Dorence Atwater

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Dorence Atwater
DorenceAtwaterOval.png
Born (1845-02-03)February 3, 1845
Terryville, Connecticut
Died November 26, 1910(1910-11-26) (aged 65)
San Francisco, California
Nationality United States of America
Occupation Union Army soldier, merchant, entrepreneur, United States Consul to Tahiti
Spouse(s) Princess Moetia Salmon

Dorence Atwater (February 3, 1845 – November 26, 1910) was a Union Army soldier, merchant, entrepreneur, and United States Consul to Tahiti. He was born and raised in Terryville, Connecticut, the third child of Henry Atwater and Catherine Fenn Atwater. He was well-educated, and at 16 he joined the Union Army to fight in the American Civil War. In July 1863, Atwater was captured and found himself among the first batch of prisoners at Andersonville, Georgia. There, he kept a list of the dead and made a secret copy of his own, which allowed him, in cooperation with Clara Barton, to mark the graves of otherwise unknown soldiers. After persecution and prosecution by a small clique in the Federal Government, he was released from prison by President Andrew Johnson and sent to the Seychelles as a 23-year-old United States Consul. From there, he was sent to Tahiti to be consul there. He met and married Princess Moetia "Moe" Salmon, and was successful in shipping, pearl fisheries, and many other enterprises. He was a proficient businessman. He worked with lepers and other charities and was beloved by the Tahitian people, who called him "Tupuuataroa" (Wise Man).

He died in San Francisco on November 28, 1910, and in 1912 his body was returned to Tahiti, where he was given the only Tahitian royal funeral ever to have been awarded a non-royal. He is buried beneath a magnificent 7000 lb. marker, next to his wife of 35 years. His headstone bears the inscription, “He builded better than he knew perchance he might awake one day in surprise to find he had wrought a monument more enduring than brass.”

Early life[edit]

Dorence Atwater was born in Terryville, Connecticut in 1845, the third child of Henry Atwater and Catherine Fenn Atwater. He was clever, had a natural ability for getting into scrapes, was excellent with numbers, and had calligraphic penmanship. Despite his middle child personality, he was raised with ethics and values that became the foundation of his entire life. As a child he worked as a store clerk due to his handwriting and aptitude for numbers. He designed and planted a garden for a neighbor, and for this, too, he had a natural gift. His sister Fanny once said of Dorence's mischievousness, “Whenever he and I were playing at something we weren’t allowed, invariably I got caught while Dorr simply vanished into thin air.”

Entering the Civil War[edit]

Only 16 years old when the American Civil War broke out, Dorence listened to a Union recruiter of German nationality. The man regaled him with tales of the glory and romance of war, and promised Dorence he would be like a father to him, keeping him safe. Unfortunately, this stand-in father was among the first to be killed in the war. Too young to serve, Dorence lied about his age and joined anyway. Although Henry hauled his disobedient son to Hartford to confess his lie, it was too late. Dorence badly wanted to go to war. For over two years Dorence was a scout, delivered important messages, and was involved in many battles. He wrote to his father telling him how his outfit had taken out a bridge. “Imagine,” he said, “hundreds of men, each with his canteen full of turpentine. He pours out the turpentine as he gallops across the bridge, and last man across throws the lit match.”

Prisoner of War[edit]

One morning just before dawn, Dorence was exercising his horse out in the woods when he came upon two men in Union uniforms. Their mannerisms and the looks on their faces didn’t sit well with Dorence and he began to reach for his revolver, tied under his horse’s blanket. Dorence’s intuition about the men was correct; they were Confederates in Yankee uniforms, and they got the drop on him.

The horrendous battle at Gettysburg had just occurred. The prison named Camp Sumter, known to the prisoners as Andersonville and to Dorence as "hell itself" had just opened. Andersonville had a quota of 400 prisoners a day. They picked up Dorence on their way through Richmond, and so he was among the first prisoners to be marched there. Dorence was ill when he arrived, and was put into the prison hospital, such as it was. Upon recovering, his handwriting was discovered again and he was given the task of keeping the "Death List," just that—a list of those who had died at the camp. One copy was for the Confederates and one, he was told, would go to the Federal Government. He suspected the Federal Government would never see this copy, and was correct in that assumption. He decided to keep his own list, hidden among the papers of the ones belonging to the Confederates. All the while Dorence knew that if the prison leader Captain Wirz discovered what he was doing, he would be hanged.

Dorence Atwater.

