Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Episode 8 - Love and War

Moetia Salmon and Dorence Atwater
The Salmons' second daughter, Moetia (Mo-ee-tee-a), was a gentle girl, often in the shadow of her older sister, Titaua. At the age of 17, she accompanied the Branders on their trip to Europe. On her return, she lived quietly with her widowed mother but was much sought after in marriage. But when she fell in love, she followed her mother and sister in losing her heart to a man from a far-away land.
Dorence Atwater, a young man from Terryville, Connecticut, arrived in Tahiti in 1871 as the new American consul. At the outbreak of the Civil War 10 years earlier, he had lied about his age and enlisted in the Union Army at the age of 16. Captured after the Battle of Gettysburg, he was imprisoned in Andersonville, the notorious Confederate prison camp in Georgia. Because of his beautiful penmanship, he was given the job of recording the names and burial places of all prisoners who died. Convinced that the camp commandant was deliberately allowing thousands of men to perish from exposure, disease, and malnutrition, he began making his own secret copy of the list, which he smuggled out of the camp when he was paroled at the end of the war.
By bringing this list to the attention of the famous Clara Barton (later to found the American Red Cross), Atwater helped her to identify and mark the graves of almost 13,000 Union soldiers who had died in the horrific conditions of Andersonville. Barton publicly praised his “forethought, courage, and perseverance” and the New York Citizen hailed him as “one of the unquestionable heroes of our recent war.”

Yet far from appreciating Atwater’s efforts, the US Army accused him of stealing government property for refusing to relinquish his original copy of the list. In September 1865, he was court-martialed, dishonorably discharged from the Army, and sentenced to 18 months hard labor at Auburn State prison in New York. Although released after only two months, Atwater was deeply embittered by his treatment by the US Army. He told his brother, “The sight of a uniform makes me foam at the mouth.”

He had lost both parents during the war, his health was destroyed, and he had no means of support. Clara Barton employed him as her assistant for a while but eventually succeeded in getting the US government to offer Atwater a consulship, first in the Seychelles for three years and then, in 1871, in Tahiti.

When he arrived in Papeete, wracked with rheumatic pains and subject to violent attacks of asthma, the locals were alarmed by the young man's debilitated appearance. The consulate was located next door to the Salmon family house on Broom Road, and Ariitaimai took to sending him delicacies and people to nurse him. One of those people was Moetia, and gradually she and Dorence grew closer. In October 1875, they married.

The San Francisco papers went into raptures over the match, calling Moetia “the handsomest and wealthiest girl in the South Seas.” Like Alexander Salmon before him, Dorence Atwater came into substantial property when he married his wife, including a vanilla plantation in Papara and valuable pearl fisheries around the Scilly Islands. Atwater was an astute and ruthless businessman and turned these properties into lucrative enterprises. 

The Atwaters had no children of their own but informally adopted the oldest daughter of Moetia’s sister Marau, who was separated from her husband, King Pomare V. The child Terii was known to all the family by her nickname of “Boots.” The couple was fond of her, but she proved to be quite a handful and when she entered convent school in 1888, the couple left her in the charge of Moetia’s brother, Tati.  

The Atwaters divided their time between Tahiti and San Francisco as the humidity of Tahiti was not good for Dorence’s asthma and rheumatism. After Dorence retired as consul in 1888, the couple traveled widely – to Mexico, the Far East, and several times to Europe.   
In November 1910, Dorence’s health finally gave way and he died in their apartment in San Francisco. Moetia brought his body back to Tahiti, and he was buried with the same splendor and honor as was accorded to the kings and queens of Tahiti.
When Moetia’s finances were undermined by the destruction of her properties in Papeete during World War I, she decided to petition the US government for a widow’s pension in recognition of Dorence’s service in the Civil War. After a long battle that took her often to San Francisco and Washington DC, she finally succeeded in 1920 and was granted a pension of $40 a month. She lived on for another 15 years, sharing her country home with her niece Boots, now the Princess Terii o Tahiti Pomare. Moetia Atwater outlived all of her siblings, dying in August 1935 at the age of 87.

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