Through a Wider Lens – Every Story Has a Backdrop

Through a Wider Lens – Every Story Has a Backdrop

In Lifelines – The Bowen Love Letters, our two protagonists sometimes say things that would now be considered politically incorrect, but they lived in a different time and place: mid-1800s America. Some readers have asked why I included their letters that have references to exterminating Mexicans and killing Indians, and to denigrating Irish immigrants. For me, it was simply a matter of where, when, and how our protagonists were raised. The good news is that their opinions matured over time, as they got to know people of different races, languages, manners of dress, and lifestyles. Travel is broadening.

If you were born in the early 1800s in Houlton, Maine, a small village on the border with New Brunswick, you would have likely encountered the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, a Native American tribe who lived (and still does) in the area. Before contact with Europeans, the Maliseets occupied much of what is now the eastern border of the U.S. and Canada in northern New England. The Maliseets call the Meduxnekeag River and Aroostock County their home. They are river people who have traditionally been hunters and gatherers in the St. John River Basin, of which the Meduxnekeag is a tributary. They belonged to the Algonquian family of languages. Catherine “Katie” Cary Bowen grew up in Houlton and would have been familiar with this tribe, but she only mentioned them once in her letters, when comparing the Maliseets to the many different Indian tribes she met along the Santa Fe Trail.

Indigenous people of North America date their history on the land as “since time immemorial.” The land now known as New York State, where Captain Isaac Bowen was born and raised, has a rich history of First Nations people. Isaac Bowen was born in East Aurora, New York, near Buffalo, where his father and brothers were farmers. The Bowens would have been familiar with some of the regional tribes: the Cayuga, Tuscarora, Oneida, Onondaga, St. Regis Mohawk (along St. Lawrence River near Quebec, Canada), Seneca Nation, Tonawanda Band of Seneca Indians, and Shinnecock (located downstate). These tribes were very different from the Plains Indians Isaac and his wife met on the Santa Fe Trail, and the fierce Indian tribes of the newly acquired New Mexico Territory, where they lived for five years (1851-1855).

Katie Cary Bowen was raised in a home with servants and was known to be the first woman in Maine to attend finishing school in Boston. Her family was prominent in Houlton, Maine, and two of her brothers became influential leaders of early Aroostock County. As noted in her letters to Isaac while they were separated during the Mexican War (1846-1848), Katie occasionally cooked a meal, but she apparently didn’t have routine household chores. When she wasn’t writing letters to her far-away husband, most of her time was spent reading, sewing, embroidering, and visiting with family and friends in their small village. Some of the Cary family servants were probably Irish immigrants, and Katie later denounced the whole race for various reasons. However, later in life, she employed Irish nurses to take charge of her small children and Irish household servants.

Isaac Bowen did not grow up with servants. He was one of twelve children in a family of farmers in East Aurora, New York, where everyone had chores. His attitudes towards the Irish immigrants is unknown, but after an unhappy and expensive experience with an Irish maid who ran off, Isaac bought a young Negro woman, Margaret, to help Katie with household chores. Margaret traveled with the Bowens across the Santa Fe Trail and lived with them for seven years before being set free. The Bowen children all loved her and called her Margy – she was part of the family – and she probably learned to read and write along with the children.

In 1851, when Katie wrote to her mother from St. Louis, Missouri, she was full of praise for Margaret’s demeanor and skills. Katie also used words and phrases to describe Margaret that are considered derogatory and inappropriate in this day and age, but those were the acceptable terms at the time.

Our Dinah is a jewel and works to a charm, seems delighted and grateful to be treated like a creature with some feelings. I do not believe we will be obliged to correct her. She has a good disposition, and uses a great deal of judgment in doing her work. (Katie to her  mother on June 7, 1851, from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas)

Similarly, Isaac wrote to Katie from northern Mexico during the Mexican War and described Mexicans as “vile” and said they should be exterminated. Considering that the U.S. was at war with Mexico, and U.S. Army troops were actively fighting the Mexican Army, I left those letters in Lifelines – The Bowen Love Letters. Isaac later came to appreciate northern Mexico for its climate, flowers, trees, and vegetables, and as he came to know inhabitants of the towns the army occupied, he praised some of them. He changed his way of thinking after several years in that country. Winning the war helped!

This, my dear Katie, will in all probability be my last “literary production” in Saltillo. Even now, I am in almost as unpleasant a state of doubt and uncertainty as I have been for the last two or three years, caused by a want of knowledge as to where I shall be stationed. I would infinitely rather remain here and have you join me than go to any station on the Gulf. The story is here that Mr. Ambrose H. Sevier has declared it to be the intention and purpose of the administration to station six thousand troops at “El Paso” on the Rio Grande near the southern boundary of our newly acquired territory.

I sent some old clothes to my washer woman a day or so ago. She is poor and was grateful, and expressed and showed more regret at our leaving than any other one that I have seen. She said that often, before we came here, work was uncertain and often she suffered for something to eat; whereas since we came, by working hard, she had been able to live in comparative luxury, although her husband is a good for nothing drunkard who spends for liquor nearly all she earns. I have not formed an attachment in this country, except to its delightful climate and tropical fruits. These I would not object to enjoy forever, but will willingly sacrifice them for a home with thee in the north. (Isaac to Katie on June 11, 1848, from Saltillo, Mexico)

Later, when they lived at Fort Union, and then Albuquerque and Santa Fe, Katie felt some sympathy for the hungry Indians in the area.

We confidently hope to get home in the course of the fall. There will of course be more troops sent out this year than any previous one, for the Indians are all unfriendly now, except the Navajos and they are quite out of the way. I believe the mail expects the General to allow an escort as far as the Arkansas. Do not feel apprehensive for us. There is no danger in any of the larger towns. The Indians do not want people – their only desire is stock and they have been very successful thus far. (Katie to her mother on January 31, 1855, from Santa Fe, New Mexico Territory)

You must not believe everything that you read about the Indians. They are murderous and bad enough, heaven knows, but have been pretty severely handled lately and large forces are out now, both north and south. (Katie to her mother on April 26, 1855, from Santa Fe, New Mexico Territory)

The Indians are hard pushed for food and must either steal or starve. (Katie to her mother on June 29, 1855, from Santa Fe, New Mexico Territory)

It was encouraging to me, over the course of their correspondence, that both Katie and Isaac changed their attitudes towards people who were different. Perhaps just slightly, but they did. People were seen with a wider lens due to the broadening influences of travel. Before leaving New England, Katie had never traveled farther than to Boston, Massachusetts, to attend finishing school and to visit relatives in the New Salem area. Isaac had not traveled much either before graduating from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. His first post was at Fort Kent, northern Maine, and then at Hancock Barracks, near Houlton, Maine, where he met, wooed and married Miss Katie Cary. She was just 19 when they married in an evening ceremony at her home by lamplight. Isaac was 23. They were very young, and soon to be separated by war.

I know from my own experience as an Army brat that traveling to different states and countries can open your eyes to the diversity of a wider world. My sister and I had the privilege of living in Japan and Germany, and at several Army bases in Texas. My college education at the University of Texas-El Paso and life experiences deepened my understating of other cultures, customs, languages, and religions. Rather than editing Lifelines – The Bowen Love Letters to exclude derogatory comments, it felt important to keep them for context. Katie and Isaac Bowen died just prior to the Civil War, but had they survived (as did their 700+ letters), I feel confident that they would have overcome even more prejudices learned at a young age and unfortunately fostered by military service in the old West. They would have passed on those insights to their children – to provide them with a wider lens to view people who were perceived as different.    

Cheers to travel!