Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick


“Here we stand on a threshold with crystal inland --

    Its mosaic of lakes, by Omnipotence made --

With the hearth-light of sun in the azure-arched door,

    And the prairie beyond with its emerald floor.”

(from an unpublished poem relating to Iowa)

Rebecca Smith Pollard in her later years wrote hymns and was sometimes confused with a New York author, Josephine Pollard, who wrote chiefly on religious topics. As a poet, she was patriotic with a sense of the beauty of nature and developed rich metaphor, with good rhythm and color as seen in the passage above.

Pollard was a Protestant but defended Catholicism, as she believed that religious intolerance was a social attitude rooted in prejudice and fanaticism. She was well known in educational circles.

In her private schools in Farmington, Keokuk and Ft. Madison, Mrs. Pollard developed a unique style of teaching, presenting first-hand activity illustrations whenever possible. She would take her botany class on a picnic in the woods and they would return with plant specimens to study. The battles of the Revolutionary War were fought in the school yard with brooms for guns, blackboard erasers for pistols, and the roll of a beating drum to revive the Spirit of ’76. Apples were divided and eaten in class to teach fractions, and a pot of boiling mush illustrated volcanic action to her students. She also became known as an authority on English grammar, enunciation and pronunciation. From her resourceful experience, she wrote a series of spellers, readers, and a teacher’s manual. The “Pollard Series” of learning was adopted in many parts of the country.

Rebecca Harrington Smith was born in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania on September 20, 1831 and was the daughter of a playwright, who was an authority on Shakespeare. Professor Smith taught in private schools and was the editor of a literary journal “The Hesperus.” The English grammar book that Abraham Lincoln studied by candlelight was based on Smith’s method of presentation.

Eventually the Smith family moved westward into Ohio, then Kentucky. Here, their dark-haired, keen-witted daughter Rebecca began her teaching career. Later, she taught in a fashionable district of Chicago. However, she began her writing career with the Louisville Journal, whose editor opposed secession and was an important influence in keeping Kentucky in the Union. In her “Letters from a Prairie Cottage,” Rebecca included a children’s corner with tales about taming and raising animals and of a cat who adopted orphan chicks.

Rebecca was inspired by the spirit of Unionism and married a New York poet and editor in Farmington, Iowa in 1858 named Oliver I. Taylor. Soon after her marriage, Mr. and Mrs. Taylor lived in Keosauqua where they edited a newspaper, the predecessor to the State Line Democrat. A year later, Taylor purchased the Burlington Argus and changed the name to the Gazette, at Rebecca’s suggestion. During the years she lived in Farmington, Keosauqua, Burlington, Ft. Madison and Keokuk she wrote a series of poems that were published in 1869 in book form entitled “Maymie,” as a tribute to her ten-year-old daughter who died that year.

Rebecca’s most earth-shaking writing was under another name. In the summer of 1856, book stores displayed a new novel by an Iowa author that was in some respects a fictional reply to “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” and the two books were often paired together to encourage sales. In Keokuk, fifty copies of “Emma Bartlett, or Prejudice and Fanaticism” were sold in one day!

The book presumed to expose the hypocrisy of Know-Nothingism (a group whose anti-intellectual political attitude used exaggerated patriotism with extreme fear of foreign subversive influence) and Abolitionism and was dedicated to the true upholders of the Constitution and the Union. It was written simply by, “An American lady.”

The “American lady” was known by editors outside of Iowa (such as the editor of the Louisville Journal” as Kate Harrington. But neither the book nor contemporary newspapers identified the author by her real name. The copyright notice merely afforded a clue to the authorship, “entered according to Act of Congress, in the year 1856, by R. H. Smith.” Investigation was necessary to reveal that in reality the “American lady” was Miss Rebecca Harrington Smith who lived at Farmington and signed her newspaper articles and poems as “Kate Harrington.”

Opinions varied with both favorable and unfavorable reactions. The Ohio Statesman gave her a very good review but the Cincinnati Times said, “We have read this book. We pronounce the plot an excellent one and the style charming, but she has failed to fulfill the intended mission of the book.” It accused her of also showing prejudice and fanaticism typical of the politicians that she tried to defend.

According to Iowa’s historical magazine Palimpsest, this reply to Uncle Tom’s Cabin is almost unknown to the present generation and is not available in most libraries except for those in southeastern Iowa. Here she is remembered as the “American Lady” who presented her observations. She exposed faults and errors of mankind, yet she looked upon these wrong-doings with a kindness that allowed her to apologize and find excuses for what she believed were improprieties.

Kate Harrington, or Rebecca Harrington Smith Pollard wrote all of her life. She was 79 years old when she produced the poem, “Althea” or “Morning Glory,” which relates to Iowa. Mrs. Pollard died in Ft. Madison on May 29, 1917.

(from material submitted to me by Doris Secor of Keosauqua.)

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Contributed to the Van Buren Co. IAGenWeb Project by Andy Reddick