In Arthurian legend, The Lady of the Lake arises, presenting the king with sword and scabbard. The Finger Lakes region, with its surrounding wooded hills and rolling meadows, has given rise to many notable women as well, our very own “Ladies of the Lakes.” Some women were born here, some purposefully
traveled here, and some were brought here.
Maybe it was something in the clear air or a spiritual influence in the region that brought them here, or perhaps it was just coincidence. Beguiling, interesting and significant, each of these women has left a finger-like imprint on the local landscape, similar to the legend “the Great Spirit placed the imprint of his hand in blessing on the Upstate land.” Each has influenced the culture and history of this region, and often well beyond, in some way.
It would take volumes to tell the entire stories of all the Ladies of the Lakes. Perhaps a few short sketches of some famous names, along with some not so familiar, will pique your interest and encourage you to pursue more complete histories of our ladies. There is no shortage of sources. Numerous books, historical societies and local museums in the region will aid in your quest for more information.
Susan B. Anthony & Elizabeth Cady Stanton
Perhaps the best known pioneers of the Women’s Rights Movement, the two reformers first met in Seneca Falls in the spring of 1850, introduced on a village street corner by Amelia Bloomer. The meeting would result in a lifelong friendship. Their collaboration flourished on the policy-forming skills of Stanton and the organizational abilities of Anthony. “They helped and strengthened each other,” Bloomer wrote in her journal, “and together they have accomplished great things for women and humanity.” The Susan B. Anthony House is located at 17 Madison Street in Rochester and the Elizabeth Cady Stanton Home is found at 32 Washington Street, Seneca Falls.
Active in the temperance movement, Bloomer published The Lily in Seneca Falls, a newspaper devoted to women’s interests, and in her own words, “As far as I know, the first one owned, edited and published by a woman.” Her name lives on in history, though, for another reason. In 1851, Amelia wrote in The Lily of an unusual outfit created by an acquaintance – puffy Turkish trousers under a short skirt. Defying the conventional cumbersome long skirts and petticoats of the day, her piece sparked a lively discussion. The article was widely circulated, others followed, and Amelia received national attention, bringing with it both praise and ridicule. “Bloomers” became the accepted term for this new fashion style. Amelia continued to crusade for temperance and women’s rights up to her death in 1894.
A native of Massachusetts, Clara courageously served as a nurse during the Civil War and became known as “The Angel of the Battlefield.” This service and her tireless post-war humanitarian activities left the iron-willed but delicate Clara physically spent. In 1876, on the advice of friends, she arrived in Dansville to recuperate at the sanatorium and water cure of Dr. James Caleb Jackson. She thrived there, later buying a home in Dansville and keeping it as a residence for the next 10 years. In 1881, at a meeting in St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Clara and her supporters founded in Dansville the first chapter of the American Red Cross. The Clara Barton House, American Red Cross Chapter #1, serves as an active unit and museum at 57 Elizabeth Street, Dansville.
The only survivor of an Indian attack on her Pennsylvania home in 1758, 15-year-old Mary Jemison was forced by her captors to trek hundreds of miles to the Seneca stronghold in the Genesee Valley. Adopted into the tribe, she was cared for by the Senecas, married and had children, and ultimately chose to maintain her adopted Indian ways rather than return to white society. As the wife of a powerful Seneca leader, Mary became prominent in tribal councils, exhibiting the strengths of her two cultures. In 1797, “The White Woman of the Genesee,” as she came to be known, cleverly negotiated for a vast tract of land at the Gardeau Flats (now part of Letchworth Park) that she lived on and cultivated for over 50 years. She died in 1833, having survived into her 90s. Her small cabin and gravesite sit on a hill in the park, not far from the William Pryor Letchworth Museum, where you can learn more about Mary.
The first medical degree earned by a woman in the modern world was conferred not by Harvard, Cambridge or any other widely celebrated institution. Determined to become a doctor and after being rejected by approximately two dozen medical schools, Elizabeth Blackwell was accepted at tiny Geneva College, the forerunner of Hobart and William Smith Colleges. There, despite some resentment and prejudice, she prevailed in her studies with intelligence and perseverance, always retaining her dignity and composure. She finished first in her class. On a crisp January day in 1849, Blackwell accepted her medical degree with the words, “Sir, I thank you. By the help of the Most High it shall be the effort of my life to shed honor on your diploma.” That she did throughout a distinguished career and with her unwavering effort to gain further acceptance for women in the medical profession.
She did not simply recover from severe illness. In her opinion she died, and after receiving a call to preach, returned to life. The year was 1776, and from that moment until her death in 1819, she no longer recognized herself as Jemima Wilkinson. She became the self-declared “Publick Universal Friend,” the first American-born woman to establish a religious society. Wilkinson and several hundred of her faithful, including many prosperous people of high social position, pioneered a utopian spiritual community in the wilderness surrounding Seneca Lake, a “new Jerusalem.” Both venerated and criticized, legends still linger that the Universal Friend professed to have supernatural abilities. But followers insisted that she never claimed her calling involved divine powers. She was remembered by descendants of the era as a woman, kindly and benevolent, who espoused strong religious and moral principles. “Jemima Wilkinson deserves to be ranked with the small group of outstanding women of the colonial period,” writes her biographer Herbert A. Wisbey Jr. The Friend’s last home, now a private residence, rests on a hillside in Jerusalem Township. A Jemima Wilkinson exhibit can be viewed at the Oliver House Museum in Penn Yan.
