Arts and Leisure

When Betsy Met Nicholas – A Moffatt Marriage Made in Portsmouth

Among the more charming tales circulated about Portsmouth, N.H., is the marriage of Nicholas Rousselet to Catherine Elizabeth Moffatt in 1786.

moffatt

The Proposal, John Petie, 1869

Betsy, as she was called, was granddaughter of John Moffatt. He had come to America from England as a ship’s captain in the early 1700s and made a fortune both through his trading endeavors and by marrying the wealthy Katherine Cutt.

John grew determined that his son Samuel would be as successful as he was in business, and he built a mansion for the boy and his bride, Sarah Catherine. The Moffatt Ladd House is still standing in Portsmouth as a museum.

The Moffatt-Ladd house.

Samuel had six children, including Betsy, the oldest. But he was less successful in business. Probably driven to it by his lavish lifestyle, Samuel launched a career as a slave trader. He traveled to Africa to purchase slaves with his brother-in-law Peter Livius. The trip was a disaster for all involved, first and foremost for the enslaved people Moffatt tried to bring to America. They died in transit on the ship Triton.

The Lawsuit

Moffatt and Livius then had a falling out. Livius claimed he had not invested in the voyage of the slave ship. Rather, he contended he had loaned Moffatt money to finance the trip — money Moffatt still owed him.

Livius took the matter to court and Samuel Moffatt’s failures to document his business dealings left him an easy target. To flee his creditors, Samuel Moffatt left Portsmouth for the Dutch-controlled island of St. Eustatius in the Caribbean. One year later his wife joined him with young Betsy.

While Samuel was away attempting to rebuild his fortune, his father, John, stepped in to resolve his troubles. John had never given the deed to the mansion he built to his son, but Samuel’s belongings were at risk. John sued his son, claiming he owed him the money he had advanced him to set him up in business. The court ordered Samuel’s belongings auctioned. John bought the contents of the house and then gave them back to his son.

Samuel Moffatt Returns

The maneuver freed Samuel from worry that he must forfeit his belongings to his brother-in-law, though the feud continued between the former business partners.

By 1786, Betsy was 22 and back in Portsmouth. She was a regular attendee at church, where she caught the eye of Nicholas Rousselet. Roussellet was a few years older than she. He had come to America from France and gained citizenship in 1785. He had worked as an auctioneer in Boston and owned property in Portsmouth.

Rousselet decided to propose to Betsy in an unusual manner, according to local legend. He gave her a Bible. Inside the cover he had inscribed a verse from the Second Epistle of John:

“And now I beseech thee, lady, not as though I
wrote a new commandment unto thee, but that
which we had from the beginning, that we love one another.”

Betsy was charmed by the proposal, and returned the Bible with a page bent down marking a phrase from the book of Ruth:

“Whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I
will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my
God: where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be
buried: the Lord do so to me, and more also, if aught but
death part thee and me.”

The couple had one daughter, Lucy, born in Portsmouth in 1788. But Nicholas kept up his globe trotting ways. The family lived in Philadelphia for a time and then moved to South America.

If you enjoyed this article, you might like The Scandalous Wedding of Gov. John Wentworth.

Thanks to An Old Town by the Sea, by Thomas Bailey Aldrich.

Image of Moffatt-Ladd House: By Ken Gallager at English Wikipedia – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17977446. This story was updated in 2021.

To Top