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Minto-Skelton papers (1757-1956, bulk 1770-1900)


Walter Minto:

Walter Minto (1753-1796), noted mathematician and educator, was born in a village near Cowdenknows in the Merse district of Scotland (not far from Redpath in the former Berwickshire) on 6 December 1753. He was the oldest son of Walter Minto, Sr., and Agnes Waugh Minto, and brother of Thomas, Nanny, Agnes, and David, all of whom were living in Edinburgh by the early 1770's. Thomas's Uncle Robert Minto, a landowner in Jamaica, helped him secure a position there in the 1770's; he later owned his own plantation on the island. Minto's forebears were from Spain originally, but by the second half of the 18th century his immediate family was living in impoverished circumstances. Nevertheless, in 1768, when Minto was only 15, he was able to attend lectures at the University of Edinburgh, where, until 1771, he studied Latin, Logic, Natural Philosophy, Greek, and Moral Philosophy under various professors of arts and sciences, including Adam Ferguson and James Robertson. He must have suspended, or temporarily interrupted, his studies at the University, for between 1773 and the spring of 1775 he was a student of divinity living at the home of a Robert Watson in East Rhynd, near Abernethy in Perthshire. But by the fall of 1775 he was back at the University of Edinburgh studying Moral Philosophy and Rhetoric, and in early 1776 he received his diploma.

Minto had hoped to travel, and especially to visit Italy, but was financially unable to do so. When David Hume, whom he had met and studied with in Edinburgh, proposed that he become tutor to two young boys, who were soon to go to Italy to continue their education there, he eagerly accepted. The two boys were John and George Johnstone, sons of George Johnstone, Member of Parliament for Cockermouth, former Governor of West Florida (1764-67), and soon to go to America on a mission of conciliation (1778). Minto began his appointment in January of 1776 in Johnstone's London home and continued there until the end of May, when he and the boys left for Italy on the ship Westmoreland , traveling around Spain, via southern France, and then to the port of Livorno, arriving in Pisa in late August. Minto secured lodgings for the three of them in the home of Dr. Giuseppe Slop de Cadenberg, an associate of Tommaso Perelli, the Professor of Astronomy at the University of Pisa (Slop succeeding him in 1780). Slop's wife, Elisabetta Dodsworth, was the daughter of an English father and an Italian mother.

Minto remained in Pisa with the Slops from 1776 until 1778, following a rigorous schedule of instruction for the Johnstone boys as laid out by their father in advance of their leaving England. In the summer of 1778, however, John Johnstone became ill, as did Minto, and when Johnstone learned of this in October, he immediately wrote an intemperate letter to Minto, accusing him of being the cause of the illness for disobeying his orders for the boys, berating his behavior in general, and ordering him to bring the boys home immediately. By return mail, in a dignified letter, Minto disputed these accusations, but at the same time made arrangements for transport on the ship Westmoreland , Capt. Willis Machell, to London for the three of them, and in mid-December, they sailed from Livorno. Early in January of 1779, their ship was captured by a French man-of-war off the coast of Spain, and they were put ashore in Malaga, where they stayed in the English consul's house while the French were deciding about an exchange. In late February Minto and the boys were put at liberty in Cadiz, west of Malaga, and in early March he delivered the boys into the care of Captain Machell, with whom they sailed back to England. Minto then took a ship to Genoa, and ultimately back to the Slops' house in Pisa.

Back in Pisa, without the responsibility of the Johnstone boys, Minto began an intensive study of mathematics under the direction of Slop, which continued until mid-1782. During this period, in March of 1781, William Herschel announced his discovery of a new planet (later called Uranus), which was of great interest to Slop as an astronomer, but was also important to Minto, who later remarked that "the discovery of the new planet drew [his] attention to Astronomy." Minto began to record the observations of Herschel at Bath, Slop at Pisa, Nevil Maskelyne at Greenwich, and others in preparation for a book on the radii vectores and the shape of the orbit of the new planet. In 1782, after more than three years of concentrated study, which had "weakened" his "constitution," as he explained in a letter to his parents, he decided to return to Scotland. He left Pisa during the summer, traveling overland this time, via Switzerland, Germany, and the Low Countries to Ostend in Belgium, where he embarked in September, and arrived back in Scotland in October.

Upon his return, Minto must have immediately turned his attention to completing his book on the new planet, for in it he recorded the observations of John Robison, Professor of Natural Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh, from December 4, 1782, to January 23, 1783. The book itself was published shortly thereafter as Researches into some Parts of the Theory of the Planets in which is Solved the Problem, To determine the circular Orbit of a Planet by Two Observations; exemplified in the New Planet (London: C. Dilly, 1783), and was dedicated to Slop.

