Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Womens suffrage heroes: Chariton's Branner sisters

I've been thinking about the Branner women --- Victoria (Branner) Dewey and Virginia M. Branner --- as election day 2016 nears. These sisters were Lucas County's leading suffragists during the late 19th and early 20th century, yet a hundred ago, during the 1916 election cycle, they still could not vote.

In fact, the men of Iowa had just handed women of the state a crushing defeat on June 5 of that year.

After years of contentious debate, the Iowa Legislature finally had passed a universal suffrage amendment to the state constitution during two consecutive sessions. Men were called upon to ratify the amendment during a special June 5 election --- and refused to do so.

As a result, Iowa women could not vote until after the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified during 1920.

So politics aside, I'm certain that Victoria, Virginia and others who worked with them in Lucas County would be gratified by the fact that two women --- Democrat Hillary Clinton and Green Party candidate Jill Stein --- are contenders for president this year; that one of Iowa's U.S. senators is a woman; and that another woman is contending with the incumbent for the state's other Senate seat.


Victoria and Virginia as well as other family members are commemorated on the tablet atop this tomb in the Chariton Cemetery. The bones of the family matriarch, Jane (Cowan) Branner, actually rest here under the tomb but the remains of all the rest were cremated. The Branners were progressive on a number of fronts.

I've written about this interesting family before, focusing on the patriarch --- John Branner --- who arrived in Chariton from East Tennessee during 1853 with his young son, Napoleon Bonaparte Branner, the same year the federal land office was relocated here from Fairfield. He had purchased land warrants, primarily from Mexican War veterans, in Tennessee and parlayed them into a considerable fortune by using them as the basis for land speculation in southern Iowa. You can find a post entitled "Working Title: The Almighty Branners" here; and "The Almighty Branners, Part 2," here.

I found the following biography of Victoria among Iowa Suffrage Memorial Commission records in the Iowa Women's Archive at University of Iowa Libraries. There's a shorter biography of Virginia, which I'll post tomorrow. Both are accessible online through the University of Iowa Libraries' Iowa Digital Library.

The authors of the biographies are unknown and archivists guess that they were written during the 1920s, although Victoria's would date after her 1930 death. My personal guess, because of level of detail, is that they were written by Victoria's daughter-in-law, Ruth (Leonard) Dewey, a suffragist herself, or her son, Walter Dewey.

A couple of details are not mentioned in the biographies. The Branner sisters' parents, John and Jane (Cowan) Branner were estranged. John never returned to Tennessee for anything other than a visit after settling in Chariton during 1853. Jane did not move north from Tennessee to join two of her children here, N.B. and Virginia, until after his death. Victoria and Walter arrived during 1885. Victoria and Virginia saw Iowa for the first time during 1867 when their mother sent them north in the aftermath of the Civil War to live with their father for a time.

Here's Victoria's biography:


Victoria Josephine Dewey was born in Dandridge, Tennessee, April 15, 1850, the daughter of John Branner and Jane Cowan, and the great-granddaughter of Abednego Inman, a soldier of the Revolutionary war. Abednego Inman was the maternal great-grandfather of Victoria J. Dewey. She was a descendant of Casper Branner, who was born about 1729 and who settled in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, probably about 1750. Living in the border country of East Tennessee, as a child she endured the hardships of the Civil War. Her two brothers were in the Confederate army, and the younger, Thomas Cowan Branner, was killed in action when not quite nineteen years of age.

She attended school at the Brazelton school for girls, in Dandridge, and later at Lee Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa, an Episcopal School for young women. Returning to Dandridge, she lived there, and on November 14, 1871, she married General Joel Allen Dewey, an officer of the Union army, born in Vermont, reared in Ohio, and who was, at the beginning of the war, a senior at Oberlin College. He was first Lieutenant in the 43rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry, then captain, major and lieutenant colonel; in 1864 he was colonel of the 11th colored regiment, U.S. Volunteers. He was commissioned brigadier-general in the winter of 1865, when but twenty-five years of age.