Mary Jane Holmes
Tempest and Sunshine, Meadow Brook, Marian Grey, Homestead on the Hillside and West Lawn are book titles unknown today but familiar indeed to our grandmothers’ grandmothers. First published in 1959, Mary Jane Holmes spent 50 years turning out dozens of novels that continually delighted her multitude of admirers. She wrote sentimental and popular love stories, always with a happy ending. Her books, written in the den of her “Brown Cottage” on College Street in Brockport, sold millions of copies. Circulated throughout the country, they made her one of the most widely read American authors of the Victorian Age, perhaps second only to Harriet Beecher Stowe.
“I cannot answer these questions,” said Fanny. Then rising, she added, “I suppose our conference is now ended, and with your leave I will retire.”
Holmes’ flowery style would undoubtedly struggle to survive in today’s world of coarse language and references. But in her day each new book was eagerly sought by an admiring public.
The Fox Sisters
“There is no death! There are no dead!” are words etched on a roadside granite marker in the hamlet of Hydesville, just north of Newark. In 1848, a modest home stood on the site, and from curious events taking place in that house, modern spiritualism was born. Margaret and Katherine Fox were just teenagers when they first heard strange rapping and claimed to have experienced mysterious incidents in their home. “Here Mr. Splitfoot, do as I do,” the sisters commanded, and a specified number of raps answered from another world. Assisted by an older sister, Leah, the girls became wealthy celebrities by making personal appearances and demonstrations all over the East Coast. They were received with reverence by some but skepticism and ridicule by others. The sisters eventually revealed their activities as a hoax, demonstrating how the “rappings” had actually been made through an intricate cracking of bones in their ankles and toes. Despite the admission, the spiritualism movement had been established and carried on unshaken.
As a slave, she was prohibited from learning to read or write, but Harriet Tubman escaped her bondage. In her life she exhibited an intelligence and literacy of another kind. During numerous trips guiding scores of slaves to freedom in the North by way of the Underground Railroad, she used her courage and instincts, as well as the stars and other clues of nature, to point her in the right direction. Harriet became known as “the Moses of her people.” Her successes inflamed her enemies, but she continued her work, undaunted and fearless, even serving as a spy, nurse and scout for the Union Army during the Civil War. Settling in Auburn after the war, she helped establish a home for elderly and needy African-Americans, living and working there until her death in 1913 at age 93. She is buried in Auburn’s Fort Hill Cemetery. Visitors can view many of her original possessions and learn more details of her life at the Harriet Tubman Home and library at 180 South Street, Auburn.
Narcissa Prentiss was born in Prattsburg, in Steuben County. She became a teacher but had a missionary zeal. In nearby Rushville lived Marcus Whitman, a young man practicing medicine in the region who had always desired to be a minister. In 1835, they heard Samuel Parker, a touring Congregationalist minister, speak eloquently of the need for missionary work among the Indian tribes in the West. Stirred by their mutual desire for such work, Prentiss and Whitman courted and were married. The pioneer reformers embarked on a long and arduous trek to the Oregon Territory to establish a mission and live a risky existence there among the Cayuse. On the journey, Prentiss and another woman in the party made history as the first white women to cross the Rocky Mountains. Narcissa and Marcus labored at their mission in the territory for 11 years, building a school, a mill and tending to the health and spiritual needs of the natives. Tragically, they were unjustly blamed by the Cayuse for an epidemic and were massacred in 1847. But the names and noble deeds of Narcissa and Marcus Whitman are still remembered in Oregon, Washington state and in their native Finger Lakes.
Serial films were a staple of the silent movie era, and Pearl White was the established queen of the genre. Athletic and beautiful, she became a major star. In the classic 1915 series, “The Perils of Pauline,” moviegoers flocked to theaters week after week to see Pearl tied to railroad tracks, threatened by an approaching buzz saw or helplessly drowning in freezing water. They were delighted when she miraculously averted disaster in the next episode of the popular “cliffhanger.” Between 1912 and 1920, “Perils” and many other films were not produced in Hollywood but in and around the gorges and waterfalls of Ithaca, as well as on Cayuga Lake and in present day Stewart Park. Flamboyant Pearl was frequently seen cruising around town in her flashy yellow Stutz Bearcat. Other stars of the day, including Norma Talmadge and Irene Castle, also filmed there. Unfortunately, Ithaca’s weather was not conducive to year-round filmmaking and the industry moved west to a warmer climate.
Born in Elmira in 1956, a 1974 graduate of Elmira Free Academy, a 1978 alumnus of Syracuse University and later a recipient of two graduate degrees, Eileen Collins was selected by NASA to become an astronaut in 1991. A veteran of several space flights, she performed in many capacities in the U. S. space program, including extensive work at Mission Control. Collins served as pilot on the first flight of the joint Russian-American Space Program in 1995 and made history with her appointment as Shuttle Commander of STS-93 in 1999, the first woman to be assigned that position. Most recently, Collins was Shuttle Commander of STS-114 in the summer of 2005 on a mission docking the Shuttle with the International Space Station. She has now logged well over 800 hours in space.
The lives and accomplishments of these Ladies of the Lakes were remarkable indeed, but they’re not alone. Many others have passed through, each adding her unique historical note and enriching the heritage of our hills and valleys. Who were they? What did they do, and where was it done? If you’re interested enough to search a bit, the answers can be discovered scattered far and wide in the cities, villages and countryside of the Finger Lakes.
by Jim Hughes
Jim Hughes is a retired teacher living in Syracuse. He enjoys roaming the Finger Lakes region and has previously contributed several articles to Life in the Finger Lakes.