The years 1783 to 1786 were busy ones for Minto. He taught mathematics in Edinburgh, perhaps in a part-time capacity at the University. At least as early as 1784, he began to take an interest in emigrating to America, and he made plans to leave in 1785, but postponed his departure a few times before finally setting out in mid-1786. In 1784, he began a voluminous correspondence, leading to a love interest, with Catherine Drummond, daughter of John Drummond, 3rd Laird of Logie Almond of Perthshire, who also had a home in Edinburgh. This correspondence lasted several years, and in the spring of 1788, he proposed to her, but she declined.

His growing reputation as a mathematician came to the attention of David Stewart Erskine, 11th Earl of Buchan, who asked him to collaborate on a book about John Napier, the discoverer of logarithms, with Buchan writing the biographical parts and Minto the scientific parts. The book was far enough along at the end of January 1786 for Buchan to show it to King George III, who voiced his approval. At the beginning of the next month, Minto was awarded an honorary LLD degree by the University of Aberdeen in recognition of his scientific publications. In early June he embarked for America from Greenock, Buchan and others having helped to smooth the way for his resettlement there by writing letters of recommendation and making contacts for him with a number of important Americans.

On his arrival in Philadelphia on August 1, Minto lodged in the home of Benjamin Rush. While in Philadelphia, he met Benjamin Franklin, and pursued various possible opportunities, one of which was the chair of mathematics at Washington College in Maryland, which apparently came to nothing. By December 1786, the Napier book was in press, and was published the following year as An Account of the Life, Writings, and Inventions of John Napier, of Merchiston; by David Stewart, Earl of Buchan, and Walter Minto L.L.D. (Perth: R. Morison, Jr., 1787). During the winter months of his first year in America (from late December 1786 to late February 1787) he spent his time in and around Albany, New York, staying with a fellow Scottish immigrant, the Rev. John McDonald. In March, he was involved in negotiations to become the Principal of Erasmus Hall in Flatbush, New York; he agreed to the trustees' terms and took up his appointment there in May. In late July he was naturalized as a United States citizen, and in late September he was offered the professorship of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy at the College of New Jersey in Princeton (to succeed Ashbel Green, who had held the position since 1785). He was released from his contract at Erasmus Hall and took up residence in Princeton before the end of the year.

In late 1787, Minto began a peripatetic year and a half, after which he lived a settled life as a member of the College of New Jersey faculty, so far as one can judge from the extant documents and correspondence. During his first year, he gave his inaugural oration on the night before graduation, in late September 1788; it was printed before the end of the year as An Inaugural Oration, on the Progress and Importance of the Mathematical Sciences (Trenton: Isaac Collins, 1788). Immediately after graduation, the trustees of the College accepted his proposal that he relinquish five pounds of his salary to provide a medal to be given by the trustees and faculty for the best dissertation on one of two topics: "The unlawfulness & impolicy of capital punishment & the best method of reforming criminals & making them useful to society" and "The unlawfulness & impolicy of African slavery & the best means of abolishing it in the United States & promoting the happiness of free negroes." Before the end of Minto's first year, John Witherspoon, President of the College of New Jersey, remarked to Lord Buchan on the quality of his teaching and on his "amiable" participation in the life of both the College and the town of Princeton.

In January of 1789, Minto was elected a member of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, with his certificate signed by Benjamin Franklin, David Rittenhouse, and others. In late September or early October, he married Mary Skelton of Princeton. Having no children of their own, they took students into their home as boarders (John Rush, son of Benjamin Rush, in 1792; Lewis or Philip Woofoin in 1793-94; his nephew Ennion Skelton; and others), who regarded Minto as a mentor.

In November 1792, Isaac Collins, a printer in Trenton, New Jersey, wrote to Minto giving him an estimate for printing a pamphlet containing his "Calculations." There is nothing in print that matches this description, but a mid-19th-century writer commented that "we have seen the manuscript of his Mathematical works, arranged and prepared by himself for publication." Whatever this manuscript was, it seems to have been lost. What does exist in the collection is a manuscript of Minto's lecture notes, divided into three parts (trigonometry, practical geometry, and conic), which was transcribed by a student in the junior class shortly after his death (1802).

