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RG 30/349 - The Bridgman Family Papers
Biographical Sketches

Henry Martyn and Laura Bridgman

Henry Martyn Bridgman, son of Spenser (Spencer) and Dotha (Burt) Bridgman, was born in Westhampton, Massachusetts on January 8, 1830. Spenser Bridgman was a hard-working farmer of Puritan stock and the family lived through many years of hardship. Henry began his preparatory work at the Monson Academy when he was 19 and then went to Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts where he graduated with an A.B. degree in 1857. Inspired by the values instilled in him by his upbringing in rural America and by his determination to lead an industrious life, Henry decided to enter the ministry and serve in the missionary field. Upon graduating from Amherst, Henry attended the Hartford Theological Seminary and then the Union Theological Seminary in New York City where he graduated in 1860. He was ordained into the Congregational ministry on June 27, 1860 at Westhampton.

Henry married Laura Brainerd Nichols on August 1, 1860. Born on June 20, 1834, Laura was the daughter of Silas A. and Phebe (Brainerd) Nichols, of East Haddam, Connecticut. Laura met Henry when she was a student at the Mount Holyoke Seminary in South Hadley, Massachusetts and Henry was finishing his studies at Amherst. After graduating from Mount Holyoke in February 1856, Laura accepted a position as a school principal in Liverpool, Nova Scotia, where she exchanged correspondence with Henry until they re-united and eventually married in 1860.

Soon after their marriage, the Bridgmans set out to serve as missionaries under the auspices of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (A.B.C.F.M.). Following their commission they set sail for their appointment to the Zulu Mission Station in Natal, South Africa on September 1, 1860. They served at the station at Imfumi from 1861-1866, preaching the Gospel to the native black population. It was at the Imfumi station that Henry first learned the Zulu language and began the long line of Bridgman family missionary work  in South Africa that would continue well into the next century.

After a furlough in America, the Bridgmans returned to South Africa in 1869 and served at the Umzumbi station in Natal for 26 years. At Umzumbi, the Bridgmans transformed a small outpost "haunted by hyenas at night" into one of the most beautiful and efficient stations in the colony.  Henry and Laura created schools  and churches, and built communities within the Zulu nation that helped the natives establish themselves under British Imperial occupation. In 1872, Henry and Laura helped establish the “Umzumbi Home,” a school for native girls that continued to grow throughout the course of the Bridgmans’ career. Henry and Laura’s work with the natives was revolutionary during a time when the imperial elite had placed most of the black population in neglect.

The Bridgmans served at the Umzumbi station until Henry died of chronic bronchitis on August 29, 1896. Laura continued her work in South Africa and eventually died at Umzumbi on January 13, 1923. She was a strong force in the mission field, which required a zeal for temperance and purity. She served as the first President of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (W.C.T.U) in South Africa and was instrumental in introducing the aims and methods of the organization to the native black population. Her forward-looking evangelism and social mindedness found expression in several books in Zulu on temperance and missionary subjects.

Henry served 36 years and Laura 63 years in South Africa. The real fruits of their labor came after their deaths through the extraordinary work of their children among the Zulu nation. Henry and Laura Bridgman had four children, three of whom became missionaries and continued the family service to the Zulu Mission. Their children were: Burt Nichols, Amy (Lit. 1888), Frederick Brainerd (BPh 1893, Hon. DD 1916) and Henry Martyn Jr. All four children were sent back to the United States for their high school and college educations: Burt was sent in 1878, Amy and Frederick in 1881, and Henry in 1884. Both Amy and Fredrick attended and graduated from Oberlin College in 1888 and 1893 respectively.


Frederick Brainerd and Clara Davis Bridgman

Frederick Brainerd Bridgman, son of Henry Martyn and Laura Brainerd (Nichols) Bridgman, was born in Imfumi, Natal, South Africa on May 18, 1869. At the age of 12, this child of missionary parents was sent to the United States for his education and attended public school in New Britain, Connecticut. Following his secondary education, Frederick attended Oberlin College for both preparatory and college course work, graduating with a Bachelor of Philosophy degree in 1893. Subsequently, Frederick entered the Chicago Theological Seminary and graduated from there with a Bachelor of Divinity degree in 1896. It was during these years that Frederick set his face to the ministry and decided to dedicate himself to the field of missionary work like his parents.

Frederick Bridgman married a fellow Oberlin College classmate, Clara S. Davis, on September 8, 1896 in Elgin, Illinois. Born on February 10, 1872, Clara was the daughter of Reverend Jerome Dean Davis and Sophia (Strong) Davis, both of whom were American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (A.B.C.F.M.) missionaries working in Kobe, Japan. Reverend Davis was a cofounder of the Doshisha University in Kyoto, Japan and a prominent voice in Christian missionary work. Clara graduated with a literary degree from Oberlin College in 1893.