Declining a captaincy in the regular army, he went to Albany, N.Y. Law School, and graduated from there in 1867, and settled in East Tennessee. In 1869, he was elected attorney general for the second judicial district of Tennessee, and re-elected in 1870 for a seven-year term. He died suddenly of heart disease, in the court room in Knoxville, Tennessee, June 17, 1873. Their only child, Walter Dewey, was born in Dandridge, September 5, 1872.

In 1878 Mrs. Dewey married John Beecher Meek, a lawyer of Dandridge, who died in 1881. Later, by legal action, she changed her name again to Dewey, and in April 1885, with her son, moved to Chariton, Lucas County, Iowa, which was her home until her passing, which occurred at Chariton, December 26, 1930.

During her long residence at Chariton, Mrs. Dewey was active in business, church, and other community affairs, and was reasonably successful in her financial investments. With her son, in April 1898, she purchased the Chariton Herald, which that fall was sold, and at the same time they purchased the Chariton Leader, and published it for six years. She was the financial founder of the Hawkeye Produce Company of Chariton, a wholesale poultry and egg establishment, conducted as a partnership and which had branch houses in four other southern Iowa cities. These houses were sold at a good profit to the Beatrice Creamery Company, shortly before Mrs. Dewey's passing. In 1899 she bought a five thousand acre ranch in the coast country of Texas, which was later sold at a profit.

Mrs. Dewey never had the opportunity of attending any of the higher institutions of learning, but she was a lover of books, and an omniverous reader. Her private library was probably the largest in Lucas county. Many of these books were given by her to the rural schools of the county, some to friends, and others to the city library. The remnant of her books, some five hundred in number, are now in the family home in Chariton. Her love of books and of good reading, naturally made her much interested in the Public Library, and in the library movement in general. She was a charter member of the board of trustees of the Chariton Free Public Library, and the second president of the board, and on April 23, 1904, she presided and formally laid the corner stone of the present library building at Chariton, said to have been the first time that a woman had ever presided at such a function. The "Victoria J. Dewey Memorial Fund" given to the library by the members of Mrs. Dewey's family, provides proceeds for the purchase of an average of one or more good books for the library each month.

Mrs. Dewey was a pioneer advocate of equal suffrage, a lifelong member of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, a devout Episcopalian, and a most progressive Democrat. She attended at least two of the national conventions of the Woman Suffrage Association, and many of the state conventions. She supported the Democratic party with her voice and purse for many years before she received the right to vote. She attended the Democratic National Convention at Denver, in 1908, and was present at every session of the historic National Convention at Baltimore in 1912. On January 31, 1920, she and two other women were chosen by the Lucas County Democratic Convention as delegates to the State Democratic convention to select delegates to the national conventions, these women being the first women chosen in Iowa as delgates to a state convention of Iowa Democrats. Mrs. Dewey was chosen as an alternate to the National Democratic Convention at San Francisco that same year, and in 1924, she declined a district delegateship from her own congressional district, saying she thought a man, younger and stronger physically, should be chosen.

Mrs. Dewey and Mrs. Virgina M. Branner were sisters living at Chariton, and the period of their labors for the cause of equal suffrage covered nearly fifty years. Before 1900 they had been largely instrumental in holding a three-day county suffrage "convention" at Chariton, which was very successful. In the state campaign for a "suffrage" amendment, in 1916, they organizied a county caravan which was conducted by Mrs. Dewey's daughter-in-law, Mrs. Ruth Leonard Dewey, and which with national speakers visited every own in Lucas county, which county gave a large majority for the amendment. In this period of work, they became acquainted with most of the state workers for suffrage, and many of the national leaders. Susan B. Anthony, Anna Howard Shaw, Mary G. Hay, and others had visited them in Chariton, and made addresses in that town.

To be continued ...

No comments: