15 Incredible Historic Women You Should Know

March is Women’s History Month, and there’s no shortage of important women to celebrate. From fierce warriors to beloved poets, political activists to fearsome pirates, many women have made their mark on history, even if they aren't household names. To celebrate the many achievements of women, here are 15 incredible women you may not know about, but probably should.

1. EDMONIA LEWIS

One of the first internationally famous African American artists, Edmonia Lewis was born in New York in 1844 and studied art at Oberlin College before becoming a professional sculptor. She was known for her marble busts of famous abolitionists like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Horace Greeley, and her patrons included President Ulysses S. Grant.

2. ANYTE OF TEGEA

One the great poets of Ancient Greece, Anyte (3rd century BCE) was one of the earliest poets to write primarily about the natural world and not the supernatural, focusing on plants and animals instead of the gods. Anyte was famous for writing epitaphs, many of which were humorous in tone. In one, she satirized the seriousness of most human epitaphs by commemorating the life of a cicada kept as a pet by a little girl. She wrote, "Myro, a girl, letting fall a child's tears, raised this little tomb for the locust that sang in the seed-land and for the oak-dwelling cicada; implacable Hades holds their double song." More of Anyte's works survive to this day than any other female Greek poet.

3. JEANNE BARET

Botanist and explorer Jeanne Baret was the first woman to circumnavigate the globe. In 1766, the 26-year-old French woman boarded a ship disguised as a man named “Jean” and proceeded to sail around the world, collecting and studying plant samples with her paramour, the botanist Philibert Commercon. Her true gender was finally discovered somewhere in the South Pacific, and she and Commercon were kicked off the ship in Mauritius. Baret finally returned to France nearly a decade later, where she was lauded by the government as an “extraordinary woman” for her botanical work.

4. SARAH GUPPY

British inventor Sarah Guppy received 10 patents during her lifetime for a truly eclectic range of inventions. From a coffee maker that used its excess steam to boil eggs and warm toast to a device for removing barnacles from the bottoms of ships (for which the British Navy paid £40,000), Guppy was an unstoppable force in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. And her designs can still be seen: the stunning Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol would not have been possible without her 1811 plans for piling the foundations on either side of the Avon Gorge.

5. SAYYIDA AL HURRA

Sixteenth-century Islamic pirate queen Sayyida Al Hurra was both the governor of the city of Tétouan in Northern Morocco and a legendary pirate who ruled much of the western Mediterranean Sea for nearly 30 years, wreaking havoc on Spanish and Portuguese ships between 1515 and 1542. Though her real name is unknown, the honorary title "Sayyida Al Hurra" translates to "noble lady who is free and independent; the woman sovereign who bows to no superior authority." She was also the last woman to hold the Al Hurra title.

6. MIRABAI

Mirabai, also known as Meera, was a 16th-century Indian poet who wrote numerous bhajans (prayerful songs) to the Hindu god Krishna. Mirabai was born into a wealthy family, but she eschewed her aristocratic life, devoting herself fully to the worship of Krishna and the singing of bhajans.

7. APHRA BEHN

Seventeenth-century playwright, novelist, poet, and government spy Aphra Behn may have been the first woman in England to earn her living as a professional writer. Though many men of her time vocally disapproved of female writers in general—and of the often risqué content of Behn’s writing specifically—her theatrical works were popular with audiences. Behn worked for most of her adult life as a writer, but took a brief break from the literary world from 1666 through 1667 when she traveled to Antwerp under the name "Astrea" to work as a spy for Charles II.

8. TRIỆU THI TRINH

Sometimes called the Vietnamese Joan of Arc, Triệu Thi Trinh (3rd century BCE) was a warrior who led a rebel army against Chinese invaders. Legend has it that she was 9 feet tall and fought over 30 battles against the Chinese, sometimes riding an elephant. When someone tried to discourage her from fighting, she famously said, "I will not resign myself to the lot of women who bow their heads and become concubines. I wish to ride the tempest, tame the waves, kill the sharks. I have no desire to take abuse."

9. HARRIET POWERS

Harriet Powers's pictorial quilt. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Born into slavery in Georgia in 1837, Harriet Powers became known as one of the greatest Southern textile artists in United States history. Throughout her life Powers used intricate quilts to tell stories, stitching stunning and elaborate images from Bible stories, myths, and celestial phenomena while also drawing on West African artistic traditions. Only two of her quilts survive today; one is held by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, and the other by Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

10. SARAH MOORE GRIMKE AND ANGELINA GRIMKE

Abolitionist sisters Sarah and Angelina Grimke were 19th-century orators and educators who traveled America lecturing on the horrors of slavery, and who penned numerous abolitionist tracts. They also spoke frequently on behalf of women’s rights, and were considered radical for arguing not only for the abolition of slavery, but in support of genuine racial and gender equality.

