First to Stand for Woman's Suffrage in St. Lawrence County: Helen M. Hinsdale
by Bryan Thompson
Helen Rich and her daughter, Mary about 1861
Helen Rich’s biography in A Woman of the Century: Fourteen Hundred-seventy Biographical Sketches Accompanied by Portraits of Leading American Women in all Walks of Life states, “She was the first woman of northern New York to embrace woman’s suffrage.” A letter detailing the Rich family history written to the Rev. Roger F. Williams in 1923 states, “Mrs. (Helen) Rich.at the age of 35, she was an advocate of woman’s sufferage- the first one in her county – St Lawrence Co. N.Y.” The Sacramento Daily Recorder described her as, “well known in the East as an earnest worker in the cause of woman’s rights and temperance.”
While all these sources mention Helen Hinsdale Rich’s contributions to the woman’s suffrage movement there is almost no mention of her involvement in the 100’s of entries about her in the local press.
If Helen H. Rich was 35 when she became the first suffragette in St Lawrence County the year was 1862. The same year Helen Rich gained wide acclaim as a public speaker, as she campaigned, from Richville, around the North Country recruiting for the Union army.
The Advance by Helen Rich, April 26, 1861
St Lawrence Sons war calleth ye;
Go kneel where Wright laid down.
Like a hero flushed with victory
A great life’s stainless crown
And there where heavens free breezes wave
The stars and stripes above us,
Swear freedom’s sacred soul to save!
As freedom’s God shall love us.
And kiss the blade and kiss the duel
That shields his noble bosom-
That blade must never sheath or rust
While fadeth freedom’s blossom
But brothers rise and drain the cup
Of life to fame’s rich story!
Love waits to lift his praises up-
Who lives or dies for glory?
Lo angels linger on their way
And listen while ye send
A shout for home and liberty
That traitor hearts shall rend.
Then bravely turn from maidens fair
They bless you though they weep.
And woe to rebels if they dare
Death banquet with you keep.
For men who only war for right
Are panoplied by heaven.
And men who rush like fiends to fight
Gainst native land, are given
To ‘rid and to dire defeat,
Then onward to the fray,
Our martyr’s graves are ‘neath your feet
Our country lives to day!
Attitudes towards women were very different in the 1860’s when Helen Rich performed this poem. Until 1872 every state in the union allowed husbands to beat their wives and most women could not hold property. Women did not regularly speak in public.
The reaction of a male correspondent for the Ogdensburg Journal (Sep.27, 1869) following her appearance in Lawrenceville shows the power of her oratory and the prejudices she overcame: “Mrs. Rich treated her subject in a manner that gave pleasure and satisfaction to all who listened, not withstanding the prejudices that exist within the minds of most people respecting the public speaking of women. Had the same subject been treated in the same manner by a man, it would have been called a grand success. Mrs. Rich is destined to make her mark and stand high …in spite of the disadvantages of her sex.”
Helen Hinsdale was born in a log cabin near Oxbow in the town of Antwerp, June 18, 1827. She was the youngest of five children of Ira Hinsdale and Hannah Stephens. She began her formal education at the age of four when she ran away from home to follow her siblings to the local schoolhouse.
Although her home was rudimentary, her family valued knowledge. Helen gained a firm background in the social reform issues of the day by reading newspapers aloud to her father. She cut her political teeth on the speeches of Henry Clay and Daniel Webster. At the age of 12 she had her first poem published on the beauties of her Universalist faith.
After completing her common school education, Helen attended one term at the Gouverneur Wesleyan Seminary. Here she won top honors in her class but economic necessity forced her departure from the academy to teach in the common schools of her hometown, Antwerp.
Map of hamlet of Oxbow in the town of Antwerp. Hinsdale homestead middle right.
In 1847 a young Richville man came to Antwerp to teach in one of the local schools. Moses Rich was very impressed with fellow teacher Helen Hinsdale, who he met through their involvement in the Irish relief movement that spring. The couple was married, July 4, 1847 in Gouverneur by the Universalist Minister Rev. G. Swan.
The 1840’s were a period of great political and social ferment. Moses Rich had been taken under the wing of his very politically active Uncle, Harlow Godard following the death of his mother.
Mr. Godard made sure that Moses completed a degree program at the Gouverneur Wesleyan Seminary.
