The Kimball Family. (l to r) Seated are Clara (1817-1893), Israel (1812-1890) and Helen (1860-1909). Standing are Israel Jr. (1855-1886), Sarah (1841-1918), George (1843-1923), Clara (1846-1931) and Mary (1848-1929). Photo by Davis Brothers of Portsmouth, NH, c. 1863.

By Susan Kindstedt, Portsmouth Athenaeum Archivist

On July 30, 1839, Clara Bragdon composed a letter to her future-in-laws, Wilbraham and Debourah Kimball. She was concerned about Israel Kimball, their son and her soon-to-be husband. Israel was struggling financially and in poor health while completing his coursework at Bowdoin College. Clara wrote:

…I hope when [Israel] gets through his studies and has time to rest a little and does not expose himself he will be better. Israel naturally no doubt has a strong constitution, but he has labored so hard since he has been in College, and exposed himself so much too, that it has almost killed him. I know everything is ordered in infinite wisdom and is all for the best, but I have often though it was almost a pity that those who would improve their privileges could not have some of the means that those who do not prize them. For it is said is a general thing those students who have the most money are the laziest. But Israel has one thing to comfort him, those young men who get their education through their own industry always make the smartest men.

Israel recovered and graduated from Bowdoin. In November of 1839, he wrote to his father to tell him that he had accepted a position at Eliot Academy in Eliot, Maine. Although he was excited about the “new situation,” he wrote, “The Eliot Academy is a new institution & this is the first term. They have no funds but depend upon the tuition for support of the teachers…I have a very pleasant school & very pleasantly situated.” He started the first term with 41 students and agreed to stay for one term with the possibility of staying longer.

On September 25, 1841, Israel wrote a letter to both his father and his brother, William, who were experiencing a difficult financial situation. Israel was attempting to borrow money for them but was unable. He advised them to “try to put your creditors off. Tell them they shall have every cent if they will wait patiently. Sell some of your stock. Some of your hay. Some of your corn, potatoes, etc.” Israel’s family, including many of his brothers and his parents, were plagued with financial hardship as evidenced in frequent letters requesting payment for money owed.

Israel and several of his brothers including, William, Benjamin, John Patten, Samuel and George, were highly sought after musicians, performing concerts and teaching music.

In 1842, Israel was engaged in teaching in New Hampshire at Dover and Great Falls (Somersworth). He wrote, “I am now giving instruction to two classes in vocal music, one at Dover and the other at Great Falls, NH. I am engaged for 18 evenings at each place.” In Dover, Israel was teaching at the Belknap School on Church Street. On April 15, 1843, Israel described his current teaching position at the school, “I do not think that boys in the village like Dover care much about learning as boys in the country. They are more full of roquery & mischief & it requires a great deal more patience to get along with them.” At the time (April 30, 1843), Israel had 30 scholars at his Dover school although he wished for more.

Israel and Clara were married in 1840; however, financial circumstances forced them to live apart during their first years of marriage. In 1843, Clara and her two young children were living with her parents in Wells, Maine, while Israel lived and taught in Dover. Describing the couple’s three-year-old daughter Sarah, Clara wrote,  “Dear [Sarah], she seems to miss her father as much as any of the family, she will frequently appear as if she forgot you were absent, and call for Parpar to come and participate in some new found pleasure. And when I tell her, father is not here, she will run to the window to look out, saying ‘Parpar come home from Dodo see Sada and brother.” On June 3, 1843, Israel responded, “When I would come home from school & go to my chamber & behold an empty cradle & a deserted room & could not feel like setting down for a moment & then the thought that Dear little George Gustavus was so sick when I left him & that he might be taken away from us suddenly troubled me so that I could not feel contented or happy…”

A Davis Brothers stereocard of the Kimball family and house on Islington Street, c. 1870-1880. In early 1954, the house was removed when the A&P opened a new supermarket on the site. Today, the Bank of America (next to Plaza 800) occupies this property.

In the fall of 1843, Israel accepted a position that offered greater financial stability for the family and the opportunity to set up a home where they could live together. Israel’s new position was at Portsmouth’s High School for Boys, where he would teach and serve as principal.

This brief story of struggle and perseverance is only a small glimpse into the Athenaeum’s new Kimball Bragdon Collection, 1764-1946 (MS123). The manuscript collection was acquired by the Athenaeum in 2016 (with additions in 2018) and was recently processed by Athenaeum archivist Susan Kindstedt. In addition to the personal details of Clara and Israel Kimball’s home life raising a family in 19th-century Portsmouth, the collection is a rich source for regional and national history including politics, religion and social activism. One of ten brothers, Israel and many of his brothers were talented musicians with a deep Christian faith. An ardent supporter of abolition and temperance, Israel was often sought after to sing at events for both causes. Although the bulk of the collection surrounds Israel and Clara’s generation, there are some earlier items related to previous generations of both families working as shipwrights. Other 19th-century correspondence with extended family tells the story of native New Englanders heading West in search of economic opportunities as well as relief from chronic health conditions (many of the Kimball brothers suffered from asthma).

Subjects of historical interest in the Kimball Bragdon Collection are diverse and the collection is a valuable addition to the Athenaeum’s manuscript collection. For more information about the Kimball Bragdon Collection please refer to the collection finding aid here or contact Archivist Susan Kindstedt directly with any specific questions regarding the collection: