Sarah Soule Wilbour
1804 – 1891
Activist Author: Essay by Sheila Mackintosh
Exhibit Text from 2020 Special Exhibition
Activist Author: Essay by Sheila Mackintosh
Pleasant. I went with C.W. Howland to bring a young woman with her baby to the Poorhouse. When will the laws and public opinion treatmen and women alike in such cases? It is enough to make me believe inTotal Depravity. To see the man received the same as before in society& the woman an outcast. – Sarah Soule Wilbour, September 9, 1878
Sarah Soule Wilbour wrote this passage in her diary in the fall of 1878 when she was 74 years old. Mrs. Wilbour was a conscientious chronicler of Little Compton social, political and religious events as well as familial comings and goings. She also made note of national events. The Little Compton Historical Society owns dairies Mrs. Wilbour kept between 1882 up until her death in 1891 at the age of 87. A diary written in the year 1878 is now on loan from the Newport Historical Society. All of the diaries have been transcribed.
Mrs. Wilbour was born in 1804, the last of six children born to Governor Isaac Wilbour and his wife Hannah Tabor Wilbour. Isaac Wilbour was a member of Congress, acting Governor, Lt. Governor, a member of the Rhode Island Assembly and Speaker of the House. The Isaac Wilbour family lived on West Main Road on the farm that would become part of “the biggest poultry town in the world” in the 1880s and 1890s.
In an 1885 essay entitled “Recollection of My Early School Days,” Mrs. Wilbour wrote about her education. She had attended the Peaked Top School at the age of 5 and very sporadically “when I could be spared from household duties.” She graduated in 1825 at the age of 21.
I n 1827, Sarah Soule married her third cousin, Charles Wilbour, a farmer and a lawyer, and two years later moved to a farm on the north side of Swamp Road near the corner of West Main Road. The house was named ”Awasauncks,” and in 1853, Charles Wilbour purchased the ten-acre farm, house, barn and outbuildings for $1,610.
The Wilbours had two children. A daughter, Elizabeth, was born in 1829 but died before the age of three. Charles Edwin Wilbour was born in 1833 and adored by his mother. Many passages of Mrs. Wilbour’s diaries are devoted to Edwin, his family, and their travels throughout Europe and Egypt. Charles Edwin Wilbour became America’s first trained Egyptologist.
Mrs. Wilbour was very interested in family history and Little Compton history. A diary entry reads, “I am invited to B. F. Wilbour’s to meet a stranger who claims to have Wilbour ancestry. What will the
folks do when I am gone for somebody to tell them who they are?”
Mrs. Wilbour wrote essays on many local topics including the War of 1812, the First Friends Meeting House, John Simmons, founder of Simmons College; the Congregational Church; early clubs; graveyards; and the name for Little Compton as “Single Pole Town.” Mrs. Wilbour also received requests from non-residents interested in local history for information on topics such as the post office and local physicians. In addition, she did extensive genealogical research.
Sunday, November 24, 1878: Dull weather I have copied the Will ofWilliam Wilbur, the first of the name that bought land in this town, he lived & died in Portsmouth RI. But gave his lands in Little Compton tohis four sons William, Joseph, John and Samuel, who all settled hereand have many descendants here at this time 27 families.
Mrs. Wilbour’s recording of daily life in Little Compton creates a fascinating portrait of her, her family, and the community. Her 1878 diary is full of daily chores, visits with neighbors, illnesses, medicines,
deaths and politics. After Mr. Wilbour died of kidney disease in June 1882, the diaries detail even more of her daily life and are filled with comments about town government, national elections, the suffrage
movement, farming and religion. All the while, she waited patiently for letters from her son Edwin and his family in Paris or Egypt. The Edwin Wilbour family had been out of the country for eight years and returned shortly after Mr. Wilbour’s death in 1882. Throughout the diaries, Mrs. Wilbour looked forward to Edwin’s letters and journals from Egypt where he lived in a houseboat on the Nile, collecting artifacts and studying hieroglyphics.
