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“The Greatest Event of Our Lives” : Abby Sherman and Portsmouth’s First Women Voters

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Abby Sherman

“The Greatest Event of Our Lives.” Abby Sherman’s diary* records what a Portsmouth woman thought of her opportunity to vote for the first time.  Abby was not the type of women you might imagine as a “suffragist.”  Her father was an Almy and her mother a Sisson – both families descending from early Portsmouth settlers.  Her husband, Benjamin C. Sherman, was a state representative and her son, Arthur Sherman,  became both a state representative and state senator.  Abby was one of the founders of the Portsmouth Free Public Library and was active in the DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution), temperance work and Sunshine Society (a charity which aimed to help blind and disabled children).  In 1908 Abby is listed as the corresponding secretary of the Newport County Woman Suffrage League.  She was part of the effort to secure the vote for women.

Abby Sherman noted a few suffrage related entries in her diary.

1910 – March 2 “Hearing before committee on Constitutional amendments in favor of Woman’s Suffrage.”

1917 – November 7 “I read on the board that the New York state and city has voted women the franchise.  Be something done now I guess.”

The entries for 1920 give us a brief but first hand account of a woman voter.

1920 – June 8 “At one o’clock I went down to the Town Hall and registered.  Now I am a voter or shall be after I vote.  Who knows but what I might be President of the United States.”

Abby had lost no time in signing up to vote.  A Newport Mercury article on June 26th 1920 gives us a little more information on the women voters.

“June 30 is the last day upon which the women of this town may register, so as to be allowed to vote next November at the Presidential election.  A number of women registered last fall, but now a lively interest is being taken in affairs, and the town clerk is being kept busy at his task.  It is hoped that many more may attend to their registration fore it is too late.  Mr. George R. Hicks, the town clerk, is doing all in his power to help the ladies in this line.”

Abby’s suffrage entries continue:

1920, 30 September:  “Today happens the greatest event of our lives.  That is the women will cast their first vote at the Republican caucus.  It was a very quiet pleasant meeting.  We were welcomed cordially and we were all interested and eager to know our duties.  Now we are fellow workers.”

For a women whose family was very active in Republican politics, being a “fellow worker” and voter was important.  Many of Portsmouth women suffrage leaders favored the Republican party and became active in roles within the party once they had the vote.  It is interesting that this caucus vote was Abby’s first vote and very meaningful to her.  A newspaper article (Newport Mercury 9 October 1920) shows that women gained roles as delegates to the state convention and congressional convention.  Cora Mitchel’s neice, Clara May Miller and Veva Storrs (both women very active in the Newport County Woman’s Suffrage League) were elected to the Republican town committee.

Newspaper articles show that voter education was an important element of the first votes for women.

Many of the suffrage leaders were active in St. Paul’s Episcopal church.  In early October sixty women attended a meeting at St. Paul’s for instruction on how government works.  Clara May Miller was elected the chairman for the women.  Town Clerk George Hicks stated the qualifications of a voter.  “He said that it is compulsory to register once, even though (one is) a real estate taxpayer…” It seems there were different rules for those who owned property or real estate and those who didn’t.  Walter Chase talked about the role of the town committee, State Senator Arthur Sherman (Abby’s son) and Representative Boyd spoke of “the manner in which state affairs are conducted,” and School Committee Chairman Earl Anthony spoke about the schools.  All members of the town’s committee and town council were present and took questions from the ladies.  (Newport Mercury 3 Oct. 1920)

Town Hall

At yet another meeting, women were instructed on the actual ballot process.

“A meeting of the women voters was held at Town Hall on Wednesday afternoon.  They were addressed by Mr. Davis Arnold of Bristol Ferry, who instructed them in the use of the ballots and many questions were answered by Mr. Arnold. ”  Newport Mercury, October 30, 1920.