From 1795 to 1796, Minto held the positions of both clerk of the Board of Trustees and treasurer of the College, responsible for receiving tuition fees and room rents, paying bills, and overseeing the College funds and investments. On October 21, 1796, after what was apparently an illness of at least nine months, Minto died, just short of 43 years of age, and was buried in the Princeton cemetery. His wife Mary outlived him (until 1824), but he seems not to have left her very well provided for financially, as evidenced by various bonds and repayment schedules made during the last two years of his life and by letters she received after his death. Shortly before he died, he purchased a slave named Toney, but freed him on the agreement that Toney would work for him for some six years. By this gesture he fulfilled the intent of one of the topics in his proposal of 1788: "The unlawfulness & impolicy of African slavery & the best means of abolishing it in the United States & promoting the happiness of free negroes."

Walter Minto Skelton (1804-48) and Family:

Walter Minto's wife was Mary Skelton, daughter of Joseph Skelton (1720-78), a merchant miller and owner of a number of properties on Stony Brook (a few miles southwest of Princeton, New Jersey, close to the location of the Battle of Princeton) and later (by 1774) judge of the Court of Common Pleas for Middlesex County, and his first wife, about whom nothing is known. Mary was probably born in the 1750's, and she and her family were Quakers. At the time she married Walter Minto (1789) she had five living siblings, all of whom appear in the Skelton family papers. The oldest was Josiah (1741-1821), who followed in his father's footsteps as a merchant miller and landowner, and who apparently paid off in 1798 one of the debts outstanding after Walter Minto's death. The other siblings, who must have been born in the 1740's and 1750's, were: Sarah; Elizabeth (b. ca. 1851), known as Betsey; Thomas; and Joseph, the youngest, who served as a 1st lieutenant in the Revolutionary War. The family probably moved to Princeton in the 1770's, when Skelton became judge, and by the 1780's Mary and Betsey, as unmarried women, were often invited to dances, exhibitions, orations, etc. by the gentlemen of the College of New Jersey. After Minto's death in 1796, Mary lived with her sister, Betsey, in Princeton, perhaps in the Skelton family home, and she followed in her husband's footsteps by freeing her own Negro slave Gitty in 1812. She died in late 1824, leaving all of her personal property and real estate to Betsey, with $100 to another sister, Sarah (by then married to Matthew Clark and living in Princeton), and $600 to a nephew, Walter Minto Skelton.

Walter Minto Skelton, the predominant figure in the Skelton family papers, was born on August 19, 1804, in New York, the son of Mary Minto's brother, Joseph Skelton (date of birth uncertain; dead by 1840 and probably buried in Armstrong County, Pennsylvania), and Sarah White Skelton (b. 1781; d. 1870 or later). Walter was named for his uncle, Walter Minto, and was the second oldest of at least seven children: the others were Elizabeth (b. 1803 in New York), Peter (b. 1805 in New York), Thomas (b. 1807 in New York), Mary (b. 1812 on Long Island; d. 1831 in Princeton), Ann (b. 1818 in "Conemaugh, Pennsylvania"), and Joseph (b. 1824 also in "Conemaugh").

Joseph and Sarah Skelton lived in New York, and struggled financially to support their family, so Walter was sent to live with his aunt Mary Minto and her unmarried sister, Betsey Skelton, in Princeton (from at least 1810). Walter matriculated as an undergraduate at the College of New Jersey in 1820, and he graduated in late 1825; he apparently studied law as well, but the circumstances of his apprenticeship are unknown. He must have continued to live with his aunt Betsey, after Mary's death in 1824, and he was the primary beneficiary of Betsey's estate, both her real property and most of her personal property, when she died in October 1826.

In early 1826, he traveled to western Pennsylvania, perhaps to visit his parents, with whom he had lost touch. His father Joseph Skelton was at the time working at the Conemaugh Salt Works, on the Conemaugh River in what is now southern Indiana County, a short distance upriver from the present-day Saltsburg. Joseph was probably employed by his brother Thomas, who established a well or wells there in 1816 and operated them until 1824, when they ceased to be profitable. At some point, Walter began to work at the Salt Works himself, and was apparently in partnership with his uncle by 1829. The wells were restarted in 1830, and from then until the mid-1840's were known as the Walter Skelton works. He seems to have returned to Princeton from time to time: in July 1826, when he delivered an a oration on the 4th in Cranbury, New Jersey; in July 1831, when he was captain (1830-31) of the Princeton Blues, a militia company of citizens of the town; and in the winter of 1832, when his brother Thomas went out to Conemaugh to relieve him at the Salt Works.

In January 1840, Walter purchased two tracts of land, totaling 410 acres, formerly owned by Benjamin Franklin on the Allegheny River in South Buffalo Township, Armstrong County, not far from the present McVille; he lived there with his mother Sarah Skelton and perhaps one or more of his siblings. He died in 1848, probably in June, leaving his property in thirds to his sister Ann, his brother Joseph, Jr., and in trust to his sister Ann for the use of his mother Sarah. He never married.

