Search billions of records on

Return to Mercer Home Page
Part 2 - 1834 to 1845
Surnames Page

Social and Home Life in the 30's and 40's

Our statistics tell us that our "history" pages are not nearly as popular as the family pages. In a way this is too bad - as understanding the context in which our ancestors lived can often lead to as many or more genealogical discoveries than bundles of names and dates entered in family files. We wish to thank those of you who do take the time and trouble to read the history and welcome any comments and additions you might have.

The Churches

As always the church was one of the main centers of social life. In the very early days survival took precedence even over religion except for the homely prayer by the individual for protection in the wild land. Someone wondered why the Willits family who had been devout Quakers for generations were no longer Quakers in Mercer County. This is a good question as more families than the Willits had deep Quaker roots, and some of the families returned to their Quaker roots when they moved on West. Our best guess is that survival was so difficult that there was little time to devote to organized religion and people attended what services they could find, regardless of the denomination of the preacher. The History of Mercer County, 1882 gives us some small glimpses into early worship.

The earliest preaching was by the Reverend John Montgomery who settled in Preemption township in the spring of 1836. He was a Presbyterian and held services throughout the county in different places. The first Methodist minister was the Reverend Asa McMurtry, who preached at the house of John Nevius in 1838. A Methodist Episcopal Church Society was organized in July 1838 at the residence of Emily Burleigh. The first resident preacher was George Smith. After Joseph Alyea built his house in the town of New Boston meetings moved there (about 1839). Preachers at the time were allowed $75 a year for table expenses and $100 salary. Their circuits were large and they worked or traveled almost every day.

The Baptist Society was organized in 1844 including the Denisons as members. Elder Hovey was pastor for five years though of an advanced age.

There is brief information on Free Will Baptists at the bottom of the Blaisdell Page.

The vast majority of the first inhabitants were Universalists and were administered to from about 1842 to 1850 by a traveling preacher, Rev. Gregg. The Mercer History tell us "The outward evidence was that the Master's kingdom did not more than hold its own. B. L. Hardin, who came in the spring of 1841, was here three months, he says, before he discovered a professing christian, though like Diogenes he hunted the bailiwick over... . The first meeting he attended, at a Mr. Rader's, where the congregation numbered just six persons, including Mr. Rader's family. The Rev. Wiley was the itinerant. Preaching followed at that place every four weeks during the summer... ." Benjamin Hardin set himself to make benches to seat worshippers and like Noah's ark, his activity invited questions and soon people began to want to gather for worship.

More Mercer County church history in this time period can be found as part of the Primitive Baptist Church Web Site. It contains a brief history of the Edwards River Regular Baptist Church of Jesus Christ. Minutes of a meeting held July 21, 1838, list Jeremiah Swafford as a chosen moderator, and Abraham Miller, Jr., as clerk. It was held within the present limits of Perryton township. The last regular meeting was held October 9, 1847, when it was decided to dissolve because members were moving away. Most went to Oregon territory. There is a fascinating Web Site with the history of the Miller family of Millersburg (which included Abraham Miller, Jr.) and of the trip to Oregon.

There is also a very brief history of Concord Church organized at the home of William Denison in the vicinity of New Boston on the second Saturday in August, 1839. The church was dropped from membership in the Des Moines River Association in 1845 as a result of "departure from the faith."

There is mention of a Latter-Day Saints Church formation in both Duncan and Millersburg Townships. From Page 220 of the 1882 History of Mercer County "The third and last of the churches now represented in Millersburg is the Latter-Day Saints' church, not unfrequently called Mormons, but the people of this faith here detest the very idea of polygamy (emphasis added). This doctrine of the church was first preached in the county about 1840, by Elder G. M. Hinkle." This was probably not the Mormon church at all but the Reformed Latter Day Saints Church. More on this on the Social Life in the 1860's page.


In 1845 Keithsburg consisted of one frame house fitted up as a store, one log house and three cabins. When the seat of early worship moved to Keithsburg, Noble and Gayle soon built an additional store. We know from Isaac Willitsí will in 1842 that a store was operated by Drury and Willits, probably in a house and probably in or near New Boston.

At this period goods were sold on long credit, a year's time. After a day of large sales there would be no money in the store drawer. At the end of the year debtors settled their accounts by note. Many of these ran one, two, or three years or more. We also see evidence of leading citizens, such as Isaac Willits, acting as an informal banker for his neighbors. Nearly $2000 was owed him at his death, with some mortgages, but including small amounts loaned at 8 to 10 per cent per annum. Additionally, Isaac took the equivalent of checks. On April 17, 1844, John Moore wrote such a check as a note to Isaac requesting that Isaac pay the bearer $3.00. It is thanks to this system that we have the wonderful items from Isaac Willits' will seen in the Part 2 discussion.

We can also deduce the tasks of the lady of the house from some of the store purchases. The list of Isaac Willits' debt to the store begins with purchases in August of 1843 and end with $3.00 in shrouding in November 1844. (Hint: if you have trouble deducing an actual date of death from a will and probate look for the purchase of shrouding and it will probably be on the day or the day after the death.)

