Episodes, Season 1

Episode 10: Worthy of Notice

In today’s episode, we take a look at some people connected to the consular service who are worthy of notice: the women. We’re telling the story of three women, whose stories range from the very conventional to the very unconventional (at least by the standards of the time). Each of these women contributed something significant to the history of the U.S. consular service, and each deserves to have her story told.

Producers Deepthi Murali, Megan Brett, and Brenna Reilley bring us their stories, just in time to close out Women’s History Month.

Transcript

ABBY MULLEN: Hi, I’m Abby Mullen, and this is Consolation Prize, a podcast about the history of the United States in the world through the eyes of its consuls. If you’ve listened to previous episodes of Consolation Prize, you’ve probably noticed that we talk a lot about white men. It’s kind of baked into the history of the consular service. In the nineteenth century, right up until the Rogers Act in 1924, there were very few non-white people, and no women at all, who served as consuls.

But the fact that white men dominate the consular posts doesn’t mean that women and people of color aren’t part of this story. We’ve touched on some of them in some of our other episodes, but for the next two episodes, we’re bringing them to the forefront.

Before we get to the stories, can I ask you a favor? We want people to hear our stories, and the best way for people to learn about them is for you to tell them. So, can I ask you to just reach out to one person today and tell them about this episode–or about any of our episodes? Just one person. That’s it. Tell one person that they might be interested in learning about consuls too. Thanks for doing that.

Now, in this episode, we’re going to tell the stories of three women with strong connections to the consular service. None of these women were consuls–at least, not exactly–but each of them left her mark on the history of the United States and the world.

The best part of this episode is that not only are we foregrounding the stories of women, we’re foregrounding the voices of women. You’re used to hearing my voice, but I work with a team that includes three other amazing women, so you’re going to hear from them today. To start off, producer Deepthi Murali brings us the story of Maria Balestier. Her story is perhaps the most “conventional” of the three that you’ll hear today, but her life was anything but ordinary.

Maria Revere Balestier

DEEPTHI MURALI: When Maria Revere Balestier arrived in Singapore in 1836 at the age of 48, she had already lived a full life. She was the youngest daughter of the American legend Paul Revere. Revere had sixteen children from two marriages so Maria had grown up in a large, close-knit family with all her kith and kin in the city of Boston, Massachusetts. For a woman who had spent half a century in the safe cocoon of her hometown, Singapore must have seemed… foreign. The trees and buildings looked different, the climate was different, and the people, they were different too. 

Maria traveled to Southeast Asia in the summer of 1834 with her husband Joseph Balestier and their son, Joseph Warren Revere Balestier. Her husband had been appointed by President Andrew Jackson as the US Consul to Riau (modern-day Bintan Island in Indonesia). Riau was a small trading post under the control of the Dutch East India Company. And while it was a strategic post for the Dutch, it hardly counted for any of the trade in this region. It was the newly-founded port city of Singapore, at the tip of the Malay Peninsula, that was a bustling international entrepôt. Singapore was established by the British East India Company in 1819. It had been a bone of contention for many years between the British and the Dutch.

But, by the 1830s, American ships that passed Southeast Asia on their way to East Asia or to the Indian subcontinent regularly docked at Singapore for victuals and safe passage. As a consul whose income largely depended on being a trading agent for American ships, Balestier soon realized that a formal appointment in Singapore was crucial to his financial sustenance. After some lobbying with the British in Singapore and with the US government in Washington DC, and two years after their departure from Boston, Joseph Balestier moved his family permanently to Singapore from Riau to start working as US Consul for the United States in Singapore.

He also found investors to fund a 1000-acre sugar plantation that he bought close to the city.  It was from this plantation that Maria wrote to her sister Harriet of homesickness and longing in 1841.

I hope you will get the Fans, and other trifles I sent you for her and Rose, and yourself. Mr. Trewalli took charge of some of them. He sent in the St. Paul and by the same vessel Mr. Balestier sent you a Box of Coral. I calculate that the ship will leave for home so as to reach you at Canton Dale, at your summer gathering, how I wish to be one of you. But wishing is a very idle employment and I must not even think of it or else I shall be really home sick

Maria Revere Balestier, Balestier Plantation House, June 18, 1841. Maria Revere Balestier papers, Massachusetts Historical Society.

