The Independent Life of Ann Fisher: Exploring the Historical Documents of an English Immigrant in the 19th Century

A common narrative in American women’s history has been that women were passed over for inheritance. They were trophies, assigned husbands, and expected to breed children. Teachers maintained this narrative, declaring that this “traditional” life for women in the United States remained the same until they were eligible to vote in 1920. Intentional or not, Virginia standards of learning do not require that the experience of women throughout American history be included in the classroom except for their influence in colonial Jamestown in elementary school and a discussion of the suffrage movement roughly four times in high school.1 The reason that this is worth mentioning is because Virginia students are unaware of the impact of women in the United States unless teachers are inclined to add them to the curriculum and teach beyond a test.

One example of this oversight can be found in Alexandria, Virginia.  The 1860 U.S. Census shows a seventy-two-year-old white, English immigrant female with $2,000 of property.2 This woman, Ann Fisher, presented an interesting new angle to the continuous erasure of women in U.S. history. The family in the home consisted of Jacob Roxberry and his wife, Elizabeth Roxberry, and their four children: Asa, George, Virginia, and Alice.3 This family was born in Virginia but Ann Fisher was the head of household.4 The Roxberrys were tenants at Fisher’s property with $100 in taxable income.5

1860 U. S. Federal Census (Population Schedule), Alexandria, Virginia, Roll: M653-1331, Page 798, Image 448, Ann Fisher in household of Jacob Roxberry, lines 25-31, digital image, accessed September 23, 2015, http://www.ancestry.com/.

1860 U. S. Federal Census (Population Schedule), Alexandria, Virginia, Roll: M653-1331, Page 798, Image 448, Ann Fisher in the household of Jacob Roxberry, lines 25-31, digital image, accessed September 23, 2015, http://www.ancestry.com/.

Research through newspapers clarified that the property was hers when there were months of unpaid property taxes that resulted in the sale of her property.6

Newspapers also announced her death, and noted that the property was given to her. The announcement was brief and released the morning after her death, stating she passed away at the age of eighty-one and was the “consort of the late Robert Fisher.”7 The obituary, released four days after her death on August 14, 1868, clarified that she had lived in Alexandria for fifty years, attended Old School Baptist church, and died without family.8 The obituary for Ann Fisher, declaring she died “surrounded by sorrowing friends” and was beloved by her church members, shows that she was involved and respected in the community of Alexandria.9

These two documents allow further research into her life by searching the church and her spouse. Unfortunately, in terms of newspaper articles, there are few other mentions of Ann Fisher. One instance is a call for someone to take unclaimed mail in her name before it was sent to the dead letter office.10 Another instance was her will being filed almost four years after her death.11

“Died,” Alexandria Gazette, August 11, 1868, accessed September 23, 2016, Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85025007/1868-08-11/ed-1/seq-3/

“Died,” Alexandria Gazette, August 11, 1868, accessed September 23, 2016, Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85025007/1868-08-11/ed-1/seq-3/

Robert Fisher, Ann Fisher’s husband, was also an English immigrant and died in Alexandria, Virginia in June 1849 of rheumatism.11 There are more details about his arrival to the United States than Ann’s. He arrived in Hampton, Virginia from a London or Portsmouth at the age of thirty-two on a ship named Henry Clay in May 1820; his occupation on the ship manifest was “farmer”.12 The logs for his arrival did not contain a passenger named Ann, or a variant of that spelling. Moreover, mathematically, she had settled in Alexandria at least two years before Robert Fisher arrived in Virginia. Unfortunately, mapping out their purpose for immigrating to the United States is not perfectly spelled out, but scholarly research, such as Invisible Immigrants by Charlotte Erickson, allows certain theories to be made. Robert Fisher came alone as a farmer and possibly first settled in Alexandria.

United States, Atlantic Ports Passenger Lists, Roll 4: 1820-1870, Records from Record Group 287, Publications of the U.S. Government; Record Group 85, Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service and Record Group 36, Records of the United States Customs Service. The National Archives at Washington, D.C., digital image, accessed September 23, 2015, http://www.ancestry.com/.

