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Stephen Foster | Article

The Fosters

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.

Jane McDowell Foster (1829-1903)
She inspired "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair," but her marriage to composer Stephen Foster proved to be less than the romantic ideal. Jane McDowell, daughter of a Pittsburgh physician, married fledgling composer Stephen Foster on July 22, 1850. He was 24; she was 20. An attractive young woman with auburn hair, Jane had rejected the attentions of at least one other suitor in favor of Stephen. She may have broken an engagement with another suitor in 1849 as well. 

What attracted Jane to Stephen — and vice versa — remains a mystery. According to acquaintances, Jane showed no particular fondness for music, and Stephen no particular fondness for physical affection. Yet they married after a whirlwind courtship, and Jane gave birth to their only child, Marion Foster, almost nine months to the day after their wedding. While this event undoubtedly provided some joy in the marriage, it was probable by then that Jane was deeply unhappy.

A number of factors probably contributed to the tension between Jane and her husband. First, Jane and Stephen lived from the beginning of their marriage with Stephen's family in Allegheny, a Pittsburgh suburb. There, Jane likely played second fiddle to Stephen's mother Eliza, and to his siblings, to whom Stephen remained exceedingly close. Stephen's composing style, which required long periods of solitude, undoubtedly wore on Jane. Friendly and amiable when he wasn't working, Stephen became a different man when he worked -- serious and emotionally detached. Finally, Stephen was the first American ever to try to make a living solely as a songwriter. He constantly teetered on the brink of financial insolvency, which could not have been reassuring to his bride. 

By the spring of 1853, Jane separated from her husband for the first time, taking Marion to Lewistown, Pennsylvania, where her mother and sister Agnes resided. For his part, Stephen ventured to New York City, where he hoped to make his mark in what was by then becoming the epicenter of American music publishing. 

Within about a year, Jane had reunited with her husband. After living briefly in a New York boarding house, they moved into a house in Hoboken, New Jersey, where they lived until fall. It was then that Stephen returned to Allegheny. Jane probably stayed in Hoboken for a few weeks before following him home.

For a while, the Fosters seemed happy — owing perhaps to the fact that the death of Stephen's parents and the departure of his siblings left Jane the matron of her own home. Still, Jane, Stephen, and Marion moved again, in the spring of 1860. This time the destination was Warren, Ohio, where Stephen's sister Henrietta lived. The Fosters stayed there until fall, then returned to New York. 

By July 1861 Jane Foster had returned to Pennsylvania with Marion. After a brief period of prosperity, Stephen's financial situation had once again collapsed. Liquor increasingly dominated his life, and many of his biggest hits had already been published. Determined to support herself and Marion, Jane took a job as a telegraph operator with the Pennsylvania Railroad, which had recently begun to hire women for the job. 

Although Jane remained physically separated from Stephen, the emotional bonds remained. She kept in contact with her husband, and visited New York with some frequency, trying to help him stay afloat. When Stephen died on January 13, 1864, Jane traveled to New York with Morrison Foster to claim the body. After the funeral, she returned to her telegraph work. She eventually married again, to Matthew D. Wiley, who worked as a railroad baggage and express agent. She died of burn injuries in 1903, after her clothing caught fire as she sat near the hearth in her home in Allegheny.

Center for American Music, U. of Pittsburgh

Stephen Collins Foster (1826-1864)
Stephen Collins Foster, the ninth of William B. and Eliza T. Foster's ten children (plus a son fathered by William before the marriage and later raised as their oldest child), was born July 4, 1826, in a white cottage high on the hillside above the Allegheny River in Lawrenceville, east of Pittsburgh. The tenth child died as an infant, leaving Stephen as the "baby" of the family to be indulged by older brothers and sisters. 

Foster's life has become part of American legend. One thread of the tale is that he detested school and so was poorly educated. In truth, as a young boy Stephen evinced more interest in music than in other subjects. But as the child of a middle-class family in an era before tax-supported public education, he variously was privately tutored, then schooled at private academies in Pittsburgh and in north-central Pennsylvania. He expressed a distaste for rote learning and recitation, but was an avid reader and eventually became a literate, well-educated person by the standards of his day. 

