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News & Views of Phillips Since 1976
Thursday June 20th 2024

Betsy Putnam (1777-1860): I Am Not Afraid to Go Into the Woods

Tales from Pioneers and Soldiers Memorial Cemetery

By SUE HUNTER WEIR
185th in a Series

Joshua Putnam is buried in Holton, Maine. His wife, two
sons, two grandsons and two great-grandchildren are buried
in Minneapolis Pioneers and Soldiers Cemetery. Betsy
and Sterne Putnam”™s graves were marked at one time but
the tablets have disappeared and all that remains are the
bases.

Elizabeth “Betsy” Putnam lived to the ripe old age of 83 years and ten months. This might not seem unusually old by 21 st -century standards but Betsy was born in 1777. Bearing in mind that averages are simply that””averages””the average life expectancy for someone born around the time of the American Revolution was 36 years old.

In 1796, when she was 19 years old, Betsy married Joshua Putnam, a man who could trace his family”™s beginnings in what was to become the United States back to the arrival of John Putnam in 1634. Two of John”™s sons played prominent and deeply troubling roles in the Salem witchcraft trials. They were both accusers and witnesses against some of the town”™s women including Rebecca Nurse who had been a family friend for more than forty years. Although Nathaniel Putnam recanted his testimony, his remorse came too late. Rebecca Nurse was hanged on July 19, 1692. Whether Joshua and Betsy knew about this dark chapter in his family”™s history and what they might have thought about it is not known.

In a history of the Putnam family, Joshua was described as being “a thick set, strongly built man, with large broad features.” In contrast Betsy was described as being small, “somewhat less than average stature.” Despite her small size Betsy must have been very robust. Between the ages of 21 and 40, she gave birth to nine children, the first seven spaced roughly two years apart. She outlived at least four, and perhaps as many as six, of her children. (The dates and places when two of her children died have not been established).

Betsy spent much of her life moving from place to place. She was born in Chittenden, Vermont, but grew up in Bakersfield, Massachusetts, a community named after her father, that was home to only three or families. After Betsy and Joshua married, they lived for a time in New Salem, Massachusetts, but in 1812, when many New England settlers were moving westward, the Putnams and their then five children headed to Houlton, Massachusetts (now Maine), eleven miles from the Canadian border. Betsy remarked, “I am not afraid to go into the woods. I know all about it.”

Life in Bakersfield would have prepared her for a life of isolation but most likely not for the hardship that she would endure in Houlton. Like Bakersfield, it was a community populated by only a handful of families, many of them related to each other. The growing season was not long to begin with and the town suffered through several “cold years.” In 1816 there was snow on the ground in June”¦[the] little birds which came up from the South with the advent of the summer months, were chilled and died in large numbers.” The grain they planted did not ripen in time to be harvested and they had to pay top dollar for food brought in from other areas in order to survive.

The second cold year was even worse. Members of the family “were six weeks without a mouthful of bread of any kind in their house.” They had a cow for milk and tapped maple trees for syrup but the family”™s diet consisted primarily of salmon: “Had it not been for these most excellent fish, in such profusion [they] might have starved”¦”

Joshua Putnam died in 1835 and was buried in Houlton. Although he and Betsy were not the first to settle in there, he is considered one of the town”™s founders. In 1890, more than a half-century after he died, the town erected a headstone engraved “Joshua Putnam, A Founder of Houlton.” After he died, Betsy moved again, this time back to the more highly populated
New Salem. In 1854, Betsy and three of her sons headed west. She and her son, Sterne, and his family settled in St. Cloud. In 1854, at the age of 77, she traveled almost 1,500 miles to her last home. She died there on November 21, 1860, from old age. She was brought to Minneapolis for burial.
There are six members of the Putnam family buried in the cemetery. Betsy and two of her sons, Sterne and Franklin, are there. Sterne is buried next to Betsy, and Franklin is buried in a different section next to his daughter Mary. Julian Putnam, Betsy”™s grandson, is buried next to Mary E. and Wilton Putnam, two of her great-grandchildren. None of their graves are currently marked.

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One Response to “Betsy Putnam (1777-1860): I Am Not Afraid to Go Into the Woods”

  1. Nancy Conway says:

    I would like to volunteer for any help needed in the cemetery.
    Please inform me if any opportunities for this.
    Thank you

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