Charlotte Cowles: Writing Herself into History

Author: Regan Miner

Charlotte Cowles (1821-1866) lived in Farmington, Connecticut during an extremely polarizing time. During the 1830s, Farmington was grappling with the divisive issue of abolitionism; many people in town were either indifferent to or opposed to changes to the current gradual emancipation legislation. There was a significant minority of influential and wealthy citizens who favored abolitionism. Many abolitionists in Farmington were members of the same social and familial networks. Numerous members of Charlotte’s extended family were abolitionists, such as her cousin-in-law, Austin F. Williams, her uncle Timothy Cowles, her cousin Chauncey Cowles and her brother, Samuel S. Cowles, who opened an abolitionist newspaper in Hartford. Charlotte was a staunch abolitionist and the modern day researcher can delve into her thoughts thanks to the numerous letters she wrote to her brother, Samuel S. Cowles, currently housed at the Connecticut Historical Society. Charlotte’s letters reveal a strong willed woman who discussed everyday life in Farmington, abolitionist activities and her true feelings on slavery.

Jennette Cowles Williams and Austin F. Williams' grave in Riverside Cemetery in Farmington

Jennette Cowles Williams and Austin F. Williams’ grave in Riverside Cemetery in Farmington

Samuel and Charlotte’s parents were Horace and Mary Anne Cowles; of 10 children, only Samuel, Charlotte and another sister, Mary Ann, survived to adulthood. Their father, Horace Cowles, was a merchant active in the temperance and abolitionist movements. Charlotte and Samuel Cowles’ 94 letter correspondence, 91 letters from Charlotte and 3 letters from Samuel, spans from 1833 to 1841, and a single letter was penned in 1846. Charlotte’s letters are historically significant, because it is very rare to have a women’s first person perspective on a significant issue such as abolition. In addition, Charlotte wrote these letters between the ages of 13 and 25, which shows her intelligence and maturity about controversial issues at such a young age. Many of Charlotte’s letters detail the activities of various members of the Cowles family and she provides amusing updates about her life, such as her dinner plans and she described an episode where she went “sleighing.” Furthermore, Charlotte discussed births, marriages and deaths of family members and bemoaned the unpleasant winter weather. She constantly asked her brother when he would visit and if he could pick up certain items for her in Hartford. Charlotte’s charming prose and detailed descriptions offer a remarkable glance into everyday life in Farmington in the 1830s.

Charlotte’s letters give unique insight into the lives of the Amistad Africans, while they stayed in Farmington for roughly nine months before they returned to Africa. She described the Mendi as “beautiful” and “elegant” and even admitted that she was embarrassed by her lavish praise of one of the Mendi named Banyeh. Charlotte befriended many of the Mendi and listened to stories of their “adventure” from Africa to Farmington. The Mendi helped Charlotte understand the true horrors of slavery; she stated, “we read and we talk about these things [slavery], but as long as we do not see the victims, we know nothing of them.” The Cowles’ family housed one of the Mendi girls, Ka-me or Kagne, and she seemed  “very contented, so far as we can judge from her happy looks and cheerful words.” Charlotte goes into detail about the Mendi’s appearance, impressive work ethic and their adaptation of white culture; “they looked very neat and orderly, and behaved as if they had been to church all their lives.

Charlotte Cowles' grave in Riverside Cemetery in Farmington

Charlotte Cowles’ grave in Riverside Cemetery in Farmington

Charlotte Cowles referenced many nationally known abolitionists such as Alvan Stewart, John Anthony Copeland, Jr. and a “Mr. Burt” who lectured about abolitionism in Farmington. Charlotte’s depth of knowledge about scholarly literature and abolitionist newspapers was quite impressive as was her command of different political ideologies and politicians. For example, Charlotte discussed a speech given by past Governor of Liberia, Rev. John Pinney, who advocated for colonization, or the transportation of African Americans back to Africa, which was a concept Charlotte thoroughly refuted. In addition, she highlighted the fierce anti-abolition sentiment in town who held their own anti-abolition meetings in protest; “it was a high day for the rioters…who came in throngs.”  In her letters, Charlotte described activities of Farmington’s abolitionists such as attending anti-slavery lectures, writing the constitution for the Anti-Slavery Society and hiding fugitive slaves on the Underground Railroad.  Charlotte told her brother about a fugitive slave hiding in their family home; “I think the man who is with us now, (we call him Thomas) is the noblest specimen of the ‘Southerners’ I have ever seen. We are all very much attached to him indeed.”  Charlotte revealed her intimate feelings of slavery in her letters; “I hardly know when slavery seems most accursed; when we see a man reduced by it almost to a brute, — or when we think that there among its victims such men as Thomas, who are still noble, dignified and unsubdued, notwithstanding all they have suffered.”  Charlotte’s views on slavery reflects the opinions of a national group of individuals who endeavored to end slavery in the United States.

