In my pursuit of the “Shenandoah Literari” of the nineteenth century, I encounter some unusual twists and turns in the history of the Valley. One family’s “brush” with the area’s history, for example, presents an interesting “what if”.
Now, I’m not really a fan of “what ifs” in regard to history, but I do find it interesting how close one popular writer from the nineteenth century came to being a product of the Shenandoah Valley. Of course, had his family remained in the Valley… well, I’ll get around to that.
Specifically, my focus is on Nathaniel Parker Willis, and if you’re unfamiliar with him, give this sketch of Willis in Wikipedia a quick read
Not unlike his father and grandfather, he was a New England man. In fact, Nathaniel Willis (1755-1831), the grandfather, had been a participant in the Boston Tea Party (1773), and issued the Independent Chronicle (1776-1784) and the American Herald in Boston, Massachusetts.
In 1784, however, Willis sold his interests in the Chronicle and moved to Winchester, Virginia. Publishing a paper there for a while, he later moved and published papers in Shepherdstown and Martinsburg (the Potomak Guardian, 1790-96. Note that there are several early sources that incorrectly suggest that Nathaniel, Jr. established the Guardian in 1799).
According to an early biographer (Henry Augustin Beers) of Nathaniel Parker Willis, Nathaniel Sr’s son/the poet’s father…
Nathaniel Willis, Junior, – the fourth Nathaniel in the family, – was born at Boston in 1780, and remained there until 1787, when he joined his father at Winchester and was employed in his newspaper office, and subsequently at Martinsburg on the “Potomac [sic] Guardian.” In the infancy of American journalism, the editor and publisher of a paper was usually a practical printer. Young Nathaniel was put to work at once in folding papers and setting types. At Martinsburg he used to ride post, with tin horn and saddle-bags, delivering papers to scattered subscribers in the thinly settled country.
Around 1795, Nathaniel, the younger, returned to Boston “and entered the office of his father’s old paper, the “Independent Chronicle”, though his father apparently remained in Martinsburg until 1796, at which time he relocated to Chillicothe, Ohio.
In 1803, Nathaniel, Jr. left Boston for Maine, and in Portland established the Eastern Argus, in opposition to the Federalists. It was there, in 1806, that Nathaniel Parker Willis was born.
Despite twelve years in Virginia, and leaving a mark in western Virginia’s earliest newspapers, there is little else known about the affiliation the Willis family had with Virginia. Later, Nathaniel Parker Willis did grow into a friendship with Edgar Allen Poe… another man with Boston/Virginia ties.
Of course, if one talks about the potential of “Nathaniel Parker Willis, of the Shenandoah”, one might as well suggest “Fannie Fern, of the Shenandoah”, as Nathaniel Parker Willis’ sister was Sara Willis. Truth of the matter is, however, had the Willis family remained in the Shenandoah, considering the limited wealth attached to the occupation of Nathaniel Willis, Jr., it seems unlikely that either Nathaniel Parker or his sister would have received the same education they were afforded in New England. Nathaniel Parker Willis attended a Boston grammar school and Phillips Academy at Andover, while Sara attended Catharine Beecher’s boarding school in Hartford, Connecticut.
Again, however, to speculate on such things bears no real fruit, except to give reason to ponder on how different paths taken may have resulted in either a lesser or greater personality in history. Trivial? Perhaps… or, in this particular case, I’m left curious as to comparable educational opportunities, and how they may have factored into the story of the Willis children.
Anyway, there you have it… the “brush” the Willis family had with the Shenandoah Valley.