Ellen Birdseye Wheaton
(1816-1858)

Ellen Birdseye Wheaton came from a prominent Syracuse family.  She was a committed abolitionist and supported the women's suffrage movement.  She married at the age of 18 and had 12 children.

Ellen's father, Victory Birdseye, was the district attorney for Onondaga County and served two terms in the U.S. Congress.  Her husband's brother Horace also served in Congress and became the 4th mayor of Syracuse.  Still, near the end of Ellen's life, bad investments and an economic depression drove the Wheaton family into poverty.

Ellen Wheaton kept a diary from 1850 until her death in 1858.  The diary was published from the original by the Wheaton family in 1923.  The location of the original is unknown.  City directories, old newspapers, maps, scholarly works and histories of Syracuse provided contextual information for these stories, offering a rare glimpse into the day-to-day life of a woman in 19th century Syracuse.

This series of seven stories was published in the Post-Standard the week of March 31st, 2002 for Women's History Month.

Readers can view a copy of the diary at the Onondaga Historical Association or the Onondaga County Public Library.
 

 

Diary casts light on her life, times

March 31, 2002

By Sara Errington
Staff writer

Ellen Birdseye Wheaton would be a footnote in Syracuse's history had she not taken up a pen in 1850 and begun writing.

The diary she kept until her death in 1858, at age 42, illuminates her own life and opens a window onto the lives of women in 19th century Syracuse.

Wheaton was not ordinary, but many of her cares were common to women in all walks of life.

She was richer and better educated than most, but still worried about paying bills and doubted the quality of her mind.

Her family was prominent - several men were politicians, lawyers and businessmen - but bad investments and an economic depression sent the Wheatons tumbling into poverty.

Her liberal religious views, her support of women's right to vote and her radical opposition to slavery were unusual.

Her worries about keeping 12 children clothed, fed and healthy are concerns any mother would have understood.

Much of the diary's interest lies in Wheaton's accounts of daily life: Picking currants in Orville (which is now DeWitt) and making jam, riding the "Omnibus" (a horse-drawn buggy) past flower-filled yards to Onondaga Hill, watching St. Patrick's Day processions, visiting shops, chatting with friends, checking her children's schoolwork and mending piles of socks, shirts and dresses.

Little escaped her observant gaze. Wheaton was both proud of and embarrassed over her writing.

On a quiet evening in August 1853, her eldest daughter persuaded her to read the diary aloud. Ellen later wrote with undisguised pleasure that Cornelia seemed "much gratified" by the reading.

Another night, Wheaton was mortified when her husband praised her writing to a business partner.

The man, William Jackson, called at 10 p.m., surprising Ellen as she wrote in her diary. Curious to see a woman writing, he asked if she was taking notes on a sermon - a common practice among the descendants of New England's Puritan settlers.

"I was so abashed that I could not say a word," Wheaton wrote. "Then Charles went on with quite a speech about my writing, till I was really out of patience with him."

One day in 1852, embarrassed to imagine future generations laughing at her pretensions, Wheaton gathered her papers and prepared to throw them on the fire. Fortunately, she changed her mind.

2001 The Syracuse Newspapers.

 

 

Twelve children kept 1850s Syracuse mother busy

April 01, 2002

By Sara Errington
Staff writer

When she wrote the first lines in her journal on Sunday, Dec. 1, 1850, Ellen Wheaton was 34 years old and pregnant with the tenth of her 12 children.

She loved her children but resented their demands on her time and patience.

"I have little opportunity to record thought or feeling, for want of opportunity to think. - I am always surrounded with a flock of noisy children, and my head resounds with their noise like an empty barrel," she wrote.

Like other middle- and upper-class wives, Ellen did not work outside the home. Her job was to manage the household and keep her brood of children properly dressed, fed, educated and entertained.

Feb. 25, 1851, was a typical day:

"Looked over & put away the week's ironing - mended & sewed on buttons for two or three hours, and then went into the kitchen and made cake for some time longer," she wrote.