11. FANNIE FARMER

Nineteenth-century culinary expert Fannie Farmer is often called the "mother of level measurements." Farmer, who was born in Boston in 1857 and whose cookbooks are still in print over a century after their initial publication, helped standardize the cooking measurements which we now take for granted. 

12. LOZEN

A great Apache warrior, Lozen rebelled after she and her family were forced onto a reservation in the 1870s. Together with her brother Victorio, she led a band of warriors, raiding the lands that were taken from them by settlers. "Lozen is my right hand … strong as a man, braver than most, and cunning in strategy," Victorio famously said of his sister. "Lozen is a shield to her people."

13. QIU JIN

Chinese feminist, revolutionary, poet, and eventual martyr, Qiu Jin fought for women's access to education and against foot binding, founded a feminist journal, and fought against the Qing Dynasty before being executed in 1907 at age 31 after a failed uprising. She often wrote poetry about current events and historical female warriors and is considered a national hero by many in China.

14. MARGARET E. KNIGHT

Born in Maine in 1838, Margaret E. Knight went from working in a factory to inventing a product that would change the world—or, at least, the way we package groceries—forever: the paper bag. Knight created a machine that could mass-produce paper bags with flat bottoms (while earlier paper bags existed, they were more like flat envelopes). Her creation not only had a huge impact on the paper industry at the time, but machines based on Knight’s original design are still in use to this day.

15. CAROLINE HERSCHEL

British astronomer Caroline Herschel was born in Germany in 1750 and spent her early years doing housework for her parents (she once called herself the "Cinderella of the family"). She later moved to England to help her astronomer brother run his household and became a great astronomer in her own right. Not only was Herschel the first woman to discover a comet, but she was the first woman to have her scientific writings published and to be paid for her work.

Interactive Version of a Classic Color Manual Used By Charles Darwin Is Now Available Online

iStock
iStock

Scientists who study the natural world do more than tally numbers. Sometimes making an accurate scientific observation comes down to finding the perfect word to describe the shade of dried lavender flowers or the breast of a screech owl. In the 19th century, naturalists had Werner's Nomenclature of Colours to refer to—and now anyone looking to expand their color vocabulary can access the book's contents online, Fast Company reports.

Published in 1814, painter Patrick Syme designed the guide based on the work of geologist Abraham Gottlob Werner. It features 110 distinct hues, each with a name, number, and a list of the animals, plants, and/or minerals that feature it in nature. Prussian blue, for example, naturally occurs in blue copper ore, the stamina of bluish purple anemone, and the spot on a mallard drake's wing, while wine yellow can be found in the saxon topaz, white currants, and the body of a silk moth. The book was used as a handy reference guide by researchers recording observations the field, including Charles Darwin.

Now, using free scans of the book from the Internet Archive, designer Nicholas Rougeux has transformed it into an interactive digital experience. The original color swatches and descriptions are included, as well as some modern additions. Click on a color and the entry will expand to show photographs of the plants, animals, and minerals mentioned. Rougeux has also made posters based on the manual available on the website.

Werner's Nomenclature of Colours may have been the color bible of its time, but it still covers just a fraction of all the shades that have been named. After exploring the digital guide online, continue to grow your knowledge with this color thesaurus.

[h/t Fast Company]

How Lewis Keseberg Was Branded the Killer Cannibal of the Donner Party

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

When the last of four relief teams arrived at a lakeside camp in the Sierra Nevada mountains on April 17, 1847 to recover what was left of the Donner Party, the log cabins built by the marooned pioneers were silent. Stranded there since the previous November—when the party realized the snow was too high and their cattle too weak for all 80 or so of them to travel safely over the summit blocking the last leg of their journey to California's Central Valley—they'd had little food on which to survive. First they slaughtered their cattle, then their dogs—and then, when rescue didn't come, they began to eat the dead. According to one account, the last relief team found human remains—battered skulls and bones stripped of flesh—scattered over the area, among other sights "too dreadful to put on record."

The scene was similar at George Donner’s tent, a few miles from the cabins at Truckee Lake. The doomed group’s namesake had been seen by an earlier rescue party on the cusp of death and in the care of his wife Tamzene. Now the tent was empty, and a pot filled with human meat stood at the front of it. George's split-open head, emptied of its brain, was found nearby. The only sign of life was a set of fresh footprints marking the snow.

After a physically and emotionally grueling day, the relief team was exhausted. They decided to make camp for the night, with plans to investigate the tracks further once they'd had a chance to rest. Setting out on the 19th, they followed the prints to Lewis Keseberg, a blue-eyed, 32-year-old German immigrant and the sole survivor at Truckee Lake.

