George R. Wightman (1806-1890)

George Ransom Wightman

 

Dr. George Ransom Wightman was born October 18, 1806 in Mexico, Oswego Co., NY1, and died August 4, 1890 in Galesburg, Kalamazoo Co., MI2. He was the son of Humphrey Wightman and Eunice Palmer. He married Mary Crandall January 24, 1831 in Homer, NY1, daughter of Daniel Crandall and Susannah Pierce. She was born August 31, 1814 in Homer, Cortland Co., NY1,3, and died June 20, 1883 in Evart, Osceola Co., MI1.

George was born and raised on his father Humphrey's farm in Mexico (later Parish), NY. Like his ancestors before him, he was raised in the Baptist faith. As the second child of Humphrey and Eunice Wightman, he was born not long after the young couple arrived in the relatively undeveloped corner of Oswego County, a few miles from Lake Ontario. The first few years of his life were probably relatively difficult, as the early settlers faced many difficulties, including disease, impenetrable roads, and wild animals. But by the time he was a teen, things had improved markedly, the town was thriving, schools had been built, and infrastructure, such as it was at the time, largely in place. George's childhood might have been something like that described by Laura Ingalls Wilder in her classic book "Farmer Boy," which recounts her husband's childhood growing up on a farm in northern New York state during the 19th century (although this took place several decades later).

According to Mary Ross Whitman, George moved out and relocated to LaFayette, NY somewhat south of Mexico in Onondaga County, presumably sometime between 1825 and 1830 while he was still single. This is an interesting move, probably somewhat atypical of the time for a young rural man. I have not been able to locate George in the 1830 or 1840 censuses, so I do not know how he was employed at that time or what might have compelled him to move to Lafayette. George was a physician later in his life, however I do not know when or where he received his training. One possibility, of course, is that he received his medical training while a young man, either before or just after marriage, as would be typical of today. He would probably not have gotten that training in LaFayette, however. There were three major medical schools in the general area at that time: The College of Physicians and Surgeons of the Western District of the State of New York (in Herkimer), Auburn Medical School (in Auburn, Cayuga County), and Medical Institution of Geneva College (in Geneva, Ontario County). The latter would eventually become part of Syracuse University and is now SUNY-Upstate Medical University. Geneva's most famous graduate of George's time was Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first female American MD, who graduated in 1849. However, according to Eric v.d. Luft, Curator of Historical Collections at SUNY-Upstate, there are no Wightmans among the 19th century graduates of Geneva College. Partial graduation lists from the Herkimer College of Physicians and Surgeons also do not list George Wightman. The most likely site of his training, if it was received in New York at a formal medical school, is probably Auburn Medical School, which operated between 1824 and 1839, and was located only about 30 miles from LaFayette and just a few miles from his grandfather's one-time home in Elbridge/Skaneatles area. However, according to Dr. v.d. Luft, George might have received training at one of several private "eclectic" medical schools that operated in the Syracuse area in the early 1950's. The eclectic approach was a reaction to the rational empiricism of allopathic medicine; it held that physicians should do "whatever worked." Finally, as Dr. v.d. Luft suggests, George might have entered the medical profession without formal education. During the 19th century many physicians received informal training through an apprenticeship and then learned "on the job." The absence of a listed medical school for George in a late 19th century publication in Kalamazoo Co., MI (the place that I know he practiced medicine) suggests that one of the latter scenarios may have been the case.

The next puzzle in reconstructing George's life comes with his marriage to Mary Crandall, a farmer's daughter from Homer, NY (near Cortland). That George and Mary met and decided to get married is clear, but how they met is somewhat mysterious. Homer is well over 30 miles to the south of LaFayette- not an insurmountable distance, even by the transportation standards of the time, but enough to make casual encounter unlikely. Nonetheless, at the proper age of 24, George married Mary in Homer.

Mary Crandall was a descendant of Baptist Rhode Island founder John Crandall, whose lineage is documented in Elder John Crandall of Rhode Island and his Descendants3. John Crandall was a colleague and co-conspirator of Wightman ancestor Rev. Obadiah Holmes and Dr. John Clarke.

Mary grew up entirely in Homer, NY. Her mother Susannah died when Mary was on the cusp of turning six. For a few years, she lived with her father and older siblings on the family farm in Homer, NY. Probably one her older sister Sally took on the role of domestic leadership while Daniel, Sr. concentrated on the family farm, undoubtedly aided by Daniel, Jr. and the other children who were old enough to be a significant asset for farm work. In a few years, Mary's father Daniel married Hannah, and the house had an adult female presence again. Mary married the much older George Wightman when she was very young, at the age of only 16.

