Where was Harriet really born?
by: Ed. Y. Hall
The objective of research is truth. There is, even now, eighty-three years after her death, great mystery surrounding the actual birthplace of Harriet Quimby. Was Harriet born in the state of California, Michigan, or New York? What is the date of her birth — May 1, 1875, May 11, 1875, or the same dates in 1884 or 1885? A researcher will find several different dates, years, and locations. There is some real confusion, not that it matters a great deal to the general public, but it is important to the state of Michigan and to the citizens of Coldwater, Michigan.
Early in my quest for knowledge about the origins of Harriet Quimby, I was lead to several different locations. Written material such as old newspaper and magazine articles, modem articles, and all of the usual data a researcher would eventually stumble upon was generally available. My first serious research stop was in the city of Coldwater, Michigan. I had been lead there by several magazine articles that stated she had been born there in 1875. I contacted the Mayor of Coldwater for assistance and was directed to Mrs. Alice Hughes of the Branch County Library. Mrs. Hughes and I exchanged several letters and phone calls. I planned a research trip to Coldwater to follow through with my idea to write a book about Harriet.
Alice assisted me with my research and gave me access to everything she had on Harriet. Alice informed me that she could not prove Harriet was born in the Coldwater area, but local lore placed Harriet’s parents, William and Ursula Quimby, as tenants on the Nelson farm in Ovid Township a few miles south of Coldwater. It was assumed that Harriet was born on this farm in 1875. Neither Alice nor I ever found any proof that Harriet was born there or that the Quimby’s were even in Coldwater in 1875. There was a section of land in the Ovid Township area owned by a “W. Quimby” initially thought to be Harriet’s father, William, but later detailed research found the section to be owned by a Wilsey Quimby. There is no evidence that William Quimby ever owned any land in Branch County.
In 1988, the local Branch County Airport was the site of a Michigan Historical Marker stating that Harriet Quimby was a native of Coldwater and that she had been born May I 1, 1875. Knowing that the State of Michigan does not lightly place historical markers without complete documentation, I made the natural assumption all was well and thoroughly checked out. Harriet’s birthplace and date of birth, data based upon the Michigan historical marker, were mentioned in my book. If the data supporting the marker was good enough for Michigan, it was certainly good enough for me.
My book Harriet Quimby – America Is First Lady of the Air was published in December 1992, and released in January 1993. The book was formerly introduced with a special signing held at The International Women’s Air and Space Museum in Centerville, Ohio, on April 16, the 81st anniversary of Harriet’s English Channel flight. This was followed by another signing held in Coldwater, Michigan, where a special proclamation of “Harriet Quimby Days” was initiated by the Mayor. The book was well received and is scheduled for reprinting this year by Honoribus Press.
I have always accepted from the very beginning of my research that Coldwater was Harriet’s birthplace. Wasn’t it mentioned in newspapers, magazine articles, and histories of aviation? However, there has been a nagging question in my mind as to there is no proof. Why can’t we find anything among Quimby relatives in the Coldwater area to give us the research thread we need to tie her to Coldwater/Ovid? All we really have are some newspaper articles reporting her early aviation exploits in August 191 1, that she was a relative of several residents of Coldwater and a claim by the Coldwater Courier that she was a “native of this city.” With this nagging question still on my mind, I added a special bold type paragraph near the end of my book on page 158:
REQUEST FOR INFORMATION
“The life of Harriet Quimby remains and intriguing mystery. Many questions remain to be answered concerning her early life in California and New York. Her private life remains private and elusive to research. Therefore, if you, dew reader, have valid information concerning the life of Harriet Quimby and are willing to share this information with me, I would welcome your contact. I may be reached through the Honoribus Press.”
