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Guide to the Butler-Laing Family Papers
1804-1892 (bulk 1865-1871)
 MS 94

New-York Historical Society
170 Central Park West
New York, NY 10024
Phone: (212) 873-3400


© 2011 New-York Historical Society

Collection processed by Processed by Margaret Heilbrun.

This finding aid was produced using the Archivists' Toolkit on March 28, 2018
Description is in English. using Describing Archives: A Content Standard

Biographical Note

The Butler-Laing Family Papers come from three generations of an American family from the northeast.

The centerpiece of the family, and of the collection, is Caroline Hyde Butler Laing, from the second generation that is represented in the Papers. Born in 1804 to Thomas and Sarah Denison Butler, she spent the first part of her childhood in New York City followed by years in Plainfield, Connecticut where her father had moved in an attempt to suppress his consumption. In 1822, Caroline married Edward Butler. He was not considered a relative, although years later Caroline surmised that they might indeed have had ancestry in common. The couple settled in Edward's hometown of Northampton, Massachusetts. Edward Butler was in the mercantile business, employed largely in trading tea and silks with China. In the years that followed, he was frequently away from Northampton on business in Boston or New York or en route to or from China. Between 1822 and 1834 the couple had five children: Sarah Caroline, Thomas Edward --who died at age two --, Edward, Theodore Hunt, and Hunt Mills.

In 1836, showing symptoms of consumption, Caroline Butler was advised to join her husband on his next sea journey. In October of 1836, they set off together on the ship "Roman" for China. The voyage to and from China's port of Macao was one of almost eight months. Mrs. Butler kept a diary on the voyage. Less than two months after her return to Northampton, she gave birth to her sixth child, Harriet Denison. Four more children followed in the next years: Robert Morris, Mary Hunt, Caroline Hyde, and Franklin Delano. During these years, Edward Butler was obliged to spend long amounts of time in New York City. Husband and wife kept in touch by letter.

During the decade of the 1840s, Caroline Butler began writing stories for magazines such as Sartain's to help support her large family. It was in New York City in July of 1849 that Edward Butler was stricken with cholera and passed away, all within the space of two or three days. A widow with nine children, Mrs. Butler increased her output of short fiction for Graham's and other magazines. In addition, she published some books, such as The Little Messenger Birds, or The Chime of the Silver Bells (1850), and The Ice King, And The Sweet South Wind (1851), with Boston and Philadelphia firms.

In April of 1851, Caroline Butler married Hugh Laing, an old family friend. The couple and the six children still at home moved to 16 Clinton Street in Brooklyn. Hugh Laing died in January of 1869. Mrs. Laing's children were by then all grown and dispersed, many of them married and with their own children. She made extended visits to some of them. For example, her eldest daughter Sarah, now Mrs. Caldwell, lived in Germantown, Pennsylvania, not far from Norristown, where her son Theodore lived with his wife. Her daughter Mary, now Mrs. Reeves, lived in Bridgeton, New Jersey and wrote often to her mother.

Late in 1869, Mrs. Laing traveled to Rome for an extended stay with her daughter Harriet, married to the then renowned poet and painter Thomas Buchanan Read. Mrs. Laing kept extensive diaries of her time in Italy and wrote detailed letters home to her children. She returned to the United States in 1871 and began A Child's History of Rome, published in three separately titled volumes over the four succeeding years. She lived in Brooklyn, but remained in close touch with many of her children, visiting them frequently. She died at age 88 in 1892.