Ann Hawkins Gentry (1791 – 1870)
Ann Hawkins Gentry was the second woman appointed to the position of postmaster in the United States. She ran the operations of the post office in Columbia, Missouri, for twenty-seven years from 1838 to 1865. She was the mother of thirteen children, whom she raised by herself after her husband’s death. She lived her life on the American frontier, running her household, a busy tavern, and the Columbia post office.
Ann Gentry was born on January 21, 1791, in Madison County, Kentucky. She married Richard Gentry, also of Madison County, on February 10, 1810, when she was nineteen years old. The Gentry’s first child was born while Richard served in the military during the War of 1812, a war Americans fought against the British. By the time Ann and Richard decided to move to the Missouri Territory in 1816, they had three more children. Ann Gentry made the journey to Missouri riding a thoroughbred mare and holding her infant daughter on her lap. After first settling in St. Louis County, they moved to Franklin on the Missouri River in 1818.
In 1820 Richard Gentry and others left Franklin and founded the settlement of Smithton, which later became Columbia, Missouri. Ann and her growing family lived in a double log cabin that also served as the village’s first tavern. But in 1821, the settlers left Smithton because they lacked a good water supply. They moved a half-mile east to Columbia, the new county seat. Richard Gentry moved their tavern to Broadway between Seventh and Eighth streets.
Mother and Tavernkeeper
As Ann raised thirteen children and ran the tavern for local people and travelers, Richard served in the military. He also traded in Santa Fe and is said to have brought the first lot of mules to Missouri in 1830. He served as state senator from 1826 to 1830 and was appointed postmaster in Columbia in 1830. Because Richard was often away from home, Ann operated the post office in his absence. From 1831 on, she helped run the post office in a corner of the front room of their new tavern located on the corner of Ninth Street and Broadway.
In 1837, Ann’s life changed. Richard Gentry was made colonel of a volunteer army in the Seminole War, a war in which the Native American Seminole tribe of Florida fought to keep their land. Most of Richard’s men did not have enough money to buy horses for the military campaign. Richard borrowed money to help his soldiers get the horses they needed. Unfortunately, he died in battle on Christmas Day in 1837. When Ann received the sad news, she said, “I’d rather be a brave man’s widow than a coward’s wife.” After Richard’s death, Ann continued to operate the tavern, manage the post office, and raise her large family.
Senator Thomas Hart Benton, great-uncle to the famous artist, was a friend of the Gentry family. In 1838 he helped Ann gain an official appointment to the job of postmaster in Columbia. Ann received a widow’s pension of thirty dollars per month. Even though Richard had left Ann with only a little money, she still managed to pay back the money he had borrowed for his army’s horses.
Through hard work and determination, Ann operated the Columbia post office for twenty-seven years. Each U.S. president reappointed Ann to her position until her retirement in 1865. By that time, she had saved a large sum of money and invested it wisely.
The Civil War years brought more tragedy to Ann. Because Missouri was a border state with mixed feelings about slavery, Ann’s family became divided over the war. Some family members supported the North, while others sided with the South. Ann herself was a Unionist. Her youngest son, Nicholas, fought for the Confederates and died at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek.
Ann Hawkins Gentry was a strong and dedicated mother, businesswoman, and postmistress. She died on January 18, 1870, and is buried in the Columbia Cemetery. Her grave is marked by a ten-foot-tall obelisk. In 1993, the first school to be named after a woman in Columbia opened. It is named Ann Hawkins Gentry Middle School after this hearty and resourceful Missouri pioneer.
Research and Text by Carlynn Trout
Christensen, Lawrence O. et al, eds. Dictionary of Missouri Biography. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1999. pp. 332-333.
Dains, Mary K., ed. Show Me Missouri Women: Selected Biographies. 2 vols. Kirksville, MO: Thomas Jefferson University Press, 1989, 1993. pp. 1:16-17.