How the Immigrant Journalist Became Wealthy, Married a Founder of the NAACP, and Bought “The Nation”

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The "Golden Spike" Ceremony completing the Northern Pacific Railroad's uniting of the Pacific Northwest with the rest of the U.S. Ulysses Grant hold the hammer to drive the last spike and Henry Villard is to his right.

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By the time Robert E. Lee’s Confederate army began moving towards Gettysburg, German immigrant Henry Villard was already one of the most widely read journalists in America. The immigrant reporter had covered Abraham Lincoln before he became president, reported from the battlefields of the Civil War, and visited the refugee camps of escaped black slaves in the Carolinas.1

William Lloyd Garrison. According to the leading scholar of the Abolitionist Movement Manisha Sinha, Garrison was not only a leader in the anti-slavery crusade, he was a pivotal figure in 19th Century American history. Garrison supported equality for blacks and women as well as for immigrants.

In April of 1863, Henry Villard took a break from the Civil War to visit Boston. He was invited to dine with William Lloyd Garrison, the most prominent abolitionist of the day. Garrison looked nothing like what the journalist expected. “Mr. Garrison’s exterior was a complete surprise to me,” he wrote years later, saying that Garrison’s “public character as the most determined, fearless antislavery champion had so impressed me, as it did most people, that I had supposed his outward appearance must be in keeping with it.” Villard “had expected to see a fighting figure of powerful build, with thick hair, full beard, and fiery, defiant eyes. It seemed almost ludicrous to behold a man of middle size, completely bald and clean shaven, with kindly eyes behind spectacles, and, instead of a fierce, an entirely benignant expression.” Instead of acting the part of the firebrand, Garrison “was forbearing, and mildness itself, in manner and speech.”2

Garrison was particularly interested in Villard’s experiences when he was in Coastal Carolina and the Sea Islands of Georgia. He was intrigued by Villard’s accounts of the

Col. Robert Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts -Boston, Mass., May 28, 1863 by Mort Kunstler

communities the freed slaves had established there. Villard, on the other hand, was intrigued by Garrison’s nineteen-year-old daughter Helen, called “Fanny” by her father. Henry Villard described her as “the very picture of a pretty, bright, emotional, yet guiless maiden.” That same night, Fanny wrote to a friend that Villard had dined with her family and confided that “I like him ever so much.”3

On April 27, Villard and Fanny went to visit the camp where two new regiments of black troops were training. The 54th Massachusetts would later be the subject of the movie “Glory.” Its sister regiment, the 55th Massachusetts included Fanny’s brother George among its officers. The war correspondent and the abolitionist’s daughter turned this excursion into a romantic event. Fanny celebrated the anniversary of this trip every year for the rest of her life as the day her relationship with Henry Villard began.4

Fanny Garrison and her father William Lloyd Garrison. William Lloyd Garrison was a strong advocate of women’s equality and he and his wife raised Fanny to stand on her own and speak her mind.

Villard soon got news that he would have to return to the war to cover a major military campaign in Tennessee. He had to cut his time with Fanny short, but he later recalled that “It was to this chance visit to Boston that I owe the greatest happiness of my life — my marriage to Miss Fanny Garrison, the only daughter of the great abolitionist, to whose charms of mind and person I surrendered on first acquaintance.”5

The couple were now separated for many months as Henry covered the war in America and travelled to Europe as a foreign correspondent as well. The long absence apparently made their hearts grow fonder, for Fanny’s brother wrote to Villard that “Fanny loves you as much as you do her, & …from the first moment she met you, she felt interested in you.”6

After being apart for two years, Villard returned to Boston in April of 1865 as the war concluded. He asked Fanny to marry him. She reserved her answer, and Henry Villard left for Washington to cover the end of the Civil War. In May, Fanny called her parents together to tell them of her decision. William Lloyd Garrison wrote to his son that he was “taken by surprise” when she told him she was going to marry Villard. He reported that “this was so sudden as to be at least momentarily startling.” Garrison admitted to his son that his own “love for Fanny is so strong , and my estimate of her so high, that I have not been willing to entertain the thoughts of her cleaving to another in this manner.” The abolitionist also admitted prejudices against Villard because he was a “German,” and because he came from an unknown family.7

In spite of his reservations, Garrison wrote that the couple “seem to be inexpressibly happy” and so he gave them his blessing.8

Henry and Fanny Villard had the Villard Houses constructed at 455 Madison Ave. in Manhattan. They only lived in their dream home briefly. When a financial panic struck, Villard sold the property. They are now part of the Helmsley Palace Hotel and are located between 50th and 51st Streets.

As Fanny’s father got to know Villard, he came to regard him fondly. Garrison wrote to him a few months after the engagement that “your love for Fanny is equaled only by her love for you.” On January 3, 1866 Henry and Fanny were married.9

Fanny would spend her life as an advocate for women’s rights and a voice against war. She would also help co-found the NAACP.10

After his marriage, Henry became a European correspondent for American publications and the Secretary of the American Social Science Association and the editor of its journal. He began to study economics and finance in his spare time.11

Oregon and California Railroad itrain in the 1870s.

