Some Notable Women in Adirondack History


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Jeanne Robert Foster (Johnsburg Historical Society)The Adirondack Region of New York State is known for not only for its scenic beauty, but also for the strength and stubbornness of its people. This is especially true of its women. The early years of its history featured women who were particularly strong and resilient.

Phebe Cary was not only a woman, she was a full-blooded Abenaki. The story goes that at age 13 she was sold off by her father to William Dalaba. It is unclear if she was sold off by her father or whether William just paid her father a dowry. What is clear is that after William left money with her father, she was sent off – against her will – with a new husband to the 1857 wilderness of Bakers Mills, N.Y.

Picture Believed to be Phebe Carey courtesy of Jim Mosher of Athol, NYAfter a few months in Bakers Mills, Phebe escaped and found her way back to her father’s home near Chazy, one hundred miles to the north. William had given up on Phebe, but a few months later there was a knock at the door. There stood Phebe and her father. He father had returned her either because he felt dishonored by her leaving her husband or because he feared having to return her dowry. It is said that to prevent Phebe from leaving her husband again her father had broken her knees. She limped the rest of her life as a result.

My own research into this story indicates that Phebe was not full-blooded Abenaki, but rather one quarter Native American. And her father’s home was not in Chazy, but sixteen miles to the east.

Regardless, Phebe was a strong woman. In the next twenty-five years she bore William ten children. The story of her knee injury may have also just been an embellishment as all her children and grandchildren had bad knees, probably due a genetic condition.

Julia Elizabeth Oliver, a/k/a Jeanne Robert Foster was born in Johnsburg in 1879, the first child of Frank and Lizzy Oliver. As a young girl Julia would guide tourist parties up Crane Mountain for twenty-five cents a trip. Those years in the Adirondack wilderness had a profound influence on her life and her writings.

Forced by the economics of a failing farm, Frank and Lizzy moved with their other children to Glens Falls in 1896. That same year, Julia, now just seventeen, was married to Matlock Foster, a forty-year-old insurance salesman in Rochester, NY. The Fosters spent time in New York City and later in Boston. Julia worked as a reporter for the Boston American newspaper and when they moved back to New York City she worked for Albert Shaw, then editor of The American Review of Reviews. As her husband became elderly and unwell, she was forced to become the breadwinner in the family. She earned money as a Vanity Fair model and was known as one of the first “Gibson Girls”. Working at the Review she had occasion to travel to Europe where she befriended Picasso, James Joyce, Ezra Pound and T.S. Elliot. She also began to write poetry that was published under the name “Jeanne Robert Foster”. Her poetry spoke to the beauty and spiritual connections she felt with the wilderness of the Adirondacks. At that time, her poetry was compared favorably with that of Robert Frost in Vermont. It is said when Yeats died in 1939 he had an unfinished drawing of her by his bedside.

Clarissa Chambers OrdwayMary Perkins of Indian Lake, a/k/a “Melissa” was about as strong and stubborn as they come. She became the common law wife of Jones Ordway, a famous lumber baron of the Adirondacks in the mid 19th Century. Jones had another family in Glens Falls; his legal wife Clarissa who had bore him several children all whom died when they were still young. Clarissa herself became ill and Jones spent increasing time in the Adirondacks as Clarissa’s health diminished. And that time was spent with Melissa who bore him three children, all of whom succumbed to diphtheria. Jones Ordway died, age 79 in 1890 and Clarissa passed on, age 85 in 1899.

Melissa became an outcast when she moved in with Jones Ordway. She was dis-owned by her family in Indian Lake, NY and the ladies in North Creek treated her with disdain. When Jones Ordway died she inherited considerable wealth and had herself listed as a “capitalist” in the 1900 census, according to recent research by Char McEwan. Melissa spent considerable funds on a large house on Main Street, North Creek and gifted money that funded extensive renovations of the North Creek Baptist Church. On her death in 1902 at age 69, she had decreed that an imposing mausoleum be built at the top of the hill in the local cemetery so she could look down on those had looked down of her while she was alive. That mausoleum can still be seen at Union Cemetery, North Creek, N.Y.

Excerpted material from Glenn L. Pearsall’s “Echoes in These Mountains: Historic Sites and Stories Disappearing in Johnsburg, an Adirondack Community” (Pyramid Press, 2008). The book won a Letter of Commendation from the 35 county Upstate Historical Alliance in 2009. Mr. Pearsall’s second book “When Men and Mountain Meet: Stories of Hope and Despair in the Adirondack Wilderness After the American Revolution” was recently nominated for a national book award.

Photos, from above: Jeanne Robert Foster (Johnsburg Historical Society); photo of a woman believed to be Phebe Carey (Courtesy of Jim Mosher of Athol, NY); and Clarissa Chambers Ordway.

This essay is part of The New York History Blog’s project to highlight the history of women in New York State for Women’s History Month. Have a story to contribute? Find out how.

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Glenn Pearsall

About Glenn Pearsall

Adirondack historian Glenn Pearsall is the author of Echoes in these Mountains (2008) and When Men and Mountains Meet (2013). In 2000, Glenn Pearsall and his wife Carol established and funded the Glenn and Carol Pearsall Adirondack Foundation dedicated to improving the quality of life of year round residents of the Adirondack Park. When not pursuing a passion for history and philanthropy, Pearsall is a senior partner and Portfolio Manager for a wealth management team in Glens Falls, NY. He and his wife Carol live near the base of Crane Mountain in Johnsburg.

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