Finding the Elusive Alinda: The Search for Women Ferry Operators of South Lake Champlain

The lives and heroism of women are, for the most part, an unwritten history, that may be likened to the canvas upon which men have painted their own deeds in glowing tints . . . little is ever said about the part women bear in the making of history.

                                                                                                May King Van Rensselaer, 1905

Throughout 2020, as America celebrated the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote, Lake Champlain Maritime Museum has been exploring the struggle for women’s suffrage in the Champlain Valley and their leadership in many aspects of life on the lake. The search has been both fascinating and challenging: uncovering details of real-life stories is part time-travel, part mystery!

For many years, American history focused on the record of “great events” rather than documenting the many people whose efforts established and sustained our communities. As historian Linda Kerber observed, There were two perspectives . . . on any great event . . . and of the two, retrieving the women’s perspective was the more challenging and difficult.

The Women’s Suffrage Centennial gave the Maritime Museum an opportunity to engage our visitors in conversations that would help us reach beyond the “great events” approach. Knowing that Lake Champlain’s working waterfront is an environment in which women have long overcome gender stereotypes, we decided to dig deeper into the lives of women who had operated ferries on the lake. In the fall of 2019, we asked Museum visitors, “Did you know that there were female ferry captains on Lake Champlain?” and, “If you could ask a woman captain of the past any questions, what would they be?”

We anticipated the need to answer maritime questions about boat size, cargo and passenger limits, crews, and command. But we found that our visitors were equally curious about other aspects of the women’s lives: Did they have children and raise families? How were they raised, and how did they learn their skills? Did they live on farms? Were they respected by their communities? Did they inspire young people to follow their example? These questions broadened our vision for uncovering a more complete picture of women mariners in the Champlain Valley. 

We used these questions to fuel the research and design of a new digital exhibit, Women at the Helm, to uncover and share the stories of remarkable women ferry captains, scientists, and community leaders. With support from the Champlain Valley National Heritage Partnership and the Vermont Community Foundation’s South Lake Champlain Fund, we were able to ensure that our exhibit truly represented all of Lake Champlain, from New York to Vermont, from the South Lake to the Islands.

We recently added two new stories from the South Lake to this exhibit that perfectly encapsulate the adventure and mystery of this type of historical research. Before you log into the exhibit to meet Alinda Swain Wells Hutchinson (1763-1842) and Marjorie Hale Dickinson Morris (1899-1974), I wanted to share the behind-the-scenes view of what it was like researching one of these stories.  

Our research began with a handful of women’s names that appeared in the stories of South Lake ferries from our 1998 exhibit, Lake Champlain Bridge: Where Have All the Ferries Gone?  Just a single line on the page about the Frost Landing ferry mentioned “Alinda Wells in 1820” among operators of ferries between West Bridport, Vermont and Crown Point, New York. This placed her among the earliest ferry operators in the South Lake. There is no single source in which to trace the life story of a woman of the working waterfront in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. However, with the Museum’s collections and the many tools available today for online research, we were optimistic that we could find out more about Alinda Wells.

A quick search of Newspapers.com yielded a notice from the Vermont Mirror of March 10, 1813, listing administrators for the estate of Nathaniel Wells of Bridport: Alinda Wells, Nathaniel Wells, and Edward Wells. While we now had the names of a few members of Alinda’s family, the relationship between them was not immediately clear. Was Alinda working with her brothers or uncles to settle the estate of her father, or was she “widow of the deceased” and working with her sons?  

One other newspaper notice was discovered. Alinda Wells placed a notice in the October 9, 1827 Middlebury newspaper, the National Standard, announcing her intention topetition the Vermont Legislature “to have her ferry grant extended South to cover the lands of Joseph Frost, which is adjoining the subscriber, and also to land on both sides of Putnam’s Creek in the State of New York.”

Although brief, this legal notice not only confirmed that Alinda Wells held a ferry license from the Vermont Legislature, it also indicated that she managed her own business interests in both New York and Vermont. Checking on Google Maps we were delighted to find the names “Old Ferry Road” on the south side of Putnam Creek, and “Wolcott Ferry Road” on the north side of the creek still identifying the ferry site to the present day.

