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The Wadsworths: Peleg and Elizabeth

Silhouette of Peleg Wadsworth, Portland, ca. 1800

Silhouette of Peleg Wadsworth, ca. 1800

In 1784 Peleg and Elizabeth Bartlett Wadsworth, the poet's maternal grandparents, arrived in Falmouth, Maine, which was soon to be renamed Portland. Falmouth had been bombarded and burned by the British in 1775, but was being rebuilt from the ruins. Peleg, commanding general of American forces in Massachusetts's District of Maine during the war, had been wounded, taken prisoner, escaped, and continued the fight against British encroachment on the northeastern frontier. After the war, he, like so many other veterans, saw opportunity for a new, prosperous life in Maine. In 1785 he began building in the promising seaport. The house was completed in 1786. Peleg and Elizabeth moved to the new house with their six children: Charles, Zilpah (mother of the poet), Elizabeth, John, Lucia, and Henry (called Harry). Four more Wadsworth children were born there: George, Alexander, Samuel, and Peleg Jr.

Wadsworth-Longfellow house and store, Portland, 1786

Wadsworth-Longfellow house and store, Portland, 1786

Peleg located his house, along with a barn and a store, on Back Street (now Congress), on the outskirts of the waterfront settlement. Back Street was a principal road used by traders to bring goods to market and thus was a perfect place for Peleg to set up shop. In the spring of 1787 Peleg expanded his Maine holdings when he acquired 7,800 acres between the Saco and Great Ossipee rivers in what would become the Town of Hiram. By 1795 he had built Wadsworth Hall where his son Charles superintended substantial farming and lumbering operations. Peleg and Elizabeth eventually moved there, leaving the house in Portland to their daughters.

Peleg Wadsworth III canteen, ca. 1812

Peleg Wadsworth's Canteen

In 1792 Peleg, an active participant in Portland's town government, was elected a senator in the Massachusetts legislature and then became Cumberland County's first representative to the United States Congress, an office he held for fourteen consecutive years. When Congress was in session, he was in Philadelphia and, later, Washington. His role in the Revolutionary War — comrade-at-arms with George Washington, Paul Revere, and the Marquis de Lafayette — and his service in forming America's first government made patriotism more than an abstract ideal in the Wadsworth family: it was a fact of daily life, a part of the family fabric, encompassing children and grandchildren alike.

Peleg Wadsworth's Pistol, ca. 1770

Peleg Wadsworth's Pistol

While Peleg pursued his political career and business enterprises in Hiram, Elizabeth ran the Portland household, guiding their children into adulthood. By 1797 Charles was married. Zilpah, age nineteen, and Elizabeth (called Eliza), eighteen, were cultured and refined young women whose favorite pastimes (when not helping at home) were reading, writing letters, playing the spinet, and drawing. John, age sixteen, would go on to Harvard College. Lucia, age thirteen, and Harry, twelve, attended school in Portland. The four youngest boys made up the rest of Elizabeth's charges. In a letter-journal written in 1797, Zilpah provided a vivid vignette of the Wadsworth family, who had gathered on a Sunday evening in the front parlor.

There sits Mama in her lolling chair by the fire.[Eliza] is playing on the piano "Ye Tribes of Adam Join." John and Lucia are singing at the back of her chair. George, Alexander, and Sam are singing in different parts of the room. Little Peleg is stepping about the floor surveying one and another. Charles is sitting at the table with me. He was writing. His pen dropt from his fingers, and he listens to the music. Harry is reading beside me, you know he is always self collected…I have been singing as I wrote…Ten children! What a circle! I should like to know what are Mama's thoughts as she looks around on us.

Letter from Elizabeth Wadsworth to her father, Peleg Wadsworth, 1800

Letter from Elizabeth Wadsworth to her father, Peleg Wadsworth, 1800

Two years later, in December 1799, the death of America's first and most revered president produced great national mourning. Eliza wrote to her father asking for a copy of the Death March composed for Washington's funeral or a scrap of Washington's handwriting, adding, "Papa had he hair? A lock of that…I should value more highly still." Peleg shared Eliza's request with Martha Washington, who sent him a lock of her beloved husband's hair. In an undated note Eliza wrote, "I wish it may be preserved in our own family while it can be safe. Some years hence…if Maine is a separate state…I had rather it would be preserved among its treasures." This prophetic concern for the future of Maine (which became a state in 1820), this sense of connection to America's founding, and this understanding that future generations would need tangible links to their own history were characteristic of the family. Such acts of historical foresight were repeated by other Wadsworths and Longfellows in decades to come. Today, Eliza's treasure rests in the collections of the Maine Historical Society.

Both Peleg and Elizabeth Wadsworth died in Hiram, Elizabeth in 1825 and Peleg four years later.

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