Sarah Hill Fletcher: A Pillar of Her Family and Community

I have often written on topics which involve Calvin Fletcher, not only because of his direct involvement with the topic, but also in reference to his extensive diaries. The diaries, which cover nine volumes from 1821 to 1866, are an important source of information about the early history of Indianapolis after its establishment by Euro-American settlers. For this post, I wanted to look at someone who is not Calvin Fletcher, but who played a significant role in his life and his diary and was a major factor in his success in Indianapolis. That person is Sarah Hill Fletcher, Calvin’s first wife.


Sarah and Calvin were married in 1821, while both were residing in Urbana, Ohio. Calvin had been teaching school in the town, and as explained by Sarah in a June 20, 1821, letter to her new sister-in-law, Louisa Fletcher, she first met Calvin four years earlier when she was 14 years old and a student at the school where he was teaching.

Indianapolis history Calvin and Sarah Fletcher
Sarah and Calvin Fletcher in a Daguerreotype taken on Sept. 20, 1844. Image from Volume 3 of Fletcher Diaries, Indiana Historical Society.

Sarah maintained her own diary for a short period of time after the marriage, although this fell by the wayside as the family became established in Indianapolis. Little mention of her is made in local newspapers and other available sources, and after she ceased maintaining a diary, most references and clues of her daily life comes from the references made by Calvin in his own diary. Sarah’s life and experiences on the Indiana frontier and Indianapolis, was likely similar to many other women in the area, but thankfully, we have more information about her life and responsibilities in Indianapolis.


On September 19th, 1821, Sarah recorded that she and Calvin started for Indianapolis from Urbana, reaching the new town, and future seat of government, on October 1. She stated that “[w]e arived[sic] and procured a house or rough cabin into which I entered with alacrity after enduring the fatigues of our journey which last thirteen days.” A week later the first sale of town lots was commenced in Indianapolis. On October 15, in a letter to a friend, Sarah noted that there were about 1,200 inhabitants in the new town.


For the time periods that Sarah did maintain her diary her entries are rather scattered, often with several days in between each. But from this, we can see that the early months in Indianapolis were spent involved in domestic duties, as well as continuing her education, including math and literature. She recorded baking pumpkin pies, spinning wool, shopping in the still tiny town, assisting neighbors with making items of clothing, and attending church services. She also read various schoolbooks during her spare time. On December 22, she received a letter from Calvin’s sister, and the next day, Sunday the 23rd, she recorded that she stayed home all day and read her letter from his sister again, along with “nosepapers.”


In the fall and winter of 1822-23, Sarah mentions frequently feeling ill, and not attending social events, and bouts of fatigue. This is the only clue of a pregnancy, and on April 15, she delivered her first child, a son, James Cooley. Over the course of the next 23 years, Sarah would have ten additional children: two daughters, Maria and Lucy, and another eight sons: Elijah, Calvin, Jr., Miles, Stoughton, Ingram, William, Stephen, and Albert, the youngest who was born in 1846. All survived to adulthood, quite a feat in those times. Descriptions of the birth of her children were limited, and as mentioned above, were usually preceded by her describing that she felt ill, or Calvin noting that “Mrs. F,” as he referred to her in the diary, as being sick, followed by an announcement of a birth, and then Calvin making some observation about the weather or a banking issue.


In 1826, Sarah apparently had some complications following the birth of their third son, Calvin, Jr., on September 30. On October 12, Kenneth Scudder, one of the early physicians in town, wrote to Calvin who was in Noblesville riding the judicial circuit, that “it is absolutely necessary that you should come hoe immediately,” due to Sarah’s illness which and the risk of her death. Calvin did immediately return, although he got lost in the dark at one point, to find Sarah’s condition improved. He attributed the illness to her eating some watermelon. Sarah was frequently ill, even aside from her pregnancies, although she was rarely sidelined for long from her activities in the household, or around town.


Sarah also carried the massive responsibility of maintaining and managing the household. While this was more limited in the early years of her time in Indianapolis, as the years past, this responsibility grew. In addition to overseeing the Fletcher household and managing the children, she also oversaw live-in servants, hired hands who worked on the Fletcher farms, and a constant parade of guests and friends who would stay with the family. Calvin’s entries also note her handling garden and farm work, including butchering of livestock.

Sarah with daughters Maria (R), and Lucy (L), Feb. 1, 1848. Credit: Image from Vol. 4 of the Fletcher Diaries, p. 9.

Aside from her work on the household, one of Sarah’s greatest skills was attending to the sick of Indianapolis. Again, relying on Calvin’s diaries, all volumes are full of references of her efforts to care for sick individuals around town. A component of this was midwifery. On February 6th, 1835, Calvin off handily reported that “Mrs. Fletcher was called by Judge Morris to go to his house…” Later that day, he reported that Sarah had returned from Judge Morris’s home, and also that the judge now had a “daughter second child by present wife.” While Calvin did not go into details, and Sarah was no longer recording a diary, this was an indication that Sarah had either managed, or assisted, with the birth. That she was called by Judge Morris himself, I think suggests the former.


Sarah also labored as a general nurse or doctor to the community. While there were formally trained doctors in town, or as formally trained as they could be at this time, Sarah is often noted as a primary caregiver, and Calvin frequently mentions her being called to tend to a sick or injured person. Calvin appropriately sings her praises for this work. On January 15, 1836, Calvin recorded in his diary that his sons James and Elijah were laid low with measles, along with others in the area, and that while a local doctor was involved in the care, Calvin makes it clear who was in charge:


“In Mrs. F. & my room James & Elijah are both stretched upon a trundle bed thickly broke out with the measles. Dr. Richmond tends on J. Hill a little but Mrs. Fletcher is principal doctor. 3 or 4 sick persons under her care gives her new energies & she is not as like to complain under such a state of affairs as when her burthens are light. In the administration of medicine & the general care of the sick & the afflicted under her ministration no one is better adapted. Her confidence & wisdom in management increase with the importance of the difficulties presented.”


Fletcher Diaries, Volume 1, p. 302


On February 6, 1839, Sarah is called late in the evening to the home of a Mr. Depew, who Calvin described as being sick, but the symptoms were fits of laughter. He regarded this as “a strange complaint,” although provided no further updates on the patient’s condition. In some cases, Calvin’s references to Sarah’s medical aid to local residents is in passing (in fact, the indexes to the diaries note many of these as ‘passim’) that a reader may not realize that Sarah had been summoned, or was going as a matter of course, to aid someone who was ill. In 1840, Calvin notes that a “Old Mrs. Butler is very sick.” A few lines later, he mentions “Mrs. F to Mr. Butlers,” before moving on to discuss upcoming legal matters. This reference indicates Mrs. F was going to provide care for Mrs. Butler.


A cholera epidemic struck Indianapolis in 1849-1850. Cholera was a somewhat frequent visitor to the city and was caused by contact with the fecal matter of an infected person. Poor sanitation and polluted water sources, especially those near latrines, help spawn and spread the disease. This particular pandemic was especially hard on the Fletchers, as some of their live in servants, two orphan girls they had raised, died as a result, and Sarah also became ill. During this time, Sarah had been traveling around town to visit their son Calvin and his wife, Emily, whose baby son was ill. Unfortunately, the child later died, although the cause was not clear. At the same time, Sarah was also tending to numerous friends and neighbors who were sick with cholera, or cholera like symptoms. She likely contracted cholera from these efforts and suffered with the affliction for several days. More history about the cholera epidemic of 1849-1850 in Indianapolis can be found at this blog post.


In addition to her frequent service providing care to ill friends and acquaintances, Sarah was also active in relief efforts to the poor of Indianapolis. She and Calvin were both longtime members of the Benevolent Society of Indianapolis, with clothing drives being frequent activities, especially during the winter months. Near the end of his own life, Calvin recollected his wife's efforts for the poor of the city, and that even before the benevolent society had been formed, Sarah and others had taken provisions to needy families more than 40 years prior.


