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Tacoma's Founding Mothers: Rebecca Vail Pitman Carr Staley

Written in Spring 2020 by Karen Haas, Museum Volunteer

Edited for blog publication by Holly Stewart, Program Manager

This is the last in a three-part series about Tacoma's founding mothers from the 2020 living history presentation Breaking Molds & Building Community, by Karen Haas.

The first post about Janet Elder Steele Fuller is available here.

The second post about Sarah Wolff is available here.

As a living history performer, I feel especially rewarded telling the tales of those whose voices are usually silent in history -- women. In February 2020, I wrote and presented “Breaking Molds & Building Community: Tacoma's Founding Mothers” for Job Carr Cabin Museum at Old St. Peter’s Church in Old Town. This series of three blog posts are taken from my scripts of this program. I’ve kept most of the storytelling “feel”, so pour yourself a cup of tea, settle in, and “meet” three women who had an impact on early Tacoma. ~Karen Haas

Rebecca Vail Pitman Carr Staley

1822 - 1908

Earliest known portrait of Rebecca Pitman Carr, Source: Carr Family Collection

The third in this "Founding Mothers of Old Tacoma" series, Rebecca presented an intriguing journey into the life of a fascinating woman. Adding to the joy of research is a treasure trove of photographs and documents recently gifted to the Museum from a Carr family member.

In the aforementioned "treasure trove" are numerous family histories gathered by Job and Rebecca Carr's eldest son Anthony. One tells of how, according to a family legend, Rebeca's great-great-grandfather Uriah Pitman was kidnapped at age 8 from near Liverpool, England. He was brought to the United States and sold into servitude. From this inauspicious beginning, the American branch of the Pitman family arose. With roots such as this, there is little wonder Rebecca lived a life where she came to expect the unexpected as she journeyed from her birthplace in Cincinnati, Ohio to the west coast of the United States.

Anthony Pitman and Margaret Vail Pitman (Rebecca's parents), Source: Carr Family Collection

Speaking of roots, it is said that Rebecca's branch of the Pitman family is related to Sir Isaac Pitman, who developed a shorthand system. One look at Rebecca's mother's fine penmanship quickly proves her family did have skill with a pen.

Letter from Margaret Vail Pitman to her daughter Rebecca Pitman Carr, Source: Carr Family Collection

Job Carr and Rebecca Pitman were married at the October 1840 monthly Quaker meeting in Camden, Indiana. This group of Quakers had the reputation of being progressive; many of them became involved in radical reform movements in the 1840s, including a utopian community, the underground railroad, and spiritualism. Apparently, they were too tame for Rebecca as in 1847 she was "disowned" by them for not attending worship and singing temperance songs. Quakers disapproved of all forms of music, but Rebecca was known to sing, Job played a musical instrument, and later, their children attended dances.

Rebecca Pitman Carr, Source: Carr Family Collection

Job and Rebecca established their home near Richmond, Indiana. Rebecca was known for being strong-willed - her husband suggesting that arguing with her was fighting a losing battle. While most described Job as "mild-mannered", there are occasions that point to the fact that once he had made up his mind - his mind remained made up. So it may come as no surprise that as the years went on, they found themselves growing apart. It was their 4 beloved children - Anthony, Howard, Mettie and Maggie - who helped them "agree to disagree" and stay together for the children's sakes. Then something larger than all of them bound the family together in shared beliefs: Abolition, and the ensuing Civil War.

Rebecca Carr, Source: Carr Family Collection. In 1859, Rebecca went to photographer J.P. Ball to have her picture taken.

James Presley Ball was a free black man who owned a prominent daguerreotype gallery in Cincinnati.

Shortly after the attack on Fort Sumter in 1861, Anthony enlisted with the Union Army. When he was wounded, Rebecca nursed him back to health.

Job also joined the fight, enlisting with the 36th Indiana Volunteers at the advanced aged of 47. Rebecca followed him, signing up as a nurse matron with the same unit. When Job mustered out with injuries and ill health, Rebecca brought him home to recuperate. She later received a pension for her service

Leave of absence approval for Mrs. Carr, Matron from the 36th Reg. Ind. Volunteers in October 1861, Source: Carr Family Collection

Youngest son Howard, like many lads, saw the "romance" in war and wanted to join the "fun. He lied about his age, enlisted under a false name, and before his 18th birthday was a prisoner at Andersonville and later Libby Prison. Upon his release, Rebecca nursed him back to health as well.

Rebecca Carr. Source: Carr Family Collection

After the War, the siren call of the West beckoned the Carr family. Job was the first to settle on Puget Sound. Soon after, Anthony and Howard staked claims next to their father. And when his eastern sweetheart wanted nothing to do with moving west, Howard brought out his sister Mettie. Mettie helped the Carr cabin to become known for exceptional hospitality. She later married and had a son, Frankie.