After Walter's death his youngest sister, Ann, as his main heir, is the Skelton family member who appears most frequently in the Skelton family papers, in leases, indentures, and other documents. In the 1850 census, she was living on the property she inherited from Walter, and she was still there in 1860 and 1880, but by 1900 had moved to Freeport, Armstrong County, Pennsylvania. Her mother Sarah was living with her in 1850 and 1860, but by 1870 had moved to Bucks County, in eastern Pennsylvania, and was boarding in the home of Mahlon Scarborough. Ann, who never married, lived until 1906; she seems to have been a revered figure to her relatives, for her name appeared long after her death as the bearer of a "spirit" message to her niece Mary L. Boyd in 1930.

However, Walter's older sister Elizabeth was, in a sense, the most important remaining Skelton, for she, through her marriage and the marriage of one of her offspring, forged the connection to the other families that figure prominently in the Skelton family papers after 1822. In November of that year, living by then in western Pennsylvania, she married William McFarland. He, like Walter Skelton, was also a salt manufacturer on the Conemaugh River, a little farther upriver from the Skelton Works. The McFarland Works was founded in 1801, and William was active in the business from at least 1821 to 1838 (and possibly to 1846), and may have been a partner of Walter Skelton or his uncle Thomas for part of that time. The McFarlands had (at least) three children (Mary, Hannah, and George). Mary, the oldest, was born in 1823 and died unmarried in 1904; and George, probably the youngest, died in action in the Civil War in 1862.

The second daughter, Hannah P. McFarland (b. 1832; d. between 1906 and 1911), married William M[orison] Boyd (b. 1834; d. 1912) in 1860 and, through him and the Boyd family, extended the connection to the Craig, Earhart, and McIntyre families. They had their home in the vicinity of Slate Lick, Armstrong County. William was an insurance agent, and later a justice of the peace in Freeport, Armstrong County, and both he and his unmarried sister Lizzie frequently appear in the family papers from the late 19th century into the early 20th. Many Boyds lived in and around Freeport, especially in McVille and Slate Lick, and the extended family, which traced its roots in America to John and Mary Fulton Boyd, who emigrated from Ireland to Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, in 1772, held biennial conventions in western Pennsylvania and Ohio between 1881 (the first) and (at least) 1900 (the tenth). The origins of the Armstrong County Boyds are not entirely clear. The earliest recorded Boyd in the County was the Rev. John Boyd, the oldest of the nine children of John and Mary Fulton Boyd, who was pastor of the Slate Lick and Union Presbyterian churches from 1802 to 1809, but there were descendants of other original Boyd children in the County as well.

The connections both among the Boyds and with the Craig, Earhart, and McIntyre families have not been thoroughly unraveled. The oldest of William and Hannah Boyd's five children was Walter Skelton Boyd (1864-92), who was named for Hannah's uncle, Walter Skelton; another was Mary L. Boyd, who was William's only heir when he died in 1912, but it is unknown who the other siblings were, though they may be lurking among the attendees listed by name in the Proceedings of the various Boyd conventions (as may some of the Boyd names in what follows). The Craig family is connected through the marriage of Isabella Craig (daughter of John Craig of South Buffalo Township) and John Boyd circa 1840; this may have been the John Boyd who opened a store in McVille in 1864 and/or who was instrumental in erecting the Presbyterian church in Slate Lick in 1871-72. Isabella and John's children were James Boyd, Eliza Boyd, and Mary Boyd, and their grandchildren (James's children) were John C. Boyd and Jane Boyd. The Earhart family is connected through the sister (first name unknown) of William M. Boyd; she married an Earhart (perhaps a descendant of the Rev. David Earhart, pastor of the Lutheran church in South Buffalo Township in the 1840's and grandfather of Amelia Earhart). Her son was Harry B. Earhart, who lived in Ann Arbor and who gave the first collection of Minto papers in 1934, and her daughter must have been Marie Earhart White, who appears in the family correspondence between 1937 and 1940 (living in Ann Arbor by the latter date). The McIntyre connection is through Annie S. Boyd (antecedents uncertain; d. 1899), who between 1881 and 1888 married Frank F. McIntyre (d. 1949), a farmer in South Buffalo Township; they moved to Pittsburgh a few years after their marriage. Frank and Annie had two children, both born in the 1880's: Charles B[oyd] McIntyre and Helen B. McIntyre (never married; retired from school-teaching in the Pittsburgh area in 1956). The Jean McIntyre Conrad who gave the second collection of Minto-Skelton papers in 2004 is presumably a member of the same family, which would explain why she owned the papers.