Daring to Be Different: Missouri's Remarkable Owen Sisters

Daring to Be Different: Missouri's Remarkable Owen Sisters

by Doris Land Mueller

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In the 1800s, American women were largely restricted to the private sphere. Most had no choice but to spend their lives in the home, marrying in their teens and living only as wives, mothers, and pillars of domesticity. Even as the women’s movement came along midcentury, it focused more on gaining legal and political rights for women than on expanding their career opportunities. So in that time period, in which the options and expectations for women’s professional lives were so limited, it is remarkable that three sisters born in the 1850s, the Owen daughters of Missouri, all achieved success and appreciation in their careers.

Doris Land Mueller’s Daring to Be Different tells the story of these exceptional sisters, whose contributions to their chosen fields are still noteworthy today. Mary, the oldest, followed a childhood interest in storytelling to become an internationally recognized folklorist, writing about the customs of Missouri’s Native Americans, the traditions of its African American communities, and the history of St. Joseph’s earliest settlers. The middle daughter, Luella, became a geologist, breaking into the “old boys club” of the nineteenth-century scientific community; her book, Cave Regions of the Ozarks and the Black Hills, was for over fifty years the only reference to include Missouri caves and is still a valuable resource on the subject. And the youngest Owen girl, Juliette, was a talented artist who painted images of birds and studied and wrote about ornithology. An ardent conservationist, Juliette was an animal advocate during the early days of the humane movement.
Through a compelling narrative driven by thorough research, Mueller showcases the different personalities of the three sisters who all eschewed marriage to pursue their callings, putting their accomplishments in context with the place and times in which they lived. With family stories, illustrations of early St. Joseph, and images of the Owen family to enrich the story, this book pays tribute to the Owen sisters’ contributions to the Show-Me State. The latest addition to the Missouri Heritage Reader Series, Daring to Be Different will appeal to anyone interested in Missouri history and the early years of the women’s movement.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780826218971
Publisher: University of Missouri Press
Publication date: 09/20/2010
Edition description: 1st Edition
Pages: 152
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.50(d)
Age Range: 7 - 18 Years

About the Author

Doris Land Mueller teaches at St. Louis Community College and is the author of M. Jeff Thompson: Missouri’s Swamp Fox of the Confederacy (University of Missouri Press), as well as five children’s books, including Small One’s Adventure, The Best Nest, and Marryin’ Sam. She lives in Valley Park, Missouri.

Read an Excerpt

Daring to Be Different

Missouri's Remarkable Owen Sisters
By Doris Land Mueller

University of Missouri Press

Copyright © 2010 The Curators of the University of Missouri
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8262-1897-1

Chapter One

An Introduction

For a female child born in the mid-1800s in St. Joseph, Missouri, or for that matter anywhere in the United States, opportunities available to her as she grew up would have been severely limited by her sex. The struggle for woman's rights in the United States had just begun, and a long and difficult battle lay ahead for women who sought the right to own property, get an education, or work in fields long reserved for men. The right of women to vote or receive equal pay for equal work lay many years in the future. This was the period in which the Owen sisters were born and grew up.

From about the middle of the nineteenth century, women's vague longing for greater freedom became more specifically focused on issues such as access to professional and legal equality. The year 1848 is often cited as the beginning of the movement for woman's rights. At Seneca Falls, New York, three hundred women and men gathered and developed a document called the "Declaration of Rights and Sentiments," which was based on concepts established in the Declaration of Independence. It included a plea to end discrimination against women in all spheres of society. Sixty-eight women and thirty-two men signed the historic document, which included the first formal demand for women's right to vote.

Opposition to woman's suffrage became fierce. It included the liquor interests (mostly working underground), political machines, the Catholic hierarchy and other religious leaders, and business interests. Many industrialists feared that women would use the right to vote to improve the conditions of working women. Not until 1890 did the first state—Wyoming—grant women the right to vote in all elections. In April 1919, Missouri governor Frederick D. Gardner signed a law to allow Missouri women to vote in the presidential election, and on August 26, 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified by Congress, giving all women the right to vote. Only one signer of the 1848 Seneca Falls resolution lived to see women get the vote. Charlotte Woodward Pierce had been a teenager when she drove a horse-drawn wagon from her home in Waterloo, New York, to attend the historic gathering. In her lifetime she witnessed a revolution in the role of women in American society.

