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History Matters: Who was that little girl?

Ever since that photograph of the early Littlefield farmhouse came into my possession, I have wondered who was inside the house when the picture was taken. There had to be somebody home; after all, it was winter, and the family car was parked in the driveway, all gassed-up and ready to go!

This c. 1840 farmhouse still stands today on Route 156 in Niantic near the Old Lyme border and was part of what was once called the Rocky Neck Farm when John and Jane Littlefield bought it in the spring of 1861. Arriving from Block Island (via Avondale, near Westerly, R.I.) they had left behind the comforts (but also, the confines) of their island home as opportunities there had become limited.

The couple had packed up their family and first moved to Avondale, R.I., to an area called the “lottery” where they rented a farm for 10 years, saving enough money to purchase their own land and begin life anew elsewhere.

The size of the Littlefield family at that time was not unusual. Jane) and John had six children, John Elihu, Peleg, Jane Marie, Hattie Elizabeth, Samuel and Pierce.

After purchasing the Rocky Neck Farm property in East Lyme on March 4, 1861, from George Langworthy for the sum of $3,500, moving day was slated for later that same month. It was agreed that some members of the family (along with their possessions) would travel by sloop to Four Mile River where they would offload to a small scow for the short journey upstream.

Others would drive the family cattle overland with family lore celebrating that task having been completed in a single day’s time. The 300-acre Rocky Neck Farm would increase in size over the years.

Moving day certainly must have been hectic, and we can only speculate about the specifics. It is logical to assume that John would have headed up the cattle detail while Jane, along with the youngest and least robust, would most likely have journeyed by boat with sloop captain Thomas Saunders to their new home.

It would not have taken long for the Littlefield family to settle into their new surroundings.

So, when was that picture taken, and who might be peeking out of those windows at the photographer?

The date of the photograph itself is hard to determine as I did not possess the original photo, only a copy. Daguerreotypes from the earlier part of the 19th century were known for their shininess and distorted image as you tilted them.

Ambrotypes were a mid-century improvement with a three-dimensional look, the image done on glass, not copper as was done before. The tintype followed with a two-dimensional look done on a sheet of cheap metal and was used during the latter part of the 1800s and into the early 1900s.

None of those dating techniques mattered, however, without the original photograph.

But we do have some general parameters to consider. We know the Littlefields moved into that home in 1861 and also that the horse and buggy went out with automobiles, replacing them locally during the First World War.

My grandfather, Howard Littlefield, had one of the first gas stations in the area at that time. The Littlefield garage went into business in 1917 on the other side of the same hill where the house photo was taken. That picture had to have been taken some time between 1861 and 1917.

It is logical to assume that the original photograph was most likely a tintype from the latter part of the 1800s.

As far as the “who” inside the farmhouse is concerned, we might take a look at the 1870 census, some nine years after the family first came to live there. It lists John and his wife, Jane, both age 58; Samuel, 24; and Pierce, 20. Jane Marie and Harriet Elizabeth, the two daughters, are not listed, and neither is the eldest son, John Elihu.

But wait! There is one other person, someone completely unexpected, who does appear on that list: an 8-year-old girl by the name of Ella Jane Brown. I scratched my head with that one. Who on earth was Ella Jane Brown?

Now, I had never heard of this person before I saw her name for the first time in that 1870 census. Luckily, my ignorance was not shared by Susan Slate Stromberg, who knew exactly who she was. Stromberg and I had worked on a history project recently that featured a famous cowgirl by the name of Tillie Baldwin. She happened to mention to me one day that she thought she and I were related and offered that copy of the 1870 census as possible proof.

“Ella Jane Brown was my grandmother,” she told me.

Stromberg would add this to her story: “Ella Jane Brown married William G. Slate on Aug. 15, 1885. (She was his second wife.) The records say that Ella Jane had been born in Westerly, Rhode Island, in 1862 and he was born in Old Lyme in 1843.

“They had a number of children. Elizabeth Payne Slate (1888), Janey Brown Slate (1889), James B. Slate (1890) and William Collins Slate (1900). William Collins Slate was my father. He was the man who was married to Tillie Baldwin!”

What a small and interconnected world this is, I remember thinking to myself after our exchange.

It was just beginning to snow as I stood before the tombstone of Tillie Baldwin and William Collins Slate in Union Cemetery in Niantic, snapping a couple of pictures for an earlier Lyme Times article on the famous cowgirl. When I was getting into the truck to leave, something told me that I needed to return to that grave.

What had been nagging at me was that I had been taking photos on the west side of the tombstone while most of the other stones in the cemetery honored the age-old tradition of having the inscriptions on the other side, facing east in the direction of the “rising sun” and “the new day.”

Sure enough, upon further inspection, the east side of the stone revealed still older inscriptions, and one of them just happened to be that of Ella Jane Brown Slate. (She even had her own little initialed footstone.)

So, here, resting for all eternity, was that same little girl who unexpectedly appeared in the early Littlefield census records. She must have lived a full (and hopefully happy) life as her epitaph indicated she had died in 1945 at the advanced age of 83.

But one question still remained. How was it that Ella Jane Brown came to live with the Littlefield family in the first place?

Further research revealed that on moving day back in March 1861, the youngest daughter of John and Jane was pregnant with her first child. Jane Marie Littlefield had married Elias F. Brown while the family was temporarily living in Avondale, and the new couple would not accompany the others to their new home at the Rocky Neck Farm.

Records show that Jane Marie gave birth to Ella Jane Brown on Jan. 11, 1862, in Westerly and died 14 days later, most likely from childbirth complications. Jane Marie was only 19 years old at the time of her death.

The Littlefield family must have been devastated by this turn of events and brought the child in to live with them in East Lyme. (The father married again a year later but stayed in Westerly with his new wife. The child remained in Niantic.)

One final observation. The old Littlefield family burial plot in Union Cemetery lies just a stone’s toss from the Slates. I can’t help but think that John and Jane, along with their children, continue to carefully keep watch over little Ella Jane just as they had many years ago.

The Census of 1880 lists Ella Jane Brown as still living with the Littlefield family at age 18. So sad when you think that this little girl never got to know the woman who brought her into this world. But, thankfully, one thing she did come to know was the love and care of that young mother’s family.

Jim Littlefield is a retired history teacher and author of two local history books and two Civil War novels. He lives in East Lyme, and his column also appears in the Post Road Review.

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