George and Mary settled down initially in Truxton, NY, not far from Mary's hometown of Homer. There, they had their first child, James. By 1835, they had moved back up to George's adopted town of LaFayette. During George and Mary's early years in Lafayette, just a few dozen miles to the west in the similarly-named town of Fayette, NY, Joseph Smith, Jr. was founding the Mormon Church. George and Mary stayed in LaFayette until 1837 or perhaps a bit later. By 1839, they were living in Tully, NY, about halfway between Truxton and LaFayette. In 1840, they relocated northward back up to the Wightman home turf of Parish in Oswego Co. I do not know whether they were living in Parish proper, or in Palermo, just to the west.

The 1850 census locates the family in the town of Palermo in Oswego County, just a few miles west of Parish, where George grew up. George and his oldest son James (age 16 at this time) were farming the land. William, Harriet, George H., Charles A., Eli P., Mary J., and infant Daniel D. were all living at home with George and Mary. George did not list his profession as "physician" in the 1850 census, which raises the possibility that he had been farming the land throughout his young life and had not yet gone to medical school. Thus, a second scenario emerges where George may have received medical training as an older man, either in New York or in Michigan. In any case, it seems probable that for most of his young adult life, George was farming the land and supporting a large family, just like his father. This might have been a financial necessity-- as odd as that sounds today. Agriculture and land ownership were still the big moneymakers for families in the mid 19th century. Physicians were not particularly wealthy at this time; George might have been trained as a physician early in life, but unable to make ends meet. For example, in the 1860 census, where George was working as a physician, his entire estate, including real estate, was $1400, which was modest in comparison to the standard set by the other nearby inhabitants at the same time (craftsmen generally held $2000-$2500, farmers upwards of $4000).

In 1853, George and Mary moved their family to the village of Galesburg, which straddles Comstock and Charleston Townships in Kalamazoo County, MI. An 1880 History of Kalamazoo County describes Dr. G. R. Wightman as coming in 1853 "from Oswego Co., NY," suggesting that the Wightman family came to Kalamazoo Co. directly from New York. They likely made the trip by land or the canal system through western New York State to Lake Erie and from there by steamboat to Michigan. They could have taken the train to Lake Erie (which would have made them among the first Wightmans to ever ride a train); the Erie Railroad was completed in June of 1851, which connected Dunkirk, on Lake Erie, with the eastern part of New York State. In general, by 1853, the railroad network in the northeast and as far west as Chicago had become fully linked and functional.

The state of Michigan was relatively new and rapidly developing as many farmers migrated to its open and fertile land. In 1837, it had become the 26th state, less than two decades before George and Mary arrived. In 1810 there were only 4762 white inhabitants of Michigan territory. By 1840, there were 212,267 in the new Michigan state. By 1870, there were almost 1.2 million. Thus, George and Mary were part of a huge tide of migration into the new state. It is also worth noting that George's Uncle Abram Wightman had settled in Wayne County, Michigan in 1823 after an unsuccessful move to Ontario. Abram, however died very young in 1829, probably too early to have had much impact on George. George's first cousin and contemporary, Solomon Wightman (Abram's son), settled in eastern Michigan (Wayne County and Dearborn), so it possible that the family connection was a factor in the move.

If George obtained medical training in Michigan, it would have occurred between his arrival and 1860, when he is listed as a physician in the census. This is not impossible: the University of Michigan opened the first medical school in Michigan in 1850 and the course of instruction lasted only two years. Furthermore, there were a few physicians in Galesburg, with whom George might have trained.

During the Wightman's early years in Michigan, America was hurtling toward the civil war conflict that would bring devastation to the young nation and death to the Wightman household. Then, in 1857, financial disaster struck as the "Panic of 1857" burst the bubble on land prices (due to over-speculation and expansion). Farmers and working class people were particularly hard hit by the depression. By 1860, 5 percent of American families (not including George and Mary!) held 50% of American wealth.

The Republican Party was founded in Jackson, Michigan in 1854. In the pivotal 1860 presidential election, they fielded George's distant cousin, Abraham Lincoln as their candidate. I do not know, of course, who George would have voted for, but abolitionism and Republican sentiment were strong in the new state of Michigan.

The 1860 census showed George working as a physician, with George Jr. working as a painter, Charles Albert as a laborer, and Mary, Eli, Ida, and Alice living at home. Mary, Charles Albert, and Eli were attending school. Over the next five years, the U.S. Civil War would rage, far to Michigan's south. Both James and George would serve for the Union, both in the cavalry. While there is no record that William or Charles Albert served, their age and absence from the Wightman home suggest they too would probably have served. In the summer of 1864, the Wightman family learned that George, Jr. had been seriously injured while fighting in Virginia. He returned home late that summer, probably missing one leg, and died on September 1. Three months later, tragedy struck the family again, when young Charles Albert died in December, 1864. He may have died while in service to the Union armed forces, but in any case died in Chicago, and his body was returned to Galesburg for burial by train. In April 1865, the Wightman family would have learned not only of the end of the war, but also the assassination of President Lincoln a few days after Lee's surrender.

