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Although Orrin L. Gatchell addressed several familial, social, political and military Civil War issues in his 24 letters written between September, 1862 and April, 1865, his most precious gift to his descendants was to name the family members to whom he was writing. Why should this be considered a gift? Because 150 years later, the authors had scant knowledge of Orrin, no knowledge of Orrin’s wives, their children living on the shores of Lake Erie in Dunkirk, Chautauqua County, New York, or of his family residing in rural Anson, Somerset County, Maine. For example, In Orrin’s letter written 150 years ago today on June 12, 1863, he mentioned several members of his family including: Brother, Sarah, Susan, Charles, Eliza and the children. In other letters, he mentioned Niece Melissa, Calvin, Sister, Mother, Eunice, Julia, Olive, Brother and Sister, Brother Charles, and Brother EF Witherell. Who were these family members woven into the fabric of Orrin’s life, and by extension into our lives today?

We approached this puzzle by establishing a private family tree on ( that formed the basis for our genealogical research through Ancestry’s search engines, which utilize many databases including: U.S. Census Records; Birth, Marriage & Death Records; and Military Record Collections.  We supplemented this information with the databases at Fold3 ( for military files. The U.S. National Archives & Records Administration’s military and pension files also proved to be invaluable genealogical tools. Locally, the Historical Society and Stewart Public Library in Anson, Maine; the Chautauqua County Genealogical Society; the Archives and Special Collections of the Daniel A. Reed Library at the State University of New York at Fredonia; the Harvard University Herbaria; the Erie County Public Library, Erie, PA; and the New York State Military Museum at Saratoga, NY all provided indispensable elements to unravel the family puzzles presented by Orrin’s letters.

Orrin’s father, Calvin Lumber Getchell (1794-1861), living in Anson, Maine, had two wives, the first of whom was Eunice B. Moore (1797-1835). Calvin Lumber and Eunice had six children: Sarah Elizabeth (1818-1902), Susan (1820-1888), Olive (1821-1823). Julia A. (1823-1906), Charles C. (1829-1896), and Orrin L. (1831-1905) (see Orrin L. Gatchell, parents and siblings family tree below). Orrin was four years old when his mother Eunice died at 38 years of age.

Calvin Lumber married again in 1839 to Elizabeth G. Campbell (1802-1872). They had three children:  Eunice (1840-1913), Calvin (1842-1862), and Olive A. (1846- ?). Eunice, Calvin and Olive were Orrin’s half-sisters and brothers. In Orrin’s letters, he did not distinguish between his siblings and half-siblings. Additionally, he addressed several letters to “Brother” or “Brother Witherell.” This was perplexing in our trying to figure out to whom Orrin was writing because we didn’t know if all or these letters were written to Orrin’s sibling Charles or to a man in his church that he addressed as “Brother,” or to someone else. When we discovered that Orrin’s oldest sister, Sarah, was married to Ebenezer Witherell, it was clear that Orrin was writing to his brother-in-law in at least some of the letters addressed “Dear Brother” either because he referred to topics that he had written about to Sarah or because of the tone of the letters, which was distinctly different, more reflective and philosophical, than those written to his sibling Charles.

In letters addressed to Sarah, Sister Sarah, and Sister and Brother, it was clear that Orrin was writing to his oldest sister Sarah, who was occasionally referred to as Sally, and her husband Ebenezer Franklin Witherell (1809-1879) who was also referred to as Brother or EF Witherell. Although Sarah and Ebenezer had three daughters, Orrin wrote to only one; he addressed his first letter in our collection, dated September 12, 1862, and his twenty-third letter, dated March 22, 1865, to “Dear Niece Melissa;” Melissa (1843-1866) was Sarah and Ebenezer’s second daughter and a music teacher in Anson, Maine. Orrin also playfully assumed the role of matchmaker in a February 14, 1864 letter to “Well Melissa” when he introduced her to a fellow soldier. Orrin did not mention the Witherells’ other two daughters, Josephine and Mary.

Orrin addressed his brother as “Dear Brother” or “Dear Charles” or within the body of a letter as Charles. Charles was married to Caroline Mantor (1834-1895), had three sons and lived in Anson, Maine. Orrin thought very highly of Charles and of Ebenezer F. Witherell because he entrusted his wife Eliza and their children to their care when Eliza took the children and moved unexpectedly from Dunkirk, New York to Anson to be close to Orrin's family while Orrin was in Virginia fighting the Civil War.

Orrin mentioned his sisters Susan and Julia in his letters only in general family “chit-chat.” Susan was married to Joseph C. Williams (1813-1896), had one child and lived in Anson, Maine. Julia was married to Abner Dinsmore (1820-1897), had five children and lived in nearby Bingham, Somerset County, Maine. In one letter, Orrin playfully teased Julia by calling her “some aunt or other old lady”” even though Julia was only six years older than Orrin and about thirty nine years old when the letter was written.

