Tag Archives: African-American History

Caroline Remond Putnam

Faithful readers of this blog will know that I am captivated by the Remonds, an African-American family of ten who lead exemplary lives of advocacy, activism and entrepreneurialism in Salem in the nineteenth-century, often centered around Hamilton Hall, the Federal reception hall right next door to my house. I feel very connected to them and I’m interested in everything they did. The parents, John and Nancy, clearly raised their children to be independent and assertive, and were both independent and assertive themselves. The most public, and therefore most well-known, Remonds were the abolitionist speakers Charles Lenox and Sarah Parker, and while I have the utmost admiration for them they have their historians, while their siblings do not. There are also no photographs (in the public realm anyway) of the other Remonds, so we don’t “see” them. So I’ve been collecting as much information as possible about the “invisible” Remonds, and I thought I would cap off my year of #salemsuffragesaturdays with a spotlight on the amazing life of the youngest member of this distinguished family, Caroline Remond Putnam (1826-1908).  She’s one of the most impressive women I have ever encountered. The closest I can get to her is her signature, sadly: on a petition against capital punishment signed when she was a teenager, on a letter addressed to Wendell Phillips sent from London (both from the digital collections of Harvard), on her passport application in 1865.

Even without an archive of personal papers to elucidate her life, it’s easy to see that Caroline was a very engaged woman: the advertisements for her businesses fill the pages of the Salem Register; her efforts towards abolition are referenced in successive issues of The Liberator. As the youngest Remond child, she had several examples to follow as every family member was busy: in business and in reform causes, or both. Her parents managed to enroll her older sister Sarah and Caroline in the Salem public schools, from which they were expelled for no cause other than their race, prompting the relocation of the family to Newport, Rhode Island. The Remonds returned to Salem when the girls’ schooling was complete, and to their several businesses. Caroline began working in hairdressing in partnership with several of her sisters, and on her own, and in the late 1840s she married Joseph H. Putnam of Boston, whose family was part of the African-American network of entrepreneur activists which extended to Philadelphia. Caroline never stopped working: as a personal hairstylist, as the owner of a Salem salon and wig factory called the Ladies Hair Work Salon with her sisters, and as the manufacturer of the popular “Mrs. Putnam’s Medicated Hair Tonic” for hair loss. She and Joseph had two children, Edmund and Victoria, but tragedy struck in 1859 when Caroline lost both her husband and her baby daughter within three months. Her reaction was to leave: she booked passage for Britain for herself and her young son Edmund to join her sister Sarah, and there are no indications that she planned to come back to the United States. But she did: back and forth across the Atlantic she went over the next 20 years or so, sometimes with a sister, often with Edmund. She came back because she had a lot to do: she had her businesses, and had assumed major leadership roles, chiefly in the realm of fundraising, for the American and Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Societies. After the Civil War she shifted her efforts towards the suffrage movement and the American, New England, and Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Associations, and was always recognized as a “well-known advocate” of the cause. Caroline clearly had many obligations in the United States, but she returned to Europe several times in the 1870s and eventually joined her sister Sarah in Italy (where she managed a hotel in Rome!) in the mid-1880s and then made a permanent move to England, where she died in 1908.

Abolition, Suffrage AND Pacifism: Caroline had big goals, and that characteristic Remond mix of activism and pragmatism regarding business matters.

It’s rather sad to see someone work so hard for the greater good in a country, and be so eager to leave it: after Frederick Douglass visited the Remond sisters (Caroline and Sarah, plus Maritcha) in Rome he reported that “they detest prejudice of color and say they would not live in the U. States, if you could or would give them America!” These sentiments were grounded in experience. Caroline experienced at least three cases of very public discrimination: she was with Sarah at the Howard Athenaeum in Boston in 1853 when they were ejected from their seats, on her first Atlantic crossing in 1859 she and her young son were barred from the first-class cabins in the Cunard liner Europa for which she had purchased tickets, and on a trip to New York City in 1870 her reservations for rooms at the Metropolitan Hotel were not honored. I’m sure these were just three public instances out of many more private ones. But still she pressed on, always trying to create a better world for herself, her family, her gender, her race, and pretty much everyone else.


Mother Harriet Maxwell

This entire year of posts exploring the experiences and achievements of Salem women on #SalemSuffrageSaturdays has not featured a single immigrant: a big slight given the important role of immigration in our nation’s, and city’s history. It certainly wasn’t deliberate: I’ve been working with the sources available to me and so far no émigré has emerged from them. But today, finally, I am spotlighting an amazing woman of Irish origin and, at the same time, opening up a window into turn-of-the century race relations: what one life, or even one episode in one life, can tell us! Mrs. Harriet Maxwell was born in Ireland in 1849 and lived in England for a decade or so following her marriage to James R. Maxwell, a sergeant in the Scots Fusilier Guards. After her husband’s death in service she emigrated to the United States in 1879, and to Salem: I’m not sure what the precise draw was. In 1886 she graduated from the Salem Hospital’s training school for nurses, and she worked in private service and at the hospital until the spring of 1898, when the call went out for nurses for the quarantine camps established during and after the Spanish-American War, the first war in which the U.S. Army relied on contract nurses in addition to those from the Red Cross and religious orders. Mrs. Maxwell immediately resigned her position at Salem Hospital and signed up: she was sent to the “city of tents” at Montauk, Long Island: Camp Wickoff, where over 21,000 soldiers were sent for quarantine to lessen the spread of yellow fever and malaria in the wake of the war.

