Asa Sheldon probably never had a “What did you do in the war, dad?” conversation with his father. Jeremiah Sheldon lived in Danvers and was 18 when the American Revolution began. He became a Minuteman. Then in 1778, the town doctor asked him to accompany him to Pennsylvania for the Second Continental Congress.
There may or may not have been stories of bold military action that Jeremiah could have told his sons. There also could have been stories of traveling with the likes of John Hancock, Samuel Adams and Dr. Samuel Holten.
In his autobiography, Wilmington Farmer, Asa Sheldon (1788-1870) mentioned that his father had been a clerk for “Judge Houghton” in Congress. He also wrote that his father was quite good-natured, but gave no background.
Except there was no Judge Houghton. Asa probably did not know much about the judge or what his father did. Jeremiah Sheldon served for seven years, 1778-1785, as a aide to Dr. Samuel Holten, a member of the Second Continental Congress. Jeremiah was 21 and a military veteran when he was hired by Dr. Holten.
In a biography of Holten, Harriet S. Tapley tells of the doctor setting off in 1778 for a month-long journey to York, Pennsylvania in the company of John Hancock. Tapley wrote, imagining the scene at Dr. Sheldon’s send-off from his home in Danvers: “Here too was Jeremiah Sheldon, Dr. Holten’s personal servant, who accompanied him on his journey.”
Their mission was to assist in the framing of the Articles of Confederation of the United States. The Declaration of Independence, of course, had been signed two years earlier. The Articles were voted in November 1777, but it was not until 1781 that the last ratification occurred. They then served as the operating agreement among the states until the adoption of the Constitution in 1789.
“John Hancock was Dr. Holten’s traveling companion on this first trip,” Tapley wrote. “Jerry Sheldon rode on horseback, and as the doctor’s ‘waiter’ received 20 pounds per month in Massachusetts currency.”
There were many such trips for Sheldon, between Danvers and Philadelphia.
Dr. Holten was a physician, first in Gloucester, then for several years in Danvers. In 1768, he was elected to the state legislature, where he became a strong advocate of the colonies separating from Great Britain. 10 years later, he became a delegate to the Second Continental Congress.
Sheldon wrote to Holten on June 28, 1780, thanking him for everything he has done for him. He expressed regret that he did not become a master of his field of learning, but that with Holten’s assistance, he would distinguish himself. He wrote that he was distressed at leaving Holten when he was unwell.
He described his troubled 21-day wagon trip to Danvers. His service with Dr. Holten, though, continued until 1785.
Dr. Holten then served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1793 to 1795, after which he became a judge.
In 1781, he married Elizabeth Goodell, a descendant of Gen. Israel Putnam, who had designed the earthen fortifications on Breed’s Hill for the Battle of Bunker Hill in June 1775. Putnam was a Danvers native.
Their firstborn was named Elbridge Gerry Sheldon, named for another member of the Massachusetts delegation to the Continental Congress, who later became the fifth vice president of the United States. The term ‘gerrymandering’ came from his name after he, as governor, signed a redistricting bill. A newspaper cartoon showed the district in Essex County looking like a salamander.
A story in the Boston Globe from 1885 tells of a reporter’s visit in North Reading with a woman who would soon be 102. Mrs. Lucinda Shelden Howard was born in Danvers in the year the Revolutionary War closed, 1783. She was Jeremiah and Elizabeth’s second child, five years older than her brother Asa Sheldon.
Mrs. Howard is quoted in the article, saying, “My father went to Congress as clerk for Judge Holten.” That clue led to everything in this story.
The Globe story goes through several memorable events in her lifetime, like the death of George Washington, the invention of the steamboat, and seeing the first locomotive on the Lowell railroad. She didn’t specify if that had been the Salem and Lowell Railroad, near her home in North Reading, or perhaps the Boston and Lowell, which ran through Wilmington and started earlier than the S&L.
Jeremiah and Elizabeth’s third child was Samuel Houghton Sheldon, named for the doctor. He also settled in North Reading. Evidently there was a long confusion about Dr. Holten’s last name. In earlier times, names sometimes had varied spellings.
Asa Goodell Sheldon was fourth, born in 1788. He was named for his maternal grandfather.
There were three more daughters, Harriet, 1791, Betsy, 1795 and Sophia, 1801. A fourth son, Jeremiah, Jr. was born in 1798.
On April 14, 1797, Jeremiah let Asa to a neighboring farm as an indentured worker, the first of many such arrangements.
10 years later, Asa came to Wilmington, to the Pearson tavern. In 1815, he married Clarissa Eames, daughter of Ens. Nathan Eames and Susanna Harnden. The couple lived first in the Cadwallader Ford house and eventually bought a house on Woburn Street.
Jeremiah Sheldon died in 1803. His widow outlived him by 50 years. Elizabeth Goodell Sheldon lived with her son Asa for some 25 years. She died in Wilmington in 1853 at age 94.
Asa Sheldon’s autobiography, Wilmington Farmer, was republished in 1988 under the title Yankee Drover by University Press of New England. ISBN 0-87451-439-8.
Perhaps a more appropriate title would have been Wilmington Contractor. In a career that spanned 50 years, Asa Sheldon became one of the most prominent contractors of the early 19th century. He built railroads and many bridges.
His most famous project was cutting down Boston’s Pemberton Hill in 1835. He hired men with ox carts, and the digging was all done by hand. The gravel was then dumped in the Mill Pond. That area became Nashua Street and the tracks leading to North Station.
With so many oxen working, Sheldon built a blacksmith shop and hired two blacksmiths to keep them shod. When the job was completed, he moved the shop to Wilmington.