Biographical Sketch: David Parsons Holton, M.D.

2019 is the 150th anniversary of the founding of the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society. A century and a half later, the NYG&B has grown into the largest and oldest genealogy society in the state of New York and has helped hundreds of thousands of researchers discover more about their New York ancestor and heritage.

We're proud to present a series of articles related to the founding of the NYG&B and biographical sketches of the earliest members of the society. These articles are authored by Dr. Stanton Biddle, who is a longtime volunteer and has exhaustively researched the early history and members of the NYG&B as part of a recent project. The narratives and biographical sketches he has created, and the information he has discovered provide a much-needed chronicle of the society's history, and will be preserved and treasured for many years to come.

 

June 18, 1812 – June 7, 1883


An image of David Parsons Holton, from a book he published on
the Winslow family and their descendants in America

David Parsons Holton was a physician. With the assistance of his wife Frances, he convened the Society’s organizational meeting in their home on February 27, 1869. He signed the Certificate of Incorporation one month later, was elected to the original Board of Trustees in April, and served as the new organization’s initial 1st Vice President. Frances Forward Holton was the Society’s first female member.

David Holton was born in Westminster, Vermont, on June 18, 1812. He was the fourth of five children born to Joel and Phebe (Parsons) Holton. Due to unfortunate circumstances, the household split up when David was a child, and he and his sister were sent away to school in South Berwick, Maine, where their uncle Isaac Holton held a position. After completing his preliminary education in 1832, Holton accepted a two-year position as preceptor at a Southwick, Massachusetts school. He made a daily five-mile commute before school to meet with a mentor, Dr. Emerson Davis at Westfield, Massachusetts. While working at Southwick, he earned enough money to repay his uncle for supporting him at South Berwick and prepared himself academically for his next venture in life, New York City.

Almost immediately upon his arrival in New York in May of 1834, he became acquainted with people through the American Bible Society who were to have a lifelong impact. These included the Rev. John C. Brigham, Corresponding Secretary of the American Bible Society; Robert M. Hartley, Esq. Secretary of the New York City Temperance Society; and the Rev. Dr. James M. Matthews, Chancellor of the newly formed University of the City of New York (New York University). Matthews facilitated his enrollment in the new institution. Within a few days Holton found employment including lodging as a teacher at the Lafayette Institute on Broadway & 9th Street.

During these early days in New York Dr. Holton developed three lifelong passions: 1) an aversion to alcohol that led him to take a personal vow to never use intoxicating drinks, 2) a love of the concept of “object-teaching” by the proper use of mannequins, skeletons and prepared specimens of human and comparative anatomy, and 3) a belief in advancing the interests of freedom and opposition to slavery.

Holton graduated from the College of Physicians and Surgeons in March of 1839 and joined the Eastern Dispensary on Essex Street in New York. In May 1839 he married Frances K. Forward of Southwick, Massachusetts, one of his former students.

In 1843 Frances’s poor health forced the family to abandon the city, and Dr. Holton exchanged his practice with a physician in Westport, Essex County, New York. While in Westport, Holton became involved with the public schools and was shortly thereafter appointed town superintendent of public schools by the County Board of Supervisors. Because his superintendent work took up so much of his time, he hired another doctor to handle his medical practice. While working in Westport Holton developed an active interest in the physiology of language and the ways children are taught to speak. He developed a phonetic alphabet and teaching techniques for its use that he shared with his colleagues in Essex County. In September 1847, Holton sold his Westport practice and returned to New York City. For the next several years he continued his studies and lectures on elocution and language in addition to his work as a physician. However, after a series of setbacks, including the loss of a brother, a son, and having a second son afflicted by a debilitating hip-joint disease, his sister Miriam convinced him to go to Europe in 1853 for the son’s medical treatment and for the restoration of his own heath. His wife Frances and daughter joined him the following autumn. The Holtons spent four years in Paris, Vienna, and Berlin. They took full advantage of the cultural and educational opportunities found there. They interacted with some of the leading intellectuals of the time and became very interested in cultural exchanges through books, art works, and natural history specimens.

