Friday, October 3, 2014

An Imprudent Marriage: Sarah Stephenson (1782-1836)

Gravestone of Sarah Stephenson at St George's Anglican Church
Sometimes the most unassuming of gravestones leads to the most interesting of stories.

The gravestone in 1983
One such gravestone is found at St George's Anglican Church in St. Catharines, Ontario. Lying flat on the ground and almost completely obscured by grass, is the monument to Sarah Stevenson, wife of William Dummer Powell. Anyone familiar with the history of Upper Canada you will recognize the name. William Dummer Powell (1755-1834) was Chief Justice of Upper Canada from 1816 to 1825, and was also one of three judges at the Bloody Assize of 1814. He was a member of the York elite, a group usually referred to as the Family Compact. William Dummer Powell, however, did not have a wife named Sarah. This is the grave of his daughter-in-law, the wife of his son, William Dummer Powell (1778-1803). Her story is both romantic and tragic.

Sarah Stephenson (1782-1836) was the daughter of Captain Francis Stephenson (1750-1807), formerly of the Queen's Rangers, and his wife Eleanor Townsend (? -1830). After the American Revolution, Captain Stephenson initially settled in New Brunswick, but was later granted land in Louth Township, to the west of present-day St Catharines.

Where and how young William and Sarah met is uncertain, however, William's father and his wife Anne Murray (1755-1849), were not at all impressed with eighteen-year-old Sarah. Their disapproval resulted in an elopement. William and Sarah were married at Niagara on 25 Jul 1801 by Rev. Robert Addison.  In a letter from Queenston dated three days later, William thanked Robert Nelles of Grimsby and his wife for their help:

Dear Sir:—I should be unpardonable if I lost any time returning the hearty thanks which are so justly due from me to you for your kind and friendly assistance in rendering me one of the most happy of men. After leaving your house on Friday night we had as uncommonly fatiguing ride to Runchey's and arrived at Niagara on the following morning where, by Mr. Addison's assistance we were soon out of fear of pursuit. Mrs. Powell joins with me in her professions of gratitude to yourself and Mrs. Nelles and requests that you will take the trouble of apprising her sister, Ellen, of her love and obligations to her for the part she took in forwarded our escape. Believe me dear Sir, your obliged and obedient servant, W.D. Powell, Jr.
Portrait of Anne Powell, 1834
Justice Powell's biographer, William Reddick Riddle, described the "runaway marriage" as "one of the romances of the time." Anne Powell described it as marrying "imprudently." Ironically, Anne's marriage to William Dummer Powell Sr. had also been an elopement.

Sadly, the marriage between William and Sarah was not to last. William drowned on 29 Sep 1803.

William and Sarah had two daughters. Mary, likely born in 1802, and Anne, born after the death of her father. Sarah was considered unfit to raise the girls, so both were legally adopted by her husband's parents. In a letter Anne Powell wrote of Sarah: "Surely it is not unjust to say she feels not maternal affection. She left them without a tear." Sarah was, however, given an allowance of 25 pounds a year.

William and Anne Powell's concern for their grandchildren may have been justified. A few years later, in a letter to her brother, Anne wrote:
Her neglect even of her children would in any other character by surprising. Not a line has she written for months, & when she did write, no one was mentioned with any marks of an affectionate remembrance. Unfortunate marriage! In what difficulties has it involved me.
Unfortunately, we only have Anne Powell's side of the story. It is clear, however, that Anne wanted the best for her granddaughters, and that the best did not include their mother:
The children are better when she is at a distance. The imbecility of her mind prevents her from seeing what is best for them and produces frequent disgusts.
Years later another scandal arose. Sarah, now in her thirties, fell in love with young man of seventeen. She pursued him even after he rebuked her. He told her that she was old enough to be his mother, and that he hated her. Sarah's sister-in-law, Mary Powell, became involved and convinced Sarah to stop acting so foolishly.

Sarah lived quietly in St. Catharines for the rest of her life. She died at the age of 54 in 1836. It is likely that she was buried at the First Anglican Chapel Burial Grounds, but was later reinterred at St George's Anglican Church.


McKenna, Katherine. A Life of Propriety: Anne Murray Powell and Her Family, 1755-1849. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1994. Print.

Riddell, William Reddick. The Life of William Dummer Powell, First Judge at Detroit and Fifth Chief Justice of Upper Canada. Lansing: Michigan Historical Commission, 1924. Print.

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