At the height of her career in mid-1873, Kate Field was said to be “a more prominent journalist than Clemens [Mark Twain].” The Washington Post said she was “one of the foremost women of America,” and the Chicago Tribune called her the “most unique woman the present century has produced.” Yet in her tales of adventure in the Adirondacks, she called herself “a babe in the woods.”
She wrote, “To be a babe in the woods watched over by a human robin redbreast, is as near an approach to Eden before the fall as comes within the ken of woman.”
The Essex County Republican recognized her impact on the Adirondacks, remarking: “Of all public characters who are upon the platform today, Miss Kate Field should be foremost in the hearts of the citizens of Essex County, for she was among the first to agitate the question of the preservation of the forests of the Adirondacks.”
Kate Field realized that the Adirondacks needed protection from lumbering. “The region…will be ruined if all the timber is removed,” she wrote. “The lakes will dry up and beauty gone that can never come again.”
She wanted to rescue part of the woods herself. Fearing that the summit of Mount Marcy, the highest point in New York, was about to be logged, she tried to purchase it. One of the owners, Almon Thomas, told her that “he could only sell it to her on condition that she would make it a permanent residence.” Evidently she declined and the purchase fell through.
Masses of vacationers had tramped to the Adirondacks in the summer of 1869. Reverend William H. H. Murray’s travel guide, Adventures in the Wilderness, mixed how-to advice with a collection of fanciful backwoods stories and caused phenomenal excitement. According to orator Wendell Phillips, Murray supposedly “kindled a thousand campfires and taught a thousand pens how to write of nature.”
Most of these writers were hunters and fishermen, but one outsider in the throngs was Kate Field (1838-1896). Here was no ordinary spinster. Born Mary Katherine Keemle Field, the daughter of an actor father and a Philadelphia Quaker mother, she went to Boston to live with her millionaire aunt and uncle, Mr. and Mrs. Milton H. Sanford. They supported her lavishly and took her to Paris, Rome and Florence, where she came to know the social and cultural elite. She became an unorthodox crusader of many social causes and one of the first women reporters, writing for the New York Tribune, New York Herald, Atlantic Almanac and other papers. Later she launched Kate Field’s Washington.
It wasn’t so peculiar that Field went to the Adirondacks—plenty of fashionable women attired themselves in muslin and silk and promenaded on a porch at some grand hotel—but this woman took Murray’s advice and camped out in the woods. “To come into the Wilderness and not camp out would be to me as unnatural as to bathe in a diver’s water-proof suit,” wrote Field in the New York Tribune.
Field’s views were decidedly unconventional. In 1870 in the Atlantic Almanac she wrote that her critics had called her and some female hiking companions “maniacs.” The admonitions did not deter Field, but in case things turned out poorly, she explained somewhat sarcastically, “I made my will. I had nothing, and left it, without reservation, to my relations.”
The plucky woman plunged into the woods, traveling from Plattsburgh to Lower Saranac Lake to Raquette Lake. She fished, hunted, climbed mountains, and sang merry songs. As for the complaints of local sportsmen that their favorite hunting and fishing grounds had been overrun by tourists, Field put forth a populist viewpoint: “The greatest good of the greatest number is, I believe, the true democratic platform, and if several hundred men think that the life-giving principles of the North Woods was [sic] instituted for the benefit of a few guns and rods, they are sadly mistaken.”
Not surprisingly, her remarks brought sharp reprisal. Sportsman and writer Thomas Bangs Thorpe was upset that the Adirondacks had been invaded by Miss Kate Field. He thought that ladies had nothing in their education that made them appreciate such places.
This was drivel, felt Field. She had developed a great affection for the region, and she expressed concerns about misuses of the woods. Thorpe advocated clearing an eighteen-to-twenty-foot square of woods to erect a shanty, while Field advised her readers to bring a tent rather than kill trees. “It is cruel to stab a tree to the heart merely to secure a small strip of bark,” she said. “It is ungrateful to destroy the pine and balsam that have given us our beds of boughs, and fanned us with their vital breath. Let there be tents.”
