You Boys Have Been My Life’s Work

Betsy Maria Penfield, my 4th great-grandmother, was born on December 29, 1809 in Connecticut to William Penfield and Betsy Lydia Blish. Her father was a local preacher in the Methodist Episcopal Church–as well as a shoemaker by trade–and she joined the church herself at the age of 16 in Rome, New York. Betsy married Joseph Miller Cook, the son of David Cooke and Eunice Wright, on April 6, 1830 in Rome, and the couple had twelve children: Henry, Ciba, Sarah, Eunice, Wesley, Arthur, Daniel, William, James, Luther, Cyrus and John. Six of her sons converted to the Free Methodist Church and joined the ministerial ranks in adulthood, and she made this her life’s work.

Betsy Maria (Penfield) Cook

By all accounts, Betsy was a larger-than-life figure in the Cook and Penfield families; she could read and write, was the moral center of the household and raised her children to be devoted to God and their country. One of my favorite descriptions of Betsy was written by her grandson, Luther Deforest Cook: “Mother [Margaret (McLeod) Cook] was one of the great women of the earth, so was Grandma Betsy Maria. But Grandpa and my father [Luther Cook] were much lesser persons.” Betsy’s son, Daniel, described her as “an example of prudence and diligence,” and he once wrote that she “was untiring in her efforts to care for the wants of her family.”

For Mother’s Day, though, I want to share a letter that Betsy penned to her son, Arthur, while he was away fighting in the Civil War. She had not heard from him in a while–the post must have been slow to carry his letter from Mississippi to Iowa–and she was heartbroken over the recent death of her son, Wesley, at Young’s Point during the war. Both Arthur and Wesley had joined the 9th Regiment of the Iowa Infantry on October 25, 1861 at Decorah, and Arthur buried his older brother along the Mississippi River in March of 1863 while marching toward Vicksburg. Betsy wrote a few months later, on July 6, 1863, in her own words:

My beloved Son,

I gladly embrace another opportunity of addressing one who holds so large a place in my heart’s warmest affections–and after whom my thoughts so constantly wander.

This weather is very warm indeed and while we are suffering with the intense heat we cannot help wondering how it is with you in the far South.

We received your letter of June 13 and were very glad to hear you were still alive and well and, oh, what great reason have we for gratitude to our Heavenly Father for so wonderfully preserving your Health and life in the midst of so many dangers and I hope that you and all of us may be enabled to render Him our best services in return.

Your letter should have been answered even sooner but the girls were gone and all the men so very busy–it is hard to find time to write.

The last few weeks have been very dry and many fears have been entertained for the crops but last week brought heavy rains and all except wheat and oats look promising.

We are quite destitute of general news. Have had no letters from anyone since writing to you. Folks all went to Oregon on the 7th; ate their own dinner by themselves; heard almost no speaking, while Eunice came to stay with me–and thus we passed the afternoon of independence. While Eunice and I–if we could have had you with us–would have had the best part of it without doubt–but your absence and the thought that our dear Wesley is gone never to return–and the distressed state of our country mars all our joys.

George VanBuren is nursing in the Memphis hospital and has written home that Chadbese Conway is there doing well and likely to recover it is certainly a mystery. This almost distracted mother knows not what to think about it.

I suppose you have not seen Bro. Byron yet although the papers find him at Vicksburg. Are you still without a Chaplain and without religious privileges? If so–I much regret it, but hope you will strive to renew your spiritual strength in the use of such means as you have–for you probably have the New Testament–the best of all books to read, and we have reason to bless the Lord that the Throne of Grace is accessible at all times and in all places–and that the Mercy Seat is to be approached by all–be they ever so vile. Oh, how rich and how full is the plan of Redemption, by faith in Christ.

Your father would like to know how Wesley’s name stood on the roll–for he talks of applying for his bounty and back pay. But, oh how sad it makes me feel. Could he have told you what he wanted done with his money it would have been some satisfaction, but are we never to hear one word about him? I have always hoped that in some way you might be able to find out something about him–but if you cannot perhaps it is all for the best. But Henry says “we shall see him again, Mother, and he will be Wesley still–just the same as ever,” and it is surely so if we all are true to God; and as grace is given us we shall find ourselves at the right hand of God clothed with the Righteousness of Christ, an unbroken family forever.

But oh, should I fail to come or to bring all that God has committed to my care are solemn thoughts which often occupy my mind as I pray the Lord He would bless the feeble efforts–pardon the mistakes made and let His Blessed Spirit counteract all evil influences I may have undesignedly thrown around you and bring you all safe into His Heavenly Kingdom.

I feel that I could make almost any sacrifice or endure almost any hardship could I but see you for 1 half hour.

It is a time of general health with us; children nearly over whooping cough–myself gaining slowly; have been down to see Mrs. Van Buren and walk about the house and out doors a little.

Give our love to Jasper and Alfred and accept the same for yourself. Write as often as you can and we will do the same.

From your Mother and true friend,

B. M. Cook

cook ancstry
Top row, left to right: Luther, Cyrus & William // Bottom row, left to right: James, Daniel & Arthur

Betsy’s son, Daniel, wrote her obituary after her death on July 3, 1877 at the age of 67; in it, he described her unwavering faith and her devotion to her twelve children: “In the last few weeks of her life she was the most intense and constant sufferer I ever saw, but she bore it in patience. A few days before her death she said to me in a manner I shall never forget, ‘Oh, Daniel, be faithful, you boys are my life work.’ We mourn with joy that our loss is her gain–and we hope to meet again on the fair banks of the New Jerusalem.” I cannot think of a more beautiful way to end an ancestor’s story; and with that–Happy Mother’s Day.

12 thoughts on “You Boys Have Been My Life’s Work

    1. They really do look so much alike! But I was struck by the letter, too–she was an eloquent writer, and all of her sons and daughters seem to have inherited the same talent (most were pastors, and I have copies of a few of their sermons). Almost all of my female ancestors from this generation could not read or write; it’s surprising that the letter has remained in the family for this long, but it’s also surprising that Betsy could read and write–and write so beautifully!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. What a wonderful treasure the letter must be to you. So many of these old letters are lost, thrown out, etc. She sounds like a formidable woman! Thank you for sharing her with us.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for reading! I have one more letter that I’ll try to share soon–I’m amazed that the letter is still in the family, but I’m also amazed that she could read and write (and write so beautifully!). She was definitely a strong individual!


    1. That’s true–I pretty much only write to cousins who are working on the family tree, and I don’t save many (probably any?) of my texts and emails. You make a really good point, and I should start saving some interesting messages for future generations! This letter is incredible, and I’d love to leave something similar for my descendants–we all should!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ll start searching! So far, the family is in Connecticut and Massachusetts, but Vermont wouldn’t be a long shot. If any of the friends descended from Asa Blish and Hannah Kellogg, let me know! This is really cool.


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