STORIES FROM THE ATTIC: Carpet bag tells story of immigrants
October 6, 2017


BLUE MOUNTAIN LAKE - The Adirondack Experience museum owns an early 19th century carpet bag that helps tell the story of an immigrant couple and their ties to a well-known family in Elizabethtown.

Vermont native Augustus C. Hand moved to Elizabethtown in 1831 and soon became the region's top lawyer. Eventually, he served in the U.S. Congress and New York State Senate before becoming a prominent judge. At some point before 1842, he began teaching law to an English immigrant, Hugh Evans.

The Hand family embraced Hugh, his wife Anne Fenton Evans and their young daughter Emily Anne. Yet Hugh would never reach his potential as a lawyer; he died unexpectedly in March 1842 at the age of 28. Anne soon moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, along with her daughter and a carpet bag she'd brought with her from the old country.

"You've all heard the term carpetbaggers," said Adirondack Experience Chief Curator Laura Rice, "meaning people who aren't from here but who sort of come to a place to settle, and this is a really great example of that. This is a gladstone-style bag. It was made out of Brussels carpet, which is a very durable material."

The museum's records aren't clear on Anne's home country. Rice said it could be either Ireland or England. However, Emily's obituary in the April 4, 1901 issue of the Elizabethtown Post & Gazette makes it clear that her father had roots in England. Hugh's "descent may be traced, on his mother's side, from Dunster, of Dunster Castle, Somersetshire, England, upon whom that seat was bestowed in the time of William the Conquerer, 'for deeds of arms.'" Wherever Anne and Hugh moved from, it's clear that the carpet bag also made the journey across the Atlantic Ocean.

"This is something she would have brought with her," Rice said. "And it's not too big by today's standards. It's maybe carry-on luggage size. But she probably didn't have a whole lot more to bring over, so I would imagine most of her worldly possessions fit right into this bag."

This is not the kind of bag shoppers would find today in stores such as Target or Wal-Mart.

"It's very colorful," Rice said. "It has red and peach-colored big flowers on it. It's actually kind of attractive. What's really neat is that on the bottom, someone has hand painted borders of these lovely flowers and vines, and then right down the middle it says 'Mrs. A. F. Evans.'"

The inside of the bag is intact, and it has two compartments.

"What's kind of nice is that where the handles attach, you can see these little heart-shaped stitches to stitch everything down," Rice said. "The inside looks like it is made out of some sort of polished cotton. ... It has a divider with a metal piece that sort of can lock one side in. So if there is something that you don't want rolling around or possibly popping out as the bag is being carried, you can fold it in one direction or the other."

The bag is about two feet wide and one and a half feet tall. It could possibly hold a couple of bowling balls inside.

"And a pair of shoes," Rice added.

The museum acquired the carpet bag from the Hand House in Elizabethtown, which is currently a part of the Hand-Hale Historic District.

"The Hand family was a very prosperous family of lawyers and judges, and we think that Anne Evans came to work for them, most likely," Rice said. "We think she died about 1861, so she wasn't here very long, but she left a young daughter named Emily, who was taken in by the family."

According to Emily's obituary, Anne and Emily "found sympathizing friends" in Elizabethtown after Hugh's death, which came 12 days before the death of Anne's 10-month-old son Fenton. Their friends' "homes were opened to them."

After a time, Anne found work in Philadelphia, where she lived until her death in 1861 at the age of 43. Emily moved there as well, "receiving a fine education," but moved back to Elizabethtown in 1861, a time when Augustus C. Hand's second daughter was about to be married and leave home. Emily brought her mother's carpet bag with her.

"I imagine she kept it for sentimental value," Rice said. "She may have used it on occasion. But it was definitely something she did not discard because it was still in the house when we acquired it."

When Emily moved back to Elizabethtown, she was taken in by Augustus C. Hand and embraced by the family for the rest of her life. She continued to live with the family even after Judge Hand died in 1878, staying with his son Richard L. Hand, who was only two years younger than Emily. She essentially became a member of the Hand family, "as fully as if united by ties of blood," according to her obituary.

Rice said she likes the story of the carpet bag because it helps tell the history of immigration at a time when New York and the United States were growing.

"We're a nation of immigrants, and this area, the Adirondacks Park, is also a place where people came from somewhere else," Rice said. "It's just a really neat story of this woman. We don't know too much about her, but she probably left behind everything that was familiar and came to this strange place and was embraced by a family who took her daughter in after her death. And I just think that's a really wonderful story about community and caring and sometimes what happens when you take a big leap of faith."

Emily died on March 20, 1901 at the Hand House at the age of 63. Three days later, she was buried next to her parents and brother at the Riverside Cemetery in Elizabethtown, a short distance from the graves of Augustus C. Hand and his extended family.


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