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Friday, November 18, 2011

Jean Dickie’s Letter to her Daughter Jane

The surviving Gammell/Gemmell family letters are precious and few, and we’re fortunate to have them.  They provide a glimpse into the relationships between family members that we wouldn’t otherwise have.  They enable us to view a small, yet intimate, snapshot in time.  In this letter, we hear the voice of James Gemmell’s mother, Jean Dickie.  Jean bore eight children, five by her husband, James Gemmell, Sr., and three by her second husband, James Henry Wylie, Sr.

Jean Dickie Gemmell Wylie wrote to her daughter Margaret Jane, from Blackinton, Berkshire County, Massachusetts, home of her son Henry and his wife, Catherine.  Blackinton was a textile-manufacturing town located on the Hoosic (or Hoosac) River in the northwest corner of Massachusetts near North Adams and Williamstown, and very near to the border of both New York and Vermont.  Sanford Blackinton's woolen mill was the major employer in the town in the mid-1800's.  Henry Wylie (Margaret Jane’s half-brother) worked eleven hours a day as an operator at the mill, which ran seven sets of machinery and seventy looms, producing nearly fifteen hundred yards of wool a day.

On the 6th day of July 1860, Jean Wylie could never have imagined that one hundred fifty years later, her great, great, grandchildren and her third great grandchildren would read the letter she is writing.

Jean, age sixty-seven, was a widow.  Her second husband, James Henry Wylie Sr., had recently died,(1)  so she had packed up her belongings and moved in with her son Henry.  At this time Jean had some health problems, and seemed to have a premonition of her impending death.  Little did she know that in just fourteen months she would die,(2) not because of illness, but by a bolt of lightning:

My Dear Jane,
You see I date from another place.  But it is the will of providence that I am left thus alone.  May it be for the best.  He has still provided for all my wants hitherto and I feel a humble reliance on all his unmerited mercy that he will still provide for the little while that remains.  I have eagerly yearned to see you all and now there is a way open for me and if I am spared to see you all once more how glad I will be.(3)

Jean Wylie’s youngest child, Mary, had arrived from Houston to visit her mother.  Mary, age twenty-one, was married to fifty-year-old Darius Gregg, a wealthy Texan landowner and slave owner.  Jean reported that “Mary’s here, well and hearty, enjoying herself to her heart's satisfaction.”  Mother and daughter took an overnight excursion on “the cars [railroad] and went to Pontoosuc(4) on the third and returned on the fourth [of July]. We had a good time.”  At Pontoosuc Jean sold some “furniture, carpet and bureau, bedsteads, chairs, crockery, about 8 cords of nonsense.”  (“Mary wrote this.  She's full of mischief but I will pay her back.”) Jean intended to write “8 cords of wood”, but apparently Mary had taken the paper and inserted her own little joke.  Jean had gone to Pontoosuc to sell some of her belongings, now that she was not living on her own.  No doubt she will need the money more than her furniture.

During their trip to the Pittsfield area, Jean bought Mary a new dress, one that her father, James H. Wylie, Sr., had promised her before his death: “Father had promised her a silk dress if she came home…She got a very pretty one.”  Her father most likely knew that he wouldn’t live much longer, and wanted to see his daughter one last time.  Unfortunately he died before Mary arrived.

Jean was exhausted after her trip to Pontoosuc.  She hadn’t had much rest since she arrived at Henry’s home in May.  In June, Henry’s wife, Catherine, gave birth to their third child.  They named their daughter Jane Proudfit Wylie(5) after Catherine’s mother.  Two days after the baby was born, Mary arrived from Houston.  Jean wrote, “It is one continued hurrah.  I kept round doing the work; Kate (Catherine) being laid up, till my weak leg gave out and I had to rest about a week.  But [it] is as well as usual again.”

Kate was soon up and around again after the birth of her baby, but Jean was kept busy caring for the two older children, grandsons Fred and Harry:

The baby is three weeks and three days old.  Little Fred was not walking alone when the baby was born.  He was so fat and heavy and afraid to walk, but is running all over now.  [He is] a little over sixteen months old, a stout healthy boy.  Harry is the most stunning boy I ever saw.  Father [James H. Wylie Sr.] always said he beats Andrew(6) all to pieces when he was little.  He is but little [seldom] in the house when it don't rain.  Henry (Jean’s son, and half-brother of Jane [Margaret Jane]) is well and doing well.  Never was one more steady, much respected by his employers.  [He] Is one of the teachers in the Sunday School, which is quite a large one, kept [held] in the meetinghouse close by.(7)

Jean told her daughter Jane that if all goes well she expects to return to Houston before winter sets in:

If I am well and get through the long journey safe we will have many a long talk.  But I think you will hardly know me.  I have got almost twenty years older looking than when I left Texas.  When once we get past sixty every year counts two in looks, besides I have been so much sick.  But if I have my health in Texas as well as I had before I promise myself great comfort yet with you all and the little girls.(8)

