Lydia Maria Child Writes and Explores Over the River and Through the Wood
by Kathy Warnes
Over the river, and through the wood,/To Grandfather’s house we go/The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh/Through the white and drifted snow…
Her poem, Over the River and Through the Wood, threaded its way through Lydia Maria Child’s life. Time has transformed the title of her original poem from A Boy’s Thanksgiving Day to Over the River and Through the Wood. Despite its title, generations of readers have applied the poem to both Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Some versions of the poem talk about woods and others say wood. Some versions say that the horse and riders in the sleigh are going to grandmother’s house and other versions say that they are traveling to grandfather’s house. Time and Tufts University have preserved her grandparent’s farm house which still stands near the Mystic River on South Street in Medford, Massachusetts and it is on the National Register of Historic places. The woods, slightly thinner, are still there. Time has veiled the fact that besides writing a famous poem that has lasted generations, Lydia Maria Child was a well known author and Abolitionist.
Lydia Maria Francis Writes Historical Romances
Over the river, and through the wood,/To Grandfather’s house away!/We would not stop for doll or top,/For ’tis Thanksgiving Day. ..
Lydia Maria Francis was the youngest of the six children of David Convers Francis and Susanna Rand Francis. She preferred to be called Maria instead of Lydia and her parents educated her at home, at a nearby dame school and women’s seminary. After her mother died when Maria was twelve, she went to live with her older married sister, Mary, in Norridgewock, Maine and she studied to take teacher’s exams. She passed her exams and taught school for a short time. While she lived with Mary, Maria visited a nearby Penobscot Indian settlement which sparked her lifelong interest in Native American rights.
During this time of her life, Maria became especially close to her brother, Convers Francis, who had graduated from Harvard and became a Unitarian minister. She went to live with him and his family at his parish in Watertown, Massachusetts, where she ran a private school. Her brother guided Maria’s education in the literary masters like Homer and Milton. One day she happened to read an article in the North American Review pointing out the literary possibilities that New England history offered novelists. Maria had never thought of writing a novel, but she wrote the first chapter of a novel that she called Hobomok. Encouraged by her brother’s praise, Maria finished her novel in six weeks.
In 1824, Maria, published the historical romance Hobomok: A Tale of Early Times, anonymously under the pen name of “an American.” The plot involves the interracial marriage between a white woman and a native American man and they have a son. The historical romance is based on a real Native American, Hobomok who was a Wampanoag who served as a guide, interpreter, and aide to the Pilgrims at Plymouth, Massachusetts. They have a son and after Hobomok dies of a European disease, the heroine remarries and reintegrates herself and her son into Puritan society.
Hobomok caused a scandal in the literary community because of the interracial marriage. In 1825, Maria published her second novel, The Rebels, or Boston Before the Revolution which achieved new success for her. In this novel she has James Otis make a speech which people interpreted to be an authentic historical speech. She presented it so successfully that many 19th century schoolbooks included it as a standard speech to memorize. In 1826, Maria founded a bimonthly children’s magazine called Juvenile Miscellany.
Maria Francis Becomes a Literary Lioness and Marries David Child
Over the river, and through the wood-/Oh, how the wind does blow!/It stings the toes and bites the nose,/As over the ground we go…
Both her historical novels and children’s magazine opened literary doors for Maria Francis in New England and Boston literary circles. She became acquainted with Margaret Fuller and frequently joined Margaret Fuller’s conversations at Elizabeth Palmer Peabody’s North Street Bookstore in Boston. She became friends with Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, Mary Tyler Peabody Mann and Sophia Amelia Peabody Hawthorne, three sisters who as Transcendentalists backed reform movements, pioneered modern educational theory, founded the kindergarten movement in America and supported the arts.
Maria Francis and Maria White Lowell, an American poet and Abolitionist became friends and another friend, Harriet Winslow Sewall arranged Maria’s letters for publication after she died.
David Child and Maria Francis became acquainted in 1824. David Lee Child was eight years older than Maria and worked as the editor and publisher of the Massachusetts
Journal. He also dabbled in politics, serving briefly in the Massachusetts State legislature and speaking at local political rallies. Maria and David shared similar middle class backgrounds and intellectual interests, but they were radically different in some respects. Her frugality clashed with his extravagance and she favored the sensual romantic, aesthetic and mystical areas of life while he worked most comfortably in the worlds of reform and activism.
