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Bertha Honore Potter was a Daughter Too

Mrs. Potter Palmer was a Daughter Too! 

Above: Bertha (Honore) Palmer at right (1849-1918)

During the question phase of my presentation to the Sara De Soto Chapter of The Daughters of the American Revolution #NSDAR recently, a member commented that their Society had been informed that the wife of Chicago’s esteemed Potter Palmer had “declined joining The Daughters of the American Revolution at the request of her husband.”

The comment was indeed appropriate, for I had just then informed the members that Bertha (Honore) Palmer had been the “first-ever NSDAR State Regent.” I had contradicted information previously supplied to the Chapter regarding the incomparable Mrs. Potter Palmer of #Chicago and #Sarasota, the woman described by as “The Woman Who Tamed Wild Sarasota.”

Although I did respond by saying that I had full confidence in my statement, time, unfortunately, prevented me from doing justice in responding to her question. Therefore, for the #Sara_De_Soto NSDAR Chapter members who attended my January presentation, and to those curious to know, this Special Edition blog is intended especially for you.

From the Capital City to the Windy City:

My Sarasota presentation was about the similarities of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association #MVLA founders and the organizers of the NSDAR, a talk based on snippets from my new book, The Ladies were Daughters Too. The MVLA had been formally established in 1858, whereas the NSDAR was founded in Washington, DC in 1890. Both organizations were to be national in scope with each founded by patriotic women having lineal family ties with the founders of this great Nation.

Although founded in the District of Columbia in October 1890, the first NSDAR State organization and the first NSDAR Chapter were established 700 miles west of DC in Chicago, Illinois.

Chicago, the first NSDAR Chapter, and Illinois, the first DAR State organization, were each formed on 16 March 1891. Twenty-eight Chicago ladies attended an organization meeting for both the State and local Chapter on that date. The first of 28 names listed in the 17 March 1891 news article about the NSDAR Society’s was “Mrs. Potter Palmer.”

Chicago Meeting of 16 March 1891 

“Mrs. Frank Osborne presided over a meeting of Chicago ladies, who assembled at the World’s Fair headquarters yesterday to form a Chapter of The Daughters of the American Revolution." Among (28) ladies listed as present at the meeting was "Mrs. Potter Palmer.”

“They were all descendants of men who fought in the Revolution. The first work to be done will be to secure an extensive collection of revolutionary relics for the Exposition.” 

“Mrs. Potter Palmer is Regent of the Illinois organization, and Mrs. Frank Osborne has been made Regent of the Chicago Chapter.”

Chicago Tribune, 17 March 1891” 

Important takeaways of this Chicago Tribune article, released the very next day of the organizing meeting to establish both the Chicago and Illinois organizations, are this:

1.      Mrs. Potter Palmer was identified as Regent of the Illinois organization.

2.      The meeting took place at the World’s Fair Headquarters.

3.      The Daughters of the American Revolution planned to have an exhibit at the World’s Fair.

Membership in the NSDAR grew quickly after the founding of the Chicago Chapter, and for good reason: Exposure! The birth of the Illinois State DAR organization and the Chicago DAR Chapter coincided with Bertha Palmer becoming the head of a World’s Fair sub-organization called Lady Managers, women from every state in the Union taking part in the planning of the Chicago World’s Fair Exposition of 1892-93. The two organizations were in fact founded, as the article above said, "at the World's Fair Headquarters."

The Women's Building, Chicago World's Fair Exposition 1892-93

Exhibit 72 of The Ladies were Daughters Too

There were 117 World’s Fair Lady Managers in all, women who were NOT representing the NSDAR but rather ladies working for the Lady Managers Committee funded by the United States Congress. Although introduced to the DAR organization when the Chicago Chapter and State organization were formed, it seems the DAR organizers decided to separate themselves from the government funded World’s Fair organization of Lady Managers.

At a meeting of 30 April 1892, reported the Great Falls Tribune: “It was decided that it will not be feasible for The Daughters to have a colonial exhibit at the Columbian fair.” The reason for a change of heart was that the Lady Managers were to have the exhibit in the Women’s Building – all paid for by taxpayer money. In what appears to be a prudent move, Mrs. Potter Palmer, President of the Lady Managers, surrendered her Illinois State Regent position to Mrs. Frank Osborne, aka Effie (Reeme) Osborne.

