Finding the French Connection: Elizabeth Duncan and the Naming of Massillon, Ohio

By: Andrew Preston

On September 1, 1715, Jean-Baptiste Massillon delivered a heart-stopping eulogy for the late king of France, Louis XIV. He began with a simple declaration: “God alone is great my brethren.” Legend has it that as these words echoed through the basilica of Saint Denis, Massillon’s audience jumped to their feet in disbelief. The sheer audacity of a preacher who would diminish the king’s majesty at his own funeral compelled their unanimous rise. Or so the story goes. Such a man had risen from mediocre beginnings in France’s Provence region to become a preacher of wide renown at the turn of the eighteenth century. Two years after his famous funeral oration, Massillon was made the Bishop of Clermont. He was esteemed for his style, which was both eloquent and rational, and his delivery, which stirred the soul and “spoke to the heart.”[1. I am grateful to the Massillon Public Library and Stark County Library Genealogy Department for their superb assistance and willingness to suffer my questions and requests. The Massillon Museum and its supporters funded and guided the research that I conducted for this essay, which is an adaptation of a work for a book scheduled to be published in June 2013 by the museum. I owe them a particular debt of gratitude. Elizabeth Mancke at the University of Akron and Thomas Blantz at the University of Notre Dame gave me thoughtful and gracious feedback. So too did Jacci Welling, Jay Case, Greg Miller, and Scott Waalkes at Malone University. For the quotation, see “Literary Intelligence of Europe,” Star (London, England) Issue 187 (6 December 1788).] Not one to pull his punches, Massillon’s sermons mainly dealt with issues of personal morality and social responsibility. Yet the preacher’s rhetorical genius and humble manner often enabled him to convey his piquant messages in ways that moved his listeners deeply without offending them.[2. I am indebted to Katina Hazimihalis and her biography on Jean-Baptiste Massillon (soon to be published by the Massillon Museum) for the information presented in the preceding paragraph. Few substantial biographies of Massillon exist in English. For a short yet serviceable encyclopedia entry on his life and work, see “Massillon, Jean Baptiste,” New Catholic Encyclopedia 2nd ed., ed. Bernard L. Marthaler, et al. (Farmington Hills, MI: Thompson Gale, 2003), 9:313-314.]

It is a curious matter of fact that on another continent about a century after his death Massillon’s name would come to signify a burgeoning canal town in Northeast Ohio.[3. The founders of this town were the first (though not the only) Americans to choose “Massillon” as their town name. A few decades later, settlers in Iowa allegedly copied this name from their Ohio counterparts.] Arguably while many authors have discussed how this small town adopted the name of a French preacher as its own, no one has demonstrated exactly why this happened. This essay has a straightforward purpose. It offers a hypothesis concerning why Elizabeth (“Eliza”) Vilet Duncan chose to name her husband James Duncan’s settlement “Massillon” when the opportunity came to her in 1826.[4. Throughout this essay, I employ what Eliza’s descendants indicate was her favored format and spelling of her name. See Mary Ely MIller and Margaret Duncan Ely Morse, “James Duncan,” March 1916, Massillon Museum Archives (hereafter MMA), Massillon, Ohio.] I emphasize that what I offer in this essay can only be a hypothesis given the paucity of evidence related to this specific query. In order to establish my proposition, I consider the history of the town’s founding and some potential local influences on Eliza Duncan’s decision; I analyze Eliza’s family heritage, which some have taken as the impetus for her decision to select “Massillon;” and I explore Eliza’s early republican milieu, investigating whether issues of class, education, gender, or other explanatory factors influenced her choice. In the end, I offer a tentative explanation for Eliza Duncan’s decision—that the most likely reason she chose Bishop Massillon’s name to represent her husband’s town lies within a genteel education, which was conditioned by the bonds of womanhood, Franco-American relations, and religious fervor that existed during the early republic. In the process of coming to this conclusion, this essay illuminates the experiences of some of Ohio’s first settlers—including a “pioneer” woman whose “voice” is almost irrecoverable, save for a name that she committed to the incorporation records of a small town in the northeast. Her story entails a perspective that is often under-represented in the history of Ohio’s early statehood.


In order to consider why Eliza Duncan named her husband’s town for a Frenchman, we first have to understand how Eliza came to live in Ohio. In some ways, her odyssey into the northwest quarter of the Buckeye State owes itself to the circuitous wanderings of her husband, James Duncan. James was born in Concord, New Hampshire, on May 2, 1789, to parents of English and Irish descent.[5. “Ancestor Chart for Ms. Sandra N. Wanamaker,” Connecticut Society of Genealogists, Inc. No. 10,072-4504 September 1987, MMA; Jean Atkins, “6 Generation Pedigree Box Chart for James and Eliza Duncan,” 2009, Massillon Library Reference Archives (hereafter MLRA), Massillon, Ohio.] At an early age, he ran away from home and became a cabin boy on a merchant ship. In the first years of the nineteenth century, James made first mate on a trading vessel that sank off the coast of Denmark during the Napoleonic wars. According to his granddaughter, Duncan recalled reaching Copenhagen “with nothing but his watch and his life belt” at the end of the affair.[6. Miller and Morse.] He departed the seafaring life about the time of the War of 1812, when the shipping industry slowed under the Embargo and Non-Importation Acts. Thereafter, he set out to explore the West. In 1815, Duncan met with friends in Wheeling, Virginia, and the group began “a sort of horseback adventure” destined for an Ohio settlement populated by families from New England.[7. Quoted in Robert H. Folger, “Chapter XII,” History of Stark County, Ohio (1881), 381; For paragraph see Folger, “Chapter XII,” 381; Margy Vogt, Towpath to Towpath: Massillon Ohio (Massillon, OH: Bates, 2002), 18; “Died (James Duncan’s Obituary Notice”,” The Ohio Repository (1 April 1863).]

