Monday, February 9, 2009


(Maggie and Mary Jo Atkins Barnett, December 1956, at the British Embassy Christmas Party in Kolkata, India)

Mama was born on this day in 1927, in a Sears catalogue house built on a parcel of land where I lived when I was in high school. Her mother Hettie was already dying of tuberculosis, a strain which had been handed down to her through the family from my great-great-great grandfather Richard Dickson Armstrong, who contracted it (and died from it) as a Confederate prisoner in the condemned Union Army Prison on an island in the river near Alton, Illinois. That prison had no floors, just mud, and no window glass, just open portals covered with blankets during the long winters. His son, my great-great-grandfather David Mastin Armstrong, was a 17-year-old Confederate soldier when he gave himself up to the Union soldiers so he could accompany his father to prison and look after him.

Released from prison after the South's surrender in 1865, 19-year-old David carried the tuberculosis with him on his long walk back to Arkansas and, not long afterward, his covered wagon migration to the unsettled counties of the Crosstimbers region of Texas. He married Margaret Semmerine Ritchie that year (the ancestor for whom I am named). They had stillborn twin sons and a daughter, Sarah Lee, before David died still a young man in the sod house they built a couple of miles from where my mother was born.

(Margaret, Sarah Lee, and David Mastin Armstrong, taken circa 1895 in Montague County, Texas; David was already dying of tuberculosis in this photo; my great-great grandparents and my great-grandmother)

Margaret raised their daughter alone on the farm. When Sarah married Samuel Mordecai Turner, they renovated the sod house into a two-room dogrun but the TB was already there in both Sarah and Sam's lungs. They had three children in rapid succession, Roy, Hettie, and Effie Lee.

(Samuel Mordecai Turner, 1872-1903, photo taken around 1895 in Bowie, Montague County, Texas; my great-grandfather)

Then, in the space of one year, little Roy plus his parents Sarah and Sam died, leaving Margaret with two small granddaughters. She raised them well, paying for them to start school at age six instead of age eight (at that point in Texas, girls' education was paid for only from 8-14) and for Hettie to go to Texas State Normal School to get her teaching certificate.

(William Rusk "Bill" Atkins and Hettie Alberta Turner Atkins, taken not long after their marriage in 1919, at the "Sears house" in Stoneburg, Montague County, Texas; photo taken by Hettie, who was an amateur photographer, using a bulb syringe in her hand; my mother's parents)

Hettie was in love with a second cousin once removed, Nora Armstrong. But Nora was determined not to stay in that rural area. She went to Fort Worth where she became a "businesswoman", as the family said. Hettie couldn't leave her family. She eventually married Bill Atkins, fresh back from World War I where he'd been mustard-gassed while serving in the medical corps. They had my Aunt Sarah, my Uncle Bill, and Mama before Hettie died. By that time, they were all living with Margaret in the house she'd ordered from Sears, now helping to raise the third generation. But when Hettie died, and Bill began falling apart from grief, Margaret (now in her 70s) said they needed to find another home for the baby until she was older.

(Margaret Semmerine Ritchie Armstrong, 1858-1939, taken during the 1930s in Hogg County, Texas; my great-great-grandmother)

Hettie's surviving sister, Effie, lived in Eastland County, Texas. She too had gotten a college education to become a teacher, and had married another teacher. They had two young sons, and they decided to adopt Mama. But that winter, the winter of 1927-28, the rains never let up and bridges all over Texas were washed out. For weeks on end, they literally could not find a road which would safely take them from where they lived up to Montague County. Instead, Bill Atkin's brother and his wife (Auther and Sook Atkins), whose children were already grown, took in Mama. By the time Effie and her husband wrote they would be able to come get Mama, Auther and Sook were attached to her and wanted to keep her. Since it would mean she could stay near her siblings and father, Bill decided to give Mama temporarily to his brother and sister-in-law instead of Effie's family.

Such is the byway of destiny.

