January 15, 2016

Beyond the Sarah Wistar Quilt: Researching Her Extended Family

One of the highlights of the 2012 American Quilt Study Group seminar in Lincoln, Nebraska, was the opportunity to visit the International Quilt Study Center & Museum and its extensive collection of quilts. On display during seminar was an inscribed quilt made in 1842-43 for Sarah Wistar and presented to her by her nephews "Rd. [Richard] Wistar Jr. and W. [William] Lewis Wistar."  (We shared a detailed description of this quilt on our blog posting of October 20, 2012.)

The Sarah Wistar Quilt.  International Quilt Study Center & Museum, University
of Nebraska, Lincoln, 2005.059.0001.  Photograph courtesy of the International
Quilt Study Center & Museum.
 
Our description of the quilt included information about its recipient, Sarah Wistar (died 1866), and her association with the House of Industry and the Female Society of Philadelphia for the Relief and Employment of the Poor, both of which were Quaker organizations.
 
Inscribed quilts are unique because they display the names of families and community members who joined together in the past to create the quilts as fundraisers, memorials, or gifts, often presenting them to someone about whom they cared.  The names on a single quilt metaphorically freeze that quilt in time and point to a period of history in which the named entities lived and (by extension through research) to the social, political, commercial, and religious environments that made up their daily lives.  The ability to reconstruct history from inscribed quilts makes them documentary treasures and rewarding research subjects.
 
The Wistar family represented by Sarah Wistar's quilt was a large and prosperous Quaker family whose members contributed much to the history of Philadelphia and to American history in general.  As part of the "history" in www.quakerquilthistory.com, we'd like to explore with you some other members of Sarah's large, extended family.  Moving from the 1840s to the 1860s and beyond, we'd like to introduce one of Sarah's distant relations who lived from 1860 until 1938.  His name was Owen Wister.
 
The progenitor of the Wistar family in America was Caspar Wistar (1696-1752) who emigrated from Germany in 1717 and settled in Philadelphia.  (More about Caspar next time.)  Sarah Wistar descended from this line of the family.
 
Caspar's younger brother, John Wister (1708-1789), founded a 'junior line" of the family when he came to Philadelphia in 1727 and successfully engaged in the wine trade.  John's last name was recorded as "Wister" when he entered the country and it was never officially changed.  John and his second wife, Anna Catherine Ruebencamm, settled in Georgetown where, in 1744, they built a then-country house they called Grumblethorpe which became the family seat of this Wister line.
 
Grumblethorpe at 5267 Germantown Avenue, Germantown, Philadelphia,
Source of image:  Wikimedia Commons.
 
Owen Wister, the subject of this post, was a fifth generation descendant of the John Wister line of the family and a distant cousin of the Sarah Wistar for whom the Sarah Wistar Quilt was made. Owen, born in 1860, was not a member of the Religious Society of Friends, nor were his parents Owen Jones Wister, a physician, and Sarah Kemble Butler.  Interestingly, Owen's mother was the daughter of Fanny Kemble, the famous British Shakespearean actress wildly popular in both Britain and American at the time.
 
Fanny Kemble. Steel engraving by Johnson Wilson and Co., after a painting by Alonzo Chappel
after a painting by Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1873.  Source of image: Library of Congress, Prints and
Photographs Division and Wikimedia Commons.
 
Inheriting her mother's flare for drawing attention to herself, Owen's mother assumed the role of grand lady and was described as sweeping "[...] into the opera and symphony concerts in black velvet and black lace" and carving "[...]at the table while wearing white kid gloves."  Her mother, Fanny, once wrote of her:  "S[arah] was as fond of her baby [Owen] as I think she could be of any creature too nearly resembling a mere animal to excite her intellectual interest, which is pretty much the only interest in infants and adults that she seemed to me to have."  Fanny's memoirs make no mention of any affection displayed by her daughter Sarah for either her husband or her son.  (Baltzell, 300.)
 
With such an indifferent parental environment, it is probably fortunate that Owen's parents sent him to boarding school in Switzerland and to St. Paul's in New Hampshire for his primary education.  In 1878, Owen entered Harvard majoring in music and developing a talent for musical composition and dramatic writing.  There he actively participated in the Hasty Pudding shows and wrote for the Lampoon and the Advocate.  Owen developed many friendships while at Harvard, including one with Theodore Roosevelt that lasted a life time.
 