After making cake, she "finished sewing Clara's drawers."

Two servants assisted Ellen in her domestic duties. When Ellen started her diary, a kitchen maid and an African-American servant named George Johnson lived with the family on East Genesee Street, near where it now intersects with South Crouse Avenue. In 1852, when the family moved into a larger, grander home in Fayette Park, a driver to care for the horses and a nurse to help with the children were added to the household.

Seamstresses came often to sew the seemingly endless supply of clothing needed for a dozen growing children. Usually Ellen worked beside them, to save money and to make sure the women worked hard.

"It is an irksome task for me, this dress-making, for so many children," she wrote March 17, 1851.

On winter days, when all but the toddlers were in school, Ellen napped in the late morning and sometimes stole an hour to write letters to relatives. Her toddlers, hyperactive Henry and inquisitive Lucia, interrupted frequently as she wrote to her sister Charlotte in 1849.

"My letters must all bear the marks of carelessness and haste," Ellen wrote apologetically, "as I generally write them, with at least one or two around or hanging on to me - Lucia has been ransacking my writing desk while I have been trying to make out a letter to you."

When the rest of her children came home from school, she helped them study.

On March 25, 1851, she wrote of helping Lucia learn the alphabet, revising Cornelia's composition, quizzing Ellen in history and working on other topics with Emma and Florence.

Syracuse at the time was an unhealthy place. The city was built on the swamp that surrounded Onondaga Lake. Railroad and canal traffic brought diseases from east and west. In 1832, cholera killed hundreds of Syracusans.

In March 1835, Ellen noted that many young girls had died that month of tuberculosis and that scarlet fever "caused a good many deaths, many of them being only children."

"But during it all, we were mercifully preserved," she wrote.

Wheaton's children were vaccinated against smallpox, but nothing could guard against chicken pox and the endless rounds of colds and flu that plagued the family.

Sick children required Ellen's constant attention. When chicken pox appeared on her youngest child, Ellen sighed, knowing that three of her other children would surely get it.

"I staid at home all day, to nurse the sick children, and a most wearisome day it has been, as I had little opportunity for reading, or thinking," Ellen wrote one evening. "I get so little sleep, that I am drowsy all the time."

Ellen complained to her diary to relieve her frustrations, but she also recorded her affection toward the children.

She fretted when Edward, who attended Hobart College, failed to write, and rejoiced to get letters from Cornelia, who attended a Quaker School in New York City, and later worked in South Carolina as a governess.

"Oh! how lonely it seems without her," Ellen wrote a few days after Cornelia left for New York.

When her last child was born in 1854, Ellen expressed the mixture of joy and regret that permeates her diary.

"It was great trial to me, to have another child, so that at times, I was very much unreconciled to it, but I don't doubt we shall love her, as much as we have any of the others," she wrote.

2001 The Syracuse Newspapers.

 

 

Traditional role bored mother in 1850s Syracuse

April 02, 2002

By Sara Errington
Staff writer

Ellen Douglas Birdseye and Charles Augustus Wheaton grew up together in Pompey Hill, and it was probably no surprise to anyone that they married.

Few in the 19th century married outside their social class or circle of acquaintances. Fewer married outside their race or religion.

Charles wrote on Feb. 15, 1833, asking Ellen's parents for their blessing.

"The facts are these," he wrote. "Your daughter Ellen and myself are, I believe, disposed to estimate the 'Value of a Union' by matrimonial process."

He observed that perhaps the Birdseyes noticed he'd been attentive to their daughter, "tho' not too much so perhaps - provided, I was actuated by proper motives - and if in accordance with your feelings."

He vowed, if they objected to the match, "to yield without a murmur to your decision."

Wheaton did well to marry into the wealthy and powerful Birdseye family. Ellen's father, Victory Birdseye, was one of Onondaga County's most prominent politicians.

