THE DRESS

(no date given)

Cook Stories 8

The dress, as it was referred to in our branch of the family, meant my grandmother’s wedding dress; it was a term of respect and admiration. When the dress appeared for inspection and airing, it always brought a demand for “the story about the dress,” if there was an adult story-teller present. Here is the story–a composite of all the versions related to the grandchildren.

“I will never marry a sailor.” With those words Susan Randall (born 1796) wrecked the hopes of her most-favored suitor, William Collins Benson (born 1791); he had thought he might marry a girl of his choice and also follow the career he had secretly desired.

What brought Susan to this decision? One can only draw conclusions from her family background. She was a cousin of the seafaring Perry’s whose ships sailed to the Far East. Maybe she was aware of William’s ancestry of three generations of wealthy sea-going slave-traders; of these, the most famous was William’s father, the Rev. John Benson, who had seen the error of his ways, repented and had now become a minister of the gospel. Whatever may have influenced her, Susan had a mind of her own and refused to change it. William indicated he was willing to compromise and blandly assumed Susan would agree to his arrangements; she did just that. He would own land, but he would do little if any, farming. He was well-to-do and bought acres of wooded land in northern New York near the town of Parish. He set up a saw-mill. As the land was cleared, he either hired it farmed or rented it to others. He seems to have been a born diplomat as he quietly evaded Susan’s demand that her husband be a farmer.

The increasing size of the family of William and Susan kept them busy. In all, they had 16 children. At this point, every story-teller was bound to add: “Two died, and they adopted two to replace them.” William seems to have found life a bit boring. Susan insisted on inviting all the visiting ministers to stay in the Benson home and on attending at least four and sometimes five church-related services every Sunday.

The oldest children were girls. When William felt he must escape from a household of petticoats, he took himself off to New Jersey to see younger brother John, operator of a silk mill in New Jersey.

After his sons were born and grew older, William seems to have been concerned that they were careless and irresponsible. He had hired a manager for the saw-mill to oversee things when he was away, and sometimes the boys tried to interfere.

Two of William’s daughters–Mary Jane and Angeline appear to have amused and charmed him with their antics. Both girls resembled one another so much that they might well have been twins. Only a little over a year’s difference in their ages, these blonde look-alikes had a great deal of secret fun when young men came to call and could not tell the one from the other.

Time passed. Then came John, riding a horse, and bursting with eagerness to tell William that a vessel, lately returned from California told of the discovery of gold there and that he, John, was going to join the “gold rushers.” Wouldn’t William come too? Indeed he would! Then the problems developed.

Straightaway William’s sons, Randall, about 16 and John, nearing 15, begged to be allowed to go along. Susan complained that she could not oversee the mill and her family, too. The older daughters and their husbands became a bit envious and began to discuss moving West.

William studied John’s plans carefully. This was to be an expedition for strong, able-bodied men who could endure hardship and travel fast and light. They expected to use good riding horses and pack mules. For safety, they would travel in a large group made up of men known to one another. They would take supplies of food and ammunition to last until they reached Independence, Missouri and then they would buy more pack mules and supplies for their trip across the Great Plains. On the advice of the captain of the boat which brought the news, they transported with them picks, shovels, and other tools needed for locating and washing gold. Family tales of sea-going preparedness and its value in preserving life led them to believe stories of men fighting to buy the limited supplies available in California.

Hurriedly William set about solving his problems. To make Susan feel secure, he rehired the man who had served as his overseer on his brief visits past but this time on a legal basis and long-term contract. He promised Angeline and Mary Jane that if they helped their mother while he was gone, he would bring them home gold pieces to buy their wedding dresses when they were ready to mary.

What to say to Randall’s and John’s demands was his greatest worry. William felt his sons needed to learn to take responsibility, but that they were not old enough to stand up to the long grueling days in the gold fields. He decided to test their abilities and go along with their wishes, so far as to offer mules for them to ride if each one would furnish his own saddle and other riding gear. Maybe he thought they would back down; maybe he suspected what would actually happen. Randall and John, not having money to buy saddles decided to get along with only saddle blankets. So they took off with the rest of the party.

