I’m not sure what compelled me to research my 5th great-grandfather, Silas Ephraim Nelson, last weekend, but here we are–and I’m very glad I did. It’s strange, now that I think about it: I’m always ricocheting back-and-forth between the Hawkins family’s schoolhouse, the Kuznicki family’s bar and the Merrill family’s military service, and the Nelson family rarely makes the spotlight. But I’m changing that today: Silas Ephraim Nelson was born on June 15, 1791 in Hebron, New York, and he married twice, first to Cynthia Felt (my 5th great-grandmother) and again to Mary Ann Bellows. He had sixteen children–including my 4th great-grandfather, Leroy Nelson–and made his home in Potter County, Pennsylvania–and that’s where we find his descendants 1886.
On September 15, 1886, The Potter Enterprise–a newspaper column from Coudersport, Pennsylvania, a borough on the Allegany River–ran an extensive story on “the most notable event of the season.” The event? It was a picnic-slash-family-reunion held in Lymansville at the home of Almeron Nelson, my 1st cousin 6x removed on my mother’s side. Over 200 family members attended–some calling the Nelson family name their own, and others a generation or two removed–to celebrate missed birthdays and to reflect on the way things were long ago. So here it is–The Nelson Family Picnic–in its entirety; oh, and Silas’ sons and daughters were there, too:
The most notable event of the season was the picnic of the Nelson family at Lymansville, last Wednesday, held at the residence of Hon. Almeron Nelson, it being the old homestead of the first Nelson family that settled in Potter County. In the front yard a large platform covered with canvas, had been erected for the purpose of admitting dancing for the enjoyment of the younger people, and upon which the long tables were sat loaded with the bountiful repast prepared for the guests. Mr. Nelson’s commodious dwelling was thrown open and in its parlors the elder ones enjoyed the socialities of the occasion.
About 10 o’clock A. M. the guests began to arrive, and continued to come until some 200 had been welcomed to the old homestead by its hale and genial proprietor. Among these we noticed Edwin and Lewis Lyman, sons of Isaac Lyman, the second settler in Potter County, and whose sister, Eulalia Lyman, born 1811, was…named after Eulalia Keating the daughter of the proprietor of the Keating estate comprising a vast tract of land in the county, and after whom Eulalia township was named. But the guests were mostly Nelsons, or the descendants of the Nelsons comprised in the four families that first settled at or near Lymansville, and of whom we propose to write, as giving as wonderful example of how communities have been formed, and counties and states carved out of the wilderness and peopled by hardy pioneers. And more particularly so of those of Scotch and Irish lineage, to which the Nelsons belong, their grandfather, Jno. Nelson, an Irishman, having in 1775 married a Scotch lass for his wife; and to this pair was born eleven children, all of whom lived to marry and raise large families. Could all of their descendants be traced they would be numbered by the thousands, the longevity of the Nelsons being remarkable. Of the family of six children that settled at Lymansville in 1820, but two have died, and the combined age of the four brothers present on this occasion is 292 years. An aunt of the family, now living at Fort Ann, Washington County, N. Y., celebrated her 99th birthday on the fourth of July last.
Cephas Nelson, the father of Horatio, Henry, Charlotte, Lyman, James and Almeron Nelson, all but two of whom are well known as now active citizens of the county, and were lively participants in the rare enjoyments of this occasion, came to Lymansville in March 1820. He brought his whole family of eight persons, and all his household goods on a single two-horse sleigh. And with that trust in Providence, seconded by determination and industry so characteristic of the early pioneers, went to work to provide a future supply of food and clothing for the family. The horses which had hauled in his family goods, proving unsuited to the work of clearing new land were disposed of, and with a small yoke of steers, and with grub hoes, land was cleared, seeded, and sufficient grain raised for the year’s supply of food; and enough flax grown, which, with the wool from five sheep, when carded, spun, woven, and made up by the women, supplied the clothing.
Two years later, 1822, Silas Nelson settled at Lymansville. His family, by his first wife, consisted of Horace, George, Ira, Lucinda, Sarah, Cephas and Leroy. Of these, four were present on this occasion. By his second wife he had nine children, their names we did not learn although a number of them were present.
Two sisters of Silas and Cephas Nelson, Annice Woodcock and Sally Rossman, settled with their husbands at or near Lymansville, a number of the descendants of whom were present.
Mr. Jno. Nelson came to Lymansville in 1827, having three children when he came, and four were born afterwards making seven in all. From these families, above enumerated, sprang the two hundred relatives at this picnic, and there are at least two hundred more scattered through almost every State and Territory in the Union, who were unable to attend. As we have said the farm on which Cephas Nelson settled in 1820, is the same on which his son, Almeron, the giver of the picnic now resides. Its broad, cultivated acres, and its tasty and commodious dwelling and other buildings, are in strange contrast with its surroundings when the deed for the same was recorded in the records of Lycoming county in 1821, the possession of which is in the hands of Mr. Nelson at the present time. At that time, what is now Potter County was a part of Lycoming County. Jurors drawn here for the court frequently had to travel ninety miles to get to the place where it was held.
