Early Illinois Women

Sophia May Chase: A Remarkable Woman of the 19th Century (continued)

by Mira Baz

Return to:

  1. Introduction
  2. Chase Family moves to Ohio

Part 3. Kenyon College

The next task was the purchase of land for the building of the new college, which was called Kenyon, on Gambier Hill. Over the next few years, gifts for the college were received from the Bishop's friends in England - an organ, books, and a printing press, among others. Sophia received the teachers and students in her home while the college buildings and dormitories were still being constructed. This was a "small and rough log cabin... with one little window, composed of four little squares of the most common glass" (Smith 211).

The Bishop managed the building of his college at this time with very little funds, if any. With his son Dudley and a hired workman, he worked the surrounding lands that had a mill used "for the double purpose of grinding meal and of sawing timber into planks" (Smith 213). The lands were the food supply for the inhabitants of Gambier Hill.

Guests were kindly received. A General Convention of the diocese was held annually at Gambier; the guests from the clergy, twenty in number, dined at the Chase's "common table with the students, the principal luxury at the meals being the wild honey in the comb, taken from the forest trees" (Smith 215) and prepared by Sophia.

Besides being a good hostess, Sophia gradually assumed a more important role in the Bishop's business affairs. In 1829, he embarked on a journey to the South, and "the management of this establishment was placed in Mrs. Chase's hands" (Smith 222). She was affectionately called "Mother Chase" by the teachers and the pupils who sat together for meals on the Bishop's table, which were announced by a "hand bell". In a letter dated August 20 of the same year, her sister Maria Kip wrote from Hartford: "I sincerely hope and pray the sickness of yourself and that of the dear ones around you has passed away. Your active part in those plans that always surround the good Bishop we hope that you are again able to take active part in."

But this endeavor was not to last long. The general legislature denied the Bishop's petition for a grant of land to support Kenyon, and a movement started in the college to depose him from its supreme management and to make him a "mere figurehead" (Smith 233). Faced with this disappointment, the Bishop resigned in September of 1831.

Again he and his family found themselves moving to another part of the country, an event that would be repeated more than once in the following years. Upon his departure, the Bishop, feeling betrayed, reportedly "pointed significantly to a picture of King Lear, which for some time had decorated his own apartment. In a few words he expressed [to his houseguest Mr. Caswall] his sense of the applicability of the subject to his own circumstances"(Smith 238-9).

Mr. Caswall further narrates: "The feelings of Bishop Chase in parting from Kenyon College were of a very painful nature.... The builders, the mechanics, and the workmen had ranged themselves in file, to say farewell, and to ask a parting blessing" (Smith 238-9).

The Bishop and his son Dudley explored in the wilderness until they came upon the small cabin, called the Valley of Peace, that stood in the dark woods of Ohio. Sophia and the younger children were left on Gambier Hill to pack their belongings, and Dudley returned to accompany them to their new home. The Bishop alone worked on the cabin, which was in a wretched state: "The timbers of the cabin had given way, the floor was unsafe, the roof also, the windows were gone, and the fences down" (Smith 239).

After a few days, and before the roof was finished, the family arrived in a covered Quaker wagon, tired from the bad roads and dismal weather. One wonders how the burden was on Sophia. Laura Chase Smith writes:

Could any one have seen the countenance of her who was to be the chief sufferer with, in the future, as she had always been the chief supporter in the past of her husband, as she came out of the coach and looked around upon the scene before her, tears of pity would have been shed for her. Not a word from her, however, of complaint; everything needed for lodging the family was ordered from the wagon; a cheerful fire soon blazed upon the hearth; and the children as they lay in their new-made couches on the floor were soon employed in counting the stars which shone through the unfinished roof.... (240)

The winter was hard and cold. There weren't any neighbors, schools or churches for miles. The family ate plain food and wore plain clothes made by Sophia. A firelight was kept at night, "but how difficult for her to keep a bright heart and a hearth swept clean for her little brood of three boys and one little girl, and for the father to keep such a home warm enough during the long, cold night" (Smith 241).

Easter Day of 1832 was to bring the family yet another future move. Mr. Bezaleel Wells, a dear friend of the Bishop's, and whose daughter Sarah was to be the future wife of Dudley, visited him and asked to be accompanied to Michigan to see his son.

The Bishop was taken by the beauty of the land in Michigan and purchased land for his future abode near a lake. He called it Gilead, and prepared to move his family to it by summer. The Bishop and his two elder sons preceded the rest of the family to Gilead in July to plant the land and build the cabin. Dudley recounts:

"Farming operations were soon begun in good earnest. We had three or four 'hands', but the boys had to pass their apprenticeship, and soon became masters at this trade, and learned to do all things better than their teachers.... Fences were to be made, the land ploughed, planted, and sown, grain reaped, stacked, threshed, and, in time, barns and saw-mill erected, forest trees cut, lumber sawed, and bricks made. The stock of horses and cattle were to be largely increased and provided for, and to these were added sheep and hogs" (Smith 252).

