Susanna Warfield Diaries Recall a Country Lady

May 12, 1966

Life in Sykesville 120 Years Ago

The following story, on the life and time of one of the Sykesville area’s early residents, was written by Lynne Marcus, a senior at Goucher College.

In preparing a research paper about the period of the 1840′s for a history class, Miss Marcus turned to the diaries of Susanna Warfield, in the library of the Maryland Historical Society.

The young lady then visited Sykesville where she saw St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, which Susanna had helped to establish and build and which she supported and attended until her death at 92 in 1890.

Miss Marcus viewed Susanna’s portrait (reproduced at right) in the local Parish House, went to the Warfield home, “Groveland”, later an Episcopal “college”, at the back of Capt. H. C. Jefferson’s farm, Sykesville, and finally visited Susanna’s grave in the old Trinity churchyard at Eldersburg.

When the research paper was finished, Miss Marcus sent a copy of it to Bather James N. Purmian, current rector of St. Barnabas Church.

Because of its interesting revelations of life in Sykesville more than a century ago, “The Diary of a Country Lady,” by Miss Marcus, through the author’s kind permission, is being shared with readers of the Herald. The second and concluding installment is to appear next week.

By Lynne Marcus

Seventy-six years after her death Susanna Warfield is all but forgotten by the members of St. Barnabas church and holy Trinity Parish whose priest’s salary is still paid in part by Susanna’s legacy, and whose very church was built almost solely due to her efforts. The family tomb at the site of the now destroyed Holy Trinity Church is in disrepair, forgotten and neglected, and probably few of the residents of the area are familiar with either Susanna’s name or the story of her life.

“The Susanna Warfield Diaries”, deposited in the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore, reveal a fascinating picture of the life of Susanna Warfield, an unmarried woman living with her family in Sykesville, Maryland. While the diaries covered a wide range of topics, as any diary might, they also served as a vehicle through which Susanna gave vent to the anger and frustrations which could not be expressed elsewhere.

In 1845 Susanna Warfield was forty-eight years old. She had lived for most of her life, apparently at “Groveland”, her father’s estate, within walking distance of Sykesville, a town with a population of about 300 by 1849. With Susanna were her parents and a younger brother, William Henry, the rest of the family living elsewhere during this time. Although it seemed that in the past Susanna had divided up the year and spent part of her time boarding in Baltimore, due to unexpected circumstances during the later part of the 1840′s her schedule was interrupted and the greater part of her time was spent at “Groveland” with an occasional trip to Baltimore for a month or two.

Susanna seemed to have had a degree of financial independence which allowed her to board a part of the year in Baltimore but which did not permit her to leave home entirely. The exact source of her income, however, was unexplained in the diaries. She was the owner of several slaves, or, as she called them, servants, whom she rented out to Baltimore families, and she owned some stock. Susanna often used her diary to make note of her financial situation and she was a close watcher of pennies: she recorded even five and ten-cent postage bills.

While at “Groveland” Susanna acted as hostess for her parents, who by 1845 are both in their seventies and unwell a good deal of the time. Although her parents retained final authority, Susanna supervised the household affairs and gave her services freely to her family – a constant source of bitterness because she felt she received nothing for her labor, not even thanks.

Susanna’s days were occupied with cleaning and sewing for her brother and herself, practicing the piano or the guitar, taking walks along the nearby railroad tracks, reading, writing in her diary, writing her will, and entertaining either dinner guests or unexpected, and often inconvenient, friends who dropped in. On Sundays, weather permitting; she took a who hour trip by buggy to Holy Trinity Church, in Eldersburg, where she was a member of the choir. Also, on Sundays she catechized the slave children at “Groveland” and taught them how to read.

When in Baltimore Susanna preferred to board at Mrs. Baker’s boarding house to which she had apparently been going for some time. She had many friends in Baltimore with whom she visited and she spent much time shopping when not attending social affairs or going to church services at one of Baltimore’s Episcopal churches. Although Susanna frequently took the train to Baltimore from Sykesville, it entailed about a week’s preparation of packing and getting ready and was never just a casual trip.

