On January 24, 1823, Betsey Delord and her niece Maria Ketchum Averill Walworth set out from Plattsburgh to Washington, D.C. to join Maria’s husband, Congressman Reuben H. Walworth. Betsey hoped to renew her acquaintance with President James Monroe, VP and Mrs. Tompkins, and many of the officers and their wives whom the Delords had entertained in their home during 1812-1815. Henry and Betsey were hoping these friends could help persuade Congress to settle Henry’s claims against the US Government for his losses during the War of 1812.
Betsey wrote many letters home, both to husband Henry and also to 12 year-old daughter Frances Henrietta. These letters provide details of her trip, from the hazards of travel during that time to the Washington social scene of the early 19th century. We also see Betsey’s little homesick moments when she chastises Henry to write her; “I wrote you from Newyork, Baltimore and twice since Ive arrived which was a week last night and have received but one from you & Frances. I have been so anxious I could not sleep well at night.”
While such a trip today would take 9 hours of straight driving (more with rest stops!!) or less than 2 hours by plane, it took Betsey over three weeks to get there. In those three weeks she endured several hazardous modes of transportation.
“I dread very much the stage coach. They drive so furiously I shall be in a fever all the time. They carry passengers for almost nothing. Mr. Flagg says he will speak to the proprieters to have them more careful.”
“On Wednesday morning at six o’clock we went on board the steam boat and were detained about two hours breaking the ice which obliged us to travel until late at night. “
When they couldn’t get lodging in Havre de Grace on the Susquehanna at in the early hours of the morning, Betsey and Maria had quite an adventure crossing the river to find some rest:
“We were tired and Maria most sick, but could not get a bed and was compel’d to cross the river a mile in width on the ice where boats had pass’d the evening before. Maria much alarmed, but as a great number were to pass with us and a boat put on a sleigh to be draw’d by men, I thought it best to venture. If the ice broke, we were in a boat. I remained on the boat and Maria walk’d. It seemed really venturesome. We arrived here very comfortable at 3 o’clock, taken a good nights rest, the first we have had since we left Newyork. “
Even when Betsey arrived in Washington, she found getting around an issue:
“There is no such thing as going out without a carriage. The families live so scattered and it costs three or four Dollars every time we go out. “
Betsey and Maria arrived in Washington just as the “season” was beginning. The” season” was the time when Congress was in session(from January 1st to Lent.) During this time the “elite” of Washington held balls, dinner parties and charity events. During the first quarter of the 1800s, a strict code of etiquette was followed, including when these social events were held and who hosted as well as who attended. Wives and daughters of cabinet officers usually held receptions every Wednesday. Some of the events were just “visits” where attendees went from house to house between 2 o’clock in the afternoon to 5:30pm. Visitors did not stay long at each home, just time enough to meet the hosts and maybe have a tea and a treat before going on to the next home. If the house parties were close together, ladies preferred to walk from home to home instead of riding in a carriage, weather permitting.
Just after their arrival in the Capital, Betsey and Maria were visited by Mrs. Wool (spouse of Col. John E. Wool) who “told us all the etiquette of the place.” Starting the next day Betsey and Maria began several weeks of visiting homes or attending receptions and parties, some hosted by Pres. And Mrs. Monroe, Mrs. John Quincy Adams, and Mrs. John Calhoun. Betsey also met with many of the military personnel that she had entertained when they were in Plattsburgh (1812-1815) including Gen. Macomb and Gen. Brown. Betsey was most impressed with the party hosted by British Foreign Minister George Canning. She described it:
“How I wish, dear pa, you and my Child, indeed all my friends, could have been there to see the Elegance, order and style of everything. A number of Servants dress’s in white long Coats, Dark Dove Silk Small Clothes with vests of the same and White Silk Stockings. Upstairs we paid our respects to Mr. Canning. Coffee was soon handed around on elegant silver waiters. Immediately after, all walked into the dancing room splendidly lit up. Sofas cover’d with red merino were all around the room. The floor was chalk’d most beautifully, wreaths of flowers and different forms, with a large circle in the center with a harp and musical instruments. They danced Cotillions. Waltzing was introduc’d and a Spanish dance quite new here.”
That was the last event that Betsey attended. After several more days of visits with friends, Betsey summed up her trip in a letter to Henry by saying:
“All your friends here seem to feel much indebt’d to you for your hospitality. But as to congress they can do little. I have attended twice (sessions of the House of Representatives) and can Judge how difficult it is to get anything through that meets opposition.”
On March 1, 1823, Betsey and Maria started their trip home. After her arrival in New York City on March 7, Betsey informed Henry that due to the weather (citing icy travel conditions) she was going to stay a while longer. While in NYC, Betsey made the most of her time visiting relatives and friends and attending parties. She and Maria finally left on April 12th and arrived in Plattsburgh the last week of the month.
During the three months she was gone, Betsey wrote to Henry almost every day. Betsey’s letters were highly descriptive of what she saw and did. She tried to contain each letter to one page due to the postage.* In one letter she stated, “I shall not have room to say half I wish as it would add to the postage.” Henry’s letters were few and far between, but he was also concerned about the cost of postage, ending one letter for “fear to increase the postage.”
*A single letter was defined as consisting of one sheet of paper. The cost to send letters from 1816-1845 was determined by mileage:
Up to 30 miles was 6¢
30-80 miles was 10 ¢
80-150 miles was 12.5¢
150-400 miles was 18.5¢
over 400 miles was 25¢
“Double letters” (more than one sheet) were charged double the mileage fee. If possible, people tried to save money by sending letters with travellers going to or near the destination of the correspondence.
–The Historian of United States Postal Service, 2008
So the cost of three months of daily letters from Albany, New York, and Washington would have added up, especially for the Delord family that was now trying to live frugally.
You can read many of Betsey’s letters from her trip to Washington in Virginia Mason Burdick’s book, Love & Duty; Letters & Diaries of the Delord-Webb Women 1794-1913 (Chap. 3). The book is available in the Kent-Delord House Museum’s store.