Ladies First: Women to Match the Idaho Frontier

February 14, 2013

Author Feature, Idaho

In this special feature, History Press West invited Steven D. Branting, author of Historic Firsts of Lewiston, Idaho: Unintended Greatness, to share a selection of significant moments from Idaho’s frontier history.

Women to Match the Idaho Frontier

Steven D. Branting

The issue of gender equality was a key feature of President Obama’s second inaugural speech on January 21, 2013, more than 90 years since the passage of the 19th AmendmentIdaho granted suffrage to women 25 years before that in 1896. And yet, as the following examples will show, Lewiston was well ahead of the Idaho curve in accepting women as key members of the business and civic community.

LeFrancois. Courtesy of the Nez Perce County Historical Society.

1862: Idaho’s First Female Hotelkeeper

*based on the best evidence

Among Lewiston’s early important establishments was the Hotel De France, operated by Melanie Snider Bonhore, a Parisian dealer “in ladies’ furnishings and fancy goods.” A small woman who dressed impeccably in the latest fashions decked with jewelry, she found Lewiston’s accommodations dirty, limited and provincial when she arrived in April 1862. She set herself a goal of building the finest hotel “in the north country.” Before she could obtain the proper lumber, she purchased a circus tent and outfitted it for prospectors passing through Lewiston to the gold fields. She was an experienced hotelier, having managed a hotel in Grass Valley, California, before it burned in a fire that consumed the entire area. Her husband Paul died soon after they arrived, but she would not change her plans of a new hotel, which was eventually built on the corner of Second and C (now Capital) Streets. She married Charles Le François, a cattleman, but he died in 1874, leaving her to manage alone. Because the establishment and its furnishing were so elegant, it was a favorite site among brides for their weddings. Madame Le François died on April 13, 1897.

Strang. Courtesy of Andy Rosin.

1864: Idaho’s First Female Photographer

*based on the best evidence

Amelia Ann Schwatka Strang was an Oregon pioneer who announced the opening of her new Lewiston studio on November 19:

“Photographing. The undersigned having opened a Daguerrian Room in Lewiston, is prepared to take all kids of Photographs, Ambrotypes, and Melainotypes, in the most superior style and at Reasonable Rates. Albums of every description always on hand.  Room — On C Street, between 4th and 5th.”

In November 1865, she obtained a federal tax license for her Lewiston business, a feat very rare for a woman at the time. Indeed, she may have been the first in Idaho. She moved to Santa Cruz, California, for a short time with her husband Thomas and sons Augustus and Frederick in 1868 and became an important children’s photographer. “No Lady need say she cannot get a picture of her baby, for Mrs. Strang is acknowledged to have no equal taking Children’s Pictures.”  In 1869 she was awarded a patent for a new boot design. Strang’s son Frederick died in October 1884 of a strangulated hernia while studying at the United States Naval Academy. The Journal of the House of Representatives (December 1, 1884, p. 90) reported that the hernia was the result of injuries from “cruelties practiced upon him by senior cadets.” The Secretary of the Navy was ordered to investigate but found no grounds to support such claim. A disgruntled parent of a court-martialed student instigated the investigation. Her brother Frederick Schwatka served on the Arctic patrol that went in search of the Franklin Expedition and found the grave of Lt. John Irving. She lived in San Francisco until 1879, when she moved to Salem, Oregon, where she died in 1899.

Vollmer. Courtesy of the John P. Vollmer Family Archives.

1881: Idaho’s First Election Allowing Women to Both Vote and Stand for Office

When the territorial legislature chartered Lewiston’s school district, the bill specified “a board of school commissioners consisting of five competent citizens to be elected by the citizens.” Women were expressly entitled to vote at school elections and run for office. Several states had granted women the right to vote in school elections in the 1870s. Boston had elected the first woman to a school board in 1873. Lewiston would now test its own sense of equality. Two women − Mrs. John P. (Sarah) Vollmer and Mrs. James W. (Fannie) Poe − were among the 10 people who filed for the seats. Both women lost in the election held on May 18, 1881. The Lewiston Teller commented: “A goodly number of our people could not be made to see the propriety of placing women upon the ticket as candidates to decide questions which must come up before the directors in relation to school finances.” Women were acceptable for “their softening and healthy influence” on children, but they were not fit, so many thought, to be the judges of how public money should be spent. Of 186 votes cast, 30 came from local women. Mrs. Vollmer and Mrs. Poe garnered 66 and 68 votes respectively. More men than women supported the two female candidates. The Teller concluded that “our people were aroused at some degree at least to the importance of having good schools, even if the women question did rouse them.” Long-identified with the education of Lewiston’s children, Vollmer helped organize the charity ball to raise money to complete a new schoolhouse in 1872. Idaho would not grant women the right to the vote until a constitutional amendment passed in 1896.

Buck. Courtesy of the Nez Perce County Historical Society.

