top of page

"I am like a lost sheep in the world:": The Letters of Jeannette Cooley

Updated: Dec 2, 2022

Last week's History Note told the story behind the inscription on James Cooley's cenotaph in Longmeadow Cemetery. A cenotaph is a monument without a body. As a reminder, Cooley died at age 37 of typhus only nine months after beginning his tenure while serving in Lima, Peru as the United States Charge D'Affaires. This second part of the story will focus on his wife Jeannette, who accompanied him to Peru.

Jeannette Cooley wrote frequent letters home to her sister, Eliza, from her new home in Peru. Her husband had been named the United States' first Charge D'Affaires to Peru after the country was recognized. Born in Guilford, Connecticut, Jeannette had settled in Ohio. Though her husband was a prominent lawyer, state senator, and elector (for the Presidential Electoral college), the appointment to Peru must have come as a shock. He wasn't President John Quincy Adams' first choice, and he was relatively unknown.

Her first letter is written about their "long and tedious" journey to Lima by way of the Straits of Magellan. She "had two narrow escapes from the hands of death" during the voyage. The first was due to a storm: "our ship was tost [sic] from side to side, and the foaming mountain waves appeard to show with what anger they allowed us to pass." After passing Cape Horn, Jeannette was ill "for the want of medical skill my life was dispaired of." The passage took one hundred and three days to reach dry land at Valparaiso in Chile. From there they stopped at Coquimbo, and then Callao before entering the walls of Lima.

Appointed to his position in February 1826, it was many months of travel before James Cooley and his wife reached their destination. Jeannette seemed ill-prepared to take up diplomatic life in Peru. Her comments about the country were unflattering, to say the least, and reflect the culture shock that challenged her early New England sensibilities: "In the first place the whole coast of South America is not worth the comforts of one little Village in the U.S., for comforts is a word not in the Language or known in the Country." Keep in mind that she didn't actually speak the language! She describes the houses as being decorated with many silver objects like looking glasses and picture frames, but "at the same time with all of this silver they will live on a brick floor without a chair in the house." She goes on to say "Chairs carpets and knives and forks were a thing unknown in Lima untill lately but they are beginning to use them in the best houses."

Jeannette Cooley was impressed with the churches, though she says that the "Priests are constant attendants at Bull Fights and Cock fights!" The ladies of Lima "have fine black eyes and pretty feet" but they "smoke a segar which they all do from old to young rich or poor."

Clothing styles were also quite different from what Jeannette was used to: "they have their dresses made very short in order to show her pretty stockings and shoes. They never wear any bonnets, they are a thing almost unknown in S. A. and have onely been worn by the few English or American ladies. They are in general very fat and wear no jackets or corsets of any kind in common and their dress made loose and low in the neck." She describes the daily garb of the women as the daya (saya) and Mana (manto). These two garments were worn in such a way as to "conceal them-selves altogether except one eye." "A Lady will go any where with this dress, and not be known by her own husband or brother, I cannot give yo a correct idea of this dress with out sending you a painting. It is the most indecent dress to a foreign eye."

Image of a woman wearing a saya and manto, 1830

Library of Congress

She found the everyday items very expensive, like "Beef 18 cents a pound, flour from 20 to 30 dollars a barrel." "We have to buy our water in the City is supplied by a fountain that stands in this centere, and wood is the dearest thing of of all, with the greatest economy you must 75 cents a day and some times more for this article and we use it for nothing but cooking in a furnace as there is not a fire place in Lima." Jeannette rarely mentions her husband in these missives to home: "As to politicks I do not meddle with them, since the arrival of Le Mar our president I have been to a Bull fight and a splendid Ball, at the Palace." It seems that she was finally impressed with the parties, at least! She was very homesick and missed her family--it seemed that the mail was very unreliable: "we have not heard a word from any of you since we left home which you know must make me miserable, I beg and pray you to write often. I am like a lost sheep in the world."

Her postscript the next day included a description of their experience with an earthquake "we have had an Earthquake (blank) very severe this is the forth we have felt. our house rocked like a cradle, and we were much frightened." As awful as that was, the next line describes some seeds they have sent to Ohio of the Chirimoya (Annoma cherimola, custard apple) that they hope will thrive there. Jeannette says "it is a species of the Paw Paw, it is the finest fruit in South America, they grow as large as a tea pot."

Chermoya, which Mark Twain called "the most delicious fruit known to man"

Just two months later, Jeannette had changed her tone in a letter to her sister. She had just returned from a trip to a nearby Indian village called Lurin. She described it as "one of the richest valley's in Peru, it is a beautiful little green valley surrounded by sand hills, and the Sea. On one of these hills lies the ruins of Pachacamac, and the temple of the Sun." She goes on to describe the ruins, including the many relics that were strewn about. Her enthusiasm might have also been due in part to the amiable company, "as there was a large party of us spent our time very pleasantly riding on horse back and accompanying the Gentlemen to shoot ducks." They were warned about highway robbers, but "we set out merrily upon the full gallop." As promised to her sister in her earlier letter, Jeannette now set out to describe a Ball given by President Le Mar. Jeannette was obviously impressed by the riches displayed, "the young ladies were dressed with some taste, and some with their twenty thousand dollars worth of diamonds." There were tables furnished with all kinds of useful and beautiful items such as flowers, stockings, fruit, and "Cegars." Jeannette passed a very enjoyable evening, and she was amazed at an usual custom that was associated with events such as this ball "what is the most strange thing is that no party can be given without most every think stolen, some times not a plate, knife nor fork, nor spoon, and even the meats all is gone nothing remains, not even the table cloth. There is a lady got a turky by the leg and puting it under her shawl. This custom of stealing has always been allowed." She concludes the letter with pleas for letters from home "if you let us know that you are in existence it is better than silence." The final letter is one written to Jeannette in May of 1828, several months after James Cooley's death. It was written by a Mr. Wetmore, detailing the stores that he has arranged for her return trip and advice about what to do when she arrived back in the United States. The list of stores included cheese, salmon, dried apples, 8 dozen Fowls, 4 doz. Ducks, 6 Fenegas (fanegas is a Spanish bushel) sweet potatoes and 6 Canasters of Gingerbread. We know that Jeannette safely returned to Ohio after her adventure in Peru. She married again, to another Longmeadow transplant, Jonathan Ely. After his death, she married a third time, to Robert Neil. According to a gravestone in Ohio, Jeannette lived to 1899. Her gravestone includes her first husband James Cooley, as well as her second. This means that James Cooley has a grave in Peru, a cenotaph in his hometown of Longmeadow, and a second cenotaph in Ohio.

List of supplies for Mrs. Cooley's journey home from Peru

-Contributed by Betsy McKee, Longmeadow Historical Society Board Member

Originally published October 6, 2022 -Copies of letters courtesy of the Champaign County (Ohio) Historical Society Museum in Urbana, Ohio. Transcriptions by Betsy McKee Note: Spelling appears directly as transcribed from the letters

17 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page