Maria’s family thoughtfully considered David Child’s debt and reputation for faulty budgeting, and opposed their romance. Maria looked past David’s fiscal faults and at her own financial success as an author and editor and decided that she could afford to take the risk of marrying David Child. They became engaged in 1827 and were married in 1828.
Maria and David Child Work Together
Over the river, and through the wood/With a clear blue winter sky,/The dogs do bark and the children hark,/As we go jingling by…
After David Child and Maria Francis were married, Maria embraced his political interests and began to write for his newspaper., the Massachusetts Journal. Maria returned again and again to the same theme in her newspaper columns and in her children’s stories in Juvenile Miscellany- how terribly the Spanish and then the New England settlers treated the Native Americans.
When President Andrew Jackson determined to forcibly move the Cherokee Indians out of Georgia in violation of earlier treaties and government promises, David and Maria vigorously attacked his positions and actions. David Child’s political activism and reform work introduced his wife to the social reforms of Indian rights and Garrisonian Abolitionism.
In 1828, Maria published another novel, The First Settlers, and in this book the white main characters identified more with the early Native Americans than with the Puritan settlers. Maria’s positive treatment of Native American religion and her vision of multiracial democracy didn’t cause much controversy because her book hadn’t been publicized. David’s political writing at the Massachusetts Journal had been well publicized and prompted many cancelled subscriptions and a libel trial. David went to prison for this offense, but later a higher court overturned his conviction.
David’s dwindling income motivated Maria to increase her own earnings. In 1829, she published an advice book called The Frugal Housewife, aimed at the new American middle class wife and mother. She focused on plain living, saving money and time, and a lower income American wife without servants. As her financial difficulties multiplied, Maria took a teaching position and continued to publish Juvenile Miscellany. In 1831 she published The Mother’s Book and The Little Girl’s Own Book, books of advice with
tips on economy and games.
Lydia Maria Child Takes the Reform Road to Her Massachusetts Farm
Over the River and through the wood/to have a first-rate play/Hear the bells ring, “Ting a ling ding!” /Hurray for Thanksgiving Day!….”
David Child’s political circle included William L Garrison. Constant exposure to anti-slavery sentiments brought Maria nose to nose with slavery. She and David became active in the anti-slavery cause in 1831, and she wrote more of her children’s stories about slavery.
Maria Writes An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called
Over the river, and through the wood-/No matter for winds that blow;/Or if we get the sleigh upset/Into a bank of snow…
In 1833, after several years of studying and pondering slavery, Maria Child published a vastly different book than her novels and children’s stories. She called her new book An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans, the first anti-slavery work in America published in book form.
In her book, Maria described slavery’s history in America and the condition of the thousands of American slaves. She advocated ending slavery not by sending the slaves back to Africa, but by integrating them into American society. She argued that education and racial intermarriage would help bring about a multiracial republic and she vigorously attacked the Southern slave system and racism in the North.
Her anti-slavery book had a negative impact on Maria’s life. It eroded her reputation as an author. It helped destroy Juvenile Miscellany in 1834 and reduced sales of The Frugal Housewife. New England literary and social circles ostracized Maria and she and David suffered a severe financial setback. Despite the high price of her convictions, Maria
published more anti-slavery works including Authentic Anecdotes of American Slavery in 1835.
Maria and David Child and the American Anti-Slavery Society
Over the river, and through the wood,/To see little John and Ann;/We
will kiss them all, and play snowball/and stay as long as we can…
Lydia Maria Child and her husband David became active in the Abolitionist movement. In 1839, Maria served on the executive committee of William Lloyd Garrison’s American Anti-Slavery Society and in 1841, she became editor of the National Anti-Slavery Standard, the Anti-Slavery Society’s weekly New York newspaper.
She and David were listed on the masthead as editors, but in reality David had stayed behind in Massachusetts attempting to start a sugar beet industry to replace sugarcane grown and harvested by slaves. In 1843, Maria resigned as editor of the Standard. In a letter to her friends, Maria explained that she decided to resign from the Standard because she didn’t believe in using violence as a weapon for battling slavery and the divisions in the Abolitionist movement angered her. She wrote that she was ‘finished with the cause forever.”
