Sunday, January 16, 2011

1880 Census, Nellie Grant, and the Douglass Granddaughters

As I read through Radical Passions to find references to Anna Douglass -- "Border State" to the fabulously caustic Ottilia Assing -- I came across a reference to "Nellie Grant." "I am very sorry about your difficulties with Nellie Grant," she writes, "as much as on your account as on her own, since she will hardly be treated as tenderly by any other owner as she has been treated by you." Never one to edit herself or to let an opportunity to express her opinion pass by, she added, "I apprehended some mischief from the first, although I could not tell which, since you got her through Nathan, who will always take even greater advantage of you than of anybody else, because he knows that he can do so with impunity." (361) Nathan, by the way, was Douglass's son-in-law, married to his daughter, Rosetta. He has been, shall we say, much maligned.

Obviously, this couldn't be Nellie Grant, the daughter of Ulysses S. Grant, president at the time. The note for Nellie Grant says, "Douglass had taken into his already crowded household a needy young woman." Assing uses some strange language if that is true. Why would she use the term "owner" to a former slave in the aftermath of emancipation? Did people refer to good hospitality as "treated tenderly"? Didn't they usually say something like "cordial" or "kind"? Maybe this is one of those things that happen with non-native speakers of a language? Assing, after all, spoke German first.

Since Christopher Lohman's main source for the notes is Maria Diedrich's Love Across the Color Lines, I took a look. No mention; but then, people are always making these sorts of sweeping statements, and Douglass did take into his household people like Harriet Bailey (aka Harriet Adams, Mrs. Perry F. Adams, Ruth Adams, Ruth Cox -- but she's another story all wrapped up in revise and resubmit territory) and Louisa Sprague and his brother Perry Downs and Julia Griffiths and Assing herself.

Notice how they are predominantly women?

In any case, wondering more about this, I took a look at the 1880 Census for Washington, D.C. There was Douglass: F.W. (for Frederick Washington), his wife Anna, and his three granddaughters, Annie and Hattie Sprague and Julia Douglass. Louisa Sprague is also listed as his granddaughter, but at age 29, she was more likely Nathan's sister. "Granddaughter" might have been an easier way to explain the relationship in one word to the census taker. Next door lived Perry Downs and Kitty Barret, Douglass's siblings, and Perry Downs's nephew H.F. Wilson, along with Martha Wilson, identified as a servant in the column for her relationship to the head of household. What we have here, then, is a complex family arrangement. What we don't have here is anyone named Nellie Grant.

Then, I wondered why Rosetta Sprague's children were living with their grandparents. So, I went to find Nathan Sprague's household. There they were: Nathan, his wife Rosetta D., and their six children, Annie R, Harriette B, Estelle J., Fredericka D., Herbert D, and Rosa M. (ranging in age from 3 to 15, incidentally), along with Maria Pongee, a black servant.  The Douglasses were recorded on June 1, 1880, and the Spragues on the 12th. Were Hattie and Annie visiting grandma and grandpa on the day the census taker showed up and just ended up in the records as living there?

Meanwhile, what about that Nellie Grant? I browsed back through Ottilia's letters. The letter mentioning her, cited above, was written in April 1879. The previous December, Assing had written this at the end of a letter: "My Maca [her dog] sends his best thanks to Mrs. Douglass for the walnuts and is passionately fond of them. He was silent all the time I was absent and has been talking charmingly from the moment I came back. He is convinced that I belong to him exclusively; what do you think of it? My love to my fourlegged good daughter, Rock and Nellie Grant!" (349)

Is Nellie Grant, perhaps, a hound?


  1. but what does "Border State" mean??!! -- ultra metaphorical etc.??? What did Frederick "understand" -- and how did he reply to this portentous (or what EVER it was) phrase?

    how did Assing get away with it? I like her...