Mary Alicia Owen: Missouri Folklorist

By Mary Elizabeth Allcorn

Missouri Folklore Society Journal
(v. 8-9, 1986-87)

    Mary Alicia Owen, Missouri author and folklorist, became interested in her youth in the tales told by people of the St. Joseph area. She collected folktales, customs, and traditions from her home community and wrote a number of articles and books on the wealth of information that she had gathered. Her publications provide a valuable record of the tales, customs and traditions of Blacks, Indians, and others in the Northwest Missouri region. Although best known for her works on customs and folklore of Blacks and Indians, she also studied Gypsy culture and the traditions of Anglo-Americans.

    Mary Alicia Owen began writing as a young woman. She wrote a column about local settlers for the St. Joseph Saturday Democrat, a newspaper published from about 1879 to 1883. 1 In an interview for the Kansas City Star in 1941, Mary’s sister, Julietta A. Owen, indicated the first published work of Mary Alicia Owen was the “Taming of Tarias,” 2 which appeared in Century Magazine in December 1889. The story, set in St. Louis in 1840, 3 describes a girl of French and Indian descent, named Tarias, and her tumultuous romance and marriage to a Kentuckian named Dave. Mary Alicia’s interest in language is evident in this early story. She represents Dave’s Kentucky speech in dialect, an example of her early use of dialect. Dave tries to relieve Tarias of what he thinks is her fear of wild animals howling outside the cabin and says: “The critturs cayen’t git in…. When they’ve et the one I hurt they’ll go off in s’arch of other plunder.” 4 Her early interest in language was to grow into a very careful and extensive use of dialect in some of her later works.

    Mary Alicia Owen was the daughter of James Alfred Owen and Agnes Cargill Owen. Her father moved to St. Joseph from Henry Country, Kentucky, in 1846 and became a successful lawyer. He and his wife Agnes, with daughter Mary, appear in the 1850 Federal Census of Buchanan County, in the household of James Cargill, father of Agnes Owen. 5 Born January 29, 1850, the eldest of six children, Mary was educated in private schools and attended Vassar College from September 1868 to June 1869. 6 In the Kansas City Star interview, Julietta noted that her sister “…was interested in humanity in all its manifestations.” 7 This early interest in people and their beliefs and interests provided the foundation upon which Mary Alicia grounded her career.

    In a footnote in his Algonquin Legends of New England, first published in 1884, Charles Godfrey Leland requested related items from his readers. Mary wrote to Leland and enclosed a selection of tales. Leland answered her letter and suggested she collect folktales and publish a book of them. Correspondence with him encouraged her to further pursue her interest in folktales. After her father died in May 1890, Leland suggested she consider going to the Internationl Folklore Congress of 1891, to be held in London. At first she hesitated, but finally submitted a paper. It was accepted, and in September 1891 she presented it at the Congress. Entitled “Missouri Negro Traditions,” and often referred to as a paper on voodoo tales, her presentation was well received. Leland and his wife met and entertained her in London. Leland proved a great friend and counselor for Mary, and gave her encouragement to continue her work.

    Mary Alicia Owen’s first book, Old Rabbit, the Voodoo, and Other Sorcerers, illustrated by her sister Julietta A. Owen and artist Louis Wain, was published in 1893 by T. Fisher Unwin in London. The illustrations have a primitive quality well suited to the subject matter. Leland’s introduction reflects his great interest in her writing. This work was republished under the title Voodoo Tales, As Told Among the Negroes of the Southwest in 1893 by G. P. Putnam Sons of New York and London. Five years later G. W. Jacobs & Company of Philadelphia published it under the title of Ole Rabbits’ Plantation Stories as Told Among the Negroes of the Southwest. Written in dialect, this book deals with customs and superstitions, and the tales presented are connected, in many instances, by the narrative device of Negro women telling the stories to a little girl.

