that the wife and mother of Dr. Abraham’s family was Sarah Faulkner.
We did not find any documentary evidence of Sarah’s life while she was raising her children during the 1790s and earliest years of the 1800s. Her husband does show up in local records. He received payments periodically for “doctering” the town’s poor, and in September 1792, the town voted upon temporarily opening a quarantine “house” for inoculating residents against smallpox under the direction of Dr. Skinner, provided that it could be done ”with Safty” for the townspeople.
Dr. Abraham Skinner was apparently one of the contributors to the cost of a winning ticket from the Harvard College lottery in 1794. His share of the prize money has been said to have gone into building or improving a house for the Skinners’ growing family at what is now 140 Nagog Hill Road. Land records show that Abraham paid David Barnard on Sept. 5, 1786 for a 60 acre farm and the east half of the existing house on the property, plus a half interest in the barn, garden, yard, wells, and a “cyder mill” behind the house. On Sept 27, 1788, Dr. Skinner paid Reuben Brown for 18 acres of land and the other half of the house, barn and barnyard. Specifically excluded from the sale was a school house standing on the premises.
Dr. Abraham Skinner became a charter member of Concord’s Corinthian Masonic Lodge in 1797 along with Sarah’s brother Winthrop Faulkner. [See Surette’s history of the Lodge.] Abraham was appointed to Acton’s school committee in 1799 and 1809 and to the large committee formed in 1805 to deal with the contentious issue of where to locate the new meeting house. He died in 1810. Records of the time did not mention the cause.
Dr. Abraham’s estate inventory gives us an idea of the life of the household. The home farm was valued at $2,500, and there were fifteen additional acres of pasture land in Littleton and a pew in the Acton meeting house. The Skinners owned clothing, furniture, (a variety of beds, tables, chairs, and a bookcase), bedding and table linens, a woolen carpet, several looking glasses, a day clock worth about $30, spinning wheels, dishes, utensils, towels, table cloths, tools, chaises, a sleigh, a horse, harnesses, a saddle, cows, sheep, a cart and a plow. There is little evidence of a medical practice, not surprising given the state of medicine at the time. Dr Skinner did own a medical library. In addition, there were numerous debts to Dr. Skinner from townspeople. The estate was originally administered by Sarah’s brother Winthrop, but Henry took over by September 1814.
Sarah Skinner was listed as the head of household in the 1810 census with two males between 10 and 25, one female between 16 and 25, and one other “free white person”. In May, 1811, children Henry and Maria (minors above the age of fourteen) petitioned the probate court to allow “Widow Sarah Skinner” to be their guardian. Son Francis made the same petition in April, 1812. Son Abraham had already left his parents’ household by 1810.
According to Fletcher’s History (Biographical Sketches, page 1), Sarah’s sons Henry and Francis helped to run the farm for a while. Henry appears in Acton militia lists in the 1810-15 period, and Francis appears in 1815. In Feb. 1816, the town paid Henry Skinner for boarding John Faulkner for 8 weeks. During that year, Francis left to work in Boston. Henry eventually moved to Andover and opened a store there. No Skinner is listed as head of household in the 1820 Acton census, so we have to assume that Sarah was living with relatives by then. The actual sale of the Skinner farm to Charles Tuttle was not completed until 1827. Acton’s history books made no more mention of Sarah (Faulkner) Skinner.
Skinner Voices, from Indiana
Because Sarah Skinner disappears from Acton’s history books in the 1810s, the letter describing her later life is a wonderful addition to our Society’s archives. However, it turns out that ours was not the only letter from the Skinner family that survived. The University of Notre Dame Special Collections’ Manuscripts of Early National And Antebellum America contains a collection of letters to and from Abraham Skinner of Brookfield. A few of the letters were written by his mother Sarah. Given how seldom women's thoughts and actions were recorded in our histories, finding this collection was a wonderful surprise. Sarah's letters start in about 1806 and continue after she lost her husband. Sarah mentioned some news of family members, but what stands out most from her letters is how much she missed her son and wanted him to write and to visit more often. Her letters are a reminder of how difficult separation was for families of the time and how completely cut-off they must have felt when letters failed to arrive, sometimes for very long periods.
We also learned from the Skinner correspondence that Henry was in Brookfield for a while in 1811 but then returned to Acton by early 1812. His letters show that he was trying to find work in a store in either location, clearly ready to move on from the farm. The Skinner collection also includes a March 1817 letter from daughter Maria Skinner, the only record that we have seen of her beyond the mention of her birth and death in Acton's vital records. Maria echoed her mother's yearning to hear from the men of the family, including Francis who had not been in Acton since the summer before. Maria, left at home, was feeling "allmost forsaken." She also mentioned that Sarah had provided lodging for "Mr. Potter" followed by another family, so we now know that Sarah had others in her household during the years after losing her husband.
Who wrote the 1834 letter about Sarah Skinner?
After researching Sarah's life, our next question was who, exactly, wrote the letter donated to our Society. “M. Faulkner” signed the letter to Sarah’s son Abraham as “yr Cousin.” On the reverse of the letter, in a very different hand, there is a notation: “Mary Faulkners Letter Feby 8, 1834”. Allowing for the possibility that the term “cousin” might have been used somewhat loosely, we could still narrow down the potential writers.
We searched Acton’s Vital Records for “M” Faulkner births. Of the six births we found, five were Marys. Omitting details of our research here, we concluded that the most likely candidate was Mary, born Sept. 11, 1801 to Winthrop (Sarah’s brother) and Mary (Wright) Faulkner. This Mary actually would have been Abraham Skinner, Esq.’s first cousin. She lived to 1871 and never married, so she still would have had her Faulkner surname in 1834. We thought that our research would stop there, but our theory received a boost from a rich source that we did not expect to find.
Sarah Skinner, a Woman of Note
Researching Acton in the early years of the nineteenth century is made more difficult by a lack of available newspapers and very few surviving letters and diaries. However, sometimes one gets lucky. Not only did we come across the Skinner Family Correspondence at Notre Dame, but we found Sarah mentioned in two Boston newspapers after she died in 1846. Her death was briefly noted in Boston’s Emancipator and Republican (March 25, 1846), and the Boston Recorder (March 26, 1846) published a memorial tribute. Signed “W,” it was dated Acton, Mass., March 19th, 1846 and included a request that it be reprinted in other religiously-oriented newspapers in the Northeast. The writer felt compelled to write about Mrs. Sarah Skinner, described as “always polite, well informed, kind, lovely,” interesting, unwavering in her faith, and happy. When younger, she had liked to read, but having suffered greatly during the "complete destruction of her eyes," at the end of her life she was “stone blind.” Her hearing, fortunately, continued to be acute. She still enjoyed conversing, and her interest in life and her friends was undiminished. As we surmised from the 1834 letter, she did not complain about her life but found much to be grateful for. “Her only daughter was long since dead, but she had left grandsons, able loving and true; and she had a pious unmarried niece, who was altogether a daughter unto her, to the last.” The cousin of Abraham Skinner who wrote our letter, Mary Faulkner, was presumably this unmarried niece, daughter of Sarah’s brother Winthrop.
We thought, when we started this research, that Sarah (Faulkner) Skinner had been neglected by history. We were delighted to discover that it was possible to learn something about her, a woman clearly remarkable for her fortitude. We also know from her own letters that she was human, sometimes lonely and sometimes anxious about her absent children.
Many of Acton’s stories have been lost, but we are grateful to have found this one. As we begin the new year, we take this opportunity to express appreciation for people who donate items to archives and for organizations that work to preserve and share them so that others can learn about the past. In the context of Sarah Skinner’s story, we especially would like to thank the University of Notre Dame’s Rare Books and Special Collections for their assistance with our research.
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