Marion (May) Jenette Andrews
daughter of Margaret Jane Gammell Andrews
(Courtesy of Patricia Riddell Lococo)

Jane’s two little girls are May and Kate Andrews, daughters by her first husband, Captain James B Andrews, who died in 1858.  Jane had recently married James W. Oats, and moved into a new house in the “Oats Settlement”:

Give my best regards to Mr. Oates.  I may accept his offer of that room with many thanks for his kindness.  Oh how I want to see you all once more but cannot say where I shall keep my few things till I see you.  I feel now as if I will be at home with any of you.  But William's always seems like home [after] being there so long.(9)

She asked Jane to share the letter with the other family members then living in Houston.  As for William and his wife, Jane, “how I want to see their garden.  Tell them I will bring lots of flower seeds.”  Mary reported that because of a Texas drought, William’s beautiful garden “has not done as well this year.”  Next, Jean mentioned her son Andrew, “Give my love [to] Andrew’s folks and the children.”  Like most grandmothers, she couldn't forget her grandchildren, “Remember me to May and Kate [Andrews].  I expect to have great times with them yet.”  Then a comment to Jane, “I hear you say…[that I (Jean) am] the biggest child. True, I am foolish as ever about children.”

Jean missed the wedding of her son Fred Wylie, who was married just five days after this letter was written:  “I suppose you have got Fred married,(10) and the wedding over by this time as well.  I hope it is all for the best.  I hope he leaves off running the [Houston and Texas Central Railway] cars and goes to work and I think his wife will agree with me.”  As if Jean had not endured enough pain and sorrow in the last year with the death of her husband, her son Fred, age twenty-five, will die in Texas on September 20, 1860, just two months after this letter was written and two months after his wedding.

Jean reminded her daughter Jane to send just one more letter, “Now I want you to write me a few lines.  I don't want to wait till fall to hear from you.  Tell the rest to not forget one letter more.  I mean Jane [William’s wife] and Het. I am so busy.  Will write again before leaving Mass [Massachusetts].”

Mary then added a few lines of her own:

Dear Sister,
Mother was writing, so I thought I would write a few lines to let you know how I was getting along.  I think this is the most beautiful place I ever was in.  There is so many mountains around and so high, the most beautiful gardens.  I go and see them most every day when it don't rain.  Have you had any there yet?  You wanted rain when I left.  We have had plenty here since I came and looks like we might have more.  Have you seen Mr. Gregg (her husband, Darius Gregg) lately?  Next time you see him, tell him for me that I want him to write me often.  He told me not to write after the fourth because he did not know as he would get it.  How is little May?  Tell her she must learn fast and let me see how much she has learned since I came away.  Give my love to Mr. Oates. No more at present. — Mary (11)

The letter ends with Jean D. Gemmell Wylie’s last written words to her descendants:

"Give my love to all and accept the same for yourself.  May all so live and so act that we may all be admitted into that happy land where there is no more trouble, no more sin nor sorrow, and spend a joyful eternity together is the daily prayer of your ever loving though far distant Mother,"

Jean D. Wylie (12)
  1. Death record for James H. Wylie, Sr., May 4, 1860. (See Massachusetts Deaths and Burials, 1795-1910.)
  2. Jean D. Wylie died September 10, 1861, in Houston.
  3. Jean D. Gemmell Wylie, letter to her daughter Jane, July 6, 1860. (Courtesy of Patricia Riddell Lococo.)
  4. Pontoosuc, a part of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, is located twenty miles south of Blackinton. Nearby is Pontoosuc Lake.
  5. See IGI:  Jane Breadfret Wylie, daughter of James H. Wylie and Catherine Spittuel Sinclair, born June 15, 1860, Williamstown, Berkshire, Massachusetts. (See Film #0250293. Breadfret is likely a misreading of Proudfit.)
  6. Andrew F. Gammell, brother of James and Margaret Jane.  He is one of Jean Dickie Gemmell Wylie’s five children by her first husband, James Gemmell.
  7. Jean D. Gemmell Wylie, letter to her daughter Jane, July 6, 1860. (Courtesy of Patricia Riddell Lococo.)
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Fred Wylie married Isabella Edwards on July 11, 1860 in Harris County, Texas. They had no children.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.


  1. Patricia Riddell LococoNovember 18, 2011 at 10:17 PM

    I have had the impression that Mary Wylie married Darius Gregg on her return to Houston (after this letter was written). Jean Wylie intended to stay with her daughter, Jane, and Jane's husband, James Oats. On the Nov 21, 1860 census for Houston, Jean is living with Darius and Mary Gregg. I haven't found the marriage record yet for Darius and Mary.

  2. Pat, I have an 1855 marriage record for Mary and Darius Gregg. I also just found the Massachusetts death record for James H. Wylie, Sr. That will help to clarify the story.