Saturday, October 19, 2019

Life and Customs in Meadville, 1842

Meadville's Diamond Park as it may have looked in the early 1800s
In the central part of a letter headed Meadville, Dec 18th, 1842, my great, great grandmother Agnes Kennedy (née Craig), described her life in Meadville for her sister Elizabeth, back in their birthplace of New Cumnock in Ayrshire, Scotland.[1] In May 1842, aged 17, she had eloped with John Kennedy, a 27-year-old merchant (also from New Cumnock), and been married in Edinburgh.[2] Shortly afterward they were at the port in Glasgow, where they boarded the ship Congress, which arrived in New York on July 1.[3]

… My dear Elizabeth since I saw you, I have seen many strange sights and no doubt some difficulties but when they are past, they all appear as nothing. I am at present living in the town of Meadville; I like this place very well, it is something like the old country much more hilly and very well-watered; there are very few Scotch people here for they are mostly Dutch and Irish, but there are all kinds.

Agnes's Daughter Margaret Kennedy
The Sabbath here to appearance is very well kept and the appearance of the town would do credit to many in Scotland. There is no Established churches here, but in this town, we have got two Presbyterian church, 1 Episcopalian and 1 Unitarian and 1 Methodist, 1 Cumberland and there are Sabbath schools connected almost with all these churches.

I have seen but one funeral since I have been here. The custom is very far from what it is in the old country: they don’t put on mourning here and women all go to the funeral here.

It is now almost a month since the first snow came, and it is now nothing but sleigh bells ringing all the time. I was out a sleigh riding yesterday sixteen miles, it is very pleasant it goes so smoothly you can scarcely feel yourself moving at all, they are very plentiful.

I felt it rather difficult to become acquainted with their way of cooking at first, it is quite different, the houses here are not built with fireplaces; they cook all with stoves which keeps the house much warmer, they burn wood mostly in them and it is a great deal easier to work with than a fire; when you take a house here you have to provide your own stove.

There is no such thing as oatmeal, here it is all flour. Flour is very cheap. I had a letter from my brother James and I have been just writing to him, so I think it is needless to tell you anything about the prices of things here as I have just stated them to him. You would be astonished to see how quick I have learned to bake bread, I think I can beat any of the Cumnock bakers. We can bake, boil 4 or 5 kinds of dishes at a time, the stove is very handy I assure you.

The letter continues with a reference to a proposed trip to Canada.

John Kennedy
We have had a young man, a Mr. Parker from Ayrshire, he has been in company with John for some time, he came out in the same vessel with us.[4] John and he start for Canada tomorrow, they go to see the country and perhaps we must go there to settle yet and I thought it best to write while they were going there as the postage is so much cheaper, it only costs the half every letter … 60 cents when we get an answer back and if … an envelope it is double. I feel sometimes a little lonely but not so much as I thought I would have done. 

I have never been alone but one week when John was away at Pittsburgh, but doubt I will feel it worse this time as they will be gone three weeks or a month; and now my dear Elizabeth, I never enjoyed better health in my life, which I have every reason to be thankful, and happier I could not wish to be, far more than I ever anticipated. …

The letter ends:

Be sure and write me a long letter as there is nothing in this world gives me more pleasure than to hear from home, write soon. Excuse this scroll.

I remain, my Dear Elizabeth,
Your ever-affectionate sister
Agnes Kennedy

They went to Toronto in the new year and their daughter Margaret was born there in March 1843.[5] Two years later Agnes bore a son. John recorded in his bible that in February 1845 ‘my beloved wife and little son died in Toronto North America and were buried in the Potters Field there’. Agnes was only 20 when she died; John and his daughter returned to Britain, living in Liverpool by 1848.[6]

The original of this letter is lost but the text comes from a transcription made for me by an aunt who possessed the letter up to her death in 1988. I wanted to share Agnes’ vibrant description of living in Meadville in 1842 with historians of Crawford County and would be interested to hear how they rate this information.

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Author Biography

Sue Hirst, M Phil, FSA, is a British Archaeologist, currently joint Managing Editor at Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA), responsible for editing MOLA monographs and popular books. Prior to this role, Sue directed archaeological excavations in the UK and worked on writing and editing archaeological publications. She is the co-author of monographs on Cistercian Bordesley Abbey and a number of early medieval cemetery excavations, including most recently the Anglo-Saxon princely burial at Prittlewell, Southend-on-Sea.

Family history provides a useful foil to her work as an archaeologist – the insights of archaeology produce fascinating information on social history and demography from earlier times, but it remains impersonal. Knowledge of the individual is for those who work on more recent and/or better-documented times. By studying her family history, she hoped to breathe life into the biographies of the shadowy individuals in the family archive, and to understand them in terms of a democratized version of recent history – ordinary people living their lives in different times and places.


[1] 1841 census Scotland.
[2] The elopement was attested by family tradition; the marriage recorded in John Kennedy’s bible (extant).

[3] New York Passenger Lists, 1820-1957; New York, Passenger and Immigration Lists, 1820-1850; consulted at John is listed as ‘merchant’.

[4] John Parker’s presence on the same ship is confirmed by the Passenger list (note 3); it is recorded that he established a business in Toronto and was for a time in partnership there with John Kennedy (Past years in Pickering: sketches of the history of the community, by W R Wood, Toronto, 1911, p 57; available online at http://
[5] Birth recorded in John Kennedy’s bible (extant).
[6] Recorded in John Kennedy’s bible and confirmed in 1851 census as living in Liverpool and working as a draper.

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