In the spring of 1897, Mr. & Mrs. Bridgman received appointments by the A.B.C.F.M. to serve as missionaries to South Africa and, with the exception of some time spent in the United States, Frederick and Clara devoted the remainder of their lives to missionary work in South Africa. Upon arrival in South Africa, Frederick and Clara were first stationed at various locations in Natal, where they preached to tens of thousands of native Zulus, and erected a church and five smaller chapels. In Durban, Natal, Frederick and Clara trained twenty preachers and became the first missionaries to take their work to larger urban centers. Also in Durban, Frederick helped establish the Durban Native Affairs Reform Association. It was Frederick’s ambition to bring his work to such large audiences that drove him to be the pioneer missionary that he was.


Fredrick and Clara pursued their missionary work on an even larger scale when they brought the Gospel to Johannesburg in 1913. This type of missionary work in a major city had been unprecedented, as over 200,000 native South Africans were awaiting their arrival. It was in Johannesburg that Dr. Bridgman realized the exploitation of the hundreds of thousands of black mine workers, and the racial and socioeconomic injustices inflicted by the imperial elite upon the native South African population. Frederick and Clara used this outright discrimination as an incentive for furthering their missionary work. They launched several social service programs aimed at improving the social conditions of the region through Christian education, and communal and recreational activities. In addition to preaching the Gospel, the Bridgmans’ programs included film showings, athletic competitions, and group readings. Frederick had earned the high respect from not only the native Zulus but also from the South African government officials. For many of his years working in Johannesburg, leading government officials and businessmen provided missionary-statesman Frederick Bridgman with tens of thousands of dollars to pursue the goals of his social work. This led the public to regard him as the “apostle to the African city.” Frederick and Clara’s efforts to improve the sociological conditions of the region further served as a bridge between the two opposing spheres of South African society that had for centuries represented the injustices and inhumanity of imperialist exploitation.

During a visit in the United States, a brief hiatus during the Johannesburg period of his career, Frederick was awarded the Doctor of Divinity degree during the commencement exercises at Oberlin College on June 14, 1916. Upon presenting the honorary degree, Professor Charles H.A. Wager declared that Frederick, “has made himself so completely master of the problems of the colony, religious and educational, economic and governmental, that he has become a power not only in the hearts of the native population, but in the councils of their official masters. Such a contribution to civilization,” Professor Wager argued, “is a claim to recognition which Oberlin is proud to acknowledge,” (Frederick Brainerd Bridgman, Necrology for the Year 1924-25, Oberlin College, in student file). The award mirrored and contributed to the worldwide respect and admiration that he received for his life’s work throughout his career.

In the spring of 1925, Frederick returned to the United States for the last time. He died on Sunday, August 23, 1925 at St. Barnabas Hospital in Portland, Maine after an unsuccessful operation for appendicitis. Dr. Bridgman was 56 years old. A funeral service was held in Auburndale, Massachusetts and was led by Reverend Howard Bridgman, a relative.

Following Frederick’s passing, Clara returned to South Africa where she continued to work to improve the socioeconomic conditions of the native population in Johannesburg. She was the leading spirit in founding the Talitha Home for rehabilitating delinquent Zulu girls in 1919. Clara also established the Bridgman Memorial Hospital in 1928 in honor of her husband. As the first hospital for Bantu women in Johannesburg, the hospital primarily served as a maternity clinic for native women and girls, a center for public health in the community, a source of employment for the native population, and an educational resource for midwives and medical students from the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Clara also started the Helping Hand Club that assisted Zulu women to find jobs in a society that was otherwise unfavorable towards them. In just seven years, 800 girls joined the club and 600 were placed in domestic service jobs.

 Clara Bridgman retired in 1941 and spent her last 15 years in Auburndale, Massachusetts. She died on July 9, 1956 at the age of 84. Her memorial service was held at the Walker Missionary home in Auburndale, and her ashes were buried beside Frederick Bridgman’s remains in Natal, South Africa.

As racial tensions continued to rise following Clara’s passing, the Bridgman Memorial Hospital was eventually shut down in 1965 because of its devoted service to poor native blacks in a primarily white area of Johannesburg. The Bridgman legacy, however, lived on passed Clara’s years. The money received for the sale of the hospital was used to create the Bridgman Foundation, a fund that was used to build churches, develop family planning clinics, and help create a foster care department in the Johannesburg Child Welfare Society for abandoned and impoverished native children. The Foundation still exists today.

