The Gold Bracelet
on inheritance, Isabella Milne, and Philadelphia in the 1830s
When I was young, I spent a lot of my time at the local YMCA with my mom. She would work out while I played in the daycare, or she’d take me to swim lessons (where I would flounder and fear for my life, not a natural swimmer by any stretch of the imagination). My father worked long hours at the time, so in the evenings, it was often just my mother and I, floating from the YMCA to home. She would take me in our black Volvo to the upper parking lot behind the Y, where she’d demonstrate the car’s impressive turn radius by doing a suburban mom’s version of donuts — really — to my extreme delight.
One evening when we got back to the house, she noticed from the driveway that the door was slightly ajar. She called the police and took me to eat Wendy’s in the church parking lot down the road, painting it as an adventure, which I believed it was.
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It wasn’t until later that I found out our house had been robbed, and that the thieves had taken our big box TV, the stereo, and my mother’s jewelry. The TV and stereo were recovered but the jewelry was never found. My mom still searches for it in secondhand shops, in the hopes that someday she might come across it.
Among the jewelry, I’ve been told, were several heirlooms. These would have been passed down to me, as the only daughter, and while I’m not big on jewelry, the loss of the potential heirlooms saddens me.
I did receive one piece of jewelry — my maternal grandmother’s opal ring. It’s beautiful and delicate, and I treat it with extreme care, not wanting to lose it, particularly not now after she’s passed. A few months ago, I wore the ring at my wedding, and after the ceremony, showed it to my mother and cried, asking if she thought Grandma had been there. Of course, she said yes, and in some ways this is what I’m getting at in these writings: in what ways are our ancestors “here?”
With Grandma, it’s easy to know how she’s here. I can see her in myself easily, something of which I’m very proud. She taught my mother, who worked together with her to teach me, to be kind, considerate of others, thrifty, frugal, and soft. (Here, I mean soft in a good way, and I don’t think I am always this. I try to be softer in the ways that Grandma was soft, and the ways my mother is soft. Soft as in comfort, soft as in warm.)
Going through my tree, still working on my maternal side, I found an Isabella Milne. When I mentioned the name, my mother said that her jewelry was among the stolen: a small gold bracelet with an inscription of her name and the year 1839, and my Grandma’s name and the year 1939. Grandma would have been 9 in 1939, and Isabella would have been a year old in 1839. (Mom isn’t sure why the engraving is 1839 when Isabella was born in 1838, but she was baptized in 1839, so it’s possible it was given to her on her baptism, and the second engraving was added 100 years later, when it was gifted to my grandma.)
Isabella Milne was born in January of 1838 in Philadelphia. The family lived in the Locust Ward of the city, now encompassing Rittenhouse Square and the Gayborhood.
In the 1850 census, the value of her father David’s real estate is listed at $70,000. Today, that would be $2.6 million. In his obituary, it’s said that David did not begin to accumulate wealth until around this time, so as of Isabella’s birth, the family likely lived modestly.
The Locust ward was a fairly small area from the Schuylkill in the west to S 4th St in the east, lined by Spruce to the south and Walnut to the north. At Isabella’s birth the population was around 9,500 people. Wherever the family lived in the ward, it was not far from Pennsylvania Hall, located at what is now Lombard and S 6th St, just a few blocks south of the southeastern corner of the ward.
The history of Philadelphia is deeply connected with the history of the Quakers. The Quakers were a Christian sect that was founded during the English Civil War (1642-51). It’s thanks to their excellent record-keeping that this part of my ancestry has been fairly easy to navigate, as my lineage is full of Friends in the Philadelphia area.
William Penn, who lent his surname to Pennsylvania, founded the place as a Quaker colony. While there is far, far more to dive into here, and I may do so in later letters, the important things to note about the Quakers are some of their beliefs. An egalitarian group, they dressed plainly, avoiding the lure of fashion to signify where you fell within a social hierarchy. Similarly, they addressed everyone in the same way — thee and thou all the way up and down the social ladder. Their “peace testimony” spoke against violence and warfare, and they were a fairly closed group: Quakers married Quakers, and those who married non-Quakers were forced to leave the religion.
In the 18th century, the Quakers began to speak out against slavery. At their Meetings, they were told that friends ought not to enslave others, as it was both immoral and liable to corrupt the enslavers. (The latter seeming like a given and also far less important than the former, but I’m no Quaker.) The history of Quakers and the fight for abolition is long (and, as everything, complex), but suffice it to say that quite a few leading abolitionists in the 19th century were Quakers.
In May 1838, when Isabella Milne was 4 months old, construction was completed on Pennsylvania Hall. The building was built by Quakers and intended as a place for anti slavery associations to meet. Four days after its dedication on May 14, the building was engulfed in flames by rioters who disapproved of the mixing of races and sexes that had occurred in just those four days, where an estimated 3,000 people attended events.