A short while later, the men arrived in the village of Kendal. An ardent Quaker and enterprising New Englander of seafaring stock named Thomas Rotch had established this small settlement in 1812, naming it after a market town in northern England known for its woolen manufactures. Following its incorporation, Rotch endeavored to make Kendal a kind of locus for wool production in its own right. He began by raising a flock of 400 Spanish merino sheep. By the time that Duncan and his friends visited the settlement, Rotch had erected his own wool factory on the bank of a local creek and had convinced two others to do the same. Edward Heald claims that Rotch’s efforts earned Kendal the distinction of being the “greatest Spanish merino sheep raising district in the United States” during the 1820s.[8. Edward T. Heald, The Stark County Story(Canton, OH: 1949), 1: 34, 38; Folger, “Chapter XII,” 373-375.]

Duncan’s experiences at the “Rotch Settlement” led him to purchase a few tracts of land in the vicinity, including part of one on the east bank of the Tuscarawas River and another on “the Plains” south of town.[9. Duncan made the latter purchase in conjunction with his traveling companions, though he later bought out their shares of land. See “Died.”] With a piece of the West now in his pocket, Duncan returned to Virginia. There he married a wealthy heiress, Eliza Vilet of Brooke County, in 1816. A short while later, the couple made their way to Duncan’s land in Ohio, eventually moving into a farm cottage on the Plains.

Ironically, the same impetus that curtailed James Duncan’s New England shipping career probably led him to launch a new one in Ohio’s manufacturing sector. By stifling transatlantic trade and boosting the price of foreign commodities, the War of 1812 prompted Americans to redirect their capital into domestic production and manufacturing. So during the final years of the 1810s, the market’s “invisible hand” impelled Duncan to build a flourmill, sawmill, and tannery on his plat abutting the Tuscarawas.[10. Sippo Creek, a rivulet that flows south into the Tuscarawas River, powered Duncan’s flourmill.] Unfortunately, when the aftermath of the war unleashed an agricultural glut, a panic in 1819, and a depression in the years that followed, Duncan’s endeavors left him with more goods than he was able to sell. In 1821, he floated a flatboat that Eliza named the “Walk-in-the-Water” to Cincinnati with a cargo of whiskey, bacon, potatoes, and flour, selling these surplus staples for a hefty profit. Then he walked home. Robert Folger writes that Duncan’s self-made success in Cincinnati would be “followed with other and similar efforts, none of which, however, were near so successful.”[11. Quote from Folger, “Chapter XII,” 382; see also Vogt, 18; “Died;” Heald, 1:34-35.]

Americans started to build new roads and waterways after the hostilities surrounding the War of 1812 stimulated the emergence of a market economy. This impulse was particularly felt in Ohio, where speculation began over the construction of a canal between Lake Erie and the Ohio River. When New York laborers began excavating a waterway of their own between Lake Erie and the Hudson River in 1817, the promise of New York City markets hardened the state’s resolve. In 1822, the Ohio Board of Canal Commissioners was established, and during the next three years, it surveyed the region’s possible canal routes. The commissioners’ work led the Ohio legislature to authorize in 1825 the construction of a canal that would follow the Scioto Valley north to Columbus, then east to Tuscarawas County, and north again, at last spilling through the Cuyahoga River into Lake Erie.[12. George Kneper, Ohio and Its People, 3rd ed. (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2003), 144-145.] Folger records that, upon hearing about this act, Mr. Duncan “commenced and never ceased his labors” to ensure that the Ohio and Erie Canal would run through his land on the east bank of the Tuscarawas. He financed this ambition with Eliza’s money.[13. Quote from Folger, “Chapter XII,” 383; see also Heald, 1:139. Eliza Duncan is listed as a signatory next to her husband on a series of indentures for the sale of her inherited lands in Virginia and Pennsylvania between 1817 and 1827. The Duncans received considerable sums of money for these lands, which undoubtedly helped to financially sustain James Duncan’s enterprises in Kendal and Massillon. “Indenture,” 24 June 1817, Deed Book #6, 419, BCCA; “Indenture,” 1822, Deed Book #7, 190, BCCA; “Indenture,” 1818, Deed Book #8, 338, BCCA; “Indenture,” 1827, Deed Book #9, 331, BCCA.]