Frederick and Clara had one child, Frederick Brainerd Jr., who was born on June 25, 1909 in Durban, South Africa. He graduated from Oberlin College with a B.A. degree in 1931 and a master’s in sociology the following year. He then attended Yale University and graduated from there in 1939 with doctorate from the Race Relations Department. Fredrick Jr. spent most of his professional career as a social worker for Child Welfare, the Connecticut Juvenile Court, and the Valley Regional High and John Wintrop Jr. High Schools in Deep River, Connecticut.


Amy Bridgman Cowles

Amy Bridgman Cowles, the daughter of missionaries Henry Martyn and Laura Brainerd (Nichols) Bridgman, was born in Durban, Natal, South Africa on July 9, 1866. In 1881, her parents sent Amy and her younger brother, Frederick Brainerd, to the United States for education where they took up residence in the home of a family friend, J.B. Smith, in New Britain, Connecticut. Amy began her collegiate work at Oberlin College in 1884 and graduated with a degree from the Literary Department in 1888. The following year she received a diploma from the Connecticut State Normal School in New Britain, Connecticut.

 Immediately following her education, Amy sailed to Natal, South Africa to assist her parents in their missionary work with the native Zulu population but quickly returned to New Britain in 1891. Amy married George Burr Cowles, son of George Baldwin and Cordelia Cowles, on Janaury 27, 1892.  George was born in Yonkers, New York on November 11. 1862 and graduated from New Britain High School in Connecticut, and the Y.M.C.A. Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts.

In 1893, George and Amy received their appointments from the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (A.B.C.F.M.) and set sail for the Adams Mission Station in Natal, South Africa. George served as the principal of the Boys Training School, which later became Adams College. In 1902 however, due to failing health, Amy returned to the United States with her husband for about two years. During this time, Amy spoke at more than 300 churches, promoting the mission work in Natal and raising financial support for future endeavors. Also during this visit in the United States, George was ordained at the Congregational Church in New Britain on Oct 5, 1904.

Returning to Africa that fall, Amy and George resumed their work but soon moved to the Umzumbe station where George ran the dispensary and supervised 28 schools and churches in the region. In addition to having the uncompromising zeal of her mother, Amy had an intimate knowledge of the Zulu culture and language and was able to assist her husband in social work and religious teaching at the station. She started a program to organize hundreds of young Zulu boys as Pathfinders or Scouts and girls as Wayfarers or Girl Scouts. Much like the work of Amy’s parents, Henry and Laura Bridgman, and her brothers, Burt Nichols and Frederick Brainerd Bridgman, the Cowles’ work in South Africa not only brought faith to a troubled area of the world, but also improved the socioeconomic conditions of the impoverished and exploited native black population of Natal.

George Burr Cowles died on Aug 12, 1929 in Durban, South Africa after 36 years of service. Amy then retired to Claremont, California in 1931 where she spent her final years. Amy Bridgman Cowles died on November 26, 1948.

George and Amy had four children, Ruth Cordelia (AB 1919), Helen Laura (Acad. 1911-1914), Raymond Bridgman (Acad. 1911-1912) and Frederick Burt.


Ruth Cordelia Cowles

Ruth Cordelia Cowles, the daughter of missionaries George Burr and Amy (Bridgman) Cowles, was born in New Britain, Connecticut on October 2, 1892. When she was just six months old, Ruth accompanied her parents to the Adams Mission Station in Natal, South Africa where her grandparents, Henry and Laura Bridgman, and her uncles, Burt Nichols and Frederick Brainerd Bridgman, were serving as missionaries under the auspices of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (A.B.C.F.M.). It was in Natal that Ruth Cowles spent the first eleven years of her life and was introduced to the native Zulu culture through the social work of her family members.

Like her mother and uncles before her, Ruth returned to the United States for her education. Ruth began high school in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, where she lived with her uncle, Dr. Burt Bridgman, a practicing physician. She finished her high school education at the Oberlin Academy, graduating in 1913. She then went to live with her parents who were on sabbatical in Campbell, California. While living in Campbell, Ruth commuted to the San Jose State Normal School where she graduated with a teaching certificate in 1916. She then returned to Oberlin that fall to continue her studies at Oberlin College. Ruth Cordelia Cowles graduated from Oberlin College, Phi Beta Kappa, with an A.B. degree in 1919.

Immediately after graduation, Ruth pursued a career in nursing and began her training at the Margaret Fahnestock School for Nurses at the New York Post-Graduate Hospital in New York City. Ruth graduated from the school as a registered nurse in 1922 and worked for two years at the Henry Street Settlement House in a slum area of Manhattan. She helped to provide medical care to the under-privileged and this experience prepared her for her life’s work with the impoverished Zulu population in Johannesburg.

