Mary Ella Cowles

Mary Ella Cowles

Mary Ella Hitchcock was born in 1855 in Rochester, New York. At 18 years old, she, her younger sister Kate, and parents Charles and Eliza Hitchcock headed west. Her father had purchased a silver mine near Prescott, Arizona, but the family was caught in a snowstorm for several days. They retreated to Fort Verde on December 27, 1873 and were under the protection of the soldiers. Just days prior, a young lieutenant named Calvin Duvall Cowles had arrived at the post with the 23rd Infantry. He was soon smitten with Mary Ella and, within six months, they were married.

For the next ten years, the Cowles family lived at ten different posts. Twice Calvin left on campaigns, with Mary Ella caring for home and family. Their first child, Mary – called Toosie to avoid confusion with her mother Mary – was born in 1875. Sons Robert, William, Calvin, Jr., and Josiah followed. To reorganize a household on an annual basis, and move with young children and infants was hard on the family, especially Mary Ella.  It was also a struggle financially to move the family so often. Mary Ella was frustrated with the lack of amenities and help to care for their growing family. 

In a letter to Calvin’s mother, Mary Ella wrote, “We are both very tired of the frontier especially of moving so often. It is so expensive I cannot get any one to do my work now except [people for] forty dollars to do the cooking and washing only. I can not afford it and am doing all except the washing myself and the ironing even I have to do. We are not any of us well and I am worried about Caw [Calvin’s nickname] all the time. He has so much responsibility and has had for four years now that it is beginning to tell on him. He feels miserably all the time. He seldom has a good clerk and so has a great deal to do. The children talk of going east, it is so desolate here for them, not even grass to play on – no school, and no playmates.” Additionally, the family suffered the tragic loss of their son Robert. In 1884, the Cowles learned that the 23rd Infantry would be relocating to a new post – Fort Mackinac, Mackinac Island, Michigan – “a very agreeable surprise,” and left the west behind.

The Hill Quarters at Fort Mackinac, where Mary Ella and her family lived.

Mackinac Island was a booming tourist destination. Fort Mackinac was the headquarters of Mackinac National Park, designated as the country’s second national park in 1875. Although they continued their daily military duties, a second company of soldiers was added to keep up with the new obligations of the park. Mary Ella enjoyed the new socialization with other military and local families, abundance of help for the household, and the latest goods and fresh foods. The children were able to go to school on a regular basis and had other children to interact with, as well as more family time with their parents. However, tragedy struck the family again when Josiah died shortly after they arrived to the island.

The initial stay on the island was short for the Cowles, as Calvin was moved to David’s Island, New York. The family moved back to Mackinac Island after two years, but suffered yet another loss when daughter Isabel, born while the family was in New York, died just past her first birthday. Both Josiah and Isabel now slept “in the beautiful cemetery of this post.” While conditions on Mackinac and in New York were very nice, the loss of children at the post was heartbreaking.

The Cowles family continued to move and Mary Ella endured Calvin’s deployments during the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars. Mary Ella died in 1906, and was interred at Arlington National Cemetery. Calvin died in 1937 and is also buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Through her life, Mary Ella held a deep dedication to family. She and Calvin were loving parents, showing affection instead of the stereotypical Victorian model that children should be seen, not heard. She showed conviction for military and national duty, but more so a legacy of family commitment, keeping household and family together through their lives on the move.

Background on the Cowles family can be found inside the Hill Quarters, during the daily children’s program, and on the new “Women at the Fort Tour” at Fort Mackinac. The fort opens for the season on May 3.

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