Biographical Sketch of Ellen Powell Thompson

Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920

Biography of Ellen Powell Thompson, 1840-1911

By Rachael Dickson, Trademark Attorney

President of the Women's Suffrage Association of the District (1895-1896, 1897-1900); Washington, D.C. Representative who spoke before the Congressional Committee on Woman Suffrage in 1896

Ellen Louella (Nellie) Powell Thompson was born in 1840 in Jackson, Ohio to John and Mary Powell. She became a teacher at the age of sixteen. She married Prof. Almon Harris Thompson (1837-1906) on July 8, 1862 in Wheaton, Illinois. She continued to work as a teacher and when her husband entered the army, she took up his position as a superintendent of schools. She spent the summer of 1863 at Cairo, Illinois caring for sick and wounded soldiers while her husband was stationed there.

Thompson (and her dog Fuzz) also accompanied her husband on an 1871 Colorado River expedition led by her brother Major John Wesley Powell. Prof. Thompson served as Major Powell's chief assistant on the expedition. The expedition made maps of several western territories, often traveling on mule or horseback. On her journey she befriended some of the native American tribes and collected botanical samples. Three of the plants she discovered are named for her: Thompson's Dalea (Psrothamnus thompsoniae), Thompson's Penstemon (Penstemon thompsoniae), and Thompson's Woolly Locoweed (Astralagus mollissimum var. thompsoniae). On the trip, Prof. Thompson named the summit of the Henry Mountains Mount Ellen, after his wife. Her plant collection is preserved in the Gray Herbarium at Harvard University and her diary from the trip is in the collection of the New York Public Library, manuscripts and archives division, along with her husband's diary.

They moved to Washington, D.C. in the early 1880s when Prof. Thompson began to work for the U.S. Geological Survey under Major Powell. There, Ellen Thompson became active in a number of groups. She served as President of the Women's Suffrage Association of the District from 1895-1896 and from 1897-1900, served as chairman of the bust fund committee in 1898 (raising money to create busts of Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony), and served as the organization's delegate to the annual National American Woman Suffrage Association Convention several times. In 1900, she served as chair of a District committee that entertained the national convention delegates, which ended with a celebration of Susan B. Anthony's 80th birthday and the presentation of a purse of $200 to Anthony.

She notably spoke as the Washington, D.C. representative before the Congressional Committee on Woman Suffrage on January 28, 1896. In her speech, she specifically noted that arguments against granting the vote to women due to lack of political experience and education made no sense, as first, women lacked the ability to gain experience (stating, "We cannot swim without water to swim in") and second, girls had actually gained significantly higher levels of education than boys over the previous 20 years. Articles describing her suffrage work in the District of Columbia appeared in a variety of newspapers across the nation. She was quoted on more than one occasion quipping that she was gratified that in Washington, D.C., men had no more political rights than women (due to lack of voting representation for the District in Congress).

Ellen Powell Thompson also served as the chairman of the congressional committee for the National American Woman Suffrage Association Convention in 1898. She was a founding member of the Equal Suffrage Association of the District of Columbia, which combined several suffrage groups and was auxiliary to the National American Woman Suffrage Association, in December 1898. She was also active in Wimodaughsis as a director in 1985, in the local committee on arrangements for the National Council of Women in 1899, and in the Junior Equal Suffrage Club in 1903.

Apart from her suffrage work, she was also a founding member of the Anti-Division Association (which promoted enforcement of criminal law) and the Woman's Anthropological Society in 1896, and was also active with the Woman's Christian Temperance Union of the District of Columbia and the Federation of Women's Club of the District of Columbia.

The Thompsons had no children. He predeceased her in July 1906 after suffering from stomach cancer for several years. She died on March 12, 1911 of sudden heart failure. Ellen Powell Thompson is buried with her husband at Arlington National Cemetery.

Sources:

Almon Harris Thompson and Ellen Powell diaries, Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library. http://archives.nypl.org/mss/4152

Fredrick Samuel Dellenbaugh, A canyon voyage: the narrative of the second Powell expedition down the Green-Colorado River from Wyoming, and the explorations on land, in the years 1871 and 1872 (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1908).

The Decatur Herald, Jan. 25, 1896. p. 4.

Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), 16 Feb 1898. p. 7. (Biography)

Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), August 1, 1906. p 2.

Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), Dec. 23, 1898. p. 9.

Marcia L. Thomas. John Wesley Powell: An Annotated Bibliography (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Publishing, 2004).

Lyndia Carter, "John Wesley Powell's Headquarters at Kanab," History Blazer, December 1996. Published online at http://historytogo.utah.gov/utah_chapters/trappers,_traders,_and_explorers/johnwesleypowellsheadquartersatkanab.html.

Teresa Zackodnik, ed., Press, Platform, Pulpit: Black Feminist Publics in the Era of Reform (Knoxfville: University of Tennessee Press, 2011), p. 233.

Anne Merrill Ingram. "Victorian Flower Power," Common-Place vol. 7, no. 1 (October 2006). Accessed online at http://www.common-place-archives.org/vol-07/no-01/ingram/

The Washington Times, 17 Jan. 1896. p. 5.

The Washington Times, 13 Mar 1911. p. 2. (Obituary)

Report of Hearing Before the Committee on Woman Suffrage, January 28, 1896, pp. 12-13. Accessed online at https://ia902702.us.archive.org/1/items/reporthearingbe00conggoog/reporthearingbe00conggoog.pdf

Weisheit, John. "The Powell Survey of the 1870s: Art & Science from the Saddle," January 23, 2009, from the "On the Colorado" website, accessed at http://www.onthecolorado.com/articles.cfm?mode=detail&id=1232757073417.

back to top