In the 1800s, a woman's role was largely restricted to the private sphere, where she was expected to personify the virtues of piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity. The primary expectation for a girl child was marriage, usually while still in her teens, followed by the birth of a baby every two or three years until her childbearing years were over. If she came from a well-to-do family, she would be a better "catch" and have a better opportunity to marry because any property or money she had or inherited would automatically come under the control of her husband. She could not sign a contract, make a will, or sue in a court of law. Her husband could arbitrarily apprentice her children or assign them to a guardian of his choice. Any effort by married women to retain any legal identity or independence had little chance of succeeding.

Middle-class women of the nineteenth century could share the economic and social status of the men but were excluded from the economic opportunities that maintained that status. The glorification of the go-getter businessman and the intrepid pioneer coexisted with an increasing restriction of middle-class women to domestic and ornamental functions. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, one of the early leaders in the woman's rights movement, detailed the legal disadvantages of married women in an address to the New York legislature. A wife had "no civil existence, no social freedom.... She can own nothing, sell nothing. She has no right even to the wages she earns; her person, her time, her services are the property of another.... She can get no redress for wrongs in her own name."

Should a woman be unable or unwilling to become a wife, few alternatives were open to her. If she had acquired an education, she might look forward to teaching in elementary grades—but usually not in higher grades, which would be taught by a male teacher, however poorly qualified, if any were available. As a teacher, she would continue to live with and care for her aging parents or perhaps board in the homes of her students, in some cases moving from home to home during the year. If she was not prepared to teach, her outlook was still more bleak. Skill with a needle and thread might offer her the opportunity to sew for the more affluent ladies of the community, at least as long as her eyesight held out. Or, possibly, she could operate a boarding house. If all else failed, she could hope to live with a relative, who might expect her to serve as an unpaid maid of all work. Career opportunities open to women were few indeed and certainly did not include becoming a physician, a lawyer, a business executive, or even a stenographer or a bank teller. When considering employment for women, most men did not think of educated middle-class women who might want to pursue a career but only of those from poor families who had to work to survive. Michael Katz, in "The Origins of Public Education: a Reassessment," published in the 1876 winter issue of Education Quarterly, concluded that there were four occupational alternatives for women: domestic service, dressmaking, work in a mill, and prostitution.

But some exceptions occurred, and after the Civil War women gradually were able to move into the public arena, especially as writers or artists. In their book Hardship and Hope: Missouri Women Writing about Their Lives, 1820–1920, editors Carla Waal and Barbara Oliver Korner identify several well-known women writers, among them Kate Chopin and Laura Ingalls Wilder. Sculptor Vinnie Ream, who attended school in St. Joseph during the 1850s, was the first woman, as well as the youngest person, to receive a federal art commission for her official statue of Abraham Lincoln. During the same period, three sisters in St. Joseph dared to be different in spite of the limited opportunities available to them in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In so doing, they transcended their time.

Mary Alicia, born in 1850, Luella Agnes, born in 1852, and Juliette Amelia Owen, born in 1859, were the daughters of James Alfred and Agnes Jeanette Cargill Owen. James Owen was an ambitious and successful lawyer, real estate broker, and writer on business and financial matters. His wife, though having made the conventional marriage at eighteen, was by all accounts a strong-minded woman, better educated and more forward looking than most of her peers. Mary, Luella, and Juliette all became leading authorities in fields at that time reserved for men while also maintaining the social relationships expected of them and demonstrating great modesty about their accomplishments.

Each of these unique women was fascinated by a different aspect of Missouri's history and each devoted much of her life to its study. Mary, the eldest, became a folklorist and ethnologist who wrote books, articles, short stories, songs, and poetry; collected stories from the African American community in St. Joseph; and visited Indian reservations in nearby states to observe and record traditions that had survived the forced migration west of Native American tribes. Luella, known to family and friends as Ella, became a geologist and as a member of that male-dominated profession earned the respect and admiration of her colleagues in the field. Juliette, the youngest member of the family, in addition to gaining respect as an ornithologist, an expert on birds, was also a watercolor artist, translator, and writer.

The Owen sisters had the advantage of having been born into a family of some wealth. They were physically well provided for and their parents could afford to see that they received the best education available to girls at the time. The three succeeded because each of them seemed determined to live up to her potential despite the social pressures and gender prejudice of the time. Although expected to marry well, they remained single. Even their parents, though supportive in many ways, sought to impose restrictions on their activities, insisting that they write under pen names so the Owen name would not appear in print. Her parents denied Luella the experience of the cave explorations she longed to undertake until after her father's death.

Although their sister Florence, and brother Herbert married and had families, Mary, Ella, and Juliette all chose to remain single, and each distinguished herself in a career not usually followed by women. While quietly fulfilling the roles expected of maiden women in the social life of St. Joseph, they also made outstanding contributions to the professions of their choice.

