Harriet Elisabeth Beecher was born June 14, 1811 in Litchfield, CT to the Rev. Lyman Beecher (1775-1863) and Roxanna Foote Beecher (1775-1816), the sixth of 11 children.
The Beechers expected their children to shape the world around them:
- All seven sons became ministers, then the most effective way to influence society
- Oldest daughter Catharine pioneered education for women
- Youngest daughter Isabella was a founder of the National Women’s Suffrage Association
- Harriet believed her purpose in life was to write. Her most famous work exposed the truth about the greatest social injustice of her day, human slavery
When Harriet was five years old, her mother died and her oldest sister
Catharine assumed much of the responsibility for raising her younger
siblings. Harriet showed early literary promise: At seven, she won a
school essay contest, earning praise from her father. Harriet’s later
pursuit of painting and drawing honored her mother’s talents.
Her father’s second wife, Harriet Porter Beecher (1800-1835), was a
beautiful woman slightly overwhelmed by the eight boisterous children
she inherited. Her own children, Isabella, Thomas and James, added to
the noisy household.
In Litchfield, and on frequent visits to her grandmother in Guilford, CT, Harriet and her sisters and brothers played, read, hiked, and joined their father in games and exercises. Many of these childhood events were incorporated in her last novel Poganuc People (1878).
As a young girl, Harriet took part in lively debates at the family table. By discussing current events and social issues, Harriet learned how to argue persuasively.
She began her formal education at Sarah Pierce’s academy, one of the earliest institutions to encourage girls to study academic subjects in addition to the traditional ornamental arts.
In 1824, Harriet became first a student and then a teacher at Hartford Female Seminary, founded by sister Catharine. There, she furthered her writing talents, spending many hours composing essays.
In 1832, 21-year-old Harriet Beecher moved with her family to Cincinnati, OH when her father
Lyman was appointed President of Lane Theological Seminary. There she met and married Calvin Stowe, a theology professor she described as “rich in Greek & Hebrew, Latin & Arabic, & alas! rich in nothing else…”
Six of Stowe’s seven children were born in Cincinnati. In the summer of 1849, Stowe experienced for the first time the sorrow of many 19th century parents when her 18-month-old son, Samuel Charles Stowe, died of cholera. Stowe later credited that crushing pain as one of the inspirations for Uncle Tom’s Cabin because it helped her understand the pain enslaved mothers felt when their children were sold away from them.
In 1850 Calvin Stowe joined the faculty of his alma mater, Bowdoin College, in Brunswick, ME. The Stowe family moved and lived in Brunswick until 1853.
After the Civil War, the Stowes purchased a house and property in Mandarin, FL on the St. John’s River and began to travel south each winter. The relatively mild winters of northern Florida were a welcome respite from Hartford’s cold and the high costs of winter fuel.
The Beechers and the Stowes knew that racial equality required more than legislation; it also required education. Stowe’s brother Charles Beecher (1815-1900) opened a Florida school to teach emancipated people and he had urged Calvin and Harriet Stowe to join him.
Newly expanded railroads made shipping citrus fruits north a potentially lucrative business. Stowe purchased an orange grove which she hoped her son Frederick would manage.
Harriet Beecher Stowe loved Florida, comparing its soft climate to Italy, and she published Palmetto Leaves (1873), describing the beauties and advantages of the state. Stowe and her family wintered in Mandarin for more than 15 years before Calvin’s health prohibited long travel.
Stowe was less than half way through her life when she published Uncle Tom’s Cabin. She continued to write and work to improve society for most of her days. From Brunswick, the Stowes moved to Andover, MA, where Calvin was a professor of theology at Andover Theological Seminary (1853-1864).
After his retirement, the family moved to Hartford, CT. There, Harriet Beecher Stowe built her dream house, Oakholm, in Nook Farm, a neighborhood full of friends and relatives. The high maintenance cost and encroaching factories led her to sell her mansion in 1870. In 1873, Harriet, along with her husband and two adult daughters, settled into a brick Victorian Gothic cottage on Forest Street where she remained for 23 years.
While living in Hartford, Stowe undertook two speaking tours, one along the east coast, the second taking her to the western states. Promoting progressive ideals, she worked to reinvigorate the art museum at the Wadsworth Atheneum and establish the Hartford Art School, later part of the University of Hartford.
Stowe wrote some of her best known works, after Uncle Tom’s Cabin, while living in Hartford: The American Woman’s Home (1869), Lady Byron Vindicated (1871) and Poganuc People (1878).
Harriet Beecher Stowe’s writing career spanned 51 years. She published 30 books and countless short stories, poems, articles, and hymns. She learned early that her writing contributed to the family income. With her writing, Stowe could publicly express her thoughts and beliefs in a time when women were discouraged from public speaking, and could not vote or hold office.
Stowe’s publishing career began before her marriage with:
- Primary Geography for Children (1833)
Her sympathetic approach to Catholicism, unusual for its time, won her the praise of the local bishop.
- New England Sketches (1835)
A short story collection.
These were followed after marriage by:
- The Mayflower: Sketches of Scenes and Characters among the Descendants of the Pilgrim (1843)
- The Coral Ring (1843)
A short story which promoted temperance and an anti-slavery tract.
- Numerous articles, essays and short stories published regularly in newspapers and journals
In 1851, The National Era publisher Gamaliel Bailey contracted with Stowe for a story that would “paint a word picture of slavery” and that would run in installments in the abolitionist newspaper. Stowe expected Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Life Among the Lowly to be three or four chapters. She wrote more than 40.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin brought Stowe financial security and allowed her to write full time. She published multiple works each year including three other antislavery works: The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1853) documenting the case histories on which she had based Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp (1856), a forceful anti-slavery novel, and The Minister’s Wooing (1859) encouraging a more forgiving form of Christianity.
Other Notable Works
- The American Woman’s Home
A practical guide to homemaking, co-authored with sister Catharine Beecher
- Lady Byron Vindicated
Which strove to defend Stowe’s friend lady Byron while immersing Stowe herself in scandal.