Charlotte Cowles’ letters are a fascinating insight into an abolitionist’s mind and daily life in Farmington during the 1830s. Her letters are an incredible repository of information about Farmington’s abolitionist activity and her first hand observations of the Mendi are instrumental for understanding the ramifications the Amistad had on the abolitionist movement. Thanks to the Connecticut Historical Society, Charlotte’s delightful prose and historic points of view will be preserved for future generations of scholars.

For further reading:

“List of Sites.” Connecticut Freedom Trail. 2016. http://ctfreedomtrail.org/trail/amistad.

Bickford, Christopher. Farmington in Connecticut. Canaan, NH: Phoenix Publishing,1982.

Cowles, Charlotte. Charlotte Cowles to Samuel S. Cowles. Cowles and Samuel Cowles correspondence, 1833-1841, 1846. Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford, Connecticut.

Sources:

Cowles, Charlotte. Charlotte Cowles and Samuel Cowles correspondence, 1833-1841, 1846. Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford, Connecticut.

Miss Sarah Porter: The Beginnings of Women’s Advanced Education in Farmington

Author: Marisa Ferretti

One day in 1843, as Mr. Noah Porter and his daughter pulled away in their carriage from their Farmington home, an idea he had for quite some time found its way into his daughter Sarah’s consideration. Taking on the responsibility of running her own school did not seem too outrageous, given her teaching experience. Their conversation on a casual afternoon was the beginning was what would become Miss Sarah Porter’s legacy.

Miss Sarah Porter was born and raised in Farmington, Connecticut. As the daughter of an affluent reverend, wealth brought her more opportunities than most other women of her time. Though she was primarily self-educated in pedagogy, she studied under Dr. E. A. Andrews of Yale College. Her prior teaching experience came from teaching positions in Springfield, Philadelphia and Buffalo. Despite these excellent opportunities, she always longed to be home in Farmington, with her family and all the things that brought her happiness. Soon enough, Sarah migrated home where she was to be presented with an opportunity that would define her future.

After her father introduced his idea to her, plans for the project were made up and set into action. The school got its start when Miss Porter and her family recruited children from Farmington as well as a few from outside the county to attend her daily classes. Those who lived too far to travel daily resided in Miss Porter’s house under her supervision. Sarah Porter taught her students in a rented upstairs room of the historic “stone store,” at 96 Main Street. She worked there alongside two other historic figures from Farmington: John Hooker, a lawyer, and Joseph Hawley who, so influenced by Hooker, began studying law, passed the bar and went on to serve as a Civil War General, as well as both Governor and Senator of the state of Connecticut.

In 1847, Miss Porter relocated to the schoolhouse that was built by the Farmington Female Seminary Association. Soon enough, the word of Miss Porter’s educational sessions spread throughout the county, and interest in the school grew. She purchased what used to be a hotel for those that were traveling up and down the Farmington River, and transformed it into the main house for her girls. The former hotel still stands today and has continued to be used by Miss Porter’s School. It sits at 60 Main Street, right down the road from the previously used, “stone store.”

Miss Porter's School

Miss Porter’s School

By 1854, the school was all the rage of the region. Families fought to get their girls into Miss Porter’s, as the openings were limited. This was partly due to the amount of housing they had for the girls. At this point girls were residing in the main building with Miss Porter. Though the number of applicants per year was growing rapidly, a second dormitory wouldn’t be acquired until some 40 years later. Her family’s influence throughout New England was what got the ball rolling however, the success of Miss Porter’s pupils were the true reason why her school took off. The curriculum she implemented was intensive, compelling the girls to go above and beyond.

Theodate Pope, Alice Hamilton, and a student believed to be Agnes Hamilton, 1888. Courtesy of Miss Porter’s School.

Theodate Pope, Alice Hamilton, and a student believed to be Agnes Hamilton, 1888. Courtesy of Miss Porter’s School.

The girls at Miss Porter’s School were given a special schedule per day. Each student was given an individual itinerary for classes however the school as a whole allotted time during the day to go on walks and eat lunch. Miss Porter was adamant that her students had a life outside of the classroom. She believed that activities such as athletics and theatre were was in which the girls could gain self-esteem and become more confident. Despite her efforts to get the girls out of the classroom, Miss Porter was still very strict when it came to their studies. Every day, the students were given time for study hall, in order to complete the work that they had received in class. Miss Porter monitored the girls closely at this time as she strived for them to perform to the best of their ability. Every night Miss Porter would lead the girls in prayer as well, as it was an important way to end their day.

As the number of girls at the school increased, so did the importance of learning womanly duties. Porter viewed her school as a stepping-stone toward the girl’s ultimate goal of becoming a wife, taking responsibility of a household including a husband and children. She taught the girls to be wives and mothers as that was their ultimate job in adulthood. Miss Porter’s school was a transition for these girls from their childhood home to running a home of their own.

Miss Porter’s work in Farmington is, to this day, unparalleled. She ran the school up until her death in 1900, when it was put under the supervision of her close family. Upon her passing, the students enrolled in Miss Porter’s School at the time worked to establish a memorial in her honor. The First Church of Christ gratefully allowed the construction of a building in the name of Miss Sarah Porter on their property, a way for the girls to show admiration for their beloved headmistress. The building now sits at 75 Main Street in Farmington, where it can be seen by all the traffic passing through town. Miss Sarah Porter’s legacy will live on in Farmington indefinitely.

