Here’s How I Found One Woman Missing from History

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Sarah Tyndale

Courtesy of Cathy Van Skike

Sarah Tyndale

(WOMENSENEWS)—Women’s History Month may be over, but the search for women missing from history is year-round.

I know there are many overlooked women–forgotten in the history books and in lessons taught to young girls in need of role models–because there is at least one in my family tree. There are probably some in yours, too. The Internet, shows like “Who Do You Think You Are?” and genealogical DNA testing are making it easier than ever to find our ancestors, even in family trees that used to be untraceable.

At the 1855 National Woman’s Rights Convention, Lucy Stone offered a now-enigmatic tribute to “Sarah Tyndale, whose husband was an importer of china, and died bankrupt, [who] continued his business, paid off his debts and has made a fortune and built the largest china warehouse in the world.”

Like so many stories of women who helped shape their communities and history, the story of Tyndale has been obscured; unlike many, it can be reassembled from census records, family reminiscences, a handful of letters and mentions in the records of other figures and social movements.

There was a time when I was only two steps removed from Tyndale, even though she was born in 1792. Her youngest daughter Clara lived until 1910. As very young children, Clara’s grandchildren – my grandfather and his three siblings, all of whom lived into my 20s – would have known her. Yet I never knew of her, never heard Tyndale’s story; nor did my mother, who had not even heard her name until I stumbled across her while exploring our family history.

Three years ago, in the deep darkness of December, I was overtaken by an irresistible compulsion to research my family tree. Thanks to the Internet, in particular ancestry.com, and, frankly, American roots that are documented in census records and date back several centuries– a circumstance that obviously not everyone shares–I could rapidly peel back generations at a time in a family line. This work led me to a third cousin who had been keeping family records – portraits, letters and family Bibles with names and dates.

Hitting the Jackpot

Searching for each forebear by name online, however, yielded little, until one evening I typed “Sarah Tyndale” and the result was like hitting three cherries in a slot machine – nugget after nugget suddenly appeared, and it became my quest to meld them together into a narrative. Composing a timeline of Tyndale’s life events made it possible to see the whole arc of her story instead of just these isolated anecdotes, following each nugget back to its vein, such as investigating civic life and prostitution in 1840s Philadelphia, which revealed her affiliation with the Rosine Society, the organization in which her volunteer post was to visit brothels and coax the women into housing and job training. Or, in a rewarding bit of detective work, discovering the story of her husband’s exorbitant land speculation, when the couple had four young mouths to feed.

Sarah Biles Thorn (1792-1859) was born in Crosswicks, N.J., and lived most of her life in Philadelphia. By the time she was 5, her mother was a 28-year-old widow who had lost two children and had two living. Raised a Quaker, she was schooled and had a thoughtful intellect.. She married Robinson Tyndale, an Irish immigrant 17 years her senior, “out of meeting” (that is, he was a non-Quaker) at 19 years old. Over the next 14 years she bore 10 children, only six of whom outlived her.

Robinson Tyndale, a well-known china importer, became caught up in the frenzied land speculation spawned by the specious Carver’s Land Grant in the “Western territories” (now Minnesota and Wisconsin). Although by the 1830s courts had found the grant illegitimate, many were caught up in the scam, including Robinson Tyndale, who in 1817 purchased nearly 200,000 acres in transactions of more than $50,000 (more than $600,000 today). He died in 1842 with large unpaid debt, leaving a bankrupt business, seven living children (four under age 21 and one of them institutionalized) and four nearby grandchildren. By all the reports I investigated, Sarah Tyndale turned around the failed china business on her own and retired the debt within two years. By 1845 she handed the firm down to her son and son-in-law.

Philanthropy and Social Activism

In a time of bustle and roughness in Philadelphia, Tyndale turned her attention and means to philanthropy and social activism. She is credited by Lucretia Mott with moving 300 women from prostitution to legitimate employment, a “return to the path of virtue.” She was active in the abolition movement and vice president of the first National Woman’s Rights Convention in Worcester, Mass., in 1850, where her closing address was noted by The New-York Daily Tribune for its “simplicity, eloquence and pathos.” She was a member of the utopian North American Phalanx community. Her large brood included a Civil War brigadier general who escorted John Brown’s wife to her husband’s hanging and returned her home with the body; the secretary of state of Illinois; and a Pennsylvania Supreme Court chief justice.

Tyndale became a friend and confidante of Walt Whitman (Bronson Alcott’s description of her first meeting with Whitman, Alcott, and Thoreau in Whitman’s attic room with its unmade bed and exposed chamber pot is especially charming) and a possible influence on his poetry – notably “To a Common Prostitute” – and his views on industrialization.

In 1870, at the 20th anniversary observance of the first National Woman’s Rights Convention, Paulina Davis remembered Tyndale in her commemorative speech:

“From our midst another is missing: Mrs. Sarah Tyndale – one of the first to sign the call… [T]here was for her great social sacrifice in taking up a cause so unpopular; but she had no shrinking from duty…. She was prescient, philosophical, just and generous… [S]he had still room in her heart for the woes of the world …. We miss today her sympathy, her wise counsel, her great, organizing power.”

From among the women involved in efforts to promote social justice and women’s rights, many stories of lives that speak “better than words” are missing. Tyndale is another model, like the many women who have gone before us, and who are in us.

Finding Tyndale, my ancestor of backbone, heart and grit, connected me with those women and told me a little more about who I am. I like to think that despite the centuries that have passed, the stories that haven’t been passed down and the tenuous connection – a thread that frayed when Tyndale’s granddaughter died at age 23, leaving my great-grandfather and his newborn brother motherless – there is still a little something of her in my mother, my daughters and me. 

BIO: Nancy Alexander, M.B.A., has an M.A. in women’s studies and is an organizational consultant and coach and an expert in the art of collective change, including women’s philanthropy. She is a Yale University Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project and a fourth-great-granddaughter of Sarah Tyndale.

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