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FRANCES ELLEN WATKINS HARPER AND THE COLORED CONVENTIONS MOVEMENT

FENTON HAPER

“Married.” Worcester Daily Spy, 15 December 1860. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Library of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83021205/1860-12-15/ed-1/seq-2/>

Fenton Harper was born in Virginia sometime in the early 1820s. Although his parents’ status is not clear, the 1850 US census lists Fenton as a free inhabitant of the state. Frances Ellen Watkins married Fenton Harper on November 22, 1860 in Hamilton County, Ohio.[1] Because Frances’s existing letters do not document how she met Fenton, it is possible that she met him as she lectured and attended meetings throughout Ohio in 1860. Fenton was widowed twice before his marriage to Frances Harper. Four months before they wed, he lost his wife of three years, Elizabeth Smith, the daughter of free Black farmers.[2] The couple had two children, Ellen (b. 1859) and Elizabeth (b.1860), before Elizabeth Smith passed away in 1860. 

Fenton’s son, Cassius M. Harper (b. 1852), was from his first marriage. County records show that in November 1850, Fenton Harper married Eliza Ann Manzillar, also the daughter of free Black farmers in Mahoning County.[4] The 1850 census, recorded in July, places Fenton in Virginia, so he must have moved to Ohio sometime in the in late summer or fall of 1850 and settled down after he married Eliza Ann. Cassius was born in Mahoning County, indicating that Fenton lived in his wife’s hometown before moving westward. While I have yet to find a record of her death, one can assume that Eliza Ann died some time before Fenton remarried in 1857. The death of his second wife must have been a heartbreaking blow to Fenton. With three children, life as a farmer would have been exceedingly difficult for Fenton.

Marriage, for many people in the nineteenth century, was as much about necessity as it was about love. While there is no historical record indicating that Fenton only married Harper out of necessity, their union likely offered a reprieve from the hardships he had experienced. When Frances married Fenton, she became a stepmother to two infant girls and an eight-year-old boy. Perhaps, Frances, who herself had lost her own mother at a young age, felt connected to her stepchildren. In spite of the major change in her life and status, her new role as wife and stepmother “only limited but did not curtail her public activities,” as she continued to travel and lecture[5].  Fenton must have welcomed Frances’s income from lecturing, as it enabled them to purchase a farm. In 1862, Frances gave birth to her only child, Mary. 

When Fenton died in 1864, the probate court assessed that Fenton’s estate and belongings—farm animals, tools, barrels, and so forth—were worth 350 dollars, and they were sold at a public auction.[6] Frances and the children were allowed to keep their clothes, beddings, some furniture, and cooking and dining utensils. The state also let Frances have the family bible and their books, which she must have insisted upon keeping. The appraisers allotted cash allowance for each child, leaving Frances with only 223 dollars—100 dollars for Mary, the youngest, and less than 50 dollars for the rest of the children. It is probable that Frances used Mary’s allowance to move back to New England, while Fenton’s children were handed to their relatives. Ellen and Elizabeth were sent to live with their maternal grandparents, Zephaniah and Farlene Smith, in the farm in Jackson Township, Pike County, where their late mother grew up.[7] The 1870 US census does not show Cassius as part of the Smith household; perhaps, he lived with his mother’s family, the Manzillars in Mahoning County. How Frances felt about the abrupt break up of her family is yet to be uncovered, and it is also unclear whether or not she kept in touch with her stepchildren. As a farmer, Fenton married free Black women from farming families, but Frances was born and raised in a city. Her work demanded a rigorous schedule, and she knew that it would be untenable to raise four children on her own. When she left Fenton’s children to their late mothers’ families, Harper likely thought that it would be better for them to be raised by their well-established relatives. 

REFERENCES

[1] The 1850 US Census listed Fenton Harper as a laborer in Loudoun County, Virginia, and Virginia as his place of birth. His son Cassius Harper’s entry in Minnesota’s 1905 state census also indicates that Fenton Harper was born in Virginia. “Fenton Harper.” 1850 United States Federal Census, Ancestry.com. https://www.ancestry.com/discoveryui-content/view/15243064:8054; and “Cassius Harper.” Minnesota State Population Census Schedules, 1865-1905, Minnesota Historical Society, Ancestry.com, https://www.ancestry.com/discoveryui-content/view/353358:1058?tid=&pid=&queryId=0ba0162370b25f14a33e4c549ce04ddc&_phsrc=shJ387&_phstart=successSource

[2] “Elisabeth Smith.” 1850 United States Federal Census, Ancestry.com, https://www.ancestry.com/discoveryui-content/view/14391607:8054. Elizabeth Smith and Fenton Harper were married on October 21, 1857. “Elizabeth A. Smith.” Ohio, U.S., County Marriage Records, 1774-1993, Ancestry.com, https://www.ancestry.com/discoveryui-content/view/900452431:61378

[3] Given that Elizabeth was born in 1860, it is likely that Elizabeth Smith Harper died in childbirth. 

[4] “Fenton Harper.” Ohio, U.S., County Marriage Records, 1774-1993, Ancestry.com, https://www.ancestry.com/discoveryui-content/view/2648303:61378?tid=&pid=&queryId=9e19a92e1dd1db448e6ad1be4145c74e&_phsrc=shJ396&_phstart=successSource 

[5] Smith, Frances Foster. A Brighter Coming Day: Frances Ellen Watkins Harper Reader. New York: Feminist Press, p. 18.

[6] “Fenton M. Harper.” Ohio, U.S., Wills and Probate Records, 1786-1998, Ancestry.com, https://www.ancestry.com/discoveryui-content/view/8881698:8801?tid=&pid=&queryId=a846a9e19c110fd370e116561f92b3ba&_phsrc=shJ381&_phstart=successSource 

[7] “Zephaniah Smith.” 1870 United States Federal Census, Ancestry.com, https://www.ancestry.com/discoveryui-content/view/40998569:7163?tid=&pid=&queryId=62bb4ccf7ae428c4b165abd21a882dd7&_phsrc=shJ382&_phstart=successSource 

CREDITS

Written by Samantha de Vera.