MURALI: The Balestiers are somewhat different from typical consular families of the nineteenth century. US consuls to distant places were usually young men, often unmarried, who were trying to make a life for themselves. But the Balestiers were an established Boston family. Exactly why Joseph Balestier chose to move his family  thousands of miles from their comfortable middle class surroundings is unknown. It might have been because of a failed business venture. In any case, Maria, at 48 years old, had left everything that was dear to her in her beloved Boston to start life afresh on the Malay Peninsula. Her letters to her elder sister Harriet Revere and other members of their large family are filled with recollections of family events, the joy of receiving their communications, feelings of homesickness, and details of the Balestiers’ life in Singapore.

After the familiar busyness of life in Boston, Maria found Singapore no less busy–but very confusing, and very isolating. She describes Singapore as a place that never sleeps – 

Sometimes my patience almost fails at the varied sounds, and strange people that I see and hear the whole time, for it is never quiet here night and day…

MURALI: But the Balestiers’ society in Singapore was largely limited to the small white community of British settlers who worked for the British East India Company and the American traders and ship captains who visited Singapore for business. In one of her first letters to her sister, Maria wrote that her life in the city is “horridly dull.” In another letter she burst with excitement at the opportunity to socialize with two lady travelers who were in town for a short period.

As soon as the family reached Singapore, Maria threw herself into her duties as the wife of an American consular agent. She readied their home with borrowed furniture. She trained her domestic servants (who were all men much to her astonishment) to serve the needs of the family and fellow Americans who stayed with them during their time in Singapore. She mended Balestier’s socks, sewed caps for herself (to hide her greying hair), and tended to the needs of her teenaged son. Over time, she grew into her role, acting with motherly care toward anyone, especially children, who came to live under her roof. She was a lively member of the community, often attending social events on behalf of her husband on her own. She was also an active participant in church activities.

She even made a significant donation to the Anglican church of Singapore in 1843: a bell made by her father’s company. This bell remains the only bell crafted by Revere family’s foundry outside the United States. Once their plantation was set up, the Balestiers, both husband and wife, were fully involved in the care and management of the property. They appear to have spent time growing the crop and running the mill themselves. Joseph took care of the general work including sometimes helping out with the steam engine that processed the sugar cane. Maria oversaw the hospitality needs of the men in their labor force that were multicultural – they were Malay, Chinese, and Indian.

Throughout the thirteen years she spent in Singapore and hundreds of pages of letters that she wrote, two themes remained common – Maria always asked for more letters from her family and friends, often appearing miffed when a friend had not written back to her for some time, and she frequently pleaded for portraits of her family members. In one instance, Maria begged Harriet to spend some additional money to get a portrait painted that was a “very good likeness” so that she could derive comfort from at least seeing her sister’s painting hanging on the walls of her living room. Perhaps this homesickness spurred her to write and observe so much about her surroundings–that is the second theme that emerges from her letters.

Almost with an ethnographic precision, Maria wrote about the new world around her. She talked about the constant noise of the houseboats, thousands of them, on the river that flew through the middle of the white settlement. She described the beautiful plaza and the white chunam buildings that lined the broad streets. She had a female domestic servant hired to particularly care for her while she was severely ill. When she described this woman for her sister, she wrote in details of where in India she came from (Madras), what her caste was (Paravar, she writes “pariv”). She detailed the woman servant’s dress and hair, what jewelry she wore, what languages she spoke, and how she conducted herself at her professional duties. Maria’s account of this unnamed female domestic servant is possibly one of the very few records of lower caste Indian women in Southeast Asia in the eighteenth-century, women who were likely Tamil Christian converts taken to the Malay peninsula by missionaries.

But being a keen observer didn’t necessarily translate to more acceptance or appreciation. Maria observed the people around her, but she also stayed separate from them. She socialized only with the white people in Singapore; and the rest of the people were just objects of curiosity.

She also wrote about illness and death, things that would eventually come to lay heavily on Balestiers. Her letters included narratives of children who lost their mother to cholera, of men who lived with them but perished at sea or from illnesses. Joseph Balestier had had accidents that seriously injured his limbs. Maria herself was sick off and on over the years. In 1842, two members of Balestier’s plantation workforce were mauled and killed by wild tigers prowling the area. 

