Friday, February 27, 2015

Margaret Howarden Livingston: A Long-Lost Livingston Wife

It is a sad fact of seventeenth and eighteenth history that women's lives all-too-often lost behind the identity of their husbands.  In rare cases, where letters or diaries may have been preserved, you can get to know some of the women of history--one of the most famous being Abigail Adams.

Well the Livingstons lost the human identities of many of their women too.  So often I can find nothing but their birth, death, and how many children they had.  This is probably most true of Margaret Howarden Livingston, who's husband built Clermont in the 1740s.  I never even knew her birth and death dates until today!

So today I got my first peak into the first Mistress of Clermont while I was reading a section in the Dutchess County Yearbook for 1930.  Her granddaughter Janet Livingston Montgomery remembered her with great affection and with the only account I have yet found.

This portrait may depict Margaret Howarden Livingston
or possibly her daughter-in-law Margaret Beekman
Livingston.  See here for more information.
Apparently the reason Janet remembered her grandmother so fondly was because Margaret was Janet's primary care taker while she was growing up.  "From infancy I became a favourite with my father's mother," Janet wrote in 1820.  Janet was born in 1843, when her grandmother was 50, and apparently the older woman saw to it that the girl was "spoiled by indulgence."  Until the age of 12, Janet considered Margaret her "tender parent," and she hints at the cuddling and intimacy one would expect to share with a beloved guardian.

Janet also recalls her grandmother as "a melancholy" woman.  "The first thing that strikes my memory was her tears."  What made Margaret so sad?!  "Often she has lulled me to sleep on her bosom by her tales of sorrow taken from the Bible, or perhaps the incidents of her own life..."  Whatever it was, Janet's impressionable youth was spent learning about Margaret's family and history, which apparently were at least partially the source of her sadness.

First of all Margaret was baptized on July 13, 1693 so probably born not terribly long before that.  Her father died when she was young, and she "treasured" several letters he had written all her life as her only connection to him.  Somehow (the Reminiscences confuse generations frequently, making the stories difficult t sort out), the family's significant wealth was lost, and Margaret spent her own childhood "in very moderate circumstances" imagining what her life should be "having the fortune of a princess."

She once told Janet a story about going to a fortune teller when she was young--her friends convinced her, she swore.  And what do 18th century girls want to know about the future?  Their husbands, of course!  When the friends had all had their turns, and Margaret's turn came, the fortune teller told her she would wed a "Dutch-Scotsman," and offered to show his face in a mirror (a common divining technique).  But Margaret ran away out of fear.

Whether the story is true or not, when she was about 24 years old she married Robert Livingston in November of 1717, a Dutch-Scotsman with a bit of a wild reputation.  Nevertheless he was from a good family, and he got along with her mother very well.  Together they had only one child (Robert R. Livingston, "the Judge" was Janet's father), and there is no record why there were not more.  Were lost pregnancies part of her sadness?  Or did she just not get pregnant?  Even though Janet is quick to report a bad marriage in another part of the family, her portrait of life with her Livingston grandparents appears harmonious so I don't think that incompatibility played a role in the couple's limited fertility.

So by 1743 Margaret's husband was either building or planning to build a good mansion on his country estate, now called Clermont.  Her only son gave her the first grandchild (Janet), and her Howarden mother died three months later.

For twelve years she appears to have been Janet's primary care taker, comforting herself by sharing her life story with the little girl who soaked it all up like a sponge.  More grandchildren followed at a rate of about one every other year.  She welcomed a total of six into the world.

And then in 1755 Margaret died suddenly at age 62.

And that's all I have, but it's more than I'd previously been able to gather in 10 years here at Clermont.  I've often wondered about Margaret, and hopefully I will learn more.  This is just one more step in our effort to learn about the Livingstons as people and try to make their history more than just a recounting of names and dates.

Sorry we remember you as primarily "melancholy" Margaret, but hopefully we will be able to fill in some more details in the future.

1 comment:

  1. Delighted with the information, but please change 'who's' to 'whose.'