Friday, September 30, 2011

If It’s In Print, It’s Always Right, Right? The Tale Of Levi Chapin And A Search For Facts

Today, the story is all about a man named Levi Chapin – a man you probably never heard of. 

The Deacon
Levi was one of the many third great-grandchildren of an illustrious Massachusetts gentleman known as Deacon Samuel Chapin (1598 – 1675), whose monumental statue stands in front of the City Hall in Springfield, Massachusetts.   

The statue is the work of famed sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens and was commissioned by one of Deacon Samuel’s descendants: Springfield railroad tycoon Chester W. Chapin (1798 – 1883), congressman and long-time president of the Boston and Albany Railroad Corporation. Chapin, who began as the president of the Western Railroad, orchestrated the merger of three rail lines into the Boston and Albany between 1867 and 1870 and became very, very wealthy in the process.

As a point of interest, no one knows what Deacon Samuel Chapin actually looked like, so when Saint-Gaudens was designing the Chapin statue (sometimes simply known as “The Puritan”), he modeled the Deacon’s stern face on Chester’s face.  After all, Chester was paying for it and great wealth has its privileges.

I took the above close-up photo of the larger-than-life-sized model of the Chapin statue at the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish, New Hampshire a few weeks ago.  

Anyway, back to Levi’s story.

Levi Chapin (Josiah5, Seth4, Seth3, Josiah2, Deacon Samuel) was born on 5 May 1766 in Mendon, Massachusetts, baptized there on 29 June 1766 and died on 18 September 1833 somewhere in “eastern Virginia.” 

Or so the story goes. 

The birth and baptism dates come from the printed vital records of Mendon, Massachusetts and the death information comes from several printed local histories, a manuscript genealogy written circa 1895 and now in my possession, and family lore, more about which in a minute.

In between those 1766 – 1833 dates, Levi lived mostly in New Hampshire, specifically in Cheshire County, along the Connecticut River and across from what is now Bellows Falls, Vermont. A prosperous farmer – gentleman - entrepreneur, Levi owned more than 800 acres of real estate, including most of the land upon which the village of North Walpole is now situated.

So, what’s the deal with Levi Chapin? Why write about him at all?

Levi Chapin is the 6th great-grandfather of our grandkids and their first cousins (and a whole lot of other people, it turns out), so I have more than casual passing interest in his story.  Specifically, I’m interested in documenting that “died in eastern Virginia” stuff that appears as an undocumented fact in lots of places. 

Why?  Because sometimes “SUO” can appear in genealogies and can send researchers down any number of blind alleys.  SUO is shorthand for that technical term:  “Stuff of Undetermined Origin.” 

And because all too many folks are so delighted to find any ancestral death date and place in a printed source that they throw caution to the winds and accept it as fact  - for no good reason at all.

But before I get to that specific issue, I want to tell you more about Levi.

Levi Chapin bought his large farm in Cheshire County, New Hampshire from an early settler named Sherburne Hale.  Here’s how this was reported by Lyman S. Hayes in his 1929 book The Connecticut River Valley in Southern Vermont and New Hampshire: Historical Sketches, published by The Tuttle Company of Rutland, Vermont. It comes from the section recounting nonagenarian William Hale’s remembrance of the “Warm Winter of 1827” on pages 180 – 181 and references the farm that his father sold to Levi Chapin:

So, Levi Chapin was much more than a farmer, it seems; he was in the lumber business big time, sending lumber from his own sawmill down the river to the growing city of Springfield, Massachusetts where his illustrious ancestor had lived several centuries earlier.  This “sawmill/ lumber business” fact will become very important later on, as you will see.

So, why would a New Hampshire farmer/ lumber entrepreneur turn up dead in “eastern Virginia” in 1833?  What did he die of? In fact, why would he go to “eastern Virginia” in the first place?