Scenes from Camp Wikoff, Long Island, August and September 1898: the arrival of the 24th infantry, the “city of tents”, men of the 71st infantry regiment,Teddy Roosevelt in camp, camp “street” and nurses, Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Harvard Libraries and  Library of Congress.

Far more soldiers died from disease, principally yellow fever, malaria, and typhoid, than combat during and after the Spanish American War, including Salem’s own William Huntingdon Sanders. The American military seemed unprepared for the biological threat, both during and after the war. Camp Wikoff, named for the first American casualty of the war, was hastily constructed and insufficiently prepared or “manned”, in terms of medical staff, for the onslaught of troops which began arriving in August of 1898, including Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough Riders. Following a succession of deaths (there would be 340 in all), and the outbreak of fever in the camp and surrounding community, Wikoff became the focus of sharp criticism in the national newspapers: the finger was pointed at Secretary of War Russell Alger in particular, and by extension, President William McKinley, who visited the camp in September. Julian Hawthorne, Nathaniel’s son and father of John, a soldier in the 71st Infantry whom he and his wife found emaciated when they visited the camp, expressed an opinion that seems to have been shared by many in the early fall of 1898:

From the great portfolio of contemporary Camp Wikoff texts and images by Jeff Heatley at Art and Architecture Quarterly.

So this is the situation Harriet Maxwell of Salem found herself in when she arrived at Camp Wikoff in August. She was not assigned to nurse the famous Rough Riders but rather one of the “colored” regiments in residence in the camp, in segregated quarters of course: the 10th U.S. Cavalry which had fought right alongside Roosevelt’s troops at the Battle of San Juan Hill. Many of its members were fevered when they arrived at Wikoff, and Mrs. Maxwell nursed them continually, forming the close relationships that were captured in an article first published in the Boston Globe and then in regional newspapers: the story of how she became a “mother” to these troops, a lasting designation that also ended up in her 1931 obituary in the Globe: 

The Boston Globe, 4 December 1898; the 10th U.S. Cavalry at Camp Wikoff, US National Archives.

It’s an endearing story, if a bit “matriarchal” and all too illustrative of the perceived boundaries of the time. Mrs. Maxwell’s time at Wikoff was brief but impactful, as everyone’s seems to have been. She went off to another fever hotspot, Ft. Monroe in Virginian, and then back to Salem, where she continued her practice and became a highly-respected member of the U.S. Spanish-American Veterans group and the namesake of its auxiliary. Mrs. Maxwell died in September of 1931, and her obituary (September 22 Boston Globe) notes that her two grandfathers were at the Battle of Waterloo. Two uncles were fatally wounded at the Crimean War. Again, what a life-span.


Not so Ephemeral

I was a casual collector of ephemera for years, so I’ve always been impressed with the more serious seekers and crafters of entire collections, most prominently Eric C. Caren, founder of the Caren Archive of paper Americana. With its tagline “History Unfolds on Paper”, the collection extends to about a million items I believe: Mr. Caren has culled it down with a series of auctions over the last decade or so–at Bonhams, Christie’s, and Swann’s among other houses–but I suspect that he continues to buy with feverish enthusiasm. The eighth Caren collection auction is now ongoing online at Sotheby’s, and I have really enjoyed perusing the lots: ephemera can really take you into an era, by offering intimate, “everyday” or administrative perspectives on the events of the day: often it’s surprising how weighty these little strips of paper can be. A serious collection of ephemera makes such items less ephemeral and more evidential, and with digitization, the ephemeral is also transformed into a lasting testimony. My browsing was edifying as well: who knew, for example, that the famous Gerrymander, spawned right here in Essex County in 1812, died in the following year? Certainly not me! This skeletal monster is just one of several intriguing items in the auction: here are my picks.

Dead Gerrymander

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Gerrymander cartoon in the Columbian Centinal via the Salem Gazette, 1813; Horatio Gates’ Recruiting Instructions, 1775; Benjamin Harrison, Governor of Virginia, grants land to Daniel Cumbo, and African-American soldier, in return for his service in the Revolutionary War (quite a contrast to the Gates document, which prohibits the recruitment of “any Stroller, Negro or Vagabond”; John Paul Jones mezzotint, 1779; Alfred Swaine Taylor, early “photogenic drawing” photograph of a fern, 1839; Brochure for “Bloomer Girls”, a touring baseball team, from the Young Ladies’ Athletic Journal, 1889; Stop Lynching, Shame of America poster, 1937; US House of Representatives Calendar No. 61: Impeachment of Donald John Trump.


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