Maria Child Continues to Write
Over the river, and through the wood,/Trot fast my dapple gray!/Spring over the ground like a hunting-hound!/For ’tis Thanksgiving Day…
Although she said that she was through with causes and she had resigned as editor of the Standard, Maria remained in New York and continued to write. The poverty of New York appalled her, but New York’s art and music fed her soul. She published Letters from New York, 1843 and 1845, which were popular collections of her columns in the Standard. Fortunately for Maria, New York State law allowed her to separate her income from David’s so she could build up savings that his creditors couldn’t touch.
Maria wasn’t finished with the Abolitionist cause forever. Instead, the cause had captured her heart and soul. During the 1840s and 1850s, Maria continued to serve as a member of the American Anti-Slavery Society’s executive board with her friends, Lucretia Mott and Maria Weston Chapman.
She continued to use her fiction to advance her ideas, exploring the complex issues of slavery in short stories like The Quadroons in 1842, and Slavery’s Pleasant Homes: A Faithful Sketch, in 1843. In 1844-1847, Maria published Flowers for Children and in 1846, she wrote a book about “fallen women,” called Fact and Fiction.
The Constant Writing and Anti-Slavery Life
Over the river, and through the wood/And straight through the barnyard gate/We seem
to go extremely slow-/It is so hard to wait!
In 1852, Maria and David returned to the Wayland, Massachusetts home of her aging father and with a few absences, it would be her home for the rest of her life. Happily settled in, in 1854 she finished her three-volume work called The Progress of Religious Ideas Through Successive Ages.
Despite her intensive research and positive critical reviews, the book didn’t sell well. Thomas Wentworth Higginson noted that it was “too learned for a popular book and too popular for a learned one.”
Maria Child and John Brown
Over the river, and through the wood-/Old Jowler hears our bells;/He shakes his paw with a loud bow-wow,/And thus the news he tells.
In 1859, news of John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry agitated the entire country and renewed Maria’s commitment to the Abolitionists. She disagreed with John Brown’s tactics but she sympathized with his motives, so she immediately wrote John Brown a letter and sent it to Virginia Governor Henry A. Wise. She asked Governor Wise to deliver the letter to Brown and requested permission to visit Brown in prison. Maria and Virginia Governor Wise exchanged a series of letters about John Brown which the New York Tribune eventually published.
The wife of Virginia Senator James M. Mason read the published letters and vigorously attacked Maria Child. In a series of letters, Maria and Mrs. Mason defended their positions on slavery. In 1860, the American Anti-Slavery Society published the letters under the title, Correspondence between Lydia Maria Child and Governor Wise and Mrs. Mason of Virginia as a tract and it sold 300,000 copies.
Maria Child Agitates For More Indian Rights
Over the river, and through the wood-/When Grandmother sees us come,/She will say, “O, dear, the children are here,/Bring pie for everyone.”
After the Civil War and slavery ended, Maria published The Freedmen’s Book, which included writings of noted African Americans, at her own expense. She wrote another novel, Romance of the Republic, about interracial love and racial justice.
In 1868, she returned to her earlier advocacy of Native Americans and published An Appeal for the Indians, advocating ways to bring justice to Native Americans. Her book aroused Peter Cooper’s interest in Indian issues and encouraged him to help found the U.S. Board of Indian Commissioners and formulate the Peace Policy in Ulysses S. Grant’s administration.
Maria Child Dies at Wayland
Over the river, and through the wood-/Now Grandmothers cap I spy!/Hurrah
for the fun! Is the pudding done?/Hurrah for the pumpkin pie!
Lydia Maria Child died at Wayland, Massachusetts at the farm at 91 Old Sudbury Road that she had shared with her husband, David, since 1852. She was 78 on October 20, 1880, the day of her death and after she died, and many of her old friends and neighbors gathered at the farmhouse to celebrate her life.
Her old friend Wendell Phillips said that she had always been “ready to die for a principle and starve for an idea.” Maria herself wrote that “the only true courage is that which impels us to do right without regard of consequences.”
Baer, Helene G. The Heart is Like Heaven: The Life of Lydia Maria Child. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1964.
Clifford, Deborah Pickman. Crusader for Freedom: A Life of Lydia Maria Child. Boston: Beacon Press, 1992
Karcher, Carolyn R. The First Woman in the Republic: A Cultural Biography of Lydia Maria Child. Durham: Duke University Press, 1994
Meltzer, Milton. Tongue of Flame: The Life of Lydia Maria Child. New York: Crowell, 1965
Stanley, Harrold. American Abolitionists. Essex, England: Pearson Education, Limited,