Harlow Godard was elected to the NYS Assembly in 1848 as a Free Democrat (Antislavery). He brought his young nephew with him to all county political meetings, which he often chaired, first as a Free Democrat and later as a Republican. Soon Moses Rich was also standing, unsuccessfully, for office and leading sessions at countywide meetings.
About 1855 the couple left Richville and Moses purchased a business at Wegatchie. Since their marriage, Helen was busy birthing and raising their 3 children. Yet she found time in the evenings to write. She began gaining a reputation in Richville and Wegatchie for her poetry. Some of her poetry expressed her profound sorrow at the loss of her son at nine months. Women easily related to Helen’s poetry of grief at the loss of a child.
In 1857 Moses Rich went through bankruptcy. He and Helen returned to Richville, where Moses worked for his uncle and continued in politics. Helen continued her writing. In 1861 the country was swept up in the Civil War. Perhaps because of her husband’s political connection Helen Rich was called upon to write a poem as part of a county wide Union recruitment campaign.
This campaign took Helen around the North Country and brought her work to the attention of people through out the area for the first time. It was during this campaign that Helen Rich first took her stand for women’s suffrage. She soon developed a speech, “The Rights and Wrongs of Woman” which she would continue to give for many years. How often she was called upon for the address is unclear as the topic was so controversial that notice of its presentation does not appear even once in the surviving local press.
In 1864 Helen accepted the invitation of Dr. John Stebbins Lee to study under him at St Lawrence University prep school, completing one term. She became a lifelong friend of the Lee family. By 1864 Helen Rich had become so well known locally that the Potsdam Courier and Freeman of April 6, 1864 reported, “Mr. Rich of Wegatchie, consort of Mrs. Helen Rich, has purchased the woolen factory in Brasher Falls.” At a time when most women were only referred to by their husbands name Helen Rich was better known than he was.
That fall, 1864, Moses Rich again stood for public office. This time he was successfully elected St. Lawrence County Clerk. Moses Rich held the office for three, one-year terms (1865-1867). During this time Helen and Moses lived in Canton and were very active in the local community.
Helen continued her writing and public speaking while she lived in Canton. She began speaking to the cause of temperance with her speech, “The Home and Its’ Guardians, the Good Templars”. Several other speeches she also developed at this time were: “The Wills Won’ts and Can’ts of History”, “Madame De Stael the Rival of Napoleon”, and “Literature of the Rebellion”. Her reputation as a poet and public speaker continued to grow.
At the close of 1867 Moses Rich chose not to run for reelection as County Clerk. The Rich family moved to Brasher Falls where Helen Rich taught briefly at the academy. Moses Rich was elected deputy clerk of the NYS Assembly in 1864 and executive clerk in 1873. He also served as State Librarian. These position allowed Helen and Moses Rich to live in Albany during the winters when the legislature was in session.
Helen Rich’s reputation as a Temperance and Woman’s rights worker continued to grow in Albany. She began to be called upon to do lecture tours of Vermont, New England and the western states. She spoke at the Cooper Union in 1875. Her home base was always the Rich home in Brasher Falls. She wrote voluminous poems about her beloved home in the Adirondacks and became known as, “The Poet of the Adirondacks.”
In this time period Helen Rich developed what appears to have been her most popular local speech, “Grand Armies, A Memorial Day Address”. The speech while steadfast and patriotic on the one hand, also dealt with the issues of Helen’s greatest concern, social reform and the elevation of womankind, in a manner readily accepted by most audiences. It was arguably one of her most shrewdly crafted works.
Her Grand Armies were (according to The Ogdensburg Journal March 27, 1886):
First the Infantry, the infant children who will refill societies ranks.
Second the Mothers with their assistants the primary school teachers on whom the training of the infantry depends. Here the subject of “Woman Suffrage” and the names of Stanton and Anthony were introduced and praised.
Third: the workingmen, corporations and the temperance societies. (Helen Rich believed in prohibition but not within the political process.)
The fourth and final army was the Grand Army of the Republic with a retrospective of the Civil War in well-chosen words. While speaking of the normally cited heroes of the war i.e. Grant, Sherman, Sheridan, and the martyr Lincoln she also mentioned the work of women in aid and comfort to the nation during the war. Grand Armies brought standing ovations from audiences across the North Country while raising the issue of women’s place in society.
