CT History: The Glastonbury Cows Make History

When I was growing up, we used to joke that there were more cows in Glastonbury than people, and perhaps there were. That’s no longer the case, but this afternoon I came across this article, which made me smile. You go, girls!


From the newsletter of  New England Historical Society.

In the early days of the fight for women’s voting rights, Connecticut’s Glastonbury Cows were the stars of the show. In June of 1869 the tax collector in Glastonbury, Conn. asked two elderly sisters to pay their road tax early, which they did. Abby and Julia Smith were then surprised when the town accidentally billed them for the tax again in October.image
When they asked that the town correct the matter, the tax collector, Albert Crane, refused. When they tried to enter Town Meeting to raise the issue, they were turned away. And thus, two suffragettes were born.
The Smiths were wealthy, quite possibly the wealthiest home in Glastonbury. Their father was a one-time clergyman who pursued a career in law. He left his daughters a large land holding, investments and a farm. Their mother left them a sizable inheritance, as well.
The frustrated sisters paid the tax a second time, but they were furious about their lack of political power. They began attending women’s suffrage rallies. And with the passing years, their frustration grew. Their taxes were increased. And in 1874, they were told they could not let the tax go unpaid in exchange for a 12 percent interest charge – a courtesy afforded other taxpayers.
The Smiths became convinced that their taxes were only being increased on properties owned by women, and that they couldn’t delay payment because they were women. They became convinced that modern women needed a vote, and decided to stop paying taxes until they could.
“Taxation Without Representation,” was their rallying cry. The Smiths joined a group of women suffragist activists who chose taxes as their protest weapon of choice. Abby Smith was a regular writer on the topic:
“We have lately sent a day in celebrating the heroism of those who threw overboard the tea; but how trifling was the tea-tax, and how small the injustice to individuals compared with this one of our day!”
In 1874, the matter came to a head when the tax collector sized seven cows from the Smith sisters and auctioned them off to pay the taxes. The sisters used a straw buyer to retrieve most of the cows, and the story of the Glastonbury sisters and their cows went international.
As the story blossomed, it sparked heated newspaper columns. The Smith sisters’ critics argued that the pair were receiving all sorts of services in exchange for their money: roads, schools, police protection, etc. In one clumsy analogy, a writer noted they were like children, who also couldn’t vote. The arguments against the two only made their case stronger.
The supporters of the Smiths, on the other hand, took great pleasure in promoting their story. Those who didn’t see the rightness of the Smiths arguments were: “too stupid to think, too selfish to feel for others, or too cowardly to stand up for the right not yet lifted into popular recognition.’
The cows themselves, meanwhile, became celebrities and knickknacks woven out of their hair were hot sellers at fundraising bazaars that promoted voting rights for women. Julia published a popular book, Abby Smith and Her Cows. For several years through 1878 the process of seizing part of the sisters’ herd of Alderneys in lieu of tax payment and the Smiths buying them back continued.
Because of their Alderney cows, the Smiths were celebrated at rallies, testified to congress and were dinnertime conversation in homes across America. In 1878, at the age of 81, Abby died in July. In 1879, Julia, age 87, decided to marry for the first time, and her husband began paying the taxes on her property, and she repaid him. A compromise of love.
Julia Smith did not contain her feminism to tax protests and suffrage. She also published, in 1876, the only translation of the Bible written by a woman. Julia’s father was a student of the Sandemanian school of Christianity, which believed worship needed a conscious, mental act rather than being a spiritual matter. The apple apparently didn’t fall far from the tree.
Julia, curious about what might have been altered in the King James version of the Bible, decided to translate it herself from Greek, Hebrew and Latin texts. Her texts were literal and made no effort to update the language or provide context to Biblical stories.
In 1881, tax collector Crane was voted from office. When the town charged that several thousand dollars were missing, he said his books had been stolen and he couldn’t square accounts. “I’m not surprised at anything he says,” Julia wrote.
In 1886, Julia died having relocated from Glastonbury to Hartford. Like many early suffrage agitators, she died without seeing women vote. It would be the 1890s before women were voting in some elections in Connecticut and 1920 before women voted nationwide.

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