Early 19th Century Women: What Were They Thinking?

  • Barbara Goyette, Executive Director, Hammond-Harwood House/September 2017

 

What moves events? Is it great men (or women)…Napoleon, Abraham Lincoln, Queen Elizabeth I?…Or is it the separate decisions of thousands of individuals… farmers, shopkeepers, mothers?

 

In this talk I’d like to consider American women in the early 19th century, between 1800 and 1865. This was a period during which America was forming itself – political structure, moral values, economy, culture (music, art, literature, architecture). Historical patterns of thought – specifically European patterns of thought – were changing and evolving in the new country. The Romantic era was dawning, with its emphasis on the individual, its appreciation for nature over artifice, and its humanistic attitudes about social class. The philosophies that emerged during this era boded change as well: transcendentalism, for example, took the focus on the individual to new depths; similarly, literature, poetry, and song reflected the growing power of Romanticism and our changing relationship both to nature and to our fellow human beings.  Some of the most entrenched problems of American culture also developed. The notion of equality, a cornerstone of the nation’s founding ideology, was proving to be difficult to define and to realize.

The collective voices and actions of women helped push these movements forward. It’s certainly true that we hear and see much less about the women of this time in the new nation than we do about the men. Women were the silent movers; did they know themselves to be silent, or did they simply accept their roles? What were they thinking? What were their values, and what did they think about themselves and their roles? Did they define themselves as wives, mothers, sisters? Did they contribute to the economy? To political thought? How did they contribute to the development of American culture?

Today I’m going to talk about four Maryland women of this era– Frances Chase Loockerman, Rosalie Stier Calvert, Priscilla Munnickhuysen Bond, and Susan Mathiot Gale. All were well-off Southern women. All lived with enslaved people who performed labor associated with “women’s work”: taking care of children, cleaning, cooking.  I’ll briefly address how each thought of slavery, an institution that was closely tied to their daily lives. Although they were members of the 1%, with husbands who owned vast tracts of land and engaged in political and economic transactions, each experienced wrenching loss, confusing and challenging family interactions, religious disquiet, painful illness, and dark self-doubt.

Rosalie, Priscilla, and Susan all left written records in the form of diaries or letters. These women used writing to explore their own thoughts and actions. The process of writing helped them shape the world and make it bearable. Their written words reach us and connect us with them, just as they hoped to connect themselves to their own lives.  I’ll take a look at what they wrote about themselves and their worlds – and wonder, along with you, what it says about them and about us today.

First, let’s think about Frances Chase Loockerman, who lived in Hammond-Harwood House for 45 years.

The interpretation in the museum at HHH – how the period rooms have been furnished and decorated – focuses on the Loockerman family who lived here from 1811 until 1924, when the last descendent died. One reason the interior of the house feels so authentic is that about 30% of the collection — objects, paintings, furniture that you see—is original to HHH and this family.

We don’t have much source material on Frances Loockerman – if she kept a diary or wrote many letters, we don’t have them. There was at one time a daybook in which she would have tracked household doings and engagements, but it has disappeared. Rachel Lovett, the curator, has assembled an impressive biography of Frances nonetheless.

Frances, born in 1780, was the oldest daughter of Judge Jeremiah Chase and his wife Hester Baldwin Chase. They lived around the corner on King George Street. In 1803 she married Richard Loockerman, a handsome, charismatic, clever, rich young man from the Eastern Shore. He was also a young man with some “issues,” as we say now. He drank to excess, he gambled without restraint, he was a very poor manager of money. He probably also had some form of mental illness that affected mood and impulse control. Frances’s parents were 19th century helicopter parents. They worried about their daughter and her young family and they understood that Richard’s character was likely to present challenges. Solution: Buy an extremely large, elegant house for Frances, right around the corner from their own home.

What was her life like? At this point in 1811, Frances had given birth to four children. Over the next decade, she would have six more children. Of the 10, seven survived to adulthood. Also living and working at HHH were at least five enslaved people. Frances had her hands full. The house had not been decorated – although conceived as a party house with many very fine features, it had not been finished inside and a succession of renters had lived in it off and on since its completion in 1774. The four-acre property had not been developed. So Frances chose colors for the walls and furniture for the house; she planned a “pleasure garden” in the back, along rolling terraces that extended to the current Paca House garden. A stable and other outbuildings were constructed, an orchard was planted, and a kitchen garden tended to.