Lady's Work

Mary Willits [wife of Isaac] made clothing for her family as well as household articles. She purchased 31 yards of sheeting, cotton yarn, 2 yd calico, 7 yd flannel and 1 1/2 yd of expensive but unnamed cloth ($3.50 a yard). She also bought Jaconet, a light weight cotton cloth, of a gauze weight. She evidently made a new bonnet in August of 1843, for she purchased a bonnet board and bonnet wire, as well as ribbons and trimmings. The only other item specifically noted as purchased by wife, was 3 oz of indigo and madder on October 20, 1843. An additional purchase of madder and alum was made August 24. Alum is aluminum potassium sulfate or ammonium aluminum sulfate, used to stabilize dyes so they become more light and wash fast. Both madder and indigo were imported dye materials. Madder came from the dried root of the madder plant and was used to dye varied shades of red, rose and scarlet. Indigo originates from the leaves of the indigofera plant and produces a blue color. Since no purchase is listed for a yellow dye, Mary may have used local plants such as goldenrod for that color. She certainly used bark and nuts to obtain various browns. Oak bark, called quercitron, was commonly used, and the hull of the black walnut was also put to use, chiefly in dyeing wool. (The Dyer's Companion, Elijah Bemiss, 1815.)

Mary purchased readywoven cotton goods, but the Willits inventory listed 16 sheep, so she probably spun some of her own fleece into wool. Indeed, the inventory lists one large wool wheel and reel. A wool wheel is known as a walking wheel, for it is used standing while swaying or pacing to keep up the rythm of drawing out the wool fleece into a fine yarn and then winding it around the bobbin of the spinning wheel. When the bobbin is full, it must be wound off the wheel and placed into a skein, then wet and hung with a weight or placed under tension to dry, so that the yarn will not untwist when used. A yarn reel is used to wind a skein of yarn. Mary's owning both reel and wheel indicated she was a spinner. A debt of $1.56 is listed in July 1842 for carding. Perhaps Mary Willits sent her raw fleece to William Dilly for cleaning and preparation for spinning, rather than prepare it herself. If she did prepare it at home, she would have used the pair of cotton cards listed in the inventory. The inventory listed no loom, so Mary probably did not weave that yarn into cloth. This is confirmed by a payment from Isaac's estate on April 8, 1845 to Sally Halsey for weaving 10 yds of blanketing at 12.5 cents per yard for a total of $1.25 "This above amount had to be paid to Mrs. Halsey before the blanket could be had."

Mary made candles as a ball of wicking was bought. They would be dipped with tallow from butchering animals. There is a wonderful Web Site that is digitizing old cook books from the 18th and 19th centuries and the images are available on line. The site also includes a glossary of cooking terms from that era.

Young Ladies Needlework

Young ladies began at an early age to learn the skills of homemaking including needlework. A stunning example probably made in the late 1840's in Mercer County by Harriet Denison made the journey to California with the Denisons and was purchased by Bill Hanlon. To see the story of this sampler and a photo {Click }

Other Family Usages

In 1843 the Willits purchased 75 pounds of salt and then 110 pounds in 1844. The large amount was probably necessary for preserving food. They would have grown their own potatoes and other vegetables and their own meat, or taken them in trade for items they made. Tobacco was a regular purchase (one time specified as plug tobacco (for chewing). Health related items were purchased. Quinine was kept on hand as a specific for fevers and malaria, called the ague (see Medicine page). Someone, probably Isaac, who was a reader, purchased a pair of spectacles. "Books" were purchased. A razor and razor strop were purchased for shaving, perhaps for young Milton, as Isaac probably wore a beard as that was the style of the time for men. A bucket of lime (calcium oxide and magnesia) was purchased and probably used for mortar or plaster. Panes of glass, screws and nails were purchased but the family would have used lumber prepared by themselves from local trees as there were no lumber purchases or debts. 16 escutcheons (ornamental plates around keyholes) were also purchased. Letters were sent as the family regularly paid for postage. Items for Milton's education were purchased, such as one half quire (250 sheets) of paper and schoolbooks (a speller and a fourth reader.) This reflects their Quaker background as Quakers always educated their children. Mary signed with a mark but it is likely she could read.

William Crapnell was a shoemaker and he submitted the accounts which he kept for the Willits family for 1844 and 1845 into Isaac's probate. The family members spent $22.27 1/2 on shoes and boots during that period, including eight pairs of new shoes and boots for four people and several trips to mend boots, and receive new soles and heels. However, William Crapnell also rented eleven acres of ground from Issac. His rent of $22.00 cancelled most of that debt - only $1 of actual cash exchanged hands. Despite the shoemaking, Mary also purchased calfskin shoes at the store, imported from the East.

Isaac Willits also had an account with George Mossman, blacksmith. The account included work on an axe, shoeing of several horses, mending a chain, mending a well bucket, making a bolt. The balance owed of $3.51 took into account a credit of $9.99. Of that $9.99 only $1.00 was paid in cash; the other $8.99 included flour and other unspecified goods purchased at the Willits store, and a sow and pigs purchased by Willits.

Updates: 5/30/2008 Added a paragraph under churches above about the Reformed Latter Day Saints' Church.