previous next

Chapter 2: Ancestors.—parentage.—birth.

The name of Greeley is an old and not uncommon one in New England. It is spelt Greeley, Greely, Greale, and Greele, but all who bear the name in this country trace their origin to the same source.

The tradition is, that very early in the history of New England— probably as early as 1650—three brothers, named Greeley, emigrated from the neighborhood of Nottingham, England. One of them is supposed to have settled finally in Maine, another in Rhode Island, the third in Massachusetts. All the Greeleys in New England have descended from these three brothers, and the branch of the family with which we have to do, from him who settled in Massachusetts. Respecting the condition and social rank of these brothers, their occupation and character, tradition is silent. But from [29] the fact that no coat-of-arms has been preserved or ever heard of by any member of the family, and from the occupation of the majority of their descendants, it is plausibly conjectured that they were farmers of moderate means and of the middle class.

Tradition further hints that the name of the brother who found a home in Massachusetts was Benjamin, that he was a farmer, that he lived in Haveril, a township bordering on the south-eastern corner of New Hampshire, that he prospered there, and died respected by all who knew him at a good old age. So far, tradition. We now draw from the memory of individuals still living.

The son of Benjamin Greeley was Ezekiel, ‘old Captain Ezekiel,’ who lived and greatly flourished at Hudson, New Hampshire, and is well remembered there, and in all the region round about. The captain was not a military man. He was half lawyer, half farmer. He was a sharp, cunning, scheming, cool-headed, cold-hearted man, one who lived by his wits, who always got his cases, always succeeded in his plans, always prospered in his speculations, and grew rich without ever doing a day's work in his life. He is remembered by his grandsons, who saw him in their childhood, as a black-eyed, black-haired, heavy-browed, stern-looking man, of complexion almost as dark—as that of an Indian, and not unlike an Indian in temper. ‘A cross old dog,’ ‘a hard old knot,’ ‘as cunning as Lucifer,’ are among the complimentary expressions bestowed upon him by his descendants. ‘All he had,’ says one, ‘was at the service of the rich, but he was hard upon the poor.’ ‘His religion was nominally Baptist,’ says another, ‘but really to get money.’ ‘He got all he could, and saved all he got,’ chimes in a third. He died, at the age of sixty-five, with ‘all his teeth sound,’ and worth three hundred acres of good land. He is spoken of with that sincere respect which, in New England, seems never to be denied to a very smart man, who succeeds by strictly legal means in acquiring property, however wanting in principle, however destitute of feeling, that man may be. Happily, the wife of old Captain Ezekiel was a gentler and better being than her husband.

And, therefore, Zaccheus, the son of old Captain Ezekiel, was a gentler and better man than his father. Zaccheus inherited part of his father's land, and was a farmer all the days of his life. He was not, it appears, ‘too fond of work,’ though far more industrious [30] than his father; a man who took life easily, of strict integrity, kind-hearted, gentle-mannered, not ill to do in the world, but not what is called in New England ‘fore-handed.’ He is remembered in the neighborhood where he lived chiefly for his extraordinary knowledge of the Bible. He could quote texts more readily, correctly, and profusely than any of his neighbors, laymen or clergymen. He had the reputation of knowing the whole Bible by heart. He was a Baptist; and all who knew him unite in declaring that a worthier man never lived than Zaccheus Greeley. He had a large family, and lived to the age of ninety-five.

His eldest son was named Zaccheus also, and he is the father of Horace Greeley. He is still living, and cultivates an ample domain in Erie County, Pennsylvania, acquired in part by his own arduous labors, in part by the labors of his second son, and in part by the liberality of his eldest son Horace. At this time, in the seventy-third year of his age, his form is as straight, his step as decided, his constitution nearly as firth, and his look nearly as young, as though he were in the prime of life.

All the Greeleys that I have seen or heard described, are persons of marked and peculiar characters. Many of them are ‘characters.’ The word which perhaps best describes the quality for which they are distinguished is tenacity. They are, as a race, tenacious of life, tenacious of opinions and preferences, of tenacious memory, and tenacious of their purposes. One member of the family died at the age of one hundred and twenty years; and a large proportion of the early generations lived more than three score years and ten. Few of the name have been rich, but most have been persons of substance and respectability, acquiring their property, generally, by the cultivation of the soil, and a soil, too, which does not yield its favors to the sluggard. It is the boast of those members of the family who have attended to its genealogy, that no Greeley was ever a prisoner, a pauper, or, worse than either, a tory! Two of Horace Greeley's great uncles perished at Bennington, and he was fully justified in his assertion, made in the heat of the Roman controversy a few years ago, that he was ‘born of republican parentage, of an ancestry which participated vividly in the hopes and fears, the convictions and efforts of the American Revolution.’ And he added: ‘We cannot disavow nor prove recreant [31] to the principles on which that Revolution was justified—on which only it can be justified. If adherence to these principles makes us “the unmitigated enemy of Pius IX., ” we regret the enmity but cannot abjure our principles.’

The maiden name of Horace Greeley's mother was Woodburn, Mary Woodburn, of Londonderry.

