“Many cultures accept the faulty nature of memory. They know even the photograph only gets it halfway right. They believe there is only one way to bring the dead back to life, story.”― Jon Chopan
This beautiful young woman was photographed somewhere in the antebellum United States in about 1852—a date I assign for two reasons. First, the fashions she wore, which include a distinctive corset type, ribbon choker, and an open-front bodice—all styles that were enormously popular in the late 1840s and early 1850s. Second, ambrotypes, which are produced by a wet-plate collodion process invented in 1851 by Frederick Scott Archer, became commercially available in 1852, so the image cannot date any earlier.
The subject was surely not more than about 18 years old when photographed and she appears to wear a wedding ring, making it possible that this is a bridal image. At some point, a large curl of her thick brown hair, still as glossy as the day it was cut, was tucked behind the ambrotype packet between slips of newspaper. The text of the newsprint is largely advertising for several companies in northern states, but there is also a mention of the Union occupation of Memphis, Tennessee, which began in June 1862. Together, these facts make it likely the young woman belonged to a northern family.
“And they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”
The above daguerreotype, which includes a 20th-Century handwritten note indicating it was once held in the collection of the Ossining, New York Historical Society, shows Avis Burr Wooster in about the fifty-fifth year of her life.
Avis was born on 26 May, 1796, in Southbury, New Haven County, Connecticut, in the ember glow of a hot century that had seen Connecticut change from a British colony to a sovereign state inside a new nation. By the time the Revolution exploded, Southbury was already a venerable place, having been established on land bought from the Paugusset tribe in 1659. The area remains much as it was in Avis’s day: rural, agricultural, quiet.
The Burr family’s transplantation to the New World was courtesy of Jehue Burr, born in about 1605, who sailed with Governor Winthrop to Roxbury, Massachusetts, in 1630. Jehue eventually removed to Fairfield, Connecticut, and planted the seeds of a lineage that would include the noted vice president and unfortunate dualist Aaron Burr. Avis’s line was through Jehue’s son Nathaniel (1635-1712) to Avis’s great-great-grandfather Colonel John Burr (1673-1750) to her great-grandfather Captain John Burr (1698-1752) to her grandfather of the same name and rank (1728-1771), who married Eunice Booth (abt. 1728-bef. 1786) circa 1750.
Avis’s father, William Burr (23 June, 1762-28 Jan., 1841), lost his own father tragically when he was less than ten years old. According to the parish record of Stratfield, on 28 July, 1771, “Capt. John Burr, a farmer, son of…John Burr, was killed by lightning at the old Pequonnock meeting-house…. The congregation was standing in prayer. Parson Rose stopped praying, and after a pause he uttered the following words, ‘Are we all here?’ When the congregation moved out it was found that David Sherman and John Burr were dead. They were both in the prime of life, with families (the very pick of the flock). There was no rod on the steeple at that time.”
A mere five years thereafter, when the Revolution began, teenaged William Burr joined the Connecticut Militia, enlisting on 1 April, 1776. His pension files, included in the tome Revolutionary War Records of Fairfield, Connecticut, indicate that his postings were many and varied, and that he served for a time as a substitute for another man, Andrew Curtiss. One of Burr’s postings was to the “Battery at Black Rock,” or Black Rock Fort in New Haven, later Fort Nathan Hale. The Connecticut Sons of the American Revolution note, “Fort Hale is situated upon an insulated rock, two miles from the end of Long Wharf, New Haven…. The Americans [had] a battery of three guns upon this point, which greatly annoyed the enemy when landing.” Many years later, Aaron Turney of Fairfield attested that in 1779, Burr was 1st sergeant at the battery and second-in-command under Captain Jarvis. Burr appears to have left military service sometime in 1780.