Mary Lucinda Bonney (1816-1900)

Born in Hamilton, New York, on June 8, 1816, Mary Lucinda Bonney, was co-founder of the Women’s National Indian Association. She was the fourth of six children of devout Baptists- who sacrificed to provide the best education for her and her siblings. Educated initially at the Ladies Academy in Hamilton, New York, she transferred to Emma Willard’s prestigious Troy Female Seminary, where she found a curriculum similar to that offered in men’s colleges. According to historian Anne Firor Scott, the seminary was an important source of feminism, “influencing its students to become agents of cultural diffusion,” spreading “ideas about women’s capacities” and the need for education, “setting an example by their interest in study and learning.

Bonney followed this pattern, heeding a call to Jersey City, New Jersey in the mid- 1830s. Later she moved to New York City where, although raised a Baptist, she joined St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. She served for a year as principal of an academy in De Ruyter, New York before taking a temporary teaching assignment at her alma mater. Then in 1842 she, like many Troy alumnae, moved south, to run a girls’ school in Beaufort before finally settling in Robertsville. Here the thirty-one year old woman met charismatic Baptist cleric, Thomas Rambaut, who in 1847 baptized her. Years later she described her joining the Baptist church as giving her “moral power,” enabling her to “receive what seemed to [her to be] truth.”

After six years in South Carolina, Bonney returned north, teaching in Providence, Rhode Island for a year before moving to Philadelphia to assume yet another teaching position. Eager to provide her widowed mother with a home, in September 1850 Bonney and Harriette A. Dillaye, a former student and teacher at Troy Female Seminary, founded the Chestnut Street Female Seminary in Philadelphia. Borrowing money from one of Harriette’s brothers, Bonney rented a house, where they soon offered young women, ages thirteen to eighteen, boarders and day students, a thorough liberal arts education, including science, humanities, and physical education. The school grew quickly. Needing more space, Bonney and her fellow teachers leased a 40-acre estate, some eight miles from Philadelphia, from financier Jay Cooke, whose fortunes had plunged during the Panic of 1873. In September 1883 the Ogontz School for Girls opened. Five years later Dillaye and two other teachers paid Bonney for her share of the school.

When not attending to her school duties, Bonney spent her energy and time on supporting missionary work. She joined the Woman's Union Missionary Society of America for Heathen Lands, an interdenominational association that sent female missionaries to Asia to work with women there. Also a devout member of Philadelphia’s First Baptist Church, she became president of its Women’s Home Mission Circle, organized by Ella Covell Boardman, wife of the church’s pastor, Reverend George Dana Boardman, D. D., LL.D. This mission circle, which worked on behalf of America’s Indians, played an important role in the formation of the WNIA.

In April 1879, distressed to learn that Missouri Senator George G. Vest was pressing Congress to open up Indian-held lands in Indian Territory to both white settlement and the construction of railroads, Bonney appeared before the monthly meeting of the missionary circle with a petition written by Reverend Dr. Henry L. Wayland, editor of the National Baptist, protesting this invasion. Frustrated that the circle adjourned for the summer before it could consider the petition, and believing this invasion was “a moral evil” and would “hinder the work of Christianizing the Indians,” Bonney turned to her friend Amelia Stone Quinton, who had once taught at Chestnut Street Female Seminary and now attended her church. Together the two women pledged to do what [they] could to awaken the conscience of Congress and of the people. Like other upper-and-middle class American women, Bonney and Quinton were influenced by the growing importance of “women’s sphere,” a place for female political action that nonetheless differed from that of men. Together the two educators and reformers founded the Woman’s National Indian Association.

With Bonney providing the funding, nearly $500 during the first two years, and Quinton doing the research, they set to work. Denied the right to vote, they adopted the long established tradition of the petition drive. During the summer of 1879 they circulated some 7,000 copies of Reverend Wayland’s original petition, requesting that the president and Congress prevent white encroachment upon Indian lands. They circulated the petitions to officers of various women’s missionary groups and other benevolent societies. Bonney and two other members of her missionary circle presented the 300-foot long petition, signed by 13,000 citizens, to President Rutherford B. Hayes in February 1880.

