Archive for December, 2012

My great-great-grandmother, Adelia Sturtevant, went by “Addie.” Addie’s life started out fairly typical for her time and place. Born in 1844, she was the daughter of Isaac and Harriet (Bell) Sturtevant, two of the large number of transplants from New England to northern Ohio. Addie’s mother Harriet died when Addie was fairly young, and Isaac remarried to an Ohio-born woman named Hortensia. But Addie’s father and stepmother went on to do something that was quite unusual at the time – they sent their daughter Addie to college.

They chose a college near their home of Cleveland – Oberlin College, the first college in the world to admit both men and women. As a student at Oberlin in the early 1860’s, Addie went to school with students that were both men and women, and both white and African-American. Addie was also in one of the most abolitionist college environments in this period around the start of the US Civil War, with many of the staff at Oberlin having left Ohio State University for Oberlin because they were unhappy with Ohio State’s stance on slavery. Addie was likely at Oberlin when the first African-American woman to attain a college degree, Mary Jane Patterson, did so there in 1862. Oberlin’s strong stand on abolition may have been part of the appeal for Addie’s New-England-born father Isaac.

Addie at college

Addie (on left) with an unknown friend at college. Undated on back but from the early 1860’s. This is an 1800’s copy of the original photo; based on my research of the photographer, the original was very likely a daguerreotype and the copy may have been done by the same photographer, who advertised the ability to make copies for customers. The edges are clipped (most obvious with the cut-off edge of the “O” in Ohio), but it is not clear whether this happened when the original copy was made or at some later date.

Historically, I can discern much of what Addie’s college environment would have been like – and how unusual she would have been as a woman who attended college at all – but not what she thought of it, nor how it affected the rest of her life. It’s likely that she was influenced by being in an environment that was so diverse for the time period, and quite possible that she was anti-slavery, but I have no direct evidence for this to date, only speculation. Regardless of this, her father and stepmother’s choice – and her opportunity – were extraordinary for the time period.

While Addie was at college, a young man named Charles C. Burnett enlisted in the Union Army in Indiana. Charles had been born in a rural area near Cleveland, Ohio, but his family had moved to Indiana while he was growing up. Like Addie, Charles watched his mother die while he was young, and his father remarried. Charles’s stepmother was a teacher before marriage, but the strong emphasis on education that she brought to the family was one that the younger family members would reap, not Charles. Charles was honorably discharged partway through the Civil War, and at some point he moved on his own back to his home state of Ohio, settling in the city of Cleveland and leaving his family behind in Indiana.

Charles in US Civil War uniform

Charles C. Burnett donned his Union uniform from the US Civil War for this photo much later in his life. The original copy of this photo has a large crease in it, which was very kindly digitally removed from my scan by fellow researcher Nina.

I do not yet know how or when, but somehow Charles and Addie met in the large city where they lived. They married in Cleveland’s county, Cuyahoga County, on Valentine’s Day 1867 in a double wedding with one of Addie’s siblings. Many other Union veterans of the Civil War were marrying around this same time.

Addie and Charles - marriage record

The record for the double marriage of Addie and her groom Charles, and Addie’s brother Charles and his bride Hattie, in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, on Valentine’s Day 1867. Scan from FamilySearch’s Ohio County Marriages collection.

Women’s education was growing rapidly in 19th century America. The century started with many girls in many regions expected only to go to primary/elementary school, if any formal schooling at all, though some regions (especially many areas of New England) had been placing an emphasis on basic education for all children for a long time. But then secondary schools for girls started to open in more and more locations, and then women began attending colleges, especially colleges beyond female seminary schools. Godey’s Lady’s Book was the most popular women’s magazine of 19th century America, and when Sarah Josepha Hale took over as the editor in 1836, she increasingly used the magazine as a platform to spread her belief that American housewives should be well-educated. The following year, Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (now Mount Holyoke College) was founded. It was important as it was the first American all-women’s college to have rigorous entrance requirements and an endowment.

Portrait of Addie as a young woman

Addie in an undated portrait; it is possible this was her wedding portrait.

