Bittinger: Caroline Crane Marsh For Women's History Month

Mar 17, 2016

She valued his work when others did not. He wrote to please her, and he called her his equal in every way. He was the first American environmentalist, George Perkins Marsh, born in Woodstock in 1801 and she was his wife, Caroline Crane Marsh, born in Berkley, Massachusetts in 1816.

His work on deforestation was original and ground breaking. She encouraged him to publish as soon as possible – which he did in 1864. Her belief in his ideas made all the difference to him, and he disciplined himself to do the writing and get it out into the world. She reportedly said, “It cost me 15 years of hard work to wind you up to the writing point, and now I believe you are likely to run on without stopping for the next 15.” She even wrote his biography to document his life and contributions - until a stroke prevented her from finishing it.

This was a marriage of equals that began in 1839 and lasted more than 40 years. When he became minister to Turkey, they toured the Middle East together. She had become rather frail, but he so wanted her to participate in what he was doing that he carried her through the Temple of Karnak on the Nile River. On that same trip, they collected specimens for the new Smithsonian museum.
 
Fortunately, after 16 years and a Parisian doctor’s care, she recovered enough to participate more fully as a life partner.

Biographer David Lowenthal writes that her ailments didn’t stop them from doing what they relished, and “together they crossed deserts, climbed Alps, wrote books, kept open house for friends and relatives, and were assiduous diarists and correspondents.”
 
Caroline herself translated a German book, wrote up her experiences in Italian, and published poetry.

Without her, Marsh’s seminal environmental work might never have been launched on the international scene. His observation of the effects of deforestation and the urgent need for restoration and conservation led to a federal forest reserve system, watershed protection and a conservation program. In Vermont, Woodstock’s Mt. Tom was reforested and large tracts of land - including Camel’s Hump - were preserved.

George Perkins Marsh commissioned his friend Hiram Powers to sculpt his wife’s likeness; a replica of which is now housed at the Fleming Museum at the University of Vermont. And in the last year of his life, George Perkins Marsh declared that Caroline had been “my faithful and most affectionate companion, my wisest counsellor and my most efficient aid.”