Frances Ellen Palmer Richmond

Frances Ellen Palmer Richmond

1831 – 1896

Frances Ellen Palmer Richmond. Courtesy of Helen Richmond Webb.

Frances Ellen Palmer was born in Boston, the sixth child of Simeon and Mary (Caldwell) Palmer. While they lived in Boston, the Palmers had deep roots in Little Compton. Simeon was born in Little Compton on property granted to the family by the crown in 1630. His parents, and sister who died in childhood, are buried at the Commons and his son Horatio returned to establish his medical practice in Little Compton.

As a textile merchant Simeon provided a comfortable life for his family. They lived on Beacon Hill and belonged to the Park Street Church, a prominent Protestant missionary congregation committed to Trinitarian theology, social justice and human rights—principles that the family embraced. Both of Frances’ older brothers attended Harvard and Yale and trained to become physicians. Religious faith would be prominent throughout Frances’ life.

In 1853, when she was 22 her parents died of typhus within a month of each other. She likely lived with one of her married siblings until 1859 when she married Henry Isaac Richmond, the oldest son of Isaac Bailey and Abigail Brown Richmond of Little Compton. Henry had gone to California at the start of the gold rush in an unsuccesful attempt to establish a mercantile business in Benicia, but returned to the east coast in the mid-1850s. He purchased the Seaconet House on the old Bailey farm in 1854. Frances and Henry lived part of the year in Boston, where he was involved in the South American and Manila trades. In 1863 when the Seaconet House was torn down, they built a new quite grand home on the Bailey farm. Their only child, Henry Isaac Jr. was born in Little Compton in 1865. How they divided their time between Little Compton and Boston is unclear. Federal and state census records beginning in 1860 show them in Little Compton except in 1880 when they were living at a boarding house in Boston. With her closest sister Sophia living in Braintree and her brother Simeon in Milton the connections to Boston continued to be strong even after Henry retired in about 1879.

Letters written by Frances to her son, called Hal, while he was at Harvard reveal more of her personality. She clearly doted on her only child. “I enjoyed your visit more than words can tell, and am so often thinking of you and wishing you success in all good things and ways.” And more crypticly after he had visited home, “Every thing is going on here in the usual way, though there have been no coffee pots upset, or table-cloths decorated or brightened up with vivid red!”

She was interested in horticulture and both of them pressed and collected plants. “I looked carefully along the swamp road for the Marsh Marigolds but only the pussy willows were in bloom. Do our specimens compare favorably with those you saw at the Natural History Rooms?”

“I have done my very best with the Apple, Cherry and Pear and Slippery Elm, but the leaves look dark, probably because they are so young and green. The summer flowers retain their color better than those of spring—still those I have pressed are not unsatisfactory, the peach trees blossom before they put out their leaves.”

She often described nature and the weather to her son. “…it was a lovely afternoon and I thought of the lovely bath we had just a week before and of the beauty and grandeur of the ocean that afternoon. I shall never forget it as I never before saw it look as it did then.”

Religious faith remained a central part of her life. “I am reading “The Life of Mrs. Prentiss”, she writes of the Willis family (…the poet’s father’s family) who attended Park St Church in Boston—so it is doubly entertaining as aside from the interest in her, it carries me back to the old times …” Elizabeth Prentiss was a poet and author of a popular religious novel, Stepping Heavenward.

Frances copied out a out a long entry from the encyclopedia about Caligula’s bridge and remarked, “It is nice to know all about the few pictures we have, as it makes them more interesting.”

There are many reports of family visits and communications, both her Palmer relatives and the Richmonds. Included in the collection of letters, which is at the Little Compton Historical Society, is one written to Frances by a niece refering to a portrait of Simeon Palmer which is also in the society’s collection. “Yesterday my grandfather’s face was in my thoughts all day….I cannot understand how it is that no one of the grandchildren except my brother Sim looked like him. His was such an unusual face. If you look at the portrate you will see that it does not seem like an American face, but more like a foreign statesman.”

Hal finished his Masters degree in 1895. Having outlived all of her siblings, Frances Palmer Richmond died in Little Compton in July of the following year at the age of 65.

Helen Richmond Webb

April 2020

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