The Early Lives of Freedmen's Teachers Lucy and Sarah Chase

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The Chase Family and Reform

The early lives of Lucy Chase (1822-1909), and her sister Sarah (1836-1915) prepared them for the work they would do as freedmen's teachers during and after the Civil War. Born into a Quaker family in Worcester, Massachusetts, Lucy, Sarah, their sister, and three brothers grew up in a household in which religion, politics, and reform were considered central issues in life. Neither age nor gender seems to have prevented members of the Chase family from getting involved in issues they regarded as important.

The following passages from letters a teenaged year old Lucy received from her older brother Pliny while she was away at boarding school suggests something of the climate of life in that household.

We are all busy here with Anti-Slavery. The meetings of the Worcester County A. S. Society begin to-day, and will continue throughout the week. There are a great many of the most distinguished Abolitionists here, who are expected to give lectures. Aunt Eliza, Aunt Lucy, & Hannah Shove are down from Leicester, and we some expect Grandmother today or to-morrow. Aunt Sarah has got up a cent society, each member of which pays a cent every week for the Anti-Slavery cause. If everybody in the United States would join such a society, they would raise about nine millions of dollars every year.

--Pliny Chase to his sister Lucy, Worcester, MA, April 12, 1838

Wm. O. (?). Bartlett was in Cambridge most of last week. I went into Boston a week ago last ?day evening, to attend an Anti-Slavery Convention for considering the report of the Committee of the Legislature on the Abolition Petitions. I heard Garrison, Phillips, and Stanton, speak. They were all very severe, too much so for me. They directed their shafts particularly against Mr. Lincoln, and were not very moderate in their language nor very nice in their choice of epithets.


They have had at Lynn as near as I can discover three runaway slaves within a short time. They all went to William Bassit’s of course. They spoke of one of them as being remarkably intelligent, and some of them tried to instil their peace principles into him but could not succeed. They could not make him believe that the slaves would not be perfectly right in rising against their masters to gain their liberty. He says that the planters tell their slaves that Abolitionists are very bad folks—that they catch black folks, and use their scalps to make dog collars.


Father and Thomas write to me that Wright, the peace man, has been among you, lecturing and discussing the non-resitance cause. Father says that as far as War is concerned, their views coicide, but they do not agree with regard to civil governments. He thinks him a “pleasing lecturer, and a man of a good deal of ingenuity. Has thee heard him?

--Pliny Chase to Lucy Chase, March 3, 1839

Lucy and Sarah Chase seem to have shared their families' outspoken ways on social issues from an early age. For example, writing in her diary about a visit to a friend's house, the 19 year old Lucy Chase reported:

"Ruth’s father came from Worcester this evening & I enjoyed his company very much, we conversed upon politics, factories, slavery, Friends, family matters and I went to bed late quite fatigued."

The fact that a young girl could engage in earnest conversation on serious subjects with a man likely to have been twice her age--and the fact that the girl seems to have enjoyed the conversation and been taken seriously by her companion--suggests that we are dealing with a very independent-minded woman.

The same kind of independence is evidenced in an entry in her diary penned on March 15, 1842 after she had listened to a lecture by William Miller, founder of the Seventh Day Adventists, who was at that time predicting the imminent return to earth of Jesus Christ. Lucy observed:

"I could not think that he was crazy—but still, I remembered that his views were the opinions of himself, the way in which he comprehends the Bible."


Education: "Oh! How I Wish I Could Go to College"


Although they seem to have enjoyed a greater freedom of speech and action than many other young women of the period, Lucy and Sarah Chase did not, of course, enjoy the same opportunities as their brothers. All three of the Chase boys graduated from Harvard, and an envious Lucy confided to her diary: "Oh! How I wish I could go to college!"

However, Lucy and Sarah did attend the Friends' Boarding School in Providence, where they studied.

Both women also regularly took advantage of the opportunities for self-cultivation offered by the lyceums and attended lectures on subjects ranging from the rights of native americans to phrenology.


