Marie Elizabeth Venning: Tracing Her Footsteps to tell Her Story

June 19, 2020


A tintype was donated to Fort Hill in 1938, along with a typewritten letter by Margaret Calhoun, the great-granddaughter of Thomas and Anna Clemson.  The tintype was of Marie, a formerly enslaved woman, who was holding baby Floride Isabela Lee, the Clemsons’ granddaughter.

The letter provides few facts, while hinting at others; however, the letter contains most of what we know about Marie.  Marie was called “Dada” by Isabella; Marie wrote monthly letters to Isabella until her death.

Turning to these monthly letters, written by Marie herself, to learn valuable information is not an option since none were donated.  The 1938 letter provided clues that created hope that, with research and determination, Historic Properties would learn more about Marie and Her Story.

This letter made clear the uncomfortable reality of the marginalization of Marie and other African Americans. As shown in the letter, Marie was not first mentioned by name.  The letter, dated May 3, 1938, identified the African American woman in the tintype as Isabella Lee’s “Mammy, (Marie) ‘Dada’ as my mother called her.”

The letter shared that Marie was born at Fort Hill, “just a few hours before” Floride Clemson Lee, before adding that Marie “was given to [Floride Clemson]” by her maternal grandmother, Floride Calhoun.  The following paragraph claimed that, “She (Marie) was sent to school in Mobile or New Orleans, taught to speak French and German; also to be a lady’s maid and she sewed beautifully.”

Next, the letter revealed that the tintype was found in Floride Clemson Lee’s “Album of Photos” with Gideon Lee’s handwritten transcription, “Taken When Mama was Sick for Her.”  This inscription matched the fact that Floride Clemson Lee was ill after her daughter Isabella’s birth in May 1870; Floride Clemson Lee never recovered, dying in late July 1871.

In the Postscript, the letter added that “‘Dada’ stayed with my mother until [Isabella] was about nine. [Marie] adored [Floride Clemson Lee] and went to New York with her.  But [Marie] was jealous of [Ella Lorton Lee, Isabella’s step-mother] and so they had to let her go, but [Gideon Lee] paid [Marie] $25 as long as she lived.”

The following paragraph revealed that Marie “went to Mobile to the Rhetts and stayed until she died in 1916.” Marie was with Isabella before the birth of Margaret, the author of the letter, remaining until Margaret was eight weeks old before returning “to Mrs. Rhett who expected a baby also.”  Marie wrote monthly letters to Isabella “as long as she lived,” and Isabella “wrote her also.”  Margaret’s uncle is credited with finding the tintype in Gideon Lee’s diary, and it was believed it was taken on August 4, 1871, though likely taken a year earlier because of Isabella’s age.

Dissecting the letter left a lot of questions.   Based on the letter, Marie was born on December 29, 1842 at Fort Hill, and she died in 1916 in Mobile, AL.  Marie moved to Carmel, NY in 1869, along with Floride Clemson Lee and her husband Gideon Lee.  Although Marie left Carmel for Mobile around 1879, likely before the 1880 US Census, she should have been recorded in the 1870 US Census in Putnam County, NY, along with Floride Clemson Lee.

The search to find the 1870 US Census in Carmel, Putnam County, NY began; however, the household of Gideon Lee was not found.  This was an important record to find because Marie would have been listed with her full name, how she identified herself.  Calling her only Marie, or Marie Calhoun, was unsatisfactory, linking her permanently with the surname that would have been forced upon her, as a lasting vestige of enslavement.  Not using her full name seemed a disservice to Marie and Her Story.  Although Historic Properties was motivated, an 1870 Census Record was not located when searching on either Ancestry or Family Search.

But this was not the end of the road. Knowing that Marie should have been in Carmel at the time of the 1870 Census, only strengthened our resolve.  Without knowing Marie’s full name, it grew unlikely that we could locate Marie in the 1900 and 1910 US Censuses and learn more of Her Story in Mobile, AL.  After an internet search, the Putnam County’s Historian’s Office was found and contacted.  An email was sent, with the high hope that information on Marie would be found.

In less than 24 hours, Jennifer Cassidy confirmed Putnam County Historian’s Office had received Historic Properties’ inquiry request. In less than a week, the dedicated researchers from Putnam County Historian’s Office uncovered valuable information, revealing Marie and Her Story.

Marie Venning was one of the legatees in Gideon Lee’s will; Marie Venning worked for Benjamin Rhett in Mobile, AL.  Learning Marie’s surname was amazing, and it was all thanks to Putnam County Historian’s Office.  Learning the identity of the Rhett family in Mobile allowed Historic Properties to uncover important information. This included finding Marie Venning in the 1900 & 1910 US Censuses, Mobile city directories, her final resting place in Magnolia Cemetery in Mobile, and her date of death.

The name Marie Venning sounded familiar to Historic Properties Curator of Education & Interpretation Mari Noorai; she remembered an unknown woman who was listed at the end of Anna Maria Calhoun Clemson’s will.  Could the full name of Marie have been there all along in Anna Clemson’s probate record?  The answer was yes.  Marie Elizabeth Venning was also a legatee in Anna Clemson’s will; however, unlike Gideon Lee’s will which identified Marie Venning, Anna Clemson’s will did not specify who Marie Elizabeth Venning was.

Knowing her full name will help Historic Properties trace the footsteps of Marie Elizabeth Venning to tell Her Story.

Stay tuned to learn more, along with Historic Properties, as we trace the footsteps of Marie Elizabeth Venning.


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