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Portsmouth Women: The Mitchels – Cora, Sophie, Floride and Clara May Miller

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Womens suffrage photo

Cora Mitchel

The Mitchel Sisters – Cora, Sophie and Floride – were very active in Portsmouth culture and social reform movements.  Through their mother, Sophia Brownell Mitchel, they had long roots in the Bristol Ferry area.  Their father was a cotton merchant in Florida before the Civil War and the Mitchel family had to literally escape the South once the fighting began.  They came to Bristol Ferry because it was an ancestral and summer home for them.

Did you know that the Bristol Ferry area was a hotbed of the Women’s Suffrage movement.  Elizabeth Cady Stanton in her History of Woman Suffrage 1900-1920 wrote: “Among the nerve centers of suffrage activity in Rhode Island the Newport County Woman Suffrage League had a definite place from its founding in 1908, by Miss Cora Mitchell, its first president. The League’s work was at first largely carried on by an active group of philanthropic women of Bristol Ferry, Miss Mitchell’s friends and neighbors, among whom were Miss Sarah J. Eddy, Mrs. John Eldredge and Mrs. Barton Ballou. Gradually the suffrage agitation spread over the entire island, which includes the three townships of Portsmouth, Middletown and Newport.”  Cora remained active in demonstrations and organizing activities for many years.

Sophie was a talented artist and was among those in the Bristol Ferry artist community that had gathered around Sarah Eddy.  Sophie had studios in both Brooklyn and Portsmouth.  In 1908 Sophie built a house and studio on Bristol Ferry.  She traveled around the United States and Europe.  Subjects for her landscapes were Newport, Nantucket, Germany, Mexico, Long Island, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Cape Cod, etc.  She often led young socialite ladies on sketching tours.  She liked painting portraits, but she was more known for her landscapes and flower themes.  She exhibited in her own studios and also in more prestigious Boston art shows.

Floride Mitchel May was a mother and grandmother. Floride was the older sister of the Mitchel girls and she married around the time the Civil War began.  She and her husband moved from Florida to Georgia and Cora was sent to live with her and go to school.   Their mother, Sophia Brownell Mitchel, did not want to move north without Cora, so she undertook a very dangerous trip to get Cora before she managed to shepherd her family to Bristol Ferry.  Floride came to Bristol Ferry, probably after her husband died.

Bristol Ferry Map edit

Note Mitchel family land on 1907 Portsmouth map.

Floride’s daughter,  Clara, married famous artist Oscar Miller.  Clara took part in many of the activities that her aunts pursued.  She was among those doing suffrage work.  She was active in the arts exhibits in the County Fair.  Once the women got the vote, Clara was active in Republican politics.  In 1920 she was one of the organizers of the Newport County Women’s Republican Club.  She was a delegate to the state Republican convention.  Even after her husband’s death she continued as a patron of the arts for a Swanhurst Concert.

Portsmouth benefited from the work of all the Mitchel/May women.  Their activities in suffrage, the arts and politics made them women ahead of their time.

 

 

Portsmouth Women: Sarah Eddy, Susan B. Anthony and Women’s Suffrage

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Vintage photo of Sarah Eddy Home.

Susan B. Anthony has secured her place in history as an important figure in gaining the vote for women.  Her full length portrait hangs in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. We have forgotten, however, the artist and friend of Susan B. Anthony who painted that grand full-length oil painting. The artist, Sarah James Eddy, was a long time resident of Portsmouth and Susan actually came to stay with her in Portsmouth for three weeks as she “sat” for the portrait.

Why did Susan take the time to come to little Portsmouth for a long portrait sitting? You have to learn a little about the artist to understand why Miss Anthony would indulge the artist. Sarah James Eddy was an accomplished artist. She was a skilled painter, photographer and sculptor. Sarah was also a close friend to some of the most notable leaders in the great causes of the day – abolition and women’s suffrage. Sarah had experience in painting important portraits. In the 1880s she persuaded Abolitionist Frederick Douglass to come to Rhode Island (she was living in Providence at the time) to sit for a full-length portrait. Now hanging at the Frederick Douglass National Park near Washington, this painting might be the only painting where Douglass actually “sat” for the artist.

Sarah’s family supported the anti-slavery cause and Douglass became a friend of Sarah. The friendship and family connections Sarah had with these great figures provided her with an opportunity other artists would not have had.  Although Susan B. Anthony had long promised a visit, the opportunity didn’t arrive until the fall of 1902. Susan visited family members in Massachusetts as she made her way to Sarah’s large home in the part of Portsmouth known as Bristol Ferry. The letters Susan wrote show how she relished her time at Bristol Ferry. She stayed over three weeks and the artist and subject would spend their mornings on the portraits and would enjoy the afternoon traveling around Aquidneck Island.

Miss Anthony wrote: “We have delightful drives over the old stone bridge that connects us with the mainland to Tiverton and along the shore of the Sconset (Sakonnet) River, which is really an arm of the ocean and here we can see the whole length of the island with Newport in its beauty on the coast. It is ten miles away and we went by train one day, took the famous ocean drive and passed the palaces of the nabobs.”

Susan enjoyed just being at Sarah’s home. She wrote of waking up from afternoon naps to “the slanting rays of the sun” shining on Narragansett Bay. She must have slept in a turret room because she wrote that “from all five windows of my big room is the most glorious view imaginable.”

Bristol Ferry was the “hotbed” of the Rhode Island Women’s Suffrage movements, so Susan was among friends and supporters in Portsmouth. She would take a carriage ride down West Main Road to Oak Glen, the home of Julia Ward Howe. She found Julia “charming” and “had an interesting time.”

Sarah Eddy was a woman of many causes and she entertained so many at her home. While Susan was there one of the guests had just come from a Woman’s Christian Temperance Union Convention and another was from the Anti-Vivisection Society. Sarah was a strict vegetarian and one of her neighbors teased that Susan should come for a meal at their house because a “slice of good roast beef” would do her good. Susan declined the offer, but the neighbor sent over some of the roast beef “for Miss Eddy’s cannibal friends.”

Portsmouth People: David Gifford, Patriot

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Gifford’s signature on Tavern license – 7/10/1775 PHS collection

The Portsmouth Historical Society has a rich collection of documents dating from the 1600s and 1700s, but we have very few documents from the Revolutionary War Era. War came to Portsmouth on December 8, 1776 when the British forces landed at Weaver Cove and they occupied the town until their forces left on October 25, 1779. Among the few documents that we do have, the name “David Gifford” is prominent. Gifford was a local ferry man and tavern owner. He took a leading role in the pre-war militia activity, he served as a Deputy from Portsmouth during the war, and state records show that he participated in military and naval activities during the war.

From its start Portsmouth traditionally had a militia. As war threatened in 1774, the Rhode Island General Assembly ordered monthly drills of all militia companies with full preparations for war. Since 1772, David Gifford had already been transporting town records and other items to and from Providence with his ferry boat. As the threat of war increased, the town records show that on August 29, 1775 the town voted “that David Gifford Draw the sum of Eighteen shillings out of this Town Treasury . . . for bringing . . . this Town’s Proportion of Powder & Balls from Providence.”

In the opening stages of war in 1775, Portsmouth raised a company of around sixty men to march to the support of Boston with a regiment raised in Newport County. A group of militia remained on guard at the town while the others were gone. Portsmouth created the fourteen-member volunteer “Artillery Company,” and provided it with 115 pounds of powder, 184 pounds of lead and 739 flints (spark making rocks). These local minutemen were to “March out to Action” when needed, and when they became part of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment in 1776, the Colony of Rhode Island provided cannons on carriages. In August of 1775 its leaders were Captain John Earl, Lieutenant James Peckham, and Ensign Cook Wilcox. Later artillery company leaders were David Gifford and Burrington Anthony. By the end of the Revolution almost all Portsmouth men from ages sixteen to sixty had served in the military.
The assembly in Providence called for additional troops and David Gifford was appointed to dole out the bounty of forty shillings to be paid to those who enlisted. Portsmouth was receptive to the calls for additional troops. Town records show that on September 17, 1776 the freemen voted that “seventeen able bodyed men be Enlisted into the servis of this State being the Town’s proportion, and that forty shillings Lawful Money be paid for every such person so Inlisted if they provide themselves with Arms & Accoutrements and that Capt. David Gifford provide the Money for said use & that he be Repayed out of this Town’s Treasury as soon as possible.”

