eliza jane donavan Young Female Beekeeper In The 1870s

By: Albert Chubak

A year ago, while sifting through old documents related to beekeeping a letter was found that could not be forgotten.

What could possibly be so memorable to etch its own place into current world challenges and thoughts? Many will know who Brigham Young is. Not the University but the American Moses, Lion of the Lord, the founder of Salt Lake City and hundreds of other western cities, the western colonizer of the Territory of Deseret, the 1st territorial governor of Deseret and later Utah. This western frontier captivated the imagination of easterners in magazines and books of the day with speculation on ancient treasures of gold and mystical places, and of course options of new beginnings for young families. One such 1870 magazine reported the viability of raising honey bees in this western land. This beekeeping article written by N.C. Mitchell caught the interest of an impressive almost forgotten lady in beekeeping, Mrs. Eliza Jane Donovan of Indianapolis Indiana. 

State of Affairs in Utah Territory about 1870

A background of what was happening regionally in Utah about 1870s. At this time the Civil war had just ended which emancipated thousands of people. The Transcontinental railway lines (on May 10th 1869 the Union and Central Pacific railroads) had just joined at Promontory Point in what is now northern Utah. W.D. (William DeWitt) Roberts of Provo Utah brings the first commercial hives into Utah and in 1871 the Utah Central railway manifest shows a cargo which included 18,000 lbs of bees arriving in Utah Territory from the west. According to the Salt Lake Herald October 13th 1872 W.D. Roberts was the first to export 35-36 stands of bees from Utah to Idaho and Montana “…on Friday last, started a wagon with some thirty-five or thirty-six stand of bees for Montana, and will leave to-day himself for the destination. Having been highly successful in his bee operations in this Territory, and in bringing on a large number, he now proposes to make an equal success of the business in Montana and Idaho”.

Taken from the Digital Collections University of Wisconsin-Madison Libraries, The Ecology and Natural Resources Collection, “The Illustrated Bee Journal Vol. 1, No 11 (October 1, 1879)

Then in 1874 Mr. Roberts was chosen vice president of the North American Bee Society. Regional aboriginals were still opposing manifest destiny of eastern settlers westward with arrow and bullet.  Gold, silver, copper, and coal mining was flourishing. Utah’s Black Hawk War was underway, with Chief Antoga Black Hawk passing away in 1870, ultimately ending in 1872 as federal troops suppressed the conflict.  In 1870 Utah gave women the right to vote, which later congress disenfranchised in 1887 with the Edmunds Tucker Act.     

At this same, time Eliza Jane Donavan’s carefully thought out letter arrived in Salt Lake City addressed to Brigham Young and was placed on his busy desk, but he never responded.  The 20-year-old Mrs. Donovan read an article in a local beekeeping journal which peaked her interest to the point she wrote the following letter to the aging 69-year-old legend Brigham Young of Salt Lake City.  The magazine was undoubtedly the “The Illustrated Bee Journal” written by N. C. Mitchell printed in Indianapolis as stated in her letter, but with a slight name variation of the author. 

Eliza Jane Donavan wrote:

“Indianapolis Indiana August 20th 1870. Mr. Young Sir, I learn from Mr NC Michel edition of the Illustrator Bee Journal published in this city that the people of Utah are becoming interested in the subject of Bee Culture. Also that your climate is well adapted for the production of honey. I and my husband have been engaged in beekeeping for the last two years. I like the business very much and think it both pleasant and profitable business for women, as a woman can handle and attend to bees just as well as a man indeed I have done most of the work in our Apiary this season and we have about one hundred and fifty colonies of Bees mostly Italians which I consider far superior to the Black Bee. I understand the business perfectly and have been very successful in [word is indecipherable] black bees. I have a number of colonies of Italians with very fine Queens in them. I wish to spend this coming winter in your City of Salt Lake. Please tell me what these bees will bring their colony as I would like to take some of theirs with me and if any of the Ladies there wish to learn to manage these little pets I should be happy to instruct them have you any white and red clover there. What would a small house of three or four rooms rent for. I am determined to make a change of climate and think Utah will suit me if my business would suit the people there. Pardon the liberty I have taken to address you but I thought you could give me the desired information if any one could. Yours Respectfully