I had several Quimby contacts resulting in promises of data that were never forthcoming. Early this year I was contacted by a lady from Arcadia, Michigan, who had been working on the history of her community. She had become aware of Harriet Quimby through a diary written by Judd Calkins, son of the adjacent neighbor of William and Ursula Quimby who settled on land granted by the U.S. Government in Arcadia in 1868. Harriet is mentioned in this diary as the younger sister of Jennie Quimby who walked to school with Judd Calkins in the early 1880’s. Mrs. Bonnie Hughes saw a copy of my book at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, purchased it, read my request for information, and contacted me during the Spring of 1995.
Her information was a bombshell. She had evidence that Harriet could possibly have been born in Arcadia and thought I ought to know about it. We exchanged several letters and phone calls which resulted in an invitation come to Arcadia and look at the data for myself. I did — and here is what I found.
William Quimby and Ursula Cook were married at Ovid, Michigan, Branch County on October 9,1859.
A child, Jennie A. Quimby, was born to the Quimby’s in 1861, in Branch County. (Jennie died in 1878 of TB.) Could Jennie be the little Quimby girl thought to be Harriet and remembered years later by the Quimby family in Coldwater after her death in 1912? (B. Hughes:2)
Willie L. Quimby was born on or about June 27, 1863, in Branch County. Willie died of dysentery October 6, 1867, in Bear Lake, (Arcadia) Michigan shortly after the move to the Arcadia area. (Manistee County Records:4)
Several members of the Quimby Family lived in the Branch County area at that time.
William Quimby applied for and received veterans land grant of 160 (Bear Lake – Arcadia) acres from the US Government in 1867 (for his service as a Union soldier) — he signed for his land January 13, 1868. (Michigan State Library:5)
William Quimby and his family settled on that land- on or about January 13, 1868, just south of the village of Arcadia, Michigan, approximately 240 miles northwest of Coldwater, Michigan. This area was known as Bear Lake. (Michigan State Library:5)
A child, Kate, was born to the Quimby’s on July 26,1867. Kate died of “bloody flux” August 2, 1868. (Manistee County Records:8).
A child Helen was born July 26, 1870 in Arcadia. Helen (Kittie) married Fredric Rasmussen in Branch County on August 16, 1887. (Manistee County Records:7) The young couple eventually relocated to California where she later died in an insane asylum. (B. Hughes:2)
Census records for 1870 list William Quimby as a farmer with his wife, Ursula, and one child, Jennie, all living in Arcadia. (1870 Census:9)
Harriet N. Quimby was born May 1, or 11, 1875 in the Arcadia — Bear Lake area. However, there is no birth record. Why? In 1871, a great fire destroyed the courthouse
in Arcadia. There were no births recorded between the years 1873 – 1880.
Therefore, records were kept by local and county residents the best they could for the next several years while a new courthouse was being constructed. (History of Arcadia, Michigan:13) When Harriet was born in 1875 there was not any place yet to record vital statistics and many residents, probably including William Quimby, just didn’t think it was important enough to go to the trouble to do so. The Quimby’s were living in Arcadia/Bear Lake all during this period from 1868 through Harriet’s birth in 1875 on into the 1880’s. (B. Hughes:2) It seems inconceivable that William would have returned to Coldwater, Michigan, over 240 miles away, in 1875 America, with his pregnant wife for the birth of their fifth child.
Census records for 1880 list William Quimby as a farmer with his wife, Ursula and two daughters, Kittie (Helen) born in 1870 and “Hattie” (Harriet) born in 1875 living in Arcadia. (1880 Census: 10)
Arcadia resident, Mrs. Paula Lamont, recalls her mother telling her about attending school with Harriet Quimby. Her mother also stated that “Harriet was reared in District Number I area and was killed in a plane crash in 1912. Her classmate, Jennie (Peterson) Hovis when receiving the news felt very badly as she was her close friend in their youth.” (Lamont: 11)
Ursula Quimby, Harriet’s mother, was well known in the Arcadia and Manistee area for her “Quimby’s Liver Invigorator” herbicidal medicine. A testimonial appeared in the July 21, 1881 The Manistee Times stating “this valuable medicine is working wonders wherever it is tried, it will keep your system braced against disease by keeping the liver in good condition.’ This article confirms Ursula’s medicine business plus further ties the Quimbys to the Manistee/Arcadia/Bear Lake area as late as 1881
The Quimby’s were very poor and disillusioned with farm and pioneer life. They mortgaged their farm twice. They reclaimed it one time. The second time they were foreclosed on a mortgage loan of $2,000 and lost the farm at a public auction to W. Campbell Fair on June 24, 1889. The Quimby’s may not have been in Arcadia when their land was lost. The best guess is that the Quimby’s departed Michigan sometimes around 1883/1884 for California via Arroyo Grande to San Francisco where they show up on the 1900 Census at 5 1 8 Van Ness Avenue. (A. Hughes:1.)
