Love and gingerbread

One of the earliest pieces of correspondence in the Butler Collection at the Noah Webster House and West Hartford Historical Society is this 1796 love letter from Erastus Wells to his sweetheart Abigail “Nabby” Benton back home in West Hartford – then still officially known as the West Division. Erastus was a sea captain, in port in Norfolk, Virginia on a voyage from New London. Click the links in the captions to open the images below at full size, or jump to the full transcript at the end of the post.

Erastus Wells to Nabby Benton, 1796 September 8 (1 of 2)
Erastus Wells to Nabby Benton, 1796 September 8 (1 of 2). Click for full size image.
Erastus Wells to Nabby Benton, 1796 September 8 (2 of 2)
Erastus Wells to Nabby Benton, 1796 September 8 (2 of 2). Click for full size image.

Erastus Wells was born in the West Division and baptized at the Congregational Church on October 13, 1771. He was the son of Ashbel Wells, who served in the Green Mountain Boys under Ethan Allen in New York in the late 1760s and again at the 1775 capture of Fort Ticonderoga, as well as in the state militia during the Revolutionary war.

Abigail “Nabby” Benton was the daughter of Capt. Asa Benton, a naval officer and later a merchant on Front St. in Hartford.

In his letter, Erastus writes that “two days shall not pass before my promise” — to marry Nabby — “is fulfilled”. It took a little longer than that, but on September 13, 1798, Erastus Wells and Nabby Benton were married in the Second Church of Christ in Hartford. They had three sons: George Benton, in 1800; William Woodbridge, in 1801; and Erastus Henry, in 1805.

Connecticut Courant. July 9, 1806.

Further details of their lives are scant, but on July 9, 1806, the Connecticut Courant published a death notice for Captain Erastus Wells. He died on the fourth of July, at West Hartford, and is buried in the North Cemetery.

In a previous post, we met Jonathan Butler, 2nd, who inherited a cider mill and brandy still in the West Division from his father, Zacheus Butler. Jonathan’s daughter Maria married Erastus’ nephew George Wells, son of Ashbel Wells, Jr., in 1825, making Nabby Benton her aunt through marriage. Sometime after 1825, Maria recorded this recipe for “Aunt Nabby’s Gingerbread” in her recipe book.

Aunt Nabby's Gingerbread
Aunt Nabby’s Gingerbread. Teacup Molasses, 2/3 of Cream + Butter, 1 Egg, Table spoonful Ginger, tea spoon of Salaeratus, Tea cup of Sour Milk.

The recipe calls for “Saleratus”, an old term for baking soda, and omits all mention of flour – presumably any nineteenth century lady could figure that out on her own. It took me a few tries to get the proportions and process just right, but here is the recipe translated for the 21st century:

  • 3/4 cup of Molasses
  • 1/2 cup of heavy cream
  • 1/2 cup of butter
  • 1 large egg (or 2 smaller eggs)
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 1 tablespoon powdered ginger
  • 1 heaping teaspoon baking soda
  • 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

Grease a loaf pan with butter. Preheat oven to 350 F.

Combine all ingredients except flour in a mixing bowl and whisk together.

Stir in flour with a wooden spoon until just combined.

Pour into loaf pan and bake for 45 minutes to an hour.

Aunt Nabby's gingerbread
Aunt Nabby’s gingerbread

Full transcript of letter:

My Ever Eseemed Friend Norfolk Virginia. Sept 8th 1796.

Since I am safe arrived at this place I cannot help addressing the person whom my Soul Loves dear – First I will give you an acct of our passage. We left N. London on Sunday Morning at Nine oclock, and arrived here on Thursday Evening at 8 ofclock. We had a fine passage, and pleasant weather, but as for this place I cannot give any favorable account of it, surely I was never so much dissatisfied with any place that I ever was in. Although there are many people here which are very friendly + kind to me yet that place called W. Hartford is at present mostly in my thoughts, for which reason you may judge for yourself and I am sure you must very well know the cause.

O, My dear N- how the time does pass, one day appears as long as a week did formerly, and according to that how many weeks must pass away before I can once more behold, with Real Eyes, the person whom I so much adore. Do not think this to be vain thought or words of Flattery for upon the Honor of a Friend not a word is here written but what comes from the foundation of my Heart.

When I left home you will doubtless Recollect that I told you I expected to return in 8 or 9 months but I must now inform you to my sorrow that I shall not expect to be home before the latter part of June next – I do not expect to sail from here these six weeks. Yet do not be discouraged for as sure as we both live and you hold of the same mind that you appeared to be in when I left you, two days shall not pass before my promise is fulfilled.

How much do I lament my fate when I look around me in this Harbor + see the Numbers of Masters of Vessels here with their wives, The pastures of their joys with them to partake the bitter and sweet of life, but here I am alone to partake of the bitter itself, but let us hope all is for the best, & when once now we meet all will be well.

The line I wrote you from N London was wrote at a time when I was quite sick and scarce able to hold a pen, which I suppose Wm Bull told you if he delivered the letter according to his promise but my health soon returned after my getting to sea + I am now quite well.

Forget not I desire you to visit the place of my nativity which you will soon Recollect I enjoined upon you but I am fearful you will forget or on some bashful motive keep back and therefore not see the place and people who you know I prize in every respect next to yourself therefore on my account take every opportunity to fall on them as often as it is in your power, and I am sure you can spare one week in four. Your visiting there will not only oblige me but all our Family Especially – Polly & Hannah, who at all times will be ready to Receive you with the tenderness of an own Sister. You may tell them that I shall not write them by the Post, but will before I sail. Let them know the particulars of my intended voyage. As my paper is nearly filled I will conclude. And that you may have every blessing that you can wish to enjoy in my absence is the sincere wish of your Ever Constant, + Sincere Friend, Who will be Ever Ready to Serve, Love
& Adore you
Erastus Wells

PS. Give my best
Respects to Parents
Brothers + Sisters
and all that may and oblige. E Wells