ELLA GERTRUDE CLANTON THOMAS
Educator. Activist. Diarist.
2014 Inductee, Georgia Women of Achievement
City, Town, Region
There were many courageous women in Georgia during the 19th century, but there were very few as determined and extraordinary as Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas. With an indomitable spirit, she was a devoted mother, teacher, diarist, as well as a tireless activist in the Temperance and Suffrage movements. In a series of thirteen journals that she began when she was fourteen years old and continued for 41 hers from 1848 to 1889, Gertrude chronicles her privileged life as a daughter and young wife of privilege in the Old South through the devastating deaths of loved ones, hardship of the CivilWar, and the ultimate loss of all family wealth.
She also kept fifteen scrapbooks that record her life after she stopped keeping the diary. In them she recorded the story of her involvement in such organizations as the Women’s Christina Temperance Union and the Georgia Woman Suffrage Association. She went from being a bored, young, somewhat naive teenager to become in late life a tireless, enthusiastic worker for women’s suffrage and women’s equality at the end of the 19th century. Her life story is one of commitment and transformation that is inspiring at any age.
Ella Gertrude Clanton was born in 1834 to Turner C. Clanton, a prominent Augusta planter and Georgia state legislator and his wife, Mary Luke Clanton. Her father was one of the wealthiest men in Georgia with an estate that was worth $2,500,000 at his death in 1864. She lived a charmed early life of leisure with clothes and travel opportunities. Her father recognized her love of reading and writing and sent her toWesleyan Female College that had been founded in 1836 as the first college for women in America.
Ella Gertrude Clanton married Princeton educated James Jefferson Thomas in 1852and began what she thought would be a charmed married life. She gave birth to ten children and had only six survive to adulthood. As did so many women in the 19th century, she suffered the debilitating heartache of these deaths. In addition to the losses incurred by the Civil War, her husband failed to be a wife business manager, mortgaged their many acres of land and drove them into bankruptcy.
Gertrude recorded the momentous occurrences in her life such as births and deaths and the important historical events of the day. She also wrote about her mundane daily tasks, her hopes, her fears, her sorrows, and the secret thoughts she told no one else.She felt so protective of his record of her life that when Sherman’s troops were approaching and she had to choose what to send off for safe, she chose to keep the journals rather than the family silver.
Gertrude’s journal is significant for many reasons. Many historians believe Gertrude may be the most famous diarist of the Civil War and Reconstruction eras, second only to Mary Boykin Chestnut. Since her diaries were only released by her family 60 years ago, many Georgians do not know about this extraordinary woman. In 1957, DukeUniversity purchase the 13 volumes that had been proudly retained for three generations by Thomas’ family.