Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Mary Hallock Foote

By Anna Kathryn Lanier

Once again I’m turning to a book by Chris Enss, WITH GREAT HOPE: WOMEN OF THE CALIFORNIA GOLD RUSH, also written by JoAnn Chartier.  This book has a dozen or so stories of women who went “west with great hope for the future [and] left a legacy.”  Mary Hallock went west with great reluctance.  A Quaker from New York, Mary was already a well-established artist when she married, in great trepidation, Arthur Foote in 1876. She had learned the intricate, difficult and tedious artistic process of woodcarving while studying at the Cooper Union Institute School of Design, the only art school at that time who admitted women.   Her instructor, William Linton declared her the best wood designer at Cooper Union.  It was just the beginning of praises for her work.

Within a few years of graduating at the age of seventeen, Mary had sold four pictures for the book Beyond the Mississippi.  Ten years after leaving school, Mary was busy illustrating books for a number of publishers, including Harper’s Weekly.  She was quite content with her life, unmarried as she was. 

In 1874, she met Arthur Foote at a party and while they conversed in private, she sketched him, unaware that he would later be her husband.  He was an engineer who had worked at both the Tehachapi Pass and the Sutro Tunnel.  He had attended Yale University’s Scientific School until being told erroneously that his bad vision could not be corrected.  Arthur dropped out two years shy of graduating.  However, he later obtained corrective lenses and went West to seek his fortune, determined to win the heart and hand of the woman he loved.  He conducted his courtship via letters.  Mary replied to his written declarations with extols of Eastern society and life, making clear her intentions of remaining a successful, unmarried artist.

A Pretty Girl of The West (1889)

Arthur persisted though, and returned to Boston to marry her.  She weighed carefully his proposal and finally agreed to the marriage.  Shortly after they exchanged vows in her parents’ parlor she travelled to New Almaden, California, with a commission to illustrate a new addition of The Scarlet Letter in hand.  The western landscaped proved a wonderful backdrop for the drawings she sent back east. 

She also sent letters to her good friends Helena and Richard Glider.  Richard was the publisher of Scribner’s Monthly and he pieced together some of Mary’s descriptions in a few articles for his magazine. From there, Mary was encouraged to write stories set in the area. The result of this was The Led-Horse Claim about the silver boom in Colorado.

Arthur’s work had the family moving around quite a bit during the early years of their marriage. Sometimes, work was hard to find and it was Mary’s income from her books that sustained the family during the rough times.  At one point, when Arthur’s business venture failed and, to make matters worse, the bank holding his savings also collapsed in a national bank panic, he sank into both depression and drink.  It was then that Mary took their three children and left him for a short time.
To support herself and her children, Mary released a series of western potboilers that were not literary masterpieces, but did the job of keeping a roof over their head and food in their stomachs. In three years, she wrote five adult tales, two children’s stories and several short stories.  Mary had to follow a formula (sort of like Harlequin does today) and this resulted in works that were popular fiction but not very durable.  Mary herself wasn’t overly proud of the work, but they paid the bills during her husband’s uneven employment.

In 1895, Arthur took over as supervisor of the North Star Mine in Grass Valley California. The couple remained there for the next twenty years. Even with Arthur’s stable job, Mary continued to write and draw.  Life was good, until 1904, when tragedy struck.  The couple’s seventeen year old daughter died unexpectedly from complications of appendicitis. After her daughter’s death, Mary’s writing career took a backseat as she devoted her time and energy to her family.

However,  in her later years, she produced several more novels, including A Victorian GentleWomen in The Far West, her memoirs.  Mary lived to the age of 90 and when she died, the woman who did not want to go west in the first place, had her ashes buried in Grass Valley.

Anna Kathryn Lanier
Never let your memories be greater than your dreams. ~Doug Ivester 


  1. What a wonderful story. Here's another pioneer I've not heard of. She has a wonderful story, and you did a great job.
    And she was a beauty, wasn't she? Very lovely.

  2. What an amazing woman Mary was, Anna. Thanks for sharing her story. I love learning about our foremothers. It's so maddening to me that higher education was prohibited so so many women in the not that distant past. Grrrr. Pioneers like Mary sure paved the way for the rest of us. I am eager to read the books you mentioned. Hugs...

  3. I am sorry to be so late commenting. I was so impressed by the talent of Mary and how she wasn't all that interested in becoming married, especially considering the time period. Isn't it amazing how we end up in places doing things we never dreamed of in our youth?
    This was such an interesting blog, Anna.

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