BFFs at Oneida Seminary

Young Isabella Alden in an undated photo
Young Isabella Alden in an undated photo

For most of her young life, Isabella Alden was educated at home by her parents and an occasional tutor. But all that changed when she was about fourteen years old.  That’s when her parents enrolled her in Oneida Seminary in Oneida, New York.

The school was almost 80 miles away from her family’s home in Johnstown, New York; but that didn’t mean Isabella would be at the school alone.

Her older sister Marcia and Marcia’s husband Charles Livingston were also at Oneida Seminary. Marcia and Charles lived in apartments on the campus because Charles was a professor at the school; so Isabella had family close by.


Oneida Seminary
Oneida Seminary


At Oneida Seminary the male and female students were separated in their classrooms, study areas and living quarters; so making strong friendships with other female students would have been natural for Isabella. She often crossed paths with Theodosia Toll, who was called Docia. Docia was one of the most popular girls at Oneida Seminary. Her family owned a large farm called Locust Shade about 7 miles away in nearby Verona, New York.

Docia was three years older than Isabella. She was a better scholar, too. She had a reputation for being keen and quick-witted, good-humored and kindly. Everyone thought well of her.

Undated photo of Theodosia Toll
Undated photo of Theodosia Toll


Knowing Isabella was far from her family home, Docia invited her to spend her weekends at Locust Shade but Isabella always refused the invitation. Isabella wrote in “Memories of Yesterdays”:

“I had taken a great dislike to that girl in the earliest days of our acquaintance. . . I avoided her on every occasion possible and declined her invitations for the weekends so haughtily that I wonder she ever asked me again.”

One day Isabella went out of her way to avoid Docia by visiting her sister Marcia in her apartments. She didn’t hold back in complaining to Marcia about “that insufferable girl,” Docia.

Undated photo of Charles Livingston
Undated photo of Charles Livingston


“If she ever asks me again to go home with her for over Sunday, I’m going to tell her that it takes all the skill I have to invent ways of escaping her society here, and I can’t be expected to follow her home, even though it would be a treat under pleasanter conditions to have a ride.”

Charles had been in the next room and overheard everything Isabella said.

“What a foolish girl you are,” he said almost sadly. “I was saying to Marcia this morning that I could not imagine why you had taken such a dislike to Docia. She is the best scholar in her class, and every teacher in the school speaks highly of her. Certainly her character is above reproach. As for her family, if you knew them you would consider it an honor to be invited to their home. I should.”

After Charles’s scolding—and much prayer and soul searching—Isabella realized why she disliked Docia . . . she was jealous of her!

“My aroused conscience showed me just where I stood. Faint and faulty as were the proofs of it in my life, I knew even then that I belonged to the Lord Jesus Christ; and He came graciously to my help at that hour and showed me plainly not only how offensive in his sight had been my attitude, but also how I had misjudged the other girl.”

The next time Docia invited Isabella to go home with her for the weekend, Isabella accepted. Three weeks later she drove in the Toll family carriage with her new friend Docia to Locust Shade, where she was made a welcome addition to the family. After that first visit, Isabella spent many weekends and school vacations at Locust Shade.

Greeting the Guest by Edward Lamson Henry
Greeting the Guest by Edward Lamson Henry


That was the beginning of Isabella’s lifelong friendship with Docia Toll. In later years they would both marry, have families of their own, and move away to different parts of the country; but they remained fast friends and confidants who loved each other and collaborated in creating short stories and novels that bore witness to God and their Christian faith.

Who is the Tallest? by Jerry Garrett
Who is the Tallest? by Jerry Garrett

11 thoughts on “BFFs at Oneida Seminary

  1. Thank you for this lovely post. Reading Isabella’s books I would not have thought she would be jealous, but I forget she was a child at one time!

  2. Reblogged this on faithdp24 and commented:
    The thing that really spoke to me here was the fact that Isabella admits her jealousy to the Lord and then accepts the friendship which would prove to be a lifelong one. How often we might miss some of the Lord’s richest blessings in our lives because of the wrong attitude about one person/thing.

    1. Isabella was an acknowledged expert in teaching Sunday school for the “Primary Class.” She wrote:

      “I think, as a general rule, a primary class proper should be composed of only those scholars who cannot read. This rule, however, is subject to endless variations according to locality and previous advantages. There are some little wonders who read well at six and seven who nevertheless ought to be trained in a primary-class; and I have met with girls and boys of fair judgment and of nearly- or quite medium-size who nevertheless were very poor readers.”

    2. I found a copy of Isabella’s memoir, Memories of Yesterday, at my local library. The book is still under copyright, so there’s no free on-line version of it that I’m aware of. —Jenny

  3. So does primary mean first grade? Was the Young Ladies Institute she went to a teacher’s college? How does one find a copy of Docia’s stories?

    1. Great questions, Kayla! In Isabella’s time, primary classes were composed of children who could not yet, or were just learning to, read. Typically, children in primary classes were aged 5, 6 and 7 years. Isabella said: “There are some little wonders who read well at six and seven who nevertheless ought to be trained in a primary-class, and I have met with girls and boys of fair judgment and of nearly or quite medium size who nevertheless were very poor readers.”

      Oneida Seminary (which Isabella attended as a student and returned to as a teacher) provided a general course of education leading to graduation and diploma for male and female students. The seminary also had a program for preparing students to be teachers; that program was limited and accepted only about 20 students. So far I haven’t been able to find any record that specifically states Isabella was enrolled in the teacher program, but I’m still looking!

      Lastly, you asked about Docia’s books. They are extremely hard to find. The majority of her books were published by The National Temperance Society or The Western Tract Society. Both publishers often produced paper-bound books (similar to tracts) instead of hard-cover books, so many of her novels did not survive. Theodosia Toll Foster wrote under the pen-name Faye Huntington. Her book Echoing and Re-echoing was part of Isabella’s Ester Ried Series; you can find the entire series on Amazon and iTunes. She also co-authored co-authored From Different Standpoints with Isabella (available on Amazon). Her novel Transformed is also on Amazon.

      If you’d like to learn more about Docia, I have an upcoming post planned for later this year, which will go into Docia’s life after leaving Oneida Seminary. She experienced a life-changing event that convinced her to pick up her pen and write novels with her friend Isabella. Please subscribe to this blog or follow it on Facebook or Twitter so you don’t miss it. Thanks again for your questions! —Jenny

  4. Thank you. I only asked because it says she was a primary school teacher and her careers interest me. I want to make her a role model.

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