Another article relates the first vote:

“The ladies were out in large numbers, and did their voting, many of them going in the morning.  One of the oldest women in the town, Mrs. Letitia Freeborn, aged 82, was the first woman to enter the voting booth, but on account of poor eyesight had to have the assistance of a supervisor, so was not the first woman to cast a ballet, but came second.  Mrs. Harrison Peckham was next behind Mrs. Freeborn, and was the first woman to cast a vote.  The voters from Prudence came over in an oyster boat which was sent for them by some of the candidates for office.  The boat was met by automobiles.  Many automobiles were used to go for voters at a distance.”  (Newport Mercury, 6 November 1920).

And how did Abby describe her first vote?

1920 – 2 November:  Today we cast our first ballot.  The women of Portsmouth.  Everything was conducted in a quiet manner.  It was the greatest event of our lives.  The men all said that it was the best town meeting that we ever had.

*Transcriptions of Abby’s diary are by Portsmouth Historian Jim Garman.

A "Nerve Center"of Woman's Suffrage: The Bristol Ferry Group

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Letitia Lawton, Cora Mitchel and Emeline Eldredge 1907

National suffrage leaders called the Newport County Woman Suffrage League a “nerve center” for suffrage work in Rhode Island.*  The league was founded in 1907 by Cora Mitchel and her group of “philanthropic” women from the Bristol Ferry neighborhood. The organization would continue to spread across Aquidneck Island and it functioned until Rhode Island ratified the 19th amendment in 1920.  This article focuses on the founding days when Cora Mitchel served as president.

Who were the women of the founding Bristol Ferry group?  What were their backgrounds?  Where did they meet?  What were their suffrage activities?  Newspaper articles help us to get a picture of these wonderful women and their work to gain the right to vote.

Who were the original members? The “History of Woman Suffrage” lists a few of the women.  This source lists the date of 1908 as the founding, but newspaper accounts show they were founded and active in 1907.  The ladies listed as part of this group were Cora Mitchel’s friends:   Sarah Eddy, Mrs. John Eldredge (Emeline), and Mrs. Barton Ballou (Mary).  The history goes on to say that “Mrs. Julia Ward Howe was present at the first meeting and as long as she lived took great interest in its work.”  A photo taken in front of Sarah Eddy’s home shows three of the members – Cora Mitchel, Emeline Eldredge and Letitia Lawton.  Early meetings were held at the home of the “Misses Mitchel” so Cora’s sister Sophie was probably involved as well.

The original Bristol Ferry ladies came from different backgrounds – farmer’s wives, a wealthy heiress, a manufacturer’s wife, and artists.    As you read about them you will notice that the Bristol group had a distinct advantage.  At least three of the women had long experience with the suffrage movement on the state and national level.

Cora Mitchel (1847-1929) came from a brave and resourceful family that had to make a daring escape from Florida when the Civil War broke out. The family settled in the Bristol Ferry neighborhood which was part of their mother’s heritage.  The Mitchel family had large tracts of land around Bristol Ferry Road.

Sophie Mitchel (1853-1912) was Cora’s younger sister.  She was an accomplished artist with studios at Bristol Ferry and Brooklyn.  She originally painted landscapes and flowers but turned to working on miniature paintings.  Sophie was involved in arts education.  She would travel to different locations in the Northeast and bring young women artists with her to practice their painting.

Sarah Eddy (1851-1945) was a noted painter and photographer. She used her family fortune to promote good causes.  Humane treatment of animals, arts education and providing a community center (the Social Studio) were among her main causes.  She began her suffrage activities in Providence but made a permanent move to Portsmouth around 1900.  Sarah’s family had connections to national leaders such as Susan B. Anthony.  She often attended national meetings as a delegate.

Mary Ballou (1837-1926) was married to a wealthy jewelry manufacturer from Providence.  She worked in suffrage causes for fifty years on the state level, in Providence and in Newport.  She was one of the founding members of the Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Association.  She served as a treasurer.  Around 1900 the Ballou’s built a summer home on Bristol Ferry Road and Mary became a bridge between Providence and Portsmouth suffragists.