Thus, Susanna’s life followed a fairly routine path. A good deal of activity depended on the weather and often Susanna noted that she was unable to go out for fear of ruining a dress. Besides, the roads became almost impassable during bad weather and the members of the Warfield family, especially the women, were confined inside.

The most exciting divergence from Susanna’s daily routine during the 1840′s was a trip she took with her brother to Niagara Falls. Susanna and William Henry left Baltimore on July 23, 1846 and proceeded by train to Philadelphia and then to New York City where they took a steamboat up the Hudson to Troy, stopping along the way at Poughkeepsie, West Point, and Catskill during the eleven-hour trip. Once in Troy they stayed five days with friends, going to see the state house in Albany and visiting the famous springs in Saratoga, two and a half hours away by train. On August 3 Susanna and William Henry left Troy for Niagara Falls traveling by train through Utica and Schenectady to Auburn where they spent the night. Then they continued on to Buffalo through Rochester, Geneva, and Oneida Mills, where Indians selling their wares entered the train.

After spending a day in Buffalo, Susanna and her brother finally proceeded the remaining thirty miles to Niagara Falls, another two and one-half hours. During their “very exciting” visit Susanna had an interesting conversation, recorded in her diary, with the young Irish maid at their hotel, the Cataract House. Susanna had questioned the girl on the lack of Episcopal churches in the city and the maid answered that New York Episcopalians were poor and, anyway, the rich people in Niagara Falls didn’t give money to their churches. This information greatly shocked Susanna, much of whose life had been dedicated to her church. After two days at the Falls Susanna and William Henry started the journey south and retraced their steps to Baltimore where they were “much delighted in finding ourselves once more at “Groveland” and all went well.”

Susanna seemed to have enjoyed her trip despite the fact that she criticized Northern barns for not measuring up to the Sykes barn in Maryland, that sitting on Park benches in the North cost money, and that Northern ice cream was bad. “Well sure enough it is true” – Susanna concluded,’”Everything to the North is is catch a penny – Let the Yankees alone for that – … There is nothing to equal good old Maryland, Virginia fare.”

In 1882 Thomas Scharf in his “History of Western Maryland” characterized Susanna Warfield as a “well preserved lady of the old school – dignified and courtly, paying great attention to current events, and especially interested in the church.” However, in the 1840′s, Susanna’s diaries focused much more on the church than on current events. In fact, even personal and family problems came before an interest in current events.

According to the Reverend J. B. Purcell, of Holy Trinity Parish, in 1892, Susanna’s “whole life was given to the church. This is her work…” During the 1840′s Susanna was devoted to the construction of a chapel in Sykesville to accommodate  those families not easily able to attend weekly services in Eldersburg. Although this chapel, built in 1851, was eventually to replace Holy Trinity Church as the center of the parish, at this time it was still merely a dream of Susanna’s.

When Susanna’s project received only half of the proceeds of a church fair for which Susanna worked long and hard, she complained that although she had done much for “Trinity” since its founding in 1842, and indeed, her family had been one of the families responsible for the reconsecration of the church after many years of disuse, it had not, in turn, “acted well towards my offspring struggling into existence”.

Nevertheless, regardless of her annoyance over the matter of the building of the chapel, Susanna attended church regularly, weather permitting, and seemed deeply religious in observance, although her diary was not particularly theologically oriented. Susanna never seemed to question her beliefs, nor did she ever explicitly state them. It is possible that the church provided an emotional outlet for the lack of a family of her own. Certainly a highlight of her life came in 1846 when her father, probably due to her constant urging, received the sacrament at the church for the first time in months. “William Henry and I burst into tears – we wept with delight – Elisa in the colored people’s gallery screamed. It was an exciting time.”

