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Sunday, June 08, 2003

Portrait of a young lady

Sabine Goerke-Shrode

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City founder’s niece found composition a chore, comfort

My last two columns have explored life at one of the academic institutions that was available to residents during the early days of Solano County settlement.

There is another private record of a young girl that has been preserved for us to enjoy. Her name is Cynthia Julia Frisbie, a niece to

Vallejo’s founder, General John Frisbie.

Cynthia Julia Frisbie was the oldest child of Edward Frisbie and Phoebe Ann Marie Klink Frisbie. She was born March 7, 1847 in Bethlehem, N.Y. Both her parents had been born and raised in Bethlehem as well.

The following year, 1848, Phoebe Ann joined her sister Cynthia. Nine brothers and sisters followed, their birthplaces chronicling the family’s move westward.

Bethlehem remained the family’s home until roughly 1850 when they moved to Syracuse, N.Y. Here the next four children were born, the last one, George Charles, on Oct. 4, 1855, just weeks before the family set out to relocate to California.

Edward’s older brother, John Frisbie, had come to California during the Mexican War. Eventually (and that is another story), General Vallejo deeded the town of Vallejo to John Frisbie on Dec. 9, 1854. John Frisbie and his wife, Epifania Vallejo, eldest daughter of General Vallejo, settled in Vallejo. Presumably John Frisbie encouraged his younger brother to follow him to California.

Edward Frisbie and his family, including 9-year-old Cynthia, arrived in Vallejo on New Year’s Day 1856.

From 1858 to 1859, Cynthia attended the Vallejo District School, after which she continued her education at the Benicia Young Ladies Seminary.

During her years at the Vallejo District School, she was required to write compositions, which she carefully kept in the form of a journal. This journal later was transcribed and a copy donated to the Vallejo Naval and Historical Museum.

Composition No. 8, written on Oct. 7, 1858 is an endearing look at the struggles the young writer had to go through to achieve her goal.

“How much trouble we do have in writing compositions. First our thoughts must be written down upon paper about the subject, whatever it may be, and then we have commenced, we have to stop and think a long time for something to write, and then, when it is finished, it may be that it is not very good, and we do not like to read it, but we have no time to write another, so we have to let it go and then we have to let it go and then we have to copy it off on another piece of paper.

“We get everything ready, but the paper we have forgotten; then we must jump up and get that; and then we commence writing, but my pen is bad and I cannot write well wit (sic) it; then I get up and look for another, but cannot find any. I have no more so I must write with the one I have. Then when I go to write, the first thing, I leave out a letter in spelling one of the words, I place the letter above, and then proceed, but I get too much ink on my pen and drop it off on my paper, and then there is a blot, but it is near the top of the page and so I can cut it off, but pretty soon I see another blot; I do not know how it got on, but there it is, and it can’t be helped; so that piece of paper will not do, and I have to take another, but as I go get it, I look at the clock and it is almost school time, and I have to get ready and do (sic) to School and leave my Composition till another morning; the next morning I go at it, and I have better success than before. I get it copied; but the writing does not look well enough and I determine to write it over; but how can I write well without a good pen? I get somebody to lend me one and get it copied once more but when I hear my sister read her compositions, it is so much better than mine, that I do not like to read it but I must, there is no help for that, but of course no one thinks mine is good by the side of her’s (sic), and I have made some mistakes with regard to the size of the things which my teacher very kindly tells me of but some of my schoolmates who know more about it than myself laugh at me and I feel very much ashamed. But after all the troubles and difficulties it is very useful in helping us to think, write, and be careful and attentive to what we are doing.”

The sister she compares herself to most likely was 10-year-old Phoebe Ann.

Of historic interest is Cynthia’s composition No. 11, dated Nov. 12, 1858. In it, she talks about a school excursion to observe the launch of the first ship to have been built at the newly established Mare Island Naval Shipyard. Once again it is written in a chatty style, meandering all over the place.

“The first ship ever built in California was launched yesterday. The school was invited by Mr. Hanscom to go over to the island to see it launched. We met at the schoolhouse, formed a line, and marched down two and two to the wharf, where we found two boats ready to take us over in.

“When we landed on the other side, we marched up to the carpenter shop, where we found two very nice swings. We all had a nice swing, walked about the room, and passed away the time doing something, which after all was nothing - but here, here I am telling all about everything but the ship launch; which is my subject.

“After we had been on the Island about half an hour, we went down near the place where the ship stood, and in about ten minutes it was launched. It looked very pretty as it slid down as smoothly as if it was upon the water. Its name is The Tousy. After it was launched we went back and enjoyed ourselves for a while and went home.”

The date of this Cynthia’s composition remains a puzzle. She described the launch of the Toucey, which took place on March 3, 1859, four month after the date of her composition. Most likely, some of her compositions were written later, recalling earlier events.

The Toucey was named after the Secretary of the Navy, Isaac Toucey who served in this capacity from 1857 to 1861. A few weeks after the launch, the 153-ton wooden-hulled, steam-powered side-paddle-wheeler with four guns was renamed the USS Saginaw.

A 1/4 scale model of the bow of USS Saginaw is displayed at the Vallejo Naval and Historical Museum.

Cynthia continued to struggle with her composition writing. In an entry dated to Feb. 4, 1859, she finally resorted to an attempt at poetry to get the task done:

“My composition is short,

Though I hope it is good,

As ‘tis that and no more

Above all that I would

Greatly desire,

“And that I also may please My kind teacher and friends, And their fears may appease Which perhaps they may have That I shall not Compose well.”

She also decorated the page with a colorful cut-out image of a butterfly. Unfortunately, she did not record how her teacher reacted to this submission.