06 November 2011

Clorinda and Harriet

Montgomery County, Arkansas, a long way from New Jersey

Working my way through backlogged genealogy posts, quilting projects and any other displacement activities I can come up with to avoid thinking about the next few days at work (which promis to be very hectic, with the installation of another compactor system for one of our big collections)…I am reminded of the two mystery women in my direct line. 

One on my father’s side, one on my mother’s, both a long way from home. 

Interestingly, both are great-great grandmothers, so they show up at the same tier and approximately the same time in the family history.

It’s hard for us to appear and disappear without any apparent ties in this time, in this society, but they managed it in the 19th century. I have not tracked down so much as a photograph of either of them.

What intrigues me about both women is that they were Northerners who moved to the Deep South before the Civil War. I do not know why, and I wonder how appallingly difficult that conflict was for their dual loyalties.

My family lines are very Southern—I could chart a broad-brush sweep of generational movement from the East Coast through the Appalachians, on to Arkansas and Oklahoma, on to Texas, on to California—and there are a lot of hard-core Confederates in there. What on earth did the Yankee grandmothers think as the country tore itself apart, as the gulf broadened between their old homes and their new ones?

I’ve mentioned Clorinda before. She shows up in the record books in 1850, when she was 32 and living in Newton, Mississippi. She married Benjamin Johnson there in 1839, and went with him to Montgomery County, where she spent the rest of her life and where she is buried. Her lovely name shows up in 3 of her descendants.

Clorinda’s birthplace is listed in the census records as New Jersey. Rural Mississippi and Arkansas—very, very rural Mississippi and Arkansas, especially at that time—could have been on another planet from New Jersey, even then. What took her to that wild green country before she was 21?

It is possible her father’s name was James, but it’s equally possible that it was not, and nothing comes up in the records for anyone else from her family of origin. I have found records for the Clorinda Fowler Tract in New Jersey, one of the areas producing spectacular fluorescent minerals near Franklin and Sterling. Is there a connection? I haven’t turned up anything so far.

Clorinda Fowler Johnson's gravestone, Caney Cemetery, Arkansas

On the other side of the family, we find Harriet Adeline Perkins, who also shows up in the 1850 census, married to George Washington Keese and living in Caldwell, Texas. She was 27 at that time, and according to the records was born in Vermont. I find this bewildering. I’ve been both places, and they also might as well be on different planets. There is no information whatsoever on her family of origin.

G. W. Keese was the younger half-brother of some of my Confederado relatives who left the US for Brazil forever at the end of the Civil War. Obviously the family’s sympathies were passionately Confederate. How did Harriet cope?

I don’t know, because she vanishes from all records after 1860. Her youngest child was born that year, and Harriet in still listed in the Caldwell census records. After 1860….nothing. 

G. W. Keese died in 1870 and is buried in the Old Prairie Lea cemetery at Caldwell. A number of the Keeses moved to Marion County in East Texas, possibly with the promise of jobs as the railroad came through Jefferson. (It never did, but that’s another story.)  Harriet is not buried at either place. Harriet is not anywhere that anyone can find. Did she leave? Did she die?

I don’t know what brought either woman to the South, and I cannot imagine watching as the horrific conflict shredded everyone it touched. Clorinda stayed in Arkansas, at who knows what cost, but what happened to Harriet when the war broke out?

Would I have stayed, or would I have gone, with family on both sides of an irreconcilable war? 

Their stories are almost completely unknown, and may be unknowable, and that haunts me. 

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