Saturday, February 22, 2014

Threads of Memory 2: Mercer County Star for Susan Lowe Wattles

Becky Brown
Block #2
Mercer County Star
The block's named for a refuge offering 
hope to free blacks and runaways in the 1830s and '40s. 

Dustin Cecil
Block #2
Mercer County Star---all ticking

The patterns were free online for two years but now I am offering them for sale in two formats
at my Etsy shop. Buy a PDF or a Paper Pattern through the mail here:

In the winter of 1835 revivalists and reformers thrilled American audiences. Susan E. Lowe, a 17-year-old schoolgirl in Oneida, New York, was swept away by a young man with a gift for public speaking. Augustus Wattles was a "Lane Rebel," one of Cincinnati's idealistic students who'd quit the Lane Seminary over issues of slavery and free speech. In Oneida the rebel issued a rousing call to action. 

Students at the Lane Seminary near Cincinnati
debated slavery and went on to create national issues.

As a white Quaker opposed to slavery, Wattles had once advocated what was called Colonization, a movement to return freed slaves to settlements in Africa. In the debates at the Lane Seminary he realized blacks had a right to remain. He told his Oneida listeners of his new beliefs that slavery should be abolished immediately and former slaves educated in skills enabling them to succeed in the Land of the Free.
"Instead of merely spouting pretty words like the other abolitionists, he had taken hold of the matter by the right end, and had taken steps to improve the free colored and thus emancipate them from the scorn that rests upon them in the North with the same weight as does servitude in the South." 
Thousands of refugees from slave states across the Ohio River had gathered in Cincinnati---some born free, many escapees, most lacking assets and hope. Wattles organized schools for Cincinnati's black men and boys and told his New York audience that he could be educating girls and women too if he only had female volunteers. Susan Lowe came forward.

Girls in school 60 years after
Augustus Wattles's radical idea.

Wattles enlisted Susan and three other "Cincinnati Sisters" on his lecture tour, each working without pay to create a school for enthusiastic students. They boarded with their students' families, as teachers at the time often did, but the Cincinnati Sisters caused a sensation. It was one thing to extend charity to African-Americans, another to associate with them and treat them as equals.

"The lady teachers…were daily hissed and cursed, loaded with vulgar and brutal epithets, oaths and threats. Filth and offal were often thrown at them as they came and went and the ladies especially were assailed by grossest obscenity, called by the vilest of names [and sent threats with] pictures of hearts thrust…with daggers; throats cut off, etc."

Susan admitted she “realized not the danger which I might be in till I had been there a number of weeks." Yet, she wrote to Wattles's good friend Theodore Weld, "We feel not in the least disheartened." And in a shy postscript: "We find Brother Wattles every thing we could desire in a coworker."

Becky Brown
Mercer County Star

Cincinnati is the black dot;
Mercer County the red star

She and Augustus married in 1836.  Disheartened by prejudice in Cincinnati, the Wattles believed blacks might prosper in unspoiled country away from the bigotry and temptations of city life. The couple moved their program north to Mercer County, Ohio, where the government offered land for $1.25 an acre.Wattles spent his own inheritance and probably some of Susan's family money to buy woodland near the western Ohio border. Their plan was to raise funds to buy more land to issue to black farmers, a sort of private homestead act before Congress devised one. The settlement, named Carthagena after the ancient African city of Carthage, advocated temperance and utopian ideals on 30,000 acres divided into small farms. 

Ex-slave Mary McCray remembered taking a canal boat pulled by mules up the Miami and Erie Canal to Mercer County. "On each of the farms there was a log cabin. Each farm contained eighty acres." The land was uncleared, some of it covered with swamps, but Mary was no stranger to hard work. She and her black neighbors created sustainable small farms from the rough land.

Canal boat pulled by mules

The Wattles reserved 200 acres for their own farm and a school and settled into married life with Susan's family as neighbors. She gave birth to four children in the decade they lived in Carthagena and often accompanied Augustus on the lecture circuit. 

A cemetery is all that remains of Carthagena, Ohio today.

“Brother Wattles was here and spoke one night to the great satisfaction of the people and to their infinite merriment," wrote a fellow abolitionist. "From all that I can learn he is doing wonders wherever he goes.”  A member of his audience recorded his passion about the Mercer County colony, which "he called Humanity’s Barn, where any human being might find a night’s shelter.” 

Maintaining a home for all humanity was a financial and emotional strain, particularly for a manager so indifferent to practicality. "Wattles is a strange fellow," wrote an antislavery editor, "deficient in common sense." But friends found him an inspiration, selfless and generous. "Dear noble, disinterested soul,” sighed Theodore Weld. The community became temporarily solvent when trustees for the estate of Samuel Emlen, a wealthy Quaker, offered $20,000 to create a manual arts and agriculture school for African and Native American boys. They built the Emlen Institute on their farm in the early 1840s.

Emlen Institute, Mercer County
Susan and Augustus taught here in the 1840s.

Mercer County's reputation as a haven for blacks reached another trustee looking for a way to assist former slaves. Virginian John Randolph had left money in his will to buy land for family slaves freed at his death. Randolph's executor bought $8,000 worth of acreage. In 1846, 400 hopeful Virginians came up the canal from Cincinnati. 
The Randolph Slaves gathered for a reunion 
at the turn of the 20th century.

Mercer County's white settlers balked at accepting the newcomers. A mob formed in the town of New Bremen to prevent the refugees from disembarking. After a two-day standoff the passengers returned to Cincinnati and scattered to find homes in other Ohio counties.

