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Journals Provide A Window On An Intriguing Life

Thomas P. Caldwell - May 12, 2014

BrendaHe was a man of many talents, and a big influence on the Laconia we know, yet today Jeremiah Smith Jewett is largely unknown. Brenda Kean wants to change that.

When she fortuitously gained possession of the 19th century Jewett journals, she had no idea how caught up she would become in the lives of Jeremiah, his wife, Harriet, and their son, Martin Wilbur Jewett. She certainly had no idea she would become involved in a multi-volume series of transcriptions from his day book which recorded the lives of his family and acquaintances over the course of more than 40 years. She would travel the roads he traveled, visit the towns where he lived, and ferret out information that had become nearly lost to history.

Brenda’s association with Jeremiah Smith Jewett began innocently enough at the Laconia Public Library when she was discussing a historical novel she had just read. By coincidence, Judy Loto, the executive director of the Laconia Historical and Museum Society, was nearby and overheard Brenda’s discussion. She approached Brenda and asked whether she would be interested in transcribing a diary entry about Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. That sounded interesting enough and Brenda readily agreed, little realizing that the task would expand as she pored over the quilled entries with their curious lettering and odd-sounding turns of speech.

Jeremiah Smith Jewett learned of Lincoln’s assassination the next day. He was the operator of the only telegraph in the town of Warren in 1865 and recorded his reaction in his day book:

This morning the sad news was flashed over the country that President Lincoln was assassinated in Washington last night and that he died this morning about 1 A.M. Also the news came that Sec Seward and his son were assassinated about the same time and supposed to have been done by the same individual. Later news report Sec Seward not dead. Truly every loyal heart will mourn at this great calamity and probably no man now living has so many personal friends as did Abraham Lincoln and no one had more bitter enemies; for the man (or men) that wants perpetrate a deed as black and wicked against the highest officer of a great nation and an officer placed in that position by the voluntary choice of so many millions of freemen would sell the Savior of the Human Race for Thirty pieces of silver. Millions of the down trodden of earth in other lands will mourn that one that has used the influence of his position at all times to elevate the poor and raise up the down trodden of Earth and the labouring man throughout the world has lost its foremost champion of Freedom and Liberty. How sudden has the country been changed from joy to mourning and how little were we prepared for the shock for even when we seemed on the very eve of hope suddenly we are placed in uncertainty at least and strange as it may seem some men here in the Free States rejoice at his death and celebrate this sad event. Sacred History furnishes an instance of rejoicing when the King of Heaven was crucified and our own history furnishes an instance in the case of Sumner vs. Brooks and now we have an instance of a Chief Magistrate of the Mighty Nation stricken down after having done so much to maintain this Nation unbroken. The greatest consolation that we can have in this case is that a just God reigns and vengeance is his.

Having completed that transcription, Brenda found herself hooked: Here was someone who closely followed local and national news; a man who had served as a railroad surveyor, operator of a general store, postmaster, and Methodist minister. He also worked in medicine and dentistry and assisted in autopsies. His legacy to Laconia was to sell a section of land for the establishment of a hospital, then to donate the proceeds of the sale back to assist with the cost of building of the hospital. He also furnished a room at the Woodsville Hospital.

Brenda, who would become executive director of the Laconia Historical and Museum Society, owed her new passion to Mary Orton, who was the primary family custodian of the Jewett journals after her first husband, Stephen Jewett (a direct descendent of Jeremiah Smith Jewett), died. It was Mary’s donation of the journals to the historical society in 2005 that led to Brenda’s involvement with them and, once started, she felt compelled to continue with the transcriptions.

The result was the publication of Day Book of Jeremiah Smith Jewett: Volume 1 in 2011. The 780-page book covered the years 1854-1869. Today, Brenda is nearly ready to publish the second volume.

“It is written so eloquently,”Brenda said of the journals, adding that now all 3,000 pages are transcribed. She said she felt it important to transcribe the journals exactly as they were written, complete with misspellings and underlinings. “With the misspellings, you can pick up his Vermont accent,”she said. “And the style is the way they wrote back then. Sometimes it’s difficult, as it was written in quill, and there are some letter formations, such as ‘ss’looking to us like an ‘f’, so you have to go word by word.”

She continued, “He chronicled every day of his life, and sometimes he referred to familiar events, but I had to refresh my memory on the historical events he described.”

Because he started out on the railroad, there are a lot of descriptions of derailments and his work fixing the damaged cars. Jeremiah helped build the repair shops in Lakeport. But his association with the railroad also allowed him to freely travel throughout the state and into Massachusetts. While going to install roundtables or repair trains, he would stay with friends or relatives, and Warren was a frequent stop, as that is where his wife’s family resided. He eventually moved from Lakeport to Warren and commuted to work, being away from Sunday night through Friday, and back in Warren on the weekend.

The Jewetts were a church family and attended services twice a day. “Everything revolved around religion,”Brenda commented. “When anyone was ill, or in hardship, they saw it as their duty to help.”

Going to sit with sick people, or having people sit with them when one of them was ill, helped to solidify the community, and the journal entries are filled with references to births and deaths.

As Brenda’s interest grew, she and her family made trips to Warren to research the historical records in the town hall, at the oldest cemetery, and other places mentioned in the journals. It was on a snowy day in December that they discovered the tombstone of Jeremiah Smith Jewett. “He’s become such a part of my thinking process now, I go up there two times a year to put flowers on his grave,”she said.

The journals also made her acquainted with the Jewetts’family and friends, and the deep sense of loss they felt when those people died. The most devastating event in their lives was the loss of their son, Martin. He had entered the Tilton Seminary with the intention of becoming a minister and, after he died, Jeremiah felt compelled to enter the ministry in his place.

“Martin wrote a letter to his uncle, expressing the importance of his career path because he wanted to serve the Lord,”Brenda said. “When Jeremiah found out, he said, “He can’t do it now, so I’m going to.”

She said it was difficult to read about Martin’s death, because in the pages of the journal, Jeremiah poured his emotions out. “They didn’t openly express their grief, and looked on it as God being wonderful for giving them the time they had with their son; but you read his innermost thoughts that he wasn’t sharing with others,”Brenda said.

He became very involved with the Methodist Campground at The Weirs and he surveyed the land for the buildings that would replace the tents they originally stayed in.

One of the other fascinating accounts for Brenda was Jeremiah’s decision to travel to Fall River MA to attend the Lizzie Borden trial. At the end, he said the jury made the right decision in acquitting her of the murder charges.

Brenda said his account of the Civil War (his brother was a regimental volunteer) revealed the difficulty the soldiers had upon their return home. “Nobody could understand what they saw,”she said, adding that was the reason for the formation of the veterans’associations: They could talk through their experiences.

For her, the transcription of the journals brought new insights and taught her to look at things differently. She gave the example of some of the old homes that had doors on the upper floors that led nowhere. In her research, she learned that it was because people would jack up the house and add a lower level, it being less expensive than building a new roof.

“I followed in his footsteps as much as possible,”Brenda said, noting that he had climbed Mount Mooselauke a lot; she found it was not an easy hike. “I’ve been in his church, and in his home,”she said.

She was able to identify a formal portrait of Jeremiah Smith Jewett that was among other old portraits in the Warren church. The church has put it in a frame with a brass plaque, and it now hangs in the church vestry.

To get a copy of the Day Book of Jeremiah Smith Jewett, contact Brenda Kean at her office in the Laconia Public Library. 

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