The servants – enslaved individuals most likely owned by her father or from Richard’s farm on the Eastern Shore – helped with the children and with running and maintaining the house. How she interacted with them we don’t know.

Like other women of her station and circumstances, she probably entertained often, perhaps daily visiting with her sisters and other female relatives and friends, who may have stayed for a few hours, for tea or supper, or for several weeks.  The women of this time attended to the education of their children – we know she sent her boys to St. John’s College, and probably also to the grammar school on the grounds as well.  We know that the family enjoyed music – in the collection we have music sheets belonging to the Loockermans. In this room, the ballroom, the young women would have practiced their playing and singing.

I wonder where all the children slept. Certainly the youngest probably stayed in their parents’ room, as we see it now with the cradle and toys for them. Even in the largest of houses, the older children slept four or five to a room.

Frances is only vivid to me as far as my imagination – and the current physical presence of this house – will take me. I can’t relate to her on an emotional level. We have so little of her inner life available – even though we have this beautiful house and know many details about her circumstances. How did she deal with her charming but irresponsible husband? Could she recover from the loss of her several children who died? Did she enjoy managing this large house? How did she oversee the work of enslaved servants? What about her helicopter parents – did she resent their views of Richard? Later in life, how did she feel about her pressing financial problems? She remains a mystery to me.

 

 

An Aristocrat on the Plantation: Rosalie Stier Calvert

With Rosalie, there’s a lot less mystery about her everyday life and concerns, but lurking in the background is one big mystery that we’ll discuss later.

A contemporary of Frances, Rosalie Stier Calvert presents us with a vivid picture through the hundreds of letters she wrote to her family. These letters are collected in the book “Mistress of Riversdale” by Margaret Law Callcott. Rosalie was born in 1778, two years before Frances Loockerman. Her aristocratic family lived in Belgium, where her parents owned a castle as well as other estates and homes in Antwerp and Amsterdam. The family fled to America in 1794 when the French Revolutionary forces were advancing into Belgium.  Rosalie was 16.

The Stiers lived in Philadelphia and Annapolis—for a while they rented the Paca House. That’s where Rosalie met George Calvert of the illustrious Baltimore/Calvert family. They married in 1799. The marriage contract laid out Rosalie’s rights to inheritance; this was unusual in English and American families because the male and his male line usually held all property, but Rosalie was very wealthy herself and stood to inherit substantial assets from each of her parents. Her economic independence from her husband and her continued ties to her parents’ holdings would prove important.

George Calvert, whose father, Benedict, was the illegitimate but recognized son of the fifth Lord Baltimore, owned hundreds of acres on the Patuxent River in what is now Prince Georges County. Rosalie’s father had purchased a large tract of land in Bladensburg, close to Calvert’s land, on which he hoped to build a home and settle. When Rosalie’s parents, brother, and sister instead returned to Europe in 1803, Rosalie and George moved to the unfinished Riversdale estate.

Over the next 18 years, Rosalie wrote to her father, brother, and sister about her daily life, her concerns, American politics, investment opportunities, social life, botany and gardening, and many other topics. She wrote in French, and even in translation her prose is graceful and forthright – just as she herself must have been. Through the letters, we can watch her mature from a fitful, arrogant teen who scoffed at American ways to an elegant, intelligent, industrious Mistress of Riversdale.

Rosalie’s letters show that she knew her primary role was to make the plantation profitable. She and George made decisions together about how much tobacco to plant, how many slaves to purchase and assign to each property, and how best to use the land to create profit. “Our affairs here are going pretty well now,” she writes her father. “My husband sold his last tobacco crop a few days ago for $10 for the best quality and $8 for second quality. He had 51 hogsheads which will bring him more than $4500. …We will now have enough income to live splendidly here, to improve our properties…and to buy some bank shares from time to time.”  These financial interests were encouraged by her father, who wrote her:  “Inform yourself about your business affairs. You have sufficient ability to acquire this knowledge if you resolve to do it and seize the opportunities to learn. No capable woman should neglect it. The country in which you live, more than our own, requires that women have that kind of knowledge…”

So… we have a well-educated, worldly, aristocratic woman who can make long-range decisions about important financial matters – so much so that her father ultimately handed over all of his American business dealings to her. She hired architects and builders to finish the grand house her father began (which, by the way, is still standing and open to the public). She loved her garden and delighted in the imported tulips and hyacinths that she found would flourish in Maryland. She supported the Federalists in power in the close-by capital city, and in fact, through her husband’s family connections, visited President Washington and his family frequently.