Duncan competed over the canal with his neighbor, William Henry, who owned land on the Tuscarawas River’s west bank and wished to route it there. After lobbying the state government for several months, Duncan defeated Henry and secured the board’s promise to use his eastern holdings. After the route was established, he used his wife’s money to buy most of the land around his own and began plotting his new village. According to Folger, when the question of the town’s name arose at a meeting in Duncan’s brick house in Kendal, it was referred to Eliza, who suggested “Massillon” after the French preacher.[14. Robert H. Folger, “Massillon,” recorded by C. Cole in Early History, Organization, and Growth of the City of Massillon, (Massillon, Ohio: S. and J.J. Hoover, 1880), MLRA. There is strong evidence to prove that Eliza was the one who proposed the name “Massillon” in honor of Jean-Baptiste. The overwhelming majority of the sources corroborate this notion. See Robert H. Folger’s “Chapter XII,” 383; “Died;” “Story of Massillon,” The City Item 1.101 (18 December 1897); “Left Massillon Fifty Years Ago,” The Evening Independent 21.59 (27 July 1908); “Reminiscences,” The Massillon Independent 38.35 (29 November 1899). Also see Margy Vogt, 23-24. For one disparate view, see “(?) Residents Should Study Its History, He Says,” The Massillon Independent (21 November 1907).] Starting on March 22, 1826, James Duncan began advertising lots for sale “in the new Town of MASSILON, situated on the Ohio Canal” via a regional newspaper.[15. “Town of MASSILLON,” Ohio Repository 7.1 (18 May 1826; For this paragraph, see Heald, 1:139; Folger, “Chapter XII,” 383; Vogt, 23-24.]

It is difficult to determine whether Eliza Duncan’s personal experiences or relationships during her first decade in Ohio had any degree of influence on her decision to name her husband’s city “Massillon.” The voluminous stash of papers left behind by Thomas Rotch and his business partner, Arvine Wales—a group of writings that constitutes the best primary source collection available for this location and era—offer virtually no insight into Eliza’s life in the Kendal community. Her name, in fact, is wholly absent from these documents. Moreover, the nineteenth-century newspaper articles and other historical entries that do mention Eliza offer little information about her life in Kendal beyond a brief recognition of her role in the naming of Massillon.

The nature and quality of Eliza’s husband’s connection to the people within the vicinity is only a few shades less enigmatic. A man of enterprise, James acquired a variety of business partners during his stay in Kendal and Massillon, particularly after his relocation to the Plains in 1816 and before he lost his shirt in the Panic of 1837. In his early years there, Duncan formed a friendship with Thomas Rotch, which ended badly after a falling out over financial matters.[16. The nature of this falling out is hard to tell. See James Duncan to Thomas Rotch, “22 May? 1817,” MLRA #A-149-1; available from (18 March 2013) for a possible clue.] Subsequently he partnered with C. K. Skinner, another of the early members of the Kendal community whose father, Alexander, had also recently dissolved his business relationship with Rotch “by mutual consent.”[17. “Take Notice,” The Ohio Repository 2.72 (8 August 1816.] Duncan and the younger Skinner established the “Free Bridge Woolen Factory” in the early 1820s—around the same time that the Duncans also moved into one of C.K. Skinner’s properties in Kendal.[18. Folger, “Chapter XII,” 382.]

In the years before the incorporation of Massillon, relations between the Duncans and the Rotchs stayed sour. In 1819, Thomas Rotch registered a petition with the Stark County Commissioners against a road granted to Duncan and his associates, which ran through his and other properties to their “great detriment and damage.”[19. Thomas Rotch to the Stark County Commissioners, 7 May? 1819, MLRA #A-29-37; available from (18 March 2013).] Two years after Thomas’s death in 1823, his nephew Francis Rotch attempted to mend old family wounds with a letter to James Duncan that insisted upon joining their lands to attract the canal builders’ attention.[20. Francis Rotch to James Duncan, 19 July 1825, MLRA #C-14-1; available from (18 March 2013).] Duncan declined the offer. He later bought Rotch’s Kendal property outright as the town began to swell during the 1830s.[21. Vogt, 29.] In these ways, James—and, by extension, Eliza—Duncan’s relationships with the people of Kendal were undoubtedly complicated. Their Presbyterian affinities, affiliation with the Skinners, and rift with the Rotchs likely placed the family within a limited friendship network in Kendal. Nonetheless, how this setting affected Eliza’s affinity for the figure of Jean-Baptiste Massillon remains a subject wholly up for speculation.


