Bickerdyke, Mary Ann, familiarly known as "Mother Bickerdyke," army nurse and philanthropist, was born near Mt. Vernon, Ohio. July 19, 1817. Her father, Hiram Bell, was a descendant of the Pilgrims, and her mother of one of the first families of New York. Her childhood was spent upon a farm, where pure air and plenty of out door exercise developed her into a woman strong in both mind and body. She entered Oberlin College, but was compelled by illness to leave just before graduating. Her first experience as a nurse was in the Cincinnati hospital during the cholera epidemic of 1837, and liking the work she continued in it for several years. On April 27, 1847, she became the wife of Robert Bickerdyke, in 1856 they removed to Galesburg, Ill., where her husband died about two years later, leaving her with two sons (James R. and Hiram) to support. Again she took to nursing, and it seems that she also practiced medicine, for the Galesburg directory for 1861 gives her occupation as physician.
When the Civil war broke out she was one of the leaders among the Galesburg women in providing necessities for the soldiers at the front. Later, when a physician in the Twenty-second Illinois infantry wrote home of the illness and lack of suitable care among the soldiers, Mother Bickerdyke's friends offered to care for her children if she would volunteer to go to the front as a nurse. With $500 worth of hospital supplies she reported for duty at the regimental hospital at Cairo, Ill. After the actions at Belmont, Fort Donelson and Shiloh she was in the field hospitals; followed the army in the Corinth and Atlanta campaigns; frequently went over battle fields at night, with lantern and simple remedies, searching for any wounded that might have been overlooked. Gen. McCook said she was "worth more to the Union army than many of us generals," and she was a great favorite with Gens. Sherman and Logan. In March, 1866, she was relieved from duty and returned to her home in Galesbnrg.
Her work in behalf of the soldiers was not ended, however. Thousands of men discharged from the army thronged the cities in search of employment. Mother Bickerdyke visited Kansas, where she found the conditions favorable for many of these men to obtain homes. She next appealed to wealthy friends for aid in carrying out her project. Jonathan Burr, a wealthy banker, gave her $10,000, and C. B. Hammond, the president of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy railroad, promised free transportation for soldiers and their familes for two years. Gen. Sherman, then in command at Fort Riley, allowed her the free use of government teams to transport the veterans and their goods to their homesteads, and between 1866 and 1868 over 300 families were settled in Kansas through her efforts. She also decided to make this state her home and settled at Salina, where she opened a hotel, popularly known as the Bickerdyke House.
After the Indian raids of 1868 she was active in behalf of the settlers, and it was due to her efforts that the war department issued rations for 500 people for ten months. She was also influential in securing the appropriations from the state for the purchase of seed grain for the settlers who had suffered from drought. In 1874, after spending four years in New York, she returned to Kansas to make her home with her sons on a ranch near Great Bend. That year and the next she made several visits to Illinois to solicit aid for the grasshopper sufferers. Her incessant labors undermined her health, and she spent two years in California. After her health was restored she secured employment in the United States mint at San Francisco.
Mother Bickerdyke was instrumental in securing pensions for more than 300 army nurses, her own being the mere pittance of $25 a month, and it was not granted until years after the close of the war. She was deeply interested in the work of the Woman's Relief Corps; belonged to the Order of the Eastern Star; and was an honorary member of the Society of the Army of the Tennesee,[sic] Mother Bickerdyke died at Bunker Hill, Ellsworth county, Nov. 8, 1901, but was buried at Galesburg, Ill., beside her husband.Pages 178-179 from volume I of Kansas: a cyclopedia of state history, embracing events, institutions, industries, counties, cities, towns, prominent persons, etc. ... / with a supplementary volume devoted to selected personal history and reminiscence. Standard Pub. Co. Chicago : 1912. 3 v. in 4. : front., ill., ports.; 28 cm. Vols. I-II edited by Frank W. Blackmar. Transcribed May 2002 by Carolyn Ward.
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