When he was finally released from Andersonville, the Death List was completed. He wrote, “People are dying all around me. I can do nothing to save them, but I can let their families know exactly where they are buried--where to put flowers and pray.” He dropped the huge list into his cotton laundry bag and walked right through the Confederate lines with it.

The Assassination of Lincoln and Henry Atwater's Death[edit]

Shortly after Dorence arrived home, he pulled the Andersonville Death List out of his bag and showed it to his father and siblings. There had been rumors that he had folded it and slipped it in the inner pocket of his coat. But as his brother Richard wrote, “First, the Union coats had no inside pockets, second, Dorence had no coat, and third, the huge, thick list was not folded.” Two days later, Dorence came down with diphtheria, typhoid, and scurvy. His flesh was literally dying, and so was he. People rarely survived even one of these diseases, but Dorence did. Three weeks later, he was thin and weak, but on the mend. He had just received a telegram requesting him to come to Washington D.C and bring the List. In his youthful naiveté, he was certain they wanted to publish the Death List. Dorence's best friend Jim Terry Jr. helped him and took him to the train station by the Terry family carriage. On the train, word came through that President Lincoln had been shot and was dying. Washington D.C. was in chaos and utter grief, and Dorence was still quite weak. Now he was trapped in Baltimore until further notice. To add grief and guilt to what he was already feeling, a telegram came from home notifying him that his father, who had been the only one to nurse him through his illnesses, had diphtheria and was dying. He returned home at the first possible opportunity. His father died that night.

After handling the funeral and the added grief of finding homes for the younger children who were now orphans, he returned to Washington to begin work as an intern. Dorence was barely 20 years old. He had been offered a job as an intern after a less than honest government clique confiscated the Death List. In order to take this position, he was told he had to enlist in the General Service. Intensely opposed to doing this, he realized that at least he’d be close to the List—and he had young siblings to support. He made the decision to stay close to his friends and even closer to his enemies, which he sensed these men were. The men hemmed, hawed, stalled, and lied to him; still, nothing happened with the List until one day he looked up from his hotel post office desk at the wall, and there was exactly what he’d been praying for: a general notice from the great Clara Barton. She had the means to mark the graves, but no names with which to mark them. Dorence had the names and no means. He paid Miss Barton a visit and, stumbling over his words in awe of her, he told her what she needed to know. That visit was the beginning of a lifelong friendship between Dorence Atwater and Clara Barton.

General Service and Courtmartial[edit]

Months went by and still the government had not published the List. Meanwhile, Dorence and Clara were receiving thousands of inquiries about loved ones who had not returned. With time the List became old news in Dorence’s office and nothing had yet been done about it; it was available to anyone who worked there. Dorence had only leased the List to the government and the lease was long expired. Dorence took the List since it was the only copy that wasn’t short thousands of names and smudged beyond recognition. Clara had already arranged the trip to Andersonville with Dorence for the purpose of putting markers on the graves. President Lincoln had approved this action before his death. Dorence took the Death List and traveled via boat with Barton, Dr. James Moore, and forty-two headboard carvers. Upon discovering Dorence’s original List was missing from Washington, the government clique sent a messenger to Andersonville to bring it back. Dorence "accidentally" handed him the copy that the Confederates had kept so carefully—thousands of names missing, smudged, and generally unusable. The messenger never noticed. He went back to Washington carrying the Confederates’ useless list, while Dorence and Clara guarded the original with their lives. While the courier never noticed, the people who had sent him did. When the work was done, Clara and Dorence erected a flag and they and all the workers stood around it to sing the Star Spangled Banner. The two of them wrote reports which can to this day be found with what is known as The Atwater List. It is still available through the Andersonville National Historic Site.

Upon return to Washington D.C., Dorence refused to tell the clique where his List was. They were breaking their contract, and the 20 year old was not going to let them profit by selling news of death to already mourning families. They tore his hotel room apart and looked everywhere they could think, except the one place his father had taught him to hide things—in plain sight. Dorence had hid the List at the house of Clara Barton. The head of the clique gave Dorence a choice to either tell them where the List was or be courtmartialed. Upon telling them he needed further consultation to decide, they stepped in front of the door, put Dorence in ankle chains and marched him through town to be taken to Old Capitol, a prison which housed the worst criminals. Atwater was placed under arrest and immediately taken to be court martialed. He was given twenty minutes, no defense, a dishonorable discharge, and a march in shackles through the streets of Washington. The penalty for refusing to reveal the location of the true List amounted to a life sentence. Clara Barton, knowing very well Dorence would not be able to last even a month, once again arrived at Dorence's aid. She consulted with President Andrew Johnson. Suddenly, Dorence had a general pardon. Later when Johnson realized Atwater's intelligence and will to stand up for what he believed was right, Dorence found himself training to be the U.S. Consul to the Seychelles Islands.

