During the early years of his ministry in Durham, Federal Burt met Mary Pickering, a young woman of marriageable age from a good family living in nearby Newington. Her father, Richard (1755-1831), was thought to be the wealthiest man in town; “active in affairs,” including being one of the Newington Sons of Liberty “who at the period the Revolution pledged their lives and fortunes in support of their country, and against its oppressors.” But this Son of Liberty did not extend his beliefs about freedom to enslaved Africans; in the 1790 census, the Pickering household comprised four males, four females, and one Negro slave. His half-brother, John Gee Pickering (1735-1795) had two slaves.
Mary’s mother, also named Mary but called Polly, was the daughter of Strafford’s Ebenezer Thompson (1737-1802). She, too, was familiar with the presence of slaves in the household, as her grandfather (so Mary Pickering’s great-grandfather), Robert Thompson (1681-1752), mentioned three slaves in his will: John, Page, and Nan. John and Nan were valued at £350 each; Page at £120. His wife, Abigail Emerson Thompson (1704-1756), Mary Pickering’s great-grandmother bequeathed Dinah to her brother, Solomon, in 1756; in 1777 Solomon’s “Negro servant” named George made his will, leaving his estate to his wife, Phillis, before he headed off to war.
Polly Thompson Pickering (1767-1834) was described as having “great beauty of person, as well as energy of character.” She was 20 when she married Richard in 1787 (he was 32); their first child, Temperance, was born the following year. Their second child, Mary, came about two years later, followed by John Knight (1792); twins Richard and Ebenezer (1796); Sarah Ann (1800); and William Langdon (1804).
Little is known about Mary’s early life and education, however, two artifacts came to light in the course of researching this story; each one conveys a sense of the Pickering family’s status and material comfort. The first is a letter from her brother John, writing from Portsmouth, New Hampshire in 1812. Mary, then 22 years old, was attending Mrs Saunders & Miss Beach’s Academy, in Dorchester, Masssachusetts.
I shall not be able to come for you before the last of this month. Your quarter is about up now I believe and I am very sorry it is not in my power to come for you sooner. Your letter by Miss Cutt[?] is received it gave me more pleasure than I can express. I began to fear you were sick I concluded your embroidery is finished If it is not I acknowledge you are blessed with more patience than I am — If the weather permits I shall set out for Dorchester Thursday the 30th of this month and expect to be with you Friday morning by 8 o clock I wish you to be ready. I have not had the pleasure of meeting Miss Cutt [?].
I hope to see you look as well as you did last Winter.
Your truly affectionate brother
Of the many schools for young women that sprang up in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries that of Judith Foster Saunders and Clementina Beach emerged as one of the most respectable. Judith Sargent Murray helped Saunders and Beach with the description of their new venture “Informed that the Town of Dorchester is destitute of a Seminary for Young Ladies, and impressed with reports of a high idea of the salubrity of the air, eligibility of the situation, and liberal urbanity of the inhabitants—two ladies, the one a native of America and the other born and educated in England …propose forming an academy in that place, where they will receive young Ladies as boarders upon terms hereafter to be committed …” Despite the size of the house — just nine rooms — the 1810 census shows a total of forty people residing there: one young male, thirty-six young ladies, and three women.
In this place, for $30 a quarter for board, with additional fees for specific studies, daughters of well-to-do families became versed in
Reading, Writing, Arithmetic, Letter Writing, Geography and the use of the Terrestrial and Celestial Globes, French Language, Embroidery, Drawing and Painting, in oil, water colors, crayons, &c., tambour, plain, and ornamental Needle Work, drawing and coloring Maps and Mercator’s Charts.
An added enticement was the promise that “A Dancing Master and Music Master will be engaged as soon as a sufficient number of Scholars are obtained.” Thus the young women were prepared to attract an appropriate husband and take their place in society. Today the school is especially remembered for the noteworthy silk embroideries created by the students under the supervision of the proprietors.
Some time after Mary returned to New Hampshire, she met the new pastor Federal Burt. On August 1, 1819, they married in Newington, she was 29 years old, he was a year older. That same year he was ordained to the pastorate in Durham.
Which brings us to the second artifact: A stunning Queen Anne walnut and maple highboy, dating to the late 18th century, that was sold at auction in 2015, leaving the descendants of the Pickering-Coe families after two centuries. The auction catalogue traces its provenance: “Roger Curry inherited the highboy from his grandparents, Joseph and Harriet Coe, of Durham, New Hampshire. It descended to the Coes from their relative, Mary Pickering Burt…A handwritten note affixed to the inside of one drawer indicates that the highboy was probably a part of Mary’s wedding furniture.”
When the particular malady that led Burt to Massachusetts General Hospital first occurred is not known, but concern for his health is evidenced by undated letters he received from Mary, written sometime before they were married. In one: “I should of suppose your present cold would give you an opportunity of knowing whether you have any of your old complaint left as it usually affects it —” In another: “I expected you would increase your cold going home and be quite sick…this inclement weather is very unpleasant for you to be out in…” In a third: “Demerit called Friday, observed you was quite unwell…You ought to be vary [sic] careful of your health.”