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
  3. Kenyon College

Part 4. Illinois and Jubilee College

By June of 1836, the Bishop returned from his long journey and was received with much emotion. Mary wrote to her brother in college: "It was a day of rejoicing indeed; all ordinary occupations were laid aside... our happiness had been complete. Dear mother actually cried for joy." A few days later, the family embarked on a new journey to the "far west" of Illinois to search for land for the new college. Mary recounted:

"The ox-team, driven by a hired man, led the van; the old carriage with the family came next; then [Henry] in the other wagon and [Philander] on old Cincinnatus brought up the rear. At Lima... I mounted old Cincinnatus, as we had agreed to take turns in riding him."

They reached Grand Prairie, in Illinois, where they were received by Mr. Hanford, a churchman. He "fitted them a small cabin adjoining his own" to stay in until their future home was found. "Father and Mother and Henry have all gone as far as Peoria to find a spot to place the college," Mary wrote.

They were soon successful; the "country was so entirely new that [the Bishop] found no difficulty in pre-empting land, as it had not been put into market by the Government" (Smith 278). In the fall of 1836, a little house made of logs was built, consisting of "two skeleton log-houses", which would be expanded over the coming years. The Bishop called it "the Robin's Nest, because it was built of mud and sticks and was full of young ones" (Smith 278). The bricks were from England, the timbers of native oak, and the interior woodwork of native black walnut. Lumber "of the poorest kind" was quite expensive at the time -- $40-50 for a thousand -- and so the family had to make do with what they could afford.

Robin's Nest, the home of Bishop Chase and his family from 1836, and later of their daughter Mary Chase Chamberlain and her family, until the early 1900's.

By December of 1838, the Bishop managed to buy a total of over 3,000 acres of land for his college, which he named Jubilee: "that name of all others suits my feelings and my circumstances," the Bishop wrote to his friend Lord Kenyon. "I wish to give thanks and rejoice that, after seven years passed in much trouble, pain, and moral servitude, God hath permitted me for Jesus' sake to return unto His gracious favor." The college site was high, overlooking a "beautiful stream," and had a grove of trees which "shield it from the north and west winds in the winter, and will make it pleasant in the summer" (Smith 287).

Earlier that year, while the Bishop was making a trip across the Mississippi to Wisconsin Territory, Sophia received a letter informing her of the preemption of their land. The Bishop directed her in his letters on how to secure it by having witnesses testify in court. Also during this year, Mary joined Sophia's family in Steubenville, Ohio, to pursue her education, and Dudley returned to Gilead to maintain their land. Sophia's annual visits to the East commenced in the following spring, and which she would make for over a decade.

Preparations for the construction of the new establishment began after the purchase of land. The Bishop wrote to Henry, who was in Ottawa, Illinois, on Dec. 19, 1838:

"Your mother is very busy making ready for the bridge dinner. That is to say, she is preparing a large and generous portion for each and every man now assembled on the ground (cold as is the weather) to raise the college bridge."

And on December 26 to Mary:

"...the cold weather has prevented the finishing of the bridge; and indeed every other work commenced for the College."

Mary's relationship with her father is expressed in a letter dated February 14, 1839. She wrote to the Bishop from Steubenville:

"In your last letter you invest me with the very responsible office of Casuist. Heaven forbid my dear father that I should ever presume to decide in a matter of conscience of which you were doubtful, nevertheless in the cases that you give me I would give my opinion though it be not worth much.... You ask if you are growing selfish in enjoying a little retirement in your study?

[...] I hope my dear father will not think me impertinent in this appearing to dictate. I should not have presumed to have said a word about it had I not been encouraged to express my opinion freely.

... I have sought in vain for Dr. Turner's History, and after finishing Charles the fifth we have from Mr. Morse's recommendation taken up 'Boswell's life of Johnson'...."