There are other potential explanations for Eliza Duncan’s decision to name her husband’s town “Massillon.” One involves the circumstances of her ancestry. It is possible that Eliza had French forbearers and that she selected the bishop’s name on the basis of that connection. Many historians of Massillon, Ohio, favor this interpretation, drawing special attention to the putative “French” spellings of her father’s surname that appear in some eighteenth- and nineteenth-century sources. While Eliza insisted on styling herself a “Vilet,” several other renderings of this name appear in newspaper articles and other historical documents, including the French-sounding monikers “Vilette” and “Villette.” So in her 1989 The Better Halves: The Story of Massillon’s Women, Ruth Kane posits that “Eliza Tillinghast Villette Duncan” was the “gently reared daughter of French immigrants.”[22. Ruth Kane, The Better Halves: The Story of Massillon’s Women (Massillon, OH: 1989), 17. “Tillinghast” was the surname of Eliza’s mother.] R. Paul and Virginia Hildebrand note that “Eliza Villette Duncan” was “of French origin.”[23. R. Paul Hildebrand and Virginia Hildebrand, Footprints: Presbyterianism in Massillon, Ohio (Alliance, OH: Jarman, 1976), 17.] Barton E. Smith claims that “Eliza Tillinghast Vilette” was James Duncan’s “French wife.”[24. Barton E. Smith, Upon These Hills: Massillon’s Beginnings and Early Days (Massillon, OH: 1962), 31-35.] And Margy Vogt writes that “Eliza T. Vilette” was the “daughter of French immigrants who had settled in Wheeling.”[25. Vogt, 18.] Arguably, each author accentuates a “French” rendition of Eliza’s father’s surname to construct a certain vision of Mrs. Duncan’s ancestral heritage and thereby infer at least part of her reason for naming the town.[26. Notably, Kane and Vogt draw attention to Eliza Duncan’s education as well as her reputed French ancestry when considering why Eliza chose “Massillon.” The Hildebrands and Barton Smith, however, mention nothing of Mrs. Duncan’s education, acknowledging only her French heritage.] Yet each fails to look beyond the name for evidence of her French descent.

As it stands, they may have a point in emphasizing these particular spellings of Eliza’s last name. Birth, marriage, and death records available from Europe between 1700 and 1800 indicate that the names “Villette” and “Vilette” (as well as “Villet” and “Vilet,” two further spellings of Eliza’s father’s surname present within some primary documents) overwhelmingly denote individuals of French record. Nevertheless, other important documents related to John Vilet, Eliza’s seafaring father, list further variants of his name. In the Rhode Island port records of his Atlantic voyages and in his final estate assessment, for example, John’s name is styled either “Vilett” or “Villett.”[27. Jay Coughtry, The Notorious Triangle: Rhode Island and the African Slave Trade, 1700-1807 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1981), 263-269; Final inventory of the estate of Captain John Vilett, Newport, RI, d. 1797, Probate Book 1796-18??, 54; Newport City Clerk Records, Newport, Rhode Island.] These names are most common to English, Welsh, or Scottish registers.[28. These claims are based on an exact name search of the limited collection of birth, marriage, and death records between the years 1700 and 1800 available through The specific findings are as follows: for the name “Villette” – 2,175 hits: 98% were found within the records of French-speaking nations (primarily France but also Belgium, 2% within English or Scottish records. For the name “Vilette” – 790 hits: 99.5% of French record; .05% of English or Welsh record. For the name “Villett” – 11 hits: 100% of English or Welsh record. For the name “Villet” – 861 hits: 99% of French record; .6% of English record. For the name “Vilett” – 68 hits: 100% of English or Welsh record. For the name “Vilet” – 162 hits: 90% of French record; 7% of English or Welsh or Scottish reord; (2010); available from (12 November 2010).]

Overall, the mutability of this moniker renders it an insufficient piece of evidence to substantiate any claim about Eliza’s French heritage. During her time period, personal names often took a variety of spellings depending on different factors and circumstances. Therefore it is not enough to invoke Eliza’s French ancestry with a nod to her surname. To more accurately determine whether Mrs. Duncan had her roots in French soil, a little genealogy is in order.

After digging into the records of her ancestors, it becomes apparent that Eliza Duncan was the daughter of “American” parents, and it is likely that she did not come to admire the French minister through her heritage. Eliza’s immediate family lived in New England for at least fifty years before her birth. Her maternal line of descent is traceable to the shores of England. A recent study by the Connecticut Society of Genealogists indicates that Elizabeth Vilet—born about 1796, in Newport, Rhode Island—was, on her mother’s side, a descendent of Pardon Tillinghast, born of Seven Cliffs, Sussex, England, on January 2, 1622.[29. “Ancestor Chart for Ms. Sandra N. Wanamaker;” See also David Benedict, A General History of the Baptist Denomination in America and Other Parts of the World (Boston: Lincoln and Edmands, 1813), 1:438; see also John Osborne Austin, The Genealogical Dictionary of Rhode Island: Comprising Three Generations of Settlers Who Came Before 1690 (With Many Families Carried to the Fourth Generation) (1887; reprinted Baltimore, MD: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2008), 202. As a point of interest, the Seven Sisters are a series of chalk cliffs on Britain’s northern shore.] Pardon traveled from Alfriston, England, to America in 1643. He died in Providence, Rhode Island, during the winter of 1718. Near the middle of the eighteenth century, Pardon’s progeny relocated to Newport, Rhode Island, where the family remained until Patience Taylor Tillinghast, Eliza’s mother, was born in 1774.[30. “Ancestor Chart for Ms. Sandra N. Wanamaker;” Atkins.]