He was musically literate as well; he probably received some formal musical training from a German immigrant, Henry Kleber, an accomplished and versatile musician who eventually exerted a major influence on Pittsburgh's musical life as a performer, composer, music merchant, impresario, and teacher. 

As a teen, Foster enjoyed the friendship of young men and women from some of Pittsburgh's most prosperous and respectable families. Stephen, his brother Morrison, and his close friend, Charles Shiras, were all members of an all-male secret club called Knights of the S.T. [probably Square Table] that met twice weekly at the Fosters' home. One of their principal activities was singing, with Stephen acting first as song leader and then composer. Some of his earliest songs — perhaps including "Oh! Susanna" — were composed for the group. His first published song, "Open Thy Lattice Love," appeared from a Philadelphia music publisher when Stephen was only 18. 

At age 20, Stephen went to work as a bookkeeper for his brother Dunning's steamship firm in Cincinnati. There he also sold some of his songs and piano pieces to a local music publisher and had his first big hit with "Oh! Susanna." In 1850, already with 12 compositions in print, the 24-year-old Stephen returned to Pittsburgh, married 20-year-old Jane Denny MacDowell, and launched his career as a professional songwriter. Their daughter Marion was born the following year. In 1852, the couple took a delayed honeymoon, a month-long steamship ride to New Orleans with friends, the only trip Stephen ever made to the deep South (he had visited Ohio River towns in Kentucky as a child). In 1853, he went to New York to be near his publishers; Jane joined him in Hoboken, New Jersey, sometime in 1854. They returned to Pittsburgh later that year, living first in the family home and then a series of boarding houses after both is parents died in 1855. 

Another thread in the mythic fabric is that Foster dashed off perfect masterpieces in a flash of inspiration, songs expressing the sentiment of American ante-bellum South. Yet, aside from these absences, visits to the family in Ohio, and until he went to New York for good in 1860, Stephen spent much of his life in Pittsburgh where he worked consistently at his songwriting, keeping a thick sketchbook to draft ideas for song lyrics and melodies. As a professional songwriter of unparalleled skill and technique — not an untutored musical genius — he had made it his business to study the various music and poetic styles circulating in the immigrant populations of the new United States. His intention was to write the people's music, using images and a musical vocabulary that would be widely understood by all groups. Foster worked very hard at writing, sometimes taking several months to craft and polish the words, melody, and accompaniment of a song before sending it off to a publisher. His sketchbook shows that he often labored over the smallest details, the right prepositions, even where to include or remove a comma from his lyrics. 

Rather than writing nostalgically for an old South (it was, after all, the present day for him), or trivializing the hardships of slavery, Foster sought to humanize the characters in his songs, to have them care for one another, and to convey a sense that all people — regardless of their ethnic identities or social and economic class — share the same longings and needs for family and home. He instructed white performers of his songs not to mock slaves but to get their audiences to feel compassion. In his own words, he sought to "build up taste...among refined people by making words suitable to their taste, instead of the trashy and really offensive words which belong to some songs of that order." Stephen Foster was a man with a mission, to reform black-face minstrelsy, then the most pervasive and powerful force in American popular culture. 

It is possible that Foster's sense of mission was aided and encouraged by his boyhood friend and artistic collaborator, Charles Shiras. Pittsburgh was a center for abolitionist activities in Pennsylvania, and Shiras was a leader of the movement. Inspired by local appearances of William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass, Shiras launched a crusading abolitional newspaper, and subsequently published a volume of antislavery and anticapitalist verse. He and Stephen wrote at least one song together, and a stage work that was performed but never published and is now lost. 

Though another thread of the myth romantically portrays Stephen Foster as such a pure artist that he had no business sense and squandered all his wealth. In fact, he kept his own account books, documenting down to the penny how much his publishers paid him for each song, and he calculated his probable future earnings on each one. His contracts were written out in his own hand; they are the earliest ones we know of between American music publishers and individual songwriters. 