In 1839, when Orrin was eight years old, his father Calvin Lumber Getchell married Elizabeth G. Campbell, who was from nearby Franklin County, Maine. Orrin addressed his step-mother as “Mother” in his January, 1863 letter written shortly after the Battle of Fredericksburg (December, 1862), during which his half-brother Calvin Getchell, a private in the 16th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment, was killed while attacking Marye’s Heights. Orrin’s sorrow was not only for Calvin but also for his step-mother, who was left without a means of support and lonely following the recent death of her husband and Orrin’s father, Calvin Lumber Getchell, in July, 1861.

Orrin’s half-sisters Eunice and Olive were only briefly mentioned in the body of his letters. Orrin noted in his letter of March 30, 1864 that he received a letter from Olive, who described a military ball in Anson and how the locals were serenaded by the band. The last data that we could find on Olive were in the 1860 U.S. Census when she was 14 years old, and we assume that she died before the 1870 Census. Eunice married Benjamin Gilman, Jr. in 1862, had three children, and lived in Anson, Maine. Orrin, and his family must have thought highly of Benjamin because he together with Orrin’s brother Charles gave sworn testimony in support of a Federal pension request documenting that Elizabeth G. Campbell Getchell, following the death in action of her son Calvin at Fredericksburg, was a widow left without a means of financial support.

We have no insight into when or why Orrin changed the spelling of his last name from Getchell to Gatchell or when, except that Orrin signed his last name as Gatchell in a 1845 algebra book when he was 14 years old, and in all 24 of the Civil War letters in our collection and pension-related documents. Most of his children retained the spelling Gatchell, while two, including the author’s grandfather, reverted to the historically correct spelling of Getchell.

Like his father and many men of their generations, Orrin had two wives, the first of whom was Martha W. Bartlett (1832-1861). Following their marriage in 1853 in Anson, Maine, they moved to Groveland, Essex County, Massachusetts where two sons, William and George Edward, were born (see Orrin L. Gatchell, spouses and siblings family tree below). By 1856, they moved further west to Dunkirk, Chautauqua County, New York for reasons that are unclear but likely related to greater employment opportunities as the railroads expanded westward to the industrial cities of Erie, Cleveland, Detroit, and Chicago. In Dunkirk, two more children, Eugene and Alice, were born. Following the tragic death of Martha in January, 1861 from consumption, Orrin, who was 29 years old with four children under six years old, married a local 19-year -old dressmaker, Eliza Ann Decker, in November, 1861. In August, 1862, within ten months of his marriage, Orrin enlisted in the 72nd New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment of the Excelsior Brigade. His reasons for doing so are unclear but likely due to a combination of patriotism and financial compensation, because he received a $100 bounty for enlisting that went a long way in 1862 to support a young family. Orrin and Eliza’s first daughter Martha was born in April, 1863 while Orrin was located at Camp Nelson Taylor near Falmouth, Virginia just prior to the Battle of Chancellorsville (May, 1863). Orrin, like so many volunteers both Union and Confederate, was constantly worried about the stability and support of his family during the war. Following the end of the Civil War in April, 1865, Orrin was reunited with his family, and for reasons that are unclear, did not relocate to their home in Dunkirk, New York, but traveled west again and settled in Erie, Erie County, Pennsylvania on the shores of Lake Erie. There they established their roots within the community, had an additional six children including Emma, Charles, Calvin, Helen, Cassandra and Gertrude, found familial stability so lacking during the war, and left a legacy of a loving family, some of whom remain there, but with many scattered throughout our nation.

Orrin was a remarkable man who, through his letters, provided the key elements of his family’s genealogical legacy upon which we reconstructed familial relationships using contemporary electronic tools. Truly, Orrin’s letters were gifts to his family during the Civil War, remain a gift to his descendants three generations later, and hopefully will provide a window into our family history for future generations.

Posted in: Family Issues

Related Images

  • Orrin's Gift to His Family
  • Orrin's Gift to His Family
  • Orrin's Gift to His Family
  • Orrin's Gift to His Family
  • Orrin's Gift to His Family
  • Orrin's Gift to His Family
  • Orrin's Gift to His Family
  • Orrin's Gift to His Family
  • Orrin's Gift to His Family
  • Orrin's Gift to His Family


Monday, October 06, 2014 2:02 PM
Very interesting!Just woeidrnng if you have George Everett Foss in your line. Hopefully correct: He was born 5 Sep 1858 in Wisconsin and died 16 Jun 1924 in Danforth, Maine. His parents were Edmund Foss (abt 1802 Lisbon, Maine 1863 Calais, Maine) and Elizabeth, born about 1822 in New Brunswick, Canada. He married Melvina Nellie Outhouse, born 1861 in Hodgdon, Maine, daughter of Robert Henry and Mary Jane (Decker) Outhouse. This is the line of a Foss friend in Halifax, NS. For a different branch of Foss, a friend bought a photo on eBay of the Foss bros of Somerset County they had all been in the Civil War this was afterwards when they were in GAR.

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