The sight of men bearing provisions should have been a welcome one for Keseberg. But they had found him in a compromising position: Tamzene Donner, who had been in decent health when the last relief team saw her, had disappeared—and Keseberg was preparing himself a meal of fresh human lungs and liver. What’s more, he was carrying $225 worth of gold stolen from the Donners' coin hoard in his waistcoat. To the rescue party, it looked as though Keseberg had violated one of humanity's greatest taboos, one that went beyond mere cannibalism: Murdering a person—Tamzene—to feast on her body.

A SUSPICIOUS CHARACTER

When Keseberg had joined the Donner Party less than a year earlier, pioneers spurred on by the idea of Manifest Destiny were pouring into the West by the thousands. California promised mild weather year-round and fertile farmland—and the Donner and Reed families of Illinois wanted a piece of the bounty. Keseberg, his pregnant wife Elisabeth Philippine, and his 3-year-old daughter Ada were among the people who decided to join their covered wagon train in the spring of 1846 as it rolled through the heart of America toward the Golden Coast.

The stories that would later be told about Keseberg started with his behavior on the trail. He reportedly acted cruelly toward his own family—ignoring his daughter and abusing his wife—and often didn't treat other members of the party any better. On October 5, James Reed murdered a teamster during a quarrel involving oxen, and Keseberg vocally supported Reed's execution. The other men refused to hang Reed in front of his wife and children, and instead agreed to leave him in the desert without food or weapons.

That same week, Keseberg ejected an elderly Belgian man named Hardcoop from his wagon to relieve his tired cattle. The man’s legs had given out just days before, and he was unable to keep up with the party on foot. The last anyone saw him, Hardcoop was catching his breath in the brush, his feet black and bloodied.

Damning behavior aside, Keseberg’s personality wasn’t winning him any popularity contests. In his account of the ordeal [PDF], an emigrant named Jacob Wright Harlan characterized Keseberg as an eccentric, antisocial man who mostly kept to himself. He also struck Harlan as someone "predisposed to derangement of mind"—and this was before the tragedy.

“Keseberg was his own worst enemy,” Michael Wallis, author of The Best Land Under Heaven: The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny, tells Mental Floss. “His overall demeanor set the stage for the eventual vilification of him.”

TRAGEDY AT TRUCKEE LAKE

The Sierra Nevada, a roughly 70-mile-wide mountain range snaking through California and parts of Nevada, presented one of the biggest obstacles of the Donner Party's trip. The mountains become impassable in the winter when the snow piles up; to get ahead of the weather, the group should have departed from Missouri in mid to late April. But the first members of the Donner expedition didn't leave Independence, Missouri, until May 12. To make matters worse, the winter of 1846-1847 was especially brutal in the area: About 20 storms pummeled the mountains that season, adding up to 25 feet of snow.

By December, winter had crept up on the travelers and immobilized them under its weight. Unable to continue any further with their belongings, most of the emigrants, including the Kesebergs, made camp for the season at Truckee Lake, while the strongest among them formed what would come to be known as the Forlorn Hope Party, strapped on snowshoes, and set out in search of help. Though they were just 150 miles from their destination of Sutter’s Fort in California, a wrong turn set the Forlorn Hope fatally behind schedule.

Donner Lake (formerly Truckee Lake) as viewed from Donner Pass.
Donner Lake (formerly Truckee Lake) as viewed from Donner Pass.
© Frank Schulenburg, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Weeks passed, but the peak over which the Forlorn Hope Party had disappeared remained white and still, and the remaining members at the lake camp began succumbing to the cold and hunger. Those who died early on provided a shot at survival to the people around them: With starvation gnawing at their insides, a source of fresh meat—even if it belonged, as it did in many cases, to their closest kin—was often impossible to ignore. Roughly half the party, including most of the Forlorn Hope, engaged in cannibalism that winter. Those who did were haunted by their actions for the rest of their lives.

Lewis Keseberg never denied cannibalizing Tamzene Donner. When the final rescue party interrogated him on her whereabouts, he admitted to eating her flesh to survive, but he rebuffed any accusations that he had murdered Tamzene rather than waiting to butcher her only after she died of natural causes. As for the gold lining his trousers, and the bundle of stolen silks, jewels, and firearms found in his cabin, Keseberg eventually confessed to taking George Donner’s goods—but only upon request from Tamzene herself. As he told it, Tamzene left the tents after her husband died and slipped and fell into a creek on her way to his cabin. When she arrived she knew she didn’t have much time left, and asked Keseberg to gather up the money George Donner had hidden and return it to her children at Sutter’s Fort. She died later that night.