A weekend visit to the Pine Hill Cemetery in Addison County located several Wells family gravestones with weathered inscriptions from the right era, including a beautiful memorial for Nathaniel Wells, Jr., who was born on October 19, 1763, and died on January 20, 1813. But Alinda was not among them. However, the resource Find A Grave.com provided important details about Alinda and her family: Alinda Swain who married Nathaniel Wells, Jr. was born in Bridport on November 22, 1762, and died there on April 12, 1842; and she and Nathaniel had ten children! Suddenly, the picture of Alinda’s life began to emerge. She was born when the first settlers of English descent were establishing communities in South Lake Champlain. Her childhood was in a turbulent time, as the English governors of New York and New Hampshire both were issuing grants to the territories on the eastern shore of Lake Champlain without regard to the rights of the Native American inhabitants and prior French grantees. Alinda was 14 when the Revolutionary War broke out. By the end of the war, she had married Nathaniel Wells and their daughter Betsey was born. They settled on the shore of Lake Champlain in Bridport, where Alinda gave birth to nine more children in twenty years.

Grave of Nathaniel Wells, Jr., 1763-1813. Pine Hill Cemetery, Bridport, Addison County, Vermont. Photo by Alan Lathrop. Find a Grave, database and images (https://www.findagrave.com : accessed 14 December 2020), memorial page for Nathaniel Wells Jr. (19 Oct 1763–20 Jan 1813), Find a Grave Memorial no. 35769821, citing Pine Hill Cemetery, Bridport, Addison County, Vermont, USA ; Maintained by Elaine (contributor 46893309) .

On January 29, 1813, when Alinda was 51 years old, her husband died. Although their youngest son, Calvin, was only nine years old, Alinda’s older children were adolescents and adults. Alinda and her sons Nathaniel, age 24, and Edward, age 27, were appointed as administrators of Nathaniel Wells’ estate. For the next several months, they worked with court officials to settle Nathaniel’s financial affairs. These must have been challenging times for Alinda and her family.

In addition to their personal loss, travel on Lake Champlain had been disrupted by the threat of British invasion during the War of 1812. This situation may have contributed to the financial woes of Nathaniel Wells’ estate, as in 1811, Abel Baily and Alfred Nichols were granted a ten-year ferry license to operate “from Nathaniel Wells’ landing at Bridport to Sandy Point, Crown Point, New York.” The ferry might have provided some revenue for the Wells family, or the opportunity to transport farm produce to a wider market at little or no cost. Certainly, all would have been relieved when the Treaty of Ghent took effect in February 1815, and lake traffic was able to resume. Traditional lake sloops and schooners, and newly invented steamboats traveled north and south on the lake, while rowboats and scows often outfitted with sails, provided cross-lake service.

Ticonderoga, From the Foot of Mt. Defiance. Gleason’s Pictorial, 1854. This view would have been familiar to Alinda Wells and her family, and deeply meaningful to the generation that lived through the American Revolution in the Champlain Valley. Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, Crosby Collection, 2010.008.007.086

Alinda continued to live in the family home, and later records suggest that her son Edward lived on the property as well. The renewal of lake traffic to their wharf may have helped to stabilize the family’s finances. This time period seems to have been important for the Wells family. In 1819, at the age of 33, Alinda’s son Edward married Eunice Farnham, of Benson, Vermont; her 25 year old son Israel married Hulda Davis; and Alinda’s 22 year old son James married Mary Elizabeth Davis of Crown Point. In 1820, James and Mary Elizabeth’s first child was born, a son named Orson Wells. Newly a grandmother, in that same year Alinda Wells also became a ferry operator.

She did not need to establish a ferry, for the Baily and Nichols service had been operating for several years. It is possible that members of the Wells family – perhaps including Alinda herself – had helped as ferry crew, and learned how to operate the boat. As the time approached for the Baily-Nichols license to expire, Alinda applied for and received a license to operate the ferry herself.

