Destiny is not a matter of Chance

Portrait of Frances M.A. Roe. "Army Letters from an Officer's Wife, 1871-1888

Destiny is not a matter of chance, it is a matter of choice.

It is not a thing to be waited for,

It is a thing to be achieved.

William Jennings Bryan

Frances Mack Roe’s resolute determination to live on the Army posts of the Western frontier was a matter of choice in a calculated decision to live an uncommon life.  She was in search of individual transformation far away from the archaic template of a woman’s position in New York society.  Unwilling to allow a prescribed destiny to decide her fate, Roe chartered a life not yet drawn and mapped out but by a handful of women who came from the upper crust of society. Essentially, she too, was the Lewis and Clark of women explorers surveying new terrains and finding a certain freedom in self determination far beyond the gender restraints of civilization. Roe refused to await fate alongside her contemporary New York suffragists struggling with the glacial pace in the ratification of Women’s Rights. So little is known about Roe’s life other than the book of letters dated between 1871 and 1888. We will never know Roe’s impetus to seek out life on the western frontier, but certainly it was her definitive action to eagerly step outside the woman’s sphere to live the uncommon life.  

For the most part, Roe’s early life at best was a brief and sketchy paragraph of guesses taken from her husband’s obituary.  However, I discovered Frances M.A. (Mack) Roe’s paternal background in a 1901 genealogy book, The History of the Treman, Tremaine, Truman Family in America: with the related Families … The author- Ebenezer Mack Treman, was a distant cousin of Roe. His encyclopedic research provides a detailed history of the Mack family. There in Ebenezer’s pages are Roe’s birth month and day but with two different birth years.  Unfortunately, Mr. Treman passed away long ago and unable to correct his errant cousin’s mistake. However, I’ve recovered the correct birthdate found in two federal census records that corroborates her age.  Roe’s life began on August 22, 1844 near the shores of Lake Ontario in the small town of Hounsfield, Jefferson County, New York.   This is a noteworthy town for its strategic naval position of Sackett’s Harbor in the War of 1812.  Frances was the only child of flour manufacturer Ralph Gilbert and May (or Mary) Colton Mack. The Mack’s moved from Hounsfield to Watertown New York and lived en famille with Ralph’s parents and siblings.  

Frances was educated in private schools and groomed accordingly for a life of privilege. She studied 

Catalog entry 1860 1861 Preparatoryone year at Elmira CollegeFanny Mack register entry (preparatory program) -the first college to offer university degrees to women; two years of music- vocal training in Cincinnati, and three years at Professor William Roe’s Academy, another private school in Elmira New York.  Reported in Fayette Roe’s  USMA obituary is how Frances and Fayette had met at his uncle’s language academy.¹  

American patriotism was an integral part of Frances’s identity and established ancestral heritage dating to the Revolutionary War.  She was a well-bred woman born with the silver spoon of privileged accoutrements: heritage, class, education, and various accomplishments. Roe’s family credentials included exclusive membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) that was part and parcel in the rarified circles of wealth and privilege. Certainly, her upbringing was preparation for the genteel positioning within the upper echelons of New York society. Regardless, Frances’ leap of faith was to live her dream of freedom and adventure in the far West.  Undoubtedly, her decision to venture out west with the army was in sharp contrast to the 1870’s life of East coast high-society women.

Possibly, she had read the Wyoming Territorial Legislature headline announcing a world landmark in the suffragette movement, “We Won’t Come in Without our Women.” On September 6, 1870, the women of Wyoming had cast their voting ballots for the first time. The “Mother of Woman Suffrage,” Esther Hobart McQuigg Slack Morris was a transplanted New Yorker who had almost singlehandedly obtained the vote for Wyoming’s women, with a direct political sense that was to elude the Eastern suffragists for decades yet to come Perhaps the headline had captured Roe’s imagination to live beyond the expected life of a woman groomed for her class, social position, and education. We will never know if Wyoming’s vote sparked her life out West, but what we do know about is her enthusiastic arrival at Fort Lyon, Colorado Territory. She writes that “after months of anticipation,” she has at last arrived to “our army home!” Roe is not filled with the sense of dread of the new bride dragged to the Army Post, but as a woman who had planned the trip, and happy to finally reach her destination in life.

¹It’s unknown if William Roe was the proprietor or a professor of the academy, but what has been uncovered in Wm. Roe’s newspaper obituary clipping is his occupation as a professor of languages and the brother of Admiral Francis Asbury Roe.
²See Dorothy Gray’s Women of the West in links, sources and publication
* Special thanks and appreciation to Mark Woodhouse for registry photos; Technical Services and Archives Librarian Gannett-Tripp Library Elmira College

To be  continued in the next post: 

To keep our faces toward Change…