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Two New Jersey Samplers Commemorate an Illegitimate Birth

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by Dan and Marty Campanelli

When we were gathering material to include in our 2013 book on Hunterdon County, New Jersey, needlework, local resident Lisa Zambito showed us a sampler stitched by her great-great-great-grandmother, Mary Popelsdorf, in about 1811. The piece contained the names and birth information for Mary, her parents, and her siblings, with initials and dates squeezed around decorative elements.

On the back of the sampler was a transcription written by Esther R. (Green) Wallace, Lisa’s grandmother and Mary’s great-granddaughter. Mrs. Wallace wrote that the initials “ME R IM” represented a child named Meriam, but the date “DE 22 1817” stitched on the linen near these initials puzzled us. All the other children had been born between 1785 and 1799, so a child born in 1817 seemed odd. In addition, we could not find any supporting documentation for Meriam. But Mrs. Wallace noted that “these dates correspond with & are confirmed by the family bible.”1 When we included the sampler in our book, we offered our opinion that perhaps the child’s birth year was supposed to be 1807 rather than 1817.2 (Mrs. Wallace made no attempt to identify the remaining letters “AH TR.”)

A year later, while perusing samplers to be sold through an online auction, the name “Ester Pupelsdorf” stitched on a small alphabet and motif embroidery leaped out at us.3 Although the spelling of the surname was different, we knew right away it was made by Mary Popelsdorf’s sister Esther. Most importantly, the name and date— “Aaron H Trimmer December 22 1817”—made it clear to us that the cryptic initials on Mary’s sampler did not stand for “Meriam,” but were instead part of Aaron H. Trimmer’s name. Why would the 1817 birth of this boy be stitched on these two samplers that had been created years earlier?

Esther and Mary’s ancestry

The Popelsdorf name may have its origins in Poppelsdorf, a district of Bonn in western Germany. In America creative variations of the name included Popelsdorph, Popplestorff, Peplesteef, Peoplesdorf, and even Popplesdwarf. Despite spelling inconsistencies even within this one family—on court documents, newspaper notices, death records, and cemetery stones—we will use Popelsdorf except when transcribing sources. Mary’s 1811 sampler provided us with the names and birth dates of their parents: Mathias Popelsdorf (b. September 1758) and Rebecca (b. 1760). Our genealogical research did not reveal parents for Mathias but Rebecca was the daughter of Daniel Moore (1729–1807) and his first wife, Catharine Stout (d. ca. 1773), who married in 1753.4The Popelsdorf family resided in Kingwood (later Franklin) Township in Hunterdon County.

Mary Popelsdorf’s 1811 sampler, in its original applewood frame. From the collection of Lisa Zambito. Photo by Marty Campanelli.

Stitching the samplers

In 1809, Esther, age 13, created her sampler, and two years later, 12-year-old Mary stitched a more elongated version. Mary added a family register which detailed the children as: William (b. Nov. 4, 1785); Catharine (b. Feb. 7, 1790); Daniel (born July 7, 1794); Esther (born June 26, 1796); and Mary (b. Oct. 26, 1799). Both samplers were most likely stitched under the tutelage of the same instructress since they both feature distinctive hearts with diamond drops, eight-pointed stars filled with spot motifs, an iris on a stem, and the same large alphabet.

An addition to the samplers

In 1816 and early 1817, 20-year-old Esther had a relationship with a young man named Aaron Trimmer (b. ca. 1794),5and on December 22, 1817, she gave birth to a son out of wed-lock. Esther named the child Aaron Trimmer for the baby’s father, with the middle initial “H” for the middle name of the child’s paternal grandfather, Herbert.6 We speculate that during her recuperation from the birth, Esther picked up her 1809 sampler and added her son’s name and birth date in black silk thread. Using the same thread, she then stitched her first name again as “Easter,” this time smaller and with pairs of letters squeezed around the larger letters of the original alphabet. Her surname was repeated with pale gold thread, also crowded around the alphabet; the name is barely noticeable today. Meanwhile, Mary loyally added baby Aaron’s name and birth date to her own sampler, embroidering the name in pairs of letters around decorative elements, just as she had done with her own siblings’ names about 1811.

Mathias Popelsdorf did not take kindly to his daughter’s situation and on December 25, 1817, the case came before the county court. Aaron Trimmer, a mason, and his father John H. Trimmer “acknowledge themselves to be indebted to the State of New Jersey” each for the sum of $200 . . . if default be made in the following condition whereas Easter Popelsdorf . . . single woman. . . . Declared that she is with child and that the said child is likely to be born a bastard and to be chargeable to the said township of Kingwood. And that the above bound Aaron Trimmer is the father of the said child.”7

Esther Popelsdorf’s 1809 sampler. From the collection of Dan & Marty Campanelli. Photo by Marty Campanelli.

