VISITORS TO Webster Cottage in Hanover are told that this old farmhouse, built by the Reverend Sylvanus Ripley in 1780, got its name from Daniel Webster, who allegedly had roomed there during his senior year at Dartmouth College (1800-1801).1 He is said to have occupied the upstairs south chamber and indeed to have slept in a small corner place off it under the sloping roof. But what is the evidence for this story?
As first noted by Professor Herbert Darling Foster, records of the College treasurer suggest that Webster roomed in Dartmouth Hall ('The College' in early years) for his first three years and then moved off campus for the senior year.2 That he roomed in a private house for his senior year, Foster believed, is confirmed by a letter Webster wrote on 28 December 1800 from Beechnut Hall to his good friend and classmate James Hervey Bingham:
Dear Bingham, it is now half-past ten in the evening. I am alone, save a certain fellow by the name of Nap, who, by his unceasing clack, one would think would never be able to indulge sounder sleep than a nap. Fanny, whom I consider our sister, has just retired, and the hour is arrived when you and I were used to pile up our books and converse with a fondness I always approve, though sometimes think almost childish.3
In a postscript Webster wrote, "Fanny sends her compliments. I dare not inform the other ladies that I was writing to you, lest they should give me so many compliments for you, that I could write nothing else. Do not fail to write me immediately. I shall be hereabout three weeks longer." The fall term had ended before Christmas and the winter term would not begin for another several weeks. In these few lines is the suggestion that Webster and Bingham were roommates in a private rooming house they called "Beechnut Hall," where Fanny also resided. Bingham already had left town while Webster would stay on until mid-January. Clearly, these two young men were bosom companions. They had been intimate friends ever since their pre-college days at Exeter Academy in 1796 and 1797.
Webster Cottage on Main Street in Hanover.
But who was Fanny? Webster had taken quite a fancy to her. In a second letter to Bingham, written I7 January 1801 on the eve of his departure from Hanover for Salisbury, Webster wrote, "Fanny and Dan. took a ride to Lebanon the other day, and I felt the magic of friendship increased by conversation. She would be remembered to you."4 This friendship continued even after Webster graduated from College.
Webster's first letter shows unquestionably that he was rooming in an off-campus house during the first term of his senior year. But was it the Ripley house? Professor Foster believed it was, because of a signed statement written at his request by long-time resident of the house Lucy Jane McMurphy, whose aunt had acquired it circa 1836. She wrote:
I well remember hearing Mr. Wm Dewey, who lived in the house that Mrs Fred. Chase now lives in, and whose father with his family came to Hanover soon after the Coll. was founded and kept Tavern in that house -- tell my Aunt he knew Daniel Webster well -- that he roomed in this house in the South Chamber I think he said -- Have often heard my Aunt tell people he roomed here. Heard one man asked her if she boarded him when he was in Coll.
Lucy J. McMurphy 5
Foster's belief would be substantiated if Fanny could be identified as having lived in the Ripley house in late 1800. By then, Mrs. Ripley's oldest and youngest daughters, Mary (Polly) and Elizabeth (Betty), had married and left home. Only her third daughter, Abigail, known as Nabby, continued living with her. So, who was Fanny?
In his History of Dartmouth College, Professor Leon Richardson wrote that "evidence which has come to light in the course of this investigation shows with certainty that in his sophomore year he [Webster] occupied room No. 6 (north end of the first floor) of Dartmouth Hall, although the same evidence puzzles us by indicating that in his junior year he did not room in that structure at all." 6 A reexamination of this evidence, however, suggests that Webster may have roomed in Dartmouth Hall (The College) during the first part of his junior year and then moved off campus. Meanwhile his friend Bingham occupied room No. 2 on the third floor of Dartmouth Hall throughout his junior year but then moved off campus to be with Webster for his senior year. They had joined their many classmates who ate and slept in private houses near the campus.
From 1793 to 1805 Dartmouth College did not provide board for its students and by the end of this period roomed no more than half of them in Dartmouth Hall. Furthermore, "no more than half could obtain suitable board at private houses, and the rest, some seventy or eighty in number, had been the past year obliged to board themselves." 7
Captain Caleb Fuller's boarding and rooming house, one of the private houses near the campus, had become a gathering place for Webster and several of his fellow students. When Moses Davis arrived in Hanover to publish the Dartmouth Gazette ,very likely he joined the group. Webster would become a good friend of his and a regular contributor to the newspaper; in his brief Autobiography Webster wrote, "I even paid my board, for a year, by superintending a little weekly newspaper, & making selections for it, from books of literature, & from the contempor[ar]y publications." 8
In the postscript of a letter Davis wrote to Webster on 3 November 1804, he mentioned that "Mrs. Davis wishes to be very civil towards an old companion and boarder." 9 This comment suggests strongly that Webster boarded at the Fullers; for Mrs. Davis was Nancy Ann Fuller, daughter of Captain Caleb and older sister to Sophia, of whose poor health Webster occasionally wrote in his letters. By late 1800 Nancy had married Moses Davis and moved with him to the Old Academy, where he published the Gazette. Also they roomed several students, as suggested by the federal census data for that year, and perhaps boarded them as well.