United States, Atlantic Ports Passenger Lists, Roll 4: 1820-1870, Records from Record Group 287, Publications of the U.S. Government; Record Group 85, Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service and Record Group 36, Records of the United States Customs Service. The National Archives at Washington, D.C., digital image, accessed September 23, 2015, http://www.ancestry.com/.

Erickson created three generalized groups of English and Scottish immigrants:  immigrants uncertain of staying in the long-term, immigrants that intended to stay regardless of hardships, and those heavily connected to home while feeling disoriented.13 These three categories often correlated with one’s socio-economic class.14

Though it may seem like the details are lacking, the fact remains that Ann Fisher lived a life surrounded by people with common interests and was valued and welcomed in Alexandria. She had a substantial amount of wealth in her name after her husband died and rented her home to a local family when she could have chosen to live alone. Moreover, Fisher was unique. She did not own or rent slaves and of the seventy-three white Baptist women in Alexandria, she was one of three from the United Kingdom and one of three in the third and fourth ‘declared wealth’ brackets.16 With no record of children, Ann Fisher stands as a successful counter-example to the stereotypes taught in Virginia public schools of women in 19th century America and immigrant women.

Endnotes

1. Christonya Brown, “Standards of Learning Documents for History & Social Science,” Virginia Department of Education, 2016, accessed September 23, 2016, http://www.doe.virginia.gov/testing/sol/standards_docs/history_socialscience/index.shtml.

2. 1860 U. S. Federal Census (Population Schedule), Alexandria, Virginia, Roll: M653-1331, Page 798, Image 448, Ann Fisher in the household of Jacob Roxberry, line 31, digital image, accessed September 23, 2015, http://www.ancestry.com/.

3. Ibid.

4. Don DeBats, “Alexandria Database Queries: Individuals in Alexandria,” Voting Viva Voce: Unlocking the Social Logic of Past Politics, 2016, under “Jacob Roxberry,” accessed September 23, 2016, http://sociallogic.iath.virginia.edu.ezproxy.umw.edu/node/14.

5. Ibid.

6.  James Dempsey, “Sale of Lots Returned Delinquent for Non-Payment of City Taxes,” Alexandria Gazette, March 20, 1861, accessed September 23, 2016, Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85025007/1861-03-20/ed-1/seq-1/

7. “Died,” Alexandria Gazette, August 11, 1868, accessed September 23, 2016, Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85025007/1868-08-11/ed-1/seq-3/

8. “Died,” Alexandria Gazette, August 14, 1868, accessed September 23, 2016, Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85025007/1868-08-14/ed-1/seq-2/

9. “Died,” Alexandria Gazette, August 14, 1868.

10. N. P. Trist, “List of Letters,” Alexandria Gazette, May 22, 1872, accessed September 23, 2016, Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85025007/1872-05-22/ed-1/seq-2/

11. “Corporation Court,” Alexandria Gazette, April 20, 1872, accessed September 23, 2016, Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85025007/1872-04-20/ed-1/seq-3/

12. 1850-1885 U. S. Federal Census (Mortality Schedule), Alexandria, Virginia, Roll: 1, Year: 1849, Page 43, Image 448, under “Robt Fisher,” line 25, digital image, accessed September 23, 2015, http://www.ancestry.com/.

13. United States, Atlantic Ports Passenger Lists, Roll 4: 1820-1870, Records from Record Group 287, Publications of the U.S. Government; Record Group 85, Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service and Record Group 36, Records of the United States Customs Service. The National Archives at Washington, D.C., under “Robert Fisher”, line 20, digital image, accessed September 23, 2015, http://www.ancestry.com/.

14. Charlotte Erickson, Invisible Immigrants: The Adaptation of English and Scottish Immigrants in Nineteenth-century America (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990), 5.

15. Ibid.

16. Don DeBats, “Alexandria Database Queries: Social Groups in Alexandria,” Voting Viva Voce: Unlocking the Social Logic of Past Politics, 2016, under “white, female, Baptist,” accessed September 23, 2016, http://sociallogic.iath.virginia.edu.ezproxy.umw.edu/node/15.

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