A project Mrs. Wilbour was quite proud of was the Elizabeth Pabodie Monument. For 35 years, Mrs. Wilbour had wished to preserve the memory and the gravestone of Elizabeth Pabodie, who was born around 1624 to John Alden and Priscilla Mullins. Elizabeth was believed by Mrs. Wilbour to be the first white female child born in Plymouth. Mrs. Wilbour’s husband Charles was a direct descendant. Elizabeth
Pabodie had been buried in the Old Burying Ground adjacent to the United Congregational Church, her
gravestone sunken into the ground.Mrs. Wilbour feared it would be forever lost. In 1847, she started a
subscription to preserve the marker, and in June 1882 the monument that we are familiar with today was placed in the graveyard. The original tombstone marker was fitted into the west side of the monument. The north side states, “Elizabeth Pabodie, daughter of Plymouth Pilgrims, John Alden & Priscilla Mullin, the first white woman born in New England.” On the east side is a verse composed by
George S. Burleigh.
April 18, 1889: I fully believe that women are entitled to equalrights as express[ed] in the Declaration of Independence. I preach thedoctrine of equality before the Law, where ever I go, in highways &
byways, at home & abroad – SSW
Mrs. Wilbour was a staunch believer and active supporter of
women’s suffrage. In 1888, she wrote in her diary that Louisa Tyler
was visiting every town in Rhode Island for the Rhode Island Woman
Suffrage Association. Mrs. Tyler came to town in hopes of starting a
“league” in Little Compton and had tea with Mrs. Wilbour. The next
day a meeting was arranged and held in Mrs. Wilbour’s home. Ten
members were enlisted to the cause, and Mrs. Wilbour was elected
President. In October of the same year, Mrs. Wilbour received a letter
from Elizabeth B. Chace asking her to attend a suffrage meeting in
Providence, and Mrs. Wilbour made the trip. Her diary notes that she
had not met Mrs. Chace since 1836 when “we united to do what we
could to strengthen the heart and hands of William Lloyd Garrison in
his battle with hated Slavery.” Until Mrs. Wilbour’s death in 1891, her
diaries make note of the monthly Little Compton suffrage meetings,
state meetings in Providence, and fund raising for the national
One effort of Mrs. Wilbour’s in 1889 was to collect signatures
for a petition “for equal rights for women in settling intestate estates.”
In February of 1890, Mrs. Wilbour traveled to Washington D. C. to
attend Susan B. Anthony’s 70th birthday party. (She had also attended
Mrs. Anthony’s 50th birthday party in New York City in 1870.) While
in Washington, Mrs. Wilbour attended suffrage meetings where “19
states and territories” voted to unite and form one society called the
National Woman Suffrage Association, merging the National Woman
Suffrage Association with the American Woman Suffrage Association.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton was elected president and Susan B. Anthony
Mrs. Wilbour proudly wrote on April 3, 1884:
Had our spring town meeting and elected a member on the board of superintendents of schools. Mrs. Susan H. Brownell was chosen. The first time in the history of our Town that a woman has beenelected to that office. Mrs. Anna Brownell was elected Trustee for
District No. 5. The work of womans enfranchisement goes slowly but
Mrs. Wilbour wrote that she attended the April 12, 1886, Little
Compton Town Council meeting to seek permission to “lower”
Simmons Hill. Wood harvested from the Colebrook Road woods was
hauled by teams to houses on the west side of town. Mrs. Wilbour was
concerned about the animals that had to pull those heavy loads over the
“sharp” hill and proposed paying to have the hill lowered in lieu of
paying her highway tax. She received permission to do as much as she
pleased, according to her diary, and promptly hired seven men to do the
work. She checked their progress regularly. By the middle of May the
work had been completed and the workmen paid. She paid each man $5
a day for a cart, team, tools and labor. “Nov. 14, 1886: Rode to the
village. Paid my Town Tax [of] $32.30. I paid under Protest. In season
and out of season I will raise my voice against taxation without
After Mr. Wilbour’s death in 1882, Mrs. Wilbour moved to the
home of her nephew, Isaac Champlin Wilbour, for the winter months
each year until she died. Mrs. Wilbour seldom mentioned attending
church on Sunday, but she did have opinions about the services and
Sun. Nov. 16, 1890: I rode to Mrs. Borden’s with Isaac. It was
a fine morning and many people were out. Mr. Jenkins of Providence
was to preach at the white Church. But Lo! There was no kindling and
the sexton failed to make fire. Minister and majority of the people went
to the M.E. Church where they had fire. They don’t have the oldfashioned
Fire and Brimstone preaching of the former days which kept
their ancestors warm in a barn like house where there was no fire for
90 years except what the old Ladies carried in their foot stoves.