Emeline Eldredge (1853-1934) was the wife of a Portsmouth farmer.  A close friend of Sarah Eddy, she was the director for the Social Studio, an art center founded by Miss Eddy.  Emeline was active in the Portsmouth Free Public Library Association and was a superintendent of schools in Portsmouth.

Letitia Lawton (1860-1939) was a local Portsmouth wife and mother who was active in her church and helped nurse people who were ill.  She was often a companion to the Mitchel sisters in their travels.

Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910) was famous for writing the words to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”  Julia is noted for her abolition work and literary accomplishments.  She spent summers in Portsmouth for over 40 years.  Julia helped found the New England Suffrage Association in 1868  and later the American Women Suffrage Association as well as a statewide Massachusetts Women Suffrage Association.  She edited the Woman’s Journal for 20 years.  Julia was a noted speaker for the suffrage cause.

The newspaper accounts do not mention specific suffrage activities, but they seem to meet frequently.  Perhaps gathering more local women into the fold was the first activity.

*Susan B. Anthony, Editor – History of Woman Suffrage Vol. 4

More information can be found in this blog about the women.

Mary Ballou:  https://portsmouthhistorynotes.com/2019/12/13/mary-ballou-a-rhode-island-suffrage-pioneer/

Sarah Eddy: https://portsmouthhistorynotes.com/2019/11/14/sarah-eddys-suffrage-work/

Cora Mitchel and Sophie Mitchel: https://portsmouthhistorynotes.com/2018/03/25/portsmouth-women-the-mitchels-cora-sophie-floride-and-clara-may-miller/

Emeline Eldredge: https://portsmouthhistorynotes.com/2017/09/08/portsmouth-people-emeline-eldredge-suffrage-agitator/

Julia Ward Howe:https://portsmouthhistorynotes.com/2019/12/17/a-division-among-the-suffragists-julia-ward-howe-and-susan-b-anthony/

January 6, 1920: Rhode Island Ratifies the 19th Amendment

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Ratification document 1920

Rhode Island was not among the first states to ratify the federal constitutional amendment that would grant the vote to women. In fact, two attempts to secure a special legislative session failed in July and September of 1919. Just a few days before the opening of the January 1920 legislative session, word was out that there would be a suspension of rules so that on January 6 the vote would be taken.  At that point the Providence League of Women Voters began to plan for a Victory Dinner.  Congressman Jeanette Rankin would be the lead speaker.  Rankin came from Montana which had granted women the vote in 1914 and in 1916 Rankin was the first woman elected to Congress.  She had a long history of working for the vote for women.

Women gathered outside the State House.  Suffragists filled the seats in the galleries along with the first lady of the state, Mrs. R. Livingston Beeckman.Not all the politicians had been converted to the suffrage cause.  The Speaker of the House, Arthur Sumner (a lifelong opponent of the vote for women) asked for permission to cast the first vote against the amendment.  Women in the room began to fear that the speaker could somehow hold up the vote, but in the end there were only two other votes against – William Taylor of Bristol and Albert Zurlinden of Lincoln.

With that vote taken, the resolution was taken across the corridor to the Senate.  The chair of the Senate was a “friend of the cause” – Lt. Governor Emery J. San Souci.  With no speeches, the resolution was passed by voice vote.  There was only one dissent – John H. McCabe of Burrillville.

With the passage of the resolution to approve the 19th Amendment, the Victory Party was held at the Turks Head Club.  Men and women dined together on the turkey dinner.  “Jolly little speechlets” were given by those who had worked hard for suffrage during the previous fifty years.  Among those speaking were three who had Aquidneck Island ties – Anna Darlin Spencer, Sarah Eddy and Maud Howe Elliott.  Mrs. J.K. Barney spoke for the pioneers and especially those who could not be there like Portsmouth’s own Mrs. Barton Ballou.

