-- documents Feed--
-- All of Bhamgov Feed --

Prindles Go Everywhere Together: Margaret, Olive and Mariah

Print this page
Text resize increase font size decrease font size
Margaret, Olive and Mariah Prindle were three sisters who really did everything together-including moving out to the middle of nowhere. When Margaret and her husband, John West Hunter, moved to what would become Birmingham in 1819 they also brought his parents, and siblings along with Margaret’s unmarried sisters. Theirs is a story of love, marriage and family in the early 1800s.
Special thanks to the Birmingham Area Cable Board for PEG grant funding that made this podcast possible.

Transcript, Maps, Graves and Tours

Episode Transcript
Prindles Go Everywhere Together
    In our old school tour program, we asked our second graders to tell us the names of Birmingham’s “founders”. But, as we mentioned last episode, Benjamin Pierce didn’t even live here and the other three brought wives, relatives and children with them. And they all helped found the community just as much, if not more so, than the men did. So why don’t we ask kids to remember their names? This episode we’ll discuss three of those unnamed women-Margaret, Olive and Mariah Prindle.
    This is Birmingham Uncovered, a podcast by the Birmingham Museum, where we are exploring the diverse and compelling lives that built Birmingham Michigan into the community that it is today. First, some background on Birmingham: we are a city of approx. 20,000 people over 4.73 square miles, approximately halfway between Detroit and Pontiac in Oakland County. This area was occupied by members of the Three Fires Confederacy of Indigenous People before white settlement in the area started in the late 1810s. Birmingham became a city in 1933 and today is known as a prosperous and multi-faceted community with a thriving cultural scene.
    In our current interpretive plan for the Hunter House, the oldest house in Birmingham and Oakland County which forms part of the Birmingham Museum, we considered the things that we traditionally didn’t talk about when leading tours of the house. The Hunter House is a small frontier  home built in 1822 for the Hunter Family, which we use to interpret what life might have been like for the Hunter family in the first decade or so of their lives in the wilderness of Oakland County with furnishings of the time period. 
    Like most museums, we periodically review our plan of how we interpret the past within our museum spaces and exhibits. We consider things like what our audience wants and needs, new information that has come up either about the historical individuals or the structure itself, etc. For example, we recently had some of the interior trim of the Hunter House analyzed to see what historical paint colors were on the walls in the past and we had the interior of the house repainted accordingly.
    Traditionally in the Hunter House we talked a lot about John West Hunter, a War of 1812 veteran who purchased land in 1818 what would become Birmingham, his work as a blacksmith, where his family came from, etc. But it’s always a useful exercise to think about what we don’t talk about. John West moved to his land with a wife, a brother and a sister, his mother and father and 3 children. We know the names of his brother, mother and father but who were the others? Did we even know his wife’s name?
    Who we do or do not recognize as being historically important can tell us a lot about the biases we hold now and what ones were held in the past. In a culture where, even today, the contributions of women to the home and family happen in the background and can be taken for granted, the woman who was “just a housewife” isn’t seen as being as important as a blacksmith or a banker. Even though we can all admit that somebody had to cook all day to put food on the table, clothes on backs, potty train and educate the children, spin the wool, etc.
     And if even relatively privileged women, like the white Protestant educated women who moved with their families to Birmingham in the early 1800s were relegated to nameless background characters, so much more so were members of racial, religious or ethnic minorities. 
    Margaret Prindle married John West Hunter at some point before 1812. Margaret Prindle was the second eldest of six children born to Sarah Crofford and Michael Prindle on December 16, 1795. The Prindles traced their ancestry back to a Scottish man who settled in what would become the United States in 1654. 
    Though her mother was born and raised in New York City, by the time Margaret was born, the family was living in a newly established frontier village of Brookfield, Connecticut. More frontier town than the town from Gilmore Girls. So early on Margaret and her sisters were used to living and working in the middle of nowhere.