While the roots of Eliza Duncan’s maternal ancestry are well documented, comparatively little information is available regarding her paternal line of descent. Her father John was born in Newport, Rhode Island, about 1760.[31. Atkins.] He captained slave-trading vessels and died at St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, approximately a year after disembarking from his home state on June 14, 1796. During the September before his final voyage, John wed Patience Tillinghast in Newport.[32. “Ancestor Chart for Ms. Sandra N. Wanamaker;” Atkins; Regarding John Vilet’s participation in the triangle trade, see Coughtry, 263-269.] In 1754, moreover, John’s father, Stephen Vilet, also married in Newport to one Sarah Luscomb. Prior to Stephen’s 1754 marriage, there seems to be no further documentation regarding his ancestry. With the present information, then, Eliza’s grandfather’s origins remain an enigma.  Still, the timeline that these documents offer renders a clue about Eliza’s connection to her father’s family.

Regardless of John Vilet’s origins, his daughter was at least half a century removed from his ancestral roots, considering the date of Stephen Vilet’s marriage. More importantly still, Eliza’s father had departed to Africa before her birth on a voyage that would claim his life. This fact alone potentially diminishes the overall importance of Eliza’s paternal heritage. Yet whether Patience Tillinghast and her daughter encountered French culture via contact with her husband’s surviving family—assuming there was family to survive him and that this family was French—is a question for further consideration.

Most scholars suggest that New Englanders lived in nuclear families during the late colonial era and early republic—mother, father, and children residing together sometimes with servants or apprentices. One of the father’s widowed parents may have stayed with the family as well. It was common, even, for a son to inherit his family’s home after his father’s death while his mother maintained use of a portion of the house, usually one or two rooms.[33. Nancy F. Cott, “Eighteenth-Century Family and Social Life Revealed in Massachusetts Divorce Records,” A Heritage of Her Own: Toward a New Social History of American Women, eds. Nancy F. Cott and Elizabeth H. Pleck (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979), 107; Linda K. Kerber and Jane Sherron De Hart, eds, “The Law of Domestic Relations: Marriage, Divorce, Dower,” Women’s America: Refocusing the Past, 6th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 55-58.] While a parent may have occupied Patience’s husband’s household during and after his death, Patience herself would probably not have retained the entire charge of her husband’s estate following his demise. On paper, at least, wives of this era were legally and economically subservient to their husbands. As a result they were often denied the inheritance of the majority of their husband’s wealth. By law, a woman could count on receiving only a “widow’s third” of these assets.[34. Kerber and De Hart, eds. 57-58; Mary Beth Norton, Liberty’s Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750-1800 (New York: Cornell, 1996), 137-138.]

One looks with interest, then, at the provisions contained within the final will and testament of Nicholas P. Tillinghast, Patience’s father, dated June 1809. In this document, Nicholas conveyed to his granddaughter, Eliza Vilet, “part of her father Captain John Villette[’s] estate of which I had the management.”[35. Final will and testament of Nicholas P. Tillinghast, recorded by a John Connell, July 1809, Will Book No. 2, 1-3, BCCA.] It is probable that Nicholas presided over Patience’s part of her husband’s sizeable estate until his death.[36. This claim finds support in the final inventory of the estate of Captain John Vilet. Along with his daughter, Nicholas P. Tillinghast was a cosigner on this document that records the allocation of Patience’s portion of John Vilet’s holdings.] Given that, at this time, women were often deemed unfit for the world of business and, moreover, were often legally excluded from it, this was probably a conventional arrangement.[37. There are many exceptions to this norm, yet most women in the early United States did remain separate from the world of business and all were legally dependent upon men under the doctrine of feme covert. For further discussion regarding the women’s sphere and coverture, see: Nancy F. Cott, The Bonds of Womanhood: “Woman’s Sphere” in New England, 1780-1835, 2nd ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), 63-100; Linda K. Kerber, “The Republican Mother and the Woman Citizen: Contradictions and Choices in Revolutionary America,” Women’s America: Refocusing the Past, 6th ed. eds. Linda K. Kerber and Jane Sherron De Hart (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 119-127; Norton, 131-137.]

Because Nicholas Tillinghast oversaw his daughter’s inheritance, it is likely that she returned to his household after the death of her husband. Nicholas moved from Newport, Rhode Island, to Virginia in 1798. Probate records involving John Vilet’s estate indicate that Patience was present there with him in 1801.[38. “Ancestor Chart for Ms. Sandra N. Wanamaker;” Final inventory of the estate of Captain John Vilett.] Hence it is feasible that Patience and her daughter returned to her father’s house after John Vilet’s death and stayed there for the remainder of Eliza’s youth. This timeline offers scant room for substantial contact between Patience and her in-laws (whatever their ancestry) following the end of her marriage contract with their deceased son. In light of this and despite the manifold possibilities of this family arrangement, one may suppose that Eliza Vilet’s dubious family heritage was not the source of her affinity for the figure of Jean-Baptiste Massillon.