As the years go by, Rosalie chronicles her pleasures and also her challenges:

Dealing with the enslaved servants — Ownership of slaves was completely foreign to her family but a concept they adopted quickly once in America. She says: “[The] torment with the servants poisons all these pleasures. Perhaps by hiring housekeepers [she means white servants, not the enslaved help] and spending twice as much, we would have less trouble, but I am not in a position to do that…My husband is used to this inconvenience.” Rosalie’s attitude toward the scores of enslaved people living and working on the family’s lands is cavalier at best. She seems to form no ties with any of the “house” servants, even the experienced midwife who delivered several of her babies, and indeed complains about the difficulty of managing them over and over. She talks of those who work in the fields only as a necessary resource.

Social isolation – “I find a major flaw in [American] women is that they are extremely cold and incapable of deep feeling, and that they dissemble, which does not suit me at all.” She laments not being able to develop close friendships with other women. She misses her family terribly, but in fact never sees any of them again once they return to Europe.

Endless work– She is involved with all of the details of running the household, attending to her family finances, caring for and educating her children. Every day is full, even with the labor of numerous enslaved individuals. The 1810 census listed 60 slaves in total at Riversdale. She complains that her husband George takes no interest in running the household but focuses solely on farming the five or so plantations that they own. ”We work without respite. Sometimes I am so tired by evening that I fall asleep while taking tea. We go to bed at 9:00 and rise at dawn…”

Politics, war, disrupted commerce—Continued friction between America and England led to the War of 1812; major battles were fought very near Riversdale. Ports were blockaded, which meant tobacco could not be shipped overseas for sale; the Calverts’ harvest sat in warehouses for several years. Investments in land, stocks, bonds, and banks lost significant value. These disruptions caused major financial woes for Rosalie and George.

All those pregnancies, all those children – Rosalie bore nine children between 1800 and 1816. She and her sister exchanged ideas about how to limit the size of the family – Rosalie knew that for a woman of her station, abstinence was the only solution. That wasn’t an attractive option for George.

This is the most difficult part of her story – Rosalie lost four of her children, all when they were well past infancy. She delighted in watching each child’s personality develop; she taught them all at home when they were young, with the occasional assistance of a tutor. To lose them from causes like diphtheria and typhoid was unbearable. The last two died within a week of one another in 1820. Rosalie never recovered from their loss. To her sister she wrote: “We have now lost four of the nine children we have had, and now I regard the others in fear and trembling. It seems to me that they are all walking continuously along the edge of a precipice.”

Worn out from the years of work and the many pregnancies, devastated in spirit by the recent loss of her two children, Rosalie herself fell ill early in 1821. She developed congestive heart failure and died at the age of 43.

There’s no question in my mind that if Rosalie were alive today she’d be doing something like running a major corporation or managing a hedge fund. She invested thousands of dollars in American business, banking, real estate and infrastructure. She created a showcase home, unlike any other in Maryland. Her knowledge of flowers, plants, trees, and crop cultivation surpassed that of her male peers. She taught her children and then managed their continued education and entrance into society. In her letters she seems to be both self-aware and ambitious. She wants the best for her family and herself, and she does not hesitate to act to bring about what she wants. As unusual as her situation was, Rosalie embodied many qualities important to the American character – industriousness, a strong belief in the possibilities of the future, an appreciation for the bounty of the land, gratitude for the freedom of self-determination.

And yet – here’s the big mystery for me. In addition to the personal tragedies of losing four children and being permanently separated from her very loving family, she was betrayed in her marriage. Did Rosalie know about George’s other family?  In the afterword to “Mistress of Riversdale” we learn that George Calvert had a mistress, Eleanor Beckett, an enslaved “Indian-Negro mulatto” woman on his nearby plantation, Albion. Eleanor had at least five children probably fathered by George, her owner. Two years after marrying Rosalie, George freed Eleanor and the children. She had married an enslaved man from the plantation named James Norris, who continued to work for Calvert as a cobbler. In a 1927 reminiscence, Nellie Arnold Plummer, a black great-granddaughter of Eleanor, says, “The Calvert children of Nellie Beckett-Norris were so white that they were sent to Pennsylvania to live. From there Caroline [one of the daughters]…took her children and her six sisters to Monrovia, Liberia, Africa, with other mulattos who wished to be free.”