Eliza Jane Donavan

PS. Please address immediately and oblige Mrs. E J Donavan, County of St Clair and Tenesee Streets, Indianapolis, Indiana”

Putting this letter into perspective helps us understand how rare a proposal Eliza was suggesting. Here are a few rare thoughts:

  • She is a 20-year-old married lady suggesting to Brigham Young that she visit Salt Lake City to teach ‘ladies’ how to manage bees
  • She refers to bees as pets
  • Presents that women are very capable of caring for bees
  • Mentions that beekeeping is an ideal business for women to engage in
  • Is a second-year beekeeper in the mid-19th century with 150 colonies
  • Shows that Eliza is educated, and is researching options prior to making a decision relocating
  • Remarkable her husband had no apparent issues with her participating in a business, researching their move, writing a figure such as Brigham Young, and so on…

A 20-Year-Old Married Lady from Indiana writes the Aging Colonizer, Governor, and Prophet

According to the 1870 U.S. Census Eliza Jane Donavan is a 20-year-old married immigrant of Ireland living in Indiana with two daughters and one son under the age of four. She is listed as “keeping house”, but is educated enough to read, write and attended to 150 colonies of bees! In 1870 she received verification that a beehive she jointly submitted to the U.S. Patent Office was approved, second woman to do so. At first thought, writing someone like Brigham may be intimidating, but clearly not so for her. The “fighting Irish” blood coursing through her veins allowed her to put pen to paper and off to the U.S. Postal Service her letter went. 

Ladies Teaching Ladies

In August of 1870 Eliza Jane decided to write the territorial governor of the Territory of Utah after reading “The Illustrated Bee Journal”, a local beekeeping journal produced by N.C. Mitchell in Indianapolis Indiana. In this journal legends like Quinby, Langstroth, King and others sparred regarding national beekeeping politics, methods, styles and so on. Eliza Jane learned enough she felt capable and confident to share her love with others, specifically ladies. 

There were challenges of “male” controlled education in the mid-19th century as seen by this suggestion to teach the ladies.  Placing a male figure in close proximity of adult females may have been seen as a threat to other husbands and in refined society seen as morally inappropriate.  This concept of teaching within a specific gender group was both novel then and is still in demand in the 21st century. 

This suggestion suggests ladies can teach other ladies better than a male counter-part. Of course, this sounds reasonable but nevertheless still hits the cords of the male ego.

A recent new term of “mansplaining” was 2010’s New York Times new word of the year.  Lily Rothman of The Atlantic defines the word as “explaining without regard to the fact that the explainee knows more than the explainer, often done by a man to a woman.” According to Wikipedia “Mansplaining differs from other forms of condescension in that it is rooted in the sexist assumption that a man is likely to be more knowledgeable than a woman.” It appears to be quite a rare challenge, this 19th-century young lady Eliza Jane, to suggest this approach to such a notable figure as Brigham Young. Due to probably many noted local factors it seems Mr. Young never responded to this request in writing. 

Insights that a woman can offer to another woman in relation to modesty, sales, distribution, ethics in a male controlled environment, separation from other “female” duties, juggling the care of infants or children especially in this case where at least one was still of nursing age, challenging male counterparts, supporting a husband or even as a single lady, how and where to seek further knowledge/education, choosing a hive style that fits the constraints of a lady, how to deal with the appearance to men of a successful woman and perhaps what threats this all poses to a wife/mother/lady. Many challenges had to be overcome including, Sunday labor, utilizing other hired hands such women versus men, raising capital, banking, perhaps the challenges of obtaining a business license, and on. 

Eliza Jane may have also heard the news women were given the right to vote in this new western territory, opening the gate to other potential rights of the women’s suffrage movement. 

