April 1992

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A Fond Farewell to

Caroline Kirkland


Bill Treichler

When A New Home; Who'll Follow was published in 1839, it made its author, Caroline Matilda Stansbury Kirkland, famous in this country and in Europe. She was recognized by leading literary figures as the creator of a new American style. But when copies of her new book came back to the people she had written about, they felt that she exposed them to ridicule, and were offended. Mrs. Kirkland insisted always that she admired the generous and thrifty qualities of the settlers, and had genuine affection for them. She often said that her contact with the frontier people and the years she spent in Michigan had refined her judgments and had developed her own character.

She wrote another book about life in the settlements, Forest Life, while still in Michigan, and a third book, Western Clearings, in 1845, after she had returned with her family to New York City. The Kirklands left Michigan in 1843 because their venture to establish the town of Pinckney was not a financial success, and probably because they felt shut out by the reactions of their neighbors to Mrs. Kirkland's frank revelations of frontier life.

In New York William Kirkland entered the newspaper business as editor of the New York Evening Mirror, and of his own paper, The Christian Inquirer. Mrs. Kirkland opened a school for girls, entertained writers and publishers, and from 1847 to 1849 was editor of The Union Magazine. Her home was the leading literary salon in the country where Poe, Bryant, Stoddard, and others frequently assembled. Mrs. Kirkland went abroad in 1848 and again in 1850. She was received by Dickens and the Brownings, and she became a close friend and correspondent of Harriet Martineau.

Mr. Kirkland was near-sighted and deaf. In 1846 he accidentally walked off a pier and drowned. Mrs. Kirkland continued her literary activities until her death in 1864. Their son Joseph Kirkland, who was born in Geneva, became a recognized writer, too.

As a girl Caroline Stansbury had had many advantages. She had been raised in a loving and tolerant family, the oldest of eleven children. She had gone to her aunt's prestigious school for young ladies where she was always at the head of her class, yet popular and accomplished in music and dancing. Her family, though not well off, had social position. Caroline went to fashionable places. She read and spoke Latin, French, and Italian, and read Goethe in German. Caroline Stansbury was brought up with social graces and scholarly ideas.

After her father died she persuaded her mother to move with her to Clinton, New York, so that she might be near William Kirkland who was a tutor at Hamilton College. The Kirklands had a long connection with Yale College. His grandfather's brother, Samuel Kirkland, had founded Hamilton-Oneida Academy to teach the Indian boys and the sons of the settlers. The Academy became Hamilton College. William's father was on the board of that institution and his father's cousin, John Kirkland, was president of Harvard College from 1810 to 1838.

Caroline Stansbury and William Kirkland were married in 1828 and went off to Geneva full of ideas about education to start their school.

They believed that their students should live as part of their family, hence the name Domestic School. They taught with kindness, and they encouraged the boys to perform in front of audiences to become at ease with adults and so receive the approbation of their parents, as well as their teachers.

Caroline had taught before when she assisted her aunt, Lydia Philadelphia Mott, who was headmistress of several academically outstanding schools for young women. Miss Stansbury's students remembered her as a person who taught easily and sympathetically, and who was dedicated to excellence.

She must have been a busy young woman when they were living and teaching in Geneva, with five children already, and the resident boys to teach and mother. In 1833 one of their little daughters died.

They had been in Geneva for five years when they left to go to Detroit where Mr. Kirkland had accepted a position as head of the new Detroit Female Seminary. The Geneva Gazette was always enthusiastic in its reports about the ideals of the Domestic School and the performance of the pupils at the public examination days.

Maybe the Kirklands could not attract enough students for their unusual school, or more likely, they were caught up in the great western expansion of those years. A thousand people a day were arriving at Detroit and pushing on westward.

Caroline Matilda Stansbury Kirkland was only 34 when she left Geneva, New York, in 1835, and moved with her husband and four young children to Detroit. There, on the very day when she had her seventh child, another daughter died after she fell from a second-story window of the seminary. Caroline Kirkland was a strong woman who delighted in the living and never revealed in A New Home any sadness about her losses, or any bitterness because she was never mentioned in the newspaper accounts of their school or the news of their family. Women in those days were all important to their family, but of no public significance. Her position as oldest child, her intelligence and competence, her dedication to the ideals she had chosen, all reinforced her female nature to carry on.

William Kirkland bought 800 acres in Livingston County, Michigan, and moved his family sixty miles northeast from Detroit where they started the settlement that became Pinckney. There they lived in a loggery until a frame house was finished. Caroline raised her children, shared the concerns of her husband's efforts to develop the village (she chose the name Pinckney), befriended other women, went to the social affairs and observed the people who came to their community.

When the Kirklands arrived in Michigan she was one of the best educated women in the whole country. Her wide knowledge from learning, reading, and experience caused her to observe and compare all in the new wild world that she saw. She kept her active mind satisfied by pondering the events and the personalities of the frontier and she continued her own personal development by recording in written sketches real life episodes. These she sent in letters to her friends in the city, and, we can imagine, they encouraged her to collect them into a book.

Sensational as A New Home was at publication, it was forgotten almost within her lifetime. Many Americans were embarrassed by the feats of the pioneers, and wished to be genteel.

Caroline Kirkland deserves to be recognized as Poe wrote of her, "Unquestionably, she is one of our best writers…"

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For more about the Kirkland's school and their home in Geneva see issue #23, November, 1990.

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