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The Iron Woman in America's Korea Legation
[Part 1] Rose Frost Foote's life and work in the late 1800s
Robert Neff (neff)     Print Article 
Published 2008-10-01 09:04 (KST)   
"Even the rivers and mountains change in 10 years" is a Korean proverb that the new American Ambassador to Korea, Kathleen Stephens, used to describe the Korean-American relationship.

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Ambassador Stephens is the first female American ambassador to Korea, and is fluent in Korean -- a skill that she learned while teaching English in Korea as a Peace Corp member in the mid-1970s.

While Ambassador Stephens is the first American female ambassador, she is not the first woman to live in and, according to the source, govern the embassy.

That honor belongs to Rose Frost Foote.

The Arrival of the Footes

Rose Foote has been described as a "pathfinder" a strong-willed woman who would not be left behind, even when her husband, Lucius Foote, was appointed to be the first minister of Korea -- a land that was enigmatic and had a reputation as being hostile to foreigners.

Rose Frost Foote. From 'A Diplomat's Helpmate' by M. V. T. Lawrence
Her biographer, Mary V. Tingley Lawrence, declared that "there was an unusual bond of inter-dependence and delightful comradeship" between Lucius and Rose, "and despite some misgivings they preferred the danger risk to the test of separation. Rose desired to witness Korea's "awakening from its sluggish condition of centuries" and its efforts to recast its future.

The Footes departed California and made their way to Japan where they were entertained by the Emperor and Empress of Japan. From Yokohama, they traveled to Nagasaki aboard the Japanese steamship Genkai Maru, where they met up with the U.S.S. Monocacy, an American warship, and proceeded to Korea. The trip to Korea was not easy -- bad weather forced them to anchor off the Goto Islands (a group of Japanese islands) for two days waiting for the storm to end.

On the evening of May 13, 1883, the U.S.S. Monocacy arrived in Chemulpo. The following day Mr. Foote was visited aboard the warship by two Korean officials who conveyed King Kojong's good wishes and invited Minister Foote to Seoul -- they would return in a few days to guide him to the capital. In honor of the visit and as a show of respect, the U.S.S. Monocacy ran the Korean ensign up the front mast and fired a twenty-one gun salute. An English language newspaper in Shanghai reported:

"Thus, the Monocacy, which 12 years ago in almost this very place was engaged in throwing shot and shell into the Corean forts, was the first vessel of any nation to burn peaceful gunpowder in honor of the new flag."

On May 17th, Minister Foote, accompanied by Captain Cotton, and several of the U.S.S. Monocacy's officers, went to Seoul to formally ratify the treaty between the United States and Korea (which took place on the 19th and on the following day he met with King Kojong).

While Mr. Foote was in Seoul to ratify the treaty between the United States and Korea, Mrs. Foote took the opportunity to explore Chemulpo, accompanied by a group of naval officers from the U.S.S. Monocacy. Chemulpo at this time was described as "a very small village, consisting of wretchedly-built huts...the temporary Japanese Consulate, and a few sheds under some of which were stored building materials for the new Japanese Consulate, the site had already been dug out. Japanese soldiers occupying a long wooden building in front of the Consulate, and sailors from the "Hiyei Kau" [Japanese warship] gave a little life to an otherwise miserable spot, to which the low mud flats left uncovered at low tide give an additional dreary aspect."

Mrs. Foote's arrival was met by "crowds of natives [who] surrounded her, touched her, and stared into her eyes. Several dropped down, with faces upon the ground and curiously regarded her high-heeled shoes. So alarming became the demonstrations, that it was deemed advisable for" her to return to the vessel, where she awaited her husband's return. He returned a few days later and took her and the remaining members of his staff back to Seoul to their new home. Rose has the distinction of "being the first occidental woman to enter ancient Seoul."

The Legation

One of the first projects that Minister Foote undertook was securing a legation compound. Following the Rice Revolt in 1882, there were several large estates and homes available -- the homes of noblemen and officials who had died during the revolt. "Among the properties inspected for a United States legation purposes was an ancient Min palace. It asserted a claim of distinct associations, having been the abode of one of the Queen's powerful family." The accounts of mayhem that the former owners had suffered were evidenced by the blood stains on the walls and Minister Foote was able to purchase the property cheaply with his own money for only $3,200.

