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Isabelle Grimm Tilley was a woman of great fortitude who was born enslaved but survived to live a long life of quiet independence. She was known for her beautiful vegetable garden, her pride in meeting Abraham Lincoln, and the delicious chicken recipe she passed down to her family.
Much of Isabelle’s early life is unknown due to her enslavement – we do not know her birth date nor birth location for certain. Our first records of her appear when she arrived on the Jackson property in Portsmouth, N.H., in the mid-nineteenth century, travelling there from Richmond, Va., with her former enslaver’s son. Some accounts state she was thirteen years old at the time and others that she was sixteen. Regardless, she ended up living on the Jackson property working for the Jackson family, taking care of their children, cooking, and as a washerwoman. She lived on the property for more than eighty years dying in 1937 around the age of one hundred.
In 1870, Isabelle had her first son, Clarence, born from a relationship with a White man, named George Fisher, who lived down the street. The circumstances of her relationship with George are a mystery: we have found no record of how they met, if there was any kind of romance or relationship, how George reacted to Isabelle’s pregnancy, or how much (or little) he was involved in Clarence’s life.
In the 1870s, Isabelle married Jacob Tilley who adopted Clarence as his son. Isabelle and Jacob also had three daughters and one son and adopted another son. Due to lack of specificity in the census records, we only know the name of four of her children, Clarence, Charles, Claretha, and Hurston Allen.
The Portsmouth Herald wrote about her on six different occasions, showing that she had some presence in the local community. However, there are few details included in these short mentions and from them we only learn that the fire department was called to her house on at least four occasions for chimney fires, she received a basket of fruit from her church when she was sick, and that she was the city’s oldest resident.
Historic New England acquired the property in 1924 and Isabelle stayed in the small house she was living in on the property located next to Jackson House, renting it for $1 per week until her death in 1937. Sometimes she took in boarders and toward the end of her life, her adopted son Hurston lived with her while Clarence lived close by, one block down the street. From the correspondence of William Sumner Appleton Jr. (Historic New England’s founder), we get a portrait of her life and personality in her twilight years. In that correspondence Isabelle is described as “rather lame,” needing help from Hurston to pump and carry water. But that seems to be her only physical limitation. Up until 1935, two years before her death, she was doing two to three washings per week, had keen eyes, a clear voice, and a “sharp” personality.
The small house she lived in no longer stands, but her memory continues on – one of a determined women who spoke her mind and was a valued member of her community.
Dr. Alissa Butler manages the Study Center at Historic New England and oversees the internship program, which supports graduate students and emerging new professionals.