Accomplished historian and author Mary Ricketson Bullard (1926-2014) wrote scholarly articles, books and even a libretto as part of an opera based on the life of Elizabeth “Zabette” Bernardey, the biracial common law wife of Cumberland Island, Georgia plantation owner Robert Stafford. In 1995, the University of Georgia Press published her book Robert Stafford of Cumberland Island: Growth of a Planter, a biography that offers a rare glimpse into the life of a 19th century cotton planter. She lived in Dartmouth, where she continued to write until her death.
Accomplished historian, author and opera librettist, Mary Ricketson Bullard (1926-2014) was born in Boston to renowned archaeologists Oliver G. Ricketson, Jr. and Edith Bayles Ricketson, of Dartmouth, Massachusetts. By the time Mary was of school age she had spent time in Guatemala with her parents, where her love for exploration, research and history began. Her formal education started at the Wheeler School and continued at Barnard College and Harvard University School of Education. She first passed on knowledge to her students as a teacher at the Buckingham School in Cambridge, and later to readers as she wrote and illustrated books and articles.
During her youth Mary was stricken with tuberculosis of the hip. In-patient hospitalizations and rehabilitation treatments continued intermittently throughout her life. She refused to let pain or the therapies (specialized braces, shoes and wheelchairs) curtail her curiosity, research, or love of travel. Her childhood visits to Cumberland Island, Georgia, where the Carnegie branch of her family owned large parcels of land, provided many hours of exploring and learning about the island’s history of enslavement. Mary’s self-discipline and organizational skills enriched her research. Her keen eye and life-long love of detail enhanced her ability to draw illustrations of archaeological digs, and later to vividly portray Cumberland Island’s landscape in her writings.
In 1960 Mary married archaeologist William Rotch Bullard in Guatemala, after having worked together at multiple digs. During her marriage Mary acquired ownership of a piece of land on Cumberland Island. She designed a cottage where they might live for part of the year. Tragically William died in the twelfth year of their marriage, but Mary continued to take her nurturing yearly visits to the cottage. She purchased a home in Dartmouth where she lived until her death.
Mary never retired from researching and writing and was a discerning critic of books and research. She wrote and published many scholarly articles, books and even a libretto as part of an opera based on the life of Elizabeth “Zabette” Bernardey, the biracial common law wife of Cumberland Island plantation owner Robert Stafford. Her story was put to music by Curtis Bryant. The opera premiered in 1999 at the historic Rialto Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia. In 1995, the University of Georgia Press published Mary’s book, Robert Stafford of Cumberland Island: Growth of a Planter, a biography that offers a rare glimpse into the life of a 19th century cotton planter. Mary’s writing career culminated in the 2003 publication of Cumberland Island: A History.
She had many devoted caregivers and friends and maintained close connections with her communities of New Bedford, Dartmouth and Georgia. Mary died on July 22, 2014 at home in South Dartmouth.
Ivy S. MacMahon
Bryant, Curtis with libretto by Mary R. Bullard. Zabette: An Opera in Three Acts. Georgia State University School of Music, 1999.
Bullard, Mary R. Cumberland Island: A History. University of Georgia Press, 2003.
Bullard, Mary R. “Deconstructing a Manumission Document: Mary Stafford’s Free Paper.” The Georgia Historical Quarterly, vol. 89, no. 3, Fall 2005.
Chase, Jennifer Elsie. “Mary Bullard creates opera.” Dartmouth Chronicle, 8 July 1998.