The Depression hit, and Bill died. Margaret, now becoming frail, went to live with Effie. Mama stayed with Auther and Sook, who adopted her and an abandoned grandson, Bobby, raising them as siblings. My Aunt Sarah and Uncle Bill were given away to aunts in Oklahoma, where they suffered profoundly abusive childhoods that scarred Bill Junior for life. Mama's adopted father, Auther, was a Socialist, a voracious reader, and an early feminist. I owe him, and Margaret Ritchie Armstrong, and Effie Turner, almost the entirety of who my mother became and, in turn, what shaped me.

(Mary Jo Atkins, age five in 1932, Stoneburg, Montague County, Texas)

Mama always tested positive for tuberculosis. She must have had it, and recovered from it, as a baby. A few years ago, I watched a show on television about the "ten most haunted places in the United States". I was electrified to hear them proclaim number one as the former Union Army Prison on the river outside Alton, Illinois. The prison no longer stands, but the ground itself and the bricks taken from the old structure carry numerous malignant specters, the show stated.

Mama would be 82 today. I've lived without her 23 years. At her funeral, there were dozens of people whose names we didn't know, folks she'd run across and befriended, standing at the back of the chapel and weeping. I still clearly hear her voice in my head, mostly laughing or commenting on events, people, history. She was probably the most curious person I ever met (well, maybe except for me). I liked her as much as I loved her, which says everything.

To view my mother's family tree, go to this RootsWeb link (the genealogy was done by me).

For other posts about my mother, read here and especially here. To read more about my family and/or ancestry, look in the Labels under "Family Memoir" and browse the 23 entries so far.


little gator said...

I think you typoed the date on one photo which looks way older than 1985.

I had family in the Cross Timbers/ Peters Colony area in the 1830s and 1840s. The ones I know of left in 1850 for California-the father of that family was killed by a grizzly he'd wounded, but the bear did die first by a few hours. his brother in law was "killed and scalped by Indians" in 1836.

The relevant names are Underwood and Reed.

Maggie Jochild said...

Thanks for pointing out the typo, I corrected it.

The Peters Colony was located in the Eastern Crosstimbers of Texas. There are two Crosstimbers regions, both of them running diagonally from northeast to southwest, separated by several counties' gap. My people come from the Western Crosstimbers, which should be savannah except for some mineral irregularities which creates a dwarf woodlands and rolling hills. A terrain I'm rather seriously in love with.

The Peters Colony was an early empresario-led colonization around what is now Dallas, and as far as I know, I don't have any ancestors connected with it. My folks came to Texas in three different waves: The first was around 1833 as part of the Robertson Colony in Limestone County, Texas. The second was in the 1840s, again around Limestone County, Cherokee County, and then far south to Bee County (the Barnetts and the Atkins, from Kentucky and middle Tennessee respectively), not part of an organized effort, just looking for land. The third, the folks who settled in Montague County, was a mass influx of many interrelated families from Sharp County, Arkansas, an Ozark migration after the Civil War where the struggling State of Texas sold land in regions not yet freed from Comanche raids in order to pay for schools in East Texas where settlement had been safely established. In each of these instances, however, the risk from native attack (natives who were being forcibly displaced), the threat from other nations (Mexico or the United States), and the difficulty of farming where rainfall was often inadequate made these decisions true pioneer voyages. Particularly after the economic devastation of the Civil War, however, remaining in the South felt undendurable for various reasons, and so my various family lines all joined the "GTT" (Gone To Texas) migration of Southerners ready to trade in one cultural/geographic identity for another.

Your family continued on to California, which was the next wave after GTT. Margaret Ritchie's sister and father succumbed to that one, settling in the Fresno area by around 1900 where their descendants will remain.

What's most interesting to me about maps of migration of my particular lines is that with almost no exception, since the early 1600s, they came to the South and remained in the South until my parents' generation. The divide between North and South is that old and inviolate. I think about that in current political terms as well.

little gator said...

IN my line of temporary Texans, the Reeds were form Kentucky. The others were(over a few generations) were from Pennslyvania and New England/New York to Michigan,
then Iowa, MIssouri(where the Reeds met the rest) then Texas.

Some of my family were in Gasconade Co Missouri before the New Madrid quake, which is pretty far back for that area.

Not much South in my family. My great-grandfather's Irish-Canadian sister, tranplanted to Boston, Married a Confederate veteran from Louisiana. In that family he was Irish first and anything else second.