Upon his return to the United States, Dr. Holton continued to cultivate his interest in the physiology of language by conducting lectures. With the outbreak of the Civil War, he turned his attention to the needs of children victimized by the conflict. First he converted land he and his sister owned in Waterville, Wisconsin, to an asylum for war orphaned children. Then he expanded his effort by supporting the establishment of similar facilities across the Northern states. The movement to address the growing problem of caring for and educating orphans and children whose fathers had perished during the struggle was formalized in the establishment of the Institute of Reward for Patriot Orphans. The society was a joint federal, state, and private movement. Dr. Holton’s success in generating federal support for war victims is said to have been a factor in the establishment of agricultural colleges by the U.S. Congress in 1862. This in turn, led to the establishment of Land Grant colleges in the states. New York State’s contribution to the movement was 990,000 acres near Ithaca, New York. This laid the foundation for the institution that later became Cornell University. The common bond connecting the institutions was a commitment to providing services to patriot orphans free of charge.

Beyond his involvement with the Institute of Reward, Dr. Holton participated in a broad range of civic, educational and cultural associations and organizations. He was an early member of the American Philological Society; a founding member of the Pilgrim Record Society, and the Veteran-Temperance Society. He was an active member of both the National Temperance Union and the American Temperance Society. He was also a member of the prime meridian movement, an effort that agitated for establishing a uniform time system throughout the world; the free bath movement, an effort that advocated establishing free public baths; and the free canal movement, an effort that opposed tolls on the Erie Canal. Dr. Holton supported the worldwide standardization of weights and measures based on a decimal system. This was a precursor to the metric system and the current “International System of Units”.

Dr. Holton’s involvement in genealogy is said to have been sparked by his wife Frances’s interest in documenting their children’s American ancestry. About 1841 she began gathering facts documenting the descendants of her and Dr. Holton’s great grandparents. By 1863 she had amassed so much information that Holton’s sister Miriam agreed to pay her an annual salary to support the work with the understanding that the resulting report would be given to each of the descendants. With Miriam’s death in 1865, the work became a condition of her will.

The following quote from Dr. Henry R. Stiles’ Memorial sketch of David Parsons Holton describes what happened next:

Just here, then, were we launched on our voyage of genealogical discovery. We cruised about on that partially unknown ocean, gathering such treasurers as came within our reach, our enthusiasm increasing with every new acquisition, though not knowing where it was to be located, or whether it was to become one of the links of the much desired ancestral chain, until the four lines on this side of the Atlantic were complete. Now was presented the question, what shall be done with the large accumulations outside our four ancestral lines which had been procured in the course of these researches. By this time our hearts had become so enlarged, and our real estate was rising so rapidly (its yearly increasing value fully equaling the annual expense of the work) that we concluded we could not leave any of them out in the cold; but would adopt them all, feeling, as Miss Bremer expresses it; ‘The more angels, the more room.’

Amanuenses were employed, and both husband and wife entered, with new zeal, into the widely expanding work — which now assumed to them the character of sacred obligation to the dead. Hitherto they had labored by themselves; but now the necessity of a more widely extended and associated system of labor suggested itself to them; and the Doctor issued letters of invitation to a few upon whose interest in the subject of genealogy he might fairly count. …seven — strangers to him, and mostly to one another — …met at his residence, 124 West Fifty-fourth Street, on a terribly tempestuous evening — February 27, 1869. After a free exchange of views on the subject, and an interesting and inspiriting statement of the plan, progress, and condition of the New England Historical Genealogical Society by the Rev. E.F. Slafter, of Boston, Corresponding Secretary of the Society, it was determined that an effort should be made to establish in the city of New York a similar association for the State of New York. That small but earnest gathering in Dr. Holton’s parlors was the birth-night of our Society.

Dr. Holton went on to make many contributions to the Society. He served as a Trustee from its 1869 beginning until 1877. He was 1st Vice President from 1869 to 1871. He served on the Bibliographical Committee for many years, and he and his wife both became Life Members. They donated ten acres in Islip, Long Island, with a provision that the proceeds from the sale be used to create an endowment for the Society.