Eliza may have come across the French preacher by other means. A few turn-of-the-twentieth-century newspaper articles offer a clue about an alternate link between the lady and the bishop. In 1908, Massillon, Ohio’s Evening Independent printed an article in which the grandniece of James Duncan, Fannie Harris Clift, recalls a “‘common impression’” that Eliza, who “‘named the city after the French priest […] Massillon,’” was a “‘great student of French.’”[39. “Left Massillon Fifty Years Ago.” The full quote by Mrs. Clift reads: “The common impression prevails that (Eliza Duncan) was a great student of French, but she was not the learned mother my grandmother, Mehitable Duncan McClary, James Duncan’s sister, was.” It seems that such a statement was not meant to dispute the fact that Mrs. Duncan could read and adequately understand French – just that she was not as “great” a French scholar as Mrs. Clift’s mother, who was a “linguist, a highly educated, and a highly cultured woman.”] An 1897 item for Massillon’s City Article entitled “Story of Massillon” indicates that Mrs. Duncan named the town after a “favorite author,” the celebrated French preacher.[40. “Story of Massillon,” 2.] A contemporary of the Duncans offers further proof of Eliza’s academic connection to Massillon’s writings as well as her general interest in the humanities. In an 1880 document, Robert H. Folger claims that Mrs. Duncan selected “Massillon” on the basis of her “familiarity with the French language, French history, and the classics,” which was “acknowledged by her large circle of friends.”[41. Folger, “Massillon.”] He furthermore writes in 1881 that she “was a fine French scholar” and “a woman of rare education and social qualities.”[42. Folger, “Chapter XII,” 383.] None of these authors mentions Eliza’s ancestry—be it French, English, or otherwise—as an explanation for her connection to the French bishop. Instead, they cite education and reading preference as the source of this link. Still more curious is the fact that any reference to Eliza’s “old-world” heritage appears much later in documents written within the past four decades.

Massillon’s books were certainly available to North American readers during the early republic. In 1805, a Raleigh, North Carolina, bookseller advertised a two-volume edition of the French divine’s sermons for sale alongside other “divinity” selections like the works of Scottish Presbyterian Hugh Blair and John Brown’s Dictionary of the Bible.[43. “Valuable Books,” Raleigh Register and North Carolina Weekly Advertiser, Issue 321 (18 November 1805). Brown was another “Scottish divine.”] In the following year, a Pittsburgh bookman touted the “Sermons of Bishop Massillon (the celebrated French Pulpit Orator) translated […and] complete in 2 vols.”[44. David McKeehan, Pittsburgh Gazette, Issue 1054 (2 December 1806); Interestingly, it seems to take at least another two decades for printers to feel confident enough to advertise Massillon’s works under headings that emphasize their “Frenchness;” Some examples include: “Valuable French and Italian Books,” Boston Courier Issue 1548 (14 February 1839); “French Books” Boston Courier Issue 509 (11 November 1830).] Both booksellers were undoubtedly hawking an English translation of Massillon’s sermons by William Dickson. This edition was first published in England in the late-eighteenth century. Yet in 1803, a Brooklyn, New York, printing firm began reproducing the work directly for American audiences. Two years later, a Harford, Massachusetts, publisher also started churning out copies of another single-volume edition of sermons by Massillon and an additional French divine, Lewis Bordaloue. These publications represent the first efforts by American printers to offer an English translation of Massillon’s sermons.[45. See the Online Computer Library Center, “WorldCat;” available from (28 February 2012).]

These English-language editions were not the only works by Jean-Baptiste Massillon for sale in the United States. The preacher had found his way into French print long before his appearance in English. In Europe after 1745 Jean-Baptiste Massillon’s sermons enjoyed nearly annual reprints in the French language until the nineteenth century. Some of these books found their way overseas. In his study of French books imported to Philadelphia between 1750 and 1800, Howard Mumford Jones notes that, while advertisements for French-language editions of Massillon’s sermons were rare, they nevertheless did appear in the city’s newspapers from time to time.[46. Howard Mumford Jones, “The Importation of French Books in Philadelphia, 1750-1800,” Modern Philology 32.2 (Nov. 1934), 162.] Thus Eliza Duncan had the potential to access Massillon’s printed sermons in their native French before her husband asked her to name his burgeoning canal town in 1826. Yet why the daughter of American citizens would have the French language in her lexicon is a question that deserves further consideration.

By 1801, Nicholas Tillinghast of Virginia was managing his daughter Patience’s part of her late husband’s estate. Some seven years later, this conventional arrangement came to its inevitable conclusion when Nicholas himself succumbed with no surviving male heir. In his will, he gave much of what he owned and managed to his oldest surviving daughter and granddaughter. These were considerable means.[47. Final will and testament of Nicholas P. Tillinghast: “To my Daughter Patience Villette the farm I purchased from Alexander Wells on Cross Creek in Washington County State of Pennsylvania, with the saw mill and other appertenances whereunto belonging, also a lott of parcel of ground of about 19 acres joining said farm which I bought from Robert Welsh, also 20 acres joining the parcel last mentioned purchased from David Templeton; also a tract of land in Washington County aforesaid; near Isaac Manchester’s farm, which I purchased from said Manchester; also my dwelling house in Charlestown aforesaid the new Brick building thereunto adjoining and the lott and piece or parcel of ground thereunto belonging; also all my other houses and lotts and parts of lotts in said town also three lots in the town of Smithfield in the State of Ohio, laid out by James Carr (…) I moreover give and bequeath to the said Patience all my household furniture all my part of the store goods which shall be on hand at the time of my decease, likewise all the debts which shall be due to me or the firm of Nicholas P. Tillinghast and Co. (…) also all my Interest in the Brigg Recovery now in the harbour of New York.”] Furthermore, sometime before Eliza Vilet’s marriage to James Duncan in 1816, Patience died. As a result, Eliza became the primary heir to her mother’s portion of her husband’s and father’s estates.