A Gala Chicago Celebration

Planning for Chicago’s World’s Fair had begun with an all-male organization. A 'World Exposition,' the organizers of the Fair had huge plans from the start, a World’s Fair celebration coinciding with the 400th Anniversary of Christopher Columbus arriving in the New World. Congress became a partner in the Fair, as funds were approved in DC to support Chicago’s extravagant affair.

Although women’s suffrage was afoot in the 1890s, men continued to exclude women from such matters as voting and making decisions at the World’s Fair. The very reason the NSDAR exists today is because men denied the ladies memberships in the Sons of the American Revolution, organized one year prior to the creation of the DAR. A group of women thereafter decided to form their own organization. Despite the formation of Lady Managers’ who were not to have decision making authority – they made decisions. Big decisions!

And the reason the Lady Managers made decisions about the World’s Fair was because of their leader, Bertha (Honore) Palmer. The resolve and persuasive powers of Bertha were no match to the male dominated planning committee. “Mrs. Potter Palmer” became a tough lady to say no to, including for the Congress, who granted a request of $400,000 to build the extravagant free-standing Women’s Building shown above, Exhibit 72 of my book, The Ladies were Daughters Too


February: Black History Month Trailblazers

March: Women's History Month Trailblazers


A Perfect Place at a Perfect Time:

Understanding how the World’s Fair played an important part in the initial development of the NSDAR is to fully appreciate how the NSDAR membership increased so rapidly throughout the United States during the 1890s.

“When we review,” said Mrs. Potter Palmer in September 1891, “the gradual steps by which we have slowly gained one point after another – from the directory a superb building, from Congress favorable legislation, and from the commission the right to take charge of all the interests of women at the Exposition – we must feel that we have been upheld and sustained for the accomplishment of a grand purpose; that we have a mission to fulfill which we must regard as scared, and that to its accomplishment we must bend our untiring energies.”

The Lady Managers of the World’s Fair were not serving as members of the NSDAR, but many returned home after the fair to help organize NSDAR chapters throughout the country. And while Bertha (Honore) Palmer only served as Illinois State Regent of NSDAR for only a brief time, her role as the first-ever State Regent is indeed irrefutable. Her powerful influence gave relevance to the National Society, for which Mrs. Angell is but one shining example.

Sarah (Caswell) Angell (1831-1903)

Exhibit 74: The Ladies were Daughters Too

Mrs. Angell, more properly identified as Sarah Swope (Caswell) Angell, represented Michigan as one of the 117 Lady Managers of the World’s Fair. After the Fair ended, Sarah returned home to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she organized the Ann Arbor Chapter of the NSDAR, a chapter that is today known as the Sarah Caswell Angell Chapter of The Daughters of the American Revolution.

Giving Credit where Credit is Due

It seems unlikely in this author’s view that Bertha Palmer ended her involvement in the NSDAR at her husband’s request. Potter Palmer had already achieved success and seems to have supported his wife’s every endeavor. It is more likely that Bertha relinquished her role as Illinois Regent to concentrate her time on a demanding position with the World’s Fair. In that capacity, Bertha not only traveled to DC to testify before Congress, she also traveled the World convincing other nations to have Exhibits in the Women's Building at the Chicago World's Fair.

Mrs. Bertha (Honore) Palmer survived husband Potter and in time became a prominent figure in the story of Sarasota, Florida. Widow Bertha Potter acquired 75,000 acres in Manatee County (Sarasota County did not yet exist), acreage that had been part of Hamilton Disston’s four million acres. First acquired from Disston by Scottish investors in the 1880s, the 75,000 acres were then acquired after Florida's Great Freeze of 1894-95 by investors associated with Joseph H. Lord of Orlando, Chicago, and Sarasota. 

#The_Ladies_were_Daughters_Too is available at Amazon

Having left an indelible mark on the Windy City, Widow Bertha (Honore) Palmer migrated to Florida, where she made magic once again. Bertha the snowbird, however, is a remarkable story all its own, part of which is told in my book, To Sarasota, with Love, Orlando.

I invite you to check out my entire Central Florida history collection

Books by Richard Lee Cronin

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