Several news clippings from local papers reported at the time of Harriet’s death in Boston that: “Former Arcadian Girl Drops 1,000 Feet,” “Noted Woman Aeronaut Is Well Remembered By Arcadians,” “She Was Born and Attended School There, Leaving About 25 (1887) Years Ago.” The July 2, 1912 Manistee Daily News article further reported that she was still remembered by Arcadians as “a laughing-eyed little school girl” and that her father was William Quimby, one of the first farmers to settle near Arcadia.
Another article from the May 2, 1912 Arcadia Booster, reports that “Harriet Quimby, the noted Bird Woman, was born in this (Arcadia) township.” When Harriet was killed in Boston, it was reported around the world that she had been born in Arroyo Grande, California. An article published in the July 5, 1912 Manistee Daily News proclaimed “Arcadians Declare Miss Harriet Quimby Wasn’t Born In California.” The article further reported that she was born three miles from Arcadia in a house pictured with the article, which also included a photograph of a schoolhouse where she received her early education. According to the article, a local photographer who was acquainted with Harriet’s father, William Quimby, took the photographs. The article also reported the Quimby family left Arcadia for California when Harriet was 8 years old. Since Harriet was born in 1875 that would put their departure date on or about 1883. I have visited both the school and Quimby homestead and have photographs, which match both locations and structures shown in the news article.
At the beginning of this paper, I stated “the objective of research is truth.” My search for truth concerning the birthplace of Harriet N. Quimby, America’s First Lady of the Air is over. There is a mountain of evidence to support her probable birth in Arcadia, Michigan and when compared to other data from Coldwater, Michigan, there is no doubt in my mind that we have, at last, thanks to the diligent research of Bonnie Hughes, found the threads of probability that tie the origins of Harriet Quimby to the Bear Lake area in the Township of Arcadia, Michigan. Harriet was born on a farm three miles southeast of Arcadia, Michigan in Bear Lake Township.
Harriet’s origins and early life in the woods of northern Michigan were filled with poverty, hardship and therein may be the reason for the great mystery surrounding her birthplace — she simply preferred to be “from California” and forget the hard times in Michigan. Besides, being from California cut almost ten years off of her life, and what woman wouldn’t go for that! That, of course, is another story.
(1) HUGHES, ALICE 1990.Harriet Quimby File, Branch County Library, Coldwater, Michigan.
(2) HUGHES, BONNIE 1995. Personal Communication
(3) HALL, ED. Y. 1990. Harriet Quimby – America’s First Lady Of The Air, The Honoribus Press, Spartanburg, South C Carolina, 1990.
(4) MANISTEE COUNTY RECORDS, 1868. State of Michigan Record (death) page 1, #13.
(5) MICHIGAN STATE LIBRARY, 1870. Plat Map and Land Abstract, Homestead Certificate 1633, App. #2833, Section 26. Lansing, Michigan.
(6) MANISTEE COUNTY RECORDS, 1871. Birth Record, State of Michigan, page 29 #424.
(7) MANISTEE COUNTY RECORDS, 1887. Marriage Record, State of Michigan, page 164, #74.
(8) MANISTEE COUNTY RECORDS, 1868. Birth and Death Record, State of Michigan, page 3, #40.