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Abigail Adams. After a painting by Gilbert Stuart. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-10016 DLC).

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Adams, Abigail (11 November 1744–28 October 1818), first lady and woman of intellect, was born in Weymouth, Massachusetts, the daughter of William Smith, a Congregational minister, and Elizabeth Quincy. Abigail grew up in a prominent and wealthy family, descended from Puritan leaders and successful merchants. She had no formal schooling, both because of her recurrent illnesses and the limited options available to girls. Yet neither obstacle prevented her from achieving a remarkably broad and sophisticated education. She enjoyed the family’s well-stocked library, the stimulating company of educated relatives and parsonage visitors, and the attentive tutelage of her grandmother. Her studies ranged from Shakespeare to Locke, from Plato to French. She also began two lifelong habits: letter-writing to distant relatives and friends, and the practice of a deep Congregational faith....

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James Agee Photograph by Walker Evans, 1937. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-103100).

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Agee, James Rufus (27 November 1909–16 May 1955), writer, was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, the son of Hugh James Agee, a construction company employee, and Laura Whitman Tyler. The father’s family were poorly educated mountain farmers, while the mother’s were solidly middle class. Agee was profoundly affected by his father’s death in a car accident in 1916. He idealized his absent father and struggled against his mother and her genteel and (he felt) cold values. “Agee’s mother wanted him to be clean, chaste, and sober,” the photographer ...

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Bowne, Eliza Southgate (24 September 1783–19 February 1809), letter writer, was born in Scarboro, Maine (near Portland), the daughter of Robert Southgate, a physician, and Mary King, sister of the eminent Federalist politician Rufus King (1755–1827). Eliza attended finishing schools near Boston in her early teens, completing her formal education at ...

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Bruns, Henriette (28 October 1813–07 November 1899), writer and political observer, was born Anna Elizabeth Henriette Bernadine Geisberg in Stromberg in the Prussian province of Westphalia, Germany, the oldest child of Maximilian Friedrich Geisberg, the mayor and tax collector of Oelde, and Johanna Hüffer. Both the Geisbergs and the Hüffers were old respected Catholic families in the area, constituting, as Bruns later wrote, the “so-called distinguished people” of the provincial society. The Geisbergs had held the Stromberg office of tax collector for the prince bishop of Münster since 1625, and the Hüffers were successful linen merchants and bankers....

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Clappe, Louise Amelia Knapp Smith (28 July 1819–09 February 1906), writer, was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey, the daughter of Moses Smith, a schoolteacher, and Lois Lee. Her father died in 1832, her mother in 1837; subsequently she was raised in Amherst, Massachusetts, by a guardian, attorney Osmyn Baker. She attended the Female Seminary in Charlestown, Massachusetts, in 1838 and the Amherst Academy from 1839 to 1840. In 1839, while traveling by stagecoach in Vermont, Clappe met ...

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Emerson, Mary Moody (25 August 1774–01 May 1863), aunt and influential teacher of Ralph Waldo Emerson, aunt and influential teacher of Ralph Waldo Emerson, was born in Concord, Massachusetts, the daughter of Reverend William Emerson and Phebe Bliss. Before he left home to serve as chaplain in the Continental army, William Emerson sent Mary, the fourth of five children, to live with his mother. After he died of a fever, Mary remained with her grandmother, and when she died Mary was sent to live with an impoverished aunt on her farm in Malden. She thus began life as she always lived it, in exile. The extreme poverty and drudgery of her youth was made even more difficult after a second, apparently insane aunt was sent to live at the Malden farm. In 1780, when Mary’s mother married her husband’s successor, Dr. ...

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Ferguson, Elizabeth Graeme (03 February 1737–23 February 1801), writer and translator, was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the daughter of Thomas Graeme, a prominent physician, and Ann Diggs, stepdaughter of Sir William Keith, the first provincial governor of Pennsylvania. In the environment of her father’s large estate, “Graeme Park,” Elizabeth developed into a well-read and cultivated young woman. According to one memoir, her literary activity began “to divert her mind” from a broken engagement to ...

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Fields, Annie Adams (06 June 1834–05 January 1915), literary hostess, author, and social reformer, was born Ann West Adams in Boston, Massachusetts, the daughter of Zabdiel Boylston Adams and Sarah May Holland, both descended from prominent early Massachusetts settlers. Her father was a Boston physician who also taught at Harvard Medical School and served on the Boston school board. Annie’s childhood pleasures included easy access to books and Sunday visits to such distinguished relatives as the Adamses of Braintree. At ...

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Hayne, Paul Hamilton (01 January 1830–06 July 1886), poet and man of letters, was born in Charleston, South Carolina, the son of Paul Hamilton Hayne, a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy, and Emily McElhenny, members of families prominent in politics, law, and religion. Two of the elder Hayne’s brothers were U.S. senators, one of whom, ...