In an 1869 Directory of Galesburg, George R. Wightman, physician, is listed as living at 2 Rail Road.

The 1870 census shows George still working as a physician, and still living with Mary and him: Eli, Mary J. (Minnie), Ida, and Alice-- the two youngest attending school. Minnie, at age 24, may have been showing the symptoms of mental illness by this time. Eli was working as a photographer (but would later enter the jewelry business). From 1873 through 1877, America sank into another deep economic depression. Unemployment reached 15%, and farm foreclosures were commonplace. During this time, George's professional training probably served him well, since his skills probably helped soften the economic blow. On the other hand, farmers who have nothing cannot pay for health care.

In 1880, the aging George (age 73) and Mary (age 65) were still living in Comstock Township (Galesburg), with Mary J. (Minkie). George was working as a physician and did not report any unemployment for the year. In that year, a published History of Kalamazoo County described Dr. Wightman as the oldest practicing physician in Galesburg. Unfortunately, this source provides no details as to his medical training. It appears that George, and probably Mary, were living in Evart during the summer of that year, since George filed a declaration of guardianship for his grandchildren Ione, Emma and Mina (children of James M.) from Evart in June 1880. Presumably, the elder Wightmans were living in the household of either of their sons William or Eli.

Mary had 12 or 13 children, three to four of whom died in infancy or early childhood, five of whom died in young adulthood, and two of whom would eventually fall mentally ill. This is a good measure of how difficult life still was in mid-19th century America. Only one of her sons, Eli, survived her. Despite all the sorrow, struggle, and work, Mary lived to nearly 70. It is somewhat puzzling that Mary died in Evart, MI, which is a considerable distance north of the Kalamazoo area. Her son Eli was living there and working as a jeweler, but her husband George was still alive, and he died a few years later in Charleston Township, immediately adjacent to their longtime home of Comstock Township back in Kalamazoo County. It is possible that both George and Mary moved to live with their son and daughter-in-law sometime between 1880 (when they are both still in Comstock) and 1883. He could have then moved out after her death, returning to his rural practice in Kalamazoo County. Alternatively, perhaps Mary died suddenly while on a visit to her son.

Most sources have George dying in Galesburg and he is certainly buried there. An 1884 publication on Osceola County indicates that he was living in Wayland, Allegan Co. at that time-- presumably in the household of his daughter Hattie and her husband Myron Rawson there. It is possible that in his last few years, he moved back to Galesburg and lived in the household of his daughter, Alice and her husband William Kirby.

Children of George Wightman and Mary Crandall are:

 

Sources

1. Mary Ross Whitman, George Wightman of Quidnessett, RI and Descendants, (1939, Chicago: Edwards Brothers).

2. Diary of Charles Luke Keith, (1999, transcribed index by Barbara Triphahn), "Electronic."

3. John C. Crandall, Elder John Crandall of Rhode Island and His Descendants, (New Woodstock, NY 1949).

4. 1870 US Census.

5. International Genealogical Index, "Electronic."

6. Family Search Ancestral File, "Electronic," AFN:1K3R-54C.

7. Michigan Death Record, (Genealogical Death Index (GENDIS)), "Electronic," Ledger 47, Record 231Recorded August 1, 1883.

8. One World Tree, "Electronic."

9. "Isabella County Enterprise," Mt. Pleasant, MI, July 23, 1926.

10. 1880 US Census.

11. 1900 US Census.

12. Military Service Record, (U.S. National Archives), George H. Wightman, Civil War.

13. Descendants of Ephraim MINER, (www.tmsociety.org), "Electronic."

14. 1860 US Census.

15. Wade C. Wightman, The Wightman Ancestry, (Chelsea, MI: Bookcrafters, 1994).

16. Oak Grove Cemetery Marker, Galesburg, MI:

17. Family Data Collection, "Electronic," Individual Record.

18. Anonymous, Portrait and biographical album of Osceola County, MI, (Chicago: Chapman Brothers, 1884.).

19. 1920 US Census.

20. D. Fisher and F. Little, Compendium of History and Biography of Kalamazoo County, Mich, (1906, Chicago: A. Bowen), p 539.

21. Pension file of James M. Wightman, National Archives.

 

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