Commonplace
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www.common-place.org · vol. 5 · no. 3 · April 2005
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Martha L. Brogan
Family Values
Lessons in material culture
Part I | II | III

Give me the death of those
Who for their country die;
And, O! be mine like their repose,
When cold and low they lie!

In kind embrace our mother earth
Enshrines the fallen brave;
In her sweet lap, who gave them birth,
They find a tranquil grave.
                               A Soldier

—From John J. P. Blinn, "The Citizen Soldier," Wabash Monthly (1860)

I.

As a research librarian for the past twenty years, I have often envied the scholar who made a serendipitous discovery in the stacks—a stash of historic letters tucked inside a book, an adventurer’s lost diary, a rare book shelved alongside the ordinary. Little did I imagine that a chain of such discoveries would occur in my own life when six months after my mother’s death I traveled from my home in New Haven, Connecticut, back to Chagrin Falls, Ohio, to spend a week with my father organizing family memorabilia.

Starting in the dining room, I stared blankly at the large gold-framed portrait of a young woman. Although I had walked past her a hundred times, I had never stopped to ask, "Who is she, the woman with knotted braids gracing her rose-tinted cheeks?"

My father—approaching his eightieth birthday—was eager to put grief behind him and start anew. Feeling blessed by the prospect of good health and new friendships, he wanted to disencumber himself of the family possessions that my mother had carefully shepherded back and forth across the country as the family trailed my father in the corporate chain of transfers. With the seventh move and the addition of my deceased grandmother’s "treasures," my parents settled for their last twenty years in a historic residence—an enlarged country schoolhouse situated on the edge of the Cat’s Den, a small grotto that according to local legend was the haunt of wild cats. While my father looked to the future, I delved into the past.

Starting in the dining room, I stared blankly at the large gold-framed portrait of a young woman. Although I had walked past her a hundred times, I had never stopped to ask, "Who is she, the woman with knotted braids gracing her rose-tinted cheeks?" She had hung there since my grandmother’s death twenty years ago, and perhaps I had been told who she was, but I never paid any attention. "She may not have been a relative," my father observed. "I don’t think Nancy even knew for sure." Of course she did know, having inherited the painting from her mother, but now I would have to make that discovery on my own.

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Fig. 1. Dorothea Froment Blinn (1812-90), unsigned oil on canvas, c. 1837. Thirty-by-twenty-five-inch image; four-inch, gold-leaf frame. Photograph courtesy of the author, original in private family collection.

After several days of cleaning and sorting, I came across a box of my grandmother’s photographs. There I discovered a small black-and-white image of an oil portrait of a young man, posed and framed to match that of the woman hanging in our dining room. Turning it over, I found penned on the back: "Portrait Horace Blinn, over piano in L.R." If this was Horace Blinn (1801-60)—my great-great-great-grandfather—then the woman in question surely must be his wife, but which one? He married three times. What had happened to his portrait and why had the two been separated? I tucked the black-and-white photo into the edge of the framed portrait in the dining room as an inspiration to keep searching.

With the help of books about silver, furniture, and porcelain checked out from the local public library, I tried to identify items of value and mark them for family members. Toward the end of the fifth day, I decided to empty out a kitchen cupboard, expecting to find stuff that would be easy to throw away. At the bottom of the heap was an old spiral-bound notebook. Aimlessly flipping through it, I found the unexpected: "Inventory August 22, 1977," amended, "January 14, 1978—Helen Blinn Johnston." Here were the clues that I needed: my mother’s notes about her mother’s furnishings, listing items room by room. Dining room: "Portrait—Dorothea Froment Blinn—HBJ’s Great-grandfather’s 3rd wife—Terre Haute—She came from New York, circa 1825; Insured for $500; Jim B. has husband over his mantle."

So now I knew: the subjects were a couple, and the portraits a matched pair split up when my grandmother, Helen Blinn Johnston, acquired Dorothea and her brother acquired Horace. I had thought that the Blinn family migrated from Wethersfield, Connecticut, to Cincinnati, Ohio; what then was the reference to Terre Haute? I had just returned from living in Bloomington for five years, a short distance from Terre Haute, and no one had ever mentioned family connections in Indiana to me.

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Fig. 2. Horace Blinn (1801-60), c. 1837. Photograph of oil portrait, original in private family collection.

My father was elated at the news and, eager to rid himself of the "hideous portrait," he emailed my mother’s cousin, who had inherited the mate. Perhaps, he suggested, it was time for the pair to be reunited.

