Famed Civil War Era Singer and Song Writer Joseph Philbrick Webster of New Hampshire (1819-1875)

Photograph from Digital Collections, University of Wisconsin-Madison Libraries, Joseph Philbrick Webster Music Manuscripts. Use approved for educational purposes.

Joseph Philbrick Webster was born 18 Feb 1819 on the shore of Massabesic Lake, near Manchester NH, son of Amos & Bethia (DeCosta/Costen) Webster, and grandson of Major John & Phebe (Haseltine) Webster. Both of Joseph’s grandfathers were patriots of the American Revolution.  His paternal grandfather had built what was known as Webster Mill at the mouth of the Cohas Brook.

Once again, while researching this story, I discovered am twice related to Joseph P. Webster, he being my 5th cousin 4x removed.  We both descend from 8th great-grandmother Mary Shatswell who married 1st) to John Webster, and married 2nd) to Stephen Emery [I descend directly from BOTH of those lines].   Joseph P. Webster was a prolific song writer who composed more than one thousand songs and hymns.

Circa 1873 photograph of Pembroke Academy in Pembroke NH; New Hampshire Historical Society. Used with permission. Colorized by the blog editor.

J.P. (as he was commonly known as) was musically talented from a young age, learning to sing and to play several musical instruments including the violin, flute and drum. While still a young teenager he learned to read music.

He gradated from Pembroke Academy in 1840 where he studied music and performed military drills. He taught music lessons to earn money, and moved to Boston to study at the Academy of Music (he dedicated one of his early publications to B.F. Baker,There’s a change in the things I Love,” 1844). Reportedly he was a member of the Handel & Hayden Society.

In 1843 he moved to New York City, and spent time in New Jersey and Connecticut. In 1848 following a severe case of bronchitis, he lost his singing voice. He turned to producing music, and directed a musical ensemble, the Euphonians.

He began to travel both to perform and to write music. After a short stay in Indiana, he moved to Racine, then to Elkhorn, Wisconsin. By 1856 he created a singing school here, and he worked with several lyricists, while he produced the music. One tune, “Lorena,” in 1857 came widely popular on both sides during the Civil War.

‘The Sweet By an By” was probably his most famous tune which he composed with lyrics

Sheet music and lyrics for Sweet Bye and Bye from “The Signet Ring,” a collection of music by J.P. Webster 1868. Internet Archive

by Dr. Sanford Fillmore Bennett, an apothecary and friend in Elkhorn. This hymn with about a hundred others were included in Webster’s Sunday School hymn book, “The Signet Ring,” published in 1867. Within a few years it was being sung across the United States, Canada, and also in England.

In 1871 the Chicago fire destroyed many of his works (they were stored at the Lyon and Healy offices). The Webster heirs filed a lawsuit in 1893 and 1906 against the Oliver Diston Company to reclaim the royalties owed, but the suit was not settled until 1921, the federal court awarding $56,000.  Mrs. Webster stated that “many of the twenty attorneys who were at one time or another connected with the case, have died since the case was instituted (some 16 years previously).

Old postcard of the J.P. Webster House in Elkhorn, MN. Located at 9 E Rockwell Street. Composet Joseph P. Webster lived here from 1857 to his death in 1875.

Joseph P. Webster married his oldest brother’s step-daughter Joanna Huse Rowell, and had four children.  He gave his son’s middle names of famed composers: Hayden, Beethoven and Handel.  His daughter, Mary, was a music teacher in New York City for several years.

Joseph P. Webster died on 29 Dec 1912, aged 87. He is buried in Hazel Ridge Cemetery, Elhorn Wisconsin. Today the house in which he lived, a block south of the town square in Elkhorn Wisconsin, was purchased by the historical society in 1957 and restored in 1967 by the Walworth County Historical Society  Among the many Webster artifacts in their collection are Joseph P. Webster’s dulcimer and violin.