If Rosalie knew about this second family and other children with other women that her husband undoubtedly fathered, she never alluded to it in her letters. There are two references to the fact that men of his social standing usually had mistresses, but she noted that their relationships were not public If she knew that George’s mistress was an enslaved woman who lived for a time at Riversdale, it must have been a painful and very alienating knowledge.

 

Unexpected Strength: Priscilla Munnikhuysen Bond

For the next subject, we fast-forward a generation. Priscilla Munnikhuysen was born in 1838 in Belair, Maryland, just north of Baltimore, to a second-generation Dutch family. She kept a diary from 1858, when she was 20, until 1865. “A Maryland Bride in the Deep South: The Civil War Diary of Priscilla Bond,” edited by Kimberly Harrison, contains the diary and some letters.

As with Rosalie Calvert, we can see Priscilla develop over time — from a sickly, somewhat silly, 20-year-old to a mature woman who manages to keep herself and members of her husband’s Louisiana family alive and sheltered after their home is burned to the ground during the Civil War. Priscilla’s perspective is unique because when she marries she moves from a large Maryland estate to a vast and prosperous sugar plantation in Louisiana. In Maryland, her family owned no enslaved workers; in Louisiana, her new husband’s family owned slaves, and, to Priscilla’s horror, mistreated them regularly.

Young women of Priscilla’s social and economic class kept diaries not only to track their activities and reflect on their relationships but also with a goal of self-improvement. As a 20-year-old, Priscilla wrote easily, chronicling her many visits with friends and relatives, walks in the meadows and woods around her Maryland home, the weather, and local gossip. There is much talk of God, her faith, her visits to church—it does seem rather forced, as if she is imitating a preacherly style. An example: “I feel this morning more determined than ever to trust in Providence, for I know God will take care of those who put their trust in him. O! that I could always trust myself fully in him. God help me to do my duty faithfully, that I may be a worthy servant in my master’s vineyard.”

She does struggle, though, with a big decision about her future. Howard Bond, a distant relative on her mother’s side, has proposed to her. Accepting him would mean moving to his father’s sugar plantation deep in Louisiana. Priscilla had other suitors but Howard is the one she thinks about. She wrote, “Why can’t I love him? I know he loves me devotedly; and yet he does not seem to be my ideal. Perhaps I may never see the ideal I have pictured to my own imagination.”

Howard visits Maryland infrequently, but they keep up a fervid correspondence. Several factors influence Priscilla in his favor: he loves her, he is very wealthy and his plantation is a thriving and successful one, and the climate in Louisiana is likely to be beneficial to her. By 1859 Priscilla was in the early stages of consumption, tuberculosis. The milder winters in the deep South would be better for her health.

Negative arguments: 1. She is not sure she loves him. This consideration, plus the idea of an “ideal husband,” shows that romantic love does play a role in marriage decisions for a young woman in her situation. 2. She is wary of her future father-in-law. Her brother had been sent to work for him, as a possible future career on the business side of the sugar trade. Her brother returned home after witnessing Mr. Bond’s explosions of anger and beating of enslaved workers. Priscilla worries that Howard will “be ruined” under the influence of his father.  3. Priscilla’s life revolves around her family – doting mother and father, two sisters, and a brother – and the many close relatives and friends who live nearby. To be parted from them would constitute “the greatest trial of my life.” In 1859, on her 21st birthday, she writes, “What will another year bring? I often ask myself. Shall I be here in the old homestead. Or will it be my lot to give up my dear ones here, and go among strangers in a strange land.” She is also sick more frequently and often notes that she feels sad and is miserable with headaches, “nerve” pain, and difficulty breathing. Although she has not yet been diagnosed with consumption, she surely knows that whatever she has is not improving and may lead to an early death. Fear of dying far away from her loved ones is on her mind.

All that said, the pressure to marry and marry well was strong—ultimately, her marriage seems to me as much about financial security as anything–financial security and meeting the expectations she feels she must. She hopes she will love Howard enough, she hopes she will adapt to life in Louisiana with Howard’s family, she hopes she will turn out to be as virtuous a wife as her mother is to her father.

