Betsey Seelye Sears

Date in History: 1813 – 1901

“On the 22d of October, 1843, we left our former home in the town of Camden, County of Oneida, State of New York, with our four little children, to go to the Far West”

So begins the poignant account written by Betsey Seelye Sears of her young family’s journey to her brother’s homestead in Waukesha. Traveling through the Erie Canal, the Sears family took a Great Lakes steamer to Detroit and then, in the month of November, road in the back of an ox-drawn open wagon to Milwaukee. Already beset by the cold and snow, the constant worry for her children, and their lack of money, the news of a smallpox outbreak at her brother’s home was about all the 30-year-old mother could bear

“There we were, worn out with fatigue, and my little children sick from the time we first put foot on the steamboat at Buffalo; looking forward to an hour of rest, the society of friends and a temporary home; then in a moment to have our hopes dashed to earth – it was too much. It seemed as though I must sink down and die. We had then traveled eighteen days, and I had carried my little babe, twenty-two months old, almost all the way in my lap; for it was so cold I had to keep her under my cloak. The youngest of our three little boys was very ill, requiring the constant attention of his father, who frequently stopped by the roadside with him, and was then compelled to run to overtake the wagon; for our teamster displayed his kindness by refusing to stop for anything or anybody. When we stopped at night, instead of rest I had to cook our suppers, for it would have cost us all we had to live in the taverns.”

The Sears waited for the smallpox epidemic to subside before arriving at her brother’s home. But their efforts to protect themselves failed. Shortly after her husband Silas set out to find a farm for them, Betsey and two of her children contracted this terrible disease. When Silas returned he faced a grim sight.

“Our two sick children looked so loathsome we could scarcely bear the sight of them. The next day, they grew worse and on Sunday, at 11 o’clock the little girl died; on Monday at 12 o’clock, her little brother followed her . . . what mother cannot imagine my feelings when I looked upon their innocent faces, covered with the repulsive marks of a terrible disease? They must be hurried into the ground as quick as possible and I not able to see them buried. But God strengthened my almost exhausted endurance, and I became resigned to my fate. I believe He is too wise to be mistaken, too good to be unkind.”

Shortly after the burials, on January 1st, 1844, Betsey and Silas and their two remaining children headed toward their makeshift cabin in Sullivan. Provisions at this time of year were scarce and there was little money for purchases. On the trip to Sullivan, Betsey, who was a talented seamstress, had noticed a farm with 18 hogs. ‘It occurred to me,” she later remembered, “that if they had so many hogs, they must have something else,” so she filled her satchel with “a few articles of my own manufacture” and headed off to make a sale. From then on, Betsey relied on her skill with a needle to sustain her family, selling a variety of items including knit caps, embroidered cloth, lace edging and painted tablecloths.

Things had just begun looking up, when in September 1845 she lost a third child, this time a ten-year-old son to pneumonia. “I thought the past was nothing compared with this; for it seemed my affections had been doubly entwined about our two boys after the others had been snatched from us.”

In 1848 the Sears sold their homestead and built an inn in the newly platted town of Rome, Wisconsin. They lived here until 1855 when Silas built a frame house near their first cabin in Sullivan. It was while living here that Betsey made a quilt of her own design that is now the pride and joy of the Hoard Museum’s quilt collection. The exquisite workmanship in this buttonhole stitched “Flowers & Urn” quilt has been recognized by the Milwaukee Art Museum, and by Wisconsin Quilts: Stories in the Stitches.

Silas died in 1859 and Betsey continued to sew and quilt to support herself for the rest of her life.

 

The following excerpt aired on the radio as an Historic Minute on 01/10/2005.

One of the finest quilts in the collection of the Hoard Museum is a buttonhole stitched quilt entitled “Flowers and Urn.” It was made by Betsey Sears, a woman who stoically led her young family on a cold and perilous journey from New York to Wisconsin back in 1843. Shortly after arriving in Wisconsin, two of her children, already weakened by a difficult trip, succumbed to smallpox. Just two years later she would lose another child – this time a beloved ten-year-old son – to pneumonia.

A talented seamstress, Betsy relied on her skill with a needle to sustain her family during these difficulties. The exquisite workmanship in her ” Flowers & Urn” quilt has been recognized by the Milwaukee Art Museum, which borrowed it in 1998 to make it the featured item in its sesquicentennial quilt exhibit.

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