This is their story.

Chapter Two

Saint Joseph

The Place and Its People

The lives and career choices of Mary, Luella, and Juliette Owen were deeply influenced by their hometown of St. Joseph, Missouri. Mary, the oldest of the three, was fascinated from childhood by the stories and songs she heard from members of St. Joseph's African American community and her discoveries at the nearby Indian burial ground. The burial ground was described by family friend J. B. Moss as "a wonderful place to find wild fruits, such as crab apples, choke cherries, mulberries, black and red haws, hickory nuts.... On these hunts for fruits and nuts were often found many Indian arrowheads, beads, stone pipes and war clubs." It was the Indian artifacts that interested Mary and led to her later study of American Indian arts and traditions.

Luella, the second sister, also drew inspiration from St. Joseph, but she was fascinated by the geography and geology of her environment: the unique soil known as loess and familiarly dubbed "sugar dust"; the hills, which were rapidly being smoothed out as the city grew; the unique characteristics of the Missouri River with its surrounding rocks and bluffs; and the awe-inspiring beauty of underground caves all intrigued her.

Like her two older sisters, Juliette, the youngest of the Owen children, was keenly interested in St. Joseph and the environment in which she grew up. From the time she was a very young child, she loved the world of nature—the prairie grass, wild flowers, nuts, birds—everything in the natural world. Jean Fahey Eberle, author of The Incredible Owen Girls, quotes Juliette as saying, "From my earliest childhood I have had a passionate love for birds and flowers. I remember looking with wondering delight on the velvety upturned faces of the variously tinted pansies that bordered the paths."

If any one of the three, Mary, Luella, or Juliette, could have stepped back in time fifty or one hundred years, she might not have recognized the site of St. Joseph as it had been in its early days. Even as late as 1840, ten years before Mary's birth in 1850, St. Joseph was still only a village made up of a huddle of cabins on the Missouri River.

The spot on which St. Joseph stands was sometimes described as "a cup in the hills along the great Missouri River." According to legend, it was once a gathering place for American Indians, and various Indian tribes came to the site to settle differences and forge alliances. Some tribes considered these "everlasting hills" to be consecrated ground. They believed it had once been the home of their gods; ailing tribal leaders came from far and near to die there. Mary heard stories of the earlier days, when native tribes believed the rays from the beautiful sunsets at this sacred place formed an invisible bridge they called Wah-wahha-nawah over which the souls of the departed crossed on a direct route to Paradise. It was, as Indians would tell her later, "the holiest place on earth." In her book, The Sacred Council Hills, Mary describes the imposing ceremonies she imagined had taken place on the spot where St. Joseph's courthouse later stood:

It must have been a thrilling spectacle and beautiful as well, when the ... warriors, sentinels of the morning star, the day bringer, stood ... softly tapping the sacred drum as the hurrying dawn brightened the eastern sky, their strokes growing strong as the lights increased till, with fury of sound—booming drum and shouts of exaltation—they called the tribe to a frenzy of song and concerted movement, then pious quieting to the sun appearing above the eastern horizon. Equally beautiful and thrilling but indescribably mournful, was the farewell to the sun at day's decline, and to the soul following the shining track to find its way to Paradise.

In the view of most European settlers, however, the early period of St. Joseph's history was primarily the story of French-Canadian fur trader Joseph Robidoux III. Born in St. Louis on August 10, 1783, to Joseph and Catherine Robidoux, he was introduced to the fur trade at an early age by his father. As early as the 1790s he had traveled up and down the Missouri River on trapping expeditions. Robidoux married Eugenie Deslisle in St. Louis in 1800 but was widowed soon after his son Joseph IV was born. After his wife's death, he returned to the trading post the French called "La Post du Serpent Noir," later known as the Blacksnake Hills Post, established in 1803 on the future site of St. Joseph.

In 1805 a daughter, Mary, was born to him and his Indian wife there. He later became widely known for his numerous "country marriages" to Indian women and the half-Indian children he fathered. When his father died in 1809, he took over the responsibility for the family business, and in 1814 he married Angelique Vandry of St. Louis, with whom he had eight children. When Missouri became a state in 1821, St. Joseph and the area known as the Platte Region remained Indian territory and several Native American tribes had villages and hunting rights in the area, including the Ioway and the Sac and Fox. The Robidoux clan, younger brothers and sons of Joseph Robidoux III, were very successful in competing with other St. Louis trading companies. Tanis C. Thorne wrote that in 1828 the French Company of St. Louis paid Joseph Robidoux "to stay out of the Indian Country," and in the early 1830s he bought the rights to the Blacksnake Hills Post, which later was sometimes known as Robidoux's Landing.

A description of Joseph Robidoux, quoted in Sheridan Logan's book Old Saint Jo, depicts him as "dressed in an old, red flannel shirt, his trousers strapped around his waist, on his head a slouched hat, and so tanned and weather-beaten that it was difficult to tell whether he was a white man, a mulatto, or an Indian." At the mouth of Blackwater Creek, now the site of Jules and Second Street, Robidoux built a nine-room house of hewn logs, surrounding it with a stockade; it soon became the largest trading post in the region. Settlers and Indians alike came long distances to trade at the mills and store—but it must have been a wild and lonely place in which to live. Large gray wolves were numerous in the area and their howls were so loud and incessant that at times sleep was impossible. Moreover, the wolves were not only midnight prowlers but were often seen in the daytime, alone and in packs.

During the 1820s and 1830s, life became increasingly more difficult for the Native Americans living in the Platte region. As eastern tribes that were being pushed west moved into the area, increasing numbers of impatient American settlers encroached on tribal hunting grounds in what was still Indian territory. The game upon which the Native Americans depended for both food and furs to trade was disappearing. Travelers wrote of the poverty in which the Ioway were forced to live, and Indian agents warned that some tribes could not survive without more help from the government. The Ioway leader, White Cloud, had tried to adapt to the "White Road" as American officials hoped all Native Americans would do. He settled at Agency, near St. Joseph, and farmed as his American neighbors did. Greg Olson, in his book The Ioway in Missouri, quotes a speech White Cloud gave to William Clark and others at a council near Prairie du Chien in 1830: White Cloud proudly reported, "I have succeeded pretty well in following your advice ... I have learned to plough and now I eat my own bread and it makes me large and strong ... I follow your advice in everything ... Even my children are at work making cloth."

Following the "White Road" led to White Cloud's death at the hand of a young man of his own tribe four years later. The incident, Olson wrote, began when a rumor spread that a Sac and Fox raiding party was on the way to rob the Omaha Indians of the annuities they had received at Fort Leavenworth. "The Ioway sent a messenger to warn the Omaha ... [who] altered their route of return to avoid the supposed Sac and Fox war party. As they made their way up the west side of the Missouri River, the Omaha stumbled on a small group of Ioway ... a skirmish ensued in which the Omaha killed the son of the Ioway leader Crane." Against White Cloud's wishes, a party of young men set out to avenge the death but was not successful. Later, when the U.S. government failed to "deliver justice" in the case, a small war party of twelve Ioway men killed six Omaha men and took a woman and child hostage as punishment for the death of Crane's son. Believing the U.S. government, not the Omaha or the Ioway, should take the lead in settling the matter, White Cloud helped the Indian agent capture the Ioway men he believed were responsible for the death of the Omaha. One of the captives vowed to kill White Cloud and, managing to escape from Fort Leavenworth while awaiting trial, he kept his word. Raising a war party, he tracked down and killed the Ioway leader who had once said he "was almost a white man."

In the early 1830s, Missouri residents and political leaders had begun to petition the U.S. government to remove the Native Americans from the Platte region to make the area available for settlement. In 1837 government negotiators, with the help of Robidoux, completed the "Platte Purchase," in which various Indian tribes gave up their rights to some two million acres—of which the Blacksnake Hills was a part. The Ioway and the Sac and Fox relinquished their claims for the sum of $7,500. An aging William Clark took part in the transactions, one of his last duties as Indian superintendent, and in March 1837 President Martin van Buren declared the area part of the state of Missouri. Soon settlers from the east were streaming into the fertile northwest corner of Missouri.


Excerpted from Daring to Be Different by Doris Land Mueller Copyright © 2010 by The Curators of the University of Missouri. Excerpted by permission of University of Missouri Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments xiii

Chapter 1 An Introduction 1

Chapter 2 St. Joseph: The Place and Its People 6

Chapter 3 The Early Years 30

Chapter 4 Mary Alicia Leads the Way 52

Chapter 5 Luella: Geologist, Explorer, Painter, Family Historian 74

Chapter 6 "Miss Juliette": Ornithologist, Botanist, and Artist 94

Chapter 7 The Twilight Years 100

Chapter 8 The Legacy of the Owen Sisters 118

Epilogue 124

For Further Reading and Research 127

Index 131

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