Her memory still sharp at age 95, Rebecca Marshall Cathcart was said to be the oldest Minnesotan when she died in her St. Paul home in 1925.
“It is a wonderful thing to have lived such a life as this woman lived and still more wonderful that she was able to remember the details of it, covering almost all of Minnesota history, until the day of her death,” the Minneapolis Daily Star noted, saying Cathcart “had a considerable part” in territorial days since she had arrived in Minnesota with her family in 1849.
At 88, Cathcart enjoyed “all faculties in her possession,” according to a 1918 diary entry by Mary Hill, the wife of railroad baron James J. Hill. Cathcart and her husband, Alexander, lived a couple of doors down from the Hill mansion in a house that was razed in the early 1880s.
“Summit avenue was a lonely place” in 1863, Cathcart wrote 50 years later at age 83. “Between it and Selby avenue stood a dense forest of native oaks … Our present inhabitants, in their palatial homes that line our famous avenue, may think that I am drawing on my imagination in giving these pen pictures, but it is all true.”
Often called on to speak about settler days, Cathcart shared her story at a 1913 Minnesota Historical Society meeting. She turned her talk into a 15,000-word memoir titled “A Sheaf of Remembrances” — easily accessible on the Library of Congress website at tinyurl.com/Rebecca-Cathcart.
“My life has seemed to me to have experienced little beyond ordinary, commonplace events,” wrote Cathcart, saying she first had to overcome “my extreme dislike for the manual drudgery of writing” before she could jot down her memories. She hoped to prove the point that “the most uneventful life, if carefully written up, would make an interesting book.”
With Scotch-Irish roots twisting back to the north of Ireland, Cathcart’s grandfather served in the Revolutionary War and settled in Kentucky. Rebecca was born in Missouri in 1830, the youngest of six; her father died of typhoid when she was an infant. Opposed to slavery, the family moved to the free state of Illinois and then Minnesota in 1849, when Rebecca was turning 19. Her brother, William Marshall, had gone to Minnesota ahead of the family and would become governor in 1866.
Largely focused on 1849-50, Cathcart’s memoir is a who’s who of Minnesota Territory’s social scene. She described dining room-clearing dance parties, with a band of African American barbers moonlighting as popular musicians.
Trumpeting the often overlooked stories of women in the decade before statehood, Cathcart wrote that she hoped to do “justice to a few of the pioneer women who bore the heat and burden of the day; we were truly blessed in the character of these women who laid the foundation of our family and social life.”
One example was Fanny Wilder, who was more than simply businessman Amherst Wilder’s wife. “All her early life had been spent in the midst of intellectual and cultivated society,” Cathcart wrote, insisting Fanny “could maintain her side in argument with the most highly educated men.”
Cathcart’s friend Marie Spencer was a socialite who cared for the sick before nurses arrived in Minnesota. “In those days,” she wrote, “kind neighbors went and ministered to the helpless ones; and many now living can remember how the anxieties attending the sick bed were removed when Mrs. Spencer appeared, and many a dying one’s last hours were comforted and soothed by her gentle words and tender ministrations.”
Her memories include intimate glimpses into the lives of women such as Harriet Bishop, St. Paul’s first teacher who greeted Cathcart after her arrival in 1849, and for whom Harriet Island was later named.
While headed on a steamboat to Kentucky in November 1850, Cathcart was surprised to find the brokenhearted Bishop. The teacher had been set to marry an attorney until his sister nixed the wedding because of their ages. He was “some years younger than herself, but not her equal intellectually,” Cathcart wrote.
“The result was that her life was wrecked and she seemed to lose her fine mental balance,” Cathcart wrote of Bishop who, she added, died in 1883 “almost unknown.”
A dozen years before the U.S.-Dakota War erupted in 1862, Cathcart recalled the first day of 1850 at the home of Anna and Edmund Rice in St. Paul just as a Dakota delegation stopped by “to pay their respects.”
After shaking hands and sitting on the Rices’ floor, loaves of bread were fetched from a nearby bakery. “After staying a short time, they bowed in a very courteous manner and left,” Cathcart wrote. “ During the afternoon several of the territorial officers called; they were gentlemen born and bred, but they had so far forgotten both birth and breeding that they fell far below our [Dakota] guests. Mrs. Rice felt so insulted by their behavior that she had what we women call a good cry.”
Cathcart was buried at St. Paul’s Oakland Cemetery beside her daughter Antoinette, who died at age 2. Census records show she had three older children.
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at email@example.com. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: strib.mn/MN1918.