Personal Lives: "Her Charms are Not So Soul-Consuming as Yours"

Lucy's and Sarah's intellectual lives were enriched by their friendships with a broad range of thoughtful Quakers and Unitarians including Abby Kelley Foster, Lucretia Mott, Edward Everett Hale, and William Channing. Lucy noted in one diary entry:

William Channing and E.E. Hale took tea with us this evening--We enjoyed their company very much. Mr. Hale gave us an interesting account of their rambles on the White moutains-their romantic adventures &c and also of his visit in and enthusiastic admiration of Philadelphia-He has a great deal of feeling and sentiment in his character which, combined with a strong and active mind, make him agreeable and entertaining-Wm Channing is pure and disinterested--I have great respect for his character and . . . I esteem him highly-Their conversation was instructive and coming from refined and educated minds their words were more attractive-I felt real enjoyment in listening to them-it was food that I hunger for.

Naturally, not all of these relationships were purely intellectual, although there is evidence that suggests that the force of Lucy's character may have attracted some men while intimidating others. In 1845, a young man about to embark upon a voyage to Europe, wrote in a final letter to Lucy:

To be brief, I once loved you to desperation; and I still feel uncommon affection for you. If I could become a Quaker and save you the trial of being turned out of meeting, I should have offered myself long since; but, after a great struggle, I have been able to control my feelings so much as not to require of you the sacrifice to desert your sect in order to become the wife of my bosom. And my heart, though still it beats with intensest palpitation whenever your sweet image floats across my brain, has at last found a harbor, unfurled its sails, and cast its anchor in the deep gulf of Miss Whitney’s love. She, oh Lucy don’t turn green with jealousy!, she is now my magnet, my pole star, my staff, and my steam engine. Would that I lived in Turkey, that I might marry you both! But since cruel fate forbids that I should enjoy more than one, I have chosen Miss Whitney, as her charms are not so soul-consuming as yours – Your charms are too great for frail mortal to endure – hers, not so brilliant, will not overpower me . .

-- Letter from Henry Sargent to Lucy Chase, April 1, 1845

Given the fact that Henry wrote his letter on April 1, it is certainly possible that it was meant humorously rather than seriously. Interestingly, true to his word, Sargent eventually married his "steam engine," Miss Whitney, who died after only a year after their nuptials. Sargent never remarried.

In his farewell letter, Sargent had warned Lucy to accept the proposal he believed was forthcoming from another young man, as this "may be your last chance! . . . So improve it, for I can’t bare to think that you’ll ever be an old maid!" However, less than a year later, Edward Everett Hale wrote to his sister:

I have been to Paradise, Sarah, and heard the voice of an angel! How I wish that you and Lucy Chase could become acquainted! She is the paragon of her sex. Lovely, yet not a mere baby-doll; intelligent yet no blue-stocking. I always feel, in her company, a freedom, a frankness, a perfect ease, which I seek in vain elsewhere. God knows I have seen lovely women enough – and they have made no permanent impression on my heart. But there is a charm about Lucy that no one else possesses--

– You told me that I am in love. In love? No – by no means. That is – no – yes – but then – however – I think – notwithstanding. No – not in love – but,m since how, I always feel lonely when not in her company – I always long to see her – She is the constant subject of my thoughts. But then --by the way, Sarah, how would it do for me to get married? I never dreamed of it before, but I can’t help forming such plans since I saw Lucy. What did I say? I don’t mean since I saw Lucy – Well, I don’t know what I am about. What is the best month to get married in?

--Letter from Edward Everett Hale to Sarah Hale, January 20, 1846


Although Hale concluded his letter to his sister with the question, "What is the best month to get married in?" (and penned this doodle on the outside of the letter that seems to reinforce that point). neither Lucy nor Sarah would ever marry.

Both women enjoyed warm friendships with Hale and a broad range of other people for the rest of their lives, but they seem to have channeled their strongest passions into their work on behalf of freedmen and related cause (Interestingly, Hale was an officer of the Educational Commission for Freedmen that sponsored Lucy's and Sarah's work in the South.)

Perhaps those efforts left them little time or energy to invest in personal relationships, or perhaps Lucy and Sarah elected to remain single, believing that taking on traditional roles as wives and mothers would have made it impossible for them to pursue their chosen paths.



Religion: "Lucretia Mott Made an Excellent . . . Sermon

The independent spirit of the Chase sisters and their commitment to reform were probably to some extent an outgrowth of their membership in the Society of Friends. Quakers had been actively involved in promoting social change in America since their first arrival in the country. In the years before the Revolutionary War, itinerant minister John Woolman (1720-1772) traveled the countryside on foot, challenging each fellow Quaker he encountered to give up slavery on moral grounds. Woolman published the two parts of his treatise, Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes Recommended to the Professors of Christianity of every Denomination.

