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Stephen Foster

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People & Events: Charlotte Susanna Foster, 1809-1829

Her brother Stephen became one of America's most beloved popular composers, but death silenced the music of Charlotte Susanna Foster forever when she was only nineteen. Born on December 14, 1809 to William Foster and his wife Eliza, Charlotte was the family's second child. The first, Anna Eliza, had died in infancy. As a child, Charlotte studied under a woman named Mrs. Brevost, who had been educated in Paris and taught the daughters of the Pittsburgh elite everything that "will improve and polish." But it was Charlotte's talent for music that caused at least one family friend to describe the girl as a prodigy.

In 1821 Charlotte enrolled at St. Joseph's Academy, a convent school in Emmitsburg, Maryland. There, she won accolades for musicianship, but little else about her tenure is known. By the time Charlotte returned to Pittsburgh, probably around 1825, she was in her late teens, a young woman of polish, poise, and refinement. Yet if her family had prepared her for a life as a debutante, they could now no longer afford it. William Foster's fortunes had fallen drastically. The family home had been repossessed, the family piano sold.

Charlotte's trip down river from Pittsburgh in 1828 may have made these circumstances less bothersome. She left Pittsburgh in May, on board the steamboat Waverly. At her first stop, Cincinnati, Charlotte spent her nights singing, dancing, and socializing. She continued down river to Louisville, Kentucky, where she stayed with her cousins, the Barclays, who offered her more of the same. There, Charlotte also took lessons on the harp.

If Charlotte's letters mention her companionship with a number of women, she also proved a magnet for eligible men. Among these was Atkinson Hill Rowan. Atkinson was the son of John Rowan, a wealthy attorney, slaveholder, and United States Senator who was a distant relative of the Fosters. Charlotte met Atkinson when she visited the Rowans at Federal Hill, their Bardstown, Kentucky estate. The young man courted Charlotte ardently, but she allowed that "I could not love him and would not do him or my self the injustices to make promises I was not inclined to perform."

Almost from the moment of her departure, William and Eliza Foster had worried about their daughter's safety. Warm weather brought diseases such as malaria to the South. Each year, such deadly illnesses struck all along the Mississippi basin. Charlotte's parents ordered her back to Pittsburgh, yet she resisted, finally returning in November.

Charlotte stayed briefly in Pittsburgh, returning to the Barclays' home in Louisville late in the late winter of 1829. By fall of that year, her anxious parents had once again requested her return. But by then, "bilious fever" -- probably malaria -- had struck the Barclay home. Charlotte's sister Ann Eliza hastened to Federal Hill, but by the time she arrived, Charlotte had passed away. At the young woman's side when she died was Atkinson Hill Rowan, her rejected suitor.

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