In 1960 a tattered diary was discovered in a box of books in a Plattsburgh, New York auction. Fortunately, Mary Smallman, the Saint Lawrence County historian, became intrigued by the book and transcribed it and spent several years researching the author's story. Phebe Orvis was born in Bristol, Vermont and kept her journal from 1820, when she was 19, until 1830. Her parents and grandparents were some of the area's earliest white settlers and Phebe's life is not at all what one might expect in the early years of frontier life. As a young unmarried woman she enjoyed a certain amount a freedom which accompanied the revolutionary spirit of the new nation. She had an active social life, traveled often to surrounding towns and would attend the Middlebury Female Seminary. Unfortunately, as a woman, certain decisions were not hers to make. She was pressured by her family to marry into a prosperous farm family who had relocated to the wilds of the Saint Lawrence river valley, and abandon her affections for a young man who, although educated, had no land or money.
AN EXTRAORDINARY ORDINARY WOMAN begins with chapters of introductory research done by Susan M. Ouellette, Professor of History and American Studies At Saint Michael's College, followed by the transcript of the actual journal. This is a truly fascinating education into what life was really like two hundred years ago right where we live today.
In 1820, Phebe Orvis began a journal that she faithfully kept for a decade. Richly detailed, her diary captures not only the everyday life of an ordinary woman in early nineteenth-century Vermont and New York, but also the unusual happenings of her family, neighborhood, and beyond. The journal entries trace Orvis's transition from single life to marriage and motherhood, including her time at the Middlebury Female Seminary and her observations about the changing social and economic environment of the period. A Quaker, Orvis also recorded the details of the waxing passion of the Second Great Awakening in the people around her, as well as the conflict the fervor caused within her own family. In the first section of the book, Susan M. Ouellette includes a series of essays that illuminate Orvis's diary entries and broaden the social landscape she inhabited. These essays focus on Orvis and, more importantly, the experience of ordinary people as they navigated the new nation, the new century, and the emerging American society and culture. The second section is a transcript of the original journal. This combination of analytical essays and primary source material offers readers a unique perspective of domestic life in northern New England as well as upstate New York in the early nineteenth century.
About the Author
Susan M. Ouellette is Professor of History and American Studies at Saint Michael's College and the author of US Textile Production in Historical Perspective: A Case Study from Massachusetts.