Wilson family papers  1704-1884
full text File Size: 187 K bytes | Add this to my bookbag


In 1756, William Wilson was born into a minister's family in Wooler, Northumberland, a farming community in the Scottish borderlands. The third of four sons, William enrolled at the University of Glasgow intending for the ministry, and after receiving his bachelor's degree in 1778, succeeded his father, Alexander (1710-1777), in the pulpit of the Scots Church in Wooler. Yet William's ministerial career was short lived. Following a family squabble of an unclear nature, he abandoned the clergy, and possibly the Scottish church as well, to take up the study of medicine. The turbulence of these years was leavened, however, by his marriage to Mary Howey (1753-1801), with whom he soon began to raise a family, beginning with two sons, Henry Howey Wilson, who died in his infancy in 1782, and Alexander (1783-1805).

Having completed his medical education by 1784, William decided to emigrate to North America, but the obstinate refusal of his father-in-law to allow Mary out of his sight, led to a sundering of the Wilson household. After two months at sea, he disembarked in New York City, and traveled directly to Clermont, a small Hudson River town that served as the seat of the powerful Livingston family. Chancellor Robert R. Livingston himself may have lured Wilson to Columbia County, but it is unclear when or where the two men became acquainted. The fact that Wilson found his way so quickly to Clermont, though, and that he began to attend patients within two weeks of his arrival there, suggests that his route there was thoroughly planned.

For two years, Wilson struggled to bring his wife to America, and only the intervention of his brother, Alexander, allowed her to escape from the control of her father. Once reunited, the couple returned to the business of raising a family, producing seven more children before Mary's death in 1801. It was not until 1820 that William chose to remarry, uniting with the much younger Hannah Shufeldt (1784-1876), probably a relative of his daughter Mary's (1792-1887) husband. Wilson remained at Clermont until his death in 1828, shouldering diverse responsibilities for both the Livingston family and the residents of Columbia County. At various times, Wilson served as administrator of the Livingston's rental properties, deputy postmaster of Clermont, school supervisor, judge in the county court, physician and founder of the Medical Society of Dutchess and Columbia Counties, farmer and vice president of the Agricultural Society of Dutchess and Columbia Counties, and member of the Board of Directors of the Highland Turnpike Company.

William's eldest surviving son, Alexander, and his third son Robert Livingston Wilson (1794-1830) attended Union College before serving legal clerkships to prepare for entry into the law. Alexander's life and legal career, however, were to be tragically short. After completing his clerkship in Albany, and shortly after he was admitted to the bar, Alexander contract an unspecified disease and died in 1805 at the age of only 22. His untimely death left his wife of three months, Mary Thong Livingston (1783-1841), to bear their son, Alexander, alone.

Eleven years younger than Alexander, Robert began his clerkship in Kinderhook, but moved to New York City to study under William Slosson. His training must have been very good, for in subsequent years, Robert rose to a level of some prominence in New York legal circles. He was licensed to practice before the State Supreme Court in 1818, and in 1821 was appointed Commissioner of Deeds for the city. In addition to his law practice, Robert acted as his father's business, legal, and personal representative in New York City, and wrote frequently to his father on all matter of legal affairs and offering his professional advice. Robert's health began to deteriorate in the 1820s, and he died of an undetermined cause in 1830 at 36.

Following Alexander's death in 1805, the teenaged William Henry Wilson (1791-1884) became the eldest living Wilson boy, and was thus thrust into a position of responsibility for the family estate in Columbia County. In his late teens, William was accepted into a medical apprenticeship, after which he served as a surgeon's mate on the Lake Champlain frontier during the War of 1812. His hopes for a career in the military were dashed with the reduction in forces at the end of the war, and so William returned to Clermont, seeking a future. He briefly considered leaving the state, but in the early 1820s, his father's failing health led him to assume management of the family's many interests and responsibilities. William married a Philadelphian, Anne Hulme (1799-1881), in 1829, having two children, Anne H. and Harold (1836-1919).

The last of the Wilson brothers, Stephen Bayard Wilson (1795-1863), went to sea as a deckhand at the age of fourteen on a ship bound for Calcutta. When he reached India, he was greeted with the unpleasant surprise that war had broken out. After a period of imprisonment, Stephen made his way to England, where, according to family tradition, he was again imprisoned, gaining first hand knowledge of Dartmoor Prison. This piece of family lore, however, cannot be confirmed in the records. Upon his assuredly grateful return to the United States, Stephen set his cap on entering the military, taking and passing the eligibility examination for an ensign's commission in 1812. In these tense times, Stephen was assigned to "pirate patrol" in the Mediterranean, designed to counter the depredations of the Barbary State navies. Ultimately he attained the rank of Captain, commanding a ship in the Gulf of Mexico during the Mexican War. He married Margaret Sanderson (b. 1806) in 1828, and retired from the Navy in 1862, dying one year later.

If it can be said that the Wilson boys led successful -- though at times brief -- lives, the same cannot be said about the daughters. With a woman's role in life intimately bound up with the class position of their husband, the Wilson girls displayed a singular penchant for entering into poor matches. Frances, "Fanny" (1787-1879), was the most fortunate of William Wilson's daughters, marrying Fyler Dibblee, a member of a prominent Dutchess County family. Dibblee enjoyed modest success as a farmer and small-time merchant in Pine Plains, but the financial panic of 1819 devastated his finances, resulting in a sheriff's sale of his property, and the departure of the family for New York City.

Richard Dibblee (1787-1864), one of Fyler's brothers, married Elizabeth "Eliza" Wilson (1797-1879), and soon proved even more inept at finance. There is good indication that William Wilson bought a farm for the young couple, and he contributed much needed money to their maintenance for several years. William's second daughter, Mary Ann (1792-1887), married George A. Shufeldt against her father's wishes, and against the advice of most of the rest of the family. Shufeldt appears to have been a spend-thrift of the highest order, and like Elizabeth and Frances, Mary Ann suffered from the ill management of her husband. Finally, the fourth and youngest daughter, Alicia, "Nancy" (1799-1888), married a merchant, David Van Deusen, who died in his thirties and left a debt ridden business for his widow to contend with. Nancy was forced to buy back her own furniture from David's creditors, and eventually made her home with a married daughter.