Sarah Hopkins Bradford (1818-1913) First Biographer of Harriet Tubman
By Steven Huff
Geneva is a beautiful little city on the northern shore of Seneca Lake, hilly with old, well-preserved architecture. Good lunch spots, good bars. Fishing enthusiasts call it the Lake Trout Capital of the World. In was a prominent Seneca tribal village, and the meeting place of the Iroquois Council of Six Nations until it was destroyed in Sullivan’s invasion in 1779. It is the home of the now-combined Hobart and William Smith Colleges, once the Geneva Academy, founded in 1797. Elizabeth Blackwell, native of Bristol, England, studied at Geneva Academy, and in 1849 was the first woman awarded a medical degree in the United States.
Belhurst Castle, built in the 1880s by the eccentric Carrie Harron Collins as a lavish private residence, and run as a supper club and speakeasy by her grandson during Prohibition, is now, under its current owners, a hotel and a tourist attraction and place to hold a storybook wedding. It is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Geneva’s contributions to the arts are well out of proportion to its size. Arthur Garfield Dove (1880-1946), reputedly America’s first abstract painter, long associated with Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keefe, grew up here and went to Hobart College in Geneva; he maintained a studio in town in the 1930s. Geneva is the birthplace of Marshall Pinkney Wilder (1859-1915), an extraordinary character, a midget who worked as a vaudevillian comic, professional clairvoyant and author; unfortunately he is buried elsewhere, in New Jersey. Michael Muhammad Knight (b. 1977), author of the novel The Taqwacores, known as the Hunter S. Thompson of Islamic Literature, grew up in Geneva. And, there was Sarah Hopkins Bradford.
Born in Moscow, New York, and raised in Mount Morris, Sarah Hopkins Bradford moved to Geneva in 1839 when she married lawyer John Bradford, who was also a local politician. In 1857, however, he abandoned her and their six children in their Geneva home, to form a law practice in Chicago. He died of consumption four years later in 1861. An obituary in a local newspaper blamed his troubles on drink. So it goes.
Thereafter, she wrote books to support her family, one of America’s earliest writers to specialize in books for children and young girls. They include, Tales for Little Convalescents; The Linton Family, or the Fashions of This World; Amy, the Glass Blower’s Daughter: A True Narrative; The six-vollume Silver Lake Series: The Budget, The Jumble, The Old Portfolio, Ups and Downs, The Green Sachel, Aunt Patty’s Mirror. She also started a school for girls in her home. Bradford is sometimes compared to Louisa May Alcott, for writing a string of books for girls.
She probably did not imagine that the books she would be most remembered for would be her biographies of the heroic icon of the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman: Scenes from the Life of Harriet Tubman, which she published in 1869 to raise funds to prevent Tubman from losing her house in Auburn; and Harriet Tubman: Moses of Her People, much the same material retold, published in 1881 to raise funds for Tubman’s house, which was then a nursing home established by Tubman for African-Americans.
Occasionally I have seen the two books listed online with Tubman as author in a seller’s description. While Bradford is the author, they are Tubman’s story as told to Bradford in numerous interviews, redacted and rendered into a heroic narrative. However, it was Tubman herself who approached Frederick Douglass for advance comment on the first book.
He wrote back to her from Rochester, August 29, 1868: “Harriet: I am glad to know that the story of your eventful life has been written by a kind lady, and that the same is soon to be published.” But he said that he needed commendation from her more than she needed it from him. “Most that I have done and suffered in the service of our cause has been in public, and I have received much encouragement at every step of the way. You on the other hand have labored in a private way….most you have done has been witnessed by a few trembling, scarred, and foot-sore bondmen and women whom you have led out of the house of bondage, and whose heartfelt ‘God bless you’ has been your only reward.”
The narrative style falters in places, less so in the second book, and one gets the sense that she was taking another crack at it. Many contemporary readers would be offended at Bradford’s attempts to approximate southern African-American dialect. But she was in earnest with these books (the first one raised $1,200 for Tubman), and the story that she relates is riveting, heart-breaking, and inspiring. That one individual did so much, against such odds, and triumphed, is astounding. Moreover, Scenes from the Life was the first biography of Tubman and helped elevate her to fame. It should be pointed out that Bradford never claimed to be a professional historian. Preston E. Pierce points out that she did not keep her notes from her interviews with Tubman.
