Zilpah Wadsworth and Stephen Longfellow
Zilpah Wadsworth was born in 1778, the second child and first daughter of Peleg and Elizabeth Wadsworth. She grew up in the house on Congress St., surrounded by her nine brothers and sisters. Zilpah was especially close to her sister Eliza, who was just one year younger. Zilpah found pleasure and relaxation in writing, and her letters and journals provide a charming glimpse of her girlhood. She and Eliza were "sweet girls" with "an unaffected softness of manners" and enjoyed a busy social life. Zilpah was "tall, attractive, with dark hair, lively blue eyes" and a "blooming" complexion. The prevailing interest of Portland's young women was Portland's young men, who were "as plenty as apples in autumn." None of them aroused Zilpah and Eliza Wadsworth's interest, however, until the 1799 arrival of tall, attractive, twenty-three-year-old Stephen Longfellow IV, a Harvard graduate seeking a career in law.
Stephen Longfellow was born in Gorham, the town to which his grandfather and father (Stephen II and Stephen III) had moved following Falmouth's bombardment in 1775 by the British Captain Mowatt. His grandfather had been Falmouth's first schoolmaster and filled many important civic offices. His father, one of Gorham's leading citizens, served as representative and senator in the Massachusetts legislature, and as a judge. Stephen was himself an imposing young man: serious, ambitious, and prudent with his money and his time. The young lawyer became a "favorite" of the Wadsworth sisters, and he reciprocated their interest. One observer asked Zilpah, "Which is it—you [or Eliza]…that he is partial to?" Zilpah confided to her diary, "I really think myself the most unlikely…to engage his heart." She was not wrong; when Stephen declared himself it was to Eliza.
Letters written by Eliza during the summer of 1800 indicate that she and Stephen had an understanding. In October 1801 the young couple's miniatures were painted, probably as gifts for one another, tokens of their mutual affection and commitment. Eliza, however, had begun the decline from tubercular consumption that would cause her death on August 1, 1802. Zilpah devoted herself to nursing her sister and with Stephen watched by her bedside. Before her death Eliza bequeathed to Zilpah her most cherished possession, a lock of George Washington's hair.
Eliza also, in a sense, bequeathed to Zilpah something else of great value: her intended, Stephen Longfellow, whom Zilpah had long loved. On the evening of January 1, 1804, Stephen and Zilpah were married in the parlor where Eliza had died. The young couple's wedding gifts included a table service of English earthenware. Many years later, in his poem "Kéramos," their son Henry would recall "The willow pattern that we knew / In childhood, with its bridge of blue / Leading to unknown thoroughfares"—one of many images he used to suggest how the hopes for the future were always joined to uncertainty.
Indeed, within a year the early happiness of the young couple was marred by another family tragedy: the death of Zilpah's brother Henry, who was nicknamed Harry. Harry had set out to prove himself in the new United States Navy. He joined the squadron in the Mediterranean Sea to subdue the Barbary pirates, who had been preying on American shipping. It was one of the earliest demonstrations of American might on the international stage, and the battle of Tripoli became famous. Harry was second in command of a vessel loaded with explosives whose mission was to sneak into the harbor and destroy the enemy's gunboats. His ship, however, exploded prematurely. Harry's death affected the entire family deeply, and Zilpah would soon memorialize him in the naming of her second son Henry Wadsworth.
Domestic life, however, went on in the face of such sadness. In April 1805 the artist William King visited Portland advertising his services to "do silhouettes." The newlyweds, Stephen and Zilpah Longfellow, and Peleg and Elizabeth Wadsworth took advantage of the opportunity. Zilpah's silhouette depicts a young woman with her hair fashionably dressed in a bun with a small braid over her forehead.
Henry and his siblings enjoyed a happy childhood. Nurtured by a conscientious father, an intelligent mother, and vigilant Aunt Lucia, they were required to perform their youthful duties, but allowed the joys of childhood. Anne, Henry's younger sister, remembered how "books and satchels were the ornaments of the parlor table in the evenings, and silence the motto, till the lessons were learned—then fun and games were not wanting, and when they grew too fast…for the parlor, the old kitchen rang with our shouts and glee." The Longfellow children were expected to be "regular at meals, [to] rise early" and "to get their lessons well." During one of Stephen's regular absences from home, Zilpah described their offspring as "pretty-well and tolerably good. Sometimes there is an outbreaking of an unruly spirit. Is not that," the witty Zilpah mused, "original sin?"
Stephen was often absent, traveling throughout Maine to court sessions and in 1814 to Boston as Portland's representative to the Massachusetts General Court. After Maine's statehood in 1820, Stephen represented Portland in the state legislature and then served in the United States Congress from 1823 to 1825. Throughout his busy life, he played significant roles in social and educational organizations, including the Portland Benevolent Society (founder and secretary, 1803-1849) and Bowdoin College (trustee, 1817-1836). In 1822, with Maine Supreme Court justice Prentiss Mellen and Maine's Governor, William King, he helped found the Maine Historical Society, the third oldest state historical society after Massachusetts and New York. Stephen was president of the Society in 1834, the same year Henry served as its librarian. They remained members throughout their lives. The close connection between the Longfellow family and the Society, together with the family's deep investment in American history, would ultimately lead to the gift of the Wadsworth-Longfellow House to the Maine Historical Society and the establishment of its permanent headquarters.
Zilpah, like her mother before her, stayed at home to tend to their family. Her constitution was intolerant of Portland's cold and damp air, and the rigors of bearing eight children left her in precarious health. Aunt Lucia ran the house—cooking, sewing, knitting—and managed the entire family. Although essentially housebound, Zilpah was not detached from the wider world; her reading and correspondence with Stephen kept her informed. "Remember my seclusion" and "Do enlighten me a little," she advised him when asking for details about his activities. From Washington he sent news of congressional deliberations. In response, intelligent, strong-minded Zilpah did not hesitate to share her own thinking, even when it disagreed with her husband's. When Stephen stated his position in favor of capital punishment, she replied, "Whence any man or body of men can derive authority to take life I have yet to learn." Deeply spiritual and a liberal Unitarian in her religious persuasion, in her later years she confided to her daughter, Mary, "the longer I live less important do mere forms of worship appear to me." Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and his siblings were raised by a father whose ambition was not "to accumulate wealth for my children, but to cultivate their minds in the best possible manner and to imbue them with correct moral, political, and religious principals." Zilpah echoed these sentiments and the ideals of class and New England restraint that underlay them.
As they aged, both Stephen and Zilpah succumbed to ill health. Stephen Longfellow died on August 3, 1849, after more than a decade of "bad days." Zilpah died on March 13, 1851. When Henry received the news of her death by telegraph, he left immediately for Portland. "In the chamber where I last took leave of her…a sense of peace came over me, as if there had been no shock or jar in nature, but a harmonious close to a long life." Zilpah bequeathed her half of the Wadsworth-Longfellow House to her daughter Anne. When Lucia died in 1864, she too left her share to Anne, whose increasing responsibility for the house became a legal fact.
Reader's Note: The letters of Stephen and Zilpah Wadsworth, and their children, Anne Longfellow Pierce, Mary Longfellow Greenleaf, and Samuel Longfellow are in the archives of the National Park Service, Longfellow National Historic Site, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and quoted with their kind permission.