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Column: Indiana’s first nationally popular poet largely forgotten

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James Whitcomb Riley was the most acclaimed, but he wasn’t the first Hoosier poet to gain national fame. Sarah T. Bolton deserves that honor.

Even today her poem “Paddle Your Own Canoe” is cited and recited, though few know anything about its origins.

Her poetry “was known everywhere,” and the canoe poem was set to music and translated into a dozen foreign languages, according to historian Jeanette C. Nolan in the book “Hoosier City.” Indiana Historical Society records note that Bolton served as poet laureate of Indiana during the 1840s and 1850s.

Bolton was born Sarah Tittle Barrett in 1814 in Newport, Kentucky, and moved as a toddler with her parents to the Jennings County wilderness. Not liking the isolation, her father sold the farm and took the family to more civilized Madison when she was 9, where she studied Latin and read Virgil and other classics. Her first published poem appeared in the Madison Banner in 1826. She was not quite 14.

In 1831, Miss Barrett married local newspaperman Nathaniel Bolton, and the two moved to Indianapolis, where they ran a dairy farm, wrote and immersed themselves in public affairs. Although Bolton had two children and performed all the traditional duties of a homemaker, she was a prominent figure in Indiana and was often asked to write poems for public occasions.

Bolton was a feminist 70 years before women gained the franchise. She lobbied for women’s rights when political leaders were rewriting the state constitution in 1850-51.

Her husband served as state librarian from 1847-53 and later as clerk of a U.S. Senate committee and diplomat at Geneva, which gave Bolton the chance to travel across Europe, a subject of many of her poems. He died in 1858, and Bolton remarried, but she was always publicly known as Sarah T. Bolton.

Modern critics dismiss her work as sentimental and commercial, as noted in a biographical sketch by the Beech Grove Public Library.

Yet evidence is overwhelming she was held in high regard by her contemporaries. When Bowen-Merrill published a collection of her poems in 1892 under the title “Songs of a Life-Time,” it included an introduction by Lew Wallace and a poem by Riley, whose writing careers eclipsed Bolton’s by the turn of the century.

Although anthologies of Bolton’s poetry aren’t readily available today, she was widely published for her era. During the Civil War, her “Union Forever!” poem was credited with rallying the North.

Again, “Paddle Your Own Canoe” remains popular today and is often quoted by advocacy groups seeking to deviate from conventional wisdom. Clarke Kahlo, an environmental activist in Indianapolis, explains, “Paddling your own canoe is a great metaphor for life. We all like to have control.”

By 1871 Bolton had retired from the spotlight and bought land at Beech Bank southeast of Indianapolis — now Beech Grove — where she lived her golden years in relative quiet. She died in 1893.

Although largely forgotten by Hoosiers, she is memorialized at a community park purchased by Beech Grove in 1930 from the Bolton estate. The city’s website notes, “The park reflects the life and beauty that Mrs. Bolton often spoke of in her poetry.”

On a recent summer day, dozens of park visitors were enjoying the picnic areas, athletic fields and other amenities, but when asked, none could say who Bolton was or why the park was named after her. Only a hard-to-find historical marker on Sherman Avenue near the park’s side entrance offered a brief biographical explanation.

Note to Readers: This is one in a series of essays leading up to the celebration of the Indiana Bicentennial in December 2016. The essays will focus on the top 100 events, ideas and historical figures of Indiana, beginning with the impact of the Ice Age and ending with the legacy of the Bicentennial itself. Andrea Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s Episcopal School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Send comments to letters@dailyjournal.

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