On January 7th 1920 a large delegation of the suffragists witnessed Governor Beeckman sign the Ratification Resolution.  Sara Algro, reporting for the “Women Citizen” summed it this way.  “Thus ended in a most satisfactory manner the glorious victory which will long be remembered in the annals of Rhode Island.”

A Division Among the Suffragists: Julia Ward Howe and Susan B. Anthony

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Susan B. Anthony painted by Sarah Eddy

When Susan B. Anthony visited Portsmouth in 1901, she went to visit Julia Ward Howe. What was extraordinary about that visit is that it probably would not have happened a dozen years before.  Until I began to research the local suffragists, I was not aware that there were divisions among them.   I will try to explain the differences between the various suffrage groups.

During the Civil War activists for women’s rights set aside their cause.  As they took up their activities again,  many of them sought to combine their cause of rights for women with rights for African Americans.  The American Equal Rights Association was formed in 1866 with the rights of women and blacks as their cause.  In November of 1868 there was a regional meeting in Boston of the Women’s Rights Convention.  Some of those who participated in that meeting (Lucy Stone, Henry Blackwell, Isabella Beecher Hooker, Julia Ward Howe and T.W. Higginson) founded the New England Woman Suffrage Association (NEWSA). Julia Ward Howe was the first President.   Frederick Douglass spoke at the first convention and said “the cause of the negro was more pressing than that of the woman’s.” Julia Ward Howe is recorded as saying at the convention that she would not demand suffrage for women until it was achieved for blacks.

This did not sit well with those who were more focused on the woman’s cause.  In May of 1869 Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony and others formed the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA).  To counter this organization, the executive board of the New England Woman Suffrage Association formed the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) in November of 1869.

What were the goals of each group?

AWSA – Julia’s group – Headquarters in Boston

  1. Focus on the vote for women and largely ignored other women’s rights issues.
  2. Supported winning suffrage state by state instead of federal approach
  3. Supported the Republican Party
  4. Used a delegate system
  5. Men were full members and served as officers
  6. AWSA was the more conservative and larger group.
  7. Opposed confrontational strategies.
  8. Published “Woman’s Journal”

NWSA – Susan B. Anthony’s group – Headquarters in New York

  1. Advocated for range of reforms for equal rights for women – not just the vote.  (Discrimination, pay issues, marriage and divorce laws).
  2. Condemned passage of 14th and 15th amendments unless woman’s suffrage was included.
  3. Female led group.  All members were women although men could be affiliated.
  4. Sought a national, constitutional change to insure voting rights.
  5. Sought help from Democrats as well as Republicans.
  6. Had a “top-down” organization.
  7. Published – “The Revolution”

After the 15th Amendment was passed in 1870, voting rights for blacks was no longer an issue.  In 1878 a woman suffrage amendment was proposed and Congress defeated it, so the NWSA began to use the state by state approach, too.  Those active in woman suffrage were discouraged and tired of the divisions. There was little difference between the two groups at that time.   Lucy Stone  proposed at a AWSA convention that the organization should approach the NWSA and women in the two groups began to negotiate an alliance.  In 1890 the two organizations merged into the National American Woman Suffrage Association.

Oak Glen – home of Julia Ward Howe

Susan B. Anthony wrote to her sister.  “I went in the carriage one afternoon to call on Julia Ward Howe, whose summer home is six miles from here; she was charming and I had an interesting time.”  Two great leaders in the suffrage movement were meeting in Portsmouth through the efforts of Sarah Eddy.  The woman’s suffrage cause was much stronger together than it had been divided.

Resources:  I recommend the online articles by “ThoughtCo” on the various groups.  This one is on AWSA, but there are others on NWSA and the American Equal Rights Association.

