The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

The Unstoppable Anna Maria Mead Chalmers

As a manuscript processor here at the MHS, I have the opportunity to meet new people every day. Well, okay, most of them died a long time ago, but that doesn't make them any less interesting! One of the best parts of processing and cataloging a new collection is getting to know the personal stories behind the letters, diaries, and other papers. I almost always uncover something unexpected.

Case in point: a small collection recently donated to the MHS consists primarily of letters written by Sarah Louisa “Louly” (Hickman) Smith to her sister Anna Maria. Now, I knew that Louly had become a published poet in her teens before her untimely death at the age of 20, and her letters reveal a remarkable young woman. But I was also curious about Anna Maria. The collection contains letters written to her, but none by her, so she seemed more elusive.

The first clue I had about her life was her name. She was born Anna Maria Campbell Hickman on 23 July 1809. Simple enough so far, but it gets trickier. She married three times (and outlived all her husbands): first a Mr. Otis, then Mr. Mead, and finally Mr. Chalmers. For those of you at home keeping score, that would make her Anna Maria Campbell Hickman Otis Mead Chalmers. (She's generally referred to as Anna Maria Mead Chalmers.)

The more I learned about Anna Maria's life, the more interesting it became. Originally from Newton, Mass., she studied under some of the best teachers in the Boston area and spent a year with an aunt and uncle in Savannah, Ga. before marrying a young Boston lawyer named George Alexander Otis, Jr. in Feb. 1830. Unfortunately her husband died of consumption the following year when their son was only seven months old. George’s death was followed closely by that of her beloved sister Louly on 12 Feb. 1832.

In the mid-1830s, Anna Maria lived in Newton with her mother and young son (her father had died in 1824) and wrote several children's books for the American Sunday-School Union. She met and married the Rev. Zachariah Mead, a Virginian, moving with him to Richmond in 1837. The couple had two sons and a daughter: Edward C., William Z., and Anna Louisa Mead. Zachariah died (also of consumption) on 27 Nov. 1840, and Anna Maria, still just 31 years old, was now twice widowed and the mother of four young children.

For about a year, she took over Zachariah's editorship of the Southern Churchman, to which she had often contributed, before selling the paper and embarking on arguably the most significant chapter of her life. On 4 Oct. 1841, she opened a boarding school for girls in Richmond, which she would run for 12 years to great acclaim. During her tenure, hundreds of girls were educated in subjects as wide-ranging as history, literature, theology, the sciences, mathematics, languages, music, art, etc., all in accordance with Christian principles. An 1842 advertisement in the Southern Literary Messenger described the school’s mission this way: “to form the female character for its high duties here and its still higher destination hereafter.” Anna Maria also continued to write devotional fiction and articles.

Tragedy struck again when her youngest child and only daughter, three-year-old Anna Louisa Mead, died on 4 Dec. 1843. Her mother followed four years later. So, by the 1850s, Anna Maria had buried her parents, her sister, two husbands, and a daughter. She retired as schoolmistress of “Mrs. Mead's School” and, on 3 Jan. 1856, at the age of 46, married her third husband, David Chalmers. He was a widower and a member of the Virginia House of Delegates, and he owned a large Halifax County plantation.

As a wealthy planter, David Chalmers was, unsurprisingly, a slave owner, and Anna Maria became “a true Virginia matron.” How did she feel about the South's so-called “peculiar institution”? According to her son Edward in his comprehensive 1893 biography, she opposed slavery and often spoke out against it, but took no active part in the fight for abolition. She preferred to leave the matter to God. And while her husband advocated secession, she dreaded the coming war between the states. With very good reason, it turned out: the Civil War would find her with one son serving in the Union army, another in the Confederate army, and all of her northern property under threat of confiscation.

Her oldest son, George Alexander Otis (1830-1881), was a surgeon with the 27th Massachusetts Volunteers and the U.S. Volunteers. Her third and youngest son, William Zachariah Mead (1838-1864), fought for the Confederacy and was killed on 14 May 1864 in the Battle of Resaca, Ga. 

Anna Maria traveled north in 1863 to protect her property there and stayed in New York until the end of the war. In 1865, she returned to Virginia, where she would spend years helping the poor, educating freed slaves, and writing. She died on 8 Dec. 1891, outliving her third husband by 16 years and her oldest son George by ten, and survived by only one of her children, Edward Campbell Mead (1837-1908).

In her 82 years of life, Anna Maria Mead Chalmers was many things: a writer, an editor, a teacher, a philanthropist; a sister, a mother, and the wife (and widow) of a lawyer, a minister, and a farmer; a Northerner and a Southerner. It's remarkable to find so much of American history all rolled up into one person!


permalink | Published: Wednesday, 25 March, 2015, 1:00 AM