Bradford had a personal stake in the Civil War that slavery ignited. She lost her two eldest sons: Charles died of consumption at Chattanooga, Tennessee, July 22, 1865, some months after the war ended, and just as the Union army was mustering out of that area; and William, a US Navy master’s mate on board the Bark Roebuck, died July 29, 1864 at Tampa Bay. Yellow fever had broken out among the crew there. Both are buried a few feet from her, as is a third son, John M. Bradford, Jr., a veteran of the Spanish-American War, and blessed with a longer life than his brothers. One of her daughters was Mary Bradford Crowninshield, another author of series-novels for children, such as her three-volume Lighthouse Children series.
The house where Bradford raised her family, and held her school is now called Bradford House, and is part of Hobart-William Smith.
But the Hopkins family was also illustrious. Sarah’s father, Samuel Miles Hopkins (1772-1837) was a congressman, also buried at Washington Street; her brother, Samuel Miles Hopkins II (1813-1901) was a Presbyterian minister and author of Manual of Church Polity (1878) and A Short History of American Presbyterianism (1903), buried at Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn.
Her great-nephew was Samuel Hopkins Adams (1871-1958), a famous investigative reporter whose series of articles in Colliers in 1905, “The Great American Fraud,” exposed deceptive claims by drug companies that manufactured some of the most widely used drugs at the time. In the furor that followed, The Pure Food and Drugs Act of 1906 became law (also influenced by Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle). He was also a fiction writer whose short story “Night Bus” was adapted into the Frank Capra movie, It Happened One Night (1934), with Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. His books Canal Town and Grandfather Tales are still read avidly by Erie Canal enthusiasts; they were among Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s favorite books, who, when I was a reporter, recommended them to me for background when I was writing about the canal.
Sarah Hopkins Bradford died in Rochester in 1912, one year before Harriet Tubman. In her time, it was unusual to live to past ninety. But then, she was an extraordinary woman.
Finding the Grave
Take the Thruway to Exit 42, and take Route 14 West, five miles into Geneva. In the middle of the business district 14 turns right, then up a hill where it turns left at the second light. After a two lights you’ll see a sign on the right for Park Place (One Way) which loops around a green, but leads to Washington Street, where you turn right. Go three blocks and turn left on Monroe Street. You can park on the cemetery side of the street.
There is no vehicle entrance to the cemetery; the gate in the front on Washington Street is just for looks. You’ll find a large sign by the sidewalk for the Founders Square neighborhood. Walk up the hill a little to the right of that sign into the cemetery until you see a family plot for Armstrong—easily spotted for its dilapidated wrought iron enclosure—nothing last forever. A Little to the right of that plot is an imposing monument for the Hopkins family. And some fifty feet to the right of that monument is the grave of Sarah Hopkins Bradford, next to the grave of her son, John M. Bradford, Jr., and a few feet behind William and Charles.
Her stone, unfortunately is broken in half. There appears to have been an attempt to repair it with mortar, which did not hold. Being in two pieces, it is somewhat difficult to read.
Sources. I found many very generous sources: Preston E. Pierce, “And Who Was She Anyhow”: Sarah Hopkins Bradford, Biographer of Harriet Tubman, Canandaigua, NY: Ontario County Historical Society, 2009, Print; Rabbi Carole B. Balin, Ph.D. “Harriet Tubman and Sarah Hopkins Bradford: Women of Moral Courage from Auburn’s Past,” website of the Auburn Seminary, auburnseminary.org; Kerry Lippincott, “The Louisa May Alcott of Geneva: Sarah Hopkins Bradford,” website of the Geneva Historical Society, Geneva, NY; Kerry Lippincott, email to me, Aug. 9, 2018.
Other sources on Geneva and its people: Harold Faber, “The World Capital of Whatever,” New York Times, Dec. 9, 1993, web (accessed 8/10/18); Jessica Murphy, “Arthur Dove,” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, web, (accessed 8/10/18);”Samuel Hopkins Adams,” n.a. Spartacus Educational, n.d. web, (accessed 8/10/18). Brian Whitaker, “Punk Muslims,” The Guardian, 3/19/2007 Web, (accessed 8/10/18)
Text and cemetery photo copyright 2018 by Steven Huff