    William K. McNeil, in his article titled “Mary Alicia Owen, Collector of Afro-American and Indian Lore in Missouri,” which appeared in the Missouri Folklore Society Journal in 1980, mentions the contributions of Mary Alicia Owen to Afro-American lore. Her works, he claims, were overshadowed by the fame of Joel Chandler Harris, a Georgia writer often regarded as the most important Afro-American folklorist. McNeil provides insights into the contributions of Mary to American folklore studies and gives her writings the attention they deserve. 8 One review of her first book, which appeared in the Journal of American Folklore in 1893, notes that “The singular feature [of the stories] is at once observed, that instead of being variants of the negro lore made familiar by Mr. Harris, [they] much more closely resemble the Indian tales.” 9

    Mary next turned her attention to research on voodoo magic. She collected information from voodoos, even visiting Cuba to compile data. However, she never submitted her manuscript for publication. Many years later she burned the paper. Apparently, she had misgivings about revealing the detailed practices of the cult, but her research did not go unused, since she included information about voodoo in several of her later works.

    Mary Alicia also became interested in Indian folklore. In the Kansas City Star interview with Julietta Owen in 1941, her sister recalled Mary’s visits to study Indian customs:

[T]here were several Indian Tribes across the [Missouri] river and Sister used to go over and stay with them several days at a time. If she was going to stay all night she sometimes took our brother with her, but more often she went alone. The Tribes welcomed her to their camp because they knew she liked them. 10
In 1904 the Folk-Lore Society published her book, titled Folk-Lore of the Musquakie Indians of North America and Catalogue of Mosquakie Beadwork and Other Objects in the Collection of the Folk-Lore Society. Five years earlier, Mary Alicia had sent a paper to the meeting of the British Association in Toronto. It concerned the folklore of the Musquakie Indians, known commonly today as the Fox Indians. Through correspondence with the Folk-Lore Society regarding this paper, she agreed to write a book on the subject to be published by the Society. She also offered to present to the Society her collection of Fox beadwork and ceremonial implements. Always a great collector of books, by this date Mary Alicia Owen had also become a collector of artifacts. Her collection reached the Society in the Spring of 1901 for exhibition at a joint meeting of the Folk-Lore Society and Anthropological Institute, June 19, 1901. Then her collection was placed in the Museum of Archeology and Ethnology at Cambridge. 11 She later donated some of her Musquakie regalia to the Missouri State Museum. 12

    A catalogue of these items and some illustrations of them appear in her 1904 book. The publication includes a collection of folktales and information about the mythical origin of the Musquakie tribal legends and their history, beliefs, dances, and practices regarding birth, infancy, puberty, courtship, marriage, death and burial. An example of the kind of information she relates is the following from a chapter on courtship and marriage:

The young man (after marriage) lives with his wife’s people, but this does not make him or his children of her clan—of her people’s clan, that is, for she henceforth belongs to his till death or divorce separates her from him. 13

    Among her other works are The Daughters of Alouette and Oracles and Witches. The former tells of a French and Indian orphan raised by a white minister on the frontier. Much of the author’s research into voodoo beliefs is used in this work of fiction. Oracles and Witches also uses this research in a fictional work with a frontier flavor. She wrote numerous stories and articles, including “Social Customs and Usages in Missouri During the Last Century,” which appeared in 1920 in the Missouri Historical Review, a quarterly publication of the State Historical Society of Missouri.

    The first individual life member of the State Historical Society of Missouri, she received an honorary membership in the English Folk-Lore Society and was a life member of the American Folk-Lore Society. Between 1896 and 1902 she became an honorary member of the Musquakie Tribe, and she served as president of the Missouri Folk-Lore Society from 1908 until January 2, 1935, when she died. Her biography was included in both the British Who’s Who and Who’s Who in America.

    Mary Alicia Owen should be remembered for her contributions to the preservation of folklore and her energetic and enthusiastic efforts to record the variety of cultural heritages she saw around her. The lists of her writings and the works about her interests and the influence of her work. Because of her ability to see the value and importance of traditions still surviving in the ethnic groups in the St. Joseph area during her lifetime she has left a lasting heritage to us and future researchers.

