Elizabeth Barrows Ussher – Caring for All During the Armenian Resistance

Elizabeth Barrows Ussher – Caring for All During the Armenian Resistance

In 1915, the buildings belonging to the missionaries in Van, Turkey, turned into fortresses, refugee centers, and hospitals. “Reports come to us of the burning of village after village, with outrages upon the women and children, and the shooting of the men,” Elizabeth Ussher wrote in her diary.

“Our own family are all together in the middle bedroom, which is barricaded by a wall of large oil cans filled with earth. … The sitting-room windows are protected by bags of flour piled up on the wide window sills, and a triple hanging of heavy blankets across the windows, to keep the stray bullets out.”[1]

Soon, thousands of refugees arrived at the mission, generating an intense response in the fervent attempts to keep them alive.

Elizabeth’s Life

            Elizabeth was born on in Turkey (then Ottoman Empire) in 1873, in the town of Kayseri, the ancient Caesarea of Cappadocia which had been birthplace of the famous 4th-century theologian Macrina the Younger. Her parents, John Otis Barrows and Clarissa Storrs Freeman, were American missionaries, who raised their children to show love and concern to those around them.

            Due to one of their son’s ill health, in 1880 the Barrows turned a furlough into a permanent leave, settling first in New Hampshire, then in Connecticut where John served as pastor. Elizabeth attended Northfield Seminary in Massachusetts, then the Women’s College (now Glouchester College) in Baltimore, Maryland. A few doors opened to her, including the possibility to serve as secretary for the Women’s Christian Association. She seemed like a perfect candidate, since she had a positive influence on young girls.

But she had her heart set on returning to the land of her birth, and serve as missionary like her parents. Her parents tried to dissuade her, out of concern for her safety. When all their efforts proved fruitless, her father took her to the station, watched her leave, and returned home with a longing heart.

On 18 October 1899, Elizabeth left Boston by ship, headed for Istanbul with other missionaries. From there, she took a boat to Trabzon, then traveled inland to Erzurum, where she was to be greeted by a group headed by the missionary doctor Clarence Ussher.

She immediately encountered some problems, since a telegram sent by the England branch of the Armenian Relief Society had given the Ottoman government the impression that she and another missionary were involved in Armenian revolutionary activities. In the end, Clarence was able to clear the women’s names and bring them to the mission at Van, where Elizabeth was to be stationed.

The trip produced a bond of affection between Clarence and Elizabeth, who married on 26 June 1900 in the first American wedding in Van. The ceremony sparked the curiosity of the local population and was attended by many dignitaries.

Elizabeth served mostly as teacher at a girls’ school and head of the musical department. She also worked with the local Young Woman's Christian Association, and created a program for orphans and widows, teaching the women to produce lacework that could be sold around the world. In the meantime, she had four children and taught them at home.

In 1908, Elizabeth and Clarence returned to the United States to visit their families and introduce their work to local churches. While there, their oldest daughter, Dorothea, became seriously ill and died. The young girl’s faith, particularly in her last days on earth, was of great comfort to Elizabeth, who helped her other children to understand their sister was now in heaven. The Usshers returned to Turkey the following year.

The Armenian Genocide

The start of World War I caused the tension between the Ottoman government and the Armenians to escalate. The missionaries at Van became witnesses of the Ottoman attack on the city and the consequent siege, aimed at the extermination and deportation of the Armenians. When the Armenians organized a resistance against them, the place turned into a gruesome battlefield. Elizabeth recorded the events in her diary.

The mission’s buildings became a place of refuge for anyone – Armenians and Turks – who could escape the carnage, as well as for the Russians soldiers who were stationed in the area but didn’t have a field hospital. Elizabeth estimated that they fed about 10,000 people at once. At one point, the mission housed 5000 Armenians. When the Armenians left, 1000 Turkish people took their place.

Food was scarce, and the missionaries were faced with a dilemma. “To turn [these people] out would mean certain death to them,” Elizabeth wrote. “The villagers have no fields nor animals left. The city refugees have only the blackened ruins of their burned houses. To let them stay, as they want to, in spite of conditions, means that more and more will sicken and die. Hundreds are sick with a dreadful form of dysentery; others have influenza, and measles attack the children.”[2] The refugees died at the rate of seven or eight a day.

Since proselytizing was against the law in the Ottoman Empire (and those who converted were punishable by death), the missionaries were careful in their approach. Still, Clarence Ussher wrote in his account of the events, “We tried to make it a point to give every one who entered the hospital an opportunity to know the principles of Christianity. Sometimes patients came in who suspected this was our aim and determined not to give us a chance. We had, of course, morning and evening devotions in the wards – a hymn, Scripture reading, and prayer. Some of the objectors would stop their ears so as not to hear the Scripture or the hymn, but after a few days they would notice how interested their companions were and curiosity would get the better of them”[3]

The missionaries could not follow up on the men and women who left their premises, but recorded that many left “with changed ideas about Christianity and Christians.”[4]

Eventually, both Clarence and Elizabeth became ill with typhus. Clarence also developed pneumonia and was in coma for some time. Elizabeth’s health worsened until she died on 14 July 1915, at the age of 41. Clarence didn’t know about her death until two weeks later, when his condition improved.

Grace H. Knapp, another missionary at Van, wrote about her friend: “Mrs. Ussher literally laid down her life – not for her friends in the earthly sense of that word – but for members of the race that shortly before had threatened her, and all those that she loved, with a merciless death. As she had worked for the sick Armenian refugees in her overflow hospital during the siege, so she worked for the Moslem refugees after the siege. … In every relation of life … she showed forth the Christ within her.”[5]



[1] John Otis Barrows, In the Land of Ararat, New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1916, p. 129

[2] Ibid., p. 146

[3] Clarence Ussher, with Grace Higley Knapp, An American Physician in Turkey: A Narrative of Adventures in Peace and War, Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, p. 97

[4] Ibid., p. 100.

[5] Barrows, In the Land of Ararat, pp. 171-172.