Wilmington, Delaware: “Scientific Hall” [probably at The Hilles Boarding School for Young Ladies], 1829. Envelope or Cover. This two-page stampless folded letter measures approximately 16” x 10” unfolded. It bears a manuscript “6” rate mark indicating the cost to send a letter up to thirty miles. It is datelined “Scientific Hall July 1st 1829” and bears a faint Wilmington postmark dated July 2nd. In nice shape.
Rebecca begins her letter with a description of a daylong class excursion from Wilmington taken by “cars” to Perrymansville (now Perryville), Maryland and then by boat across the Susquehanna. The route was primarily along the New Castle and Frenchtown Turnpike which roughly parallels today’s U.S. Highway 40.
“We started from Wilmington about ½ of 10 o clock and the cars . . . were accompanied by the Washington Band for you must know Wilmington can raise a small one and not a very good one either. Well we started and they began to play and the people ran to the windows and doors to look . . . their eyes sore. . .. We passed Newport White Clay Creek Newark Elkton Elk River North East River NE arm of Chesapeake bay and then we stopped at the town of Perrymansville . . . and took the Boat and crossed the Susquehanna to Havre de Grace. . .. Then went up the Chesapeake Bay about 5 miles and came down and went up the Susquehanna as far as Port De Posit and . . . saw rock as high as a three story house or six. . .. Distance we went was about 75 miles now I think that is a good way for us school girls to go. . ..”
Rebecca also notes that she had rebelliously placed herself in jeopardy while writing the letter.
“Instead of cyphering I stole time to write to you if they were to find me out I dont know what they would say but I am scratching. . .. I must study my noon lessons [but] I would not do for . . . the rest of my sisters or Brothers as I do for you that is write and be under the eyes of Loll Hodgson and if she looks and sees me at this instead of cyphering she will give me a task. . ..”
She also urges her brother to visit and give her school a speech about abolition. “I second the motion for you to come down . . . you must tell me . . . for I want to know the piece on abolition I think you had better come down here and deliver it I have no doubt but what you would get a very large audience. . ..”. Very good. Item #009765
Online genealogical records show that the Jenks family lived in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where Rebecca’s father, William, a prominent anti-slavery Whig politician, represented his district as a federal Congressman. They also indicate that Rebecca was born in 1823, which is surprising as this letter is especially well-written to have been penned by a six-year-old. She attended boarding school in Wilmington, Delaware, almost certainly at The Hilles Boarding School for Young Ladies where she received “thorough instruction in the branches of a plain English education” along with boarders from throughout this country and the West Indies. Rebecca was later disowned by the Quakers after she “"violated our Christian testimony by becoming a member of the Episcopalian Society and was married by a minister of that society. (Information provided by online genealogical records, Powell’s The History of Education in Delaware, and the generous assistance of the Wilmington Friends School Archivist, Terry Maguire).
Rebecca’s letter raises two subjects that are ripe for further investigation.
First, her use of the word “cars” implies that the excursion was by railroad cars pulled by either horses or a locomotive. Yet, neither was available between Wilmington and Perrysville in 1829 and wouldn’t be for another two years. So, it seems odd for her to refer to stagecoaches as “cars.” Perhaps additional research will reveal a Delaware rail line that predates the New Castle and Frenchtown Turnpike and Railroad Company and operated in 1829.
Second, Rebecca notes that she and her classmates were accompanied by the “Washington Band”. At this time, American interest in community bands was only just beginning, and they were nothing like the concert bands established later in the century. Early 19th century bands consisted mostly of a few woodwinds and snare drums, perhaps with a brass instrument and maybe some a gong, jingling johnnie, bass drum, and cymbals. (See Hartz’s master’s thesis, “The American Community Band: History and Development” online at Marshall University and “Were There Bands in Early America?” online at Mount Vernon’s Washington Library.) It is also unclear to which organization “Washington Band” refers. The only band frequently referred to by that term was the U.S. Marine Band, which was first organized in 1798, but it seems unlikely that it—or any other Washington DC band—made a journey to Wilmington to play for a school trip.
Perhaps, the use of the word “cars” along with presence of the “Washington Band” indicate the excursion was related to an important event.
All in all, this is a wonderful record of a rebellious schoolgirl’s early 19th century day-long adventure across the northern neck of the Delmarva peninsula and on the Susquehanna River and Chesapeake Bay.