Take it from someone who does lots of Virginia research – this won’t be an easy set of questions to answer:  eastern Virginia is a very big place.  Plus, unlike New England, Virginia death records in 1833 are hard to come by, if not well-nigh impossible.  Research in this time period in Virginia is not easy.

Is this going to be a lost cause?

Well, let’s look at what Orange Chapin’s 1862 genealogy of the Chapin family has to say about Levi.  The full title of the book is The Chapin Genealogy: Containing a Very Large Proportion of the Descendants of Deacon Samuel Chapin, Who Settled in Springfield, Mass. in 1642.  The “Levi Chapin” section is short:

First of all, disregard for now that Levi’s birth year shown above is incorrect by a decade; this is most likely a typographical error. And, yes, Levi lived in Westmoreland, New Hampshire (the next town south of Walpole) before he bought the Hale Farm a few miles to the north. His wife’s actual identity is much more complicated, somewhat controversial and beyond the scope of this discussion; frankly, it’s the reference to his brother Stephen, “who removed to D.C.” -  as in “Washington, D.C.”  -  a place surrounded by what could easily be called “eastern Virginia” – that caught my eye.

Turns out that Orange Chapin got it almost right:  Levi did have a much older brother Stephen, but that brother Stephen never moved to Washington, D.C. 

Levi's Nephew Stephen
However, brother Stephen Chapin’s son Stephen (Junior) actually did move to Washington D.C. when he became the president of Columbian College (now George Washington University) in 1828.  Stephen (Harvard College, Class of 1804) the minister, former theology professor at Waterville (now Colby) College and later, Columbian College President lived in Washington until he died there in 1845.

So it turns out that it was Levi Chapin’s nephew – Stephen Chapin, D.D. – who was the D.C. resident. Levi was about 21 years younger than his older brother Stephen but only 12 years older than his nephew Stephen, so it’s not surprising that the younger Stephen was thought in some circles to be his brother.

Confused yet?

Here are a few nagging questions: Did Levi go south to visit his nephew around 1833, and if so, why?  What could drag a senior citizen Yankee farmer from rural New Hampshire to the center of sin and corruption that was 1830s Jacksonian Washington? 

Did he travel alone? 

Was it part of a longer journey? (Remember, getting from the upper Connecticut River Valley to “eastern Virginia” was not something easily or comfortably accomplished in the 1830s, the state of overland public transportation being still rather primitive.)

There may be a helpful clue in Martha M. Frizzell’s 1963 two-volume, town-published History of Walpole, New Hampshire.   On page 404, after describing Levi Chapin’s lumber business and his business dealings with Henry Atkinson Green of Bellows Falls, Vermont (the father-in-law of Hetty Green, the eccentric investor known as the “Witch of Wall Street”), Frizzell notes:

Mr. Chapin was of an inventive turn of mind and having made some improvements in the primitive water wheels in use at the time, he went south in 1833 to dispose of his patents.  In Virginia he fell ill with yellow fever and died.

 So, in addition to being a farmer, sawmill operator, lumber merchant and upstanding town father of Walpole, New Hampshire, Levi Chapin was also an inventor.  A man with “…an inventive turn of mind” who no doubt spent those dark and cold New Hampshire winter nights thinking up things that could make his family’s life easier and more productive. Better water wheels? What kind of “improvements”?

“…he went south in 1833 to dispose of his patents.”

Patents! Did he actually file for and receive patents for his inventions?

Perhaps knowing more about the patents will provide a clue or two!  What and where can we learn about Levi’s patents?

Now that I have your attention, I’m going to ask you to come back when the next part of Levi’s story goes up here on the Mirror so that you can learn even more about looking for early patents, which is not as easy as folks make it out to be.  Hint: you can’t just look it up on Google Patents.   

Stay tuned to learn why not.

And then there’s all that “dying of yellow fever” business… and the fact that not everything in print is always correct.

So many questions!

1 comment:

  1. I read part 3 and came back to read part 1. I was born in Springfield, MA but moved to Detroit when I was 4 so never saw the statue that you start the article with. Now, on to part 2...