Hidden Histories

Unsung and Unknown Women in American History

Wednesday, 3/23/11
***This article appeared in the March, 2011, HSP monthly email publication, "History Hits: Collecting & sharing the stories of Pennsylvania." For a free subscription, simply click here to enter your email address.***

Large portions of our nation's history focus on individuals in positions of prominence, prestige, or power. To a very large degree, literally thousands of men and women who have lived in America are relatively unknown and are not found in college textbooks. However, this in no way negates or diminishes their contributions to our past. Not all history involves "glamour and glitz."  Much of it is rather the account of "grit" in the face of obstacles or insurmountable odds. During Women's History Month, we decided to highlight a few lesser known stories found in the collections of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

One such story is that of Nellie Pucell, who at age 9 sailed from Liverpool to Boston with her sister and parents in May of 1856. The family traveled on the ship Horizon. The Mormon family traveled by train to Iowa, then was forced along with hundreds of other Utah-bound pioneers to pull handcarts, since they were too poor to afford a wagon.  By October both Nellie's mother and father were dead from exposure to the cold and hunger. Nellie and her sister Maggie, age 14, made it into the Salt Lake Valley, but with badly frozen limbs.  Nellie's feet were soon amputated without anesthetic, and her legs never healed properly. She later married William Unthank and reared six children. A bronze monument of a girl stands on the campus of Southern Utah University in Cedar City in honor of her sacrifice.
Article from Philadelphia Telegraph

Hester Massey of Buncombe County, North Carolina, is another woman who triumphed over adversity. Her tale is recounted in newspapers including the Germantown, Philadelphia (PA) Telegraph on March 23, 1831 (shown at right).  Hester was born without arms and legs, but she possessed a "sound mind" and "good health."  Remarkably, her physical disabilities failed to discourage her from the love of reading, so much so that it is said she would turn the leaves of a book with her mouth or tongue. She also swept floors by "holding a straw broom between her head and shoulder." 

Another story--this one a tragedy--is that of Caroline Witmer, who lived with her husband Henry and their children at 605 Dauphin Street in Philadelphia during the late 1800s. At this time, the City of Brotherly Love was struck with a plague of scarlet fever, or Scarlatina. According to the Federal 1870 Mortality Schedule, as well as the Philadelphia Public Ledger for the month of February, Caroline Witmer's five young children (four girls and one boy) died of the disease within a few days. One can only imagine the grief this mother endured.

A heartbreaking tale comes to us from September 1869. In that month, a ship load of Irish immigrants from Londonderry arrived here in Philadelphia. On board was Mary Boyle, age 70, who according to the 1870 Mortality Schedule for June 1, 1870, died from "old age, immediately after landing, of fatigue."  She is buried Old Cathedral Cemetery.

There are stories to be told of the common woman, both young and old, that await the scholar and the public.  During Women's History Month, we should reflect not only upon famous women and their contributions, but the millions of little known heroines, from our own mothers to countless others, who on a daily basis continue to sacrifice for the welfare of us all.