Tragedy struck closer home when their son aged 24, who was fondly called Revere, died in 1844. Six months after his death, Maria wrote to her sister about how she could still feel him dying in her arms.

From all accounts, the Balestiers worked very hard to provide consular services and hospitality to Americans visiting Singapore. Joseph Balestier also comes across as an effective consul and a hardworking businessman. However, like in Boston, he appeared to not have prolonged luck with his business enterprises. The British were not enthusiastic exporters of sugar in Singapore and without their trading support and associated benefits, the Balestier plantation suffered losses year after year. Eventually, the plantation business went under just as Maria’s health worsened. Her years were marked by the arrival and departure of American vessels carrying letters and little gifts from her family, and she in turn, sent them baskets, shells, ivory and tortoiseshell boxes, and Birds of Paradise, and other novelty items that her American family might find interesting. 

The fact that Maria and her sister Harriet were more educated than other female siblings likely made it possible for her to understand and accommodate her life in Southeast Asia with more equanimity than many Americans who lived abroad in foreign lands. Or perhaps it was Maria’s undying commitment and loyalty to her husband, addressed often in her letters as “dear Mr. Balestier,” that allowed her to continue to strive to create a home in Singapore even as she longed for her family and friends in the United States. Maria Revere Balestier never came back to her beloved family in Boston. She died of an unknown illness in Singapore on August 22nd, 1847. 

MULLEN: Maria Balestier was, in some ways, a typical consul’s wife.

Ann Chase

MULLEN: But producer Megan Brett has the story of another consul’s wife who took even more control of her own destiny, as the Heroine of Tampico.

MEGAN BRETT: In 1848, Ann Chase, wife of the United States consul at Tampico, Mexico, was in Washington DC. She was there to meet with government officials and members of Congress to talk about a bill called “A Joint Resolution for the Relief of Ann Chase” — in other words, for her.

The bill was meant to reimburse her and her husband for some of the losses they had sustained during the recent Mexican-American War. If it passed, her claim would be reviewed by the Secretary of State. But she also had the option to submit her claim through a new commission, created for US Americans resident in Mexico who had lost property or profits there in the last few decades. She couldn’t do both, she would have to choose one or the other. 

The fact that Ann was the one who made the trip, and not her husband Franklin, isn’t all that surprising. She was the one whose name had made the papers for her actions in 1846 during the war – they called her “The Heroine of Tampico”. But even more than that, it was totally in character for Ann to take charge of this effort which was so vital to the survival of the Chase’s business back in Mexico. Making good business decisions was Ann’s life story.

Let’s back up a bit, to set the scene and show you what I mean about her.  She was born as Ann McClaremond in Northern Ireland in 1809, so she was a British subject.  She came to the US as a teenager, accompanying her widowed mother and two brothers. 

They arrived in New York, but after a year or two, Ann and her brother James relocated to Philadelphia, where James started a business. Ann helped her brother, which wasn’t that unusual for the families of merchants, but she went above and beyond the norm. Soon, she was a partner in the business, with a financial stake and an active – and public – role. A notice about her in a Philadelphia newspaper, published years later when she was in the news as the “Heroine of Tampico,” celebrated her connection to their city.

“This patriotic woman once resided in this city. She is of Irish origin; her maiden name was Ann McCarnon, and she kept a dry goods store in Second, below Pine street. She was a woman of great business habits and energy of character, and made considerable money. Doubtless many of her old neighbors will recognise her name, and rejoice with us, that she has proved herself eminently worthy of this brief notice.”

Copy of a notice from the Philadelphia Spirit of the Times, reprinted in the Mississippi Free Trader and Natchez Gazette, December 29, 1846.

BRETT: Newspapers often got details wrong, like people’s names: she wasn’t McCarnon, she was McClaremond. But it’s worth noting that what was really memorable about her, decades later, was her good business sense. 

Okay, but if she had a store in Philadelphia, how did she end up in Mexico? Well, in 1834 she and James, her brother, decided to relocate in search of new, or maybe more profitable, opportunities. They spent two years in New Orleans and then moved again, this time joining hundreds of US Americans living and working in Mexico. Specifically, they moved to Tampico, a port town on the Gulf Coast in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, which is just south of Texas. Tampico was a hub for international merchants and traders, like Ann and her brother.