1883: Idaho’s First Women’s Christian Temperance Union Chapter

Francena Kellogg Buck was a pioneering woman. The first female bookkeeper in Chicago, she worked for Potter Palmer, who was instrumental for much of the development of the historic State Street section of the city. Buck was one of the first women graduates of a classical course of study from an American college (Lawrence, 1857). When her husband Norman enlisted to fight in the Civil War, she became a nurse and served in Nashville, Tennessee, and was cited in dispatches for her exemplary role at the military hospital. In 1880 Norman was appointed to the Idaho Territorial Supreme Court. She arrived in Lewiston in 1882 and helped organize the temperance societies associated with several of the local churches, with the result being the first Women’s Christian Temperance Union chapter in the Idaho Territory. She was elected president of the North Idaho WCTU in 1883. She also was passionate about women’s suffrage. She died in 1925 at the age of 90.

Frances Wood of Boise, Idaho.

1897: Idaho’s First All-Female Jury

Frances Wood of Boise is said to have been Idaho’s first female juror in 1897, but Lewiston holds the distinction of having the first all-female jury the same year, when 10 local women sat in a civil case. Women became eligible to serve on juries in Idaho in 1896 when they were granted the right to vote. However, jury service by women was rare since Idaho trial judges and the Idaho State Bar reserved jury duty for men. In the 1920s, prosecutors preferred having women jurors on cases involving prohibition violations. However, when an all-female jury convicted a man for unlawful possession of alcohol, he appealed his case on the grounds that women were ineligible to serve. The Idaho Supreme Court upheld his appeal, and the next legislative session defeated a bill that would have guaranteed the right for women to serve as jurors. It was not legal for women to serve on juries in Idaho until 1943.

Hamilton. Courtesy of the Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.

1898: Idaho’s First African-American Physician 

*based on the best evidence

Dr. Angelina (‘Nina’) Grimké Hamilton had history on her side. Born in 1872, she was the granddaughter of Angelina Grimké Weld, famed abolitionist writer and women’s suffrage advocate. In 1838, Weld became the first woman to address a legislative body when she spoke to the Massachusetts State Legislature on women’s rights and abolition. Hamilton graduated from Chicago’s Hahnemann Medical College & Hospital in 1897 with a degree in homeopathy. After some work in the Amish community of Shipshewana, Indiana, she headed west. Her ‘professional card’ began appearing in the Lewiston Daily Tribune on July 28, 1898. She remained in practice here until after the June 1900 federal census was filed. Hamilton returned to Illinois by 1901 and served as an assistant physician at the Cook County, Illinois, Insane Asylum. To assist her widowed father, she relocated to Benton Harbor, Michigan, and entered the University of Michigan, earning an MD in 1908. For the next 39 years, Hamilton worked in the Illinois state mental hospital system as a psychiatrist. When the University of Michigan surveyed more than 10,000 alumnae in 1924, Dr. Hamilton responded by writing “mixed” on the line to indicate race. She died in April 1947, in Port Huron, Michigan. The Annex Building at Anna State Hospital, Anna, Illinois, was renamed in her honor.

West. Courtesy of the Nez Perce County Historical Society.

1900: First Woman to be a Delegate to a National Political Nominating Convention

Soon after arriving in Lewiston in 1898, Susan Henderson West assumed an active role in Idaho politics and was one of the first two women to be delegates to a national political convention, attending the Republican gathering in Philadelphia that nominated William McKinley for a second term in June 1900. She was a delegate again in 1904. Although Leslie’s Magazine conceded that she was “a vigorous and able speaker” and “a successful campaigner,” the editors added that she “never forgot her true sphere of life, that of a wife and mother.” West became a lawyer in 1908 and served for many years as clerk of the Idaho Supreme Court. After the passage of the 19th Amendment granting the vote to women in 1920, she observed: “It was said that womanhood would be lowered by the ballot, but there is nothing lowering in our going to the polls. I think that our getting the franchise has had a splendid effect on politics generally.”


Historic Firsts of Lewiston, Idaho: Unintended Greatness by Steven D. Branting

When a group of intrepid gold prospectors set up camp at the fork of the Snake and Clearwater Rivers in 1861, they expected to make camp for a night and move on. Instead, they made a town. It was an important—if unintended—accomplishment. And it was only the beginning of a long line of historic firsts for Lewiston, including the first capital, police department, newspaper and post office. Lewiston also boasted the state’s first brewery and first vigilante association, both founded in the same year, appropriately enough. Join local historian and lifelong educator Steven D. Branting as he offers the first-ever chronology of unprecedented events, accolades and incidents that shaped Lewiston and Idaho from the city’s founding to the present day.

Historic Firsts of Lewiston, Idaho: Unintended Greatness by Steven D. Branting is available from the History Press and your favorite booksellers throughout Idaho.

Related Posts:

Ghosts of Idaho’s Magic Valley Special Preview

Interview with Gloria Harris & Hannah Cohen, Authors of Women Trailblazers of California: Pioneers to Present

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