She married Howard Bond in January 1861 after a three-year long distance courtship. Four months later, after the couple arrived in Louisiana, the Civil War broke out. Letters could no longer pass between the North and the South, so she was cut off from her family in Maryland. By September 1861, Howard was serving as an officer in the Louisiana militia. He participated in frequent skirmishes and was often away from home. Meanwhile, Priscilla was left with her mother- and father-in-law who both made it clear that they had not favored their son’s choice of a bride. Furthermore, she reported how upset their treatment of slaves made her: “I feel sad – more whipping going on. One poor old man is the sufferer of [the] man’s passions. Thank God my husband is not so heartless. It is indeed hard to bear to be compelled to stay where such is carried on daily.”

Reading Priscilla’s diary entries between the fall of 1861 and the summer of 1862, we can see the rapid strengthening she undergoes in her character. She is a staunch supporter of the Confederacy but at the same time is desperate to remain connected to her home sympathies in Maryland, officially a border state. Her values are not political, but rather both Christian and humanistic, and they serve as her inner core in the face of what is soon to come.

In early June 1862 Howard participated in an ambush in which two Northern soldiers were killed; he became a fugitive under threat of hanging. For most of the time until after the war was over, his family did not know his whereabouts. Priscilla was alone with his parents. Within a few weeks of the ambush, Federal troops came to the plantation, Crescent Place, at four in the morning. Here’s Priscilla’s account: “We were awakened by the cry of ‘soldiers around the house’ – sprang up & was informed we had 20 minutes to dress & take a change of clothes, then the ‘order’ was to set fire to the house — I dressed as soon as possible…The negroes worked faithfully doing all they could to save all they could, tho’ they were constantly being warned not to carry any more out. We managed to get most of the clothing & saved one bedstead, then was ordered out in the yard – there in the hot sun we stayed till two o’clock.”

For the next three years, Priscilla managed to keep Howard’s mother, father (who soon suffered a debilitating stroke), various female relatives, and some enslaved servants alive, fed, housed, and clothed. Gone was the flighty, overly emotional girl who depended on her parents for everything. Gone from the diary is the sanctimonious preaching. Gone is the gossip about romances and marriages. She moved from refuge with friends to renting tiny rooms in nearby towns. She began to speculate in sugar – buying low and selling high – as the only way to make money, other than selling a servant, or the clothes off her back (which she also did –from an entry in May 1865- “I have gathered all the articals of clothen &e which I think I can do without , & selling them. I laugh at myself; when I take a walk, I generally fill my pocket, or a little basket with needles, pins, tape, cotton, and buttons, & if I see any one who looks like they needed such articles I offer for sale my stock on hand.” ).

She grew seriously ill many times and depended on the grace of near-strangers for care. She lived for the very occasional letters from her Maryland kin, and for the equally few visits from Howard. In November 1863 she wrote: “Oh! How I should love to hear from my Howard. I feel I have few to love me – Away from home, how sad it is to feel so lonely. Alone!” And then two days later, we see her strength of spirit return with this: “Mrs. Foote (a refugee from bayou Teche) called this morning – we went walking together, called to see Mrs. Dr. Abadie. I came home to dinner. After which Mrs. R & I walked to Madam Gayen – got some roses. Heard the Yankees were retreating and burning as they go. No other news.”

The final entry in Priscilla’s diary is July 5, 1865. Howard had finally arrived to see her after taking an oath of loyalty to the Union. She was very ill. Her greatest desire – to return to Maryland – was possible now that the war was over; she traveled home by train late in 1865. She died in January 1866 at the age of 27.

Both Priscilla Bond and Rosalie Calvert undergo periods of loneliness and feelings of dread in the face of so much loss. But overall they share a brightness of character and a sense of hope for the future. For Priscilla this is surprising considering the ravages of her illness and the extreme conditions of her life during the Civil War. Her strong spirit shows through in her diary; with these traits she illustrates some important characteristics of women at this time who were called to step outside the bounds of the prim and sheltered lives they may have originally conceived for themselves.

 

In Search of the Romantic Ideal: Susan Mathiot Gale

The last woman we’re looking at is Susan Mathiot Gale. Born in 1831 in Baltimore, she was the fourth of 10 children. Her father was a prosperous furniture merchant of German heritage, and her mother came from a well-to-do Eastern Shore family.