Recommended for Further Reading:

Connecticut Historical Commission, Historic Resources Inventory Building and Structures: Site 202, Parsonage, Farmington, CT, 1875. Farmington, CT: State Doc. 1973. http://farmingtonlibraries.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/96-Main-Street.pdf

Howe, J. Olin. “Sarah Porter of Farmington.” Boston Evening Transcript, October 15, 1913. https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=2249&dat=19131015&id=-RonAAAAIBAJ&sjid=cgMGAAAAIBAJ&pg=5923,3065498&hl=en.

“Sarah Porter Memorial.” First Church 1652: First Church of Christ, Congregational. http://www.firstchurch1652.org/Porter-Memorial-Hall.

Sloane, William M. “Sarah Porter: Her Unique Educational Work.” Century Illustrated Magazine (1881-1906) LX, no. 3 (07, 1900): 344. http://0-search.proquest.com.www.consuls.org/docview/125508798?accountid=9970.

Stevenson, Louise L. “Sarah Porter Educates Useful Ladies, 1847-1900.” Winterthur Portfolio 18, no. 1 (Spring 1983): 39-59. America: History & Life, EBSCOhost (accessed October 28, 2015). http://0-search.ebscohost.com.www.consuls.org/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ahl&AN=37011224&site=ehost-live&scope=site

 

The Impressive Isabella Beecher Hooker

 

 

 

Author: Meghan Buchanan

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Farmington, CT is the quintessential picturesque New England town. Though many have not heard its name, this little town nestled in the Farmington Valley has a rich and fascinating history. But even more interestingly, this little town had Isabella Beecher Hooker.

Born in Litchfield in 1822, Isabella Beecher Hooker was a fascinating woman. The daughter of well-known preacher, Lyman Beecher, Isabella grew up in a family full of powerful and influential people. Her father, Lyman Beecher, was a distinguished minister who preached throughout country about the perils of intemperance. Her eldest sister, Catharine Beecher, pioneered early women’s education. And her older sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, was an abolitionist and author of the famous novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

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Growing up the youngest daughter of such a profound family instilled within Isabella the desires for education, self-determination, and ultimately the desire for the right to vote. Isabella Beecher Hooker was a proud suffragette who campaigned for years for the right to vote. Her husband, John Hooker, played a major role in inspiring her in her pursuit of this goal. One night, John and Isabella stumbled upon a passage pertaining to a married woman’s status under the law. According to the law, a married woman and man were considered one person. Therefore, a woman had no legal rights separate from her husband. This both shocked and troubled Isabella greatly. It was at that moment she decided to dedicate her life to the suffrage movement.

After her marriage to John Hooker in 1841, Isabella resided in the Edward Hooker House, High Street in Farmington where she lived for over 10 years.

Hooker

Though she spent the majority of her time raising her three children, she became increasingly involved within the suffrage movement. Isabella was especially supportive of a bill that would allow women the right to vote on issues regarding the sale of liquor. She argued that the issue of temperance affected women more strongly than men and that because of that, women should have the right to vote on it. Isabella knew that women were dependent on their husbands for their livelihood. Therefore, if a woman’s husband squandered money on liquor, her own wellbeing—and that of her children’s— was at stake.

After moving to Nook Farm in Hartford in the early 1850s, Isabella sought to form a suffrage organization. In 1869 she succeeded and founded the Connecticut Woman Suffrage Association. After forming her association, she began to spend more of her time traveling, speaking at conventions, and addressing Congress. What brought Isabella to suffrage initially, the idea that a woman had no legal rights separate from her husband, is what spurred her in her first goal – to pass a bill that would allow women to own property. In 1877, after fighting to have it passed for seven years, Isabella was finally successful. With the help of her husband, who helped write it, a bill was passed by the state legislature that allowed married women the right to own property.

Mrs. Hooker became very well know for her work regarding suffrage not just throughout Connecticut, but throughout the country as well. During her lifetime, she worked with prominent women within the movement such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. In her own right, Isabella was just as influential as these prominent well-known women. She worked tirelessly in her efforts and never wavered in her belief that women deserved the right to vote.

 

Sources:

 

Anthony, Susan B., and Isabella Beecher Hooker and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Memorial of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Isabella Beecher Hooker, Elizabeth L. Bladen, Olympia Brown, Susan B. Anthony, and Josephine L. Griffing, to the Congress of the United States, and the Arguments Thereon Before the Judiciary Committee of the U.S. Senate. Chronicle Publishing Company, 1872.

 

Campbell, Susan. Tempest Tossed, The Spirit of Isabella Beecher Hooker. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University press, 2014

Hooker, John. “WOMAN SUFFRAGE.” Hartford Daily Courant (1840-1887), Mar 06, 1879.

“The Senate And Woman Suffrage.” New York Times (1857-1922), Feb 23, 1878.

White, Barbara A. The Beecher Sisters. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2003.