In the 1870s Henry Villard combined his wide travels in the United States, the European contacts he had made as a foreign correspondent, and his growing understanding of economics into a career of channeling German investment in the United States. He saw Oregon as a ripe target for development. Villard was soon elected president of both the Oregon and California Railroad and the Oregon Steamship Company.12

Henry Villard in later life.

In 1879, Henry Villard befriended the thirty-two year old Thomas Edison. Villard understood the promise of electricity while the technology was still in its infancy. He invested heavily in the new Edison Electric Light Company, now called Consolidated Edison or ConEd. This was the prototype for electric generating companies and authorities throughout the United States.13

Villard commissioned the first ship illuminated by electric lighting in 1880 and he worked with Edison to develop the first electric powered trains. At the same time, Villard executed the first hostile takeover of a major corporation in Wall Street history when he won control of the massive Northern Pacific Railroad which connected the Pacific Northwest to the rest of the United States.14

The Northern Pacific became a true transcontinental railroad under Villard.

Henry Villard had started his rise in America as a reporter, and in 1881 he lived every reporter’s dream. He purchased both the daily newspaper The New York Post, and the liberal weekly magazine The Nation. He turned much of the editorial duties for The Post over to German immigrant Carl Schurz and for The Nation to English immigrant E.L. Godkin. To assure that The Post’s news coverage was separated from Villard’s business interests, he placed the newspaper in a trust.15

Villard Hall at the University of Oregon.

Villard saw immigration as the key to the success of his growing businesses in the Pacific Northwest. He encouraged immigrants to settle there from Germany, Holland and Scandinavia and he used and exploited the labor of Chinese railroad workers. He also saw the need for the region to develop the intellectual infrastructure for progress. Villard endowed both the Universities of Oregon and Washington. He is credited with saving both institutions when their respective state legislatures refused to adequately fund them.16

The eighteen year-old immigrant who arrived in New York without a dollar in his pocket and knowing no English died on his estate in Dobbs Ferry one of the best known immigrants of the 19th Century.17

Grave of Henry Villard in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Westchester.

Sources:

1. Villard: The Life and Times of an American Titan by Alexandra Villard de Borchgrave and John Cullen; published by Doubleday (2001); Memoirs of Henry Villard Vol. 2 by Henry Villard published by Houghton Mifflin and Company (1904); The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition by Manisha Sinha published by Yale University Press (2016)

2. Memoirs of Henry Villard Vol. 2 by Henry Villard published by Houghton Mifflin and Company (1904) p. 53

3. Villard: The Life and Times of an American Titan by Alexandra Villard de Borchgrave and John Cullen; published by Doubleday (2001) pp. 239-240

4. Villard: The Life and Times of an American Titan by Alexandra Villard de Borchgrave and John Cullen; published by Doubleday (2001)

5. Memoirs of Henry Villard Vol. 2 by Henry Villard published by Houghton Mifflin and Company (1904) p. 55

6. Villard: The Life and Times of an American Titan by Alexandra Villard de Borchgrave and John Cullen; published by Doubleday (2001) pp. 258-259

7. Villard: The Life and Times of an American Titan by Alexandra Villard de Borchgrave and John Cullen; published by Doubleday (2001) pp. 265-266

8. Villard: The Life and Times of an American Titan by Alexandra Villard de Borchgrave and John Cullen; published by Doubleday (2001) p. 265

9. Villard: The Life and Times of an American Titan by Alexandra Villard de Borchgrave and John Cullen; published by Doubleday (2001) p. 266

10. Villard: The Life and Times of an American Titan by Alexandra Villard de Borchgrave and John Cullen; published by Doubleday (2001); NAACP Oldest and Boldest

11. Villard: The Life and Times of an American Titan by Alexandra Villard de Borchgrave and John Cullen; published by Doubleday (2001) pp. 280-281

12. Villard: The Life and Times of an American Titan by Alexandra Villard de Borchgrave and John Cullen; published by Doubleday (2001) pp. 282-300

13. Villard: The Life and Times of an American Titan by Alexandra Villard de Borchgrave and John Cullen; published by Doubleday (2001) pp. 309-310

14. Villard: The Life and Times of an American Titan by Alexandra Villard de Borchgrave and John Cullen; published by Doubleday (2001) pp. 311-317

15. Villard: The Life and Times of an American Titan by Alexandra Villard de Borchgrave and John Cullen; published by Doubleday (2001) pp. 317-319

16. Villard: The Life and Times of an American Titan by Alexandra Villard de Borchgrave and John Cullen; published by Doubleday (2001) pp. 320-321

17. Villard: The Life and Times of an American Titan by Alexandra Villard de Borchgrave and John Cullen; published by Doubleday (2001)

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