Women's Role in Missouri History, 1821-1971

from the Official Manual of the State of Missouri, 1971-72
James Kirkpatrick, Secretary of State

A Tradition of Good Works
Social Life on the Frontier


A Tradition of Good Works

An entire book has been written about the accomplishments and contributions of the first ladies of Missouri.   A tradition for good works was started by the wife of the first governor, Mrs. Alexander McNair [right].

A Catholic herself, she called together women of other faiths for a meeting at her home in 1824, and thus began the Female Charitable Society with Mrs. George F. Strother as its first president.

Women of wealth were generous to worthy causes early in the state's history.  One of them was Anne Lucas Hunt [left]who gave away $1,000,000 in money and real estate.  When her mother died in 1811, she took over the management of her father's household although she was only 15 years old.

It had been her mother, she said in later years, who was responsible for the fortune which Judge J. B. C. Lucas made for it was the mother who had persuaded him to buy land, a lot at a time.  His $700 investment in an area bounded by Market, Fourth, St. Charles and Jefferson, turned into $70 million.  Anne Lucas, who married Theodore Hunt and later his cousin, Wilson P. Hunt was responsible for founding the House of the Good Shepherd, St. Mary's School and church and for gifts to the Little Sisters of the Poor.

Another benefactress to charities was Ann Mullanphy Biddle, who, after her death in 1846, was the first woman to be mentioned for canonization.  Two other women noted for their charities were Isabella Gratiot DeMun, a granddaughter of Mme. Chouteau described in her youth as "the most beautiful woman in St. Louis," and her daughter, Mrs. Isabella Walsh.

The first clinic in St. Louis was endowed by Mrs. Vital Garesche.  The Soulard sisters, Adele and Marie Therese [at right], whose mother was  the daughter of Gabriel Cerre, made many gifts to civic organizations and charitable institutions.

Social Life on the Frontier

Life was not all real and earnest in the new state.  There were parties, weddings, romances and gaiety.  A leading hostess of the time was Mme. Bartholomew Berthold who had been Pelagie Chouteau.  The Indians called her, "La Femme Tout Seule" - the "Lone Woman."

There are familiar names in the early marriage records.  One Missouri woman had two sons and a grandson in the United States Senate.  Anne Hunter first married Israel Dodge and then Asahel Linn.  By her first marriage, she was the mother of Henry Dodge, later governor of the Wisconsin territory and U.S. Senator  Lewis Fields Linn, son of her second marriage, was a senator from Missouri.  Her grandson, Augustus C. Dodge became a senator, also.

A well known family at the time was the Coalters; one of the daughters married Edward Bates, another Hamilton Gamble, both men later leaders in the opposition to Missouri secession.

A sidelight on the interests of women in the city is given in an account of the "silk worm craze" of 1839.  Someone promoted the idea that mulberry trees should be planted to feed silkworms and soon the suburbs were (still are) filled with them.  A Missouri Silk Company was organized but something went awry with the plan and Missouri never became a silk center.

Social life in the rural areas was quite different from that of the city and provides an insight into the life of these women.  There were corn huskings and house raisings and log rollings and quilting bees where johnny cake (journey cake) was served and jigs and reels were danced.  Of the costumes, Walter Williams wrote:    

"The dress of the fashionable pioneer woman was usually made plain with four widths in the skirt and the two front ones cut gored.  The waist was made short and across the shoulders was a drawstring.  Enormous sleeves were worn...sometimes so padded as to resemble a bolster, and known as 'mutton leg' or sheep-shank sleeves.  Often in summer weather when going to church and other public assemblage, the women walked barefoot until near their destination when they put on their shoes or moccasins."

Pioneer Missouri women manufactured most of the clothing worm by the family.  Gowns of linsey-woolsey were made with the chain in cotton, the filling of wool.  Cotton grew abundantly in central Missouri.  Most families made their own shoes.

In one of the early histories, a Mrs. Jarvis Woods told the story of her early married life in Grundy County.  The young couple didn't even have a cabin.  After the ceremony, they rode through the woods to a cleared area and began life under some slabs leaned against a white oak tree and held in place by heavy logs.  The floor was the bare ground.  Kitchen utensils consisted of iron bake pan, skillet, gourd and a couple of tin cups.  They were, the bride said later, "just as happy as could be."

There was real equality in the pioneer marriage.  Benjamin Young, an early settler in Audrain County described his wife, Mary Ring, as being "as good a hunter" as he was.

A Howard County story tells of Patsey Millsap, a Tennessee girl who married Richard Chaney and left her job with the Groom family, telling her employer she intended to "live on love."  A few weeks alter she went back to buy some bacon, and Groom said to her, "I thought you told me you could live on love." "So I did," said Patsey, "but a little bacon will help out so very much."

When Major George W. Burt, veteran of the War of 1812, asked Major Isaac Van Bibber for the hand of his daughter, Eretta, great-granddaughter of Daniel Boone, the major said he could have her but that she was a "contrary stick" and if he took her, the father didn't want her back on his hands.  Major Burt took the contrary stick and they became heads of one of the prosperous families of Callaway County.

Martha Price [left], the wife of Governor Sterling Price managed their 400-acre farm when her husband went to the Mexican  War.  Another first lady, Mrs. Claiborne F. Jackson [right] moved her home and family into exile in 1861.  She was the third of the three Sappington sisters, daughters of Dr. John Sappington, discoverer of quinine, to marry Jackson.  The first two died and the oft-told story has it that when Jackson asked Dr. Sappington for the hand of his third daughter, the doctor said, "All right, Clay but don't come back for the old lady."

Another Sappington daughter, Lavinia was the wife of Governor Meredith Miles Marmaduke and had the distinction of being the wife of a governor, mother of a governor (John Sappington Marmaduke--our 25th), the sister-in-law of a governor and the niece of a governor.


Return to Missouri Almanac, 1971-72
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