Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Susan B. Anthony’s 1855 Winter North Country Adventure

Susan B Anthony circa 1855On February 19 our nation celebrates President’s Day to recognize the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln (February 12) and George Washington (February 22). Between these two days is February 15, the anniversary of the birth of another great American, Susan B. Anthony.

Although it is not yet a national holiday, Susan B. Anthony Day is a New York State commemorative holiday and places such as Seneca Falls and Rochester, hold grand celebrations.

There should be fanfare in the North Country, too. In her youth, Anthony lived in Battenville in Washington County, where her father ran a mill, and Cahajorie, near Johnstown, where she taught school. Before she went on to national fame, she lectured and campaigned for women’s rights in New York, even in the North Country – in wintertime. Her 1855 visit erases all images of Susan B. Anthony as a spinster, a whiny complainer, or a woman of class-privilege. Snippets of evidence might exist for those traits in other places, at other times, but not in this Adirondack adventure.

In January of the prior year, Susan B. Anthony and leading supporters of the women’s movement announced the upcoming convention in Albany. “Let the serious-minded, generous, hopeful men and women of New York then gather in council, to determine whether there is anything irrational or revolutionary in the proposal that fathers, brothers, husbands, should treat their daughters, sisters, wives and mothers as their peers.”

Petitions were already circulating throughout the state, asking for amendments in the Statues and Constitution of New York to secure legal equality and the right of suffrage for women. The signed petitions were delivered to the legislature in mid-February; no action was taken.

Undeterred, 34-year-old Susan B. Anthony repeated the ritual with vigor. On Christmas Day 1854, she embarked on a journey to visit all 60 counties in the state. Though she was short of funds and often had to travel by sleigh because of the snow, she made this famous “County Canvass,” speaking almost every day, often twice a day. Afternoon lectures were free; admission to evening lectures: one shilling.

By late January of 1855, Anthony decided to suspend her speaking tour in order to present the signed petitions she had gathered to the New York legislature. After submitting the petitions on February 12, she lectured in Albany the next two evenings and then took a break on February 15 to celebrate her birthday. She spoke again the next day before plunging into the cold and snow of northern New York.

Anthony spoke at Salem in Washington County, Ballston Springs in Saratoga County, and Caldwell (Lake George) in Warren County. As she continued northward in a stagecoach, a Quaker gentleman who attended her lecture in Albany accompanied her. The wealthy, cultured man brought a thick plank, which he had heated, and placed it under Anthony’s feet. Whenever the stage stopped he had it re-heated, which added great comfort to her journey.

After Anthony’s next lecture, he drove her in his own fine sleigh, “filled with robes and drawn by two spirited gray horses” to his beautiful home. She spent Sunday with him, presided over by his sister, of course. Then Anthony was taken to several towns, in the same luxurious sleigh, and during one of these trips was urged in the most earnest manner to give up the hard life she was leading and accept the ease and protection he could offer.

Her heart made no response to this appeal. Anthony continued with her chosen work, journeying to speak in Elizabethtown in Essex County and Plattsburgh in Clinton County.

The air was bitterly cold and the snow higher than the fences, but Anthony wore a new pair of high boots to combat the deep snows. However, the heavy weight of the boots tortured her feet. She came home from an afternoon meeting with so much suffering in one foot that she put it under the “penstock” in the kitchen. Believing in the water cure, Anthony let cold water run over it until it was completely numb. After wrapping it in flannel clothe, she claimed it no longer “hurt her a particle.”

That evening  – concluding that what was good for one foot must be good for two – she put both under the water pipe until they were almost congealed. By morning, all of the pain had migrated from her feet and settled in her back.

Somehow Anthony managed to travel to Malone in Franklin County and conduct her afternoon and evening meetings. Afterwards she went on to Ogdensburg in Saint Lawrence County, where she stopped to visit a cousin. The next morning she could barely move and the women of the family had to help her make her toilet. Yet nothing could persuade her to stop her trip. As long as she was alive, she insisted she would speak at Canton as advertised. Anthony was carried out and put into a sleigh. For the entire seventeen-mile ride, she sat “doubled up with her head on her knees.”

She finished her meetings, slept a few hours, and then rose at 4 am to travel by stage and train to Watertown in Jefferson County. Immediately upon arrival, she checked into a hotel, determined to take “heroic measures.” She sat down in a tub and ordered the chambermaid to bring several buckets of ice water and pour them on her back.

Anthony then wrapped her body in hot blankets and went to bed. The next morning she was well and held her meetings.

The 1855 adventure did not discourage Anthony from returning to lecture in the North Country several times. And, though she rarely took a vacation, she even spent a week relaxing and taking in the sights of the Keene Valley area – in the summer! Susan B. Anthony deserves to be celebrated on her birthday, for her many accomplishments and for her triumph over heavy snow-boots, buckets of ice, and as a courter of the North Country.

Portrait of Susan B. Anthony, 1855.

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Sandra Weber is a writer, storyteller and performer who portrays Kate Field’s “Among the Adirondacks” lecture. Weber has authored several Adirondack books about regional history and women including Breaking Trail (with Peggy Lynn), Mount Marcy, and Two in the Wilderness. She lives in a log cabin in Elizabethtown, NY.

3 Responses

  1. Tim says:

    Fascinating article, Sandra!

  2. Lisa Meissner says:

    Great Story. Thanks Sandra!