    Unfortunately, like John West and Margaret’s exact wedding date, we don’t know much about their early marriage. John West fought in the War of 1812 and seemed to have also married and fathered children during that time. John West and Margaret’s first child, Harriet, was born in 1812 in New York. The next child, Huldah (possibly named for John West’s mother) was born in 1816, also in New York.
    Family records show that that Margaret was 17 at the birth of her first child. It is a historical misconception that women married very young in the past. Throughout US history, the age does go up and down slightly depending on factors like what the economy was doing, cultural and religious motivations, etc. but it really doesn’t change drastically. The average age of first marriage for a woman in Margaret’s time was around 21 and 22, making Margaret a young bride even by early 1800s standards (for comparison, in 2010 the average age for a first marriage for women in the US was 26).
    We do know that Margaret was about 5 months pregnant during the family’s trip west to Michigan in 1818, as she gave birth to her third child, Sarah Ann, in Detroit in the fall after arriving there in July via schooner. 
    And if traveling via sailboat while heavily pregnant with two young children under six sounds like a nightmare, it probably was. Even today, traveling with young children under the best of conditions can be incredibly exhausting and it is always nice to have reinforcements around. 
    Thankfully, Margaret had that.  If you are of a certain age, your ideas of what moving west in the 1800s looked like comes from media like Little House on the Prairie or Oregon Trail. They cemented the image of folks moving west in nuclear families: a married heterosexual couple and their 2-5 biological children. But in an age before phones, telegrams or reliable mail service, moving to the frontier meant possibly never seeing family or friends again. It could also be a lonely and scary experience not to mention a ton of hard work-building a shelter from scratch for starters. It made sense then, to move with several extended family members if you could.
    When Margaret and John West moved to the Michigan Territory, to what would one day become Birmingham, they came with John West’s sister, brother, mother and father along with Margaret’s two younger and unmarried sisters. Because no matter how cool your mother in law or sister in law is, sometimes you just wanna vent about your husband to somebody who isn’t directly related to him and is one your side. Mariah and Olive Prindle would have helped with childcare and housekeeping as well. 
    In 1818, Olive was 16 and Mariah was 15. 
    While in Detroit the family met John Hamilton, who had previously mustered out of the army after serving in the War of 1812. He was sometimes referred to as “colonel” but we aren’t sure if that was his actual rank or just a fun nickname. 
    On July 18, 1818 John Hamilton and Olive Prindle were married in Detroit, very shortly after the Prindles and Hunters arrived in the city. It is possible that John West Hunter and John Hamilton knew each other previously, having met during the war but it’s also entirely likely that sometimes life moves fast and when you meet that special person you gotta lock them down fast. Teenage hormones remain the same across centuries.
    In December of 1818, John Hamilton and John West Hunter both purchased plots of land next to each others at the midway point between Detroit and Pontiac along the Saginaw Trail. A journey along the freeway that today takes 40 minutes, took two days at that time and travelers had to stop in the middle for rest, food and something to drink. The Hunter and Hamilton families both cashed in on these travelers. The Hunters rented out the front bedroom of their home by the night and had a liquor license (because sometimes after a hard day on the trail you need something stiffer than water to revive you). John Hamilton owned the 1810s and 1820s equivalent of 4 Men and a Truck, which was 1 dude and an ox cart and he also owned a tavern.
    Sidenote: You’ll sometimes see Birmingham referred to as “Piety Hill” in old documents and some have postulated that the area had a lot of churches. I counter that it was a sarcastic name because the village had a lot of taverns. Elijah Willits, who is our fourth first landowner also had a tavern. This makes the 1970s controversy over the city finally allowing restaurants to sell liquor by the glass deeply hilarious. 
    By the 1820 census both Olive and John Hamilton are living on their land in Birmingham next to Margaret and John West and their children and they have one daughter, Elvira. One source suggest that Elvira was born in Birmingham which would make her the first white child born here.
