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Mary Hartwell CatherwoodMary Hartwell Catherwood

Hoosier Connection: Mary Catherwood moved to Oakford, Indiana, in 1877 with her new husband, James Steele Catherwood. A few months later they moved to Indianapolis, where they lived until 1882. She wrote several novels and short stories about life in Indiana.

Works Discussed: Mallston’s Youngest,” Old Caravan Days, The Secrets at Roseladies

Mary Hartwell was born in Luray, Ohio, and at the age of nine her family moved to Milford, Illinois. Within a year of this move her father died of pneumonia. Her mother passed away just a few months later, orphaning Mary and her two younger siblings, Roxana and Marcus. The children’s maternal grandfather was appointed their guardian. They moved to Hebron, Ohio, to live with him, and attended the local public school. When Mary was thirteen, she received her teaching certificate, and she started teaching the following year.

Catherwood taught at small country schools until she was able to enter Granville Female College in Ohio. She managed to put herself through the four-year course in only three years, finishing in 1868. During this time her work began to be published, and she was able to support herself with her writing. She married James Steele Catherwood in December of 1877, and they moved to Oakford, Indiana. In 1879, they moved to Indianapolis. During that time, Mrs. Catherwood developed a friendship with James Whitcomb Riley, another influential Indiana author. She was quite involved in literary circles in Indianapolis, and was fairly prolific while living there. In 1882, the Catherwoods moved to Hoopeston, Illinois, and in 1897, Mary moved to Chicago, where she lived until her death in 1902.

Catherwood began writing at a very young age. When asked when she first wanted to write, she replied “I think it must have been when I was in my cradle” (qtd. in Wilson 13). Her work first was published while she was still in her mid-teens.

Although many of Catherwood's stories are based in the Midwest, a handful of them are actually set in Indiana. One of her short stories takes place in a town she calls Fairfield, which is the original name of Oakford, Indiana, where the Catherwoods lived for a time. This story, "Mallston’s Youngest,” was published in Lippincott’s Magazine in August of 1880. It contains a particularly vivid description of the forest outside of Oakford:

There was a joyful hurry of birds all around. That leopard of the Indiana woods, the sycamore, repeated itself in vistas. "Sycamores always look like dazzling marble shafts blackened with patches of moss," said the young man (194).

In 1884, Catherwood published a novel called Old Caravan Days, which is about a family moving from Ohio to Illinois during the 1800s. The story is intended for juvenile readers, but contains passages detailing Indiana’s pristine environment before massive deforestation and drainage of the wetlands occurred.

The woods of Indiana ran to moss, and sometimes descended to bogginess, and broad-leaved paw-paw bushes crowded the shade; mighty sycamores blotched with white leaned over the streams: there was a dreamy influence in the June air and pale blue curtains of mist hung over distances (158).
An Indiana forest
An Indiana forest

Later in the book, Catherwood virtually places readers in the untouched Indiana forests with a strikingly detailed section. In this passage, she personifies nature itself, conveying the feeling of fear and awe that these huge, dark woods must have contained for the early settlers:

It was dark in the woods. A rustle could be heard now and then as of some tiny four-footed creature moving the stiff grass; or a twig cracked. The frogs in the creek were tuning their bass-viols. A tree-toad rattled on some unseen trunk, and the whole woods heaved its great lungs in the steady breathing which it never leaves off, but which becomes a roar and a wheeze in stormy or winter weather (178).

Finally, Catherwood describes Indiana’s landscape in a way that is quite different from how many of us know it today. The Indiana that we are familiar with is mainly composed of wide stretches of open farmland, broken only by a few scattered patches of trees. In contrast, she relates the following:

The Indiana landscape was beautiful in tones of green and stretches of foliage. Whoever calls it monotonous has never watched its varying complexions or the visible breath of Indian summer which never departs from it at any season (200).

Another of Catherwood’s children’s novels, The Secrets at Roseladies, published in 1888, is set in east central Indiana along the Wabash River. She depicts the river at the end of a summer day:

It was about sunset, and the Wabash River had all the milk and fire and changeable green tints of opals. It came in a broad volume round a bend betwixt hills in the north, and spread around sand-banks, islands, and across pebbled shallows, in some places pouring a swift current and in others oozing half asleep against drift; so the distance seemed long from the east shore to the west (21).

Later in the novel, Catherwood portrays the darkness of the forest at night:

Gray, damp twilight was on the river, but in the woods night itself made awful glooms among the barky trunks and close-huddled thickets. The bunchy foliage of pecan trees would have shut out all after-glow had there been any (54-55).

In an environmental context, Mary Catherwood's works are of great importance because they provide descriptions of the landscapes of an Indiana that once was. The drastic changes in the forest and wetlands become apparent when reading her rich portrayals of the land as it was a century and a half ago.



Catherwood, Mary Hartwell. “Mallston’s Youngest.” Lippincott’s Magazine Aug. 1880: 189-97.

---. Old Caravan Days. Boston, 1879.

---. The Secrets at Roseladies. Boston, 1888.

Price, Robert. A Critical Biography of Mrs. Mary Hartwell Catherwood: A Study of Middle Western Regional Authorship, 1847-1902. Columbus, OH: Ohio State UP, 1944.

Robb, Kenneth A. “Mary Hartwell Catherwood.” Dictionary of Literary Biography. 1989.

Wilson, M.L. Biography of Mary Hartwell Catherwood. Newark, OH: American Tribune Printery, 1904.


"'...and touch the universal heart.' The Appeal of James Whitcomb Riley." The Lilly Library: Indiana U Libraries. Oct. 2002 <http://www.indiana.edu/~liblilly/riley/docs/