I’ve thought a lot about Cornelius Wheeler. I’ve spent hours, days and weeks, researching Cornelius and his family. Theirs is a story of hardship and tragedy which touched me, and I hope to honor their memory by sharing what I’ve discovered of their lives.
Cornelius was born in Canterbury, CT, on August 10, 1769, to John Wheeler and Lydia Adams. He was the 2nd of nine children; six boys and three girls. At some point in the 1790s, Cornelius and two of his siblings relocated to Stoneham, MA. One researcher conjectures that Cornelius and his brother may have moved to Stoneham to escape reprisal for involvement in Shay’s Rebellion (1786-87). A romantic thought, but doubtful; chiefly because the researcher offers absolutely no proof. Cornelius was about 17 years old during the time of the Rebellion, which arose in central and western Massachusetts, some 60+ miles away from Canterbury.
At the time of the 1790 US Census, there were no Wheeler families living in Stoneham, MA. Yet, in 1788, there is a marriage record of an Lydia Wheeler to Ebenezer Bucknam. In 1794, there is record of a marriage between Joseph Wheeler and Hannah Mathies. Cornelius had an older sister named Lydia and a younger brother named Joseph. Both of these marriages took place before Cornelius married Abigail Oliver in Stoneham on Jan. 4, 1796.
What took Cornelius and his siblings from Canterbury, CT, to Stoneham, MA, a distance of some 80 miles? As Lydia was the first to marry there, it could be that her brothers followed her to Stoneham as young men seeking a new start in a small but growing farm community only 10 miles from Boston. About the time Cornelius arrived in Stoneham, the population was only about 380 people. But by the time of his death, the town’s population had grown by approximately 50%.
Cornelius was 26 years old at the time of his marriage. Abigail was a 15-year-old teenager. She was the daughter of Capt. James Oliver and Abigail Bryant. Her mother’s family was quite prominent in Stoneham, but Abigail lost her mother when she was only 11 years-old. It’s not known what happened to Capt. Oliver, but if he was at sea that could explain why the teenage Abigail ended up in an early marriage.
Cornelius and Abigail had their first child 3 mos. after their marriage. Between 1796 and 1813, their family grew to ten children: 7 boys and 3 girls. The older children were born in Stoneham. At some point, Cornelius took his family back to Connecticut for a brief time, as they show up in Preston, CT, in the 1800 Census and their 3rd child was born there.
By 1803, the family was back in Stoneham, where their 5th child was born. At the time of the 1810 Census, the family had moved to nearby Lynnfield, MA, and remained there for the births of their youngest two children.
Cornelius and his large family were living in Lynnfield in 1814. He was scraping by a living working as a cordwainer (shoemaker). In that time period, shoemaker’s earned a little over $1.00/day. This was pitifully low, seeing as at that time a good pair of shoes themselves sold for $2.00. Shoemakers of that time worked 10-hour days, six days a week.
The struggle to support his large family was most likely the incentive for Cornelius to join the Army in the spring of 1814. By that time, the enlistment bounty had risen to about $124 and 320 acres of land. On a shoemaker’s salary, with a wife and 10 children to support, Cornelius could never have earned enough money to purchase that amount of land.
In March of 1814, Cornelius (age 44) and his eldest son traveled to Boston and signed up. They both enlisted as privates in the 9th Regiment U.S. Infantry for the duration of the war. Little did they know that in a few short months they would be engaged in the most important campaign of the War, and one of the War’s bloodiest battles.
The Regiment marched from Boston, arriving in Greenbush, NY, in mid-April (160 miles). They proceeded to Buffalo, another 290 miles, arriving at the end of June. On July 25, 1814, the 9th Regiment participated in the Battle of Lundy’s Lane on the Canadian side of Niagara.
All of Cornelius’ plans to provide for his family were lost on that tragic day. Cornelius was mortally wounded. He died the next day. His son, Cornelius, was injured and discharged. What became of Abigail and the other children after the loss of Cornelius?
The death of Cornelius left Abigail destitute. The settlement of his estate, such as it was, went to the Probate Court to resolve his debts. An inventory of his possessions amounted to just $58.76.
Because the value of the estate, even with the $109.61 Army pay owed to Cornelius, could not meet the debts owed, the administrator of the estate successfully petitioned the probate judge to declare insolvency and allow the widow a small sum.