Following the advice of a family friend, I insisted that we get the portrait appraised before deciding what do with it. My father complied, reluctantly loading the portrait into the car for a trip to a fine arts gallery in Cleveland. After taking a photograph, the appraiser returned her to us, and the painting went back on the dining room wall. It would take a few weeks to get the report.

In the meantime, I could return to the arduous task of separating the valuable from the invaluable. My mother’s annotated inventory was of great help:

The week came to an end and it was time for my flight back to New Haven. Armed with copious notes, inventories, and piles of receipts, I promised to put my findings in a spreadsheet to share with my father, sisters, and brother. Congratulating myself on finishing the most difficult task, I planned to return to Chagrin Falls in late May to dispense with the family letters and photographs. In truth, I had no interest in becoming the family’s historian and left the papers until the end, rather dreading the thankless task.

Meanwhile back in New Haven, I began looking for a suitable home for the portrait of Dorothea Froment Blinn. I first contacted the Vigo County Historical Society in Terre Haute about the painting. The director’s response was enthusiastic: indeed, they would be very interested. The director told me that Dorothea was the wife of a pioneer settler, Horace Blinn, and the mother of a Civil War hero—Captain John J. P. Blinn—whose uniform, sword, and other military memorabilia were on display at the museum. The historical society also had a family scrapbook about him and several autograph letters, including one he wrote to his mother in September 1862 that, according to the director, always brought tears to her eyes. "On the eve of a great battle," it begins, "I have sat down upon the ground, and with my saddle for a table, to write a few words to the loved ones at home." What makes this letter especially poignant is that John survived this battle, Antietam, only to be mortally wounded at Gettysburg the following July. Dorothea, the director told me, would travel from Terre Haute to the battlefield hospital in Gettysburg to nurse him, only to arrive a few days before he died on July 14, 1863. He was only twenty-two years old, an extraordinary young man.

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Fig. 3. John J. P. Blinn’s dress uniform, gilded sword, and epaulettes on display with his photo at the Vigo County Historical Society, Terre Haute, as photographed by the author in September 2004.

I agreed to keep in touch while the family awaited the appraisal of the portrait. It was unfortunate, I thought, that my mother never knew about Captain John Blinn. She would have loved that letter from the battlefield in Maryland and, of course, would have enjoyed sharing it with me. I remembered the proud moment in sixth grade when I won a school competition to recite the Gettysburg Address at the annual Memorial Day ceremony at the cemetery in Chagrin Falls. I recall so clearly standing in our driveway at the crest of the hill and practicing with my mother who patiently coached me from the "audience" in our backyard. What if we had known that one of our kin had given, in Lincoln’s immortal words, his "last full measure of devotion?"

As I widened my search for information about my newly found uncle, my father called to say that the gallery had assigned the portrait an insurance value of ten thousand dollars. "Can you believe it?" he asked. Actually, yes, I could. I had seen an episode of Antiques Roadshow when a young girl brought an early American portrait her mother had rescued from "the dump." Unsigned, without provenance, in need of repair and without a frame, it was appraised at an auction value of $2,000 - $3,000. And now, unbeknownst to the appraiser, our portrait was connected to a man who had given his life to preserve the union.

I uncovered more information by searching "Blinn" at the Vigo County Historical Society’s Website where the young captain was featured in several profiles. I found a signed photograph of him in his military uniform at the Indiana State Library’s Website, Civil War Soldier Photograph Exhibit, where he was mislabeled as "Blim." I read other accounts of Blinn and located an early biographical sketch about his father, Horace Blinn, transcribed as part of the Vigo County Indiana Biographies Project. Later, I would find among our family papers two typed transcripts of this extract—one, annotated with corrections by my great-grandfather and the other, written by his brother, who added a couple of paragraphs about Horace based on family stories.

As my knowledge about the family’s past grew, I emailed a few relatives with news of my findings, but no one really shared my enthusiasm. I heard back only from two of my mother’s cousins. They felt it was important to keep the portrait of Dorothea in the family for the benefit of future generations and they wanted to make us an offer for the painting: how much would we be asking? "She is not for sale," I thought. She belongs in Indiana, reunited with her son, John, the Civil War patriot who grew up in Terre Haute, began his military career at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, and was among the first soldiers from his native city to volunteer for service, soon after the fall of Fort Sumter in April 1861.

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