On arrival in Independence, Missouri, both boys were discouraged, sore, and “half cut in two” as one of them later put it. Neighbors of the home community who had accompanied the party found the prices of good pack mules so expensive that they decided to return home. William cheerfully agreed to his sons’ requests to be allowed to accompany them.

So William and John, and possibly another brother or cousin took off to California. Nothing about their trip seems different from others of the time. Perhaps they would have never told any details of their stay in the West if a catastrophe had not obliged John to walk.

On reaching California in 1850, the brothers located a claim, worked it, were moderately successful, sold out, and went to San Francisco to make preparations to return home.

The first thing they did on their arrival was to take their dust to the mint. William joked about the 20 dollar gold pieces he wanted for his daughters, calling it “wedding dress money.”

Then William, John and a friend who was a lay-preacher at home, took off to visit the stores and “see the sights.” They became involved in a fight.

Both John and the lay-preacher saw a man plunge a knife into William’s side and saw him fall. The mud was very deep. As the fighting men surged forward, William was trampled under their feet, and John and his friend could not get to William to rescue him.

As soon as they could, they returned to the spot where William had fallen; he was nowhere in sight. Someone said a dead body had been carried away to be thrown into the water. For three days, John and the lay preacher asked questions and searched for William; it was without results.

Saddened, John decided his brother William was dead. He made preparations to return home. They went to the mint to collect their money, but could not claim William’s because, without seeing his dead body, they could not take on oath that he was “dead.” Without legal papers, John had no alternative, but to leave William’s share where it was. This failure brought home to John the fact that he would have to break the news to Susan.

He was inconsolable; not only was William his brother, but he was very close to him. John knew Susan would feel that “he talked William into going.” He wanted to get it over; he wanted to get away from the stealing, knifing, and fighting crowds.

John and the lay-preacher joined a train that was about to leave for the East. After buying supplies, they loaded the pack mules and started the return trip. With no incidents which John ever mentioned, the journey was completed. Immediately John broke the news to Susan and the family. They were deeply grieved. John went on to New Jersey, his home.

Susan, especially, had little time to grieve. The management of an estate which could not be legally settled until her husband was declared legally dead was a problem. No one had actually seen William die. No doubt, John returned to advise her, but the had a mill to operate. Randall and John, now 17and 16 years old, felt that they were men and better able to take care of the mill and farm than their mother.

True, the mill overseer stood firm. He had William’s legal authority behind him, but the interference of the two boys can cause a lot of trouble. Susan was beside herself. Another problem Susan had to face was what to do with Mary Jane and Angeline and their beaux. Both attractive blondes never tired of confusing their partners by changing places on the dance floor; if that got boring, they exchanged escorts to the dance, causing more confusion.

Then there was that tall, dark-haired young man with the twinkling blue eyes who seemed very serious in his intentions for Mary Jane. He was a hard-working young carpenter, well trained. However, his language when he was angry, showed the influence of working winters in the Great Lakes area and was according to Mary Jane’s brothers “as salty as the sea.” He did not attend church regularly, and that counted against him with Susan. One thought was in his favor; he could tell the sisters apart. He made that plain. Mary Jane seemed not to want to share him with anyone else. She did love her parents and could not bear to think of marrying anyone and leaving her mother so soon after her father’s death.

A year dragged by and part of another. Susan wondered when all this trouble would end. Then!!

William Collins Benson rode up quietly to the house one day and just as quietly resumed his place as head of the household. He looked tired and much older but was apparently in good health. Susan once more became the conscientious wife and mother, who considered her “calling” to collect herbs she used in treating sick people as necessary as attending church on Sunday.

The sons were far less vocal. William had time to meet the two young men, Emory Cook, and Jason Kenyon, who wanted to marry his daughters. He evidently accepted them for he gave his permission for “serious courting.”