Ann arrived in Tampico as an experienced businesswoman in her late twenties, seeking new business opportunities. Within a year or so, she’d found a new partner, both for business and everything else. The lucky guy? Franklin Chase, a merchant from Maine who had been in Tampico for a few years already. He was appointed vice consul for the US there in 1837. They got married in 1838, and by the 1840s they had a business known as “F & A Chase” – that’s F and A for “Franklin and Ann,” which sends pretty clear message about her involvement in the business. 

Now, I don’t want to imply that Ann married Franklin just for financial reasons- there is plenty of evidence that they genuinely cared for each other. However, we have talked before on this show about how some men took on the role of consul, even though it was unpaid, because it could benefit their main jobs as merchants. So it makes sense that Ann would see her husband’s political appointment as a bonus to their future together –  in sickness and in health; in love and in business; in peace and in war.

full-length photographic portrait of Ann Chase, possibly from
Ann M. Chase, carte de visit photograph, ca. 1846-1874. Special Collections, The University of Texas at Arlington Libraries

Let’s fast-forward now to the spring of 1846. Ann and Franklin are successful members of the international community of merchants in Tampico. Franklin is now full Consul; he was promoted in ‘42. Business is good, they have a nice house above their store.  They’re right in the heart of everything, on the same plaza as the Customs House and the Mexican army barracks – that’s going to be important in a minute.

And then in 1845, diplomatic relations had started to deteriorate between the United States and Mexico after the US annexation of Texas. Clashes between the armies of the two nations led to a formal declaration of war by the US on May 13, 1846. Under the terms of an 1831 treaty between the two nations, US merchants like the Chases were supposed to have six months to get their affairs in order and leave the country, if the two countries went to war. But in this case, Mexican officials wanted a faster timeline. Concerned about sabotage and spies, they told the US Americans in Tampico they either had to leave the country at once, or go twenty-five miles inland. Even though, for most of this conflict, US forces had the upper hand, in this particular situation the Mexican government has the power to enforce this eviction notice. And even people who saw war on the horizon were surprised by the short deadline.

Ann and Franklin have to make some very important decisions very quickly. They come up with this clever idea which might protect at least some of the work they’ve put into their lives here – but only if Ann is competent and confident. She has to be able to manage the money and stand up to the Mexican authorities. As the US consul, Franklin is pretty high on the list of people the authorities want out of Tampico. He leaves on June 7, boarding the US naval vessel St Mary’s. Before he goes, he transfers all of the business’ property – worth about 80 thousand dollars – solely to Ann’s name. When the Mexican authorities show up and confront her and say she has to go, Ann says “I’m a British subject. You have no authority to evict me.”

It’s a gamble. On the one hand – and this is what the Tampico officials say at first – under the law, men were the heads of households and so, as a married woman, she should be leaving with her American husband. On the other hand, there’s this British idea of “indefeasible allegiance”, which basically means “once a subject of the British crown, always a subject of the British crown.” And it helps that James William Glass and Francis Gifford, the British consuls in Tampico and Vera Cruz back up Ann’s statement. So the Mexican authorities reluctantly allow her to stay, although they do confiscate a lot of the property. It’s a serious financial blow, but she is still technically in business.

For next few months, Ann makes the plan work. She runs the business, stays in the house, keeps an eye on everything. It is extremely stressful. She’s separated from her husband and doesn’t know when – or if – she’ll see him again. There are spies from the government in her house and her store. The only person she knows she can trust is her maid, who’s depending on her. The store and house are repeatedly vandalized and at one point, people shoot fireworks towards her roof and upper windows, trying to set the place on fire. 

But she stays. Because this building, this business, matters to her and her husband. So she’s willing to go to great lengths to protect it, even though it definitely takes its toll: 

“My own health is not in the best state, still I am able to attend to business. But God knows, my trial is a hard one, and it requires a soul steeled with durability, energy, and patience to stand the test”.

Ann Chase to her husband Franklin, Tampico, Fall 1846. Papers of Franklin and Ann Chase, 1835-1909. Special Collections, University of Texas Arlington.

BRETT: On top of all of that, Ann takes additional risks by doing pretty much exactly what the local authorities were worried US Americans would do – she passes information to the US forces, like details of new fortifications and troop movements. Remember, she’s right near the barracks and other key buildings, she can see this stuff from her windows. She sends some of the information through letters to her husband and also passes messages to officials on US naval ships which are blockading the port, just a few miles off the coast.