As a child, Mrs. Wilbour attended services at the Friends
Meeting House with her father. In an essay entitled “The First Friends
Meeting House,” she reminisced about the silent Meetings, those who
were in attendance, and watching for the handshakes that indicated the
end of the service. In later years, she attended a Friends Quarterly
Meeting in New Bedford in 1883 and the yearly Meeting in Westerly in
1889. On a Sunday in 1882 she wrote, “This day but a repetition of
most of our Sabbaths. We sit in our loneliness and read.” On another Sunday, “The day past quietly as do all our Sabbaths. They would be
days of rest if old people ever felt rested.” Mrs. Wilbour did pay a
ministerial tax and give barrels of flour to the ministers for Christmas.
She made pointed remarks about church being where friends meet “and
have a social ‘how do you do’ and talk about the weather and the price
of eggs.” Another entry reads, “I rode to the Common with Isaac, left a
$5 bill with the Treasurer of the Church for the minister. Thought he
might preach better tomorrow if he had a crisp note in his pocket.”
In January 1886 she wrote, “We have not had a pleasant day
this week, snow & rain drizzle & fog. The chicken trade goes ahead of
all. Incubators, brooders and chicken houses are being multiplied.
Already the peep of young chickens is heard all over the
neighborhood.” During these months, Mrs. Wilbour described the
thriving poultry market, how the weather impacted the birds and the
crops, where eggs were marketed, and the various ways they were
transported. In May of 1889, Mrs. Wilbour stated, “this might well be
called Poultry Town such numbers of Goslins, and there is a market for
them, when they are small, $1 and $1.50 for little things just beginning
to feather.” In addition to poultry and eggs, Isaac C. Wilbour and his
son Philip marketed beans, peppers, squash, beef, pork and lamb,
according to the diaries.
Being in Isaac C. Wilbour’s house was important to Mrs.
Wilbour for reasons other than companionship, comfort, and safety
during the last years of her life. In the fall of 1886, she wrote about the
layers of meaning the house had for her.
Forty seven years ago to day my Father died in this room
where I am now writing. Here also my brother passed away in 1848. In
this room the present owner, my brother’s only son, was born – and
more than all to me in this room Charles and I spent those hours, when
Love’s young dream wakes in the soul a happiness unknown before.
These walls witnessed the pledge of fidelity to each other which
remained unshaken till Death dissolved the earthly tie, and left only the
Hope of reunion hereafter.
It was in this house that Mrs. Wilbour died five years later.
As a staunch Republican, Mrs. Wilbour tells us in no uncertain
terms how upset she is by Grover Cleveland’s election as President.
March 4, 1885: Today a Democrat walks into the White House
at Washington inaugurated President of the United States. The sunshines and every thing in Nature moves on as usual – May we hope no
moral or financial earthquake will follow as a consequence of this days
doings. It is humiliating to see a man of Grover Clevelands character
and small abilities elevated to the Presidential chair, but saddest of all
the existence of a debased standard of morals that would make such a
thing Possible. Have renewed my insurance policy.
When Benjamin Harrison was elected president four years later, Mrs.
Wilbour’s entry is more optimistic.
March 4, 1889: Today a Republican party assumes the reins of
Government, multitudes, assemble at Washington to see the pageant of
inauguration. It being our party we look for improvement in the
administration of the National affairs. Mr. French is raising the big
Mrs. Wilbour had strong opinions about Indians, King Philip in
particular, as we read in this summation of a discussion with a visitor.
January 6, 1890: Mr. Leonard came in the evening. We had a
spirited talk about the Indians. He denounced Philip as treacherous
ugly nasty beast, which the English did right to destroy. I said he fought
for his country and his race his hunting grounds and the graves of his
ancestors and who among us who believed in taking up arms would not
do the same.
Although Mrs. Wilbour mentions several times the books she is reading
about King Philip’s War, there is no other mention of this issue in the
diaries we have today.
In 1890, Mrs. Wilbour was 86 years old. The walk referenced
below is one she made often between Awasauncks and her winter home
at Isaac C. Wilbour’s, a distance of three quarters of a mile.
October 11, 1890: Rested yesterday. Today repeated my walk
with the exception of a ride from George Gray’s gate on an ox cart, the
news of which preceded me to my home where, on my arrival, I was
given to understand that it was not considered Lady like for Mrs. Sarah
S. Wilbour to ride on the tail of an “Ox Cart.” I don’t feel that I have
compromised the dignity of the family.
Mrs. Wilbour traveled regularly to New Bedford and Fall River
to do her banking and to visit family and friends. She was proud that
she could travel to New Bedford and back in a single day at her age.