The rescue team didn’t fully buy his story, but they begrudgingly decided to lead him back to the central California valley where the rest of the party had ended up, so that a jury of his peers could decide his fate. After a slog across the Sierra Nevada, Keseberg reunited with his wife—who had been rescued by the first relief party (their daughter Ada and a child born on the trail both died of starvation)—and for the first time in months, sat down to enjoy a hearty meal that didn’t consist of dog, cattle, or human meat.

"BETTER THAN CALIFORNIA BEEF"

After Keseberg's return to civilization, news of the “Donner Party Tragedy” rippled across the nation by way of newspapers and word of mouth. The cannibalism aspect gripped the American consciousness, and Keseberg was cast as the savage who ate humans not just for sustenance, but for pleasure. Journalists dubbed him the “human cannibal” and began reporting the murder of Tamzene Donner—which had never been verified—as fact. Gossipers added their own embellishments to the account. According to one telling, which allegedly came from the surviving Donner Party children, Keseberg had taken a young boy to bed with him one night and killed him by morning, later hanging his carcass on the wall like a slab of game.

The most persistent rumor may have come from Keseberg himself. The story goes that after settling in California, he would frequent the local bars and brag about his escapades in cannibalism to anyone who would listen. In this version, Keseberg claimed human meat was more delicious than California beef, and described Tamzene Donner’s liver as the sweetest bite he had ever tasted.

It's easy to see how rumors like these could snowball. But according to Wallis, even if Keseberg did say these things, they don’t necessarily prove his guilt. “To people who know about the human mind and know what starvation and hyperthermia can do to you, it’s not too much out of the ordinary for him to say something like that,” he explains. Post-traumatic stress disorder is known to provoke psychotic symptoms, such as hallucinations and delusions, although it's unclear whether this was the case with Keseberg.

Whatever the source of the grisly stories, they led to legal trouble. Keseberg was ultimately accused of murdering six of his fellow Donner Party members, including Tamzene, but was acquitted on each count due to lack of evidence. He later returned to court, this time as the prosecutor, to sue members of the relief party who had found him at Truckee Lake for fueling the vicious rumors attached to his name. Again the jury sided in his favor, but his reward was modest: just $1 for the damages, and he was still expected to cover the court fees.

LAST CHANCE FOR REDEMPTION

Life never got easier for Keseberg, but he was granted one last bit of closure around age 65. A journalist named C.F. McGlashan was writing a book called History of the Donner Party: A Tragedy of the Sierra when he reached out to the surviving members to interview them. Finally, Keseberg had the platform to tell his version of the events that transpired that winter, and address the rumors that had dogged him for years. His first-hand account was a stark departure from the infamous stories of his barroom braggadocio:

“The flesh of starved beings contains little nutriment. It is like feeding straw to horses. I cannot describe the unutterable repugnance with which I tasted the first mouthful of flesh. There is an instinct in our nature that revolts at the thought of touching, much less eating, a corpse. It makes my blood curdle to think of it!”

Keseberg’s greatest chance for redemption came when McGlashan arranged for him to meet Eliza Donner Houghton, Tamzene Donner’s youngest surviving daughter. Eliza had been only 4 years old at the time of the Donner Party tragedy, and when Keseberg saw the grown woman standing before him, he collapsed to his knees. He didn’t deny eating Tamzene’s remains, but he swore to Eliza that he hadn’t murdered her. Hearing the sincerity in the voice of this man she barely remembered from childhood, Eliza decided to take him at his word.

Despite earning validation from the courts and a descendent of the Donners, Keseberg’s reputation continued to shadow him wherever he went, whether in the towns where he lived or aboard the supply ship where he eventually worked. Toward the end of his life, he gathered enough money to open his own inn in Sacramento, but even this endeavor failed. “People thought, ‘Well, why would we stay there where this cannibal lives?’” Wallis says. The inn burned to the ground, and the cause of the fire was undetermined.

An internet search of Keseberg today still pulls up results related to his alleged crimes. The story’s stubborn presence through the decades becomes more notable in light of certain facts concerning the Forlorn Hope Party: During that trek, two Miwok men, named Salvadore and Luis, were murdered for their flesh by William Foster, but because they were Native Americans their story was ignored by newspapers. Tamzene Donner's death, and the gossip surrounding Keseberg's alleged involvement, however, received plenty of coverage.

Lewis Keseberg's wife Elisabeth Philippine died in 1877, and the widower lived out the remainder of his life poor and struggling to care for the couple’s children—both born after the Donner Party saga—who had intellectual disabilities. He died in 1895, nearly half a century after the events that defined him in the public eye. “He took his last breath in a hospital for the poor. The only thing in his pockets was lint,” Wallis says. “Keseberg is just one of the many great tragedies of this whole story.”

Additional Source: The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of the Donner Party

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER