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Memoir of a Clever New England Girl

Charlotte Haven of Portsmouth, NH ?

In an unfinished memoir dictated in her dying days, Charlotte Haven (1819 –1900) of California told of growing up in Yankee society in Portsmouth, NH. Selections from her revealing, but brief autobiography are published here for the first time courtesy of Ruth Given.


Memoirs from the early days of Portsmouth are rare. Rarer still are the recorded lives of women, especially talented writers like Charlotte Ann Haven. Charlotte moved to Wisconsin in the 1850s to join a utopian community. Years earlier, she met Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon Church, and recorded her impressions.

Charlotte made her way to California soon after the Gold Rush days, and just before her death in 1900, she dictated a few precious pages of her early memories to her daughter. Ruth Given of California, a descendant, sent me a transcript after she saw one of my Portsmouth history articles online. Bursting with enthusiasm and detail, this 37-page memoir has never been published – until now. Here are a few samples.

A Shaefe Haven

Charlotte Haven was born in 1819 in a house on Vaughan Street previously occupied by a young Daniel Webster and his wife. Across the narrow street was the ornate Assembly Rooms that 30 years earlier George Washington had called "one of the best I have seen anywhere in the United States." In fact, before dining there with the "very handsome ladies" of Portsmouth in 1789, Washington visited privately with Rev. Samuel Haven, Charlotte’s grandfather. She was also descended from the Shaefe family whose ancient warehouse still stands in Prescott Park.

The grand Assembly House is gone, and Vaughan Street fell to urban renewal in the 20th century. But back in the early 1800s, Charlotte’s mother recalled watching the fancy parties and dancing classes across Vaughan Street from an upper window. Charlotte’s brother Henderson, according to family legend, "would take a huge fan that my father brought back with him from the East Indies and pace on the top of the house fanning himself, to the great amusement of the people attending the dancing school."

Soon after her birth, Charlotte’s family moved to the expanding residential neighborhood on Middle Street. Her wealthy uncle Charles Haven owned a three-story house with 17 rooms, a brick carriage house, two "water closets" and 10 storage closets, some as big as bedrooms. The parlor contained a Russian fireplace – "an indescribable affair of soap-stone, eighteen feet by fifteen feet". Candles were the primary lighting source. Silver and green paper imported from France covered the walls and a Grecian window opened and led down to the garden. Charlotte, the seventh of 12 children, lived here until she migrated West.


Childhood memories of Portsmouth

One of her earliest memories, Charlotte says, was watching the 1823 procession that celebrated Portsmouth’s 200th anniversary. A year later she watched the Marquis de Lafayette pass, standing in his carriage. "Wave your handkerchief!" her grandmother said. After the parade it rained, she says, and her brothers dug up a whole basketful of artichokes.

Charlotte’s father William Haven was born in 1770, and told her about making musket balls during the American Revolution. He was friendly with attorney Daniel Webster, who often borrowed money and finally returned it, without interest, decades later.

From age five to nine Charlotte attended Miss Olive Melcher’s school. Tuition was $2 for each 12-week session. Both boys and girls were taught to sew, plus the rudiments of arithmetic, reading, writing and geography. When Charlotte found a word she could not pronounce, she would shout out "Jerusalem!" Her final projects were a sampler and shirt for her father. The single classroom in a private home was fitted out with benches on all four sites.

"The teacher’s chair was in the middle of the room," Charlotte recalled. "She kept at her side a long pole which reached to the furthest corner of the room so that she could tap and unruly, or idle, child on the head."

Entering Society

Charlotte matriculated into a private school for girls run by two unmarried sisters named Adams, then later by the Langdon sisters. Tuition doubled to $4 per term. There she first met the "aristocracy" of Portsmouth. She attended parties with children from the Portsmouth upper crust – the Cutts, Pierces, Jaffreys, Rundletts, Wentworths, Ladds, Rices and Parrots, She also took dancing lessons from "a real Frenchman" named Mr. Shaffer, practicing minuets, cotillions and quadrilles. Waltzing was not allowed. Charlotte found the upper class stiff and formal, and preferred life among the merchant class side of her family tree.

Schools frequently closed as teachers moved on, creating a patchwork education. At the "Academy" Charlotte sat silently with 100 other girls lorded over by Mr. Merrill, a harsh disciplinarian. She writes:

"The girls had a habit of taking thin pieces of rubber to school and making them by a little twist into a bubble. Then striking them against their desk, they would go off with a big noise, like an explosion. Sometimes in the midst of a death-like stillness – pop! – would go a bubble."

Charlotte was among the many girls caught with bits of rubber in her desk, She lost her chair – seating was arranged by merit -- and had to move to the back of the class. But by age 12, she had moved up to Mr. Emory’s class among the older girls, where she struggled with French. By age 16, she was studying Philosophy and Astronomy. When her older sister Sophia married that year, Charlotte proudly became "Miss Haven", the eldest girl at home. She wore the title like a badge.


Charlotte Have courtesy (c) Ruth Given

Summer diversions

The great event of the year, she writes, was an annual trip to her grandmother’s farm near Rye Beach. All 10 remaining members of the family crammed into a carriage that Charlotte called the "omnium gatherum". Her father and the boys went swimming, while the females took off their shoes and socks to wade and collect shells. Then the children all went back to the farm to search for eggs, climb trees, and feast on yellow corn.

In 1830, when Charlotte Haven was 10, her sisters, girlfriends and mother spent a few weeks on the Isles of Shoals. They "stopped" at Smuttynose also known as Haley’s Island. Charlotte offers this revealing anecdote:

"There were only five houses on the island, and a hotel kept by the Haelys…Hester or ‘Ester’ Haley was a character. She ruled the whole island, man, woman, and child. Once a drunkard fisherman came home and shot at his wife. Hester heard the shot, rushed right up to the man, made him get into his boat and told him to push out and never dare put foot on the island again; and I guess he never did, at least so long as Ester lived on the island."

Charlotte’s memoir offers rare feminine insights into Portsmouth society and religious life as well. She describes her first visits to nearby towns, attends a marriage ceremony and travels to Boston. But it is her precocious ways that shine through and bring her character to life. As a child, for example, she preferred to run rather than walk. She climbed ladders to steal cake through the kitchen window, and liked to leap back and forth over her baby sister’s cradle. One final anecdote speaks volumes about this newly discovered character who later left Yankee Portsmouth for the California frontier. Charlotte said:

"My favorite seat was in an apple tree, where I used to carry my books and study. I was fond of green apples too, but father had forbidden us to pick them. So I used to bend down the branches and gnaw them, leaving the cores dangling on the tree."

Copyright © 2009 by J. Dennis Robinson. All rights reserved. Selections from Charlotte Haven’s memoir courtesy Ruth Given.

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