In 1924, her uncle, Frederick Brainerd Bridgman, persuaded her to return to South Africa to work at the Mission Clinic that he had established for the natives at Doornfontein, Johannesburg. On May 3, 1925, she was commissioned by the A.B.C.F.M. and sailed for South Africa soon after. Ruth began working with Dr. Madame Crinsoz de Cottens, a Swiss Doctor, at the maternity clinic in Doornfontein, delivering babies and caring for poor black mothers in the slums of Johannesburg. Ruth was often forced to travel through the extremely dangerous neighborhoods of Doornfontein, dodging drunken brawls and risking her life, to provide care for impoverished mothers.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the A.B.C.F.M. could not afford to pay Ruth’s missionary salary and her position at the maternity clinic became tenuous. Fortunately, much like her uncle Frederick and her other missionary family members, Ruth had earned the high respect of almost everyone in the community – black and white. In order to alleviate the financial situation for this highly respected community nurse, a group of “English gentlemen” in Johannesburg raised funds locally and saved Ruth’s position at the Clinic (from Ruth’s memorial service eulogy by Alfred Heininger in Ruth Cordelia Cowles student file, RG 28/2, OCA).

At about this same time, The Johannesburg Municipal Health authorities ordered all native blacks to leave Johannesburg by the 1st of January, 1935, causing tens of thousands of Zulus to seek refuge in the Alexandra township, a designated “Native Location” ten miles outside of the city. Ruth Cowles followed the natives to Alexandra and established another clinic in the new community. This new clinic, which eventually became known as the Alexandra Health Centre and later associated with the University of Witwatersrand, grew rapidly and became the most fruitful of Ruth’s accomplishments as a public servant. Within a decade, the clinic grew from a small sun-dried brick building without electricity to a large complex of buildings equipped with sterilizing rooms, dental facilities, waiting rooms, and operating theaters. By 1945, the number of patients at the Alexandra Health Centre rose above 87,000, and the clinic’s medical staff expanded to meet the increase in demand for medical services.

Ruth worked in every department of the clinic as a senior nurse and even lived on the premises. She specialized in infant care and the training of native nurses, and established the Bantu Trained Nurses Association in 1932. Ruth also set up a day care program for native infants whose mothers were forced to leave home during the daytime hours for work. She also trained African nurses at the Bridgman Memorial Hospital in Johannesburg, the facility established by her aunt Clara in honor of Ruth’s then deceased uncle, Frederick Bridgman. Like her Bridgman-Cowles missionary predecessors, Ruth’s tireless efforts as a nurse and preeminent community figure supported and improved the otherwise neglected socioeconomic conditions of the native Zulu population.

Ruth left South Africa in 1946 but continued to serve as a nurse in Claremont, California until she retired from the A.B.C.F.M. in 1950. From 1953 to 1963, Ruth was a visiting nurse at Claremont’s Pilgrim Place, a community of mostly retired missionaries. In 1966, she retired to Pilgrim Place herself, where she lived until her death on October 2, 1971. She was buried at the Adams Mission Cemetary in Natal, South Africa, along side her parents, Amy and George Cowles, her uncle and aunt, Frederick and Clara Bridgman, and her grandparents, Henry and Laura Bridgman.

Ruth Cordelia Cowles was the ninth and last member of the Bridgman-Cowles family to devote her life to helping the Bantu people of South Africa. They served a total of 279 years as missionaries to the Zulu nation.

Sources Consulted

Henry Martyn and Laura Bridgman: The Bridgman Family Papers (30/349), Series I. Biographical Files, Series III. Diaries/Reminiscences (includes unpublished autobiography of Rev. Henry Martyn Bridgman), Series XV. Research Files of John Bridgman.

Frederick Brainerd and Clara Davis Bridgman:The Bridgman Family Papers (30/349): Series I. Biographical Files, Series VII. Printed Matter (includes histories of Bridgman Memorial Hospital and Bridgman Foundation), Series XV. Research Files of John Bridgman. The student files of Frederick Bridgman and Clara S. Davis Bridgman, Alumni Records, OCA (28/2)

Amy Bridgman Cowles:The Bridgman Family Papers (30/349): Series I. Biographical Files, Series. Research Files of John Bridgman; the student file of Mrs. George Burr Cowles (Amy Bridgman), Alumni Records, O.C.A. (28/2).

Ruth Cordelia Cowles: The student file of Ruth Cordelia Cowles, OCA (RG 28/2). The Bridgman Family Papers (30/349): Series I. Biographical Files, Series VII. Printed Matter (includes history of Bridgman Memorial Hospital).

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