History's People: Graceanna Lewis - Abolitionist to Natural Scientist

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Rob Lukens, Ph.D.
Originally Published in the Daily Local News
Release Date: 
March 21, 2013

Graceanna Lewis was born in 1821 into a remarkable Quaker family in West Vincent Township. Her father was a well known abolitionist. Her mother was a talented teacher. And her uncle Bartholomew Fussell, also an abolitionist, had a school in York, Pennsylvania and helped found the Women's Medical College of Philadelphia.  One might say that this future abolitionist and natural scientist was destined to have an impact on society.

Graceanna's father, John Lewis passed away when she was very young. She was raised by her mother Esther on their farm, located between Chester Springs and Kimberton. She attended Kimberton Boarding School, under the tutelage of botanist and reformer Abigail Kimber, who had a strong influence on her life. Graceanna herself would go on to teach in several schools, teaching botany and other sciences.

Along with her two sisters, Elizabeth and Mariann, Graceanna was born into a fiercely abolitionist environment. Their home was a "station" on the Underground Railroad - a network of secret routes that escaped slaves followed from south to north on their way to freedom. 

According to William Still's "The Underground Railroad" (1872) Graceanna and her sisters learned to despise the institution of slavery at age four or five. Still tells the story of Graceanna seeing "a colored man, Henry, bound with ropes and carried off to slavery" with a look of utter agony on his face. According to Still, "they hated slavery, from that hour."

From a young age into adulthood, Graceanna and her family participated in a variety of Underground Railroad activities. According to William C. Kashatus's "Just Over the Line: Chester County and the Underground Railroad," Chester County was "an important junction of the Underground Railroad's Eastern Line." "The free black community," Kashatus continues, "and [Society of] Friends formed a strong network of communication, transcending religious and racial barriers that allowed them to guide fugitives to freedom."

Lewis's home was part of a line of well-documented sites that spanned from Wilmington, Delaware into Chester County then onto Montgomery County. Escaped slaves took several routes through the county. Those that arrived at Graceanna Lewis's home generally followed a route that included, according to "Just Over the Line," Wilmington, Kennett, East Marlborough, Newlin, and Downingtown. Slaves then proceeded to John Vicker's home in Lionville and onto Graceanna Lewis's home in the Kimberton area, before heading to Phoenixville and eventually Norristown.

The stories of runaway slaves are extraordinary lessons in resolve and determination. In the archives of the Friends Historical Library at Swarthmore College, Lewis recounted the story of Rachel Moore in an 1898 letter to the "Friends Intelligencer" newspaper. Lewis, then living in Media, Delaware County, recalled a runaway slave, Rachel Moore, and her six children who arrived at her house "in a most pitiful condition." The weather was torrid, and "the flapping of the wet garments against their unprotected limbs wore off the skin." Yet the urgency of their dangerous situation was so dire that "they pressed forward with all of the speed possible to them."

They wore clothing made from a coarse material woven in red stripes, a southern material which was a dead giveaway that they were runaway slaves. Graceanna provided new clothing from a stockpile gathered by neighboring abolitionist families and burned the suspect clothing.

In another story, Lewis thwarted slave catchers by imploring them to respect her femininity by not inspecting her bedroom, which she claimed, would invade her privacy. In still another account, in 1855, a group of ten escaped slaves arrived on her doorstep in a carriage they had stolen from their master.

Despite the secrecy of her work, Lewis made her antislavery sentiments known. In one published letter, Lewis appealed to those members of the Society of Friends who stood "aloof from the Anti-Slavery Enterprise." In blunt fashion, she stated, "the horrors of the southern prison house stand glaring in the light of noon-day sun" while "the advocates of Immediate Emancipation" have gone "unassisted."

Following emancipation and the Civil War, the second half of Lewis's life was dedicated to science, particularly botany and ornithology (the study of birds). In the 1860s, she studied under well-known ornithologist John Cassin at Philadelphia's Academy of Natural Sciences.

As early as 1865 she was giving "Parlor Classes" in ornithology. She lived in Philadelphia then and her classes were $2 each for four sessions in people's residences. A few years later, she published "Natural History of Birds," making her the first to publish such a comprehensive work on American birds. By 1875, she was living in Media, giving lectures on zoology.

Even though women in the nineteenth century could participate in limited ways through scientific societies, there were few professional and formal opportunities for a woman to work in science. Lewis was unsuccessful in her efforts to obtain a college-level teaching position, but she persisted nonetheless, impressing the most well-known figures of her time with her research and publications.

A talented illustrator, her botanical paintings were displayed at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, drawing acclaim from British scientist Thomas Henry Huxley. 1893, she completed a series of 50 paintings for the Pennsylvania Forestry Commission's display at the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition.  State Forestry Commissioner and West Cestrian Joseph T. Rothrock lauded her tree leaf charts, saying he could not "fully express my admiration of the exact and effective showing." She published papers in the "American Naturalist" and "Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences."

Lewis was 90 when she died in 1912. As an abolitionist, she saved countless lives, driven by the philosophy of equality. As a pioneering scientist, Lewis was recalled during a 1915 memorial as "the only woman in Pennsylvania who has done any original work in natural science."

Many thanks to Chester County Historical Society volunteer Robert O. Young for his research that was incorporated into this article.


Caption (below): Graceanna Lewis, circa 1865. Chester County Historical Society, West Chester, PA.