In his version of the tale, Emory always said, “First I decided to learn enough about those two girls, so neither could fool me again. In the process, I learned that if I married Mary Jane, I would have to let her live near her family. In 1853 land was opening in Iowa. I wanted to take her there, where two of her older sisters and their husbands had gone. She would not hear of it. Well, I loved her, and when she agreed to marry me, I thought I was lucky. But it was 16 years before she would go West with me.

One day William laughingly presented each of his two engaged daughters with a twenty-dollar gold piece saying “I want to keep my promise to mine gold and have it made into money to buy cloth for your wedding dresses.”

Mary Jane was thrilled. She loved to sew, and she was secretly proud of her skill. She wanted a really beautiful dress. She had seen some of the silk woven in Uncle John’s mill. Once he had raised the worms and grown the mulberries to have the silk thread made in New Jersey; now he thought it better to import the thread and weave the cloth only.

Could she buy silk from the mill? Why not? William wrote to John to send swatches. One of those was Mary Jane’s dream come true–it was a soft taffeta which changed colors as the sunlight of candlelight shone on it. At once, the order went off to Uncle John.

When the silk came, one version of the story says “Uncle John’s wedding gift came with it–a trimming exactly the shade of silk. When sewed in place, it would resemble an appliqued design.

Years later, Mary Jane told her grandchildren how carefully she cut the silk and sewed it “every stitch by hand.” The stays that held the bodice in place were made of carefully selected hickory wood–“to bend but not break.” The bodice was made over a fitted lining; instead of a hem in the skirt, she used a facing of canvass to hold out the skirt which was very full. The trimming was sewn on the bottom of the three-quarter length sleeve and down the bodice front and around the round neck.

With this Mary Jane wore a white or cream-colored guimpe made of lacy cloth with full l sleeves and a high collar. It’s all in her wedding picture–an old-time daguerreotype. Wearing her wedding ring of two overlapping hearts on a gold band, she must have felt loved and cherished.

And William–where was he when everyone thought he was dead? He never talked about it if he could avoid it, Emory told us, but these details leaked out, and we were told to believe them or not as we chose. A doctor dragged William out of the mud to his nearby tent and treated his wound. William’s wallet and appearance bore out his story that he could “pay his way.” Told of John and the lay-preacher, the doctor tried to locate them, but it was like hunting for a four-leaved clover in a swamp. But the doctor was honest. When William became ill from infection and lost consciousness, the doctor cared for him. When William recovered, the doctor returned his wallet containing the receipt from the mint and also his money.

After paying the doctor, and a trip to the mint, William decided to return home on a ship sailing around South America to New England. The story says he worked his way. It must have been on a supercargo, for he would not have been well enough to do the work of an ordinary seaman. He was past 60 years of age. He probably told John the whole story.

William was able to attend Mary Jane’s wedding in 1853. He arranged for Emory to rent one of his farms. Five years later, John became ill, sent for William and William went to New Jersey, took the fever and died there. His body could not be returned to Parish. He was buried in his brother’s plot in Patterson, New Jersey.

When Mary Jane would show us the dress and tell us how she made it, some of us were too young to understand the look in her eyes. Now one wonders if the sight of the dress, still beautiful in 1900, did not awaken in her the same vaguely dissatisfied longing for adventure, never realized, which characterized William — then if it was summer, she looked out of the window of the “old house” on the Cook farm at her herb garden, transplanted by seeds, and identical plants brought to her over the years–and now growing in Iowa,–smiled, put away the dress and asked us if we wanted some milk and cookies.

Written by Luella Ellis Cook

Transcribed by Eric L. Cook

July 2019

This article has 1 comments

  1. ericcook

    This is the story of my 3G Grandmother’s wedding dress, and how it came to be. It entails my 4G grandfather going to California during the gold rush in 1850, nearly dying, and returning home years later. Some say his wife remarried and had a child by her new husband during this time, thinking her former husband was dead. There are some discrepancies between this story and what we know to be fact. Still, the story is told from a very reliable source, my GG Aunt Luella, and it is the truth as she knew it.

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