October 16, 1890: Charles Howland took me to New Bedford.Got my dividends. Called on Lizzie Wood. Were detained at the Head ofWestport on our way home so that it was very dark (it having clouded over) coming thro Cole Brook woods. Sometimes we could not see the horse. We were in great danger of co lliding if we met a team or goingoff into the ditch. Twice we stopped. Charles got out and felt the wayback to the path. Once I put up my hand and I could not see it. But wegot home safe and kept our perils to our selves. Shall take care not tobe caught again.
Summer visitors to Little Compton were referred to as “strangers” by Mrs. Wilbour and were a topic of discussion then as they are now. In 1890 she commented:
It has been very warm for several days. Visitors and boarders
from the Citys are over running us. I don’t like this influx of strangers.
They bring extravagant habits and break up the quiet of good old
Compton. And later: I don’t want strangers buying our pleasant places
and getting control of our affairs. They shall not have an acre of mine
while I Live.
Awasauncks, where Mrs. Wilbour had first moved with her
new husband to “set up housekeeping,” was demolished around 1938.
The house, while rented for a time, was left full of furniture, artwork,
and family papers. The house had become known as “the haunted
house,” according to Carlton Brownell, and although boarded up, was
played in by local youth. By 1938, all but one of this Wilbour’s family
had died. Mrs. Wilbour’s granddaughter Theodora no longer came to
Little Compton, feeling that the Town’s people did not respect her
family and, in particular, her father. Carlton Brownell wrote to Miss
Wilbour asking if he could have the coach that had belonged to Charles
Edwin Wilbour, and she gave him permission to take it as well as all the
other vehicles. Around 1990, the coach was refurbished by the Little
Compton Historical Society, by John Nelson and his son, Michael,
relatives of the Wilbour family.
Dr. Franklin C. Southworth, first president of the LCHS, had
attempted to obtain Awasauncks before its demolition. The Fall River
Herald News on September 15, 1937, printed an article based on a
paper by Benjamin Franklin Wilbour, entitled “Awashonks, Part of
Third Purchase in 1675, Offered to Little Compton Historical Society.”
It stated that Theodora Wilbour had offered Awasauncks to the Society,
but a year later the building was destroyed. Apparently not aware of the
newly formed Little Compton Historical Society, Miss Wilbour had
contacted the Newport Historical Society earlier and asked them to
collect what they wanted from the house before it was demolished. We
are fortunate that The Newport Historical Society was able to respond,
for they salvaged many family letters, a diary, documents, a large sofa
and samplers. The Little Compton Historical Society also owns three color
posters of Egyptian murals retrieved from Awasauncks, as well as
a photo album, glass photo plates, portraits, and other small items.
We will never know the fate of the young woman and her baby taken to the Poor House by Mr. Howland and Mrs. Wilbour in 1878. The entry does tell us, however, about the character and sensibilities of the writer who portrayed the strengths and weaknesses of her small community as she saw them. We do not know how many diaries Sarah Soule Wilbour actually kept over the years and can assume that there were more we have not been able to read. The diaries have been a valuable resource over the years, extensively quoted in Notes on Little Compton and other Little Compton Historical Society publications. A more complete picture of her life and the community is obtained by reading the daily entries detailing farm life, visits by friends and family, the lives of her neighbors, and yes, the weather.
First published in Portraits in Time, a publication of the Little Compton Historical Society in 2006.
First published in Portraits in Time, a publication of the Little Compton Historical Society in 2006.
Exhibit Text from 2020 Special Exhibition
At times Sarah Soule Wilbour could not go to school. Her mother was an invalid, and even though theirs was a privileged household (her father once served at the Governor of RI), Sarah was needed at home. When a Brown University student came to Little Compton to teach advanced classes, Sarah, now in her 20s, regularly walked two miles to the Commons to complete a course in grammar. She put those skills to use, especially later in life when she kept a diary, researched her geneaology, and wrote local histories that have been quoted repeatedly for over 100 years.
In addition to writing, Sarah took action. She was an abolitionist as well as a suffragist, traveling to Washington, DC at the age of 85 to attend Susan B. Anthony’s birthday gala. As a widow she protested against “taxation without representation” when she paid her taxes. Sarah cared for the poor and funded community projects. In the 1840s she began an effort to preserve Betty Alden’s gravestone. She was 40 years ahead of her time. It wasn’t until the Colonial Revival of the 1880s that the general public began to share Sarah’s interest in the past and fully funded the project.
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