He and his wife almost named their eldest daughter after President James Madison's wife, Dolley, but instead chose Sir Walter Scott's literary heroine, Ellen Douglas.

Birdseye practiced law, but also served two terms in Congress. He was postmaster of Pompey Hill for 22 years, district attorney of Onondaga County for 14 years, and held numerous other political offices.

Ellen was no great beauty, her own relatives admitted, but she was smart and well educated. The Birdseyes sent Ellen to a seminary in Cortland and then to music school in Albany. She is reported to have owned the first piano in Pompey.

Charles' family was respectable, but not as influential as Ellen's. His father was a farmer and a drover. Charles clerked in the general store owned by his brother-in-law, Moses Seymour Marsh, but he had higher ambitions.

He and Ellen married June 24, 1834, when he was 25 and she was 18. Almost a year later, Ellen bore a daughter.

Four months after Cornelia was born, the family moved to Syracuse, where Wheaton went into the hardware business. Their first home was at the intersection of Railroad and Clinton streets. In 20 years, they lived in seven houses, moving to larger homes as family and fortune grew. /su/110Prosperous business Charles Wheaton was a busy man. He and a variety of partners, including his brother, Horace, built a prosperous hardware businesses. Horace later became Syracuse's mayor.

By 1852, C.A. Wheaton & Co. was housed in the city's grandest mercantile block, a four-story building overlooking the Erie Canal and Clinton Square.

He had other business ventures that kept him from home: the Oneida Foundry, which made printing presses; and the Blue Ridge Railroad, a proposed railroad from South Carolina to Tennessee.

When he wasn't working, Wheaton attended frequent religious and anti-slavery meetings. He was a founder of the First Congregational Church in 1838, which included many of city's most radical abolitionists.

When the anti-slavery and pro-temperance Free Democracy Party chose candidates in 1852, it nominated Wheaton to run for canal commissioner. He also ran unsuccessfully for mayor on the Temperance Party ticket in 1852. /su/110'Late as usual' Ellen supported her husband's activities, but grumbled about his absences. "Here I sit writing & waiting for Charles, who is late as usual," she wrote.

Another night, she stopped waiting. "Shall not wait for my husband any longer, but go to bed," she wrote March 14, 1851.

Charles had little time and, Ellen feared, little inclination for rearing children.

"Oh that I might be so blessed, as to have a Husband at liberty to spend a little time with his Family, now & then, without thinking it irksome," she wrote March 6, 1854.

In wealthy urban households, the division of labor was sharp. Wives managed the day-to-day affairs of the household. Husbands worked outside the home, making money to support the family.

Twenty years after they wed, Ellen wrote that she sometimes felt a stranger to her husband, "as if our old friendship was broken off - and a feeling of loneliness comes over me that is very oppressive."

Despite her complaints about Charles' absences, it is clear that Ellen loved him. "My Husband is still, far away from home, and my heart grows weary in longing for him," she wrote when he was in South Carolina for three months. Active abolitionists. She wrote with pride of his success in business and the abolition movement. She also wrote with girlish delight about the times he came home early or took her out. "After ten, Charles and & I went to the Ice Cream saloon. ... It was nearly twelve when we got to bed," she wrote in July 1855.

She enjoyed making him comfortable.

"In the evening Charles' new slippers came home, and I had the pleasure of presenting them to him," she wrote Christmas Eve 1853. "They fit pretty well, and I think he was pleased, tho' he did not say much."

Another time, Charles read to Ellen a letter he was writing, criticizing a sermon supporting slavery. Abolition was a topic that bound them together. Ellen wrote in her diary that she and Charles "had quite a pleasant chat together."

Such days were rare, especially after Charles began spending three days a week in Oneida at the printing press foundry.  'I get no credit' Sometimes Ellen felt unappreciated.