Perhaps another reason for Susanna’s religious intensity was the ever recurring problem of death in her family. By 1845 Susanna had already lost a sister and one or two brothers. In 1845 another sister, Rebecca Warfield Holmes, also died, followed by her husband five months later. Susanna was almost hysterical wit grief at his unexpected death due to concern for his two children, now orphaned, and because she was unsure her brother-in-law would join his wife in Paradise. “Poor dear unfortunate man! He strove to be good but he had many, many trials – … Oh! Lord, who is to go next. I have had some severe trials – and disappointments”, Susanna cried.

In 1846 Susanna noted that another brother, George, was dying of dyspepsia, and three years later George died in Louisiana where he had been living with his family. Apparently this was too much for Susanna’s ailing father who died three months later. Susanna in her grief often turned to God, bewailing her fate and talking of her love for her family.

Susanna’s concern for her family was almost matched by her concern for her family’s slaves. Generally, Susanna felt that she was an indulgent slave owner and even remarked that she was becoming increasingly opposed to slavery from hearing the abuses of others.

Yet this was not to say that she was in favor of the abolitionist cause. She was also opposed to the abolitionists whom she accused of breaking up families.

When two of “Groveland’s” slaves ran away in 1849 Susanna was very concerned at the thought that any of the Warfield slaves would want to leave. The men were discovered just before they reached the Pennsylvania line and freedom and William Henry eventually persuaded them to return rather than face the prospect of being sold, possibly to a Southern owner.

Yet, even these concerns for her church and her family did not overshadow Susanna’s main obsession, her marital status, or, rather, her lack of it. Viewed from the twentieth century, Susanna occupied a peculiar situation. She was in her late forties, and, thus, obviously an adult by twentieth century standards, yet she lived with her parents and younger brother, all of whom had greater authority over her than she had over herself. She was unable to sever her ties with her family for economic reasons but, even if she had been financially able to leave home, it would have been highly unusual for her to do so within the social context of her time.

Susanna was keenly aware of her position as an unmarried spinster in the home of her parents as her family never ceased to remind her of it. Not only was she afraid that her relatives schemed to keep her single so that they would receive her money when she died, although she cleverly foiled their plans by outliving most of them and by leaving her wealth to the church, but her family repeatedly accused her of standing in the way of her brother William Henry’s chances of marriage. As far as she was concerned, however, she had no objection to his marrying despite her criticisms of most of the women who interested William Henry. In fact, she was sure she would welcome it. “I am very sure I have no objection to his marrying anyone – for I should be very glad to get rid of the trouble I have here – and indeed if I could only be at rest somewhere = I would bless God …”

Susanna “feels loneliness so much”, since she cared “but little for the world – friends are scarce relations interested in getting all of one they can – …and think because I am single I am just intended as a drudge in the family – yet they object to the idea of my marrying – and ridicule the idea of my marrying. …What a cruel world is this we live in – .”

It is evident from the diaries that Susanna felt trapped. She couldn’t leave home, she explained, before William Henry married as she would then be considered “disobedient”, at the age of fifty-two, and if she left after he married, people would say they had quarreled. Sometimes Susanna cried that she wanted to die. She ridiculed the quest of the Negro for freedom, asking: “And what is this freedom for which the blacks are panting? We are all slaves – to our parents or husbands – just as the poor Negro to his master …”

Susanna often bemoaned her position as the “Daughter Slave” but unlike the woman who had met at Seneca falls in 1848 for the first Women’s Rights Convention to form an organization with the purpose of securing more rights for women, Susanna Warfield saw no hope for her position and no way of fulfilling herself outside the traditional role of a woman as a mother and homemaker, a role Susanna could not occupy.

Thus, “The Susanna Warfield Diaries” present a picture of the small world of Susanna Warfield’s life. It was not an especially happy life since Susanna was restricted in her ambitions and in her opportunities for escaping the rigid pattern society had prescribed for her. Her life was not particularly productive in any area except church affairs, and now she is barely remembered even for that. Few members of the church she was so instrumental in building are aware of her efforts and few are aware of her contributions to the church: a collection plate which is in use today, and a legacy which is still used for the salary of the parish priest. Even fewer are aware of her portrait, now located in the parish house, on Sykesville’s Main Street.

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