Ellen M.H. Gates, Who’s Who Poet

Ellen Maria Huntington Gates was a prolific writer who lived from 1835 until 1920, but since the bulk of her writing occurred in the 19th century, we can call her a 19th century writer. That is not to say that she did not write at all in the 20th century, she did indeed– there is an archive of some of her 20th century articles and poems on Harpers Magazine’s archive. She was 65 years old at the turn of the century.

Her poem “Beautiful Hands” is online here and elsewhere on the web, although it is sometimes mistakenly attributed to ‘Emma’ M.H. Gates, so I felt it appropriate to put some information about Mrs. Gates together. Her poems were often included in anthologies and periodicals.

She was born Ellen Maria Huntington in Torrington, CT on August 12, 1835. Her parents were William and Elizabeth (Vincent) Huntington, who had 9 children. She was the youngest. Her oldest sister, Mary was born in 1810 and married Daniel Sammis when Ellen was only 5 years old. She had four other sisters, Rhoda, Phoebe, Elizabeth and Susan, the youngest, who had nine years on her.

She had 3 brothers, Solon, Collis and Joseph, all over a decade older than she was. Her brother Collis Huntington would become a railroad magnate, one of the “California Big Four” involved in building railroads across the United States in the late 1800s.

Ellen was educated in private seminaries in Galway, NY and Hamilton, NY. Ellen married the Rev. Isaac E. Gates on August 6,1861, in Oneonta, N. Y. They had one daughter, Helen Manchester Gates in 1868. Their daughter, Helen, married Archer M. Huntington, the adopted son of Ellen’s brother, Collis Huntington. It is sometimes speculated that Archer M. Huntington was the real son of Collis Huntington since Collis was believed to be involved in an affair with Archer’s mother, Arabella before he married her. It seems unlikely, on the one hand, since that would mean Archer was his first wife’s first cousin. On the other hand, after Collis died, Arabella married Collis’ nephew Henry, so she did like to keep things in the family.

Ellen’s brother, Collis died on August 13, 1900, and left Ellen and her husband a substantial income of $50,000 a year for life. Collis also left Ellen’s husband, Isaac (who represented him in many business ventures and was also one of the executors of his will), a specific bequest of $100,000. If Ellen died before her husband, Isaac, the $50,000 bequest was supposed to continue until Isaac died and then the capital would be paid to their daughter, Helen. However, Isaac E. Gates passed away on February 24, 1916. At this time, Helen was still married to Archer Huntington, but the couple divorced two years later. That is not to say that Archer needed any of the capital Helen inherited — far from it. You can read what his stepfather left him in this transcript of this 8/25/1900 New York Times article detailing the contents of Collis Huntington’s Will.


Ellen’s daughter, Helen then married English actor and playwright, Harley Granville-Barker, and published thereafter under her new name, Helen Granville-Barker.

Obviously, Ellen M.H. Gates was not toiling away in some lonely garret trying to make ends meet. Her name appeared regularly in turn-of-the century Who’s Who in America volumes, where her address was listed at the opulent Majestic Hotel on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. She wrote by choice, not necessity.

Several of Ellen M.H. Gates’s poems were set to music and became popular hymns. “Your Mission,” “The Home of the Soul,” “The Prodigal Child,” “A Slumber Song” and “Eternity” were among her most popular hymns. “Eternity” was also reported to be the favorite hymn of President Abraham Lincoln. She published “Treasures of Kurium” in 1895 and “To the Unborn Peoples” in 1913. She passed away in October of 1920 in New York City at the age of 85.

Perhaps the confusion arose from there being another poet named Emma Huntington Nason, who was from Maine and 10 years younger than Ellen. Emma wrote poems that were particularly suited for story-telling. She was very proud of her Maine roots and died in Gardiner at the age of 76, on January 11, 1921, just a few months after Ellen M.H. Gates passed away. Whether they were related, I have yet to ascertain; however, they certainly must have heard of each other. Emma’s poem, “Unter der Linder,” and Ellen’s poem, “We Love But Few,” appear in the same issue, Vol. VIII, of the Magazine of Poetry in 1896.

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3 Responses

  1. Mary-jane Emmet says:

    Helen M. Gates was first married to Thomas Ball Criss. She was my great grandmother. they were divorced.

  2. Brenda Surin says:

    Thank you! There is much confusion online about the author of Beautiful Hands and your research has helped to clarify it for me. Under the correct name, I hope to read more of ELLEN M. H. Gates works!!

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