“The victory of success is half won when one develops the habit of work.”
~Sarah T. Bolton
Nicknamed the “Pioneer Poet Laureate of Indiana,” Sarah T. Bolton was one of the earliest poets in the Midwest. Bolton’s success came at a time when it was uncommon for a woman to be a published author. Despite this, she was never afraid to reach beyond perceived limitations to pursue her dreams. In fact, Bolton is often described by historians as a “fiery patriot” and advocate for personal liberty.
Bolton was born Sarah Barrett in Newport, Kentucky, on December 18, 1814. Around the time she turned three, Bolton’s family moved to Indiana to establish a farm in the wilderness. Their homestead was located about six miles from present-day Vernon. Bolton spent her early years living in a log cabin and helping her family clear fields and establish a working farm.
When Bolton was nine years old, her family sold the Vernon homestead and moved to Madison, Indiana. There, Bolton was educated in the local school system. She soon began to dabble in poetry, and at the age of 13, published her first poem in the Madison Banner. In the ensuing years, Bolton regularly contributed poems to the Madison Banner and to newspapers in nearby Cincinnati, Ohio.
Bolton earned almost immediately recognition as a talented poet. Among her early admirers was Nathaniel Bolton, a young newspaper editor. The couple married in 1831 when Sarah was just 17 years old.
The newlyweds relocated to Indianapolis, where Nathaniel Bolton became co-owner of the Indianapolis Gazette (later renamed the Indianapolis Democrat). From 1836 to 1845, the couple also owned and operated a tavern on their nearby homestead. Nicknamed “Mount Jackson,” and conveniently located on the National Road (present day Washington Street) just outside of Indianapolis, the tavern became a popular gathering place for state government representatives, diplomats, and other influential locals.
In addition to rearing two children and helping to run the farm and tavern, Sarah Bolton continued to write and publish poetry during these years. Many of her poems were nostalgic, looking back to the early years of Indiana’s establishment. Her poems “Our Pioneers” and “A Pioneering Grandmother” are both thought to contain memories of her early childhood on Indiana’s frontier.
It was while living on her Indianapolis homestead that Bolton wrote her most famous poem, “Paddle Your Own Canoe.” The poem expressed a spirit of self-reliance that resonated with people worldwide.
The poem was eventually translated into several languages and even set to music. Though largely forgotten today, the poem remained highly popular in the early twentieth century.
In the late 1840s, Bolton became active in the early movement for women’s rights reform. She was particularly interested in an 1850 proposed amendment to the state’s constitution that would have allowed married women to retain ownership of property that they brought into the marriage. Bolton became an ally of Robert Dale Owen in his attempt to secure passage of the legislation at Indiana’s Constitutional Convention. Bolton wrote numerous letters and editorials vocalizing her support for the measure that were published in newspapers across the state. Her words offered practical, common-sense rationale for supporting the legislation’s passage. Despite the best efforts of women’s rights supporters, however, the measure ultimately failed.
Around this same time, Bolton’s husband was appointed the State Librarian for Indiana and clerk of a United States Senate committee. In 1855, President Pierce appointed Nathaniel Bolton as consul to Geneva, Switzerland. Sarah Bolton accompanied her husband to Europe, where she spent the next three years of her life. During this time, she served as a correspondent for the Cincinnati Commercial. The couple returned to Indianapolis in 1858.
The next few years in Bolton’s life were mired in tragedy. Nathaniel passed away a few months after their return from Switzerland and her daughter died shortly thereafter. Bolton’s poem, “Two Graves,” expresses her grief over the losses.
In difficult times, poetry gave Bolton an outlet to express her opinions and feelings. She wrote a number of poems voicing her concerns over women’s rights, the horrors of war, and other social injustices of her era. Bolton’s poem about the Civil War, “Left on the Battlefield,” is still considered to be one of the best, most expressive, wartime poems ever written.
In 1863, Bolton wed for a second time and moved with her new spouse to Missouri. The marriage didn’t last, however, in part due to Bolton’s dislike of her new home state. After an extended trip to Europe, in 1871 Bolton was back in Indiana and living on a farm in Beech Grove that she nicknamed “Beech Bank.” Bolton lived there until her death in 1893.
While living at Beech Bank, Bolton wrote her second-most famous poem of all time, “Indiana.” The tribute to her beloved home state lauded the Hoosier state’s welcoming demeanor, ample opportunities, and vast array of valuable natural resources.
In all, Bolton wrote over 150 poems during her lifetime. Most were published in newspapers, although she did publish a few anthologies. A few of her more popular poems were even set to music. Despite these successes, Bolton made little money for her work. She received no royalties from the sale of sheet music created from her poems, and most of her newspaper submissions were printed with no author compensation. Thus, it became a noteworthy annotation that Bolton once received $15 from the Cincinnati Commercial for the purchase of three poems.
Despite her lack of commercial success, Bolton was greatly respected and admired by the people of her home state. James Whitcomb Riley, the famed Hoosier poet, was said to have been a mentee of Bolton’s and would later credit her as an important source of encouragement and inspiration.
Bolton died on August 4, 1893, and is buried in Indianapolis’s Crown Hill Cemetery. Today, only a few commemorative honors celebrate her remarkable life. A beautiful bronze tablet at the Statehouse memorializes Bolton’s important literary contributions to Indiana’s early history. In nearby Beech Grove, Bolton’s former property is now a city park named in her honor.