"Work! Work, all day, and all the next, and yet I get no credit for doing any thing," she complained. "Those whom I am most interested to please & satisfy seem to think I pass my time in idleness and folly."

Left with only servants and young children for company, Ellen was bored.

"It is well for me, and all my family, that such moods are not very lasting," she wrote. "I am at times, tempted to rebel against, what seems to be my destiny, and do something desperate."

2001 The Syracuse Newspapers.

 

 

LIFE IN THE CITY:

Syracuse featured a thriving downtown

April 03, 2002

By Sara Errington
Staff writer

In 1839, Charles Wheaton built a home on South Salina Street near East Jefferson Street. At that time, it was on the outskirts of town.

From his neat brick house, Charles could walk to his store, near the Erie Canal, and his wife, Ellen, could walk to shops, churches and the homes of her many friends. Syracuse was booming, although it was small by modern standards.

A resident who published a census of Syracuse in 1844 counted 8,266 residents, 2,000 more than lived there in 1840. Thousands more lived in the surrounding villages.

When the Wheatons moved to Syracuse, only 11 percent of Americans lived in urban centers with more than 2,500 residents.

Bevy of commercial activity

Syracuse hummed with commerce. Wheaton's hardware store, which went by a variety of names during its 18-year existence, was one of several hardware stores that stood near the canal.

Other businesses clustered in the commercial district: 13 dry goods stores, 40 grocery and provisions stores, eight shoe stores, eight hat stores and three stores dealing in tobacco, snuff and cigars. There also were two confectioneries, where workers turned 2,000 pounds of sugar each week into candy, and three bakeries.

Near the canal and the railroad line that ran down the middle of Washington Street were factories that turned out plows, locks and other goods that could be shipped east and west by barge or train.

The sounds of the community comforted Ellen, who wrote of hearing "the distant rush of a solitary train or cars over the broken ground, then a shrill whistle and now the coffee mill begins its nightly song."

Thirteen churches - including First Congregational Church, where the Wheatons worshipped - were the tallest buildings in town.

More than 100 acres of salt evaporation vats stretched from the city, mostly on the south and east sides of Onondaga Lake.

Sometimes Ellen stopped at her husband's office to pick up money. From there, she called at the homes of her seamstresses and laundresses, then continued on to the stores to pay bills.

One day, she scoured Syracuse's dry goods stores for the perfect trimmings for her daughter Ellen's dress. She found just the right buttons and ribbon at McCarthy's.

Fascinated with fashion

Each spring and fall, Ellen visited the milliners' shops, all run by women, to see showings of the next season's hats. The town's wealthy women were preoccupied with fashion.

In 1852, bloomers were all the rage. The loose-waisted dress over "Turkish" pants was a departure from the hoop skirts, corsets and heavy woolen shawls, called mantuas, fashionable in the 1850s.

Reformers argued that corsets caused tuberculosis and crushed women's internal organs, and that full, heavy skirts made women walk with an unnatural stride. Bloomers improved health by allowing women to breathe and walk freely.

Despite their advantages, the garments never really caught on. The sight of women's pantaloon-clad legs and the strange flowing waist "excites much severe remark and censure from some good people," Ellen wrote.

She laughed, watching her more conservative friends rave against the new fashion. Those most scandalized by the garb, she noted, "are just as much interested in following every new fashion as fast as it appears, as if their very lives depended on it."

Ellen approved of bloomers, although she didn't mention buying any. Syracuse had few paved roads, and since dresses were worn many times between launderings, women were forever brushing mud and dust out of the bottoms of their skirts.

"Now, I don't see why it is any more ridiculous or shameful to adopt a turkish costume, than a parisian, if it is more convenient, or more rational," Ellen wrote.

Wheaton's only censure fell on the wife of her minister, one of the first in Syracuse to wear bloomers. "Mrs. S(now) is going into quite a reform in dress - but I am not sure that I like it, - at any rate for the minister's wife to set the fashion," she wrote.