Of course, the Tampico authorities suspect she’s doing this. It doesn’t make her popular with them, or with the local population who don’t want to be invaded by the United States. Hence: the fireworks.

For all that she’s in this very precarious position, Ann ends up using the fact that they suspect her to her advantage. By October, Mexican authorities think she might be receiving information as well as sending it. They’re worried about US forces taking the town, which has already happened elsewhere. Knowing she is under surveillance, Ann makes it seem like she knows that a large number of US troops – over 30,000 – are coming. To be clear, she’s bluffing. But she hold firm, even when she’s questioned by local officials. That ultimately leads to a preemptive withdrawal of most of the Mexican forces at Tampico. They’re gone by the end of October – two weeks before the US forces show up.

When the US  military arrives on November 14, 1846, Ann and her maid go up to the roof of her building and hoist the US flag – both a welcome to the incoming forces and, in a way, as a sign that the consulate was back in business.

So, the Chase’s plan had worked, more or less. Ann managed to preserve some of their property. But they still suffered some pretty significant losses – tens of thousands of dollars. One way to recover these losses was to seek assistance from the United States government. Good publicity would help with that effort. Although word had gotten out in the States that the wife of an American consul had remained in Mexico and helped the US, some military and political leaders were downplaying her role. 

So Ann made sure her version of the story got into the public eye. She wrote a long letter to a friend back in New Orleans describing her activities. Her friend promptly sent the letter to a newspaper, the New Orleans Evening Mercury, for publication, which was what Ann had wanted. Publishing letters in newspapers wasn’t uncommon at the time. The story was reprinted in dozens of other papers throughout the US, all the way to Maine, and it even showed up in Liverpool, England. That’s how Ann became known as “the Heroine of Tampico”

The story resulted in some gifts from patriotic group – including women in Cincinnati, Ohio, who sent her a brand new American Flag to fly over the consulate – but more importantly,  it made sure that a lot of people knew how much she had done, and how much she had lost, supporting the United States.

Which brings us back to where we started: Washington DC in 1848 and the “Joint Resolution for the Relief of Mrs. Ann Chase.” Ultimately, Ann decided to ask that the bill be withdrawn, and she filed a claim with this new commission. In that claim, Ann asserted that she was a naturalized citizen: she had arrived in the US as a minor; she had married a US citizen. Never mind the fact that she claimed British subjecthood in order to stay in Tampico during the war. And while the commission ultimately sidestepped this question of her citizenship, they did approve the claim.

Ann stayed in the United States for a little bit longer, advocating for the claim while it was being considered, keeping in the public eye, and, of course, doing business Then she went back to Tampico, where Franklin had been re-appointed as consul, and they lived there for another twenty or so years. Ann spent most of the rest of her life in the roles which suited her well:  the consul’s wife and business partner. 

Caroline Van Deusen Chenoweth

MULLEN: Our final story is from producer Brenna Reilley. Remember how I said at the beginning that no woman was a consul, at least “not exactly”? This is the “not exactly.”

BRENNA REILLEY: On March 19th, 1863, Caroline Van Deusen, married Bernard Peel Chenoweth of Virginia, a colonel in the U.S. Army. Caroline was 17 years old. This marriage might seem just like many other tales of a wealthy and educated girl marrying a prominent military officer, however the marriage was anything but ordinary from the very beginning. 

The Chenoweth’s had no time for a honeymoon after their wedding in 1863. Instead for fourteen months following their marriage, Caroline was a military clerk to her new husband. As a clerk, Caroline did the tasks of a bookkeeper, manager, and copyist. But instead of an office, she was in the barracks. This put her in the middle of the action and danger of war. It also introduced her to some powerful men. During Col. Chenoweth’s three years of service, he served on staff under some very notable Generals, one, in particular, was General Ulysses S. Grant. 

General Ulysses S. Grant. Brady’s National Photographic Portrait Galleries, Washington, D.C. United States, https://www.loc.gov/item/2020635975/

REILLEY: Not everyone was pleased that the Chenoweths worked for General Grant. Both Caroline’s own family and her in-laws were enslavers in Virginia and Missouri. Unsurprisingly, they did not support the Chenoweths’ service in the Union Army. These differences with their families led to hard times for the Chenoweths after the war. They suffered in property loss, devastation to their personal holdings, and they were estranged from their families.  