Eliza Vilet came of age under the auspices of a rather generous inheritance. Her relative wealth likely combined with other personal, social, and cultural factors to condition her life experiences during her adolescent years in Virginia. Undoubtedly, the normative gender constructs of Eliza’s era comprised another factor that influenced her upbringing. Nancy F. Cott argues that marriage and motherhood were the central components of early republican womanhood.[48. Cott, The Bonds of Womanhood, 63-100; NOrton, 295; Gordon S. Wood, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 (New York: Oxford, 2009), 500-507.] This gender construct is manifest within a variety of primary sources; Cott avers that, despite their differing approaches, a host of “essays, sermons, novels, poems, and manuals” directed at those who would be Eliza’s contemporaries echoed a “single cannon—of domesticity” for women.[49. Cott, The Bonds of Womanhood, 63-64.] Hence in the early American republic, a woman appeared most “womanly” within the walls of her husband’s house. Within those walls, she performed her gender best by filling a number of roles suited to her “particular” disposition, which was deemed to be gentle, sensitive, nurturing, diffident, chaste, passionless, and obsequious. The “true woman” was a caregiver, who derived her greatest pleasure through rearing the next generation of American citizens; she was the family’s spiritual anchor and was responsible for her children’s salvation; she set the standard of behavior and etiquette within her household; she was the self-abnegating purveyor of her husband’s welfare.[50. Cott, The Bonds of Womanhood, 63-100; Gerda Lerner, “The Lady and the Mill Girl: Changes in the Status of Women in the Age of Jackson, 1800-1840,” A Heritage of Her Own: Toward a New Social History of American Women, eds. Nancy F. Cott and Elizabeth H. Pleck (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979), 190-193.] Though this list may not be comprehensive, such were the bonds of womanhood in Eliza’s milieu.

Many of Eliza’s contemporaries spent much of their single life in anticipation of marriage and what followed. To this end, a rising number of socially conscious parents from middle- and upper-class backgrounds sent their daughters to female academies during the late-eighteenth century. Female academies offered “ornamental” education in subjects like embroidery, dancing, and needlework—a curriculum that aimed to improve one’s chances within the marriage market and thereafter to embellish a future husband’s household and social life.[51. Mary Kelly, Learning to Stand and Speak: Women, Education, and Public Life in America’s Republic (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 36.]

While ornamental instruction was prevalent within female academies at this time, a women’s educational experience was nonetheless undergoing a few important changes. Though in the years before the rise of the republic, many deemed it unnecessary for women to study subjects that had no practical application at home, some political and social thinkers started to argue for a more liberal approach to female scholarship following the American Revolution. Benjamin Rush, one of the foremost of these, proposed that women be given a formal education that emphasized instruction in reading, writing, and arithmetic. According to Rush, men’s many “avocations” carried them away from the home, and consequently, “a principle share of the instruction of children naturally devolves upon the women.”[52. Benjamin Rush, Essays, Literary, Moral, and Philosophical, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: Thomas and William Bradford, 1806), 76.] For this reason women needed to be properly schooled in order to give their sons an education that would help them to become intelligent and moral citizens. In classical thought, which was highly influential during this period, the maintenance of a new republic depended upon this type of citizenry. Thus mothers came to be viewed as the guardians of their newborn republic’s sacred flame and their education became a means to preserve that light.

These newfound attitudes toward women’s education nevertheless stayed in tension with those already in existence. In diverting the young ladies of prosperous families away from the art of fashion, needlework, and dancing, early republican thinkers offered them the chance to become formally-educated citizens, but knowledge of ornamentals remained an attractive and distinguishing asset. Because ornamental education retained much of its original currency for those wishing to marry well, female schools continued to offer this type of education in addition to more formal subjects.[53. Cott, The Bonds of Womanhood, 115-118.]

Within this context, knowledge of the French language increasingly became another ornamental accomplishment for polite American women. Howard Mumford Jones argues that the late-eighteenth century saw a rise in the “social prestige” of French culture, partially as a result of more amenable Franco-American relations following the Seven Years War.[54. Howard Mumford Jones, America and French Culture (1927, reprinted Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1973), 185.] Consequently before 1800 there was a marked increase in the instruction of French—the “language of diplomacy and social intercourse”—on American soil.[55. Ibid., 199.] French books and teachers proliferated in the United States, and the socially conscious sought them out. To illustrate, Cott reproduces a 1791 advertisement which she deems typical: “‘Mrs. Woodbury announces that she will open a boarding school for young ladies at her house on Market St. where instruction will be given in the French and English languages, drawing, embroidery, etc.’”[56. Quoted in Cott, The Bonds of Womanhood, 115.] It is true that during Eliza’s formative years, some Americans’ interest in French culture diminished due to the increasing violence of the French revolution, the XYZ affair, and the Napoleonic Wars. Regardless, Jones rightly reminds us that “it is probably too much to say” that bourgeois interest in French language and culture simply disappeared “for twenty years” after the 1790s. He avers furthermore, “The social prestige of French as a language, though it might suffer an eclipse, could not be destroyed.”[57. Jones, America and French Culture, 199, 200.]

