Sunday, March 16, 2014

Diaries describe 19th-century life for Arizona women

Elizabeth (Lily) Benton Frémont, the daughter of
John and Jessie Frémont, kept a diary while
living in Prescott. (Courtesy: Sharlot Hall Museum)

Special to the Daily Courier

Women's diaries, journals and letters provide a fascinating glimpse into the lives of Arizona's pioneer women, their families and communities. From reading diaries like these, we learn of Arizona women's experiences, as well as territorial and state history. These writings also help us understand the history of our own region.

Margaret Hunt Mc-Cormick, the young bride of Territorial Secretary Richard McCormick, kept a journal describing her trip from New York to Arizona in 1865. After moving into the Governor's Mansion - now part of the Sharlot Hall Museum campus - she wrote letters to her brother describing the mansion's layout. Unfortunately, her writings were cut short when she died in 1867 after the birth of her stillborn baby.

Elizabeth (Lily) Benton Frémont, the daughter of John Charles and Jessie Benton Frémont, also kept a diary while living here. She described social gatherings in Prescott and at Fort Whipple, as well as political events. She illuminated territorial life, describing the sheriff's funeral in this passage: "Tuesday 7th (January 7, 1879): Woke to a howling snowstorm which had already covered everything some inches deep, but cleared off cold and bright about 2 p.m. Mother slept till near noon and had a comfortable day. Father devoted himself to letters except for the brief interval of attending the funeral services at Mr. Bower's house.

Frank went on with the procession to the Masonic burial grounds; it was quite a long & imposing procession being led by the Masons on foot & closed by men on horseback, many varieties of vehicles including the Post ambulances filling in between. There is no hearse, so one of the larger express wagons was draped with black and used; the flags were half-masted & the bells of the school house and court house tolled alternately. Mr. Bowers had been for four years sheriff of the county, doing his duty fearlessly in the days when to have his horse shot under him whilst pursuing desperadoes was not uncommon. Both the Supreme Court and the Legislature attended the services at the house." ("The Arizona Diary of Lily Frémont, 1878-1881," edited by Mary Lee Spence.)

Diaries provide an unfiltered view of an individual's experiences. Sharlot Mabridth Hall, Arizona's poetic first woman territorial historian, was also a diarist and writer. She kept a journal of her 1911 journey through the remote Arizona strip, north of the Grand Canyon and south of Utah's state boundary. During the 1890s, several unsuccessful bills had been introduced into Congress calling for Utah's annexation of this area. Hall's goals for her trip were to see this isolated region, completing her tour of the territory and then to apprise others about it. She hoped for and believed that informed Arizonans would block Utah's annexation of the strip.

Hall traveled by wagon for 75 days with an experienced guide. Through her diary she highlighted the area's history, its people and resources, as well as its beauty. This passage describes land near the Grand Canyon's North Rim: "I walked all the morning, far ahead of the wagon, alone with the mountains; when I grew tired, I lay down in the grass and rested, and thought that it would be lovely to be buried in such a serene and yet majestic spot, the flowers dancing above and the quakenasp leaves tinkling like little silver bells." ("Sharlot Hall on the Arizona Strip," edited by C. Gregory Crampton.)

Although Hall had traveled throughout Arizona Territory, this diary is the only published record of her journeys. It drew attention to the strip, and in 1914, scientists employed by the state surveyed the region's agricultural value.

To mark Women's History Month, University of Arizona professor Dr. Judy Nolte Temple will discuss these diaries, plus the writings of Mim Walsh, a plucky Irish immigrant who wrote a 50-year-long journal revealing her experiences on the frontier as an Irish immigrant - and a great deal more - during a lecture at the Sharlot Hall Museum Archives on March 22 at 2 p.m. This free lecture is sponsored by the Arizona Humanities Council.