There was enough demand for ferry service between Bridport and New York that by 1826 Crown Point had two ferry boats and Bridport had five. For several years, Alinda not only held her own in this busy working environment, she envisioned expansion. In October 1827, as the time for her license renewal approached, she petitioned the Vermont Legislature to have her ferry grant extended south to cover “the lands of Joseph Frost [in Bridport]” and “land on both sides of Putnam’s Creek in the State of New York.”

However, after her 1827 petition, there are no further records of Alinda in Bridport’s ferry operations. Instead, in 1830, Joseph Frost of Bridport was granted “the exclusive right of keeping a ferry for a period of fourteen years from Edward Wells’ wharf to Sandy Point, in the town of Crown Point, New York.”

What had become of Alinda? Records of the Bridport Town Clerk had the answer. In 1829, at age 67, Alinda Wells married David Hutchinson at Bridport. Perhaps she was ready to retire. Her family had expanded with the arrival of more grandchildren, Polly in 1821, Eunice and Henry in 1823, and a fourth generation Nathaniel in 1828, and more would join the family in the years ahead. The family endured losses as well. Alinda’s son Israel died in 1838 at age 45, Nathaniel in 1840, and James lost his wife Mary Elizabeth in 1841, most likely following the birth of their youngest son.

In April 1842, in her eightieth year, the long and remarkable life of Alinda Wells Hutchinson came to an end. For over 150 years, only her name on a list of ferry operators recalled her role in the community. It has been a fascinating experience rediscovering Alinda’s life and legacy for Women at the Helm. What we have gleaned about Alinda’s experiences calls into question some of the stereotypes about the degree to which nineteenth century women participated in the management of family and business affairs and helped to shape life in the communities of South Lake Champlain.

A Note on Names:

Anyone who attempts to trace the life of a woman in historical records faces many challenges, among them the issue of surname changes, as this project demonstrates. It was quite a triumph when we confirmed that Alinda’s maiden name was Swain, and discovered that the reason Alinda Wells disappeared from the records was that she had remarried late in life, and had become Alinda Hutchinson! For simplicity, in creating our digital exhibit, we have chosen to refer to each woman by her first name, rather than asking readers to keep track of the fact that “Swain” in the 1760s, “Wells” in the 1790s, and “Hutchinson” in the 1840s refer to the same individual. Moreover, if we used surnames only, it would be difficult to know whether a reference to “Wells” meant Alinda, her husband Nathaniel, or one of their ten children!

By Eloise Beil, Curator Emerita


Acknowledgements:

Lake Champlain Maritime Museum is grateful for a grant from the South Lake Champlain Fund of the Vermont Community Foundation that supported our research into the lives of women mariners Alinda Swain Wells Hutchinson of Bridport and Marjorie Hale Dickinson Morris of Benson, and to the Champlain Valley National Heritage Partnership for their support of the special digital exhibit, Women at the Helm. The Museum is deeply grateful for research on South Lake ferries donated to Lake Champlain Maritime Museum by A. Peter Barranco and Don Wickman. Special thanks to Elisa Nelson for her expert and enthusiastic help in tracking Alinda Wells and her family through the maze of genealogical websites, historical records, and for her fieldwork in the historic cemeteries of Addison County.

5 thoughts on “Finding the Elusive Alinda: The Search for Women Ferry Operators of South Lake Champlain”

  1. Eloise:
    Fascinating story. Well written, easy to follow the clues. What detective work! Congratulations and thanks for bringing this woman’s life to light. So full. I wonder if she had help, though her children would have been that.

  2. These stories always put our lives into perspective. Our accomplishments always seem so easy in todays context as compared to the rigors of life in the past. Nice going and thanks for the reality check.

  3. Gene Huntley Porter

    A really clear and memorable sliver of history “On the Great Warpath” . My family on both sides showed up on this part of the Lake shore in the late 1800s. I wonder if they were passengers on Alinda’s ferries/.

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