Lewis, Jone Johnson. “American Woman Suffrage Association.” ThoughtCo, Jun. 4, 2018, thoughtco.com/american-woman-suffrage-association-3530477

Mary Ballou: "A Rhode Island Suffrage Pioneer"

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Back in 1920 when Rhode Island ratified the Nineteenth Amendment, the Providence Journal named Mary Ballou (of Providence and the Bristol Ferry neighborhood of Portsmouth) as a “Rhode Island Suffrage Pioneer.”  The newspaper quotes her as saying, “I am glad to have lived to see this day.”  Indeed, Mary had been fighting for suffrage since she joined the Rhode Island Woman’s Suffrage Association in 1868.  When Rhode Island passed a Presidential Suffrage Bill in 1917 which allowed Rhode Island women to vote in the presidential election, she was interviewed by the Journal and was asked to express her thoughts.  “It marks the beginning of the end of what has been for me a long and often hopeless appearing fight.  I have worked for suffrage for almost fifty years and when I celebrate by 80th birthday next week I will have a real cause for celebration.  I hardly expected to live long enough to see old hide-bound Rhode Island take its place at the head of the processional of progress in the East.”  (ProJo 4/18/1917)

Mary belonged to the Bristol Ferry group of suffragists who became a “nerve center” of the Rhode Island suffrage movement. Its members were a diverse group of women.  What was Mary’s background?  What roles did she play in the suffrage movement?  Did she continue her activism after voting rights were passed?

Mary Rathbone Kelly Ballou was born in 1837 in Blackstone, Massachusetts.  Her father was a successful factory owner.  On her mother’s side she descended from Rhode Island’s Hazard family.  Her grandmother, Alice Peckham Ballou, was a Quaker minister.  Mary was raised as a Quaker and attended what is now Moses Brown School in Providence where her grandfather was principal. After graduation, Mary became a teacher.

In 1867 Mary became the wife of Barton A. Ballou who was a leader in the Providence jewelry industry.  Mary’s husband was active in the Providence community.  He was a trustee of James Eddy’s Bell Street Chapel.  Eddy was Sarah Eddy’s father and I suppose Mary and Sarah Eddy would have known each other from those early days in Providence.  Mary and Barton raised three children, Frederick, Charles (Rathbone) and Alice.  Even as a newlywed and young mother, Mary was active in the Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Association (RIWSA).  She served as Treasurer and Vice President of the RIWSA and she carried over her interest in suffrage to her summer home on Bristol Ferry Road in Portsmouth.   She hosted weekly meetings with friends and neighbors Cora Mitchel, Emeline Eldredge, Sarah Eddy and others.

Mary Ballou and Sarah Eddy were listed as part of the Rhode Island executive committee of the New England Woman’s Suffrage Association in 1909.  Julia Ward Howe, another summer Portsmouth resident, was elected as the President of the Association at their Boston meeting.  Mary would host combined meetings of the Providence and Newport County Woman’s Suffrage League.

The Ballous had extensive properties on Bristol Ferry Road.  Portsmouth became their summer home around 1900 and that was about the same time that Sarah Eddy came to make Portsmouth her home as well. Newspaper accounts say that John Manchester built their home in 1900, just as he built Sarah Eddy’s home and the Social Studio.   Sarah and the Ballous were next door neighbors.  The Ballous often hosted events jointly with Sarah, especially the yearly outing for the residents of a home for elderly black men and women in Providence.

Barton Ballou was a very successful man, and his home in Portsmouth reflected his wealth.  In 1902 the family had a tennis court laid out on their property.   The Fall River News in 1900 reports that he “has a handsome locomotive, fitted with two one-horse power engines of the marine pattern.”  A Fall River Evening Journal article (6/14/1914) describes how Ballou and his automobile would come to the rescue when a fire breaks out in the caretaker’s cottage of the Eddy estate.  Ballou drove the power station engineer and fire extinguishers to the site of the fire.  The extinguishers help to put out fires on Sarah’s roof that had been started by burning embers.

The Ballous continued to add to their property on Bristol Ferry Road.  The Ballous and Sarah Eddy were sold property held by Suffrage Leader Cora Mitchel and her family.

