Thankful Richmond: "Adopted" Daughter of Charles and Elizabeth Phelps

Adoption was not officially established in Massachusetts until 1851, when the Massachusetts Adoption of Children Act was passed.[1] Still, Elizabeth and Charles Phelps raised Thankful Richmond as their daughter after her arrival to Forty Acres as a small motherless infant in December of 1776. Here, she grew up with her new siblings Porter and Betsey.

The Phelps Family Genealogy as printed in  Earthbound and Heavenbent,  with permission of author Elizabeth Pendergast Carlisle.

The Phelps Family Genealogy as printed in Earthbound and Heavenbent, with permission of author Elizabeth Pendergast Carlisle.

Elizabeth Porter Phelps wrote in her diary on September 13, 1772, announcing the birth of her and Charles Phelps’s first child, Moses “Charles” Porter Phelps. Porter, as the family called him, died in 1857 at the age of eighty-five. Elizabeth gave birth to Elizabeth Whiting Phelps Huntington in 1779 who lived until 1847, dying at 68 years old. In between the births of her two surviving biological children, Elizabeth gave birth to another son, Charles Phelps, in December of 1776. On December 8, 1776; Elizabeth Porter Phelps wrote in her diary about the death of infant Charles. She wrote,

... our babe not well in the Evening took with a sort of a fit, sent for Aunt Marsh— held having such distressed turns grew worse and worse— sent for Mr. Hop in night— he Baptized him Charles—he expired about half after 7. O Lord our God may we take a proper notice of it. Sanctify it to our best Good— it was the Lords by Dedication ever since it had Life and surely it may suffice me that the Lord has taken it away.[2]

Shortly after, on December 29, 1776, Elizabeth wrote about the arrival of an infant whose mother had died shortly after childbirth to Forty Acres. She wrote, “Satter, one Richmond brought his child here about a fortnight old— the mother had twins and Left ‘em when about one week old— she died.”[3] Her name would be Thankful Richmond, later Hitchcock, and she would grow up as Porter and Betsey’s sister, and Charles and Elizabeth’s daughter. Thankful’s father was named Zebulon Richmond and the name of her mother is unknown.[4] Thankful’s twin sister was placed with another family.[5] In her diary entry for July 26, 1778; Elizabeth wrote, “This Day Thankful Richmond Baptized upon our account.”[6]

A 1794 letter from Elizabeth Porter Phelps addressed to her daughters. Box 5, Folder 2, Porter-Phelps-Huntington Family Papers, Amherst College Archives & Special Collections, Amherst, Massachusetts.

A 1794 letter from Elizabeth Porter Phelps addressed to her daughters. Box 5, Folder 2, Porter-Phelps-Huntington Family Papers, Amherst College Archives & Special Collections, Amherst, Massachusetts.

Thankful grew up as a member of the Phelps family. She was educated with Betsey, her sister. Based on various letters and Thankful’s interview with Sylvester Judd at the end of her life, Elizabeth Pitkin Porter taught her reading and writing.[7] Later, in 1791, Betsey and Thankful lived with and were educated by the Cutler family in Amherst.[8] In 1796, Thankful married Enos Hitchcock. After their marriage, they lived with her parents, Charles and Elizabeth, at Forty Acres for a year and a half until Enos was financially secure enough for the couple to have their own home. In 1798, Thankful, Enos, and their newborn son, Charles Phelps Hitchcock, moved to Brimfield, Massachusetts.[9] Thankful later gave birth to two daughters. Martha was born in February of 1800 and died in August of 1801 at eighteen months old. In January of 1802, Thankful gave birth to another daughter, also named Martha. Based on letters between Betsey and Elizabeth, Thankful had a tumultuous marriage, seemingly due to Enos’ alcoholism and financial instability. Enos Hitchcock died in 1811, and Thankful moved back to Forty Acres, her childhood home.[10] In 1816, she moved into Porter’s newly-built home across the street from Forty Acres, known as Phelps Farm.[11] In 1814, Charles Phelps died without a formal will, which meant that his estate would have been divided between only Betsey and Porter, his two biological children. But Charles declared on his deathbed that he wanted to leave two five-acre plots to Thankful and her son.[12]

Without adoption formally established in Massachusetts until 1851, Thankful was never legally acknowledged as their daughter.[13] But throughout letters and diaries, she is referred to as their daughter, included in the collective noun of their “children,” she refers to them as her parents, and Elizabeth Pitkin Porter is referred to as her grandmother. No matter what, Charles, Elizabeth, Betsey, and Porter made sure that Thankful and her children were cared for and secure throughout their lives. As Elizabeth Pendergast Carlisle wrote in Earthbound and Heavenbent, “the Phelpses essentially adopted her as their daughter.”[14]

For more information on Thankful’s life see Elizabeth Pendergast Carlisle’s Earthbound and Heavenbent. You can read more about Thankful’s generation of the Porter-Phelps-Huntington Family on our website and on the finding aid for the Porter-Phelps-Huntington Family Papers at Amherst College. And as always, we recommend touring the Porter-Phelps-Huntington Museum to learn more about the six generations of the family.


Sources


A special thank you to Elizabeth Pendergast Carlisle, the author of Earthbound and Heavenbent, for her expertise on Thankful.

[1] “Massachusetts Adoption of Children Act, 1851,” Timeline of Adoption History ,The Adoption History Project, last modified February 24, 2012, https://pages.uoregon.edu/adoption/archive/MassACA.htm.

[2] Elizabeth Porter Phelps, The Diary of Elizabeth (Porter) Phelps, in Porter-Phelps-Huntington Family Papers [Box 9]. On deposit at Amherst College Archives and Special Collections, Amherst College Library, ed. Thomas Eliot Andrews with an introduction by James Lincoln Huntington in The New England Historical Genealogical Register. (Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, Jan. 1964), p. 236.

[3] Elizabeth Porter Phelps, The Diary of Elizabeth (Porter) Phelps, 297.

[4] Elizabeth Pendergast Carlisle, Earthbound and Heavenbent, (New York: Scribner, 2004), ix.

[5] Elizabeth Pendergast Carlisle, Earthbound and Heavenbent, (New York: Scribner, 2004), 89.

[6] Elizabeth Porter Phelps, The Diary of Elizabeth (Porter) Phelps, 305.

[7] Elizabeth Pendergast Carlisle, Earthbound and Heavenbent, (New York: Scribner, 2004),129.

[8] Elizabeth Pendergast Carlisle, Earthbound and Heavenbent, 130.

[9] Elizabeth Pendergast Carlisle, Earthbound and Heavenbent, 136, 138-139.

[10] Elizabeth Pendergast Carlisle, Earthbound and Heavenbent, 254-255.

[11] Elizabeth Pendergast Carlisle, Earthbound and Heavenbent, 278.

[12] Elizabeth Pendergast Carlisle, Earthbound and Heavenbent, 276.

[13] Elizabeth Pendergast Carlisle, Earthbound and Heavenbent, 88.

[14] Elizabeth Pendergast Carlisle, Earthbound and Heavenbent, 88.