1 William H. Taft, Missouri Newspapers When and Where 1808-1963 (Columbia: State Historical Society of Missouri, 1964).

2 Mary Ann Bodine, “Wide Recognition as a Folklorist Won by a Retiring Missouri Woman,” Kansas City Star (January 27, 1941).

3 Mary Alicia Owen, “The Taming of Tarias,” Century Magazine, 29.2 (December 1889), 284-291.

4 Owen, “Taming,” p. 291.

5 Elizabeth P. Ellsberry, Index to the Federal Population Census of Buchanan County, Missouri, 1850, p. 6.

6 Letter from John E. Fellows, Recorder of Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, N.Y. to Ms. Dorothy Caldwell, April 1970.

7 Bodine, Kansas City Star.

8 William K. McNeil, “Mary Alicia Owen, Collector of Afro-American and Indian Lore in Missouri,” Missouri Folklore Society Journal, 2 (1980), 1-14.

9 Review of Old Rabbit, the Voodoo, and Other Sorcerers, by Mary Alicia Owen, Journal of American Folklore, 6.9 (1893), 161-162.
10 Bodine, op. cit.

11 Mary Alicia Owen, Folk-Lore of the Musquakie Indians of North America and Catalogue of Mosquakie Beadwork and Other Objects in the Collection of the Folk-Lore Society (London: David Nutt for the Folk-Lore Society, 1904), p. vi.

12 According to records at the Missouri State Museum, after her Musquakie regalia went to the British Folk-Lore Society, Mary Alicia Owen had her Indian friends duplicate the collection. This collection of Musquakie ceremonial art was presented to the Missouri State Museum in 1929. Also in the State Museum is a notebook tablet with pencil entries (frequently in shorthand) concerning the individual artifacts and their significance in the group. A document in the Museum collection, dated 1931, provides a rare insight into the work of this early Missouri folklorist and her views:

I dare say I was a hundred times among the Musquakie between 1881 and 1898. I went to dances…. I had much trouble getting my collection. We were always dodging those white idiots the government sent out. They seemed to think dancing was devil worship. Folklore and ethnology had not made much headway then.
Persons interested in seeing the Mary Alicia Owen Collection at the Missouri State Museum should contact L.T. Shelton, Curator of Collections, at the Capitol Building in Jefferson City.

13 Folklore of the Musquakie Indians, p. 76.

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From Mary A. Owen, Suggestions for Collectors of Negro and Indian Folk-Lore in Missouri, Missouri Folk-Lore Society, brochure, n.d.:

(a) Superstitions connected with great natural objects. –Tell what you know of the great talking fish in the Missouri River, of the thunder pent up in certain of the Ozark Mountains, of the Indian warrior ghosts that sit around certain sacred springs, etc. (p. 1)

(h) Beliefs relating to a future. –Where do the good dead go? What is a ghost carrier? What becomes of suicides, of unrepentant sinners? Does the dead climb a string, or ladder, or go over a bridge, or does he fly, etc.? (p. 2)

It needs not perhaps be said that these are suggestions rather than interrogatories to be fired point-blank at your informant. Polonius’ method, “by indirection find direction out,” is often the most effective method for the folk-lore collector. (p. 2)

Works by Mary Alicia Owen

“Coyote and the Little Pig,” Journal of American Folk-Lore, 18 (January-March 1905), 63-65.

The Daughter of Alouette. London: Methuen & Co., 1896.

Folklore of the Musquakie Indians of North America and Catalogue of Musquakie Beadwork and Other Objects in the Collection of the Folk-Lore Society. London: D. Nutt, 1904.

“The Folklorist.” Typed manuscript, St. Joseph Public Library, n.d.

Home Life of Squaws. n. d.

“The Homesick Missourian.” Unpublished poem, St. Joseph Public Library; Archive, Women Writers Along the Rivers Project, Missouri Western State College. n.d.

“Legends of Prospect Hill.” St. Joseph News Press, March 13, 1926. [Includes the stories “The Stone Squaw,” “Dr. Betsey,” and “The Guardian of Gold,” recorded by Ada Lyon.]

Messiah Beliefs of the American Indians. n. d.