After the war, Bernard took a position as superintendent of schools in Worcester, Massachusetts. Bernard used his connections with General Grant to receive a strong letter of recommendation for this position. It seemed the Chenoweth’s new life in Massachusetts was on an upswing, with the new job and with the birth of their two sons Ernest Bernard in 1865 and Oramel Goddard in 1867. In addition to Caroline’s new role as a mother, she passed all required examinations to become a teacher in Massachusetts. Just like her experiences in the Civil War, she continued this trend of supporting her husband’s new position in case she would ever be of need to Bernard. So why was Caroline always prepared to step in for her husband? 

For one, Caroline was very liberal, for the time, on her opinion about women in the workforce. She believed her skills and education prepared her for success in many positions. 

On a practical level, Bernard contracted typhoid fever during the war in 1862. It is possible this illness caused a multitude of complications throughout his entire life. And while they lived in Massachusetts, Bernard’s health was worsening. 

With the health of Bernard in decline, the Chenoweth’s moved back south to Richmond, Virginia in hopes the southern climate would heal his sickness. But they had no jobs, no money, and no property.

Once again, Caroline worked alongside Bernard to support their family. This time she delivered milk to the city of Richmond. So just to recount – In the six years of their marriage, Caroline worked as a military clerk, teacher, mother of two, and now a “milk man.” 

On March 4th, 1869, the Chenoweth’s saw a glimpse of hope. Ulysses S. Grant was sworn in as the 18th President of the United States. The Chenoweths did not hesitate to use their connections to him. By March 16th Bernard sent a letter to Secretary of State Hamilton Fish.

Hon. Hamilton Fish [Between 1855 and 1865] Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2017896078/.

The letter lays out the ways Grant could help him and his family. But the letter is a little weird because Bernard talks about himself in the third person, but here’s the case he made for himself: 

“He went to Worcester, Mass, where he knew one man. A generous people soon gave him the responsible office of Supt of Public Schools, which he held nearly 3 years, but failing health compelled him to resign such a laborious post in an uncongenial climate, and six months ago he returned to Virginia, his mother state with the purpose of remaining there through life.

He has no property and no means whatever of supporting himself and family and he is compelled by stern necessity to ask of his old chief and beloved General some help to begin the world anew. First he asks for the position of Minister to Japan, next for the Consulate general at Shanghai, and next for the Consulate at Canton, China or some similar position in a genial climate.”

Very respectfully yours,

B.P. Chenoweth

Egge, Jon, and Moreen Dee. “Chenoweth Women Seek Equal Opportunities for Women in Government.” Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2007.

REILLEY: Although Canton was not Bernard’s first choice, he needed the job. Like we have previously mentioned in Episode 6, the journey to Canton is a long one, especially with two young children. The Chenoweth family arrived in the port city of Canton on August 13th, 1869. Soon after Caroline gave birth to her first daughter. 

However, tragedy seemed to follow their family. Bernard found himself ill again. At one point, Caroline filled in for Bernard when he was under medical care miles away. While she was in charge, there was a land dispute between a large American house and a wealthy Chinese family. Caroline came to the decision regarding the dispute on her own, but she waited several days to gain approval from Bernard. Bernard gave her…

“direction that she should officially promulgate it as his duly accredited representative.” 

Homer Calkin, Women in the Department of State: Their Role in Foreign Affairs. Washington, DC: Department of State, 1977.

REILLEY: So throughout Bernard’s consulship, Caroline was the brains and power behind the operation. 

That is, until June 21st, 1870. Colonel Bernard Peel Chenoweth fell victim to his sickness and passed away. And then days later so did their newborn daughter. Caroline was widowed at the age of 23 with two young boys in an unfamiliar area. What she did next was remarkable. 

Immediately following the death of her husband and child, Caroline assumed the role of Consul of Canton. The American merchants in the port of Canton authorized her to complete the pressing quarterly reports and the paperwork regarding the death of a consul. Caroline did so efficiently and successfully. 