By 1882 Helen Rich’s writing had appeared in: Rose of Sharon, Lily of the Valley, Ladies Repository, Overland Monthly, The New York Tribune, The Chicago Tribune, The Detroit Tribune, New Covenant, Star in the West, Springfield Republican, Burlington Hawkeye, Boston Transcript, Boston Commonwealth, Woman’s Journal, Universalist, Christian Leader. Helen was a regular correspondent for several newspapers. W. F. Sudds of Gouverneur had set one of her poems, “Other Times”, to music. The sheet music was marketed nationwide.
As reported in A Woman of the Century, Helen “carried out her ideas of woman’s ability and need of personal achievement, self support and self reliance in the rearing of her daughter.” The daughter, Mary C. Rich Lyon became a well-known professional musician in St Joseph’s Missouri. Her son, Pitt Rich, became a prosperous businessman in the Chicago area.
Things looked very bright for the Riches in the spring of 1882 when Helen planned a trip west to visit her two children. She and Moses had a snug home in Brasher Falls, his business interests and her lecture tours provided them with a tidy income. They were enjoying late middle age together. However while she was away Moses contracted pneumonia. After receiving repeated doses of morphine from his physician, Moses died.
Helen Rich and her son Pitt rushed back to Brasher Falls. The local Masonic Lodge and Helen’s old friend Rev. J.S. Lee put together a grand funeral for Moses carrying his remains back to his hometown, Richville, where he was laid to rest beside his son in the Baptist churchyard. A subsequent inquest did not find the doctor culpable in Moses Rich’s sudden demise.
In 1884 Helen Rich finally published a book of her poems, “A Dream of the Adirondacks”. The books received positive reviews around the country. One of the poems in the volume, “Justice in Leadville” would become a classic used in Prose and Poetry Books for the next 75 years.
By the time the book was published the “Poet of the Adirondacks”, was no longer living there. Helen moved west and spent the rest of her life living with her daughter in St Joseph’s Missouri or with her son in Chicago. She made frequent trips back to St Lawrence county on lecture tours and to visit her old friends.
Helen Rich continued to be active in her many reform causes. For a time she was the Missouri State president of the Women’s Relief Corp of the GAR. She spoke regularly at their national meetings with a firm clear voice and an imposing personal appearance.
She continued to work for woman’s suffrage on the national stage. She was a member fo the National Woman’s Suffrage Committee. In 1892 as part of the Columbian exposition in Chicago a Congress of Women was held. As part of the meeting Mrs. Effie Pitblado addressed the congress laying out the achievement of Woman’s ideas in the last century. In her speech Helen Hinsdale Rich’s work is held up beside that of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Louisa May Alcott.
In 1895 a gala birthday party was held in Chicago for Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Helen Rich was invited to present a poem to her at the event.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton
To Mrs. Elizabeth Cady Stanton On her Eightieth Birthday
Who through the soft and silver mist
Of thy bright hair,
That baby lips and Heaven have kis’t,
Has failed to share
The tender love of those dear eyes,
The brave intent,
Regnant and scorning all disguise,
On mercy bent?
Alas! To me the vision craved
Has been denied.
Yet life’s high aims by thee were saved
Thy mother soul has lifted mine
As tides are drawn.
My spirit heard thy song divine
Of woman’s dawn.
The wondrous legend of the Nile
‘Twas thine to prove,
Thy voice aroused; thy gracious smile
Of hope and love,
Woke the dead pulse of joy supreme
In woman’s heart;
Dispelled the long delusive dream
Of duty’s part.
The Lotus isles of selfish ease
That lured to rest,
Felt the grand throb of western seas
That stirred thy breast:
Maid of a higher, holier cause
Than Orleans’ might
Defender of the eternal laws
Of truth and right.
Oh sweet as flowers the ruthless tread
Has crushed and rent
The fragrance thy white soul has shed,
Nay, freely spent
On famished, vain, despairing lives,
And dying sense,
Thy touch has freed from cruel graves!
Is measureless as night’s domain
When all her lamps illume the vast and silent plain
The peaceful camps
Where heroes keep the righteous post
For freedom yet,
And speed the tireless onward host
On justice set.
They have not died, the olden themes
Of angels come
To mortals in their waking dreams,
For love and home.
Repeat the psalms by sages wrought
Through mythic phrase
Into the world’s responsive thought,
And deathless bays
Await our own Zenobia wise,
Fair Stanton true,
Who felt the strain of human ties
And from her high and blest estate
Threw open wide
The portals of that royal gate
To us denied.
Forego thy victor’s crown of stars
Oh, sister great,
Until thy mind redeeming wars,
To every state
Bring womanhood her conscious claim
To just emprise
And earth reveres the woman’s name
Helen Hinsdale Rich
(American Jewess Vol. 2 Issue 3 Dec 1895 p 138)
In 1895 Helen Rich also published her long running essay, “Madame de Stael, the Rival of Napoleon”. Her reasons for publishing this work featuring a strong female character from the pages of history were made clear in its introduction where she stated, “The reverent study of her (Madam de Stael’s) life work must inspire in every woman profound admiration.”
At the same time this essay was published Helen announced the forth-coming publication of “Murillo’s Slave and Other Poems.”
Contemporary newspaper accounts said that the work would be a complete volume of all her works running over 700 pages. When the book was published by Rand McNally in 1897 it ran a much more modest 196 pages. It still managed to include odes to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone and Lillian Whiting. The book was published on Helen Rich’s 70th birthday.
As Helen Rich aged and her North Country friends became fewer and fewer she appeared less often at local events. She wrote a centennial poem for Jefferson County’s centennial celebration in 1905 but did not attend.
After her son Pitt committed suicide in 1903. Helen moved in with her widowed daughter in St Joseph's, Missouri. She died there in April 1915 at the age of 87. In the heated environment leading up to the eventual passage of national woman’s suffrage not one St Lawrence county newspaper carried an obituary of the first woman to stand for suffrage in the county.
Would Helen Hinsdale Rich have cared? Perhaps not, as she said in the introduction to Murillo’s slave, “If I have given fair expression to the measureless sympathy I have always felt for my sex, for the child, for my race. If anything I have written has helped others to bear their burdens and to elevate their life aims. If my poor work has any appreciable ethical value any spiritual significance I shall be compensated for all."
Special thanks to Lila Youngs for sharing her research on Helen Rich with me.
Andrews, Herbert C. & Sanford Charles Hinsdale (1906) Hinsdale Genealogy: Descendants of Robert Hinsdale of Dedham, Medfield, Hadley, and Deerfield, with an account of the French Family De Hinnisdal Lombard, Illinois.
Durant, Samuel W. & Henry B. Pierce (1878) History of St. Lawrence County New York L.H. Everts Philadelphia, PA
Hanson, E.R. (1882) Our Woman Workers: Biographical Sketches of Women Eminent in the Universalist Church for Literary, Philanthropic and Christian Work Star and Covenant Office, G. E. Daniels Printers, Chicago, IL.
Library of Congress, Chronicling America, Historic American Newspapers:
The Scranton Tribune, The Suffragist, The Sacramento Daily Record-Union, The National Tribune.
Logan, Mrs. John A. (1912) The Part Taken By Women In American History The Perrry- Nalle Publishing Co. Wilmington, DEL.
Moffat, George J. (1971) Poet of the Adirondacls Helen Hinsdale Rich The Quarterly SLCHA Canton, NY.
NYS Historic Newspapers, St Lawrence and Jefferson Counties 1845 to 1915 Various.
Pitblado, Effie (1894) Not Things, But Women Eagle The Congress of Women: Held in the Woman’s Building World’s Columbian Exposition Monarch Book Company Chicago, IL.
Rich, Helen Hinsdale (1884) A Dream of the Adirondacks and other poems G. P. Putman & Sons New York, NY.
Rich, Helen Hinsdale (1897) Murillo’s Slave and other poems Rand McNally, Chicago, IL.
Rich, Helen Hinsdale (1895) Madame de Stael the Rival of Napoleon Stone and Kimball Chicago, IL.
Willard, Francis Elizabeth & Mary Ashton Rice Livermore ed. (1893 ) A Woman of the Century: Fourteen Hundred-seventy Biographical Sketches Accompanied by Portraits of Leading American Women in all Walks of Life Charles Wells Moulton Buffalo, Chicago, New York.
Williams, Roger (1923) Letter to Roger Williams detailing the Rich family history(author unknown). De Kalb Town Historian archives, De Kalb NY.