U.S. Consul to Seychelles[edit]

Dorence went to Hartford with Clara to say goodbye to the many friends he had there. People who had been in the Seychelles assured him the weather there would be good for his health. Unfortunately, the weather did not end up helping. The Seychelles were almost constantly rainy. As Dorence put it, “It’s as if someone greases the clouds until the rain just slides out.”

While working as Consul in the Seychelles, Dorence received a rare invitation to India to be an honored guest of the prince. Dorence was gaining influence in his world. He sailed the Indian Ocean on a whaler and was met by the 26 year old prince. An extended visit did wonders for Dorence's health and he met many fascinating people. Mr. "Throck" Throckmorton and a young man using the name Harry Blanchard—one of the original Christy’s Minstrels—became good friends for Dorence on the trip back to the Seychelles. Together, they returned to Dorence’s home, which he called his "shebang" in reference to the accommodations at Andersonville. Finding Dorence’s steward gone and no food in the house, the three went out, bought bread and sardines, and "did away with them in record time,” according to Dorence.

U.S. Consul to Tahiti[edit]

Moetia Salmon Atwater (1848-1935)

After three years, Dorence was sent to be Consul to Tahiti. It was love at first sight, both for him and the people of the Society Islands. He earned praise for his work, he made friends easily, and he loved working with the lepers. Few people at this time understood how difficult it was to catch the disease. Dorence did understand, and after everything he’d been through, he wasn’t afraid of much anymore.

He met and fell in love with Princess Moetia Salmon, who had been educated in France and England. They were married in 1875, and brought joy to the islands with their senses of humor, entrepreneurship, and care of the less fortunate. Princess Moetia, or "Moe" as they called her, was the sister of Queen Marau, the consort of King Pōmare V of Tahiti.

The Atwaters had a home in San Francisco as well as in Tahiti. Unfortunately, their San Francisco house stood on Market Street and while they were vacationing in Mexico, the great earthquake of 1906 occurred. In order to create a firebreak, Market Street had to be demolished by explosives and with it, the Atwater home. In their house was the original Death List, the one Dorence had copied at the risk of his young life. It never occurred to him that the Smithsonian or Andersonville itself would one day dearly love to display his hard work.

Death and legacy[edit]

Through the years, Dorence had done his mission with the List, established a shipping line, pearl fishery, and worked with the poor and sick all while suffering bouts of illness and severe asthma attacks. In 1908, he and Moe made a Fourth of July visit to Terryville. In November 1910, his youngest brother Francis received a letter reading, “If you want to see me alive again, come out to San Francisco for a visit.” Francis had just returned from a trip to the Northwest, and didn’t feel like taking the train from Connecticut to San Francisco, but his love for his brother took over his desire to stay home.

He found Dorence and Moe in their apartment at the Hotel Normandie, where they had lived since the earthquake. Dorence was up and around, feeling good, and they spent several days chatting over childhood pranks and memories. Francis had noticed that Dorence’s letters had been difficult to read—that the beautiful penmanship was being lost to weakness. But to see him now, Francis was convinced Dorence was simply lonesome for someone from home. They had a good time, and Francis departed. The day after he arrived home, Dorence’s last letter arrived, written so weakly Francis could barely make it out. Dorence Atwater, aged 65, died the next day, November 26, 1910, in San Francisco.

Several times, Dorence and Moe had tried to return to Tahiti on their ship, "Tahiti," and each time he became so ill he had to stay. His dream of “passing over the Great Divide” in his beloved adopted land was not to be. He was interred in San Francisco while the royals of Tahiti planned to have his body returned. Moe sat with his casket for 3500 miles on their ship, to be greeted by nearly every person on the island. He was the first non-royal to be given a royal funeral. He was beloved and mourned, and is buried beneath a 7000 lb stone. On one side is carved “Tupuuataroa” (Wise Man). On the other, “He builded better than he knew that one day he might awake in surprise to found he had wrought a monument more enduring than brass.” Princess Moe died in 1935 at age 87, and is buried next to him.

See also[edit]

References and additional reading[edit]

  • Safranski, Debby Burnett, "Angel of Andersonville, Prince of Tahiti: The Extraordinary Life of Dorence Atwater," Alling-Porterfield Publishing House, 2008, ISBN 978-0-9749767-1-6