After graduating from Harvard summa cum laude, Owen studied music in Paris for a year, hoping to develop a viable career as a composer.  His father was against supporting this venture and when it did not produce immediate results, Owen returned home and went to work for a bank in Boston.  Finding the work not to his liking, he decided to return to Harvard to study law (which he did, graduating in 1888 and being admitted to the bar in 1890).  In the meantime, however, he was close to a nervous breakdown, prompting his doctor to recommend rest in a new environment - namely the west, far away from the hustle and pressures of Philadelphia and Boston.
 
Owen Wister.  From the Owen Wister Collection, American Heritage Center, University
of Wyoming.  Source of image:  Wikimedia Commons.
 
At his doctor's recommendation, Owen traveled to Wyoming in the summer of 1885, the first of several trips he would make to the west between 1885 and 1900.  Taken by the pristine natural environment of the west, his evolving view of the character of western cowboys, and what he saw as a conflict between western frontier values and those of the "civilized" east, he kept extensive notebooks of his impressions that would form the basis for many of his later novels and short stories.
 
In an article for Harper's Monthly in 1895, Owen described the central theme that informed his western fiction.  It is paraphrased here by John D. Nesbett.  "The cowpuncher, in Wister's terms, is a natural nobleman who has both racial and cultural ties with the Anglo-Saxons.  The Westerner is not just a herdsman but a horseman, for 'in personal daring and in skill as to the horse, the knight and the cowboy are nothing but the same Saxon of different environments.'" (Many of the opinions Owen derived from this belief would find little acceptance in today's world.)
 
Wister's most famous novel.  Source of image;
Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.
 
Wister's most famous and successful novel was published in 1902 as The Virginian, A Horseman of the Plains. In its first year, The Virginian sold over 200,000 copies and, over time, has been adapted for the stage, produced as five separate films, and inspired a long-running television series.  The book has never been out of print and, according to Castle Freeman, Jr."  Wister's novel "[...] is the template on which every western since has been cut.  All the essential characters are to be found there, not only the noble, nameless hero, but also the eastern tenderfoot narrator, the high-spirited, virginal schoolmarm, hostile Indians, cattle rustlers, the shrewd camp cook, the callow kid, and the devious, doomed villain."
 
Owen Wister on one of his visits to the west.  Courtesy of the Owen Wister Collection,
American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.
 
Owen married a cousin, Mary Channing Wister, in Philadelphia in 1898 and had five children by her, two daughters and three sons.  Mary died giving birth to their sixth child, another daughter, on August 24, 1913.  Mary became well-known for her support of education and many other projects to improve life in Philadelphia.  During their time together, she was widely loved and far better known than was her husband.
 
Wister became a prolific writer, not just of Westerns, but as a biographer, essayist, playwright, librettist, and non-fiction author.  He became disillusioned with the west as it was invaded by more and more of the "civilization" he'd grown to despise, and he was not receptive to the fame The Virginian had bestowed upon him, especially in the form of autograph-seekers whom he considered unintelligent and illiterate.
 
Owen passed away on July 21, 1938 in North Kingstown, Rhode Island, and was buried at Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia.
 
Owen Wister's grave stone, Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia.  Source of image:
Wikimedia Commons.
 
Sources:
 
Ancestry.com Public Member Family Trees accessed 12/27/2015.
 
Baltzell, E. Digby.  Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia.  New York: The Free Press, 1979.
 
Freeman, Castle Jr.  "Owen Wister, Brief life of a Western mythmaker: 1860-1938."  In Harvard Magazine (July-August 2002).  accessed at http://harvardmagazine.com/2002/07/owen-wister.html  on 12-16-2015.
 
Nesbett, John D.  "Owen Wister: Inventor of the Good-guy Cowboy."  At WyoHistory.org, A Project of the Wyoming State Historical Society accessed at http://www.wyohistory.org/encyclopedia/owen-wister on 12-30-2015.
 
(c) Lynda Salter Chenoweth and Mary Holton Robare, 2016
 
 







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