The Ballous even bought Julia Ward Howe’s home on Union Street – Oak Glen.  In July of 1931 Oak Glen, the home of Charles (aka Rathbone) Ballou, hosted a public meeting of the Rhode Island League of Women Voters.  Two of Mary’s children, Charles Rathbone Ballou and Dr. Alice Ballou Eliot, organized the event.  They followed in the footsteps of their mother.  Two years after the passage of RI Presidential Voting rights for women, the National American Woman Suffrage Organization was transformed into the League of Women Voters.  Its aim was to support the new voting rights and  expand the role of women in the political sphere.  Mary Ballou’s activism was carried over to this organization in 1919 when the Rhode Island division got its charter.  In 1930 the Rhode Island League of Women Voters recognized Mary on the National Honor Role of the League of Women Voters.  Mary died in 1926, but her efforts to win rights for women was still recognized.

What was the Social Studio?

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When I first became aware of Sarah Eddy, I started collecting postcards of the “Social Studio”  which Sarah founded.  Just what was the Social Studio?   As I read the newspaper and magazine accounts from early in the Twentieth Century, it seems the Social Studio had many purposes.   It was a community gathering place (a social center), an arts and crafts school (a studio), a clubhouse for young people, an art exhibit space, an arts and crafts store, and a school for humane education.

The earliest account of the Social Studio was in a Fall River Evening News article in December of 1902.  The article reports that John E. Manchester will be in charge of the building process.  It also says that Miss Eddy has had other work done by Manchester during the last four years.  That helps us date Sarah’s cottage and when she may have come to Portsmouth as around 1898.  This article states that the studio will be for “public uses such as woodwork carving, lectures, stereopticon views, suppers or any object which will benefit those who attend.” The article says that  “It will contain a hall, 22×36, and a kitchen on the first floor, with rooms above, and will be artistic as well as ornamental.”

According to another Fall River Evening News article (2/24/1903), the Social Studio opened less than two months later at the end of February.   The studio is featured as a “spot for people to gather and spend an evening. The Social Studio is fitted with a piano, reading matter, etc… The studio was built under the direction of Miss Sarah J. Eddy and it was through her courtesy that the public was invited to gather at the place on Saturday, and to attend the meetings each Friday evening.”  The activities would soon grow to many more days of the week and throughout the year.

What kind of activities took place at the Social Studio?   Again, the newspaper articles and the postcards help us to understand what went on.  Among the first activities arranged by the Social Studio were boys clubs and girls clubs. The 1906 article in Good Housekeeping lists sixty members in the boys club and thirty five girls in their club.    Many articles tell of plays being performed and there was even an orchestra connected to the Social Studio Boys’ Club.  Handicraft Magazine in 1911 tells of an arts and crafts exhibition and sale.  Lessons were given in various household arts such as wood carving, weaving, and basket work.  Up for sale were Irish crochet lace, intricate metal work (repousse), hand carved pieces including a serving tray and Japanese ideographs (writing). The Social Studio had an artist’s cooperative called “associated workers,” adults who had their work on sale at the studio and they would pay a certain number of cents for each sale.  These workers would leave a sample of the work and the Social Studio would take orders for them.

“The Commons Magazine” lists classes in pyrography (wood burning), drawing, water color painting and raffia.  According to this magazine, the classes were “conducted by competent teachers, a nominal fee being charged for instruction.”  Good Housekeeping Magazine in 1906 adds embroidery and sewing to the list of lessons.  There were many different types of clubs.  The reading club met on Tuesday  afternoon and the social club met on Tuesday evenings.  Among the first clubs organized were those concerned with teaching about the protection of animals.  This topic was particularly dear to Sarah’s heart. Children were taught to know and love the birds and not to disturb nests.  The idea of “Bands of Mercy” came from Sarah Eddy’s 1899 book – “Friends and Helpers.”  Sarah believed that when children learned to respect animals they would learn to respect the rights of people as well.

“Kindness to all living creatures” is one of Sarah’s mottos.  The “Golden Rule” club with smaller children (20 members) gave a portion of their work and time to help others.  The “Estrelles Band of Mercy” have assisted families by donating vegetables, clothes and small amounts of money.

