Martha Ellicott Tyson (1795-1873)
MSA SC 3520-13590
Martha Ellicott Tyson lived in a time when women were expected to stay at home and focus their energies on their family and housekeeping. But, she had a passion for history and education, as well as a desire to see people, regardless of gender or race, treated equally. This passion, as well as her warm personality, led her to have a lasting impact in her personal circles and beyond. As one author described her, “Martha Ellicott Tyson…was a woman of much sweetness and dignity of bearing, possessed of an exceedingly cultivated mind and many accomplishments.”1
Martha Ellicott was born on September 13, 1795, to George and Elizabeth Ellicott. Growing up in Ellicott Mills (now known as Ellicott City), Maryland, Martha went to a school started by her parents, whose purpose was to provide an education to the children of the overseers and superintendents of the mills, as well as their own children. In addition to attending school, Matha regularly went with her parents to Meeting, a religious gathering of Quaker Friends. Her parents were members of the faith, and Martha was raised in that environment.
It was at the Friends’ School in the Patapsco hills near Ellicott Mills that Martha Ellicott met her husband-to-be, Nathan Tyson. Though eight years older, he was confident, almost from the moment he met her, that he wanted to marry her. He persistently asked her to marry him when she grew up, and she eventually agreed. One author who described the history of their romance said that, “He succumbed at once to the artless charms of his little companion, asked her then and there to marry him when she grew up and continued to ask her the same question, until, when she was 20 and he was 28 years of age, she rewarded his constancy by becoming his wife.”2 They were married in a Quaker ceremony on September 27, 1815. In 1865, only a few short years before his death, they celebrated 50 years of marriage. At the celebration, Nathan took Martha’s hand and said, “For 50 years I have had the great honor to call Martha Ellicott Tyson my wife, and in all these years I have never seen her ruffled nor known her to do wrong.”3
Over the course of their life together the Tysons had 12 children. Martha had a strong belief in the importance of education, so she raised her children, boys and girls alike, with learning as a priority. During the years of her children’s upbringing, Martha was by no means devoted solely to the home. She wrote several pieces on the history of Ellicott City as a well as a biography of Benjamin Banneker. These works have had a lasting importance as “the best source of information about the history of the Patapsco Valley in the late Seventeenth Century.”4
One author has noted that, “The determination of Martha Tyson to collect and preserve the history of Ellicott City was unusual during the Nineteenth Century.”5 Historians still rely on her writing as a resource while doing research on Ellicott City. However, while her works on the history of Ellicott City have remained important and influential, it was her biography of Benjamin Banneker that had the biggest impact. Tyson's father, George Ellicott, was a personal friend and mentor to Banneker and during her childhood years, Banneker's farm was only a mile from their home.6 This, along with Banneker's local renown as a beekeepr, scientist and surveyor, led Tyson to write his biography. It was considered “revolutionary, if not radical, for her time” to write a biography of a free black man.7 Some historians argue that had she not written about Banneker, the story of his extraordinary talent would have been "lost to history."8
In the years since being published, her biography of Banneker has served as the foundation for numerous other biographical works on him. As Alan Weber has noted, “much of our biographical knowledge of Banneker derives from the memoirs of Martha Tyson.”9 Additionally, while certainly not on the best seller list, her biography of Bannker made it onto the New York Herald-Tribune’s “Books of the Week” list, in June 1884.10
While she was raised as a Quaker, it was not until after her marriage that she adopted the plain clothing of the faith.11 As an obituary in the Friends’ Intelligencer stated, while she had attended Meeting’s from a young age, “her interest and convictions increase[ed] as the years rolled by.”12 At the age of 35, she was asked to beome Elder of Meeting, a position of great responsibility and influence in the Quaker church. She was concerned about whether doing so would affect her ability to care for her children, but eventually agreed to take the responsibility. For the rest of her life she remained dedicated to the Quaker faith, rarely missing a Meeting, even when illness could have prevented her attendance.13 She was a pillar of the church, speaking out in the weekly Meetings, as well as being a slated speaker for larger Meetings, such as the society of Hicksite Friends yearly Meeting in New York.14
Tyson’s passion for education, and connections with the Quaker church led her to work hard for the establishment of Swarthmore College, in Pennsylvania. She worked with Friends in the surrounding areas, as far away as New York, to raise money and obtain a charter.15 According to some sources, well known Quakers, such as Lucretia Mott, were persuaded by Tyson to participate in the project.16 As a result, Swarthmore College, the second coeducational college in the nation, was established in 1864.17 The college gave educational opportunities to women when they had previously been denied them.
On March 5, 1873, Martha Ellicott Tyson passed away at 77 years of age.18 Throughout her life, Martha Tyson had been concerned with equality in education and other areas, particularly for women. Years later her descendants would say that, “If there is anything Tyson stood for…it was common ground without regard to race, color or creed.”19 Her legacy has lived on for generations. In 1993, her work and accomplishments were recognized and she was inducted into the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame.
1. Emily Emerson Lantz, "Maryland Heraldry,"
Sun, 12 March 1905. Return to text
2. Ibid. Return to text
3. Ibid. Return to text
4. Michael Morgan, "Three county women remembered today," Baltimore Sun, 8 March 1981. Return to text
5. Ibid. Return to text
6. Jamie Stiehm, "Quaker activist's life, work offers lessons on prejudice; Descendants describe woman who recorded story of black scientist," Baltimore Sun, 31 March 1999. Return to text
7. Ibid. Return to text
8. Ibid. Return to text
9. Alan S. Weber, Nineteenth Century Science: A selection of original texts, (Buffalo, NY: Broadview Press, 2000), 2. Return to text
10. “Books of the Week,” New York Herald-Tribune, 7 June 1884. Return to text
11. Lantz. Return to text
12. "Memorial of Baltimore Monthly Meeting of Friends, Concerning Martha E. Tyson," Friends’ Intelligencer, Vol. XXXI. Philadelphia, Twelfth Month 12, 1874. No. 42. Return to text
13. Ibid. Return to text
14. “Friends Yearly Meeting,” Baltimore Sun, 27 May 1864. Return to text
15. Swarthmore College, Martha Ellicott Tyson (September 13, 1795 - March 5, 1873), 9 June 2002, http://www.swarthmore.edu/library/friends/SCArchives/Tysonbio.htm (accessed 2 August 2010). Return to text
16. Frank R. Shivers, Walking in Baltimore: An Intimate Guide to the Old City, (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), 203. Return to text
17. "Martha Ellicott Tyson," Maryland Women's Hall of Fame. Return to text
18. Baltimore Sun, 7 March 1873. Return to text
19. Stiehm. Return to text
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