For more than 40 years of her life (1862-1902), Ellen (Armstrong) Holt lived in South Hamilton, in Madison County, New York. Although a mostly residential area now, it was at the time a small but thriving commercial hub, with its own post office, a hotel, grocery store, school and church. It is situated on the slope of a hill in the southeast corner of the town of Hamilton, running down Williams Road to the intersection of South Hamilton Road. Ellen lived on the high side of South Hamilton, initially on the west side of Williams Road and later, on the east. (She later moved to another house, which she rented, while William remained in the family homestead.) A stream called Pleasant Brook flows along the bottom end of the hamlet, following South Hamilton Road. For many years, it powered a grist mill, where Ellen’s father worked.
Ellen was born in Oneida County, a few miles to the north of South Hamilton. As near as she could remember, she was born in May of 1833. Her parents, William and Sarah “Sally” (Nash) Armstrong, had thirteen children, at least eight of whom lived to adulthood. Sally’s parents came from Rhode Island in an ox cart; the mystery of William’s origins is still waiting to be discovered. The family lived in Oneida and Madison Counties, moving whenever William took a new job at a grist mill.
When she was about sixteen years old, Ellen married Curtis Holt. The Rev. Pindar Field of the Harmonia Church in the town of Marshall, Oneida County, performed the ceremony. Curtis was a little older than Ellen, about 23 years old when they married, and had emigrated to New York from England with his family. Ellen and Curtis initially set up housekeeping in Marshall, and their children, Caroline and William, were born in Oneida County. But when Curtis’ family moved to Wisconsin, Ellen and Curtis followed. Henry and Charles were both born there. The family eventually moved back to New York and settled in South Hamilton, where the youngest, Annetta, called Nettie, was born. (And where Caroline probably died, although the exact date is not known.)
On November 7, 1862, Curtis enlisted to fight in the Civil War. He was 38 years old, and did not have to enlist. He must have felt very strongly about the cause. Ellen could not stop him from enlisting, and his military pay allowed them to buy their little frame house on its half-acre. It cost $25, or roughly two months’ military pay. Curtis died April 16, 1863 in a Hospital on the Opelousas R. R. near La Fourche, Louisiana, of typhoid fever.
Without the house, it is hard to know what would have become of the Holt family after Curtis’ death. But losing him was a very high price to pay. Ellen was only thirty years old, and she had five children to support, but she managed to keep the family together after Curtis died. She had the house, and she applied for and received a widow’s pension. She worked at various jobs over the years. Jerome Holmes hired her to work in his cheese factory. Neighbors engaged her to help with household projects, such as hanging wallpaper. She was a very capable nurse, and whenever family members were sick, she would go and care for them. Hers was a loving, close-knit family; every year, the entire clan gathered at her house for the Christmas holidays.
In 1869, Ellen and her son William sold the house Curtis had bought just after he enlisted, for $150. A few months later, they purchased a new house, across the road from the first, and also on a half-acre of land. This house cost $450, it was almost certainly a step up from the first. Starting in April of 1863, Ellen received $8.00 per month from the government, plus an additional $2.00 per child until he or she turned sixteen years of age. If she saved most of that money, it would have enabled her to buy the new house in cash.
Ellen was incredibly generous with her time. In addition to helping our her family members when one of them was sick, she was also very active with the Willing Workers, a society that was associated with the Baptist Church in South Hamilton. The society would raise money for the less fortunate and help out neighbors who were ill or in need of support. For many years, she was the treasurer. Meetings were often held at her house and several of her children were also members.
On 18 February 1902, Ellen suffered a stroke while walking to the funeral of a neighbor, Mr. Jared Hyde. She died three days later, and was buried in Graham Cemetery in nearby Hubbardsville. Mr. Simons of the Baptist Church where she was a member officiated. The Willing Workers published resolutions of respect in the local newspaper. Her obituary sums it up nicely:
“No person could have passed away in this vicinity who would be missed more. If there was a sickness or death near by and help was needed, Mrs. Holt was always there and ready to help. …She actually died in the harness, trying to do good.”