According to The Commons Magazine: “Such a social and educational center would be a great gift and open up wonderful privileges and opportunities in the lives of country boys and girls, who, after the day’s work, might satisfy a legitimate cravings for amusement and society in a more wholesome manner than loafing about the post office or store, retelling petty gossip or engaging in the more dangerous pastime of immature lovemaking.”

Although the Community Christmas Party continued on for many years, most of the activities for children seemed to taper off by the First World War.  The Social Studio continued to be a gathering spot for adults up until the 1930s.  All types of organizations used the Studio and it was frequently used for church gatherings.  Every women’s church group in Portsmouth used the Social Studio for fundraisers and socials and it became a summer chapel for St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.  Sarah Eddy’s close friend Emeline Eldredge was the director of the Social Studio for around twenty years and her death in 1934 may have contributed to the ending of activities.

The Social Studio is still a useful building today. It is a family home and although there have been additions and modifications, it is still recognizable as the gathering place it once was.

A Rhode Islander at the Alamo: Albert Martin

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The Alamo today

On a recent visit to the Alamo, I was surprised to see the Rhode Island flag displayed. The flag was in honor of Albert Martin, a Providence native who was among those who died defending the Alamo against the Mexican forces under General Santa Anna.  I knew about such heroes as Davey Crocket and Jim Bowie, but I had not known that a Rhode Islander was among those considered a hero during the Texas fight for Independence.  This was, in part, due to the fact that Martin was inaccurately listed as being from Tennessee.  It took a long time for the error to be corrected.

Who was Albert Martin?  How did he get to Texas?  What role did he play in the battle for Texas independence?

Albert Martin’s name on Memorial outside Alamo

Albert Martin was born in Providence in 1808 to Joseph and Abby Martin.  It seems he might have had some military training.  Some accounts say he attended what is now Norwich University.   At the time it was called “The American Literary, Scientific and Military Academy” and was located in Connecticut.  Other sources say he was admitted to West Point in 1824.  Military training would have come in handy when the family moved to Texas.

The family had been prominent merchants, but they fell on hard times.  The family was lured to the Texas area by the promise of land grants. The newly independent Mexican government wanted to populate the area.   Joseph, Albert and an older brother left Rhode Island in 1832.  They came by way of Tennessee and spent some time in New Orleans along the way.  They moved to Gonzales, Texas in 1835 where they ran a general store – a part of “Martin, Coffin & Company.”

Albert Martin arrived in Texas just in time to take a role in the battle for Texas Independence.  As General Santa Anna attempted to get more centralized control over the Texas area, the Texians (Anglo-American settlers) and the Tejanos (the Texans of Mexican and Native American  descent) joined together to fight for independence.

Martin’s military training would come to play in three  battles.  He joined the Gonzales Rangers and was one of the “Old Eighteen” defenders. The people of Gonzales had been given an old six pound cannon that was to be used to defend against attacks by local tribes.  In September of 1835 the Texans were shinning up the cannon to use it in defense of their town, but then over a hundred Mexican troops came to take it back.  Albert Martin had buried the cannon in a peach orchard and he and seventeen other defenders taunted the Mexicans with the cry “Come and Take It!” This allowed the rebels time to gather 150 troops for the Battle of Gonzales. On a foggy night the Texans crept up on the Mexican forces.  As the fog lifted the two sides faced each other.  After some musket fire from the Mexicans,  the Gonzales cannon shot nails and old horseshoes at the Mexican troops and they turned and headed away.  The men of Gonzales were jubilant.  The Texas Revolution had officially begun. In December of 1835 Martin was involved in the Battle for Bexar.