By February 1776 the town meeting ordered their town council to draw up a list of people in town who could not provide their own firearms. The freemen voted 240 dollars or 75 pounds lawful money to purchase firearms. A committee of four men was assigned to get the money and purchase twenty small arms. David Gifford, one of the committee was selected to receive the weapons.

When the British and Hessians arrived in December of 1776, there were citizens who fled to Tiverton or Bristol. It is likely that David Gifford and his ferry boat left the island. In December of 1776 Rhode Island Records state “It is voted and resolved that Capt. David Gifford be permitted to proceed with a flag of truce to Rhode Island, under the direction of His Honor the Governor, upon his procuring three prisoners of war to exchange for three soldiers lately belonging to his company, and now detained as prisoners on said island.” It would be interesting to know which three of his Portsmouth militia company were part of the exchange.

By August of 1777 he was a member of the General Assembly and he was appointed a Lieutenant in Major Munroe’s Company. Being a ferry man, he took part in naval operations as well. The April 6, 1778 journal entry of Captain Joseph Crandall of the Rhode Island Navy Schooner-rigged Armed Galley Spitfire notes that Gifford and his ferry boat took part in a raid to Bristol Ferry on Aquidneck Island where they set fire and destroyed a British sloop. This daring raid was conducted while the Americans were being fired on from the British fortifications at Bristol Ferry.

We don’t have records of Gifford being in military service during the Battle of Rhode Island or during the remainder of the war. In 1780 and 1781 he was appointed Deputy from Portsmouth. He continued to receive recruits and handle bounties for the enlisted.

In 1779, when the town meetings began again, Portsmouth citizens sent a message to the Rhode Island General Assembly asking that their taxes should be lowered because the town was in a “Distressed Situation.” Unfortunately the state still wanted its taxes and in May of 1781 threatened to confiscate the property of those who did not pay even though they had supported the war and suffered from the hardships of occupation. Portsmouth people were so concerned about their local issues, that it was hard for them to sacrifice anything more for the state or national government. The citizens preferred the more decentralized Articles of Confederation to the new Constitution that was proposed. Portsmouth Freemen voted twelve to sixty to not adopt the Constitution in a vote held May 24th, 1788. Portsmouth military leaders Cook Wilcox, David Gifford and Burrington Anthony were among those who voted against adoption of the Constitution.
As an agricultural community, Portsmouth people were concerned about war debt repayment and “paper money” issues as well as waiting for the adoption of the Bill Of Rights. Portsmouth townspeople began to favor the new constitution when it seemed that the national government would start putting heavy fines on Rhode Island trade with other states. That would not be in the best interest of the Portsmouth farmers. Portsmouth voted for the Constitution and Rhode Island finally became the thirteenth state in 1790.
David Gifford led a full life. He was active in the Portsmouth community as a tavern keeper and ferry man at Bristol Ferry. He was a militia leader who was essential in recruiting soldiers and getting the militia armed and ready for war. He was trusted with a prisoner exchange. He used his skills as a ferry man on a daring raid to burn an enemy ship. He served Portsmouth as a Deputy. David Gifford died May 17, 1790 and is buried at St. Paul’s Cemetery. He was only in his forties, but he had lived a full life of service to Portsmouth.

Soldier bounty – David Gifford 6/28/1780
PHS collection

 

Lost Stories: The Mitchel Family’s Daring Escape from the South

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Womens suffrage photo (1)

Cora Mitchel as a suffragette

When we think of Portsmouth and the Civil War, we usually focus on Lovell Hospital or the local men that went to war. I’m beginning to discover that a prominent Bristol Ferry family, the Mitchels, had a unique history of escapes from the Confederacy. I had come across a newspaper article about Portsmouth resident Colby Mitchel and his daring escape from being kidnapped from school and impressed into the Confederate Army. ( I wrote an earlier blog about this story.) With further research I came across a first hand account by his sister, Cora Mitchel, of how the rest of the family escaped from Florida and traveled to their summer home in Portsmouth, Rhode Island. Cora related her story in a book in 1916 – Reminiscences of the Civil War. It was published in Providence by Snow and Farnham and it is available digitally online. The information in this blog came from Cora’s book.

