Journalists, Great Lakes explorers at rest in Congressional Cemetery
By Eric Freedman
The Congressional Cemetery sprawls across 32½ acres in the southeastern part of the nation’s capital. Despite its name, most of those buried there – like Mathew Brady and Anne Newport Royall – aren’t former members of the House or Senate.
For those of us who care about journalism, Brady was the groundbreaking Civil War photographer who is credited as the “father of photojournalism.”
While we remember the realism, brutality and humanity portrayed in his Civil War images, not long before his death in 1896 – ailing and destitute – he said of his photographs, “No one will ever know what they cost me. Some of them almost cost me my life.”
The Association for the Preservation of Historic Congressional Cemetery says Royall is considered “the nation’s first newspaperwoman. Her unflinching aggressive reporting earned her many enemies in Washington, leading to a trial on the charge of being a ‘common scold.’”
Left nearly penniless after her husband’s death in 1812, she “turned to writing to make a living and came to Washington to fight for her husband’s pension,” according to the association. Legend has it that she once interviewed President John Quincy Adams “by sitting on his clothes while the president bathed in the Potomac River.”
Cynthia Earman of the Library of Congress wrote. “Early in the 19th century the newspaper Paul Pry dedicated itself to exposing political corruption and religious fraud. It was edited by the audacious Anne Newport Royall at a time when few women were newspaper editors and even fewer were willing to take on the establishment.”
Royall died in 1854.
Another woman interred here also found her calling as a journalist to escape an impoverished widowhood.
“Emma E.M.V. Triepel was widowed twice before she turned 30 and turned to writing as a way to support herself.” A cofounder of the National League of American Pen Women, she wrote for newspapers and magazines, including Scientific American.
She died in 1943.
J. Edgar Hoover, the first FBI director and a nemesis of reporters who wanted to investigate his agency, is here as well.
However, Hoover also owed a great deal to cooperative journalists and media owners. The Newseum – in downtown Washington a few miles from the cemetery –explains, “As formidable as he was, Hoover could not have built the FBI’s reputation without the help of reporters, but the press profited, too. Hoover cultivated friendly reporters, giving them ‘Interesting Case’ memos with inside details about the FBI’s crime-solving skills. Editors and reporters happily responded with headline-grabbing stories. An aggressive public relations machine — the Crime Records Division — also churned out positive articles, often under Hoover’s byline.”
In a Wichita Public Radio interview about his new book on Hoover and press, Professor Matthew Cecil of Wichita State University’s Elliott School of Communication said “The FBI gained complete control over how it was portrayed in the media and ultimately it exercised a lot of its power—and it was a powerful agency—in order to maintain that image and essentially to drown out critics. The sad story for those of us who are journalists is that journalists were complicit in that.”
The Congressional Cemetery began as the Washington Parish Burial Ground in 1807. Located off the beaten tourist path, most visitors today are joggers, dog-walkers, stroller-pushers and other local residents enjoying the winding paths, rolling landscape.
For those of us interested in Great Lakes history and geography, it’s also the resting place of Joseph Nicollet and Henry Schoolcraft.
In life, they had much in common – the explorer’s sense of adventure, the explorer’s joy of discovery, the explorer’s uncertainties about what may lie around the next bend of a river or over the next ridge. They overlapped in time – the first part of the 1800s – and in place – the Great Lakes – and in discovery, but they never met.
In death, Nicollet and Schoolcraft have something else in common – graves less than a football field’s length away from each other.
The New York-born Schoolcraft was an ethnologist, geologist and mineralogist. In 1820, he joined an expedition led by Michigan’s territorial governor, Lewis Cass, to the upper Mississippi and Lake Superior copper region. In 1822, he became the federal Indian agent for Lake Superior region tribes in what became northern Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. And from a journalist’s perspective, he was publisher of Michigan’s first literary magazine, The Souvenir of the Lakes.
Now, his name is most familiar because of Schoolcraft County in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, plus two townships, a college and a village in Michigan, as well as a state park, river and county in Minnesota.
The French-born Nicollet was a French naval astronomer before immigrating to the United States. The Secretary of War hired him to map the headwaters on the Mississippi River, and he collected detailed information about Native American language and culture.
”Nicollet was very conscious of the changes that would soon follow his explorations, and he dedicated much effort to learning about, and recording, the cultures of the Ojibwa and Dakota, including their names for lakes and rivers and other geographical features,” according to the Nicollet Project at St. Olaf College.
Today, Nicollet County in Minnesota carries his name. So do a city and an island in the state.
Eric Freedman is the director of Michigan State University’s Knight Center for Environmental Journalism