In her novels, Isabella often wrote about the unique challenges of being a step-parent.
In By Way of the Wilderness, Wayne Pierson saw his new step-mother as an interloper and a rival for his father’s attention, causing much heart-ache for himself and his family.
Ruth Erskine, the main character in Ruth Erskine’s Crosses, disliked her step-mother to the point of being ashamed of her; and when Ruth later married a man with two daughters of his own (in Judge Burham’s Daughters), Ruth taught her step-children proper manners, but failed to address their spiritual needs.
Like all Isabella’s novels, By Way of the Wilderness and the Chautauqua Books were allegorical stories, written to convey specific messages and lessons about living the Christian life.
But what many people don’t know is that Isabella was herself a step-mother. When she married Gustavus “Ross” Alden in 1866, Ross had a ten-year-old daughter from his first marriage to Hannah Bogart.
Like Ross Alden’s family, Hannah’s ancestors were among the earliest emigrants to America; her ancestors arrived as far back as 1652 and settled the New Netherlands (now New York) in the time of Peter Stuyvesant.
Ross and Hannah met in New York and married when they were both in their early twenties. Nine months later, little Anna Maria Alden was born. Tragically, Hannah died just two months later.
Very few records exist to tell us how Ross coped with the daunting responsibility of raising an infant daughter after the death of his wife. We do know he stayed in New York, close to where Hannah’s family lived, and probably had much help from them. Census records show that by the time little Anna was four years old, she was living with her maternal grandparents, without Ross.
Three years after Hannah’s death, Ross made a decision that would influence the rest of his life. He “united with the Reformed Church in Richmond, Long Island”—the same church, which, for generations, had been the church of Hannah’s family—and he began laying the foundation for becoming a minister.
Ross was baptized, and a few months later his daughter Anna was baptized in the same church.
While Anna remained with her grandparents, Ross moved 300 miles away to begin studies at Auburn Theological Seminary. There he met Isabella Macdonald, who was visiting her sister Marcia and brother-in-law, Charles Livingston, who was also a theology student.
Ross and Isabella fell in love and married in 1866, the same year Ross graduated. The evening of their wedding day they boarded a train and left for Ross’s first church pastorate.
None of the records about that happy and blessed day mention whether Ross’s ten-year-old daughter Anna was at the wedding. Isabella’s good friend Theodosia Toll Foster was there, though, and that may have been the occasion when Theodosia and Anna met. Theodosia had younger sisters, the youngest of whom was just about Anna’s age.
Though we can’t be certain when exactly Theodosia and Anna met, but we do know that very soon after Ross and Isabella’s marriage, Anna went to live with Theodosia at the Toll homestead in Verona, New York.
While Ross and Isabella led an almost itinerant life, moving from one church to another every two or three years, Anna enjoyed a very stable home life with Theodosia and her sisters. They called Anna their “truly sister” and she quickly became a much-loved and integral member of the family.
When Anna was 16, she lived with Ross and Isabella in Cooperstown, New York, where they were in charge of yet another congregation. And when Ross and Isabella moved two years later to New Hartford, New York, Anna went with them … as did the entire Toll family. Theodosia, her elderly father and her younger sisters all moved to New Hartford. There Theodosia put her talents for teaching to good use. She and her sisters set up a boarding and day school, and their journals reveal that Anna helped run the enterprise.
By then, Ross and Isabella had a son (two-year-old Raymond), and Isabella’s mother and sister Julia were also living with them in New Hartford. It must have been wonderful to have had their large, extended family so close together again!
But their reunion didn’t last long. Within months, Ross received a call to minister at a church in Indiana. Once again he and Isabella left New York for a new city. This time, 20 year old Anna stayed behind with Theodosia.
There is only one other instance recorded of Anna living with Ross and Isabella. When the 1880 Federal Census was taken, Anna was 24 years old and the Census shows her living with Ross and Isabella in Cumminsville, Ohio (a suburb of Cincinnati), where Ross had a church. That same year, Alida, the youngest of Theodosia’s sisters, wrote in her journal that she was excited over an upcoming trip to visit Anna in her Ohio home.
Sometime after that visit in Cumminsville, Anna once again returned to New York to live with the Tolls. And when the Toll sisters closed their school in New Hartford and returned to their home town of Verona, New York, Anna went with them; and there she remained for the rest of her life.
In Verona Anna was a long-time member of the Presbyterian Church, and she was deeply involved in church matters. Friends described her as “a consistent Christian woman” who “won the sincere love and respect of all who knew her.
Anna was just 57 years old when she passed away from complications of pneumonia. Theodosia’s sister Eunice marked the sad day in her journal with the notation, “Our Anna died.”
Unfortunately for us, none of Isabella’s correspondence with Theodosia has ever been found, so we cannot know the initial reason Anna first went to live with the Toll family; but we do know, from records that do exist of her life, that no matter where Anna lived, she was very much loved by her family and community.
You can click on the links below to read previous posts about:
Ross Alden and his connection to the Mayflower
The day Isabella and Ross met
Isabella’s early years of marriage
Isabella’s friendship with Theodosia