Sarah Peirce Nichols usually got up before 3 a.m. every day in 1833 to walk … and walk … and walk. She was the 29-year-old single daughter of a once-prosperous Salem merchant and shipmaster.
She walked tremendous distances to alleviate symptoms of chronic illness. She suffered pains in her stomach and in her face; walking made her feel better.
Her father, George Nichols, grew up in Portsmouth, N.H., until he was 15, when his family returned to Salem. His father bought several ships with a partner and engaged in the West Indies trade. George Nichols went to sea, making voyages to Europe and the Indies, sometimes as captain. In 1801 he married his cousin, Sarah Peirce, and made only two sea voyages after that, retiring from seafaring in 1804, the year his first child, Sarah, was born. He became quite rich. He and his wife had nine children, eight of which lived to adulthood.
In 1824, George Nichols and other prominent men of Salem withdrew from the North Church and founded the Fourth Unitarian Church because they wanted a different pastor. At that time, Sarah’s health broke down. Her niece, Martha Nichols, described what happened in a family memoir partly dictated by George Nichols: A Salem Shipmaster and Merchant: The Autobiography of George Nichols.
During this period the oldest daughter, Sarah Peirce, was very delicate, suffering from what would now be called a nervous breakdown. She was sent to Cambridge to a noted specialist, who pursued heroic methods, with happy results. Horse-back riding was at once prescribed, which was a mild form of exercise compared to long drives in a wagon without springs, and walks of twenty miles a day. The practice of walking was kept up by my aunt for more than fifty years, to the time of her death, within three months of seventy-five years. Of course the number of miles a day were diminished with increasing age, but within a few weeks of her death she made her six miles daily, the sum total amounting to 147,000 miles.
In 1826, two years after Sarah’s nervous breakdown, George Nichols suffered a reversal of fortune. The family moved from the prestigious Tontine Block (burned down in 1904) to the home of a friend, then to a house owned by her paternal grandfather.
On June 1, 1833, Sarah Peirce Nichols set out from that house for her daily walk. She recorded in her diary:
June 1st. Very fine weather. 12 miles walk. Five years from this day I have travelled 15,961 ¼. I have received two handsome presents this week, a bonnet and belt ribbon.
After 1833, Sarah and her family would move several times until 1840, when they settled in a three-story house at 80 Federal St. It was designed by Samuel McIntire for her maternal grandfather, Jerathmiel Peirce. Peirce lost his fortune along with Sarah’s father, and had to sell the house. Friends of the family bought it and willed it to Sarah and her three sisters. It is now owned by the Peabody-Essex Museum and is open in the summer on Thursdays and Saturdays from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. It is a National Historic Landmark.
With thanks to A Day at a Time: The Diary Literature of American Women from 1764 to the Present edited by Margo Culley.