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Lee, Elizabeth Blair (20 June 1818–13 September 1906), letter writer and director of an orphan home, was born in Frankfort, Kentucky, the daughter of Francis Preston Blair (1791–1876), an editor and adviser to presidents, and Eliza Violet Gist (Eliza Violet Gist Blair...

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O’Hanlon, Virginia (20 July 1889–13 May 1971), the girl to whom the phrase "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus -¦ ", the girl to whom the phrase “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus … ” was addressed, was born in New York City, the daughter of Dr. Philip F. O’Hanlon, a consulting surgeon for the New York police department, and Laura Virginia Plumb. Although her first name was Laura, she was known by her middle name. She attended Normal College of the City of New York (now Hunter College), where she received her B.A. in 1910, and Columbia University, where she received her master’s degree in 1911. In 1912 she began teaching elementary school in the New York public schools. She married Malcolm Douglas, in 1915 had a daughter (also named Laura Virginia), and was soon widowed. By 1920 she was again living with her parents....

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Ripley, Sarah Alden Bradford (31 July 1793–26 July 1867), scholar, Transcendentalist, and teacher of Ralph Waldo Emerson, scholar, Transcendentalist, and teacher of Ralph Waldo Emerson, was born in Boston, Massachusetts, the daughter of Gamaliel Bradford III, a sea captain and penal reformer, and Elizabeth Hickling. Her father traced his ancestry to ...

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Smith, Margaret Bayard (20 February 1778–07 June 1844), author and society leader, was born on a farm near Swede’s Ford on the Schuylkill River in Pennsylvania, the daughter of John Bubenheim Bayard, a merchant, and Margaret Hodge. The family had moved from Philadelphia just before the city was occupied by the British. A revolutionary war leader, Bayard had commanded a regiment in the battles of Princeton, Brandywine, and Germantown and spent part of the winter of 1777–1778 with ...

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Tinky ‘‘Dakota’’ Weisblat

Trumbull, Maria (1785?–23 November 1805), letter writer, was born presumably in Connecticut, the daughter of Jonathan Trumbull (1740–1809), a prosperous Connecticut merchant and politician, and Eunice Backus. Maria Trumbull’s father and grandfather, Jonathan Trumbull (1710–1785), both served as governor, and her mother came from a prosperous family, known especially for its piety. Nevertheless, Trumbull’s childhood in Lebanon, Connecticut, a rural town of only about 4,000 people, was fairly simple, and the Trumbulls mingled easily with mechanics and farmers....

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Phyllis Wheatley. Engraving after Scipio Moorhead; frontispiece to her Poems on Various Subjects. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-40054 ).

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Wheatley, Phillis (1753–05 December 1784), poet and cultivator of the epistolary writing style, was born in Gambia, Africa, probably along the fertile low lands of the Gambia River. She was enslaved as a child of seven or eight and sold in Boston to John and Susanna Wheatley on 11 July 1761. The horrors of the middle passage likely contributed to her persistent trouble with asthma. The Wheatleys apparently named the girl, who had nothing but a piece of dirty carpet to conceal her nakedness, after the slaver, the ...

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Winthrop, Margaret (1591?–14 June 1647), third wife of Governor John Winthrop (1588-1649) of Massachusetts, third wife of Governor John Winthrop (1588–1649) of Massachusetts, was born at Much (Great) Maplestead in Essex County, England, the daughter of Sir John Tyndal, a master in the Court of Chancery, and Lady Anne Egerton. Her early life is unrecorded, but she appears to have received the education deemed appropriate for a young Puritan gentlewoman of the period. Judging from the correspondence of her adult years, she was highly literate, well versed in theology, and skilled in the management of a complex household. Margaret Tyndal was twenty-five when her father was shot and killed by a disgruntled client on 12 November 1616, as he entered his chamber in Lincoln’s Inn. Margaret’s reaction to her father’s violent death is unknown, but a letter from her brother Arthur to their mother Lady Anne Tyndal, days after the assassination, hints that the controversy raised by the murdering client had threatened family honor. Arthur Tyndal praised God “who hath wrought wounderously alreadie in stoppeing the mouthes of malicious and naughtie people,” adding that, “All the graue examiners of that business proclaime my fathers integritie and say if it had been theire case they must haue been subiect to the pistol to, for they would haue donne as he did.”...

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Wright, Susanna (04 August 1697–01 December 1784), frontierswoman and writer, was born in Lancashire, England, the daughter of Patience Gibson and John Wright, of Warrington and, later, Manchester, England. John Wright trained as a physician, became a practicing Quaker minister, and made his living variously as a tradesman, a farmer, and a ferry master. The Wright family immigrated to Pennsylvania in 1714, bringing a certificate of good standing from Hartshaw Monthly Meeting in Lancashire that John Wright presented to Chester (Pa.) Monthly Meeting later that year together with a certificate from Philadelphia Monthly Meeting, indicating a brief residence in Philadelphia. The family later became members of New Garden Monthly Meeting and Sadsbury Monthly Meeting. John Wright purchased land below Chester in an area then known as Chamassungh or Finland....