By 1758, Quakers in Philadelphia concluded at their annual meeting that slavery was inconsistent with their religion, and in 1775 it was Quakers who were largely responsible for founding the first abolitionist organization in America, the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery. (For a brief outline of early Quaker efforts to free and educate slaves, see this excerpt from Carter Godwin Woodson, The Education of The Negro Prior To 1861: A History of the Education of the Colored People of the United States from the Beginning of Slavery to the Civil War.)

By 1758, Quakers in Philadelphia concluded at their annual meeting that slavery was inconsistent with their religion, and in 1775 it was Quakers who were largely responsible for founding the first abolitionist organization in America, the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery. (For a brief outline of early Quaker efforts to free and educate slaves, see this excerpt from Carter Godwin Woodson, The Education of The Negro Prior To 1861: A History of the Education of the Colored People of the United States from the Beginning of Slavery to the Civil War.)

Other social causes were also embraced by the Society of Friends. Like Woolman, who preached against war and advocated on behalf of Indians and the poor, the Chase family was involved in a variety of social reform efforts.

Unlike most other religious sects of the period, Quakers ordained women as ministers beginning in the early 1800s and also welcomed female participation in the discussions held at meetings.Lucy Chase noted in her Diary on December 20, ??: "Rachel Priestman gave us an excellent Anti Slavery Sermon='Remember those in bonds as bound with them' . . . An exciting subject."

It is no coincidence that Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the Grimke sisters, Abby Kelly Foster, and Lucretia Mott--all notable for their outspoken advocacy of abolition and women's rights--were all Quakers at one time or another. Like those women, Lucy Chase believed that women had the right to speak out, as is evident from the comments she wrote in her diary after attending a wedding:

Lucretia Mott made an excellent and very appropriate sermon. The moment she rose Thomas Wistar stepped forward and endeavored to stop her, as she commenced speaking he interrupted her and said that '"he thought it proper to inform the mtg that the person speaking was not a member of our society-having separated from it some years ago . . ." Lucretia Mott, as well as many others, seemed totally unprepared for such a reception . . . but her calling was too high to bend to the will of man . . . I was so excited by the disturbance that I was unable to retain much of the most excellent sermon .

Nor was it only the men in the family who accepted preaching by women. Reporting the news from home in a letter to Lucy and his other sisters at the Friends' School in Philadelphia in 1843, Thomas Chase wrote:

"Rowlands and Alice Rathbone were at our meeting first day before last. Alice preached excellent sermons, both in the morning and afternoon. The same evening Eli Jones of Maine held a meeting, and gave us two sermons, -- each of which contained some poetry and a prayer. So, we were highly favored that day."

--Thomas Chase to his sisters, November 1, 1843


Reform: "The Suffering, Striving Poor Outthink the Rich"

One of the subjects that engaged the interests of members of the Chase family was capital punishment. During a visit to her aunt in Philadelphia, Lucy Chase went door-to-door collecting signatures on an anti-capital punishment petition. In a detailed diary entry describing her encounters that day, Lucy wittily skewers those who refused to sign, constructs arguments to reveal the thinness (shabbiness) of their excuses), and praises those who share her convictions.

Lucy saw a connection between people’s response to her query, and their attitudes towards race and class, and gender. She also believed that gender biases kept people from supporting her cause.She remarked of the women who had refused to sign: "Many of the poor slaves' husbands were not at home & they could not sign." A man who refused was written off as someone who "seemed to be the dread of falling under “petticoat government.” Others earned similarly dismissive descriptions.



Lady in a big-house. asked to sign, “No indeed! it is unscriptural – We have no right to interfere with mens business – We were commanded to be subject to our husbands (I hope she is a faithful wife) and it is wrong to rebel – We should stay where our Maker placed us. – Another Lady “Do not approve of women appearing in public” – (This is not public appearance. It is a silent testimonial that they are on the side of right) Don’t approve – interfere – Man know best. Mistress of a splendid house Cannot tell whether it would be right or not – have not thought much about it (Does not need much thought – We know it is antiscriptural [?] &c) “Well – legislators can judge better than me.” I do not think women are capable ! [3 underscores] of judging of such things!” “The laws will take care of themselves without our interference.”

