By Bill Miller
One of the things I love about digging around in your family roots is you never know what you will find or who will meet. My Mayflower ancestors, John and Elizabeth Howland, have provided me with thousands of cousins, including four presidents and other famous people. While researching the descendants of their first child, Desire, who married Capt. John Gorham, I discovered that my favorite childhood poet is also my fifth cousin. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and I share the same Mayflower great-grandparents.
I still have two old books of Longfellow’s poetry, and I still remember the first lines of my two favorite poems. “This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks, bearded in moss, and in garments green…” from Evangeline. I remember reading out loud in school, “Listen, my children, and you shall hear of the midnight ride of Paul Revere…” I also loved The Song of Hiawatha. Longfellow is revered as one of America’s best loved poets. He had the gift of easy rhyme, which sticks in your mind. Also, his poems are easily understood and focus the reader on the goodness of life. They have stuck with me for over 70 years. I was thrilled to find that we are cousins.
What is less known is his own life story. Longfellow was born on February 27, 1807 to Stephen Longfellow and Zilpah Wadsworth Longfellow in Portland, Maine. He was the second of eight children. His father was a lawyer, and his maternal grandfather was Brig. General Peleg Wadsworth, who served in the American Revolutionary War, in the Massachusetts House and Senate and as a Member of Congress. Henry enjoyed a good childhood and was given a good education. In 1822, at the age of 15, he enrolled at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, where he strengthened his writing skills.
Nine years later, on September 14, 1831, Longfellow married Mary Storer Potter, a childhood friend from Portland. They settled in Brunswick, Maine. He was writing a lot of poetry and life was good. A few years later, he became the Smith Professorship of Modern Languages at Harvard College. They spent a year in Europe studying several European languages. While there his wife Mary had a miscarriage in Rotterdam, Netherlands. She did not recover and after several weeks illness she died on November 29, 1835, at the age of 22. Longfellow had her body shipped to Mount Auburn Cemetery near Boston. He was deeply saddened by her death and wrote: “One thought occupies me night and day… She is dead — She is dead! All day I am weary and sad.” That was the first of his great sorrows. Longfellow returned to the United States in 1836, took up the professorship at Harvard and began publishing his poetry in 1839.
Seven years later, he fell in love with Francis Elizabeth “Fanny” Appleton, but she was not very interested in him. After a seven-year courtship, he eventually won and on May 10, 1843, Longfellow received a letter from Fanny agreeing to marry him. Together they had six children between 1844 and 1855. In his only love poem, the sonnet, “The Evening Star”, written in 1845, Henry tells of his love for Fanny: “O my beloved, my sweet Hesperus! My morning and evening star of love!” But tragedy was to strike again. On July 9, 1861, Henry was taking a nap and Fanny was trying to put hot sealing wax on an envelope and somehow caught her dress on fire. Henry awoke to her scream and rushed to help her. He tried to cover her with a rug, but it was too small, so he covered her with his own body. She was severely burned. She was in and out of consciousness all night. She died the next morning. In trying to save her, Longfellow had burned himself so badly that he was unable to attend her funeral. In fact, his facial scars were so bad that he stopped shaving, and grew the beard which has become his trademark.
Longfellow was so devastated by her terrible death that he never fully recovered from it. He worried that he would go insane and begged “not to be sent to an asylum.” He said that he was “inwardly bleeding to death.” Eighteen years later (1879), he expressed his endless grief in the sonnet “The Cross of Snow” to commemorate her death: “Such is the cross I wear upon my breast these eighteen years, through all the changing scenes and seasons, changeless since the day she died.”
On March 24, 1882, at age 75, Longfellow died in Cambridge, Massachusetts. At his funeral, his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson called him “a sweet and beautiful soul.” In reality, his life was much more difficult than was assumed. He suffered from neuralgia, which caused him constant pain, and he also had poor eyesight. He wrote to friend Charles Sumner: “I do not believe anyone can be perfectly well, who has a brain and a heart.” Longfellow was very quiet, reserved, and private. In later years, he was known for being unsociable and avoided leaving home.
This cousin, who has given millions of people joy and happiness through his writings, in spite of his personal pain and loss, is still an inspiration. In doing your genealogy, do not neglect your cousins. Some of them are really enjoyable. If you need help with the research or have stories to tell, visit your local genealogy center.