Augustus Wattles in later years

After the 1846 uprising by their white neighbors many settlers left, including the Wattles. Augustus was in bad health. Letters refer to depression and a breakdown, possibly aggravated by malaria, then called ague, a disease endemic in the Midwestern wetlands. Without his leadership the school and community foundered. A year later, white bigotry increased to the point that blacks were issued an ultimatum:

  "Respectfully requested to leave the county on or before the first day of March."

A decade later Susan and Augustus carried the war against slavery into the new Kansas Territory, where their farm harbored people in trouble, escaping slaves and fighters in the cause, most famously, radical John Brown and his boys. The Wattles hid the Browns after they massacred several Southerners along Pottawatomie Creek. A few years later they sheltered Missouri slaves Brown brought through Kansas. In one of his last letters, written while awaiting hanging in a Virginia jail, Brown remembered the women of the Wattles family as "Angels of Mercy….Only last year I lay sick for quite a number of weeks with them and was cared for by all."

The Kansas State Historical Society
owns this photo of the Wattles's house
in the now abandoned town of Moneka, Kansas.

KSHS also has the records of the Moneka 
Women's Rights Association
which Susan and her daughter 
Sarah Grimke Wattles signed.

Susan's voice became more public in Kansas, particularly advocating women's rights. We find her protesting her exclusion from the all-male Kansas Historical Society. With her sister-in-law and grown daughters she organized an effective Women's Rights Association, the first in the Territory.  In 1880 a fellow suffragist described Susan as one of the "women whose whole souls were in the work."

Mercer County Star
by Jean Stanclift

Mercer County Star is a new block with an old-fashioned look.The block is based on the traditional Ohio Star with a smaller star representing the county and the North Star, the runaway's beacon.

Dustin Cecil 
Mercer County Star in Civil War Jubilee

I visited the site of Carthagena about five years ago.
St Charles Seminary was built near the cemetery....

A rather magnificent structure on the site
of the Wattles's simple school.

South of Mercer County is a small town named North Star, founded in the 1850s. 
No one seems to remember how it got its name.

What We Can Learn About the Underground Railroad from Susan Lowe Wattles' Story
Places like Mercer County remained a haven for former slaves and free blacks only as long as the community welcomed them. The area along the Ohio/Indiana border was initially settled by a good many people seeking a free community, but as the prosperous farm land they created beckoned to more settlers with different politics, the balance tipped. When the consensus of opinion turned against them, refugees and idealists fled.

Make a Quilt a Month.

Set nine Mercer County Star blocks with a 2-inch sashing and a 3-inch border to get a quilt that is 50 inches square.

Links to Primary Sources & Newspaper Accounts  
Read the minutes of the Moneka, Kansas, Women's Rights Association from 1858 to 1860 on line. The Wattles mentioned are Susan (Mrs. S. A), her sister-in-law Esther (Mrs. J. or Mrs. E), and Susan's daughters Emma and Sarah Grimké Wattles (S. G.)

Esther Whinery Wattles was Susan's sister-in-law, married to Augustus' brother John. Her own life was as exciting and generous as Susan's. See a biography from Oberlin College Archives, which has her manuscripts. 

Lynne Marie Getz wrote a biography of the women in the Wattles family.
"Partners in Motion: Gender, Migration, and Reform in Antebellum Ohio and Kansas" is in the academic journal: Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, Volume 27, Number 2, 2006, pp. 102-135.
Read more about that article here:

For more about the people freed by John Randolph's will:


Denniele said...

Beautiful blocks and another wonderful story. Thanks!

Barbara Goetz said...

I so enjoy the story and historical links. I'd like to put each name in the block somewhere...embroider?

Jeanne said...

Enjoying this project -- both the blocks and the historical info are great.
I'm gathering fabrics for Austen Album. Is that still being planned as 36 blocks, 12", pieced?
Thanks ~ Jeanne

suzanne said...

What interesting information! I thought of Ohio as a sanctuary for fleeing slaves and abolitionists, but I see now that was an over-simplification. Maybe other parts of the state were more supportive of the cause? Thanks for continuing to educate and inspire us.

Rachel said...

FANTASTIC story! Thanks so much for your research and for sharing it with us.

Sleeping Gypsy said...

Amazing story & beautiful block! I love this gives each piece a spirit & life of its own. Thank you for your effort in keeping these stories alive & for bringing them to us!

Rosemary said...

The hurrier I go, the behinder I get and I'm already behind here. I love the stories behind these blocks/quilts and definitely want to start this one ... NOW. However, I don't want to be short on fabrics as I near the end. Was there a post that I missed on fabric quantity needed? I can just do what I sometimes do and pray that I have what I need but .... I love your site, your talents and books and ... Thanks for all you
contribute to our country and it's history.

jeifner said...

Wonderful piece you've written here. I recently watched a documentary that spoke of the Browns and the Wattles. Fascinating stuff. I enjoy the block as well.

Barbara Brackman said...

Rosemary---I did post about the sets and yardage but forgot to provide a link.

See this link

Or look over on the left column for a picture of the blue & yellow set and click.

Faten said...

I am having a hard time printing the foundation part the right size. I am getting it smaller that it should with t least an inch. How can I fix that?

Jane A. said...

I need to know if the full color pallette of lady's album will be used in the blocks, as I am making your exact blocks. I need to plan my border fabric purchase. Thanks,
Great job. Jane A.

Susan said...

I just found this and am wondering about the cutting instructions where it says,

" B - Cut 5-1/4" squares and cut into 4 triangles with 2 cuts.

You'll need 2 medium for 8 triangles; 2 light for 8 triangles."

How many 5-1/4 squares?