After graduation in August 1801, Daniel Webster returned to Salisbury, his home town, to read law with neighbor and friend Thomas W. Thompson until January 1802. Then, at the invitation of Betty Ripley's husband, Judah Dana, who practiced law in Fryeburg, Maine, Daniel became headmaster of Fryeburg Academy and at the same time continued his study of law with Dana. Thus in his letter of 25 February 1802 to friend Bingham he wrote, "Your old acquaintance Mrs. Dana lives next door. I am frequently there--they live in a neat, handsome, social stile. Nabby is somewhat expected here soon; Mr. and Mrs. Dana are now gone to Han. and will wish her to return with them." 10 It was in 1802 that Judah Dana purchased the Ripley homestead from his mother-in- law and brought her back to Fryeburg, where she lived for the rest of her life.
Further on in the February 1802 letter Webster added, "Fan. wrote me that she was going to Connecticut. I wish her every blessing but cannot tell what may arise hereafter. I don't know but my happiness must be sacrificed to hers." Nearly three months later, on 18 May 1802, Webster again wrote to Bingham, saying that during a brief visit to Hanover he "saw Fanny and kissed her."11 Webster had become thoroughly enamored of Fanny. But who was she?
I had about given up hope of answering this question when Virginia Close, editor emerita of the Dartmouth College Library Bulletin, directed me to a rather pathetic letter from Fanny to Daniel Webster written from Columbia, Connecticut, on 29 May 1823. Fanny wrote (in part):
You have probably before this time entirely forgotten that you ever had an acquaintance by the name of Fanny. It is a long time since I have heard any thing of you. I lately, by accident, heard that you were settled in Boston, and in affluence. Very different is my situation. I live in this town with my aged parents, who are unable to do any thing towards supporting themselves. I have one sister; we have nothing but our hands to support our parents and a helpless brother. As a help towards doing this, I took an orphan child under my care. I was to receive six dollars per month for board and tuition; I have kept the child two years, and received but forty dollars, and have no expectation of ever receiving more. His guardian has failed and fled to parts unknown. I agreed with a merchant in this vicinity for some of the necessaries of life, expecting to receive payment quarterly, and pay it to him; he now calls loudly for his pay, and I have nothing to pay with.... I can do nothing towards paying the debt unless some of my rich friends will help me.12
Webster did send her a little money and, acceding to her request, passed her letter on to his friend James Hervey Bingham, who identified her as "F. H--n" in his endorsement of the letter. Here we have the first clue to Fanny's identity. Virginia Close quickly found that in the 1830 federal census for Columbia, Connecticut, a Fanny Huntington is listed as head of household. 13
In earlier days, a relative would frequently live with a family in need of help and companionship. Was Fanny such a relative and, therefore, a member of either the Ripley or the Wheelock family? A quick check suggested that she might be related to Abigail, whose grandmother Ruth Huntington married Ralph Wheelock and lived in Windham, Connecticut, only a few miles from Columbia. Fortunately Baker Library has a copy of the Reverend E. B. (Elijah Balwin) Huntington's A Genealogical Memoir of the Huntington Family in this Country (Stamford, Conn.: The author, 1863). In it we find that Abigail and Fanny had great-great-grandfathers who were Huntington brothers and that they had great-grandmothers who were Adgate sisters. The brothers were the sons of Simon Huntington, who with his family sailed from England for America in 1633 but died of smallpox before reaching these shores. According to the Genealogical Memoir all three siblings, Fanny, helpful sister Tryphosa, and helpless brother Mason were single when they died.
The evidence appears conclusive that Daniel Webster roomed in the Ripley house, where Fanny Huntington also resided, during his senior year at Dartmouth College. Although both Abigail and Fanny were sixth-generation descendants of Simon Huntington, the ages of their fathers differed by more than thirty years, so that Fanny was more nearly Daniel Webster's than Abigail's age.
1. Other Hanover houses were said to have been occupied by Daniel Webster during his student days; the old Humphrey Farrar house on South Main Street was so identified by a sign for decades until the house was demolished in 1965 to make way for the expansion of the post office.
2. Herbert Darling Foster, "Webster and Choate in College: Dartmouth Under the Curriculum of 1796-1819, Pt. 1," The Dartmouth Alumni Magazine 19 (April 1917), 516
3. Daniel Webster, The Private Correspondence of Daniel Webster, ed. Fletcher Webster, 2 vols. (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1875),1:85-86.
4. Webster, Private Correspondence, 1:87.
5. Dartmouth College Library, Special Collections, Ms. Webster 000718.
6. Leon Burr Richardson, History of Dartmouth College (Hanover: Dartmouth College Publications, 1932),1:280.
7. Frederick Chase, A History of Dartmouth College and the Town of Hanover, New Hampshire, ed. John K. Lord, 2 vols. (Cambridge, [Mass] John Wilson and Son, 1891-1913), 1:553
8. Daniel Webster, The Papers of Daniel Webster, ed. Charles M. Wiltse (Hanover: Published for Dartmouth College by the University Press of New England, 1974-1989), ser. 1, Correspondence, 1:10.
9. Dartmouth College Library, Special Collections, Ms. Webster 804603.1.
10. Dartmouth College Library, Special Collections, Ms. Webster 802l75.
11. Webster, Papers/Correspondence, 1:38.
12. Webster, Papers/Correspondence, 1:328-329.
13. Webster, Papers/Correspondence, 1:37, note 6.