Why was the Mitchell family down South when the Civil War began?
The father of the family, Thomas Leeds Mitchel of Groton Connecticut, was a cotton merchant in Apalachicola, Florida. Cotton was shipped down river to be compressed and taken down to the bay where steamers and sailing vessels would carry it to England and New England. There were a number of Northerners in the community as well as families from the South. Mitchel did not believe in slavery. He employed blacks, but he did unwillingly own three. These three had come to him and asked him buy them. Otherwise they would be sold on the open market. Cora remembers them as faithful, valuable servants who were like family members.

Cora’s mother was Sophia Brownell of Providence. The Brownell family was one of the earliest families in Portsmouth. The Mitchels had their summer residence in Portsmouth in the area where the first Brownells held their land. It was not uncommon for Southern planters to spend their summers in the milder climate of Aquidneck Island.

What happened to the family when the Civil War began?
Cora remembers the excitement when war seemed imminent. Her father was convinced that the war could not be long and that peace would be restored. He had large properties in the South as well as his business, so he decided not to go North. Everything he had would be confiscated if he did.

After Ft. Sumter, the town began to prepare for war. Defensive companies formed and drilled. Sandbags armed with canon lined the bay and the town was considered to be in jeopardy. In the Spring of 1861, Cora’s sister, Floride, was to be married. Mother Sophia was allowed through lines and she went north for daughter’s trousseau!

A blockade shut up the port. Business was at a standstill. Cora’s sister and brother-in-law went to Columbus, Georgia. Fifteen year old Cora was sent to stay with her sister and go to school in Columbus.

Young Colby Mitchel sixteen or seventeen years old at the time) was taken from the schoolhouse in Apalachicola by a detachment of soldiers and conscripted into the Southern army. How his father rescues him and brings him North is another interesting story.

The family was beginning to realize the gravity of the whole situation they were in. Neighbors began to resent Colby’s desertion. Mother Sophia was left with four small children and almost no food or money. Son Thomas was around ten, Sophia was about six, Louis was four and Gaston was about three.

Mrs. Mitchel’s Dangerous Journey to get Cora
Mother Sophia did not want to leave Cora behind. Columbus, Georgia was three hundred miles away and Sophia left her younger children with their Aunt Ann, their nurse. She set off on a perilous journey to get her daughter. The Confederates had obstructed the river with fallen trees, debris, etc. Sophia had to get around it. She rowed against the current as far as the obstruction. She was able to get a boat for the rest of the journey, but she was exhausted when she arrived at Columbus.

When they traveled down river to get back to Apalachicola, they needed to get a passport to get through the Confederate lines. At first the soldiers Sophia approached wouldn’t give it to her. Cora tried approaching a young soldier and he helped them even though he had orders not to let them pass through. A boatman who was originally from Italy was waiting for them at the obstruction. They found a route through a bayou to get around the obstruction. They had the necessary passport to get through the guard posts and the Confederates let the women and their boatmen pass. Their little boat was leaking badly as they reached a deserted wharf at Apalachicola.

Times were tough in Apalachicola. The town was built on a sand bar and could not grow food on its own. No food shipments were coming. There were no cattle or poultry. What rice they had had spoiled. Everyone lived on corn meal. The situation was getting worse, but Sophia was waiting until Spring to get the transport ship to go North. It was a dangerous time. The men who had helped their father and Colby escape had been shot by a company of soldiers.

The Journey North
The Captain of a Union ship said he was given orders not to accept refugees, but mother Sophia persisted. They waited for the transport ship on the Somerset – an old ferryboat. The crew was good to the family. The ship’s tailor even made clothes for the boys. The crew missed their own families so they enjoyed the Mitchel children. The Captain even insisted on giving Sophia $500 for trip (their confederate money wouldn’t do them any good getting up north). The family transferred to the transport ship, Honduras. They stopped at Tampa and Cedar Keys before they landed at Key West. Key West was crowded with refugees and blacks that were trying to escape from the South. Yellow fever was spreading throughout the town. Ten days later a steamer came from New Orleans. The Captain told Sophia there was no room, but Sophia pleaded. The Captain reluctantly allowed them to stay in a room that flooded each morning. Seasick and uncomfortable throughout the trip, the family arrived home to Rhode Island. They were reunited with Colby and father Thomas.