In addition to stores and factories, Syracuse was home to an army of peddlers who traveled from door to door, calling on the wealthy.

In March 1854, a lace maker knocked at the Wheatons' door, then spent the day showing the children how she crafted lace using thread and pins stuck in a pillow. The next week, an old woman who traded china for old clothes knocked at the door.

She "coaxed me to deal with her, and I could not get rid of her till I had made quite a trade," Ellen wrote.

Influx of immigrants

Syracuse swelled with immigrants in the 1840s and '50s.

Census workers in 1850 counted 17,224 foreign-born people among Onondaga County's 85,891 residents. Most were from Ireland, England and Germany. Italians had not yet begun to arrive in great numbers.

Most immigrants took the jobs no one else wanted and lived harder lives than the pampered Wheatons. Ellen was struck with pity when an immigrant woman came to her door with a sad tale.

"I was busy in the kitchen on Friday when a poor woman came in, and asked assistance," she wrote. The woman said her husband was killed by a train soon after they arrived in Syracuse, leaving her with four children and no money.

Wheaton, who was on the board of Syracuse's Orphan Asylum, understood the precarious situation of such families.

"I did what I could for her, but my heart ached for her," Ellen wrote. "Do we not err in not cultivating more cordiality and friendliness of feeling, toward these often sad & lonely wanderers?"

2001 The Syracuse Newspapers.

 

 

Syracuse offered prime location for cultural tours

April 04, 2002

By Sara Errington
Staff writer

When Hiram Power's statue "The Greek Slave" traveled through Syracuse in 1851, Ellen Wheaton paid to see it even though she thought the marble nude a bit risque.

Hundreds of thousands of people saw the sculpture as it toured the United States. Syracuse's location along canal and railroad lines had made the city a convenient stop for touring intellectuals and entertainers.

Sometimes Ellen went to City Hall to hear poetry readings or concerts by the Musical Institute. Other times, she went to lectures by, among others, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Horace Mann and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Skilled speakers were prized in the 19th century, and well-spoken ministers were celebrities.

When the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher visited Syracuse, Wheaton wrote about hearing him preach "a sermon I shall remember, as long as I remember anything." /su/110Escaping church's shackles Her own church, First Congregational, disbanded in the 1850s over personal and theological disputes. Many members founded Plymouth Congregational Church, but Ellen decided she didn't need to join a church to be a good Christian.

"I feel the shackles of dogmatism gradually loosening," she wrote in 1854, after a long spiritual struggle. Sometimes, Ellen went to three different churches on Sunday, but her tolerance stretched only so far.

She objected to the Episcopal Church, and "any other sect" that claimed to "be the sole depository of saving truth, and all the world who do not join its communion and subscribe to its doctrines must be utterly lost."

Ellen sat happily through many long lectures.

"I anticipate a rich treat in attending the course," she wrote of the Franklin Institute's winter lecture series. Speakers' topics ranged from the condition of the English working classes to the impact of 18th century inventions.

Wheaton was unsparing when lectures flopped. "He seemed to have made writing and delivery a labour, rather than a mere recreation, and went at it in good earnest, as if he were not to be diverted from his purpose," she wrote about William Tracy of Utica.

Wheaton was also critical of the taste of Syracuse's elite. After taking her daughters to a concert, she lamented that "our Syracuse audiences don't seem to appreciate the more lofty style of choruses, but prefer songs & ballads."

The dangers of drink

Ellen avoided alcohol, but many Syracusans entertained themselves by drinking. About 80 taverns and seven breweries served the village in 1845. One scholar estimates that until the 1840s, Americans over age 15 drank about 7 gallons of pure alcohol per year.

The temperance movement, near and dear to Ellen's heart, helped lower alcohol consumption by 1850 to 1.8 gallons per person, mostly by making hard liquor and cider less popular.