    The 1820 census for the Hamilton family shows one white male between the ages of 26-44, which is John, one white female between the ages of 16-25, Olive, and one white female under ten, Elvira. It is unknown where Mariah, the third Prindle sister was at this time. Was she bouncing between Margaret and Olive’s homes?
    Mariah presents a historical mystery as well. On later census records, family records and others her name is always given as Mariah and occasionally Maria, though probably still pronounced Mariah. Her gravestone has another name, Sarah  and some documents of unknown origin at the museum list her as Sarah as well. It took awhile before we could confidently connect Mariah, Maria and Sarah. Her full name was Mariah Sarah and as often in families that reuse the same names every generation, she may have used the name Sarah during her life as a way to distinguish herself from the other Mariahs in the family. This episode we call her Mariah simply because that’s the name found on the majority of the documentation and we don’t have anything from the woman herself stating what she preferred to be called.
    All we know is that at some point before November 25, 1823, Mariah married Daniel Hunter, John West’s brother. On that date the couple’s first child, Cornelia Jane, was born. While we have a cultural conception that folks in the past were more circumspect and moral than we are today and that might make us want to backdate Mariah and Daniel’s wedding at least 9 months, it’s a simple truth that premarital sex and shotgun marriages existed in the past as well. Mariah was the oldest out of the three sisters at the birth of her first child though, she was about 20 in November of 1823. And she had the fewest recorded children, only three.
    Mariah also lived the furthest away after her marriage. Daniel and his father, Elisha, had a farm in what is today Southfield, Michigan. In 1828, Daniel got a government position at Fort Dearborn in Chicago and the family moved there, returning to Birmingham village in 1836 where they moved into a brick home on Hamilton Street, named after their brother-in-law John Hamilton. The home was reportedly the first brick house in the village and was given to their eldest daughter, Cornelia as a wedding gift years later. 
    So much of what we know about these women’s’ lives we can only piece together through when and where their children were born. And sometimes, we don’t even have that. Like marriage records, birth records are pretty spotty from this time period. Births took place in the family home, not in hospitals, and births were recorded in family, not governmental, documents. Oftentimes, miscarriages, stillbirths and children who died shortly after birth simply weren’t written down or those records haven’t survived. 
    Take Olive Prindle Hamilton, for example, we have six recorded children born to her but it is possible she had a few more whose births were simply not recorded or whose records do not survive.
    With six confirmed and possibly a few more, Olive had the most children. She also died first out of the sisters, in 1845 at the age of 43. And here we perhaps get the most intimate look at who Olive was. We don’t have any writings from her, no letters or diaries survive and we only have one written record of how her loved ones viewed her and it’s from the inscription on her gravestone.
“We have traveled long together
Hand in hand and heart to heart
Both in fair and stormy weather
And ‘tis hard, ‘tis hard to part.
While I sigh farewell to you
Answer one and all adieu”

    It’s one of the longest inscriptions on a gravestone in Birmingham’s Greenwood cemetery and is a testament, perhaps, to the love between Olive Prindle and John Hamilton, the couple who married within a few days to a few weeks of meeting each other in July, 1818. John Hamilton would go on to marry two more times and have at least 12 children. As mentioned in a previous episode, societal roles at that time assigned men to work and women to the care of children, and coupled with the few legal ways for women, whether single, married or widowed to earn an income, folks tended to remarry quickly if they had young children out of necessity. 
    Olive’s sister Margaret died in 1856 and was also buried in Greenwood Cemetery, next to Olive. In Birmingham she and John West had three more children: Amanda, John James and Mary for a total of six children. 
    Mariah, the youngest Prindle sister died in 1866. 

    What was it like to live in Birmingham back when it was the middle of nowhere? With few other families nearby, the only safety net these women would have had was each other. We can imagine that they nursed each other when ill, helped out with each other’s chores and big seasonal harvests, helped each other in childbirth and so much more. We have references to Margaret Prindle Hunter sewing baby clothing that she traded or gave away to the Native American families in the area. In the 1820s and ‘30s one could still encounter Native peoples using the Saginaw Trail, a trail originally carved out by their ancestors over 10,000 years ago and camping nearby. 