Bees As Pets

It was a refreshing thought Eliza Jane penned that she viewed honey bees as pets, and not simply as livestock. This reference uniquely separates the caring of bees from the traditional honey management usually seen. As pets, the first thought may be a relationship can be nurtured with the colony. This intimate relationship between beekeeper and colony is still challenged today.  Managing a colony differs if viewed in a relationship of a pet, verses livestock where the end goal is solely for financial gain and slaughter. 

Today there are many benefits of caring for a pet, many of which were not perceived in the mid-19th century – decreasing stress, lowering blood pressure, pain reduction, improves mood and the numerous other modern scientific rational. Perhaps Eliza Jane was thinking well beyond her time, but also, she may have felt activities beyond child rearing and household duties were needed for her contemporaries.  Meaningful activities build self-esteem and purpose, not to mention an increase in available spending money. 

Gardening too is an activity many rural and city women participated in, where bees could aid in both production and beauty of a garden.  Beauty of a garden is often overlooked by men, but essential to many women. 

Italians Verses Black Bees

Many early references exist to the type of bee used in the United States as a “black bee.” In Utah as early as 1860, references to a black bee being the typical bee but attempts to replace it with the Italian honey bee began in the 1860s and 1870s. The letter by Eliza Jane stated she was trying to change to the Italian bee from the “black bee” as well.  By the late 19th century magazines are selling the calmer Italian honey bee as the black bee fades out of use. 

Dr. Joseph Carson of Alaska claims the darker bees do better in long cold Winter climates. He claims, “I prefer the darkest bees I can get. No whiz-bang college educated bees – just good, hard-working, gentle, dark-as-night bees. The lighter the bee in color the more they eat and shutting them down for the Winter is tough to do. No, I do not use Russians. If you want a pet, buy a horse. I use Carniolans or Caucasians, or as close to the German Black as I can get. They shut down for the Winter, lay prolifically in Spring, are gentle as can be, and propolize the hive very well for Winter.”  http://digitalwasjournal.advancedpublishing.com/?issueID=28&pageID=34Types of European Black bees, include their traits. 

Typically, the darker the bee the more aggressive it is, however aggression is also based on situation, environment and seasonal issues affecting the colony.

Salt Lake Herald February 10th 1896. Obtained from the University of Utah Newspaper Collection.

Women mastering beekeeping and needs of income, honey, household duties

During the Great Awakening of the early 1800s women began entering into the work force and were producing income. During and after the American Civil War where 620,000 men died there was a greater need for women to work.  It wasn’t until the 1860s when the Women’s Suffrage Movement saw women able to vote in States such as Wyoming and Utah. 

Beekeeping according to Eliza Jane was an ideal occupation and business for women.

Business for a women in 19th century America

“The trend in the belief of feminine inferiority was halted as women effectively managed organizations not directly related to the family. To alleviate the fears of men that their wives were concentrating on issues unrelated to the family, piety did not keep a wife from her proper sphere. Meetings could be held in the home. Young children could be brought along the same way they would be when visiting friends. The lady of the house would demonstrate her domestic skills by cleaning the house before her guests arrived and by making sure they had something to accompany the tea which could be served during a meeting. “And, “The wife’s role was to complement her husband, reflecting credit on him and herself.

A man took a wife to look after his affairs, and to prepare his children for their proper stations in life. It was a wife’s duty to care for her husband’s interests. To these ends, she was to be mistress of the family and run it well enough so that her husband would only enjoy it and could focus his attention on the matters of the world.  As long as the household could be managed within the bounds of the husband’s income by a woman who practiced and taught piety, purity and submissiveness, then “all [was] as it should be.

Books devoted to housekeeping and cooking, made it perfectly clear that a woman’s domain was her home and she was expected to have total charge of all within. If she was unfamiliar with family management, she was urged to consult the authorities.”(http://www.teachushistory.org/detocqueville-visit-united-states/articles/early-19th-century-attitudes-toward-women-their-roles

Eliza Jane Donavan was maintaining her piety by effectively managing her home, children and increasing her colonies which no doubt supplemented her family’s income.  Her efforts complimented her husband, as well as displaying a great deal of inner strength for a lady of the period.  This was exactly what she had hoped to teach to the ladies in Salt Lake City.