Drinking water was chancy for Syracusans. People drew water from Onondaga Creek, nearby streams and from wells, which often were contaminated by leaking privies. Teetotalers like the Wheatons and their 12 children could drink tea at the town's two temperance hotels.

Ellen worried her oldest son, Edward, was "susceptible of temptation, - and I fear very easily led."

When he dropped out of Hobart College, Wheaton approved. "I fear the morals of the students are bad & then the professors, as near as I can learn, all drink wine habitually," she wrote.

Wheaton's views led her to be judgmental.

When funeral sermons praised Philo Rust, the owner of local hotel Syracuse House, she objected. "Why will the world praise and admire the character of a man after death, whose life has been one unbroken tissue of profligacy?" she wrote.

The Fourth of July, a big drinking holiday, was almost intolerable to Ellen. "Tomorrow will be a day of noisy confusion,

intemperance & disorder, and the patriotism of the people will mostly be expended in powder and noise," she wrote.

Making social calls

Much of Ellen's social life revolved around paying calls on and receiving calls from the city's elite families. In 1854, she helped daughter Cornelia, 18, learn the social ritual of receiving New Year's Day calls.

"They began to come about 11 o'clock and kept it up till about dark. We had some 29 or thirty calls, some of them very pleasant," she wrote.

When the Wheatons lost their money, the absence of visitors was a cruel blow to Ellen. She enjoyed company, but also quiet nights at home with her family. The Wheatons were great readers, and books, pamphlets and periodicals filled their home.

In 1852, her husband, Charles, brought home "Uncle Tom's Cabin," the literary sensation of the 1850s. "The children are devouring it," she wrote.

One evening, Ellen read a copy of Amelia Bloomer's newspaper, The Lily, "a small, but spicy affair, devoted principally, I should think, to women's rights."

In good weather, Ellen took her family outdoors. She traveled to Pompey or Onondaga Hill to visit relatives, or went berry picking with friends. One hot August day, she visited Island House, a resort at South Bay. Two years later, she traveled to Niagara Falls, Montreal, Quebec City and Saratoga.

On bright snowy winter days, the family went for sleigh rides. But mostly, winter was something to be endured.

"Another of those dreary, dark, dismal days," Ellen wrote on a dull March day. "It rains, and rains, and rains, and is never weary, but we thankless mortals do get weary, and wish, & wish, Oh! how vainly that it would stop. The streets are great channels of mud, liquid brown mud, and the few who move about, go slowly, and heavily along."

2001 The Syracuse Newspapers.

 

 

1850s mother played active role in turbulent times

April 05, 2002

By Sara Errington
Staff writer

On Feb. 29, 1856, Cornelia Wheaton left home to work as a teacher at Cluella, a slave plantation in North Carolina.

It was an unusual choice for the 20-year-old daughter of radical abolitionists, but by then the Wheatons were broke and Charles had strong business ties in the South.

"Be steadfast, unmovable in the right, don't intrude your opinions," Ellen advised Cornelia when asked how she should respond to questions about slavery. "If persons become too personal in their remarks, leave their presence, but when you are required to express your opinions, do it without flinching, and if you cannot be allowed to do that without abuse, bear it for truth's sake."

The Wheatons were more outspoken in Syracuse, where they were at the center of a large network of radical abolitionists. Their anti-slavery activities began as early as 1838, when Charles helped found First Congregational Church on abolitionist principles.

When the Wheatons' seamstress, Mrs. MacManus told census workers Charles was "president of the Underground Railroad," she wasn't too far off base. /su/110Working to rescue slaves Many members of the congregation were involved in helping escaped slaves travel to Canada, beyond the clutches of slave catchers. In 1839, abolitionists helped a slave named Harriet Powell escape from her masters, Mississippians who were staying at local hotel Syracuse House.

Suspicion immediately fell upon Charles Wheaton. Law enforcement officers searched the Wheatons' home on South Salina Street, but Powell was not there. She had been spirited away to Marcellus, and from there to Canada.

It is unclear if Wheaton had been at all involved in the escape.

The passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, which required that all escaped slaves be detained and returned to their masters, brought the anti-slavery movement in Syracuse to a fevered pitch.

"I fear for my husband," Wheaton wrote, "whose ardent & fearless temper I so well know - and that he will be in the midst of danger when it comes."

Danger came quickly indeed. On Oct. 1, 1851, an escaped slave named William "Jerry" Henry was apprehended in Syracuse. "There was a good deal of excitement among the people outside, particularly after getting a view of the slave in his manacles," Wheaton wrote.

Jerry tried to escape in the afternoon, but was overtaken. That evening, a stone-throwing mob freed Jerry for good. Ellen estimated that perhaps half of Syracuse residents supported the rescue.

Ellen was silent about her husband's involvement in the rescue, but wrote, "Charles confidently expected to be arrested."

While the rescue occurred, Wheaton was in fellow abolitionist Judge Charles Sedgwick's office preparing a kidnapping complaint against the agent sent to catch Jerry and return him to his master.

Someone in the Wheaton household reportedly slipped a file to the mob that was used to cut Jerry's fetters. Jerry later showed his gratitude by sending the family a hand-carved cane. Wheaton was indicted in Jerry's escape, but was never arrested. /su/110Aiding women's rights Abolition and temperance were Ellen's favorite causes, but she also supported women's right to vote. She met Susan B. Anthony and Amelia Bloomer when they were delegates to a temperance convention in 1852.

"Began to have my stated allowance of guests for the convention; Miss Anthony & Mrs. Bloomer came to dinner," she wrote.

When Anthony tried to speak during the proceedings, the delegates voted 62-59 that women would not be permitted to speak at the convention. Anthony and others held their own meeting at Wesleyan Methodist Church. Wheaton went "to hear the ladies present the claims of their society."

"Miss Anthony read a very good address, written by herself - to a houseful," she wrote.

Ellen believed that women had a role to play in the public sphere, especially in encouraging moral reform. In addition to her temperance activities, Wheaton served on the board of Syracuse's Orphan Asylum. The 25 women on the board were charged with overseeing the facility and raising money to support it.

Yet Wheaton did not believe that women should be politicians. She feared that entering the rough-and-tumble world of politics would make women unfit to be mothers.

"First and always, every woman should learn to be a good housekeeper," she wrote. "It is next to the art of statesmanship, for a well ordered household, is like a well governed state, and it has an almost equal dignity."

Both required "tact, judgment, skill, prudence, energy, a knowledge of Natural & Moral Philosophy, Chemistry, arithmetic, and in short all the rounds of knowledge." /su/110Conflict of interests Wheaton agreed with Horace Mann, a well-known educator, that woman was "the equal of man, but in a different range of duties. That the sphere of each is a hemisphere, and that united they make a beautiful and glorious whole."

Still, Wheaton sometimes envied women who escaped the burdens of their sphere. She chastised herself for harboring impulses to abandon her family.

"Oh for patience," she wrote. "If I could acquire, something of that blessed virtue, I think I would, must be content, & not long for other and more dazzling treasures."

2001 The Syracuse Newspapers.

 

 

The ebb and flow of financial fortunes

In 1852, the Wheatons were at the peak of  their wealth.  Four years later, they would be broke.

When Charles Wheaton's hardware store burned in 1851, he built a four-story brick mercantile block at the southwest corner of South Salina and Water Streets.  His wife, Ellen, watched with pride, writing in her diary that her husband's building "will be the finest block in the city."

Charles was not content with his success, though.

In 1853, eh sold his share of the hardware business. He also sold the Wheaton Block for $112,000, the largest sale to that date in Syracuse.  He invested heavily in a printing press foundry and a project to build a railroad from South Carolina to Tennessee.  For a short time, the future looked bright.