    And there were dangers. While the eldest Prindle sister, Margaret, grew up on the frontier in the east and may have known how to use those native plants for food and medicines as well as basic survival skills, conditions in the Midwest were different and may have introduced new dangers. As parents know, young kids will put anything into their mouths, even deadly animals or toxic plants. Early settlers learned how to protect themselves against the Eastern massasauga snake, a highly venomous species found in the Midwest, from the Native Americans in the area who knew the snake and its habits. Since the snake’s fangs are quite short, weaving a layer of grasses around your lower legs would prevent its fangs from piercing the skin beneath. 
    Childhood diseases carried off lots of children as well. In 1800, 49% of children didn’t live to see their fifth birthday. And in small homes where children shared rooms and beds, it was impossible to quarantine a sick child away from their healthy siblings, meaning that disease and death could spread through a home quickly.
    All three Prindle women survived the births of their children, no mean feat in the early 1800s when upwards of 500 women out of 100,000 died during the birthing process. Infection (we didn’t yet even have antibiotics), hemorrhage and complications like babies being in the breech position were among the most common killers of women during childbirth. 
    And just like people today, they might have feared crime. All three sisters were in the area when Imri Fish killed Polly and Cynthia Utter, who he was boarding with (for more on this crime and how it impacted the community listen to our first episode). Did Margaret view all potential boarders and travelers who rented out their front bedroom with greater suspicion? Did Mariah come from her farm in Southfield to join her sisters as they prepared burial shrouds for Polly and Cynthia?
    But though they knew dangers that we aren’t acquainted with today, they also knew similar joys. They knew what it was like to lean on family while raising children, of watching much-loved siblings walk down the aisle and start lives of their own, and haven’t we all fallen in love at 16 and thought “yep, I’m gonna marry this guy”? 
    Though the Prindle sisters don’t have streets named after them and we don’t ask Birmingham’s schoolkids to remember their names, the sisters built Birmingham as much as their husbands did. They helped run the family businesses and farms, connected families through intermarriage and raised the next generation of Birminghamsters. Margaret, Olive and Mariah were vital to the growth and success of the community. They brought their values of education and hard work along with family loyalty.
    Join us next week for another story of an early Birminghamster whose name you might not know. And what a name it is. Ziba Swan was a surgeon during the War of 1812- a time when germ theory was decades away from being discovered and accepted so what exactly did the practice of medicine look like during the early 1800s? And what does a battlefield surgeon get up to during peacetime?
    To see the Hunter House in person as well as some artifacts relating to the Hunter and Hamilton families, come visit the museum! We are open Tues-Saturdays from 1-4 pm for tours of the Hunter House. To watch a video tour of the house or to see a map of early land purchases in the area, or to get a walking tour of Greenwood Cemetery check out our website, link in shownotes. The tours are also available on our app, just search for the Birmingham Museum in your app store. For questions or comments, you can reach us at museum@bhamgov.org.
    I’m Caitlin Donnelly and thank you for joining us for this episode of “Birmingham Uncovered”. Special thanks to the Birmingham Area Cable Board for PEG grant funding that made this podcast possible. Also thanks to past and present staff of the Birmingham Museum. If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, feel free to rate and review us on whatever app you listen on.
First Four Landowners Map
Original Land Purchases Map
Video Tour of the Hunter House
Kent Lund's "The Collectors" filmed this tour of the Hunter House in April 2019. Take a tour of the oldest house in Oakland County from the comfort of your own home
Greenwood Cemetery Pioneer Walking Tour
Take a self guided tour of historic Greenwood Cemetery, including The Hamilton and Hunter Families!
Olive Hamilton's Find a Grave Page
Check out Olive Hamilton's gravesite, including the inscription on her gravestone here
Podcast Player