In 1859, when she was 28 years old, Susan began to keep a diary. (This is the year after Priscilla Bond began her diary, at age 20.) The first entry is March 20, 1859, the last is October 25. The diary is not published – it is held in the Maryland Manuscript Collection at the University of Maryland. I learned about it from an article in the Maryland Historical Magazine, Summer 2007 issue, written by Jennie Levine. I have a typescript of the diary given me by the generous docents at the Galesville Heritage Society.

Here’s Susan’s backstory: She was raised in Baltimore, had a number of suitors, and for some reason chose to marry a man her father’s age (56) when she was 24. George Gale was a prosperous gentleman who owned tracts of property in southern Anne Arundel County; about 700 acres of it, together with a main house and a number of outbuildings and slave quarters, was called Westbury Farm. His first wife, Margaret, had died two years before he met Susan.

He and Susan married in January 1856; by July George had died, leaving Susan pregnant and with the property. So the diary represents her life, as she wanted to present it to herself, three years later. She has a small daughter, is a widow, needs to somehow manage the very large plantation, is looking for a new husband, and is trying to fit into the rural, country life of southern Maryland.

I’ll just say – I’m fascinated by Susan Gale. I drive past the land where she lived every day – it’s along the west side of Muddy Creek Road (Rt. 468) south of Galesville. It’s still farmland, and looking at Google Earth you can see how all of the Gale property spreads out over the current landscape of South County.

Like Priscilla Bond, Susan Gale’s intention in writing in her diary is self-improvement. She wants the discipline of recording her activities and thoughts. However, I think she finds the exercise of writing therapeutic. She is thoughtful and funny; her perception of her neighbors is astute. She falls under the sway of the Romantic ideal, as did Priscilla Bond, but for Susan the struggle between real and ideal seems even more determinate.  We get some of the American evolution of 19th century ideas from her writing: the importance of nature, an awakening about the importance of justice and freedom for enslaved people, the perception of the individual soul as sacred territory.

Why did she marry George Gale? There’s no clue in the diary. We know that George was established, wealthy, in search of a young wife, and probably suffering from some type of long-term illness. (His tombstone is inscribed: Affliction sore for years I bore/Physicians were in vain/At length God pleased to give me ease/And freed me from my pain.) Susan, at 24, was still young but perhaps was impatient to leave her parents’ home in Baltimore and strike out on her own as a wife and mother. George Gale was a successful match and his death left her a wealthy woman.

How did she manage the more than 700 acres of the estate – tobacco, corn, wheat, horses, livestock, chickens, and scores of enslaved workers? In the diary she does not evidence much interest in the enterprise. Her brother Augustus comes down from Baltimore, moves in at Westbury, hires overseers and other staff. This appears to be a good solution for Susan and Augustus both. There are few references in the diary to running the household – cooking, laundry, childcare all seem to be taken care of by the enslaved servants under the direction of the white housekeeper, Mrs. Pillsbury.

According to her almost daily entries, Susan reads (Dickens is a favorite), plays with her daughter Georgette, goes riding, practices the piano and guitar and sings, engages in flirtations with several local men, and attempts to integrate into the local society on her own, not as the wife of George Gale. She made a number of trips to Baltimore to visit her family. Her sisters, cousins, and other female relatives often visited her at Westbury.

Her affection for her three-year-old daughter is clear – she says, “Georgie has been quite sick for several days, she seems better this morning. I hope it is nothing serious. If she were to die I should not care to live much longer in this miserable world.” The reality of a child’s frailty was clear to her.

The most thorny question for Susan is: who is she? She searches for a new husband and has high hopes for one John Rogers. She goes riding with him and sees him at local social gatherings. He courts her, but somehow he is not the right one: “I never yet have loved the man who loved me; but he who loveth me not, findeth a sure road to my affections…How am I to know who loves me for myself alone when all so fervently declare that they care naught for my wealth,” she writes. Within this year of 1859, none of the suitors are right, and that may be because she is not right with herself.