To convey some idea of what settling in Potter County meant to the settler from 1820 to 1827, or previous to that time, it is only necessary to say that the country was a dense wilderness; its roads few, mere pathways cut through the forest, obstructed by stumps, roots and stones, with creeks, swamps and sloughs, unbridged, unfilled and which the traveler must ford, wade through. Over such roads the Nelsons came into the county. Over such roads they carried the grain they raised for food to mill to be ground into flour at Ceres, N. Y., twenty-six miles distant. And this was a great improvement upon the condition of things eleven years previous. When Mr. Jno. Peet, as has been recorded in the history of the state, had to go to Jersey Shore to mill, and in doing so had to cross Pine Creek ninety-nine times, and consume two weeks of time in going and coming this sixty-five miles; his family living meantime on the milk of a cow and what vegetables they could get from the woods, and fish they could catch from the streams. Or the time when the father of Jno. Burt, now residing in Roulet township, ground his corn in a mortar improvised out fo the stump of a tree, with a log for a pestle operated by a springpole made from a sapling. Or when he became the first tanner in the county, cutting his bark fine with an axe, and steeping his hides in the tanning held in a vat hollowed out of the trunk of a tree with the axe. Such were the difficulties of travel–the labor attendant upon procuring the necessaries of life. What must have been the difficulties in the way of procuring the comforts, to say nothing of the luxuries of life?
Mr. Nelson exhibited to his guests a few relics, preserved as mementos of his boyhood days, among which was a conch shell that had been blown upon to call the picnickers to dinner, as had been done to call the Nelsons to dinner for more than eighty years. A steelyard that had determined his weight to be four pounds at birth, created not a little mirth among his relatives that the man before them who would tip the scale at over 225 pounds should have grown from a baby so small; and the remark went round that Potter was not a bad county in which to grow solid men.
But not the least interesting of these relics of the past was a glass decanter that came in the first crate of crockery coming to Potter County, brought all the way from Philadelphia by a horse team as a part of the stock of the store of Harry Lyman, situated on Cephas Nelson’s farm, and being the first one opened in the County; the second one being that of Timothy Ives, at Coudersport, the goods for which were brought in the same manner from New York City.
Store goods, of necessity, were expensive, and the means of procuring money with which to purchase them were limited, and “homespun” in the main, constituted the clothing of the pioneer’s family. Silks and broadcloths were not to be thought of, much less to be had. Calico which cost 50 cents per yard constituted the staple dress goods for the ladies, and cotton cloth could be procured at the same price. Most of the linen required for household purposes was supplied from the looms of the good housewives. Nearly every settler could manage to make and mend coarse shoes for this family; as for lighter or more aesthetic covering, the feet were left to the clothing which nature gave them. Nor were these pioneers less circumscribed in their social and educational advantages. When Cephas Nelson settled at Lymansville, the whole population of the county was comprised in 21 families. These were scattered on their small clearings, surrounded by dense forests, in many cases so far apart as hardly to be neighborly when living within four or five miles of each other made families near neighbors.
What must have been the reflections of the venerable sons of these four Nelsons, who with their families first settled at Lymansville, as they looked upon the crowd of their kindred assembled there at the old homestead, last Wednesday, coming as they all had from their homes of comfort and refinement, many of them honored as men who have made their mark in the county, and all, esteemed and respected in the community in which they live. Some of them young men and women; some children; but in all of them the sturdy Scotch-Irish blood coursing in their veins giving promise of their making their way to success and to the esteem of the world in whose affairs they will soon be active participators. Could their thoughts have been other than that God has blessed them in their children, and in their children’s children, and been merciful in vouchsafing to them the length of life to see that blessed day.
Next year the family will hold a reunion picnic at the residence of Henry Nelson, in Coudersport. When they meet at the coming feast, may no chair be empty.
The first Nelson family reunion was held in 1884, and the last mention I have found of the family’s annual picnic is in 1901 with 90 attendants in total (that’s not to say, of course, that there were no additional family reunions, but they did not make the papers). It’s fascinating to me, the way the days of old are described in the article; the way that Potter County “grows solid men” and the emphasis on “the difficulties in the way of procuring the comforts” of life. There are long-lost family relics and Scotch-Irish ancestors and mentions of calico clothes, and before this weekend, I could not have dreamed of finding a better description of my ancestors’ lives. I now have a lot of Nelson family stories to share, so stay tuned; I’ll try not to make you tired of them too soon.