The riot drew a crowd of 12,000-15,000 people, and the firefighters who arrived stopped the spread of the fire, but did not attempt to save the building itself. (How brave and noble!) Interestingly, some historians have argued that the riot actually built animosity towards anti-abolitionists for causing the violence.
Isabella’s mother, Beulah Thomas Parker, was born to a Quaker family, but Isabella’s father, David Milne, was a strict follower of the Presbyterian Church (not uncommon of Scottish immigrants such as himself). The Milne children were baptized in the Presbyterian Church on May 19, 1839. This, I believe, is the end of this particular Quaker line in my tree, one that begins with Nathaniel and Grizzell Sylvester (the enslavers on Shelter Island) and their conversion in the 17th century.
The Presbyterians’ position on slavery is less clear. Some prominent Presbyterians in the 18th and 19th centuries were enslavers themselves, while others were abolitionists. In 1787, the Synod of New York and Philadelphia officially supported the abolition of slavery, but as we know, what a church ‘officially’ says doesn’t necessarily correlate to what they believe in or do.
The riot and burning of Pennsylvania Hall must have had some effect on David and Beulah. It happened so close to their home, and it was also surely a newsworthy event. It’s difficult to say, however, what David and Beulah thought.
While following their religious beliefs is not a sure-footed way of discerning their personal beliefs, it’s perhaps one of the only ways (if not the only way) I might be able to determine what they thought. Was Beulah expelled from the Friends when she married David (a non-Quaker), or did she leave prior? Was she connected to the faith? Did she teach her children Quaker values?
Something that Isabella would say on her deathbed many years later suggests that this is possible: she told her husband to “bring [the children] up, not fashionably, but to fear and to love God.” She clearly continued to be religious to the end of her life, and that idea of bringing the children up “not fashionably” strikes me as a bit Quaker. Was this something Beulah said about Isabella’s upbringing that Isabella, now a mother, was repeating?
(Beulah did contribute monetarily to the Home for Aged and Infirmed Colored Persons a year before her death, in 1876. The Home was run by an interracial group, including prominent African-American activists. I don’t think this contribution necessarily proves anything, though the Home was founded in part by the Quakers. I do think it’s worth mentioning here.)
And as for David — what were his beliefs, as a well-to-do Scottish immigrant who was, in his obituary, referred to as “a gentleman of considerable prominence in manufacturing circles of this city, and of much wealth”?
The violence at Pennsylvania Hall was certainly close to home. Were they afraid? Did they want nothing to do with the debate over abolition and slavery? As many white Americans do today with regards to racism and its effects, it’s entirely possible (perhaps probable) that they had no opinion because they were of the belief that slavery did not affect their lives.
Were their sympathies with the rioters, or the constructors of the Hall? Putting myself into their shoes — Beulah a first-time mother, David a father who had already had one child die — I would be fearful of the violence. I certainly was raised with anti-violence in my blood and my family; did the Milnes have it, too?
I may never know exactly how the violence over the question of slavery impacted Isabella’s early days, but I do know that the riot, the war, and its aftermath were the score that played behind her life’s motion picture.
I may have some of Isabella’s blood, and I should have had her bracelet, too, but in a way, I have another item of inheritance from her: my name. I am named after my great-grandmother Helen McNair, daughter of another Helen — Helen Willard, Isabella Milne’s daughter. I thought that this was the origin of the name Helen in my tree, that Isabella had plucked it from thin air, but more digging into David Milne showed that was not the case.
David Milne had a previous marriage, to Helen Forbes, in Scotland. The two had a daughter they named Isabella, born about 1813. Helen and Isabella both died after their immigration to America — Isabella in 1831 and Helen in 1834. Just a year after his wife’s death, David married Beulah. They first had a son, but when a daughter came along, they named her Isabella. This was 7 years after the first Isabella’s death.
It was certainly more common then to reuse a name after a child had died. However, the first Isabella died just shy of 20 years old. I initially balked at David’s reusing the name, but as I did some more research, I found that some cultures consider the practice to be honoring the original owner of the name by giving it to someone else — thus allowing them to live on. While for me this seems more understandable in the case of naming a child after a grandparent, through this lens it isn’t as strange as I initially thought it was. Still, though, in the world Isabella grew up in — different from the world I grew up in, and yet not terribly so — I wonder how she felt about the name. Did the first Isabella exist as a kind of ghost or haunting for her? Was that a good or bad thing? Putting myself in her shoes, I would feel some pressure, and yet, who knows how much Isabella and I truly have in common?