Meanwhile, back in Ohio, youngest daughter Maggie married and moved to San Francisco. Let's leave her there temporarily as Rebecca again joins the narrative.

As mentioned earlier, when Job moved west, Rebecca stayed east. She was apparently happy with a boardinghouse, her spiritualism practice (more about that later), friends and family. The Carr's "agreement to disagree" became official in June 1864 when Rebecca filed for divorce.

Marriage License of Mr. Albert Staley and Miss Rebecca V. Carr, March 1867, Source: Carr Family Collection

In 1867, Rebecca married young Albert Staley, who shared her interest in the spiritual realms. They followed daughter Maggie to San Francisco in the 1870s. While Rebecca grew her mediumship practice in the city, Albert sought work with the railroad in the mountains. His letters from these times promise that if he were to come to San Francisco he would support Rebecca.

"And if you are not ashamed of me, I will appear with you in the public. Keep my mouth shut and nose clean and put a clean shirt on every day, and wear good fashionable cloths (sic)."

- Letter from Albert Staley to Rebecca Staley

Albert promises to treat her "with all the courtesy imaginable so you will not have to answer so many questions about marriage", but adds "If you think best that we should live as we are so be it."

Unlike Job, who was about 10 years older than Rebecca, Albert was more than 10 years younger. One wonders if she might have started to grow tired of feeling like she had five rather than four children with the arrival of each of his pleading letters. Albert, apparently, grew tired of the situation of well. He moved back to his home state of Pennsylvania where he taught a "Philosophy of Universal Life" and in 1879 formed the Order of Chylena -- a fraternal organization which some called a cult. Even though both were very much alive, the 1880 census records show that Rebecca and Albert were each "widowed." He later remarried.

Rebecca Carr Staley, Source: Hunt's History of Tacoma

In 1875, Maggie and Rebecca must have been excited to hear that Mettie and little Frankie were sailing on the steamship Pacific to visit them in San Francisco. Tragically, all but two on the ship drowned when the Pacific collided with another ship and sank on Cape Flattery. It was sometime after this that Maggie and her son, and Rebecca found their ways to Tacoma.

By this time, both Anthony and Howard had married. Job moved up the hill from his cabin in Old Town Tacoma to a new, larger house on Tacoma's North Slope. Rebecca moved into the Old Town neighborhood and, no doubt, enjoyed being near her grandchildren. She was known locally as "Grandma Staley."

Rebecca's spiritualism and mediumship career prospered in Tacoma. Spiritualism is the belief that human beings have two parts - the physical and the spiritual. The spirit is what continues on, even after death. Mediums are said to have a gift to enable communication between the physical and spiritual realms. Rebecca said she did not "tell fortunes", but rather had the ability to "see" for people. News of her talent spread far and wide. Clients often traveled quite a distance to consult with her. Sailors came off the ships and immediately sought her out for advice.

The Tacoma Sunday Ledger-News Tribune of August 12, 1956 interviews Frank W. Sullivan who remembered how, as a young man, he had come to see Rebecca at the urging of the young lady he hoped to marry. When Frank handed Rebecca a handkerchief, she clearly saw a dark, heavy-set man working on a locomotive. Frank insisted, "That doesn't apply to me, I have nothing to do with railroads." But the sight was especially clear, so Rebecca asked if it was his handkerchief. It turned out that he had forgotten his own that morning and his young lady had lent him one of her brother's handkerchiefs. The brother, of course, was dark, heavy set, and worked on the railroad. When Frank handed Rebecca his pocket knife, her sights were quite different, and suited him exactly. When asked about matrimony, she strongly advised him to marry the young lady. The marriage was successful.

Doubtless, Rebecca faced skepticism, perhaps even from the very people who avidly read their horoscopes that were published daily in the newspapers. Thanks to her mediumship, she was able to live comfortably, with a bit to invest in several real estate lots.

Rebecca Carr Staley. Source: Carr Family Collection

From this position of comfort, Rebecca helped those who were less fortunate. She enjoyed easing the plight of those confined to prisons, and gave them many useful books. She was known for being a helpful and ostentatious friend to the poor. Her picturesque little home was embowered in vines and climbing roses, and populated with house cats and chickens.

Time had yet one more upheaval in Rebecca's life. As Old Tacoma grew in population and "civilization", the old cabins such as hers along the waterfront were deemed "eyesores" and were razed by the Health Department in one of Tacoma's earliest dabblings in urban renewal. She moved around the corner from North 30th Street to her property on Carr Street (present site of the Tacoma Mountaineers' building).

I closed her portrayal with a challenge from her time to our times. "Embrace change and the unexpected as you use your gifts wisely - and in all you do, never forget that you are all the guardians of the memories of we who have gone before."

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