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    Wednesday, June 12, 2024

    The legacy of a life-long learner

    When the Hugh Calkins house in the historic Bean Hill section of Norwich was slated for demolition in 2020, the Norwich Historical Society and the Calkins Family Association rescued it. Hugh’s grandparents, Hugh and Ann Calkins, were part of a group who came to our area from Cape Ann, Mass., in 1650. (Cape Ann Court in New London is a reminder of these early settlers.)

    The 18th-century house needs significant work, but after restoration, Hugh’s descendants hope to open it as a history and genealogical research library, as well as a study center where students can follow the progression of changes in the building through the decades. This strikes me as fitting use of the property because in the 19th century one of Hugh’s cousins, Frances Manwaring Caulkins (the surname has various spellings), would be passionate about books, history and genealogy. Frances turned that passion into achievements of lasting value, and this story is about her.

    Frances (1795-1869) didn’t have an easy start in life. Her father, Joshua Caulkins, died of typhoid fever in Haiti before she was born, leaving her teenaged mother, Fanny Manwaring Caulkins, with a new baby and a 2-year-old toddler. The lean years that followed improved when Fanny married Philomon Haven, a Norwichtown shoemaker, but when he died in 1819 the family – now with four additional children – was plunged into poverty once again. Putting aside whatever dreams she may have had, Frances taught school for the next 14 years in order to support her mother and siblings. However, adversity didn’t cow her or diminish her thirst for knowledge.

    As a little girl, Frances loved to read. Her uncle, Christopher Manwaring, had an extensive library that she eagerly sampled. She read English translations of “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” and started to learn Latin before she’d ever set foot in a classroom. When she was 11 years old, she began her formal education at a Mr. Wheeler’s school in Norwich where she memorized the lessons and copied them down at home to imprint them on her mind. Next, she attended an all girls academy run by Nancy Hyde and Lydia Huntley (Sigourney) and thrived on an academically rigorous curriculum.

    Frances’ career as a teacher began informally when Uncle Christopher let her run a class for neighborhood children out of his home in New London. But after her stepfather’s death, she taught professionally in both New London and Norwich to support the newly impoverished family. The Norwich school, which she owned and operated, closed suddenly in 1834, possibly due to racist tensions and attacks on Prudence Crandall’s school for women of color in Canterbury. If that was the case, it must have been a painful blow to Frances, who was recognized for her activism in Connecticut’s anti-slavery movement by none other than famous abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison.

    After the school closure, the resilient Miss Caulkins lived for a time with relatives in New York City, where she published articles for the American Tract Association, learned to read German, and took Italian lessons from an Italian political exile.

    Frances was a prolific writer, best remembered for her books “History of Norwich, Connecticut from its possession by the Indians to the year 1845” and “History of New London, Connecticut from the First Survey of the Coast in 1612 to 1860.” These works were the products of years spent interviewing local residents, searching crumbling old documents, and tramping through graveyards all over New London County gathering genealogical information. After her death, Frances was lauded for her cheerfulness, kindness, and piety, but the traits that stand out to me are her work ethic, energy, and her ability to win people’s willingness to trust her with their recollections.

    Some years ago, I was a volunteer at the Shaw Mansion, headquarters of the New London County Historical Society. There I had the privilege of reading some of Frances’ handwritten notes that became the basis of her history of New London. Steve Manuel, NLCHS Executive Director, told me that virtually everything Frances ever wrote is at the mansion; only missing is the desk where she wrote all her poems, articles, tracts, and books. (Her desk is at the Leffingwell House Museum in Norwich.) I think there’s something intimate about handwriting that connects the reader to the writer. It prompts a sudden sense of excitement and even surprise. Of course you knew it intellectually, but now you feel it emotionally: this was a real person!

    Frances never married. When she died in 1869, her half-brother, Henry Haven, spoke of her feeling of failure because she hadn’t fulfilled the conventional expectations for women of the age. That’s very sad because she left a lasting legacy. The significance of her work was recognized in 1849 by the Massachusetts Historical Society, the oldest historical society in America, which elected her their first – and, until 1966, their only – female member. She captured details about early local history that were within a generation of being lost. She preserved the memory of people whom time might have forgotten, and gave us the pleasure of knowing their stories – which are our stories, too.

    Many thanks to Melissa Calkins, of the Calkins Family Association, and Steve Manuel, NLCHS Executive Director, for their help with this narrative. I’m especially indebted to Nancy Steenburg, professor of history at UCONN, whose introduction in Caulkins’ New London book was an invaluable resource.

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