Many of the Mitchel family continued to spend time in the Bristol Ferry neighborhood. On his eighty-ninth birthday, Colby received the Boston Cane as the oldest resident of Portsmouth. Cora Mitchel was one of the founders of the Newport Women’s Suffrage Association and served as President and Vice President of the Association. Sophia was a noted artist and had a studio at Bristol Ferry. Floride made her way to Rhode Island as well. The “Mitchel Sisters” were a force in the Portsmouth community in both the arts and social reforms.

Bristol Ferry Map edit

Note Mitchel family land on 1907 Portsmouth map.

 

Rescued from the Confederates: Colby Mitchell of Portsmouth

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Mitchell land Bristol Ferry Road area 1907

What would you do if your teenage son was kidnapped from a Florida school and conscripted into the Confederate Army? This was the dilemma for the Mitchell family who had strong ties to the Bristol Ferry neighborhood of Portsmouth. The Mitchells had business interests in Florida and their son Colby was in school in Apalachicola. A detachment of Confederate soldiers took young Colby from his school and conscripted him into the Southern army even though he was underage.  The men wouldn’t even let Colby go home to get a change of clothing.  His parents pleaded with the army colonel to release their son, but he was taken to the army camp anyway.  Fortunately the young man had some friends in the camp who took care of him and gave him food as there was “no food for conscripts.”  A few months later Colby was allowed a few days furlough because his health had deteriorated from malaria.  He was forced to go back to camp.

Colby had a severe relapse of his fever, but the kindness of his fellow soldiers pulled him through his illness.  At that time he was able to get another four day furlough to visit his family in Apalachicola.  If the Southern army could kidnap young Colby, his father Thomas Mitchell decided to kidnap him back.  His father took him to a Union vessel that was blockading the harbor and father and son were soon on their way north.  The trip to Rhode Island took several months and father and son had left the rest of the family behind in the south.

Colby and his sisters, May, Cora and Sophie were part of the Bristol Ferry community for many years.  Colby’s story was told in a Newport Mercury article (July 20, 1934) when he was awarded the “Boston Post Cane” – given to the town’s oldest resident.  He must have recovered well from his wartime ill health.  He was described as an eighty-nine year old who was “well and hearty” and living with his niece.

Another View of History: Blueprints and Technical Drawings

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As we inventory the collection at the Portsmouth Historical Society, we come across another group of primary sources that give us a

view of historical places.  We have blueprints and technical drawings of Fort Butts, Muscle Shoal Bed Lighthouse, Portsmouth High School, Pearson Yacht building and the Glen Manor property.  We may discover more as we go through all the storage drawers.  What blueprints and technical drawings give us is another view – maybe an inside view – of what things used to look like.  They provide dimension and details that we would not get from a map or a photograph.  Looking at blueprints we start with the legend to ground us in what kind of information we can find.

Founding Mothers: Mary Paine Tripp and the great land swap.

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P1040392In preparation for a July 23rd celebration of Anne Hutchinson’s birthday at the Portsmouth Historical Society, we have been researching some of the women who were in Portsmouth with Anne.   We are looking at those who came with Anne in that first wave, but also some of those who came shortly after and would have shared the settling experience with her.   Mary Paine Tripp (1605 to 1687) was married to John Tripp.  We came across an interesting story from Edward West’s 1932 article in the journal of the Rhode Island Historical Society on the “The Lands of Portsmouth, Rhode Island”.  How much would you give for a glass of wine? Back in 1666 Richard Searl sold a three acre lot just above the Bristol Ferry to Mary Paine. Mary was the barmaid at Baulston’s Tavern and the land was exchanged for a “pint of wine.” Mary later married John Tripp who used the land for a ferry house. Although this deed wasn’t registered, the Town Council accepted the deposition of William Collinge as to how the land was transferred.

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