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Captain Vicary and His Children

By Roger Applegate
With research assistance from Ron Ciani

Milestones Vol 34 No. 4

For the past ten years, we have been working to uncover the story of the real Captain Vicary in order to get a deeper understanding of who he really was, what he thought, what he did and what his life was like so that we can tell the more personal side of his story. As an old sea captain and gentleman farmer, we have often wondered what Vicary would have been like as a father in Beaver County in the 1830's.

During that time period, child raising was the primary responsibility of the mother who either did the rearing herself and/or depending on circumstances, supervised a nanny to do so. Fathers were the providers and were the disciplinarians when mother could no longer handle an unrepentant child, but otherwise had very little interest in the process until the male children were old enough to be taught chores and other male responsibilities. Captain Vicary came across very much this way until we looked closely at his journal. No one would ever have confused him with a "Ward Cleaver", who many of us older readers may remember as the perfect father in the old Leave it to Beaver television series. Vicary was very much the stern ship captain on the outside while the caring father stayed carefully hidden under that stern "no-nonsense" exterior.

Legend tells us that Mary and the Captain had nine children, but to date, we have only been able to find information on seven. Daughter Anna Elizabeth died in 1811 and another unnamed child died at birth in 1809. Five children lived with them at various times here in Beaver County: Samuel C., William, John, Philip and Hannah, and these are the children that we were able to learn the most about through our research as well as the writings in his daily journal.

Captain Vicary, an educated and industrious man, expected as much from his children. The boys, Samuel, William, Philip and John had various farm chores to do each day that gradually increased in responsibility as they grew older. Education was as important to Vicary as hard work, and when the children were old enough, he arranged for their schooling. In 1829, Vicary entered his son, William C. Vicary into school at Old Economy to be taught by Dr. Miller (Mueller). William C. and his younger brother John, later attended a school taught by Mr. Henry Blasdell in Bridgewater. Daughter Hannah was also educated because in the year of her father's death (1842), she was attending school at the Edgeworth Seminary run by James and Mary Olver. Her tuition was in arrears to the sum of $126.30 that wasn't paid until three years after Vicary's death by his old friend, David Shields.

Despite the many entries about his sons throughout Captain Vicary's journal, he rarely refers to his youngest child Hannah. Perhaps it was because she was so young and unable to take any active part in the farm work or possibly because it was the responsibility of her mother to teach Hannah her domestic duties. We do know that Hannah would be the only one of the children to survive both of their parents and inherit the mansion.
Another interesting omission occurs with son, Samuel C. Vicary who we discovered in the journal, but did not find in our research. From the entries in the journal, he appears to have been the oldest living child at the time. At some point, Samuel goes to work in Pittsburgh, probably at the U.S. Bank there and then simply disappears from the journal. After a certain point, Samuel is never mentioned again, and we have been unable to find out what happened to him. Whether he died away from home or had some falling out with the family, Vicary gives no indication.

More details emerge from his journal about the younger sons, William, and Philip. Vicary mentions several instances where his son, William, then about 10 years old, refused to go to school or do any work at home. Respecting his wife Mary's wishes on the subject, Vicary withheld the discipline that he felt was necessary. Mary did not believe in the punishment of children because she had attended school at the Bethlehem Female Moravian Seminary whose teachings were rooted in the philosophy of, "close and loving supervision and on good adult example rather than on punishment." As I'm sure many of us can attest, a lack of discipline is not a good way to raise every child, since some simply don't respond to it. Apparently, Mary's way was not working with William, and the Captain was finally allowed to try his method. In his journal entry for 1832, Vicary mentions that he "beat W.C.V. for many insults to self and mother including one this day." The discipline, although long delayed, must have been effective since there is no other mention of problems with William.

Apparently, his son William was not the only problem child. In his 1842 will, Vicary mentioned that his son, Philip, had contracted the bad habits of "intemperance and idleness", and Philip would receive an inheritance of only $100 per year until such time as he changed his ways. Prior to the Captain's death, a major change must have occurred in Philip, because the will was amended, and the Captain noted that he was now satisfied that Philip had again become "temperate and industrious", and was entitled to a full share of his father's estate. The estate would have been lucrative from not only his farming and land speculation, but from his other pursuits as well.

There was also a tender and caring side to the stern disciplinarian and taskmaster that we have seen above. Many places in his journal, he talks about buying mint sticks and nuts for the children during his visits to the store at Old Economy. He also mentions building a children's swing and giving each of them 38 cents as a New Year's gift. At one point in the journal, he even tells us that he brought home a dog for William. On one occasion, he even accompanied the children to Beaver where some of them had teeth removed. Not too bad for a man who watched his pennies very carefully.

In addition to his own children, Vicary made room in his home to care for his nieces, Elizabeth and Mary Gonter from Columbia, Pennsylvania. Their mother, the sister of Mrs. Vicary, died suddenly and their father, John Gonter found himself unable to care for the two girls. Captain Vicary personally went to Columbia and spent $126 to bring the girls back to the mansion. Elizabeth and Mary Gonter lived with the Vicary family for many years, were cared for as his own children and were even left a small legacy in his will. Although we don't know what became of them, most likely when they came of age, the girls were either married or moved away.

As our research and interpretation of Captain Vicary's life progresses, we are constantly surprised by the complexity and depth of the man who we are studying. In an era when child raising duties were relegated to the mother and the father's primary duty was to work and provide for the family, we find that Captain Vicary, although very much a "man of his time", has managed to surprise us yet again.