In a later date, Mary would ask her mother for the following list of books: Leigh Hunt's "Imagination and Fancy" and "The Indicator", Will Howit's "Student Life in Germany", "Cary's Dante", and Fred Kohlransch's "History of Germany" "in the original if it can be had, and if not, then in J. D. Haas' translation".

Indeed, Mary would later take charge of the girls' school, or the female department as it was called, in Jubilee College. The idea of a girls' school seems to have been started by Sophia, as it appears in a letter to the Bishop from Mary Caroline Ward:

"I can enter most entirely into Mrs. Chase's feelings upon the subject of female education.... I verily believe it is of radical importance to the spread of vital religion to raise, as Mrs. Chase expresses it, a generation of Christian Mothers." (Feb. 28, 1842)

Donations to Jubilee and to the Chases' were constantly made by friends all over the country and from overseas. The mother of the novelist Captain Marryat, who was the first cousin of Sophia, and who had met the Bishop in England, sent a personal gift that year of 70 pounds sterling. "A new Quaker coach and two fine horses were [then] purchased and sent to Illinois from Philadelphia, and without which Mrs. Chase would have been unable to go far beyond the porch of the Robin's Nest, even to worship in Jubilee Chapel, a mile away" (Smith 289).

In their now-settled life at the Robin's Nest, Sophia kept the habit of regular reading and knitting, and the Bishop started considering publishing a manuscript, which would later become the Reminiscences. As Sophia prepared for her trip to the East in 1839, the Bishop wrote to Mrs. L. H. Sigourney in Hartford, asking for her assistance as editor of his work. She replied to Sophia on March 16, 1839:

"... [the Bishop] desiring me to address my reply to you.... One of the first steps, I suppose, would be to make conditions with some energetic Publisher here, for the American part of the work - and New York would doubtless be the best place - where your friends can aid you in those business negotiations, which females can not so well manage."

And in a later letter:

"Still less fitting is it that a female should thus make herself conspicuous, whose duty it is, rather "to learn in silence at home", than to aspire at what I might well be counted, an undue elevation."

This statement explains the obscured role, though of much significance, Sophia played in her husband's life. Her contribution to the production of the Reminiscences will become clearer later.

Sophia set off on her journey east, stopping at Philadelphia, Kingston, Boston, Vermont, and Detroit, where she later met her husband. Later in March, the Bishop sent her the details of the laying of the cornerstone of Jubilee College. She wrote to him in a letter: "Do you know I am growing very vain, every person I am introduced to sees such a likeness to you that they inquire if we are not cousins, often observing that it is seldom brother and sister are so much alike!"

Of her activities with her daughter in the East, she wrote:

"We have engaged to spend the afternoon at the Museum and Gallery of Indian Portraits [with Dr. H. Beck].... Tuesday afternoon he again attended us to the Hospital to see West's painting, Chinese room, and gallery of fine arts. In the afternoon he... rode with us to the water works, and Girards College, so that the girls have had a fine opportunity of seeing all that is worth seeing in the City."

Upon returning with Mary, Sophia fell seriously ill with the typhoid fever. She had barely started to recover when the Bishop had to make a trip to the South and the East to gather funds. He brought back with him to the Robin's Nest his granddaughter Laura, daughter of the late George. She stayed with the family for almost a year.

The Robin's Nest consisted at this time of a central cabin containing a kitchen, two small bedrooms, and a little dark room filled with books, a dining-room which was also a living-room that had a coal fire, a bright carpet, and a wide lounge covered with a wolf-skin. On the walls here were books to the ceiling. There was a little frame room at each end of the house, one of which was the Bishop's study and sleeping-room, and the other had been added for their son Dudley and his wife.

The troubles of the journeys were to be somewhat improved by the early 1840's, with the advent of the railroad system. Laura wrote to the Bishop in June of 1841: "...the workmen on the railroad are coming on and the great work of connecting Boston with the Canadas is rapidly going on."