In reality, Foster was not an idle street musician without direction in his life; he was a pioneer. There was no music business as we know it (sound recording was not invented until 13 years after his death; radio, 66 years): no system of publishers and agents vying to sell new songs; no "performing rights" fees from restaurant singers or minstrels or theater musicians or concert recitalists; no way of earning money except through a 5-to-10 percent royalty on sheet music sales of his own editions by his original publisher, or though the outright purchase of a song by a publisher. There was no way to know whether or not he was being paid for all the copies his publisher sold; there were no attorneys specializing in authors' rights. Copyright law protected far less than it does today: Foster earned nothing for other arrangers' settings of his songs, broadside printings of his lyrics, or for other publishers' editions of his music. In today's music industry he would be worth millions of dollars a year; on January 13, 1864, he died at age 37 with 38 cents in his pocket and a penciled scrap of paper that read, "dear friends and gentle hearts." His brother Henry described the accident in the New York theater-district hotel that led to his death: confined to bed for days by a persistent fever, Stephen tried to call a chambermaid, but collapsed, falling against the washbasin next to his bed and shattering it, which gouged his head; it took three hours to get him to the hospital, and in that era, before transfusions and antibiotics, he succumbed after three days. 

Professional Career
While still an amateur songwriter, Foster realized that the minstrel stage was the key to securing an audience for his songs. At first, he circulated manuscript copies among various minstrel troupes. After "Oh! Susanna" became a national hit following its performance by the Christy Minstrels in 1848, the song was widely pirated by more than two-dozen music publishing firms, who earned tens of thousands of dollars from sheet music sales. But Foster received a mere $100 from a single firm in Cincinnati. In that regard, "Oh! Susanna" was a financial failure for Foster, but he learned two valuable lessons: one, his potential to earn significant sums from songwriting and, two, the need to protect his artistic property. During 1848 and 1849, eight more of his minstrel songs were published, including "Uncle Ned," and "Nelly Was a Lady." Determined to make a full-time career of writing songs, Foster left his bookkeeping job in Cincinnati and returned to Pittsburgh in late 1849 or early 1850. On December 3, 1849, he had signed a contract with the New York music publisher, Firth, Pond, & Co., thus officially beginning his professional career. 

At first, Foster wrote ballads and dances for parlor singers and pianists as well as minstrel songs, often referred to as "Ethiopian" songs, for professional theatrical performers. The minstrel songs, like the ballads, had simple melodies and accompaniments, but their texts, written in dialect, depicted African-American slaves as simple, good-natured creatures. Some of his earliest minstrel texts even had crude caricature and terms, i.e. "Away Down Souf" (1848) and one verse that was later deleted form "Oh! Susanna." 

But as Foster grew more ambivalent about the earlier "Ethiopian" songs, he began offering a different image, that of the black as a human being experiencing pain, love, joy, even nostalgia. "Nelly Was a Lady" (1849) is an eloquent lament of a slave for his loved one who has died, apparently the first song written by a white composer for the white audience of the minstrel shows that portrays a black man and woman as loving husband and wife, and insists on calling the woman a "lady," which was a term reserved for well-born white women. "Angelina Baker" (1851) similarly laments a slave who has been sent away by "old Massa." "Ring, Ring de Banjo!" (1851), despite its apparent surface of frivolity, has the slave/singer leaving the plantation "while the ribber's running high," a reference to escaping while the bloodhounds could not pick up his scent, and traveling to freedom on the Underground Railroad. "Old Folks at Home" (1851), better known as "Swanee River," which was to become the most popular of all Foster's songs, conveys a sentiment that had almost universal appeal -- yearning for lost home, youth, family, and happiness. Increasingly, the "Ethiopian" songs used the same musical style that Foster created for his parlor ballads. 