In the summer of 1854 Sarah and Calvin traveled to Vermont for a Fletcher family reunion (The family hailed from Stowe, Vermont). While there, Calvin contracted cholera and was laid up for two weeks. Sarah cared for him and as described by Calvin, she “watched me night & day,” and after his recovery, the couple returned to Indianapolis on August 12. Just over a month later on Friday, September 22, Sarah came down with an unidentified illness, with abdominal pain and swelling. Calvin notes that Sarah believed it to be a uterine issue, and multiple doctors are called, although none disclose a diagnosis or provide relief. Sarah’s condition deteriorated over the course of the next few days. The children who were present (all except Cooley and Elijah) gathered to say goodbye, and as described by Calvin, she shook each child’s hand, giving special attention to Albert, the youngest, who Calvin described as “much agitated.” Sarah was vomiting blood, which doctors told Calvin was a sign of internal hemorrhage. In the early evening of Wednesday, September 27, 1854, Sarah began to spasm, and then exhibited quick breaths, before exhaling once more at exactly 6 pm. Numerous visitors had come by to visit during the previous few days, and Calvin noted that “[o]ur house was thronged with the poor & rich who deeply sympathized with us in our loss, great loss.”


Friends prepared the remains for burial, which was to be Friday, the 29th. Sarah Hill Fletcher was buried in the original city cemetery on the southwest side of downtown, today occupied by the Diamond Chain complex. Sarah was buried in a metal coffin, which Calvin explained was chosen over a wood one due to the risk of grave robbers: “We had all preferred wood but the remote probability[sic] that the sacred remains might be removed to some other spot a metallic[sic] was consented to.” The family plot in the cemetery had been purchased over 20 years prior, although the only two burials had been two orphan servant girls who had been raised in the Fletcher household and who had perished in 1850 during the cholera outbreak. Their deaths are discussed in this post, previously linked above.


In a happier note, the night before the funeral, Calvin Jr.’s wife gave birth to a little girl, who was named Sarah after her deceased grandmother. In 1865, Sarah’s remains along with those of other Fletcher family members, were transferred to the new family plot at Crown Hill Cemetery. Her headstone, marked SHF, sits next to Calvin’s C.F. In 1858, a few years after Calvin's second marriage in 1855, the family gathered for a portrait, one of the few times they were all together, which included a portrait of their late mother/wife. Calvin's second wife was not in the photo.

Calvin Sarah Fletcher family photo Indianapolis history
Fletcher family, December 27, 1858. Credit: Indiana Memory, Indianapolis Historic Preservation Commission Image Collection

I think it would be fair to look at Sarah Fletcher as a representative of the strength and fortitude of women on the Indiana frontier. No doubt others faced the same difficulties and possessed the same or similar responsibilities and skills as she during her 30 years living in the city. Not knowing those other stories is an unfortunate loss of important historical and cultural information. But from what we know of Sarah Fletcher, her dedication to her family and community was unmatched. Calvin’s own success, and the monuments, markers, and locations in the city bearing his name and history, would not have been possible without the force of nature that was Sarah Hill Fletcher.




Sources


Fletcher, C., & Fletcher, S. Hill. (1972). The Diary of Calvin Fletcher. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society. (Specific references below)


Fletcher Diaries, Volume 1, pp. 39-45, 61, 150, 241, 302, 331, 370, 382


Fletcher Diaries, Volume 2, pp. 39-45, 61, 150-1, 291, 302, 344, 54


Fletcher Dairies, Volume 3, p. 74


Fletcher Dairies, Volume 4, pp. 8-9, 199-205, 215-220


Fletcher Diaries, Volume 5, pp. 259-267


Fletcher Diaries, Volume 6, p. 279


Fletcher Diaries, Volume 9, p. 173


Calvin Fletcher Family in 1850s - Indianapolis Historic Preservation Commission Image Collection - Collections Hosted by the Indiana State Library, https://indianamemory.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/HT/id/1454




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