by Joni Astrup
Herb and Corrine Murphy were researching the history of Sherburne County’s Baldwin Township when they came upon excepts from letters written by an early Baldwin settler, Hannah Maria Knapp.
They were intrigued by Maria’s vibrant descriptions of life in the 1800s and went on to compile her writings into a new book, “They Called Her Maria.”
The Murphys said they were struck by Maria’s devotion to family and friends, her upbeat spirit and her strong faith in God.
“Through all the struggles, she keeps this tremendous faith,” Corrine Murphy said.
Maria (pronounced with a long i) arrived in Baldwin Township in 1870 and settled on her son’s farm north of Lake Fremont near present-day Zimmerman. Ironically, in the process of researching the book, the Murphys learned that they live only about a mile from where the Knapp family settled 141 years ago.
Tragedy strikes early during missionary work in Siam
Hannah Maria Nutting was born in 1814 in Massachusetts, the third of 12 children.
At age 21, she left home to attend the Western Reserve Ladies’ Seminary in Ohio and soon met her future husband, Nathan Benham. In his journal, he described her as “kind, sympathetic, sincere and pious.” They were married in 1839 and set sail for Siam (now Thailand), where they were missionaries.
But after only three weeks in Siam, Nathan drowned.
“How mysterious are the dealings of God with his people,” Maria wrote in her journal. “Yesterday my dear husband was in usual health & in a moment he is in Eternity!”
Three months after Nathan’s death, Maria gave birth to their daughter, only to lose her to smallpox.
Despite her deep losses, Maria intended to continue with her missionary work. But she was in poor health and left Siam in 1841, traveling part of the way as the only woman on a whaling ship. She arrived in New York in 1842 to begin the next chapter of her life.
Back home in New England, a new beginning for Maria
Back home in New England, Maria met Dr. Isaac Knapp, a widower who was 25 years her senior.
“They evidently found themselves compatible despite the sizable age difference and on November 27, 1845, they married,” the Murphys wrote. Maria described her husband as tall, straight and handsome and a very kind, Christian man.
They had three children, a daughter Abba Maria and two sons, Charles Danforth and Francis Benham.
Dr. Knapp died in 1856.
With his death, the Murphys wrote that turbulent times returned for Maria, who was faced with providing for three small children.
“It was a hard struggle for her with 2 acres of land a cow and pig, and herself in very poor health, to raise enough so that they could manage to live,” her daughter-in-law, Nellie, wrote. “She did some sewing which helped a little. The children pulled weeds and she boiled them for the pig.” Maria also sold a liniment made from a formula created by Dr. Knapp.
Corrine Murphy said eventually Maria had to break up the family. The children went to live with various family members.
From what the Murphys could discern, Maria worked hard to pay for her keep as well as that of her children. Herb Murphy described her as very industrious.
On one day she reported that she “worked” butter, made 11 pies and a pan full of doughnuts and folded clothes.
The Murphys note that Maria apparently took all that happened as a matter of course — as a part of God’s plan.
“Though she became well acquainted with sadness and despair and at times protested her fate, she was not a child of constant sorrow. Maria was a practical sort and even in the worst of times her sense of humor did not desert her,” they wrote.
The West beckons: Maria moves to Minnesota
In 1865, Maria decided to go west for her health. She first lived with one brother in Illinois, and then moved to Iowa to live with another brother.
In 1870, her son Frank bought a farm in Baldwin Township, between present-day Zimmerman and Princeton. Maria moved there, and her daughter Abba joined them. Son Charlie stayed in Iowa.
“They found land here that was really, really cheap,” Corrine Murphy said, explaining their move to Minnesota. “This was the frontier.”
Maria sent nearly all their goods by train from Iowa to Elk River, which was 12 miles from their new home. Then she set out for Minnesota.
Maria described her journey in some detail, including the ride from Elk River north: “I came up on the stage thro’ some of the wildest country, 6 miles, I ever saw, owned by speculators who hold it so tight no one will purchase. Then nice farms began to appear … “
By October of 1870, Maria and her son and daughter had a house of their own, 16 x 20 feet in size on a rise of land in an oak grove.
Their farming operation was also taking shape.
Maria wrote that their animals included a “span” of horses, two cows, three heifers, two calves, a dog and her pup, one black kitten and one hen with five chicks. Frank also grew a variety of crops.
Maria reported that there were deer, lots of waterfowl, and some bears in the area. More than 20 bears were shot within a few miles of their home at one point. She enjoyed the fresh bear meat. What they didn’t eat fresh they salted down and dried.
She wrote of picking blueberries and planting apple trees and of mosquitoes “so thick I can scarcely write.”
In 1875, reflecting on the upcoming marriage of her daughter, Abba, Maria wrote: “There have been many pleasant things in my life, much happiness, but not unmixed with sorrow & pain. I do not ask that she may follow in my path, but avoiding all the errors, choose the good, and be happy & useful.”
In 1882, Maria, her son Frank and his family moved from their farm near Zimmerman to one in Clear Lake.
Maria died there on Jan. 13, 1884, just four days before her 70th birthday.
About the Murphys
A graduate of Bethel College in St. Paul, Herb Murphy taught English at Foley High School for six years and was the director of student services at Anoka Technical College for 20 years. He earned a doctor of education degree from the University of Minnesota.
He has served as a supervisor for both Ramsey and Baldwin Townships.
Corrine earned a degree from North Central University in Minneapolis. She does architectural drafting, graphic design, painting and gardening, and works with Herb on some of his projects. She also volunteers as a teacher’s assistant.
They have a keen interest in history and genealogy and are working on a family history for their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
The Murphys dedicated “They Called Her Maria” to Maria’s great-granddaughter, Dorthy Jean Spencer and to Dorthy’s mother (Maria’s granddaughter), Ruth Marie Knapp. “It was their careful preservation of Maria’s letters, journals, poems and artifacts throughout the years that makes this book possible,” the Murphys wrote in the book’s dedication.