Foster informed Christy that — as we would put it today — he was trying to reform minstrelsy by writing texts suitable to refined taste, instead of "trashy and really offensive words," and that certain of his songs should be performed in a pathetic, not a comic style. (By "pathetic," Foster meant "to engender compassion.") Foster also began using the term "plantation song" for his new compositions, many of which were gentle an nostalgic in text with music that hinted of Irish or Italian ancestry. Soon he dropped dialect altogether from his texts and eventually referred to his songs as "American melodies." The verse-chorus structure of these songs made them suitable for both the minstrel stage and the parlor. In addition to "Old Folks at Home," some of Foster's characteristic songs of this type from the early 1850s are: 

"Farewell, My Lilly Dear" (1851) "My Old Kentucky Home, Good Night" (1853) "Old Dog Tray" (1853) "Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair" (1854)

During this period, Foster also turned his hand to instrumental music aimed very specifically for the parlor. The "Social Orchestra," published in 1854 by Firth, Pond, & Co., was a compendium of 73 arrangements for flute, violin, piano, and other instruments. The selections ranged from operatic -- including thirteen tunes by Donizetti — and classical — Jullien, Abt, Mozart, and Schubert — to popular airs, including his own. The collection was ideal for informal home entertainment; the arrangements lent themselves to various combinations and numbers of instruments and included many tunes for dancing, a favorite parlor pastime. The collection proved to be very popular, but for Foster it was not a money-maker. He received a flat fee of only $150 from the publisher, which may explain why this was his only venture into instrumental arranging. Foster had occasionally composed piano pieces, but song writing was his real forte, and he returned to it once the "Social Orchestra" was completed. 

Foster's "Hard Times Come Again No More," published in early 1855, was both a reflection of recent events in his personal life and a portent of things to come. He and Jane separated for a time in 1853 and his close friend, Charles Shiras, died during that same period. During 1855, both his parents died. His song output diminished — only four new songs in that year — and his debts increased. He was forced to draw advances from his publishers, then found himself unable to supply the new new songs he had promised them. 

As the Civil War approached, Foster's once-promising song writing career seemed to be doomed. His contracts with his publisher had ended, and he had sold all future rights to his songs to pay his debts. Possibly in an effort to revive his popularity, Foster reverted to writing plantation melodies. Of the four he wrote in 1860, one is among his most memorable (and infamous) compositions — "Old Black Joe." Belying the racial condescension its title epitomizes in the Civil Rights era, "Old Black Joe" comes closest of Foster's famous songs to the African-American spiritual, and it approaches that tradition with sympathy and respect. It is like a secular hymn, praising the noble spirit of the laborer at the end of his life. 

Sometime during that year, Stephen finally left Pittsburgh and moved his family to New York. About one year later, Jane took Marion back to Pennsylvania, and Stephen spent the remaining few years of his life in New York, living alone in lodging houses and theater district hotels. His trunk of manuscripts and letters was lost somewhere in these moves. Because of the uncertain economy of war time, he no longer could get a publishing contract, and like all other songwriters was forced to sell his compositions outright to publishers with no prospect of future earnings. Instead of writing his own lyrics, as he had done so successfully in the past, he began collaborating with a young poet, George Cooper, probably late in 1862 or early in 1863. Cooper's texts were of a light-hearted, humorous vein, designed to appeal to musical theater audiences. Songs they wrote together include: 

"There Are Plenty of Fish in the Sea" (1863) "Kissing in the Dark" (1863) "My Wife is a Most Knowing Woman" (1863) "If You've Only Got a Moustache" (1864) "Mr. & Mrs. Brown" (1864)

The pair also produced some Civil War songs -- "Willie Has Gone to War" and "For the Dear Old Flag I Die!" for example — but Foster's earlier songs found far more favor among soldiers and civilians from both North and South than did these later songs. 

During these final years, Foster also wrote a group of Sunday school songs and hymns for song books published by Horace Waters. Some of them, such as "Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread," are lovely; "We'll Still Keep Marching On" is an example of the spirited homiletic style of many of these pieces, which were intended for children. Altogether, Foster produced almost one hundred songs during his final years in New York. While few are scarcely known today, one remains an all-time favorite — "Beautiful Dreamer," written in 1862 and published after his death in 1864. 

Because he did not perform music professionally, as most songwriters did to support themselves, Foster himself was not well known to the public. Even during his lifetime, his songs were often referred to as folk songs. For example, during the Gold Rush "Oh! Susanna" became a kind of theme song for the Forty-niners, who improvised countless new lyrics for the jaunty tune as they made their way to California. Today, most school children (as well as adults) still know the tune, but comparatively few can identify Stephen Foster as the composer. 