When I came across the Pension record above, I wondered why all of the children were not named as heirs. Apparently, two of the children had died, though it is inconclusive which ones. What I have been able to determine about Abigail and the children is:
- Cornelius Wheeler (b. 1796) married Dorothy Poland in Stoneham on July 8, 1819. They remained in Stoneham and had three children. Cornelius died in 1833; he was 37 years old.
- Oliver Wheeler (b. 1797) married Harriet Poland in 1820. The couple remained in Stoneham, where Oliver worked also as a cordwainer. They had five children. Oliver died in 1863 (age 66).
- John Wheeler (b. 1799) married Paulina Bucknam in 1831. He worked as a shoemaker and later a mason in Stoneham. They had four children.
- Bryant Wheeler … well, this is a mystery. He is named in a research article written about Cornelius Wheeler, but the author does not cite any source. I cannot locate a birth or death record for him and he is not named an heir in the pension file.
- Lydia A. Wheeler (b. 1803) never married. She contracted a fever in 1830 (age 27) which left her blind. She is found in census records from 1830-1870 living in Stoneham with various members of the community; never with family. She died of paralysis in 1876 (age 73).
- Benjamin Dix Wheeler (b. 1805) married Mahalia Lynde in 1832. They lived in Stoneham where he worked as a shoemaker. They had six children. I have found no record of his death.
- Mary Oliver Wheeler (b. 1810) and James Oliver Wheeler (b. 18111) are also mysteries. They were named as heirs in the 1819 pension record, but after that I haven’t found them.
- Susannah Dix Wheeler (b. 1812) likely died before 1919, as she is not named an heir in the pension record.
- Joseph Wheeler (b. 1813) was married to Mary Ames in 1841. They lived in Stoneham where he worked as a … you guessed it! … shoemaker. He died in 1893 (age 79).
What became of the widow, Abigail Oliver Wheeler? The last we know is she was living in Lynnfield, MA, in 1815 during the time of the probate court proceedings. I have not been able to track her in later census records. The 1840 US Census record shows a woman named Abigail Wheeler of the right age living alone in Carlisle, MA. It could be her, but one would expect to find her living with family.
In 1808, Abigail was named as an heir in the will of her maternal grandfather, Major Joseph Bryant of Stoneham. He died in 1810 and everything went to his widow, Abigail Osgood Bryant. She died in 1826 and at that time Abigail should have come into her inheritance. And, as one of four grandchildren named by Joseph Bryant to divide certain land holdings, she would have been the sole heir to that land, as her siblings had all died before 1826.
Unfortunately, in 1825, Abigail Osgood Bryant’s children petitioned the court to declare the 88-year-old Abigail “non compos mentis” and appoint a guardian to her. She died without a will and her estate went to probate. The value of her estate was not enough to cover her debts. Her granddaughter, Abigail Oliver Wheeler, is named in the probate record. She purchased a feather bed, bed stead, pillows, etc. valued at $8.00 when the estate was sold off to settle debts.
In 1826, Abigail Wheeler was 46 years old and had not remarried. I have not been able to locate her any records after her grandmother’s 1826 probate record. Nor have I located a death record for her.
It’s possible Abigail was living with relatives during the period of 1820-1840. As the census records for those periods only list the heads of household (usually male) by name, it would be pure guesswork locating her.
Also, it is possible that Abigail entered into a second marriage after 1826. In fact, I have found an 1829 marriage record between an Abigail Wheeler and William Derby taking place in Wakefield, MA. Wakefield is only about 3 miles from Lynnfield, the last known residence of Abigail. Though the ages of these two are not provided in the marriage record, the 1830 Census record for William Derby of So. Reading, MA (another nearby town), lists a man and woman of the right age to be our Abigail.
Additionally, there is a headstone at the Old Burying Ground for Abigail Derby, wife of William Derby, whose age at the time of her death is about the same year as Abigail (1780). Is it a leap to suggest this may be our Abigail? Perhaps her last request was to be buried in the town of her birth, in the cemetery where lay her mother, her grandparents, and her extended family.
Cornelius Wheeler is my 5th great-grandfather:
- My Mother
- Delia Jane Feister (grandmother)
- Laura Tidd (great-grandmother)
- William Bond Tidd (great-great grandfather)
- Harriet Wheeler (3rd great-grandmother)
- Oliver Wheeler (4th great-grandfather)
- Cornelius Wheeler (5th great-grandfather)