I want to close with two passages from the diary.  The first deals with her views of slavery. One of the household servants, an enslaved woman named Lis, has disappeared in Baltimore where she has been sent to help out Susan’s mother. Many free blacks lived in Baltimore and it would have been easy for an enslaved woman to go out on an errand and not return; it would have been difficult to trace her. Susan writes: “Let her go! I do not believe in slavery, it is an evil entailed on me, and from which I see no escape. It goes against my conscience to hold unwilling slaves.” This seems enlightened. But then she follows with this: “They generally are contented with their lot because they know no better and are satisfied to have some one to take care of them and their children, but those who thirst for freedom, with the consciousness that it is forever out of their reach by fair means, must be miserable indeed. ..Bettie, I really believe she would think it almost a sin to be free. She is the most perfect lady…” Certainly these comments are reflective of Susan’s historical environment – a realization that slavery is an evil overpowered by a justification of it with the “generous master” argument.

The second passage deals with how Susan tries to see herself, and how she longs to be seen by others – as a woman in her own right, not as a wealthy widow of a local landowner. One Sunday in late September, Susan decided to travel to All Hallows Church (near what is currently Edgewater) rather than her usual church, St. James in Lothian. She entered the church and, unsure about where to sit, took a seat in the back. Then – “There were three ladies who took a pew opposite mine that took my attention; one in particular, who was dressed in a fine figured muslin, with a red Shetland wool shawl, white kid gloves, and a very bridish looking bonnet.” Soon Susan saw that the three were laughing, and she conjectured she was the object of their mirth. “At what about me I could not divine. I took a mental survey of myself, from my bonnet, to my boots, but could find nothing to excite even a smile of ridicule… I had consulted three looking glasses before leaving home, the first of which revealed only my face very distinctively. In vain to betray any lurking of starch, or any stray hairs that might be forming a line across my forehead. The second gave my half length figure, and the third displayed me…in all my glory from toe to toe…After having received the unbiased, favorable opinion of these three disinterested friends, who have been so often consulted, and having given such deep reflections to the subject of dress, I of course could see no justifiable cause for mirth in my appearance.” This passage tells us so much about Susan. She is funny, even fitting in a pun, and she smiles at herself in this description of checking herself in the mirror. But she’s also hurt – why are these women laughing? Will she ever fit in? Will she ever be a person who is recognized and respected for who she is?

Here’s the rest of Susan’s story, post-diary. She finally does marry again the following year – to another older gentleman, a widower who is a minister and scholar with two teenage daughters. They lived on her farm and had two more daughters. Susan died in Baltimore in 1878. Her death certificate lists the cause as “acute melancholia.”

 

Some Final Thoughts

So… four women with some commonalities – all lived in Maryland, all were from wealthy families, all married advantageously. All were courageous. Each in her own way faced tragic loss, pain and suffering, difficult personal relationships, and dramatic reversals of fortune.

Their differences may say more than what they share – but among them they illustrate important characteristics of American culture. The quiet submission of Frances Loockerman, who loved her children well, endured her difficult husband and hovering parents, and made a masterpiece of architecture a true home. The industriousness and ambition of Rosalie Calvert, who had many advantages and yet was required to overcome challenges of all types to establish her family’s security. The strength of character of Priscilla Bond, who in the midst of financial ruin, an absent husband, a dangerous war, and a debilitating illness took charge of several relatives-by-marriage and ensured their safety. The romantic idealism and self-searching of Susan Gale, who loved riding horseback over the green countryside on a soft summer morning and knew slavery to be an evil.

I am grateful to these women and to the historians who have collected their writings. I am left with appreciation for their legacies but also with concern about what it means for them to have been caught in the skeins of history – little public agency, little recognition for their voices, surrounded by a southern plantation society that was dependent on the oppression of others.

 

 

 

Frances Chase Loockerman – 1780-1857

Rosalie Stier Clavert – 1778-1821

Priscilla Munnikhuysen Bond  – 1838-1865

Susan Mathiot Gale – 1831-1878

 

Mistress of Riversdale: The Plantation Letters of Rosalie Stier Calvert 1795-1821; edited by Margaret Law Callcott; 1991, The Johns Hopkins University Press

 

A Maryland Bride in the Deep South: The Civil War Diary of Priscilla Bond; edited by Kimberly Harrison; 2006, Louisiana State University Press

 

A “Book of Thoughts”: The Diary of Susan Mathiot Gale, West River, Maryland, 1859; by Jennie A. Levine; Maryland Historical Magazine, Summer 2007