Encouraged by their success, on May 5, 1880, Bonney suggested that the women form a Committee of Ways and Means within the missionary circle to aid in the distribution¬ of petitions and tracts. With Bonney acting mostly behind the scenes, Quinton, who was twenty years her junior, investigated official records, wrote leaflets, and attended meetings of missionary circles. Separating themselves from the First Baptist Church, they assumed a nonsectarian status, thus welcoming women of other Protestant denominations as members. They also went through various names changes before settling upon the WNIA.

In late January 1881, the women presented their second petition, again stressing the prevention of white encroachment and adherence to treaty provisions. This petition had been signed by 50,000 citizens representing a broad segment of the country’s population. Then on March 17, 1881, Bonney was elected as chairman of the small band of reformers with Quinton as organizational secretary. Before long Quinton had carried the organization’s work to twenty states and in February 1882, the group’s third petition, measuring 400-feet long and signed by 100,000 was presented to the president and Congress.

During a fall 1882, at a meeting of the executive committee, Bonney asked if the women should take up the task of Indian education. The response was overwhelmingly affirmative. The constitution was revised and adopted to reflect this new undertaking. The membership described themselves as Christian women, “deploring” the government’s “unjust dealings” with the Indians. They had earnestly united to secure the adoption of a just, protective and fostering Indian policy based on “equity and justice.” Their ultimate goal was to “hasten as much as in [their] power [the Indian’s] civilization, Christianization and enfranchisement through educational and missionary work. By 1886 there were eighty-three branches in twenty-eight states and territories. Their legislative work had included sixty-five petitions to Congress on various Indian related issues.

Bonney’s role lessened when her presidency ended in November 1884. She continued to lend financial support, served as chair of the Missionary Committee until 1887, and attended occasionally. No doubt the main reason for this inactivity was her 1888 marriage to Reverend Thomas Rambaut, whom she had met forty years earlier in Robertville, South Carolina, while she was teaching, and he was busy with his first pastorate. In 1888 they both attended the World’s Missionary convention in London and renewed their friendship. By this time the cleric, who had enjoyed an illustrious career in Baptist higher education in the South, followed by years as a pastor in churches in both the South and the North, was widowed for the second time.Now in their seventies, Bonney and Rambaut were married during the convention by her pastor, Dr. George Dana Boardman.

The couple settled in Bonney’s hometown of Hamilton, New York where on October 15, 1890, Reverend Rambaut died. Bonney moved in with her brother, where a decade later, on July 24, 1900, she died following a fall. Members of the Women’s National Indian Association mourned her loss, recording their deep appreciation of her life of noble service; her high character, her benevolence, her fidelity in old age, and recognize in her happy Christian death the fitting triumph of the faith which characterized her through her long and consecrated career.

Mary Lucinda Bonney’s contribution to reform, especially to missionary and educational work among American Indians, was considerable. Within a decade of the founding of the WNIA, joined by male reformers in other Indian associations, the government established policies that the association had advocated. Although these policies varied in their effectiveness, the intention of the policymakers was benign and prevented what might have been even greater exploitation of American Indians. Many other white women also participated in this cause, including ethnologist Alice Cummingham Fletcher, who not only lobbied for the land-allotting Dawes Act (1887), but also administered it with western tribes. Among the most notable Native American women who spoke and lobbied nationally were Nevada’s Suzanne La Flesche (Bright Eyes), South Dakota’s Gertrude Simmons Bonin (Red Bird), and Alaska’s Tillie Paul Tamaree. The WNIA’s most important contribution was to the Indians’ physical well-being through their sponsorship or support of teachers, missionaries, government field matrons, and physicians, and the providing of clothing, food, medicine, and gifts. In doing these things, women taught themselves leadership skills and created a network. Indeed, Frances Willard and Mary Livermore, who were giants in their time, included Bonney in their Woman of the Century (1893). The Women’s National Indian Association carried on until 1951, more than a half-century after Bonney’s death.

Written by Valerie Sherer Mathes