Perhaps telling is what happened later on. I picture Isabella hopeful when she named her first child after herself (and her older sister, whom she’d never met) in September of 1865. This was just a few months after the Confederates surrendered at Appomattox: did Isabella’s hope extend beyond hopes for her daughter’s life, into hope for the country moving forward? The violence that had occurred just after her birth, blocks from her family’s home, at Pennsylvania Hall, had escalated into a war that tore apart the country. Her new husband, Dwight, a professor of mathematics, had been a lieutenant and adjutant in the First Pennsylvania Engineers in the Union Army. The Union had emerged victorious, and Isabella had undergone the final months of pregnancy through the sweltering Philadelphia heat. Was she glad to have a daughter? (I have always wanted one, as the relationships between mothers and daughters are strong in my family.) She named her Isabella — to me, an act that signifies that hope more than anything. She was continuing the legacy her father had sought to keep alive in her.
I don’t know how long the hope lasted. Was the third Isabella — this time an Isabella Willard — born sickly? I haven’t been able to find much about her short life, but Isabella Willard died in the spring, just as the weather began to turn warm again, perhaps reminding her mother of the hope that she’d felt the previous spring as the war ended and she grew life in her stomach.
I am a naturally anxious person, and my anxiety often manifests through OCD. At this point, were I Isabella, I’d have begun to associate my name with death. I’d have feared for my own life. But my mother, and my mother’s mother, were not anxious people like me, or at least, not in the same way. If temperament is inherited, perhaps it’s safe to say that Isabella was not anxious — after all, were she to share my superstitions, she would not have named her next daughter after her father’s first wife, Helen, who also died relatively young, at 48.
It strikes me as a sentimental thing to do, though I’m not entirely sure of the sentiment exactly. My mother suggested that there might be another reason she chose the name Helen, but I compared it to my own life, trying to imagine a world in which I would name my child after my mother’s ex-husband. I haven’t found any other Helens in the line, which isn’t to say they don’t exist, but certainly not in proximity to Isabella. Perhaps she’s somewhere over my shoulder, annoyed at my criticism of her naming choices, but I’m not sure it’s criticism. What I’m really trying to do is figure out who she was. Maybe David had told her stories about his first wife and she had admired her. I haven’t been able to find out much about this first Helen’s life, though I would love to know who she was. Perhaps in a way Isabella saw Helen Forbes as being the one who chose her own name, having given it to the first Isabella Milne, back in Scotland.
Together, Isabella and Dwight had five more children: Helen, Frank, Louise, David, and Dwight. Isabella succumbed to an early death at age 38, on February 5, 1876, of typhoid fever. The youngest child, Dwight, had turned 3 years old just 3 days prior. Helen was 8.
Tragedy visited Isabella young, with the death of her younger brother, David, who died at the age of 4 when Isabella was 11. I picture Beulah and David leading their children to God and scripture to make sense of it, and of Isabella finding comfort in belief when her firstborn died years later. Tragedy also followed her death, as her husband, Dwight, died a few years later, having saved one of the children from drowning in the river but succumbing himself. The children were left orphaned.
It’s difficult to know what to make of an entire life and the various forms of inheritance one can get from it. Her blood, her name, her disposition. Her bracelet. Her life began with the riot that burned down Pennsylvania Hall. She saw the eruption of the Civil War, and she saw its end.
There’s a photo of Grandma on her wedding day, looking at a portrait of Isabella Milne. There’s another similar photo of my mother on her own first wedding day, looking at the same portrait in the same room. If Grandma were alive today, I’d ask her what she got from Isabella beyond the bracelet. I’d want to know what Grandma viewed as her own inheritance from her great-grandmother. What she thought of my name, of any of the names in the family. I’d really want to ask her one of a thousand questions, questions I didn’t ask before, or perhaps I asked them but didn’t commit the answers to memory.
In beginning my ancestral research with my maternal lineage, I know that I’m looking for something, but I don’t know what. Perhaps it’s confirmation from beyond the veil that I belong to this family, that I embody the spirit of who I believe us to be — and yet, what I am finding, amongst these stories, are indications that parts of this family tree are not ones I’d like to be associated with. Amongst my search for belonging I’m finding reasons to distance myself. Not so far beyond Isabella, there are enslavers in that same line, Quakers who failed to live out their professed belief in peace. My desire for belonging to this family, my desire to find within it strong women to whom I can look for guidance as I navigate my own life, must sit alongside horror.
I’m aware of the irony of talking about inheritance, of one gold bracelet that was stolen by thieves in a robbery, when so many of my ancestors stole everything from the indigenous people of this land and the people they made work it. Perhaps that’s another contradiction that must coexist. And how to make sense of that?
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