Foster's only real income was the royalty on sheet-music sales. Altogether he earned $15,091.08 in royalties during his lifetime and almost nothing in performing rights (the yearly average was $1,371 for his 11 most productive years). His heirs, Jane and Marion equally, later earned $4,199 in royalties, so that the total known royalties on his songs amounted to $19,290. Today, they would be worth millions.

[This biography of Stephen Foster was written by Dr. Deane Root, Professor of Music at the University of Pittsburgh and Director of the Center for American Music, as part of the Center's Web site on Stephen Foster.]

Center for American Music, U. of Pittsburgh

William Barclay Foster (1779-1855)
He rose to prominence as one of Pittsburgh's elite. Yet poverty plagued William Foster for most of his life. The son of James Foster, a Revolutionary War veteran, William Foster was born on September 5, 1779 in Berkeley County, Virginia. In 1796, when he was only sixteen, young William headed for Pittsburgh, recently little more than a frontier outpost, but already a city on the rise. 

William found a job with the merchant firm of Denny & Beelen, and soon prospered. Among his duties were accompanying loads of furs, whiskey, and agricultural goods down the river to New Orleans. On return trips, Foster sailed up the East Coast to New York and Philadelphia, where he bought finished articles to bring back to Pittsburgh. By 1807 he had been made a partner in the firm. 

On November 14, 1807, William married Eliza Clayland Tomlinson, niece of Oliver Evans, who invented America's first steam carriage. She bore him four daughters and five sons, two of whom died infancy and one who died in her teens. One child, Stephen, would become one of America's most popular songwriters. But William Foster would be saved from the poorhouse by his son William Jr., whom he had fathered with another woman before his marriage to Eliza.

At the height of his prosperity, William Foster Sr. lived a life of luxury, socializing with Pittsburgh's elite. In 1814 he purchased a 123-acre estate two miles northeast of Pittsburgh. After selling 30 acres to the government for use as an armory, Foster built a handsome home, which became known as the White Cottage. Just twelve years later, in 1826, it would be lost.

Foster's financial troubles began in 1814, when he was named Deputy Commissioner of Purchases for the U. S. Army, then fighting the War of 1812. To speed the transport of supplies to New Orleans, Foster paid for some of them himself. But when he applied for reimbursement, the government balked, leaving more than $2,700.00 unpaid — a huge sum at the time. Foster's financial plight worsened after he was named manager of the Pittsburgh and Greenburgh Turnpike Company, some time around 1815. The company went bankrupt, and as manager, Foster was liable for its considerable debts.

Still respected — and well-connected — Foster won election to the first of two terms in the Pennsylvania legislature in 1824. But holding this position did little to assuage his financial plight. In 1826 the Bank of the United States foreclosed on the White Cottage. From that point on, William Foster struggled to stay afloat. The family moved often, frequently staying in homes owned by William Jr., from whom William Sr. secured frequent loans. The elder Foster's fondness for drink undoubtedly contributed to his problems. 

By 1828 the success of the Erie Canal had caused canal-building mania to sweep the East. William Foster was named Collector of Tolls for the Blairsville-Pittsburgh Canal. But delays in construction — and in salary payments — kept Foster in debt. He resigned his position in March, 1834. By that time, Foster had become active in the burgeoning Temperance Movement. He took a pledge of abstinence from alcohol in 1833 and spoke publicly at rallies, encouraging citizens to live sober lives. 

Time and again, Foster struggled to right himself. In 1835 he joined a business venture to open a retail store on Pittsburgh's Market Street. The store quickly failed. A brief stint as a lower-level Treasury Department appointee proved no more remunerative; in any case, Foster quit the job after only a few weeks in Washington. He returned to Pennsylvania, where he was elected mayor of Allegheny, a suburb of Pittsburgh. For five years — or even more — he had no employment. The family relied on a small income from a number of rental properties and the subsidies of William Jr. 

In 1847 William Foster once again went into business for himself, this time as a soldier's agent. In this line of work, he helped veterans of the Mexican War and their survivors to collect pensions, back pay, and land grants. The job provided some income but never returned him to his former state of affluence. Foster suffered a stroke in 1851 that left him bedridden. He lingered for four years before passing away on July 27, 1855.


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