John Webster of Ipswich (1605-1646) & Mary Shatswell (1606-1694)
Stephen Webster 1637-1694 & Hannah Ayer
John Webster 1668-1742 & Triphena Locke
Israel Webster 1704-1776 & Mercy Bond

Major John Webster, son of Israel & Mercy (Bond) Webster was born 14 Oct 1730 in Haverhill NH and died 1827 in Manchester NH. He married 19 April 1757 in Haverhill MA to Phebe Haseltine, daughter of Jonathan & Mary (Simons) Haseltine. She was b. 17 June 1733 in Haverhill MA and d. 1812 in Manchester NH.  Major John Webster was a veteran of the French & Indian War and the American Revolution.  Their children included: David, John, Hannah, Amos/Moses, and Sarah.

Amos “Moses” Webster was born in Derryfield New Hampshire (now Manchester) abt 1774-1776 and died 5 June 1850 in Manchester NH. He married 6 August 1795 in Goffstown NH to Bethia DeCosta, daughter of Ebenezer & Elizabeth “Rhoda” (Goff) DeCosta. She died 13 May 1870 in Manchester NH. They had 13 children: Ebenezer C., Phoebe, John Goffe, Franklin P., Amos, Elizabeth, Betha/Bertha, Rebecca M., Nathaniel, Charles, Judith, Joseph Philbrick* and James.


Timeline of J.P. Webster’s music — John Hopkins Sheridan Library

Library of Congress: Music of J.P. Webster

Song: “Lorena,” sung by: Tom Rousch

Song: “In the Sweet Bye and Bye, sung by:  Johnny Cash | Loretta Lynn | Dolly Parton


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7 Responses to Famed Civil War Era Singer and Song Writer Joseph Philbrick Webster of New Hampshire (1819-1875)

  1. Michael says:

    And thanks to the power of the internet, I was able to listen to some of Webster’s music while reading your post. Really brings it to life! Thank you for that introduction, Janice.

    • Janice Brown says:

      Michael first thanks for taking the time to read this story. And yes, how things have changed in the 40+ years I’ve been researching. From those early listservs (email lists) with limited connections, to now communicating, researching and the ability to connect on so many levels, delving into the history behind the people, how lucky we are!

  2. Candyce Fulford says:

    What might his connection be to the seacoast Philbrick line? Philbrick is such an unusual name that to use it as a middle name must mean that there’s a Philbrick family connection somewhere.

    • Janice Brown says:

      Candyce, that is an excellent question, and trust me that crossed my mind too. However, I do limit my research usually to the primary blood line, in this case the WEBSTER family. There are 3 major Webster lines in New England, and I descend from all three. As for Joseph Philbrick Webster, I did do a bit of research into his mother’s and grandmother’s lines and didn’t find an obvious PHILBRICK connection.

      His paternal lines and surnames are shown in the article. As for his maternal line: Ebenezer “Eben” DeCosta/Costen, son of John & Elizabeth (Carver) DeCosta, b NH d 1831 NH; m. Elizabeth “Rhoda” Goff, daughter of Col John-3 & Hannah (Griggs) Goffe-3 (John-2, John-1). I go back a generation from this on the Goff side and still no Philbrick line that I know of 🙂 For now it remains a mystery. Thank you for reading and commenting!

  3. Heather Wilkinson Rojo says:

    Very interesting! He lived in New Hampshire in the same era as the Hutchinson Family Singers. I wonder if they sang some of his music?

    • Janice Brown says:

      Yes, some biographies mention that they were contemporaries. I have not researched a list of what the Hutchinson Family sang at various venues, but no doubt Lorena and Bye and Bye which were favorites of both union and confederate troops may have been of interest to them. Sadly hundreds of Joseph’s compositions were lost in the Chicago Fire, and so I doubt a complete list of all his songs even exists. Thanks for reading and commenting, Heather!

  4. James Yeh says:

    Mr. Webster died in 1875. This was published by several church hymn books that I have in my collection. Note by James Yeh, Yehjamesc@gmail.com., Winter Park, Florida, USA.

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