On January 24, 1818, Mathias filed an affidavit stating that Aaron “being a single man, courted or paid attention to Esther . . . for the space of eighteen months, or thereabouts—for the purpose . . . of making her his lawful wife— that the said Aaron afterwards deceived and debauched the said Esther and put her with child, whereof she is now delivered . . . And that, he the said Mathias, hath been put to great trouble . . . and expense by reason of the lying in of the said Esther. . . .”

Esther was summoned to appear before the court in May 1818 to make a statement. The court document referred to Aaron as “late of Kingwood.”8 Apparently, Aaron moved just across the Delaware River into Northampton County, Pennsylvania, where, in 1822, he was described as a “fugitive from Justice and was charged with the crime of fornication and bastardy” by another woman. At the time, an agent was sent to Aaron’s new residence in Knowlton Township, Sussex (now Warren) County, New Jersey.9 No evidence has been found to indicate whether or not he was apprehended for his crimes against Esther or the other woman. Aaron was enumerated on the 1840 census for Knowlton, living with a female about the same age as himself.10 According to a history of Hunterdon, Aaron Trimmer “died at the age of about fifty” in about 1844.11

Financial troubles

In the 1820s Mathias Popelsdorf experienced financial difficulties. By 1826, he was in jail for debt, and under orders to deliver up his estate so his creditors could be paid. Court records show that Mathias had no property to speak of, and that he owed money to twenty-three men.12An insolvency petition recorded that he was only allowed to keep one bed, one cow, and his family’s wearing apparel.13 But, at some unknown point in time, he conveniently turned the property over to his daughter Mary and saved the family homestead. On June 4, 1829, Mary gave the property in Kingwood Township back to her parents.14 Two days later she married James C. Green, a hatter originally from Connecticut, in a ceremony performed by the Reverend Israel Poulson of the Dunkard Church in Amwell.15 Mary and James’s first child, Andrew J. Green, was born three months after their marriage.16 At least James behaved honorably and married Mary when she became pregnant.

Following the family

The 1830 census shows the Popelsdorfs and Greens residing in one household in Kingwood Township. A male aged ten to fifteen was most likely Esther’s son, Aaron H. Trimmer, who was then almost 13.17

Mary (Popelsdorf) Green, taken late in her life. From the collection of descendant Laura Connelly.

We found an intriguing marriage record that showed “Esther Peplesteef ” married John Mowry on May 27, 1843. Both the bride and groom were from Clinton, Hunterdon County.18 John Mowry could not be identified, and we found no record of an Esther Mowry. No other Esther Popelsdorfs lived in Hunterdon County, so we believe the woman who married John Mowry may have been the sampler maker. What became of the marriage, or the man, is unknown.

By 1850, Esther, shown as “Hetty,” was living with James and Mary (Popelsdorf) Green. Esther was noted to be a pauper. Perhaps John Mowry abandoned Esther and she resumed using her maiden name.19 By 1860, Esther, age 62, still residing with the Greens, was listed as “insane.”20

Mary’s husband, James Green, died in 186521 and the following year their son, Andrew J. Green, purchased the corner store in Quakertown, a few miles north of his parents’ property.22 By 1880, Andrew, then a 50-year-old druggist, had moved to Flemington, Raritan Township. His household included his wife and children, as well as his mother and aunt, the two sampler makers: Mary (Popelsdorf) Green, age 80, and Hester (Esther) Popelsdorf, age 84. Esther, shown as a widow on that year’s census, was still listed as insane.23

We wondered about the hard life Esther endured. Did having her son out of wedlock and enduring a brief failed marriage in middle age send her into her own private world of insanity? Or had she always been a bit “slow” and was listed as insane later in life, at a time when people were at a loss about how to classify people with mental challenges? Esther’s nimbly-stitched sampler certainly shows no sign of deficiencies. Esther Popelsdorf died on April 25, 1884; the death record gave the cause as “senile debility.” Alluding to her mental status, the inscription on Esther’s headstone reads: “Trusting that she is clothed and in her right mind.”24 Mary died on November 21, 1891. Both sisters were interred with their parents at the Lower Amwell Old Yard.25

By 1850 Esther’s son, Aaron H. Trimmer, a farmer, resided in Readington Township, Hunterdon County, with his wife Rachel. A decade later the couple was living in Branchburg, Somerset County, with their 16-year-old daughter, Margaret (who hadn’t been in the household in 1850). In 1870 and 1880, Aaron and Rachel were in Raritan Township, in Hunterdon County.26Aaron Trimmer died on February 16, 1882, and was buried at Three Bridges Reformed Church Cemetery in Hunterdon County.27 We found no birth records for Aaron, and online genealogies list no parents for him. We do not know whether he and his mother were in contact later in life.

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Of the thousands of embroideries we have studied over the years, Esther and Mary’s samplers are distinctive in that the two sisters both returned to them years after completion to commemorate the birth of an illegitimate child. We have seen other sampler makers or other family members revisit their work to add birth, marriage, and death dates of the immediate family, but not to acknowledge an out of wedlock birth—an event that at the time usually remained a dark family secret.


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