Many modern historians talk about “presentism” – roughly defined as judging the past by today’s mores, thinking, and standards – and often criticize others for supposedly viewing the past through it. Personally I have long thought that the reverse is more likely to occur; to assume that people in the past weren’t like people today, to assume that things were so drastically different that we can never even theorize as to motivations, actions, thinking of the past. Many people are surprised to discover that a woman in my tree attended college that far in the past. The assumption is in a way the opposite of presentism; it’s an assumption that nobody in the early to mid-1800’s had the motivation and ability to provide a lengthy education for women.

From the records that have survived which I have viewed so far, I do not know what Isaac and his second wife’s motivations were for sending Addie to college, nor whether they had any particular expectations for what her life would be like after she finished. I also don’t know what Addie herself might have wanted from her life, nor whether she felt constrained by the gender roles of the time or felt comfortable in them or somewhere in between the two, nor whether she supported women’s suffrage as a number of prominent American women, including some Oberlin alumnae, already did at that time. Many women who were abolitionists came to believe that the same arguments that were typically used against slavery supported universal suffrage.  I also have no idea from the surviving records that I have viewed as to what her would-be husband Charles thought of having a wife who was better educated than he was, nor can I even be certain that he knew she was, though I certainly hope for both their sakes that she felt comfortable enough in their relationship to tell him.

Whatever Addie privately believed and hoped, she publicly married and became a housewife and mother, as the majority of the college-educated American women at that time and for decades to come would do. The indication I have to date that Addie’s love of learning and knowledge would last a lifetime is the third and final photo I inherited of her, taken decades later in her life.

Older Addie reading

Addie appears to be content as she reads a book in this photo taken much later in her life than the other two. Date unknown.

Charles died in 1898, only 55 years old. The paper trail indicates that after this Addie moved from state to state as she rotated between the locations of her widely scattered adult children. She applied for a widow’s pension based on Charles’s service in the Union in the Civil War, but was initially rejected because at the time they was only for widows whose Union-serving husbands had died during the Civil War or been declared disabled due to something that happened to them during the War. She reapplied when the law was widened to any widow and this time her application was accepted. She died in 1916 at the house of the daughter and son-in-law that were living in Cincinnati, Ohio. A family story indicates that this son-in-law, a professor, did not believe there was any use to educating women, as he is said to have told his daughter that educating dogs and women was equally pointless. I sometimes hope Addie had some strong opinions of her own to give him on that subject. Addie’s body was shipped back to Cleveland, where she was buried beside her husband Charles in the lot where her mother, father, and stepmother had also been buried in Lake View Cemetery.

I had initially intended to finish and post this draft on Election Day here in the States, which I obviously didn’t do as it is nearly a month later now. The reason is because when I, as a woman, go into that booth to fill out my ballot, I do so consciously remembering all the women before me – in my own tree around the world, and all the others – who did/do not have that option, and by speaking my voice I am honoring them. I do not know whether Addie would have voted if she’d had the opportunity, but I do know that she never got the chance.

“Women of Philadelphia! allow me as a Southern woman, with much attachment to the land of my birth, to entreat you to come up to this work. Especially let me urge you to petition. Men may settle this and other questions at the ballot-box, but you have no such right; it is only through petitions that you can reach the Legislature. It is therefore peculiarly your duty to petition. Do you say, ‘It does no good?’ The South already turns pale at the number sent.”

– Angelina Grimké, noted abolitionist & universal suffragist who was from a slaveholding family, in a mobbed public speech given in 1838


For anyone interested in public education (not colleges) in the U. S., I suggest The Rise of Literacy and the Common School in the United States: A Socioeconomic Analysis to 1870 by Lee Soltow and Edward Stevens (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1981). While it has a lot of statistical analysis, it breaks literacy and school attendance down into regions, age groups, sex, etc., in a way that few if any other books do. While as an historical researcher I don’t agree with all of their conclusions, they provide enough of the raw data on which they base them for the reader to at least somewhat judge for themselves.

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