Grander homes

As their fortunes rose, the Wheatons moved into grander homes and hired more servants.

In 1852, Charles decided the family should move from East Genesee Street, near where it now intersects Crouse Avenue, to Fayette Park, one of the city's most fashionable neighborhoods.

Ellen was surprised by the move.  "I sat up late, last evening, talking over business matters with Charles 'till near midnight," she wrote.  "I was led to look forward to some change in our arrangements, hitherto unexpected to me."

Ellen was reluctant to leave her spacious orchard and gardens and feared her children would grow restless in the small Fayette Park yard.  When Charles showed her the house, though, she was charmed by the gas furnace and lighting.

"I like many things about the house very much and have no doubt it will e easier living there than here, as far as mere work is concerned," she wrote.

Ellen was proud of the family's success, yet she worried that Charles' ambition took a toll on his health.  "He looks very much jaded and careworn this week, and I cannot help feeling anxious about him," she wrote.

Charles traveled to Oneida three days a week to the printing press foundry and also made trips to New York City and South Carolina to deal with the railroad business.

Depression strikes

In 1854, a banking crisis in New York City and an economic depression struck New York.  Ellen tried to be cheerful, but she could tell from Charles' behavior that something was wrong.

"I have been really distressed about him for several days; he has been much depressed and worried about business matters," she wrote.

There is a pause of several months in the diary, as if what happened next was too unbearable to record.

Sometime in 1854, the Wheatons lost the money that was tied up in the railroad.  They could no longer pay bills on the mortgages on the handful of properties they owned, including their new house.  The county sheriff seized their furniture and several of their properties.

Ellen lamented that her family lived "pretty literally from hand to mouth."  The most painful feeling, however, was that "others have lost by our misfortunes, and that they were bitter," Ellen wrote.

Charles' brother, Horace, who had invested in the railroad, hardly spoke to the family.  "I cannot endure to hear my Husband called a deceiver, a dishonest man and every opprobrious epithet, just because he has been unsuccessful," Ellen wrote.

Yet, she confessed to her diary that she'd had doubts about Charles' business schemes.  "I can see wherein he has been rash and imprudent, and mourn over it -- as I did all along -- and sometimes remonstrated, but it was of no use."

'Heartsick and weary'

As a wife, Ellen had little say in her husband's business dealings, even though Charles' drive to make money seemed almost an addiction.

"It seemed as if the excitement of business, spurred him on from one great thing to another, confident all the time, of his power to conquer every obstacle, and make all right at last," she wrote.  "But it was more than human nature could do. --He had to stop, as most men would have done long before."

Charles traveled often during the next few years, trying desperately to save the railroad.

In 1856, while in South Carolina, he sent Ellen a railroad bond for $1,000 "to be used in releasing my furniture from Sheriff's sale," Ellen wrote.

Ellen went to get her furniture but "came home heartsick & weary...I feel sad and fearful, in view of the future, and dread to look forward," she wrote.

Mortgage notices from newspapers in the late 1850's suggest that the Wheatons did not recover their finances.

A marriage, then death

Ellen recovered many of her friends, and her last diary entries chat pleasantly of visiting family, neighbors and friends.

Dec. 16, 1858, was one of the happiest days in Ellen's life.  Her oldest daughter, Cornelia, married the business partner of the town's most prominent dry-goods merchant.

The next day was Ellen's last.  On Dec. 17, 1858, Charles woke during the night to discoverer is wife having a seizure.  She never regained consciousness.

Doctors called to the house said Ellen suffered "a rush of blood upon the heart, and consequent Venus congestion of the brain."  She was 42 when she died.

In 1860, Charles Wheaton gave up on Syracuse.  He took many of his children and moved to Northfield, Minn., where other Syracuse families had migrated earlier.

There, he became a miller, edited a newspaper and in 1867 was elected to the Minnesota legislature.  He also married a widow and had five more children.

2001 The Syracuse Newspapers.