Clearly, this writer valued the region’s magnificence and was adding a woman’s voice to the idea of preserving the wilderness. In The New York Times Samuel H. Hammond had suggested marking out “a circle of a hundred miles in diameter” and making it a “forest forever,” while surveyor Verplanck Colvin recommended an “Adirondack Park or timber preserve” be created to assure a future water supply. Field believed in preserving the region not only for its waters and forests but also for its recreational values. She wrote that the Adirondack Mountains “were intended by Nature to be the Eastern pleasure-ground of the United States.”
Field authored four books and debuted as a lecturer, presenting “Women in the Lyceum.” For her second lecture she chose the Adirondacks as her subject and received high praise. The Chicago Tribune ran a long review about Field’s “Among the Adirondacks” lecture, calling it “An Unqualified Success.”
The Tribune described how she held up the mirror of nature and the audience was enraptured. “Following her scampering feet,” the paper reported, “the but too willing audience passed over green fields, crossed babbling brooks, or rapid torrents, ascended mountains, descended into verdure-clad and smiling valleys, viewed cataracts,…slept under the dome of the midnight sky, and did a hundred other things they never dreamed of doing before.”
The reviewer repeated a few gems from the lecture, such as the advice Field and her companions had been given as women attempting a woods excursion. Field said, “There were four of us, and all women. ‘Four women!’ exclaimed our critics. ‘Order four coffins, and take them with you.’
“We took the dilemma (not the coffins) at once by the horns,” she continued, “…And now that I live to tell the moving tale, let me say to women, that they can go anywhere, and do anything…[and] when there are no tyrants to come to lovely woman’s rescue, it is astonishing how well lovely woman can rescue herself, provided she exerts the brain and muscle given her by the Creator thousands of years ago, and not entirely annihilated by long disuse.”
Field recalled the dark scene of a deer hunt, which caused the Tribune reviewer to remark: “After such a description, who would not go deer hunting (with dears)?”
The lecture was concluded with a beautiful tribute to the memory of abolitionist John Brown. Standing beside his grave, “plucking roses and buttercups that sprang from the giant’s heart,” Field envisioned the life and legacy of John Brown. “I saw him turn to the stouter, sterner mind and muscle of his own sons, reared to look God and nature in the face, he still clinging to the Adirondacks, as if from them came inspiration,” she said. “The moral of the Adirondacks is freedom!”
Friends advised Field to remove the part about John Brown from her lecture, warning her that, “You will ruin yourself as a lecturer if you insist upon eulogizing John Brown.” Kate considered the advice, but she had faced this resistance before. In 1859, she had let it be known that she thought slavery was a curse and that John Brown was a hero. Her Uncle Milt demanded that she retract her statement or else he would stop her allowance. Field did not back down; she set out to make her own living.
Field decided to “retain the peroration if you die” and continued to eulogize Brown.
When she discovered that the John Brown farm and gravesite in North Elba were for sale, she contributed a hundred dollars, and convinced nineteen others to do the same, toward the purchase of the 244-acre site. “I want the farm to be held as sacred ground,” wrote Field, “as proof that even in the nineteenth century there is such a thing as poetic justice.”
In 1896 Field convinced the group to transfer ownership of the farm to New York State on the condition it be used “for the purpose of a public park or reservation forever.” A few weeks before the official transfer she died of pneumonia and a journalist mistakenly reported that it was Field’s wish to be buried at the John Brown farm. It was all a misunderstanding, although, a wagon driver had once asked Field, “You wouldn’t like to be buried here [in the Adirondacks], would you?”
She replied, “Why not?” and he said, “Because the soil’s so poor you’d never rise again.”
Kate Field did rise; she faced society’s glare and held to her ideals. She remained single, had a career and earned her own money, and was a feisty activist. But her legacy faded. She is largely remembered only for one of her sayings: “They talk about a woman’s sphere, as though it had a limit. There’s not a place in earth or heaven. There’s not a task to mankind given…without a woman in it.” In the blossoming field of Adirondack preservation, Kate Field was the woman in it.
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.