Monday, November 16, 2009

Anson Colman - farm boy to world traveler

Anyone who does genealogical research knows that we are often nudged from the "great beyond." It doesn't seem too far fetched to believe that our ancestors want us to know them better. One day while I was roaming the stacks in the DuBois Library at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, I reached for a book published by the Rochester Historical Society. There was no reason to expect I had family in Rochester, but in that book were transcriptions of several letters from my 3 x great uncle, Anson Colman, son of Samuel who is profiled below. Personal letters are so...personal! What a great way to feel closer to people who lived so long ago.

Anson Colman
was born in Springfield, NY on 17 March on 1795. He was the first child of Samuel Colman and Nabby Dole who had come west from Shelburne, MA to Stewart’s Patent shortly after their marriage in 1794. His brothers were born in the following years: Franklin in 1797, Horace in 1800, Homer in 1802, Hamilton in 1804. Then came his only sister Caroline in 1806, followed by Nelson in 1807, Charles Darwin after 1810 and Parker Dole Colman in 1813.

Although his father was a progressive farmer and active in local organizations, Anson did not follow this path. He received his initial medical training under Dr. Palmer at Richfield Springs, NY, beginning his apprenticeship when he was about 17. He settled in Rochesterville in 1817 and attended lectures at the Fairfield medical school. He established himself in medical practice, and reportedly also ran a pharmacy to supplement his income.

He married Catherine Kimball Rochester on a Wednesday evening, 8 December 1819. She was 20 and he was 24. Catherine's father, Nathaniel Rochester, was one of the original proprietors of the village, which became the City of Rochester, NY. The marriage was officiated by the Rev. Mr. Welton, according to the Rochester Telegraph newspaper.

He was 25 when he first became a father. Their five children were:

  1. Sophia E. Colman, born 19 January 1821, who would marry John VanEverie when she was 23, and die 26 November 1845, just two years after the birth of her only child Catherine in Ohio;
  2. Katherine Rochester Colman, born 27 December 1823, who would later marry at 22 to Charles Shepard with whom she had five children, and died 20 May 1902 in Seattle, WA;
  3. William Colman, born 30 May 1826, died as an infant 15 January 1828;
  4. Edward Colman, born 28 July 1828, married Susan Phillips when he was 22 and had three children, and died 4 September 1898 in Sheboygan, MI;
  5. Cornelia Colman, born 9 June 1830, married at 23 to Edward Stuyvesant Bragg with whom she had six children, and died 11 April 1914.

Anson was not satisfied to be a country doctor. He studied medicine in Boston, Philadelphia, London, and Paris, seeking to improve himself with the latest technology of the time. He also participated in the formation of the Monroe County Medical Society. A collection of letters between Anson and his wife during these medical sojourns are contained in the Special Collections of the University of Rochester. In the winter of 1825 he wrote to his wife from Boston, where he was attending lectures at the Harvard medical school and studying at the new Massachusetts General Hospital. At that time there were few hospitals, excepting facilities set up during epidemics, and studying in this setting was invaluable to gain experience in disease and surgical techniques. Their separation was believed to be necessary to the advancement of his career, but difficult on a personal level. At that time they had two young daughters. When he said his infrequent letters were a result of little on his mind except medicine, Catherine pointedly replied, referring to herself in the third person:

  • "At all events she will try the experiment if you will write for her improvement, and fill your letters with something let the subjects be what they will (those connected with your profession if you choose, Anatomy, Surgery, medical Jurisprudence or Chemistry (you will now laugh). While writing on this subject let me remind you of an opinion you once gave in favor of females, which was that you believed they possessed capacities for intellectual improvement fully equal to the other sex."

His January 1825 letter said, "remember what I have said to you about diet exercise etc." He said that his "eyes much stronger than they have been in three years no rheumatism nor quinsy thus far." He was expecting to be home by 22 February.

Anson’s first son, William lived only 19 months from 1826–8. Six months after William’s death, another son, Edward, was born.

Tragedy again struck on 2 July 1830 when Anson’s brother Parker drowned in the Genesee River at the age of 17. In an undated letter to his father Samuel, Parker speaks of his studies of Greek and Latin and it is unclear if he was in Rochester or elsewhere to attend school.

Late in 1831 Anson was in Philadelphia studying at the University of Pennsylvania medical school. There, he earned his degree, after being engaged in medicine for 15 years. He lived in Philadelphia with a French family to learn the language in preparation for further study. In 1832 he went to Montreal to learn the proper treatment for cholera. In 1833 he was in France, the then world center for hospital-based teaching. His stethoscope may have been the first one in Rochester, a French innovation.

He lectured for two years at the Geneva Medical College between 1834-1836. According to a history of Psychiatry at the Upstate Medical University, which took over the Geneva College, “the treatment of psychiatric patients was first included as an aspect of the ‘Medical Jurisprudence’ course taught by Anson Colman, MD, a botanist.” Catherine died 7 April 1835 when she was only 36. He was reportedly ill himself during his tenure at the Medical College and died 17 July 1837 of a ruptured aortic aneurysm.

According to an article in “Rochester History” July 1945 by Alice T. Sutton entitled “Private Libraries in Rochester,” the inventory of his library at his death contained 278 books and an additional 148 medical texts. They included books of history, literature and languages: Greek, French, Latin, German and Italian. His medical collection later went to the library at Geneva College of Medicine, which is now Upstate Medical at Syracuse.

Anson and Catherine are buried in Mount Hope cemetery in Rochester with their son William. What became of the other children? Did they reside in Geneva with their father after their mother’s death? Anson wrote his will in April of 1837, naming his brother-in-laws Thomas H. Rochester the guardian of his children Sophia (16) and Edward (9), and Henry E. Rochester guardian of Catherine (14) and Cornelia (7). The will refers to real estate and investments, which assumed the education of the children would be well taken care of.

Anson’s parents survived for 20 years after his death, but it is not known if his children had contact with them. The 1840 census does not include names of individuals, only their sex and age. In the 1850 census none of Anson’s children are listed with their guardians, but Cornelia, the youngest, would have been 20 by then. Sophia’s daughter Catherine VanEvery was, however, residing in the household of Thomas Rochester in 1850 after the death of her mother.


  1. May 8, 2010


    My wilfe Nancy is related to Edward Colman, son of Anson. I have done much research on Edward and those who followed from his line. I have found little before his marriage and emigration to Wisconsin. Do you know anything of his education? I do know he worked on the Erie Canal as an engineer before leaving for Wisconsin and briefly worked again on an extension to the canal when he was living in Wisconsin. If you want I can send information on Edward. Please let me know. I enjoyed very much you labor of love on this subject. Many thanks and I hope to hear from you. Regards,
    Mike Dunphy, Chesterfield, Missouri. Email me at

  2. Sara:

    I wrote you on 5/8/10 and neglected to mention we have Anson's diploma from the University of Pennsylvania Medical School (1832) and all of Edward's Civil War commissioning documents, 1ST LT, 18th Wisconsin, 1ST LT. Adjutant, LT. Col. 49th Wisconsin, Col. 49th Wisconsin, Mustering out document from St. Louis (1865). I can provide digital pictures if you want.

    Mike Dunphy