Mary Alicia Owen (1850-1935)
Mary Alicia Owen lived her entire life—except for many travels throughout the country and abroad—in the town of St. Joseph, Missouri. She was always interested in people and became famous for writing about the Native Americans and African Americans who lived in and around her hometown. Many of the books, stories, and articles Owen wrote were works of folklore. Folklore is the study of people and their legends, religions, and traditions. She traveled across the United States and Europe to talk about the folklore of Missouri. At one time Owen was called the most famous woman folklorist in the world.
Early Years & Education
Mary Alicia Owen was born in St. Joseph, Missouri, on January 29, 1850. Mary’s grandparents, Agnes Gilmore Crookes Cargill and James Cargill, their four grown children, and two slaves, moved to St. Joseph from what is now West Virginia in September 1843. The town had just been founded and was still a small village of about 400 people. James Cargill built one of the town’s first gristmills and, as St. Joseph grew, he became a successful businessman.
The Cargills’s youngest child, Agnes Jeanette Cargill, married James A. Owen when she was seventeen years old on August 3, 1848. James Owen was a lawyer from Kentucky who moved to Missouri in 1846. After their marriage, James Owen joined his father-in-law in the mill business. During the 1850s the partners continued to do well and both became important members of their quickly growing community. The Owen family also began to grow. Between 1850 and 1860, James and Agnes Owen had five children. Mary Alicia was the oldest. Her younger brother and sisters were named Luella Agnes, Herbert Alfred, Florence Alma, and Juliette Amelia.
When Mary was a small child, she lived with her mother, father, and grandparents. At that time the Cargill family owned six slaves. Later in her life, Mary would recall how she loved to listen to the myths and stories told by the slaves. As an adult, she wrote about one slave in the Cargill house, Mymee Whitehead, who was a conjurer. Conjure, or Hoodoo as it is sometimes called, is the African American folk practice of using spells or creating potions to ask the spirit world for help. Mary loved to watch “Aunt” Mymee prepare special potions. She sometimes helped by getting needed ingredients from her grandmother’s kitchen.
When Mary was nine years old, the Owen family built a large house at the corner of Ninth and Jules Streets in St, Joseph. Mary, along with her sisters Luella and Juliette, lived in the house for the rest of their lives.
When Mary reached school age, there were still no public schools in St. Joseph, so, for a few years she was educated in private schools. Her education was interrupted when the Civil War started in April 1861. During the war the schools closed down and Agnes Owen taught Mary and her siblings at home.
The Civil War disrupted the lives of many people throughout Missouri and in St. Joseph. For much of the war, Union troops controlled the town. Citizens could not travel without the permission of the army. Because the Owen and Cargill families had come from the south and owned slaves, Union supporters harassed them during the war. Mary’s uncles were suspected of helping a Confederate officer escape St. Joseph. Angry citizens burned down the Cargill mill and stole cattle and furniture from the home of Mary’s grandmother, Agnes Cargill. One night, Union soldiers came to the Owen house looking for Mary’s father. After thirteen-year-old Mary led them to a church where he was hiding, they arrested him and briefly held him in jail.
Mary resumed her studies after the war. She attended Patee Female College in St. Joseph for three years. In 1869 Mary traveled to Poughkeepsie, New York, to attend Vassar College. At the time, most women’s colleges only trained young ladies to be schoolteachers. Vassar was one of the first colleges in the United States that gave women the same education as men.