After a week in her assumed role as Consul, the Vice Consul, Daniel Vrooman, took over the position. Logically, it made sense for the vice consul to take over, but Caroline was not going to stand by and let Vrooman take the position she had been successfully been running for several months while Bernard was incapacitated. Rather, Caroline and her sons traveled back to Washington, D.C. to fight for the position. 

When the Chenoweth family arrived back in the US, Caroline wrote to Secretary Hamilton Fish requesting a consular position. She argued that she had done a good job and had gained valuable experience while in Canton. Secretary Fish was very grateful for Caroline’s work in Canton:

“I compliment you, Mrs. Chenoweth, on the manner in which you brought to an end your connection with the office, and you would know how well that compliment is deserved if you understood to what an extent the death of a consul almost invariably involves us in confusion.”

Flower, B.O., ed. The Arena. Vol. 3. Boston, MA: Arena Publishing Company, 1891.

REILLEY: But ultimately Secretary Fish rejected her request, “on the ground that questions are liable to arise which it would be improper for a woman to discuss.” This was insulting to Caroline. She had spent years in positions surrounded by men. Caroline’s work ethic was nothing short of impressive so she continued on her fight for the consular position. 

Photograph of a woman.
Caroline Chenoweth. From Frances Elizabeth Willard and Mary Ashton Rice Livermore, A Woman of the Century: Fourteen Hundred-seventy Biographical Sketches Accompanied by Portraits of Leading American Women in All Walks of Life, pp. 172.

On November 9th, 1872, Caroline asked President Grant directly: 

To the President of the United States

Sir,

The Hon Secy of State refuses to consider for a moment the question of appointing a woman to any Foreign Consulate.

He kindly admits that I mastered the duties of the Consulate at Canton while I had charge of that office, but while he does not doubt my ability to perform the regular consular work would oppose such an appointment upon the ground that questions are liable to arise which it would be impossible for a woman to discuss.

In answer to my plea that such questions had never yet arisen, he replied that they might. Upon this remote possibility I am set aside and am left to wonder why I need be denied this position under a Government which it has already been proven can intelligently serve – and for whose sake the life so necessary to myself and family was cheerfully sacrificed. 

Am I to consider that Mr. Fish’s views decide my final answer, or may I still have my application before yourself with permission to resume it should a more favorable opportunity ever offer.

I am yours most respectfully,

C.V.D. Chenoweth

Egge, Jon, and Moreen Dee. “Chenoweth Women Seek Equal Opportunities for Women in Government.” Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2007.

REILLEY: President Grant did take note of her success, but he didn’t give her a consular position. Instead, in February 1873 she was appointed clerk of first grade at the Boston Custom House. Although Caroline was the first woman to receive this appointment, it was still a consolation prize.

Credits

Consolation Prize is a podcast of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. Today’s episode was produced by me, Abby Mullen, along with Deepthi Murali, Megan Brett, and Brenna Reilley. Our voice actors today were Brenda Thompson Schoolfield, Jim Ambuske, Nashieli Marcano, Benjamin Carp, Michael Murphy, Christiana Doucette. Our music is as always by Andrew Cote. Remember to check out our show notes for more information about each of these amazing women that we’ve talked about today. And most of all, thanks for listening and be sure you tell a friend.

Further Reading

Maria Revere Balestier

Ann Chase

  • Belohlavek, John M. “Profiles in Courage:: WORKING WOMEN IN MEXICO.” In Patriots, Prostitutes, and Spies, 103–35. Women and the Mexican-American War. University of Virginia Press, 2017. https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1qv5pjr.8.
  • Center for Greater Southwestern Studies. “Biographies: Anna McClarmonde Chase | A Continent Divided: The U.S.-Mexico War.” A Continent Divided: The US-Mexico War. Accessed March 26, 2021. https://library.uta.edu/usmexicowar/item?bio_id=53.
  • French, John D. “Commercial Foot Soldiers of the Empire: Foreign Merchant Politics in Tampico, Mexico, 1861-1866.” The Americas 46, no. 3 (1990): 291–314. https://doi.org/10.2307/1007015.

For more information on indefeasible allegiance, check out Episode 2 – this section is around the 12 minute mark. For more on US Americans in Mexico in the early nineteenth century, check out Episode 1.

Caroline Van Deusen Chenoweth

For more information on the United States’ early dealings with Canton, check out Episode 6.