Like many of the properties purchased or given to the early Westerners, including von Mollendorff's residence, this one was said to be haunted. According to Rose's biographer, the compound, located on a small hill, had "a most fascinating history and was invested with the flavor of romance. There were proud, surviving interests in the gruesome tales of its valiant decapitated Mins, who even now in unquestionable shape, periodically stalked about the premises."

The Footes seemed to view the purchase positively, even noting that the name of the estate meant 'Beautiful Mount,' and was surrounded by acres of woods and stretches of neglected greenswards. The press in the United States, however, looked upon the purchase in a negative light:
"Official advices received at Washington from Mr. Foote, the newly appointed U.S. Minister to Corea state that he has taken up his residence in the Capital of that little-known country, but life there is attended with many discomforts and privatations. The only house he has been able to obtain is a rude one of wood and paper, with paper windows, and is situated in an undesirable location in the midst of hovels and filth."
Over the next two years Rose and Lucius devoted their efforts to improving the compound. Lucius is said to have spent more than $2,000 of his own money in these renovations, and, according to Ensign Foulk, put "his whole fortune" in it.

One of the first projects Rose undertook to make the legation more livable was to plant a flower garden with her own hands. Even though it was a task that brought her pleasure, it was also a test of her fortitude. Amongst the Korean servants "there were gloomy recitals that skulls and headless skeletons [victims of the rice riots in 1882] which had missed honorable burial, had been turned up in the gardens." Nonetheless, Rose persisted in gardening and the flowers, "in time joyfully justified her care, and often became her distinctive messengers to royal friends."

But not all the gardening was done by Rose. When Dr. George W. Woods of the U.S.S. Juniata visited Seoul in early 1884 he noted the many improvements that had been made:
"Since I was here less than a month ago, their battalion of Corean workmen, with their Japanese gardener, has done wonders. The roads are all leveled, the stone terracing completed in a beautiful manner and at the corners there are gracefully shaped hibachis, sanded to represent stone, which, placed on pedestals of tile, will take the place of garden vases."

"All the flower beds are bordered with tiles, and, in addition to the already existing shrubbery, many fine plants have been set out, including a larger number of California rose-bushes. Amongst the numerous improvements, they have located a lawn tennis ground, and near it is a pretty pagoda-like building which will eventually be a sudatorium where the wrestlers can take a bath and wash off the sweat of the conflict. The whole place looks very pretty. The quaint little buildings are all touched up 'brightly,' the paths and stone walk are in good order, the spring violets and azaleas, with other early flowers, are in bloom, and the peach, plum, and apricot trees are heavy with blossoms."
A Rose by Any Name

Rose was a graceful woman who dressed elegantly and was "accomplished and beautiful with a majestic bearing." She was in her mid-50s when she arrived in Korea, and generated a great deal of interest with Koreans of all social classes, not only because she was the first occidental woman to enter ancient Seoul but also because of her "exceptional beauty and queenly bearing [that] aroused admiration wherever she was seen."

She knew how to dress elegantly and put on a good show. On one of the many occasions that she was summoned to the palace, a naval officer described her as being "dressed in grey plush with a bonnet to match, wore much old lace, all her diamonds -- and she has many beautiful ones -- several bracelets, and a bunch of half-blown roses below the lace which was puffed around her throat and neck. She looked very stylish, and her appearance was calculated to make a sensation."

Ensign George C. Foulk, who lived in the legation with the American Minister and his wife, described Rose as "a Southern woman, tall, handsome, with a long upper lip with lots of vertical lines in it." From there his descriptions of her grew even more unflattering: "She is kind, but rough, says thing ladies don't often say, is at times very careless in exposing herself in night dress or petticoats, etc. Yet she wears lots of diamonds when in swell dress, wears powder and a little paint." Later, after a thief broke into the American legation and made off with the furniture but had carelessly dropped and forgot nearly $8,000 worth of Mrs. Foote's jewelry, Foulk caustically noted "unfortunately, for at fifty-three, she's ablaze all the time." Apparently she was vain about her age as well as her looks and lied; born in 1827 she would have been about 57 at this time and not 53.

Others, who visited the legation for only a short period of time, found her as "a gray haired lady of fifty, or so, bright, good-looking, cheerful, and hospitable." Rose, in the public eye, was a great hostess and an ideal mate, but what was she like away from the critical eyes of guests?

You can read more about Rose Foote in the book "A Diplomat's Helpmate" available online at the Internet Archive.
©2008 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Robert Neff

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