Eliza Southgate during her short lifetime traveled from rural Maine at the tail end of the American Revolution to the social whirl of New York City. She came from a prosperous family and then married into more prosperity. Her letters to her mother reveal a young woman deliriously happy with her upward mobility.
She was born in Scarborough, District of Maine, on Sept. 24, 1783, to Dr. Robert Southgate and Mary King Southgate, the daughter of a wealthy landowner. Eliza was the third of 12 children. Dr. Southgate’s practice flourished, and he eventually became a judge.
All the Southgate children had good educations by the standards of the time. After they finished the Scarborough public school, they went to boarding school near Boston. At 14, Eliza attended Susanna Rowson‘s Young Ladies’ Academy in Medford, Mass.
Eliza Southgate Bowne
She met Walter Bowne while visiting the fashionable Saratoga Springs resort in the company of Mr. and Mrs. Haskett Derby. Bowne, a wealthy Quaker from Long Island, would later win election as the 59th mayor of New York City in 1829. They married in the spring of 1803 and moved to New York.
The city captivated her. “You cannot imagine anything half so beautiful as Broadway,” she wrote to her mother in June 1803. On July 8, 1803, Elizabeth Southgate wrote another letter to her mother:
You must have perceived, my dear mother, from my letters, that I am much pleased with New-York. I was never in a place that I should prefer as a situation for life, and nothing but the distance from my friends can render it other than delightful. We have thus far spent the summer delightfully; we have been (on) no very long journeys, but on a number of little excursions of twenty or forty miles to see whatever is pleasant in the neighborhood.
Mr. Bowne’ s friends, though all very plain, are very amiable and affectionate, and I receive every attention from them I wish. I have a great many people call on me, and shall have it in my power to select just such a circle of acquaintance as suits my taste : few people whose prospects of happiness exceed mine, which I often think of with grateful sensations. Mr. Bowne’s situation in life is equal to my most sanguine expectations, and it is a peculiar gratification to me to find him so much and so universally esteemed and respected. This would be ridiculous from me to any but my mother, but I know it must be pleasing to you to know that I realize all the happiness you can wish me. I have not a wish that is not gratified as soon as ’tis known. We intend going to Bethlehem, Philadelphia, and a watering-place, similar to the Springs, about thirty miles beyond Philadelphia : shall probably set out the latter part of this month. At present we have done nothing toward housekeeping, and Mr. Bowne won’t let me do the least thing toward it, lest I get my mind engaged, and not enjoy the pleasure of our journeys.
‘ Tis very diffeerent here from most any place, for there is no article but you can find ready made to your taste, excepting table-linen, bedding, etc., etc. One poor bed-quilt is all I have toward housekeeping, and been married two months almost. I am sadly off, to be sure. We have not yet found a house that suits us. Mr. Bowne don’t like any of his own, and wishes to hire one for the present, until he can build, which he intends doing next season, which I am very glad of, as I never liked living in a hired house, and changing about so often. Uncle and Aunt King want we should get near them ; they have hired a ready-furnished house about two miles out of the city for the summer, and intend hiring a house in town in the winter. I have been very busy with my mantua-maker, as I am having a dress made to wear to Mrs. Delafield’s to dinner on Sunday. They have a most superb country-seat on Long Island, opposite Hell Gate. He is Uncle Rufus’s most intimate friend, and a very intimate one of Mr. Bowne’s. We shall probably meet them there. I have not seen them to ask.
Malbone Paints Eliza Southgate Bowne
She had her portrait done by a society painter, Edward Green Malbone, who also died young.
My picture is done, but I am disappointed in it. Malbone says he has not done me justice; so says Mr. Bowne; but I think, though the features are striking, he has not caught the expression, particularly of the eyes, which are excessively pensive, — would do for Sterne’s Maria. The mouth laughs a little, and they all say is good, — all the lower part of the face,- but the eyes not the thing. He wants me to sit again; so does Mr. Bowne Malbone thinks he could do much better in another position. I get so tired, 1 am quite reluctant about sitting again. However, I intend showing it to some of our friends before we determine.
Missing Friends and Enccountering Smallpox
How do all our friends at Saco and Topsham do? I often think of them ; and Mr. Bowne and myself are talking of coming to see you next summer very seriously. How comes on the new house? We are to come as soon as ever that is finished. If you choose to send so far, I will purchase any kind of furniture you may wish, perhaps cheaper and better than you can get elsewhere. Adieu! Remember me to all the children. Dear little Mary.’ I can’t help crying sometimes, ‘with all my pleasures and amusements : ’tis impossible to be at once reconciled to quitting all one’s friends. I thought a great deal without wishing them here. How does Horatio succeed in business, — as well as he expected? How come on Fathers turnpike and diking? Tell him I yesterday met a woman full broke out writhe the small-pox. I was within a yard of her before I perceived it. The first sensation was terror, and I ran several paces before I recollected myself. As soon as I arrived in town. Dr. Moore examined my arm, inquired the particulars, and refused to inoculate me again; that he would venture to insure me from the small-pox; that he had inoculated hundreds, and never had one take the small-pox after the kine-pox. Adieu!
Your affectionate daughter,
ELIZA S. BOWNE.
P. S. — All the family desire to be remembered particularly. Mr. B. is out to dine.
They would have two children, Walter and Mary. But Eliza contracted tuberculosis, and they decided she should spend the winter of 1808-09 in South Carolina.
Eliza Southgate died on Feb. 19, 1809. She was 25 years old.
With thanks to Growing Up Female in America: Ten Lives, by Eve Merriam. This story updated in 2022.