Aurilla (Aurelia) White was born on February 13, 1818 in Bennington, VT. She came to the Shakers when she was just 12 years old and spent her entire life in the Watervliet community. Her role in the community was that of teacher. She received her teaching certificate from the Town of Watervliet Superintendent of Schools on June 1, 1846. She was still doing this over thirty years later; the journals mention that Aurelia was one of six Shakers attending a Teachers’ Institute. Aurelia was also a gifted singer and performed with a small group in Albany.
Many individual Shakers did not leave behind a written record of their lives. The job of keeping the daily account of life in the community was usually assigned to one person at a time. We are lucky enough to have copies of letters that Aurelia wrote to her friend, Winnie Aspenwall of Loundonville. The seven letters we have in our records span from March 5, 1882 to April 25, 1887 (Aurelia died in 1889). We aren’t sure what the relationship between the two women was exactly, but from these handful of writings it’s obvious that Winnie and her family were good friends of the Shakers. Here are a couple of examples of Aurelia’s letters to Winnie:
Shakers, May 28, 1884
My dear Winnie,
I received your kind notice by today’s mail, and was most glad to hear from you. I have been thinking much the same thing of late, that what has passed thru your mind in regard to us, I wonder why you did not come to see us.
I mean to come some time, with some of the Sisters, I want to see you, and Mother Aspenwall, and then it is such a lovely ride from our place, but sometimes we are deterred when we really feel like it, for the reason that we cannot always find the horse and a brother at leisure to take us so we must needs put up with it. Ann Buckingham is at work with me in my shop, and we have very pleasant times. She wants to see you too, and sends a great deal of love to you both. Adelaide and Anna Wilson also send love, and we all wish you much health and happiness. You must have real courage to bear up against all the little ills that overtake us, so that we can always look on the bright side of every cloud, for be sure, if you look for it, you can find the silver lining. Of course it must feel quite lonely to you, to have Frank gone so long, but we have trust he is well, and when he returns you must come out to see us. We have all read ‘Beyond the Sunrise’ a great deal, and then lay it by, to take it up again. There is much in it that is new, and worth reading many times. Enlightening, edifying, and instructive.
Remember us to the Medium, Mrs. Smith, when you have an opportunity. Shall always be pleased to see her at our place, or anywhere. If friends are with you, when you receive this, please extend to them our love. I inquired of Lucy regarding the album and illustrated pieces. She said she received the pretty girl sent by her friend Margaret, and returns many thanks and much love for the same. She says the ancient relic in no way compared with her beautiful present, and she shall always keep it and remember her kind friend whom she hoped some time to see again. It is a usual time of health in the Society. I am feeling about as well as usual, tho I have no strength to boast.
Am making dresses and sometime change my work and make some little fancy wares. Dear Winnie I would write you a longer letter at this time, but my opportunity is somewhat limited today, and will now bid you Good by for this time. Give an abundance of love to your Mother and father Aspenwall and accept a very large portion for yourself.
Ever yours in love and kind wishes. Aurelia
Shakers, April 25, 1887
To Mrs. W.V. Aspenwall, Loudonville, Albany Co., NY
My dear Winnie,
I write you again to inform you of the decease of our estimable and loved Sister Louvinia Salsbury who departed this life on the 22nd inst. having nearly reached her 90th year. Sisters all measurably well with the exception of Jennette Angus who has been quite sick with heavy cold leading to pneumonia for a time her life was despaired of but the Dr. thinks now, if she still continues to gain, she will live. We hope so, for it would indeed be a severe loss to part with her.
Spring has come indeed, and it makes our hearts glad to see some pleasant days and feel the influence of the genial life giving rays of the sun, dispelling the ice and heavy drifts of snow from our sight and giving us a little more courage to get about. My eyesight has been bad, but is improving some. Come up and see us when you can with Mother Aspenwall we should be pleased to see you both. Kindest love to you both and to father A.
Ministry now at Mt. Lebanon. Will be with us about the middle of May if nothing prevents. Good by, Winnie dear.
Through Aurelia’s letters, we get a glimpse into daily life in the Shaker community in the late 19th century. We can also pick out other interesting bits of information, like the fact that Shaker sisters needed to rely on a brother to take them out in the wagon and that they were friendly with “mediums.” The book that Aurelia mentions, called Beyond the Sunrise, seems to have been recently published. The Monthly Bulletin of the St. Louis Public Library from 1884 describes the book: “Said to be by two well-known American writers; the subjects treated are psychology, clairvoyance, and theosophy. In the form of sketches, which embody personal experiences and account of phenomena.” This is not surprising, as there was a long Shaker tradition of spiritualism and belief that communication between the living and the spirit world was possible.
Aurelia died on May 13, 1889. In her obituary in the Shaker Manifesto (a periodical published by the Shakers and sent to all the communities), she was remembered as “loved and respected for her unflinching devotion to the cause which she espoused in her childhood. She gave her whole life in sustaining the Principles of righteousness. Her work is finished and she has gone to join the kindred souls in the beautiful land beyond.”