Sandra Ball is the president of The Swan Sampler Guild and a friend. When we learned that she had been doing some research on an ancestor of hers, and that the ancestor in question once ran a female academy in Connecticut, we asked her to share the research with us - and with you. We think it's a fascinating read, and that you will enjoy it very much! Don't you wish that Dora could meet Abigail and get advice from her?
Abigail Pomeroy Gillett
by Sandra Hildreth Ball
As I research my ancestors I love to find out about their lives so I research more than just names and dates. I search newspapers, diaries, land records, etc. in order to learn bits and pieces of where they lived and what their life was like. A wonderful find for me was my ancestor, Abigail Pomeroy Gillett whose obituary stated "she established a school for young ladies which acquired quite a wide and favorable reputation in New England; this young ladies' school was established at East Windsor, and many students came from Hartford." Of course I had to know more! Thus began my odyssey. It was a wonderful journey because I love antique samplers and embroidery in addition to genealogy.
It is helpful to look at her life and the hardships she faced to understand why she would turn to teaching to supplement income and help support her children.
Abigail Pomeroy was born May 31, 1743 in Hebron, Connecticut to Reverend Benjamin and Abigail (Wheelock) Pomeroy.1 Abigail was raised in a religious and educated household where ideas would have been freely expressed and discussed. Her father was the Congregationalist minister in Hebron for 50 years and active in the Great Awakening Movement. He was a new-light, dynamic preacher who converted many. He also served as a chaplain in both the Seven Years War and Revolutionary War. He was fiercely loyal to his family, his God, and his country.
Abigail was surrounded by culture and scholarship. Her father, Benjamin and her uncle, Eleazer Wheelock (founder of Dartmouth College) began a Latin school in Lebanon, Connecticut and ran a school for Indians for several years. All of her brothers went to Yale, Princeton, and Dartmouth. Most likely she was educated in the finer arts and literature as was the custom for well-to-do young ladies.2 There is not yet definitive evidence where Abigail was educated and learned her craft. She may have gone to school with her cousin, Ruth Wheelock Patten, daughter of Eleazer Wheelock. The cousins were very close in age and their families were constantly in contact in their early years. It is possible that she was educated at the school run by Reverend Jonathan Edward's sisters in East Windsor. Her father traveled and consulted with Jonathan Edwards during Abigail's childhood so he would have been well aware of the quality of the Edward sister's school. She must have been a beautiful young lady with strong religious convictions. It was said that she was the "subject of renewing grace" at the age of 14 and as an adult she was described as "a gentlewoman of great beauty, dignity, and stateliness of manner."3
On April 19, 1759, when young Abigail was just shy of 17 years old she married John Gillett, Jr., age 21, son of John and Abigail (Lee) Gillett of Hebron.4 John was a neighbor who had just returned home from Yale. The family stories say "the young couple ardently wished to be married, but Abby's father was away and there was no other minister in the town. But luck was with the couple. A traveling preacher happened to come along, and stopped at the house. Abby was washing dishes, but fearing to let the golden opportunity escape she hastily dried her hands and she and her John, conveniently on hand, stood up and were married then and there."5 Life did not turn out as happily as anticipated for Abigail and John. In Franklin Dexter's Biographical Sketches of the Graduates of Yale College with Annals of the College History Vol. II, pg 532, he states that "John was a failure in life and his wife, Abigail was forced to separate from him."
John and Abigail had 5 children in the next 10 years, Alpheus, Augustus, Arethusa, Ralph Pomeroy, and Abigail. The first evidence of financial reverses was a 1768 judgment, which named John and Abigail Gillett and Nathan Dewey. The judgment was carried out by the order of the sheriff to confiscate the land and seize John and Nathan and deliver them to jail (debtors' prison). They were not to be found; however the land was seized. There is not evidence of whether they were incarcerated, but this had to be a frightening time for the young family. John was taken to court several more times through the years. The last record found was a Sheriff's sale in 1791. One can imagine the humiliation suffered in the Pomeroy and Gillett families by these traumatic events. Abigail probably stayed with him until the last child was married, because she was listed in the 1790 census in Hebron in John's household with 2 daughters, probably Arethusa and Abigail. Her son, Alpheus had long since left.
Abigail ran a school for young ladies in Hebron beginning some time before 1781. Ezra Stiles, president of Yale College states in his diary on July 11, 1781 that "Isaac carried Polly to Hebron to school." Later the same year he stated he paid tuition to Mrs. Gillett for his daughter Polly who was 14 at the time. Abigail may or may not have planned to start a school for young ladies, but her financial circumstances were such that she may have needed to teach to help support her family. In 1785, Reverend David McClure, her brother-in-law also mentions that his daughter was staying at Abigail Gillett's in Hebron.6
Abigail and John eventually separated and by 1798, Abigail had moved to East Windsor and moved in with her sister Hannah and her husband, Reverend David McClure. As Rev. McClure mentioned in his diary Abigail opened her school for young ladies at his home. He had built a schoolhouse next to his home for boys in 1786 but in 1798 he stated "Mrs. Gillett of Hebron taught in it a school of misses".7 The following advertisement appeared in the April 30, 1798 Connecticut Journal.8
Respectfully informs her friends and the public, that she intends to open her SCHOOL for the instruction of Misses, in various kinds of needle work, reading, writing, and other branches of female education, on the first of May  at the house of the Rev. Mr. M'Clure, in East-Windsor. Parents who may please to place their daughters under her care, may depend upon her most faithful attention to their morals and improvement.
Abigail probably ran the school at least until her sister's death in 1814. Abigail was probably the extra woman enumerated in the McClure home in the 1800 and 1810 censuses, indicating she was mostly likely still teaching. After Hannah McClure died, David remarried and moved away. Abigail returned to Hebron where she was enumerated with her daughter and son-in-law in the 1820 census.
She died age 91 on January 24, 1835, a well-respected teacher, mother, and grandmother. Her several obituaries follow:
At Hebron, Mrs. Abigail Gillet, youngest daughter of Rev. Benjamin Pomeroy, D.D., a former clergyman of that place. At the age of 14 she was a subject of renewing grace, and for more than half a century was celebrated as a School Instructress-having faithfully served her day and generation, on the 24th of January, she fell asleep, aged 92 years.9
Another obituary stated "She established a school for young ladies, which acquired quite a wide and favorable reputation in New England; this young ladies' school was established at East Windsor, "and many students came from Hartford." Mrs. Gillett is described as a gentlewoman of great beauty, dignity, and stateliness of manner."
Another obituary of the day stated "The hoary head is a crown of glory if it be found in the way of righteousness".
Based on the research thus far, we have shown she taught before 1781 and at least until 1814. Considering the money problems she had early in her marriage, she may have started to teach by 1770 and continued until she moved in with her daughter. This would be consistent with the 50 years mentioned in her obituary. Because of the elite status and age of the students in this article, it can be assumed that Mrs. Gillett taught advanced needlework and was very skilled. These families had the choice of several needlework instructors in the area, yet sent their daughters to her.
I'm continuing to look for evidence of her teaching in diaries of the day that may mention students who sat at her feet. Hopefully, those who are studying samplers will now be aware of this newly discovered school and may discover embroideries from her students.
Research is continuing for evidence of the type of embroidery she taught.
In the 1941 will of Caroline Kellogg, a great granddaughter of Abigail Pomeroy Gillett, stated she owned "2 pictures worked on linen homespun by my grandmother [Arethusa Gillett Arnold] about 1815, one being coat of arms of Arnold, Gillette & Pomeroy, the other being "Coriolanus taking leave of his Friends," also the pictures in pen and ink of Arethusa Gillett Arnold and Dr. Dan Arnold, done by William J. Annable," and four very old letters written by Arethusa Gillett. These were bequeathed to Mrs. Charles (Edna) Backus of New London, Connecticut.
Pomeroy Coat of Arms
Caroline left several things to Arthur Gillette who was living in her house. Arthur R. Gillette was listed as her cousin-Mrs. Edna Backus was his niece, according to the will.
Proof of relationship of Arthur Gillette is as follows:
In 1910 his mother was living with him-Sarah J.-age 80 (b. about 1830)
in 1880-he is living next door to a Betsey Gillette, age 72 and son George in Hebron
he is married to Emma C.
in 1870-he is next door to Betsey Gillette, age 62, but son of Edwin Gillett age 45 and Sarah J. Gillett. His sister is Hattie Gillett, age 12
in 1850-Edwin is in George Gillett's household (he is 79) b. 1770 Betsey Gillett is 42
Ancestry World tree lists George Gillett b. 1771 son of Ezekiel & Dorcas Hawkins-whose father and mother are Ebenezer Gillett and Mary Ordway.
What is most interesting is that the embroideries and the letters were actually given to a descendant of the very man who took John Gillett to court several times. I'm sure Caroline would have been mortified.
1 Reverend Pomeroy was one of the founders of the Great Awakening and the pastor for the Congregational Church in Hebron, Connecticut for 50 years. Her mother was sister to Eleazer Wheelock, the founder of Dartmouth College. Benjamin and Eleazer had become best friends while they were students at Yale and through this friendship, Benjamin met and married Abigail Wheelock.
2 There is not yet definitive evidence of where Abigail was educated. She may have gone to school with her cousin, Ruth Wheelock Patten, daughter of Eleazer Wheelock, for they were close to the same age and their families were so close. Both Benjamin Pomeroy and Eleazer Wheelock were colleagues of Jonathan Edwards, one of the founders of the Great Awakening. They often preached and traveled to Suffield, Windsor and East Windsor in the early days of the movement. Jonathan Edward's sisters ran a school for young ladies in East Windsor during Abigail's childhood. Ruth Patten attended this school and so may have Abigail.
3 History and Genealogy of the Pomeroy Family, by Albert A. Pomeroy, 1912. Note: his resource most likely was Caroline Kellogg, a great granddaughter of Abigail.
4 Hebron Town Records, Hebron Town Clerk's office, Vol 2 pg 34, Marriage "Gillett, John Jr (III) & Abigail Pomeroy 4/29/1759"
5 Hebron in History - Newspaper Clippings Douglas Library, Hebron, CT 974.62 Caroline Kellogg, a descendant of Dr. Pomeroy gave this particular information
6 Diary of David McClure, pg 171
7 Diary of David McClure, pg 173
8 Connecticut Courant, April 30, 1798, pg 4
9 Connecticut Courant Feb. 16, 1835, Vol LXXI, Issue 3656, pg 3
Copyright © Sandra Hildreth Ball 2008