Many of the poor people whom we applied spoke with a great deal of feeling upon the subject, and their remarks often evinced much thought. “I have not thought of the subject” is a common reply of the lordly tenants of the “big houses.” The suffering, striving poor outthink the rich.- - A kind hearted coloured man said “Let us have some kind of capital punishment but not hanging. -

-- Lucy Chase, “Experiences getting signatures for anti-capital punishment petition,” Philadelphia, 1847

Despite all of the rejections of her day of going door-to-door with the petition, Lucy emerged undaunted, with her humor and convictions intact. She concluded:.” The suffering, striving poor outthink the rich.- - A kind hearted coloured man said 'Let us have some kind of capital punishment but not hanging.'" This combination of energy, wit, sympathy-- and admiration for African-Americans--would prove to be a pattern for Lucy's later work with the freedmen.


Reform: Petitions on Behalf of John Brown's Co-Conspirators

The cartoon above, published in January, 1860, depicts abolitionist Julia Maria Child, author of An Appeal in Favor of that Class of Americans Called Africans (1833) and editor of The National Anti-Slavery Standard, for a place to "hang" a portrait celebrating John Brown. In response, Governor Wise, who was responsible for enforcing Brown's death sentence, offers to refer her to "the Hanging Committee." The other pictures on the walls of this "Virginian Picture-Gallery" feature the image of a runaway slave, the face of an African-American peering out from behind bars (presumably after being captured while running away), and a portrait of Horace Greeley, the abolitionist editor of the New York Tribune.


While most Northerners in the antebellum period would not have regarded themselves as supporters of slavery, they also would not have regarded themselves as abolitionists. While "radical" abolitionists urged the immediate emancipation of slaves, many Northerners were concerned that "interfering" in the slave trade would shake the nation's economic and political stability. Many also either believed or claimed to believe that slavery would inevitably be wiped out by the march of progress and that abolitionism would only slow down that process by antagonizing the South. An example of that type of thinking can be found in a letter below, sent to Lucy's and Sarah's father by Stephen Salisbury, a prosperous and influential Worcester businessman, during a visit to the South in the 1840's.

Frustrated with the unwillingness of the North to take action against slavery, John Brown and a group of 22 supporters raided the arsenal at Harper's Ferry October 16th, 1859 in an attempt to liberate slaves through force. In the battle that ensued, ten of Brown's men were killed, seven were captured, and five escaped. Brown and the other captives were taken to Charlestown, Virginia, and were sentenced to be hung. Response in the North was largely negative at the outset, as even some abolitionists questioned the violence of the approach, but Brown's statements during the trial gradually won him broader sympathy. After Brown and those who acted with him were sentenced to be hung, Lucy and/or Sarah Chase discussed with a cousin, Rebecca Spring, the possibility of using petitions to obtain a stay of execution for one or more of the prisoners. In the second letter below, Rebecca Spring writes despondently about the failure of petitions to win over Governor Wise of Virginia.

Only a few years later, Lucy, Sarah, Rebecca, and John Brown's daughter would all be serving as teachers of freed slaves. During at least one point during the war, Sarah confided in a letter the concerns some had felt that Brown's family would be massacred by the confederates. However, the turned out to be safe and in the final letter in this section, Lucy Chase writes a letter describing the reaction of Governor Wise--at that point a defeated confederate--to learning that his former home was being used by the daughter of John Brown as a school for former slaves.


"I am more and more convinced that the action of Northern abolitionists for the removal of slavery does nothing to effect their object"