The founder of the Woodburn family in this country was John Woodburn, who emigrated from Londonderry in Ireland, to Londonderry in New Hampshire, about the year 1725, seven years after the settlement of the original sixteen families. He came over with his brother David, who was drowned a few years after, leaving a family. Neither of the brothers actually served in the siege of Londonderry; they were too young for that; but they were both men of the true Londonderry stamp, men with a good stroke in their arms, a merry twinkle in their eyes, indomitable workers, and not more brave in fight than indefatigable in frolic; fair-haired men like all their brethren, and gall-less.

John Woodburn obtained the usual grant of one hundred and twenty acres of land, besides the ‘out-lot and home-lot’ before alluded to, and he took root in Londonderry and flourished. Ho was twice married, and was the father of two sons and nine daughters, all of whom (as children did in those healthy times) lived to maturity, and all but one married. John Woodburn's second wife, from whom Horace Greeley is descended, was a remarkable woman. Mr. Greeley has borne this testimony to her worth and influence, in a letter to a friend which some years ago escaped into print:‘I think I am indebted for my first impulse toward intellectual acquirement and exertion to my mother's grandmother, who came out from Ireland among the first settlers in Londonderry. She must have been well versed in Irish and Scotch traditions, pretty well informed and strong minded; and my mother being left motherless when quite young, her grandmother exerted great influence over her mental development. I was a third child, the two preceding having died young, and I presume my mother was the more attached to me on that ground, and the extreme feebleness of my constitution. My mind was early filled by her with the traditions, ballads, and snatches of history she had learned from her grandmother, which, though conveying very distorted and incorrect [32] ideas of history, yet served to awaken in me a thirst for knowledge and .a lively interest in learning and history.’ John Woodburn died in 1780. Mrs. Woodburn, the subject of the passage just quoted, survived her husband many years, lived to see her children's grandchildren, and to acquire throughout the neighborhood the familiar title of ‘Granny Woodburn.’

David Woodburn, the grandfather of Horace Greeley, was the eldest son of John Woodburn, and the inheritor of his estate. He married Margaret Clark, a granddaughter of that Mrs. Wilson, the touching story of whose deliverance from pirates was long a favorite tale at the firesides of the early settlers of New Hampshire. In 1720, a ship containing a company of Irish emigrants bound to New England was captured by pirates, and while the ship was in their possession, and the fate of tie passengers still undecided, Mrs. Wilson, one of the company, gave birth to her first child. The circumstance so moved the pirate captain, who was himself a husband and a father, that he permitted the emigrants to pursue their voyage unharmed. He bestowed upon Mrs. Wilson some valuable presents, among others a silk dress, pieces of which are still preserved among her descendants; and he obtained from her a promise that she would call the infant by the name of his wife. The ship reached its destination in safety, and the day of its deliverance from the hands of the pirates was annually observed as a day of thanksgiving by the passengers for many years. Mrs. Wilson, after the death of her first husband, became the wife of James Clark, whose son John was the father of Mrs. David Woodburn, whose daughter Mary was the mother of Horace Greeley.

The descendants of John Woodburn are exceedingly numerous, and contribute largely, says Mr. Parker, the historian of Londonderry, to the hundred thousand who are supposed to have descended from the early settlers of the town. The grandson of John Woodburn, a very genial and jovial gentleman, still owns and tills the land originally granted to the family. At the old homestead, about the year 1807, Zaccheus Greeley and Mary Woodburn were married.

Zaccheus Greeley inherited nothing from his father, and Mary Woodburn received no more than the usual household portion from hers. Zaccheus, as the sons of New England farmers usually do, [33] or did in those days, went out to work as soon as he was old enough to do a day's work. He saved his earnings, and in his twenty-fifth year was the owner of a farm in the town of Amherst, Hillsborough county, New Hampshire.

There, on the third of February, 1811, Horace Greeley was born. He is the third of seven children, of whom the two elder died before he was born, and the four younger are still living.

The mode of his entrance upon the stage of the world was, to say the least of it, unusual. The effort was almost too much for him, and, to use the language of one who was present, ‘he cane into the world as black as a chimney.’ There were no signs of life. He uttered no cry; he made no motion; he did not breathe. But the little discolored stranger had articles to write, and was not permitted to escape his destiny. In this alarming crisis of his existence, a kind-hearted and experienced aunt came to his rescue, and by arts, which to kind-hearted and experienced aunts are well known, but of which the present chronicler remains in ignorance, the boy was brought to life. He soon began to breathe; then he began to blush; and by the time he had attained the age of twenty minutes, lay on his mother's arm, a red and smiling infant.

In due time, the boy received the name of Horace. There had been another little Horace Greeley before him, but he had died in infancy, and his parents wished to preserve in their second son a living memento of their first. The name was not introduced into the family from any partiality on the part of his parents for the Roman poet, but because his father had a relative so named, and because the mother had read the name in a book and liked the sound of it. The sound of it, however, did not often regale the maternal ear; for, in New England, where the name of the courtly satirist is frequently given, its household diminutive is ‘Hod;’ and by that elegant monosyllable the boy was commonly called among his juvenile friends.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide People (automatically extracted)
hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
February 3rd, 1811 AD (1)
1807 AD (1)
1780 AD (1)
1725 AD (1)
1720 AD (1)
1650 AD (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: