April 11, 2018
The Owen Sisters
DEFINITION: One who is first or among the earliest in any field of inquiry, enterprise, or progress preparing the way for others to follow.
Some of our country’s most notable siblings are three sisters who lived the majority of their lives together in the house their parents built in 1859 in St. Joseph, Mo. Mary Alicia, Luella Agnes, and Juliette Amelia Owen were all intelligent and accomplished authors in their own areas of interest – fields not typically thought suitable for women in 19th-century America. Between the trio, they explored African American and Native American cultures, went spelunking in undocumented caves, studied the environment’s flora and fauna around them, and recorded their discoveries in many articles, books and artwork. They were pioneers who pushed through boundaries, helped found organizations and forge new paths.
St. Joseph in the 1850s and Mary Alicia Owen, Luella Agnes Owen and Juliette Amelia Owen (Etching credited to The State Historical Society of Missouri, Photograph Collection (026921-1) and Portraits resourced by Megan Wyeth)
Mary Alicia, the oldest sister, always called St. Joseph home although research carried her across the globe. Born on January 29, 1850, the noted folklorist was inspired by stories she heard as a child growing up through the trials of people from many different cultures coming together to create a city.
For the first nine years of her life, Mary lived with her parents, Agnes Jeanette Cargill Owen and James A. Owen, in her mother’s parent’s home. The girls’ grandparents, Agnes Gilmore Crookes Cargill and James Cargill, had moved to St. Joseph in 1843 from West Virginia with their four children and two slaves. With her grandfather running a successful gristmill and her father working as a respected lawyer in the young and growing community, Mary was exposed to the African American community at home, Native Americans in and around town and several European American immigrant cultures in her neighborhood. The clash of differing ideals and traditions of all these people coming together not only created tense drama, but Civil War during her teenage years. Needless to say she had plenty of stories and experiences to feed her imaginative and literary mind.
People’s emotions and beliefs fascinated Mary Alicia. At a time when most women didn’t work outside the home, she wrote news and magazine articles – often under the pen name Julia Scott. She published a book titled “Old Rabbit, the Voodoo, and Other Sorcerers” in 1893 that described her first hand exposure to the African American conjurer “Aunt” Mymee Whitehead who had worked for her family.
After this publication, Mary Alicia turned her attention to the folklore of Native Americans, making over a hundred visits to the Kickapoo, Ioway and Sac and Fox Indians living on nearby Kansas reservations. Her documentation or their stories were also published.
In later years, concerned that the stories of Missouri’s past past would disappear, Mary Alicia worked to preserve what she had learned while inspiring others to become folklorists. Much of her writing continues to be valuable due to her record of customs and ceremonies that are no longer held. In 1906 she became one of the founding members of the Missouri Folklore Society. Prior to her death on January 5, 1935, Mary Alicia earned the title of “The Most Famous Woman Folklorist in the World.”
The Owen Home, c. 1900. James and Agnes Cargill Own Built this Italianate house at the corner of Ninth and Jules Steets in St. Joseph in 1859. Three of the Owen’s daughters, Mary, Luella and Juliette never married and lived together in the home for their entire lives. The home no longer exists at this modern day downtown intersection. (Photo credit: Missouri and Missourians: Land of Contrasts and People of Achievements by Floyd Shoemaker, 1943. SHS REF F550 Sh73m v.4, https://shsmo.org/historicmissourians/name/o/owen/)
The Owen Mausoleum in Mt. Mora Cemetery located in St. Joseph, Mo. where all three sisters are buried.
Luella Agnes, born on September 8, 1852, on the other hand was fascinated by the earth. At the young age of four or five she began collecting the shells and fossils uncovered by the road grater in front of her home. Her passionate pursuit of earth science grew as she continued to explore and read.
Luella or “Ella” bucked the conventional “marrying age” expectations in her 20s to lead research and exploration in the male-dominated world of geology. She was enamored by the loess soil and mounds that were created by glaciers sliding across the Missouri River valley that had become home to the community of St. Joseph. Her interest in the soil soon led her to search and study the caves on the Missouri River banks. She shared her older sister’s love of writing and published many articles on her scientific observations.
Luella later ventured beyond her hometown to spelunk further into the Missouri Ozarks and the famed caves of Western South Dakota, eventually publishing in 1898 the book “Cave Regions of the Ozarks and Black Hills.” For 50 years, the volume served as the only reference book about Missouri caves, earning Ella fame as a spelunker and speleologist. She died in 1932 and was laid to rest at Mount Mora in St. Joseph, Mo.
While her older sisters were world-travelers and world-famous in their day, Juliette tended to stay closer to home and follow the social norms of her time. The delicate featured, dark-haired beauty was very involved in serving the community. In fact, if she had been born into any other family in 1858, she would have probably gained more attention throughout her long life for her accomplishments than she did as the youngest Owen sister. She was, however, just as accomplished as her older siblings.
Juliette’s early appreciation of birds and her active curiosity led her to devour books like “A Manual of Ornithology in the United States” and the works of John James Audubon. She wrote countless articles on ornithology and produced sketches and watercolors of the species she studied. A lifetime member of the Missouri Audubon Society, Juliette became more and more interested in conservation and protecting animals.
In 1914, she was a founding member of the Humane Society of St. Joseph and Buchanan County. Her reputation of having compassion for all living beings preceded her. Upon her death in 1943, the News-Press reported, “She never knew but one home … but her outlook was as broad as the wide world, and her love for her fellow beings extended to all who came to her in their need.”
The Owen sisters chose independence over matrimony. In their own unique ways, they each escaped expectations – one through the study of people and their stories, one through uncovering the secrets of the earth, and one through the preservation of birds and animals through art and conservation. While contemporary readers may not agree with the perspectives they shared through the words written from their common home, there is no denying that the Owen sisters were pioneers made with the uncommon character traits of grit and determination. Separately, but together, they forged a path for future female writers, scientists and artists.
FOR FURTHER READING:
Daring to Be Different, Missouri’s Remarkable Owen Sisters by Doris Land Mueller (2010)
Old Rabbit, the Voodoo, and Other Sorcerers by Mary Alicia Owen (1893)
Cave Regions of the Ozarks and Black Hills by Luella Agnes Owen (1898)
Across the city, every day, adults are helping clear a path for youth to reach more opportunities. They are sharing their mentoring skills, life lessons and ultimately, their friendship, through the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. And it looks like hanging out at the local burger joint. Taking a walk. Joining other “matches” at the park for crafting with a lot of laughs.
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A visit to the St. Joseph museums is … Quirky. Surprising. Curious. Impressive. Enlightening. And totally worth a day, or an afternoon, or a full weekend with the family.
Forget anything stuffy you might think about symphony or orchestra performances, and consider a symphony experience St. Joseph-style.
Built in 1873, the Buchanan County Courthouse, with its majestic white pointed dome, stands as an architectural icon during the day and casts a warm stately glow over downtown St. Joseph in the evening light.