Savannah Febry 17 1842

Anthony Chase Esq.
My dear Sir

I must confess that I have not forgotten to write to you.  I have put it off from time to time, under the privilege of the place where I am, to do  nothing that I can avoid.  This is one of the most valued privileges of the “Institution” yet I do not think that I am or any one is more happy for it. You will probably first wish to know what are my impressions of this same “Institution” which is justly considered the foundation of Southern wealth – and of the whole social structure at the South.  The evils of the institution are even greater than I had supposed but I rejoice to see that the probability of their continuance is less.  I am more and more convinced that the action of Northern abolitionists for the removal of slavery does nothing to effect their object and I do not see that their effects hinder the accomplishment of their object except as they give the slaveholders the advantage of taking the attitudes of defence against persecution, which is worth much to them.When a man can persuade himself or others that he is a martyr, his zeal and perseverance will increase, especially when he can allege false statements and unfair treatment on the part of his suferers.  But a process of abolition  is going on, of which the result is inevitable and not far distant.  I alluded to the tendency of the unprofitableness of slave labour.  I am told that the present prices of cotton do not pay the interest of the money invested in the culture and slaves are very few.  The price of cotton is regularly declining and a still greater depreciation is expected from the competition of the East-India  cotton.  The planters feel very poor and very much depressed at their prospects.  Yet slave labour is very expensive.  For male and female house servants and for laborers one hundred Dollars per annum is paid to their masters and in addition clothes and  board and often presents are provided and for this not more than half of a white mans labour is obtained and often less.  Moreover some Southerners expect the abolition of slavery from the increase of the intelligence of the Slaves which as one of them told me, in a few generations will place them on a level with their masters and they their equality cannot be denied.  The law prohibits teaching slaves to read under a heavy penalty -- $500 fine I think.  Yet many of the Slaves can read and more are anxious to learn.  But this is a large subject I cannot pursue further.

P. S. As far fetched opinions are often painted without regard to their value, I will say that the publication of my remarks on Slavery would give me  much discomfort – in my residence here.  I therefore ask that you will not do it.

--Stephen Salisbury to Anthony Chase, February 17,1842


Petitioning for Leniency for Brown's Raiders:
"I Do Not Believe They Have Any Hearts"

Eagleswood P Amboy
N. J. March 7 60.

My dear Cousin

I fear it is all in vain to send any petitions.  I did as Mr. Schmidt [?] requested  -- got over a thousand names and set to him.  I sent a copy to Stevens’ father, the Governor of Conn. heads it, the Democratic candidate of Lt. Gov. Col. Wait, signed it – also many others.  Then Col. AWait sent it with a letter telling the Governor of Va, how he remembered Stevens, a brave boy, always taking the part of the feeble against the strong in any conflict with the boys.  Him [?] pleading with him to spare his life.  Not waiting for an answer he went to Washington, got strong influence there, and went to see Gov Letcher, who was very polite, but said he attended the trial, heard the defence, that Stevens was fairly tried, and justly condemned, and would be executed on the day appointed.

On Col. W’s return he found an answer to his letter, from which a neighbor of Mr. Stevens has sent me the following extract. “The sentence in this case is just, and I would be wanting in duty to the commonwealth whose chief magistrate I am, as well as to myself, if I could for an instant entertain the idea of commutation, the law must take it course, Stevens will not be pardoned nore will his sentence  be commuted.”

That was the humane, kind answer for the afflicted father! –

How can they hope for mercy!

Dwight Stevens sister went from here this morning to visit her brother in his prison.  He lost his mother when he was nine years old, and used to follow this sister about --, and they used to sing together – He sent for her to come and sing with him now.

She is a bright, pleasant seeming woman, and very pleasant-looking == She has a great deal of spirit – and may do something --  Cousin Mary Earle is getting names to a petition for the lives of the two young men. After the other was condemned I added his name to mine.  Hazlett --, (or as Stevens calls him, Harrison) is twenty two, Stevens 28 –

I suppose it is of o use to try to move those who hold these lives in their hands, for I do not believe they have any hearts.

Affectionate cousin
Rebecca B Spring


Wartime Fears about the Welfare of the Brown Family

I have been fearfully anxious to hear about the John Brown family ever since I heard in N. Y. the rumor of their massacre.—but have not felt I could take the time to ask the daughter about the truth of the rumor in the West: but within a few days I have been inexpressibly relieved by receiving a letter from Annie {?]: all are safe in California – having been rescued by our soldiers from the Rebels, who had driven the into the woods, and were about to massacre them.--

--excerpt from letter by Sarah Chase to Mr. May, Norfolk, Va. Nov. 18, 1864


Governor Wise, John Brown, and Brown's Daughter

Richmond, Novr 19, 1866

My dear Lizzie

So far on our way, Sarah is not particularly fresh, and the rest is essential to her. Tomorrow we shall move on. Genl Brown has frequent interviews with Fitzhue Lee, Genl Joe Johnson, and Gov. Wise. The Gov. said to him, one day, "Give me my choice between the oath and arsenic and I'll take the aaarrr-ssse-nic, Sir." He asked it it was true that John Brown's daughter was teaching in his house, adding, "John Brown was one of the greatest men who ever lived in this country or in any other but it was my duty to hang him."

--excerpt from letter from Lucy Chase, November 19, 1866


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