The Bishop started working on the Reminiscences, publishing the work in sections before its publication in its final two-volume edition. Sophia wrote him while he was on one of his journeys in the autumn of 1841:

"I have engaged a woman, aged 40, to assist me in sewing - so that I shall devote more time to the examination of your papers, and the Reminiscences - a box of the latter, with 50 unstitched copies for England.... And the list of subscribers...."

Sophia's helpfulness, even to strangers, was known to all, and Emily Pope once asked her for a favor in the following letter:

"though personally a stranger to you I feel as if I knew you and knowing your kind attention to those who are in sickness and distress must be my excuse for writing to you. I have a dear niece who three years since moved to Charleston, Peoria County in your state.... I find that her husband has communicated to her widowed mother the distressing intelligence of her severe illness. I believe you are located near her and my object in writing to you is to request that you will visit her and show her those kindnesses that I know you are ever ready to render to the stranger."

A testament of Sophia's repute in medicine is in her sister Charlotte Pope's letter a decade later:

"I am very nervous so that for the last two years I have been obliged to give up painting which was a great amusement to me and whiled away many a lonely hour - but my hand is too unsteady. As you are a "doctoress" perhaps you know something that will strengthen my nerves, if so please let me know...."

Mrs. Chase prescribed to her husband once:

"You complain of a nervous headache, if you remember you have it commonly at this season of the year, but it has yielded to small doses of Quinine. If not broke up this way I fear it will produce fever. I hope you will be very careful of your health, remembering you cannot bear what you could 20 years ago - this is truly serving the Church - even if you leave some present duties undone."

Their daily life for the next years followed the same routine. The Bishop made annual missionary trips to the South and the East, and Sophia with either Mary or the Bishop made her visits to the East in the spring of every year. She wrote in 1844 to her husband:

"...since my sickness, Mrs. Russell has done what I always did - visit all the rooms after the family had retired - we will take every precaution, and trust in the goodness of God to preserve us from so dreadful a calamity."

And a week later, to her daughter Mary:

"Good Mrs. Russell is with me still, and this kindness enables me to indulge my invalid feelings. I write (now making out my quarterly Post Office [report]), read, and saw, and do not, as yet, go beyond the three warm rooms.... The little girls here all appear very happy and well behaved - Lucia follows my advice and lets them sew 1/2 a day in the week while one reads aloud. This beside improving them in that most essential ornament to female education, needlework - keeps their clothes in good order, and the charge is gratifying to them.

Shall I tell you my greatest pleasure it is, to nurse your plants - they sympathized with me somewhat in my illness, dropping some of their leaves - but in the last fortnight put forth beautifully and refresh the eye, to look on them - reminding one of that blessed country where there is no frost to desolate but an everlasting spring. Surely it is an innocent amusement to love and tend flowers, when it associates the mind with heavenly thoughts."

In 1845, J. S. Chamberlain was awarded a scholarship at Jubilee College. By this year, Mary returned from her stay in Ohio. They were engaged a year later, and moved after their marriage to Minnesota. Mary would make frequent visits back to the Robin's Nest and Jubilee Hill during her pregnancies to be with her mother, before the Chamberlain family would finally move back to live at the Robin's Nest that would be left to them by Sophia.

A scholarship from Jubilee College. Subjects include Latin and Greek, Geography, English Grammar, Arithmetic, and Punctuality at Prayers and Recitations.

Sophia Chase's letter to her husband, the Bishop Philander Chase, dated Jan. 4, 1845, from Jubilee Hill. The letter folds to reveal the address on the left side.

Bishop Chase's letter to Sophia Chase dated Jan. 14, 1845.

A letter from Mrs. Marriatt to Bishop P. Chase dated April 30, 1845. Letters were usually written on one leaf of paper (before envelopes were made separately in the 1850's); therefore, when the writers ran out of space, they turned the paper 90 degrees and wrote over.

Continue to:

  1. 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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This page last updated: Monday, 07-Sep-1998 12:48:27 CDT

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