“Ole Rabbit an’ de dawg he stole: story.” Journal of American Folk-Lore, 3 (April 1890), 135-38.

Ole Rabbit’s Plantation Stories as Told Among the Negroes of the Southwest. Philadelphia: George W. Jacobs & Co., 1898.

Ole Rabbit the Voodoo and Other Sorcerers. London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1893.

Ole Rabbit the Voodoo and Other Sorcerers. New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969.

Oracles and Witches. 1902.

“Pig-tail Charley: Negro Tale.” Journal of American Folk-Lore, 16 (January 1903), 58-60.

“Poor Lucy.” n. d. [Short story manuscript, St. Joseph Public Library; Archive, women Writers Along the Rivers Project, Missouri Western State College.]
Rain Gods of the American Indians, n. d.

“The Road to Paradise.” Midwest Bookman, 3 (1912), 3-7. [Also available as typed manuscript, St. Joseph Public Library and the Archives of the Women Writers Along the Rivers Project, Missouri Western State College].

The Sacred Council Hills, A Folk Drama. Manuscript, St. Joseph, Mo., 1909.

“Social Customs and Usages in Missouri During the Last Century.” Missouri Historical Review, 15 (October 1920), 176-190.

“Suggestions for Collectors of Negro and Indian Folk Lore in Missouri.” Brochure, Missouri Folk-Lore Society, n. d.

“The Taming of Tarias.” Century Magazine, 29.2 (December 1889), 284-91.

“Three Little Pigs: Story.” Journal of American Folk-Lore, 15 (January 1902), 64-65.

“Three Stories.” The Folklorist, 1 (July 1893), 101-106.

Voodoo Tales, As Told Among the Negroes of the Southwest, Collected from Original Sources by Mary Alicia Owen. Introduction by Charles Godfrey Leland. Illustrated by Julietta A. Owen and Louis Wain. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1893.

Works About Mary Alicia Owen

Bodine, Mary Ann. “Wide Recognition as a Folklorist Won By a Retiring Missouri Woman.” Kansas City Star, January 27, 1941.

Burke, W. J. and Will D. Howe. American Authors and Books, 1640 to the Present Day Third
Revised Edition. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1972.

Dorson, Richard M. The British Folklorists: A History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968.

Eberle, Jean Fahey. The Incredible Owen Girls. St. Louis: Boar’s Head Press, 1977.

Eberle, Jean Fahey. “The Incredible Owen Sisters.” Missouri Life, (December 1985), 38-41.

Hartland, E. S. Preface, Folklore of the Musquakie Indians, by M. A. Owen. London: D. Nutt, 1904.

Leland, Charles Godfrey. Introduction, Voodoo Tales, As Told Among the Negroes of the Southwest, Collected from Original Sources, by Mary Alicia Owen. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1893.

Logan, Sheridan. “St. Joseph Women Who Left Their Mark.” Unpublished paper, n. d.

McNeil, William K. “Mary Alicia Owen, Collector of Afro-American and Indian Lore in
Missouri.” Missouri Folklore Society Journal, 2 (1980), 1-14.

Mainiero, Lina, ed. American Women Writers: a Critical Reference Guide From Colonial Times to the Present. 4 vols. New York: Ungar, 1979-1982.

Wallace, W. S., ed. Dictionary of North American Authors Deceased Before 1950. Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1951.

Williard, Frances E. and Mary A. Livermore, eds. American Women. New York: Mast, Cromwell & Kirkpatrick, 1897. Rpt., Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1973.

“Women Writers Along the Rivers, 1850-1950: An Annotated Bibliography of Women’s Writings and Lives in Atchison, Brown, and Doniphan Countries of Kansas and Andrew, Atchison, Buchanan, Clinton, DeKalb, Holt, and Nodaway Countries in Missouri.” St. Joseph: Women’s Studies, Missouri Western State College. Funded by the Missouri Western State College Foundation, the Doniphan County, KS, Historical Society, and the St. Joseph chapter of Phi Delta Kappa, Jane Frick, Project Coordinator.

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