There are a great many things that I am not. I am not young, for example, and have some difficulty recalling youth. Yet I have been able to write about the young. I am not conservative—that’s an understatement—but can imagine citizen’s of Agincourt whose political views differ significantly from my own. I am also not a woman, yet I smile at the women of Agincourt who have been vital to its telling. They came from my experience, shards and grafts of the women important to making me.
Long before suffrage, a quintet of women helped to shape the community in subtle, even subversive ways—which, I suppose, was the only path available to them. One was Martha Corwin Curtiss Tennant, Anson Tennant’s great-grandmother, a formidable woman with sufficient financial resources to “make things happen” and a sympathetic Progressive husband. Her near contemporary Maud Adams (Mrs B. F. Adams) had been widowed in the late 80s and opened a restaurant with community support to sustain herself and her young daughter Mandy. The third member of these intimates was Annabelle Miller, better known as Belle and incidental proprietress of a house of ill repute—Agincourt’s first purpose-built sporting house, in fact.
Together, these three coped with a common condition in 19th century America: unwanted or inopportune pregnancy. Belle Miller’s girls often conceived—men taking little or no precautions during their indiscretions—and it was Mrs Adams who housed them with her staff above the restaurant on West Louisa. Martha Tennant supported the girls during their “lying in” and helped to “place” the children in homes across northwestern Iowa. Fr Francis Manning, priest at St Ahab’s was in on this conspiracy and one of her own. Yes, one of her own, because Fr Manning was, indeed, a woman masquerading as a man, a priest in the church of Rome, known to her congregation but supported by their good will.
Doc Fahnstock plays a minor role here, obviously, but he was ably assisted by the community’s unsung medical heroine, Sissy Beddowes, wife of carpenter and one-time Indian Agent Amos Beddowes. Sissy had been a medicine woman in her tribe (the Sac & Fox) and knew herbal concoctions that might prevent conception—a post-Civil War “morning after” pill. Howard wants to share a bit more about Mrs Beddowes, some information gleaned from the transcript of an old interview on file at the Fennimore County History Center.
“A few figs from thistles…”
by Howard A. Tabor
Where will you be next Friday? A few of us are planning a meal at Adams’ Restaurant to dine our way through the end of the Maya Long Count, the end of the cosmos as we’ve known it. If we wake the next morning—if there is a next morning—it’ll be with a massive hangover. What a luxury to get drunk in one epoch and sober up in the next.
Most other anniversaries pass relatively unnoticed. Next year, for example, ought to be celebrated hereabouts. And it will be, if I’ve got anything to say.
Twenty-thirteen will be the bi-centennial of Sissy Beddowes’ birth, as near as anyone can calculate. Birth records in the Native American community are reckoned through oral tradition, and hers occurred during “the year of the long winter” generally acknowledged to have been 1812.
Sissy Beddowes was born Ki·šeswa Ihkwe·wa, roughly translated “She Talks to the Moon”, another generation in the lineage of medicine women in her clan. Malcolm Holt interviewed Sissy in 1900, when she was about eighty-eight. I’ll save the earlier autobiographical part for her bi-centennial next year. There is another part, however—where Sissy reflects on the traditions of her people—that I thought more appropriate for our end-of-the-year tendency to be Janus-like; to look back even as we move forward into the new year.
The majority of Sac & Fox wisdom has been passed from parent to child for generations. Mrs Beddowes shared one of the tribe’s stories with her friend Malcolm Holt:
As a young girl, gathering roots and berries, my mother told the stories of our people to pass the time. She thought I might have been bored with our work. One that has stayed with me, I have never heard from another.
“A medicine woman, old in years, gathering as we were, happened on a hawk caught in a snare. He spoke to her, pleaded for release, and promised a boon for her help. Once his wings were freed from the net, he asked what reward she required. She replied, ‘I am old and childless, with no one to train in the skills of medicine. Grant me the gift of a child.’ Immediately she felt warmth in her belly and knew the hawk had honored his promise.
“Through the next months she swelled enough for two children, but before her time, one of the twins fought his way out of the womb, impatient, eager to make his way in the world. The other child was content to wait his time. She named them Raven and Bear and tried to teach them all she knew. For knowledge without understanding has no value.
“Raven was as impatient with life as he had been in his mother. Bear was cautious, even-tempered and the brunt of his brother’s humor. One day he decided to return his brother’s prank and changed himself into a large rock on a path that Raven often trod.
“Walking hurriedly along that path, Raven stubbed his foot on the rock that had not been there the day before and, in anger, channeled all his strength into a fist, as strong as the White man’s metal, smashing the rock into many pieces. Bear changed back into human form, laughing at his brother’s painful foot. ‘I have endured your pranks for years. But now the time has come to return your abuse.’ Raven did not take kindly to such treatment. ‘I am not yet finished with you, Bear,’ he bellowed.
“As the stone, dense and heavy, Bear had felt the same. He understood the concentration of strength and anger in Raven’s fist and knew it was not the way of their people. Each day he again became the broken stone on the path. And each day his brother returned, grinding the pieces more finely with each passing, until at last the dust was so fine it could be carried by the wind. Bear was everywhere at once.”
‘How could two brothers take such different paths (my mother wondered), one directed inward, ignorant of the world; the other outward, into the world, as familiar as dust. ‘Which would you choose to be? The Raven? Or the Bear?’ my mother asked. I chose the path of the Bear, for it had led to wisdom.
The time with my mother in the forests and along the river banks was filled with tales like this and the wisdom of nature. These have been the great strength of my work.
Mrs Beddowes had a daughter, her great hope to pass that knowledge on to another generation. But it was not to be. Both of her children died: John was one of Agincourt’s first casualties in the Civil War, and Mary had died many years before, a likely victim of typhoid. She had to find another way to endure. And she did.