Published in The Seattle Times online on July 28, 2022
and in PacificNW Magazine of the printed Times on July 31, 2022
Born of war, Woman’s Relief Corps fed nation’s ‘higher sphere’
By Clay Eals
One of my mentors — the late Elliott Couden, an open-housing advocate in the 1960s who 20 years later founded the Southwest Seattle Historical Society — once lamented that as a boy, he had to learn history by memorizing timelines keyed mostly to wars. “We didn’t get very much into what relation we as individuals have to this society,” he said.
He could have been reading the mind, and heart, of Richard Heisler. During the pandemic, the energetic equestrian artist and historian, 49, focused his research on the estimated 3,500 Civil War veterans and their families who migrated to King County near the turn of the 20th century. Heisler, of Bothell, has unearthed direct links between these vets and the rise of the town east of Lake Washington’s northern tip.
Nationally, starting in 1866, many of the war’s surviving Union soldiers formed the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) fraternal organization. In 1883, their wives, along with daughters and other descendants and supporters, began gathering in posts of an auxiliary, the Woman’s Relief Corps (WRC).
The Bothell WRC post began in 1902, and 22 of its members (plus two discreetly positioned men) populate our “Then” photo from 1908. They pose outside the city’s 1893 William Hannan home, which stands today at Bothell Landing along the Sammamish River, a half-mile west of its original site. Pristinely restored, it houses the Bothell Historical Museum.
Bothell, the city, derives from a family by the same name. Heisler pointedly notes that the only graphic symbols on a Bothell Pioneer Cemetery monument for founder David Bothell (1820-1905) and his wife Mary Ann (1823-1907), parents of George, the city’s first mayor, are of the GAR for David and WRC for Mary Ann.
Other local luminaries had ties to the war’s Union forces and their abolitionist, Lincoln Republican ways of thinking, Heisler says. “We think it was all so distant,” he says, “but many veterans and their families came west and walked the streets all over this county.”
WRC posts produced patriotic Memorial Day observances, installed flags and monuments and even supported women’s suffrage. At an 1885 Seattle gathering, the GAR’s J.C. Haines saluted their role: “We welcome you because you have demonstrated that woman has a higher sphere than any that man can ever lay claim to — a sphere as broad as human sorrow, as lasting as humanity itself.”
Today, the WRC has receded locally, but it lives on in Heisler’s talks, including one set for 6 p.m. Aug. 3, at the Bothell Library, for the Bothell museum. “This is not an abstract thing,” he says. “These are people.”
Thanks to Bill Woodward, Pat Pierce, Jill Keeney and especially Richard Heisler for their help with this installment!
To see Jean Sherrard‘s 360-degree video of the “Now” prospect and compare it with the “Then” photos, and to hear this column read aloud by Clay, check out our Seattle Now & Then 360 version of the column.