The boys worked the farmlands, plowing and sowing the grain, washing and shearing the sheep, the wool woven into cloth that Sophia sewed into garments for the family. Wolves' furs were made into "a large robe... kept in use for many years" (Smith 253), the wolves' skin being "in the finest order" in winter. At home, the family had "under all circumstances morning and evening prayer and Sunday services" (Smith 257).

While the Bishop and his family were getting settled in Gilead, harvesting the land and improving it, the newly formed diocese of Illinois sent him notification in the summer of 1835 of his appointment to the Episcopate of Illinois. The Bishop took up the responsibility, and had to make another trip to England to gather funds for the new task. Sophia was faced once again with the daily worries, alone. She wrote to her husband now on his way to New York then England: "I will try to do my duty by the children, though greatly will they miss you in their education." The Bishop reached England in the autumn of that year.

Only a few months passed in this endeavor before the Bishop received the bad news from home. In January of 1836, Sophia wrote to him about the burning of the house in Gilead:

"Last Saturday night we went to bed in apparent security, but about twelve o'clock a slight noise like the kindling of a fire in a stove startled us. I sprang from bed and throwing open the dining room door saw that the flames had burst from the upper part of the chimney into the garret. The cry of "Fire!" quickly assembled all the family. A tub of water was in the kitchen, and three pails full in as many seconds were thrown on. It was, I saw, in vain. The fire had seized the roof; I bid them all to lose no time, but throw out as fast as possible. My first care was your sermon box, and then the box of English letters with your letters to me from England, certificates, and three hundred dollars in money."

Most of the beds and clothing were saved, two small tables, four chairs, Sophia's bed curtains, sleigh fur, side-saddle, and some other articles. She continued:

"By tearing down the flaming board fence, the ruin was stayed and the school-house and milk-house were preserved. We had our beds taken to the school-house, lighted a candle, and wrapped ourselves in blankets. It had been thawing all day and water was not frozen on the ground, so that our feet, though very cold, as we were all for a time bare-foot, did not suffer."

Careful not to distract her husband from the affairs of his journey, Sophia comforted his anxiety:

"And now, dear husband, let not this event shorten your mission or damp your zeal. I know your heart is at home, and you will feel much for our privation, but we have still the essentials of life, plenty of grain and meat. These trials will make men of our boys; if it makes Christians of them I shall welcome them. ...I am tired of scribbling by candle light" (Smith 271-3).

The Bishop's English friends found out about the fire and quickly came to his comfort and that of his family. Another letter from Sophia followed this one after a short time, still re-assuring her husband of the family's well being, and inducing him to continue with his mission whole-heartedly. Laura Chase Smith wrote about her:

...what one woman accomplished ... as a helpmeet in her husband's absence. She had the brain and the body and the strong nerve of a woman in ten thousand, and she needed all these at this time. (273)

Fire incidents were common in those days, and were started by a candle or chimney flame not completely put off. Since that accident, the Bishop insisted until his final years that water be kept in buckets within reach and near the beds during the nights to prevent any future similar incident.

Not having yet heard of the burning of the Gilead house, Sophia's sister Susan Perry wrote to her from New Bedford, inquiring about the state of her family and updating her on her own:

"...a considerable change has taken place in my family. In September my son Thaddeus - who lived with me 19 years - took a wife, and commenced housekeeping. This left Duncan and myself entirely alone in a house large enough to accommodate 20 - it was neither safe not pleasant to live so, and I have taken a small family into part of the house, and feel more comfortable.... Thaddeus has a good managing wife - not much refinement - but she is attentive and affectionate to me and suits Thaddeus better than one of a more cultivated mind." (January 1836)

Over the years, Sophia developed a famed reputation for her knowledge of cures and their prescription; in later years she would be called a "skillful Physician" by the Bishop's grand-daughter Mary O and a "doctoress" by Sophia's sister. Her skills seem to have started in this year, as appears in her letter to the Bishop:

"I do not remember anything indispensably necessary except a bottle of Quinine - to which I should like a book like Ewall's for family practice, and a treatice for practice, on Cholerac complaint -. [Last] summer showed me necessity of studying the use of medicine, for every person living in the Western country, where you may wait for days before a physician can attend." (Gilead, March 25, 1836)

Continue to:

  1. Illinois and Jubilee College
  2. Epilogue


  1. Piatt, John James. How the Bishop Built His College in the Woods. The Western Literary Press, Cincinnati: 1906.
  2. Smith, Laura Chase. The Life of Philander Chase. The Knickerbocker Press, New York: 1903.

Contributing Library:

Cullom-Davis Library, Bradley University, Peoria, Illinois

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