Responsibility of 150 colonies

Eliza Jane referenced she was a second-year beekeeper with 150 colonies, and understood the bee business perfectly. Unsure of what was then considered a colony, nor the hive style she employed, or even the method of honey processing used – this is still a feat as a second-year beekeeper. To some degree her husband John was employed, leaving a young mother of three with at least one infant nursing age to attend to 150 colonies.

She had some understanding of splits, queens, and was willing to teach others.  She also took the time to read a local beekeeping journal, which may have allowed her personal interaction with the publisher and those referenced in its pages.  She clearly had enough invested and understood beekeeping to the level she created and patented a beehive. This task of obtaining a patent was achieved only by one female prior to Eliza Jane Donavan.

She was a problem solver and to some degree displayed traits of an over-achiever. Also unclear is how much wood working experience she possessed. Not power saws and drills of the 21st century, but hand tools which require craftsmanship unique to a 20-year-old young Irish immigrant mother in 1870.

The jaw drops lower and lower as all these issues are factored into a panorama of what made up this 19th century woman. 

We learn later Eliza Jane Donavan patented a beehive

In the same year as the date of her letter, Eliza Jane received approval thus a patent to the U.S. Patent Office for designs of her version of a beehive. Her design had side panels that fanned open allowing inner frames to separate like pages of a book. It appears the frames were still attached in some way to the rear of the hive. This adaptation allowed for simple inspections, but it stands to reason that the bees would reposition themselves causing issues with closing it up. A question remains on how the frames were attached to the rear of the hive. Interesting simple hive design ideal for a lady not wanting to man-handle the 5lb-8lb frame. 

Women invented many items during the 19th century, those inventing beehives were:

Hornbrook, Triphena P. patent 32,367

Donavan, Eliza Jane patent 108,893

Gibson, W. T. patent 108,893

O’Connor, Elizabeth patent 119,991

Farnam Harriet A. patent 122,242

There were 187 female agricultural patents granted.  Of the top female patents granted, Cathrine A Griswald obtained 31 patents related to sewing.  The top ten lady inventors of the 19th century amassed 146 patents alone.   http://staff.lib.muohio.edu/shocker/govlaw/FemInv/sub.php?iname=Agricultural

Moved to Kentucky and raised a family

Eliza and her family lived in Indianapolis Indiana in 1870, then a decade later appeared in the U.S. Census at Indian Creek in Hancock County Kentucky. This move was about a 200-mile trip south, just beyond the Indiana boarder in Kentucky. Indianapolis to Indian Creek was a huge difference in landscape, perhaps a better environment to raise colonies and an opportunity for her husband John Donavan to work in the coal mines. The first commercial coal mine was begun in Kentucky in 1820. In the 1880 U.S. Census John is listed as a “c laborer”, which denotes “coal mine laborer”.  The move to Utah obviously fell out of favor perhaps due to Brigham Young not responding, or limited information on beekeeping and conflicts of marriage lifestyles at the later end of the 19th century.    

Utah State University Photograph Collections. A couple in Utah in 1880s working in a beeyard.

Women of today who are pioneers in beekeeping

There are many significant women today in beekeeping who are pioneering like Eliza Jane Donavan did, as well as countless “ladies teaching” the amazing intricate world of honey bees and beekeeping.  An attempt was made to document such a list; however, it grew and grew with incredible biographies for each.  This list could be a book unto itself, or master-list of “lady” speakers in every aspect imaginable with regards to Apis (honey bee). 

Perhaps a Eliza Jane Donavan conference is needed today, Ladies Teaching Ladies

There is a new movement brewing today where women are leaning towards a beekeeping conference where women are the only ones on the speaking agenda.  Ladies teaching not only other ladies but everyone. As with Eliza Jane, she had an innate understanding to what was needed for a woman to succeed in beekeeping in 1870. Our beekeeping “ladies” of the 21st century are masters where all can benefit from their experience at every level. 

Perhaps in the next year or two a beekeeping conference will be organized for all to attend where the speakers are chosen solely from the multitudes of amazing 21st century beekeeping “ladies”.