Eliza Skinner


Born into the great house (known simply as "Hall") in Bishop's Tawton, Devon, the daughter of the butler there. Is said to have migrated to U.S. at the age of three, when her father took the position of Purser at a private school. The 1850 Town of Batavia Census, however, lists Phillip Skinner as "Laborer," and this is more consistent with the reference to him as "Farmer from England" in the 1870 Census.  The school was actually the DeVoe (Deveau?) School in Niagara Falls, so he may not have started working there until some time after 1850.  At any rate, by 1870 the family had moved to Mt Horeb, N.J., and were neighbors of the Smiths. There is no doubt of the family identification, though there are slight inconsistencies in the two censuses, perhaps due to misreporting, oversight, or clerical error.  For example, Sarah Avery Skinner's age is correctly given as 43 in the 1850 census, but has dropped a couple of years to 61 in 1870, and Eliza herself has dropped a couple of years (22 instead of the correct 24).  On the other hand, her daughter carefully recorded her age at the time of her death as "77 yrs. 8 mos.," which would have put her birth in 1847.  That would be a mistake, since the parish register is clear on this, but it could be an honest mistake.

More curious is an elusive brother named William.  The Bishop's Tawton baptismal records show an older brother William, born in 1840.  In the 1870 census, she appears to have a brother William age 21 (i.e. three years younger than her correct age).  This could be explained by the death of the first William and re-use of the name, but there is no William at all in the family listed in 1850.  My early guess was that the first William did die, along with a still older brother, Thomas Avery (they are absent from the family in 1850 when they would have been 10 and 12), and that the second William was born so close to the time of the census (perhaps after the time of reporting) as to be missed.  Then, complicating things still further (but perhaps pointing eventually to a solution) are the family pictures owned by Ethelyn Patti.  One of these shows William in what may be a Civil War-era uniform with sergeant's stripes.  If the uniform is indeed from the 1860's, the man shown was born closer to 1840 than 1850, and perhaps there was only one William after all (it seems improbable that two living sons would have the same name).  This raises the questions of where he was in 1850 (but conceivably he had started schooling in England, stayed with relatives, came over later, etc.--that would not be too unusual) and why the 1870 census seems to have a 21-year-old William (perhaps a misprint).  Eliza's older brother Louis ("Lewis" in the census) was 14 in 1850, and is naturally absent from the household in 1870.

After moving to New Jersey, Eliza taught in a small frame schoolhouse, traditional door-in-middle, large window on either side, could be one room or possibly two; Ethelyn Patti has a picture of it, and historical groups in Somerset County could probably say where it was, or is.

According to Charlotte Mills, Eliza was the first graduate [in the first class of graduates?] of N.Y. State Normal School in Albany, a Teachers' College which in modern times became SUNY-Albany.  Charlotte recalled her grandmother in advanced age, living in a rather tense and unhappy household.  Looking at the photograph of her shown above, Charlotte's response is that the slight smile is "forced."  Not only was Eliza barely on speaking terms with Silas (see notes on him) but she had a traditional view that in old age she should be waited on hand and foot, and her children did not entirely share that view.

A very different impression came down through the family of Ethelyn Bradford Smith Sawyer, Eliza's youngest child (born after, or only shortly before, several siblings were lost to disease) who lived with and remained very close to her mother, as evidenced by Eliza's family pictures and documents being passed on to her.  She had a tremendous love and respect for Eliza. Her daughter Ethelyn Sawyer Patti is thus probably the best living link to Eliza Skinner.  She writes:

"I never knew my grandparents but my mother talked a great deal about her mother.  She said her mother's family (the Skinners) moved from Devonshire, England when Eliza was about 2 years old.  They lived near Niagara Falls where her father taught at Deveau School.  Eliza attended normal school in Albany, N.Y.  I believe my mother sent her diploma to the Albany Public Library where it may be today (or perhaps it was given to SUNY).

According to my mother, Eliza was sent to N.J. by her family to break up a relationship she had with someone of whom they disapproved.  Eliza and Silas were very poor and Eliza was the strength of the family.  Silas was a poor breadwinner.  However, my mother told me he had a good way with horses and may have made a good veterinarian.

My mother often spoke of her mother and her love for Shakespeare.  They loved poetry.  I do have a few books passed down from them.

My mother talked about a trip she made with her mother back to Niagara Falls about 50 years after Eliza left.  Eliza told my mother about how the Indians would stay the night at their house and leave before the family arose the next morning.

I also seem to remember my mother telling me that she was named for a deceased sister Ethel Grace who died 4/20/1890, about one year before my mother was born.  She said they called her Effie.  The name Bradford came from a dear friend of Eliza's, Amelia Bradford, whose photo I have.  Eliza and Silas had much sickness among their children.  They lost them to diseases such as cholera, scarlet fever, and diptheria.

My mother lived with her mother until her mother's death, May 13, 1925.  She married my father Orren D. Sawyer in 1929.  Her sister [Daisy] married a John Truell who was a proprietor of several hotels and inns in and around Plainfield, N.J.  I remember Aunt Daisy and also Truell Court.  When Daisy died on 11/1/1939 the estate was left to my mother and two brothers, Avery and Norwood.  My father and mother worked very hard to get the hotel out of the red and on a paying basis so they could eventually sell it and divide three ways.  There was some trouble over the way things were handled and my mother and her brother Norwood had a "falling out" which lasted a long time.  I remember as a small child going to Mt. Horeb, N.J.--also my cousins Muriel, Norma, Doris and Doug (Norwood's children).  Later on when my mother lived in Albany, N.Y. John Quigley and his wife Muriel visited and seemed to get along quite well.  I have been in contact with Jean (Muriel and John's daughter) and also "Uncle John" whom myself and my daughters visited in 1999."

Ethelyn has also shared a lovely and evocative essay by Eliza, on the Niagara River. If I remember correctly, it was written in youth, and relative to the age of the writer is quite sophisticated.

Eliza had a stroke on May 8, 1925 and died five days later.  She was buried May 16 in Evergreen Cemetery, Elizabeth.