In February of 1836, Albert Martin arrived at the Alamo.  Beginning Feb. 23, 1836, a group of Texas rebels were holding a fort/church (the Alamo) from about 4000 Mexican forces under President/General Santa Anna.  The 13 day siege enabled Texas General Sam Houston to gather an army at San Jacinto.  Santa Anna had raised the flag that meant they would take no prisoners, so those defending in the Alamo knew what their fate might be.  The Texans replied with a shot of their cannon.  When the Texans learned that the Mexicans had requested to meet, both Jim Bowie and William Travis (co-leaders of the rebels) sent out emissaries.  Albert Martin went to speak for Travis.  Martin crossed the river under a flag of truce and met with Mexican Colonel Almonte on the footbridge. He said he was speaking for Travis and that if Almonte wanted to speak with Travis he would be received “with much pleasure.”   Almonte said he was just there to “listen” and stressed that the Texans’ only hope was to surrender.  Martin reported back to Travis.  Travis wrote to Sam Houston – “I answered them with a cannon shot.”

On February 24th, Colonel Travis decided to send off a letter for help.  Albert Martin would be his messenger.

Commandancy of the The Alamo

Bejar, Feby. 24th. 1836

To the People of Texas & All Americans in the World-

Fellow Citizens & compatriots-

I am besieged, by a thousand or more of the Mexicans under Santa Anna – I have sustained a continual Bombardment & cannonade for 24 hours & have not lost a man – The enemy has demanded a surrender at discretion, otherwise, the garrison are to be put to the sword, if the fort is taken – I have answered the demand with a cannon shot, & our flag still waves proudly from the walls – I shall never surrender or retreat. Then, I call on you in the name of Liberty, of patriotism & everything dear to the American character, to come to our aid, with all dispatch – The enemy is receiving reinforcements daily & will no doubt increase to three or four thousand in four or five days. If this call is neglected, I am determined to sustain myself as long as possible & die like a soldier who never forgets what is due to his own honor & that of his country – Victory or Death.

William Barret Travis.

Lt. Col.comdt.

P. S. The Lord is on our side – When the enemy appeared in sight we had not three bushels of corn – We have since found in deserted houses 80 or 90 bushels and got into the walls 20 or 30 head of Beeves.

Martin slipped out of the Alamo and the Mexicans made no effort to stop him.  He could hear the rumble of cannons behind him.  He reached Gonzales the next day.  Martin wrote on the back of that Travis letter “Hurry on all the men you can.”  He passed the letter on to a fresh rider, Launcelot Smithers who road on to San Felipe and arrived there February the 27th.  More couriers spread the word on to settlements to the Gulf Coast.

According to Martin’s obituary in the July 1836 Manufacturers and Farmer’s Journal, Martin’s father tried to persuade him not to go back to the Alamo and certain death.  Albert said “This is no time or such considerations.  I have passed my word to Colonel Travers, that I would return, nor can I forfeit a pledge thus given.”  He gathered a group of 62 who would go to the Alamo with him, but in the end only 32 from Gonzales arrived with him on March 1st.    Although the group was small, it did revive the spirits of the rebels.

March 6th was the final battle.  The battle took only 90 minutes.  Santa Anna would not allow a proper burial for the men who had defended the Alamo.  Their bodies were burned. The women and children were allowed to go to spread the message of the Mexican victory.

Martin’s  obituary goes on to say:  “Thus died Albert Martin, a not inapt illustration of New England heroism.”  Although Albert Martin has no burial place, Rhode Islanders did not forget him  There is a marker in a North Burial Ground, Providence.  “Albert Martin fell at the Alamo, Texas in defense of his adopted country, March 6, 1836.  Aged 28 y’rs and 2 mo’s.”

Sources:

Lord, Walter:  A Time to Stand:  The Epic of the Alamo.  1961, Harper Row, NY.

Handbook of Texas Online, Bill Groneman, “MARTIN, ALBERT,” accessed December 02, 2019, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fma57.

Small State Big History:  http://smallstatebighistory.com/two-rhode-islanders-make-it-big-in-texas-albert-martin-at-the-alamo-and-shanghai-pierce-the-cattle-baron/

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