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Harpers Ferry Park celebration continues with women’s history program

By Staff | Apr 5, 2019

Harpers Ferry National Park Ranger Beth Wasson shares stories about the women of Harpers Ferry on Sunday. Toni Milbourne

HARPERS FERRY – As the Harpers Ferry National Park continues to celebrate its 75th year, its monthly event for April was a walking tour celebrating “Women in the Ferry.” Sponsored by the Harpers Ferry Park Association, the tour focused on stories of powerful and courageous women who made up part of the town’s history.

Park Ranger Beth Wasson led the discussion, sharing stories of prominent women who made Harpers Ferry their home.

Asking for thoughts from the more than 30 individuals attending the walking tour, regarding women’s roles in the late 1700s and early 1800s, Wasson was met with everything from homemaker to slave to shopkeeper.

“It was probably a lot of the ‘barefoot in the kitchen,’ but there were some boundary breakers,” Wasson said.

She told stories of Margaret Wager Williamson, who was the great-niece of Robert Harper.

“Margaret’s name was on the deed for establishing the arsenal,” Wasson said. “She owned and operated a tavern with her husband.”

According to Wasson, many women’s names appear in the history of the town, but it is often a small glimpse into their lives. To illustrate that point, she shared that Mrs. Stipes, who owned the boarding house, had three daughters: Anna, Medora and Martha. Medora was described in a journal by a gentleman who wrote about Harpers Ferry, but that is the only recorded reference to her.

The life of Dr. Mary Walker, the first woman in the Union Army to serve as a surgeon, was better recorded. Wasson passed a photograph of the doctor around, showing her preference for dressing in man’s clothing.

“‘I don’t wear men’s clothes,'” Wasson said Walker was recorded to have said. “‘I wear my own clothes.'”

She was the only woman to win the Medal of Honor in the Civil War.

Wasson shared the town’s history through the eyes of the women, including Harriet Newby, whose husband, Dangerfield Newby, was killed in John Brown’s raid. Harriet was an enslaved woman with eight children. Dangerfield had tried for years to work to earn enough money to buy his family’s freedom, to no avail. He participated in Brown’s raid as an attempt to somehow overthrow slavery to secure their release. Instead, he was killed at the raid and Harriet and the children were sold south, with no further record kept of their fate.

Annie Marmion, the eight-year-old daughter of the only doctor in town, witnessed some of the Civil War and recorded it in a book entitled “Under Fire.”

Others recorded the happenings of the time as well, including Mary Hudson who wrote about the Battle of 1862 for the New York Post.

Moving into the 19th century, Wasson referenced women who held influential positions at Storer College, including Laura Bracket, sister of the first president of the college; Sarah Jane Foster and Anne Dudley, who were teachers there; and Pearl Tatton, choir director for the college, who voiced her thoughts at a gathering of the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1931, when that group was unveiling a monument dedicated to the faithful slaves who refused to rise up against slavery. The Storer College choir was asked to perform at the ceremony and Tatton took the opportunity to share her thoughts.

“‘I am the daughter of a Connecticut volunteer who wore blue, for which John Brown struck the first blow,'” Wasson said, quoting Tatton.

According to Wasson, these women were the precursor to the Civil Rights movement to come.

For more information about the park’s 75th anniversary, visit go.nps.gov/harpersferry75 or www.nps.gov/hafe/index.htm.