Eliza Vilet had sufficient motive and means to learn the French language and gain access to the writings of the Sun King’s eulogist in early republican America. Still it is curious that a Roman Catholic minister would find an advocate in a Presbyterian pioneer woman from Virginia. This potential non-sequitur is more feasible in light of the popular evangelical revivals that were sweeping the nation in the early-nineteenth century. Among other things, these revivals espoused a “cult of feeling that was, within its limits, far more receptive to aesthetic experience than Calvinisim and the more Spartan forms of republicanism had been.”[58. John H. Murrin, et al., eds. Liberty, Equality, Power: A History of the American People (Belmont, California: Thomson Wadsworth, 2006), 388.] The writings of Jean-Baptiste Massillon were well suited to such an emotive religious culture. According to one early-nineteenth-century Congregationalist minister from Hartford, Connecticut, the prelate had “much knowledge both of the world and of the human heart; he is pathetic and persuasive; and upon the whole, is perhaps the most eloquent writer of sermons which modern times have produced.”[59. Abel Flint, “Preface,” Sermons of John Baptiste Massillon and Lewis Bourdaloue, Two Celebrated French Preachers, (Hartford, Connecticut: Lincoln and Gleason, 1805), iii.] In 1788, a writer for a London newspaper proposed that Massillon was “the first preacher who spoke to the heart.”[60. “Literary intelligence of Europe.] A third admirer declared in 1797 that Massillon gave the gospel “all the charms of sensibility.”[61. M. DeQuatremere, “On Religious Festivals,” Oracle and Public Advertiser (London, England) 19.535 (28 January 1797).] According to this cloud of witnesses, Massillon’s writings evince an aesthetical appeal well suited to the context of the Second Great Awakening.

Arguably, Massillon’s Roman Catholic affiliations were less important to Americans than his eloquent message of God’s election and the narrow road to salvation. William Dickson, Massillon’s early translator, writes that the Frenchman’s works were “an acceptable present to Christians of every denomination,” given that their content was “unconnected with local or temporary events in France.”[62. William Dickson, “Preface,” Sermons by J.B. Massillon To Which is Prefixed a Life of the Author, end ed. Vol. I, trans. and ed. by William Dickson, (Philadelphia: Carey and Son, 1818), iii.] This statement is geared to sell books no doubt, but it might not be far from the mark. In addition, Jones notes that even though many Americans during the early-nineteenth century nursed suspicions about the Papacy, some were nevertheless willing to accept “evidences of French Catholic ‘modernity’ with joy.”[63. Jones, America and French Culture, 439.] Massillon, who had Jansenist proclivities, was tolerable on this account. And seventeenth-century Catholic writers “were not, so to speak, so dangerous.”[64. Ibid., 441.] In these ways, the writings of Jean-Baptiste Massillon were palatable to a broad spectrum of Christians.

With this information in mind (and in light of the paucity of sources that discuss Eliza’s upbringing), I can offer a speculative review of how Eliza Vilet might have come to admire Massillon’s printed work. During her adolescence, Eliza may have spent a great deal of time preparing for marriage and domestic life. She probably received an education befitting her affluent status—one that prepared her to become both a useful and an ornamental spouse and a competent mother of American citizens. Such an education might have included instruction in the French language, given that French was a fashionable accomplishment at this time. Considering the religious expectations placed on early republican women and the widespread Christian revivalism of her time, it would not be surprising to find that Eliza’s fluency in French served to cultivate her spirituality. While growing up, Eliza could have accessed French (or English) editions of Jean-Baptiste Massillon’s writings from American booksellers. And it would not have been abnormal for her to do so, given Massillon’s appeal to “Christians of every denomination.”


The preceding lines are purely hypothetical. In truth it is doubtful that we will ever know with certainty why Eliza Vilet Duncan chose to name her husband’s town “Massillon.” In the end, perhaps the act of asking this question is more significant than its answer. This inquiry has drawn attention to the fluidity of local memory regarding a notable figure within the history of the settlement of Northeast Ohio. Most of the histories of this area have tended to subsume this figure’s actions and words—save but a few—within those of her husband, who is often cited as Massillon’s founding father. I think that this version of the story leaves something to be desired. Despite the faintness of her voice within the historical record, it is clear that Eliza Vilet Duncan influenced her husband’s financial wherewithal to pursue ambitious business ventures in Ohio, that she gained an honored reputation of her own within the local community, and that she applied a culturally-conditioned intellect to the task of naming a new town in the newly-minted state of Ohio. These instances of female agency are important components of Ohio’s history. Without them, we lose sight of the incredible dimension of the pioneer experience in the northeast quarter of the Buckeye State.