Great-great Aunt Lydia, who passed down her “Genealogy of the Powells” to future generations, is a kind of role model for me. When you’re spending all your spare time surfing ancestry.com and tracking down cemeteries and blogging not knowing if anyone is reading, you sometimes wonder if what you leave behind will mean anything to anybody. Aunt Lydia, who wrote something that helped me in my search 135 years later, gives me hope that what I’m doing will mean something to future generations.
Lydia Caroline was born 16 January 1849 in Tennessee, the next-to-youngest child of Benjamin and Eliza Helen (Fowler) Powell. In Lydia’s own words, “I was named for the wife of my uncle James E. Fowler of near Paris, Tenn.; she was Caroline Harris, a sister of the late Senator Isham G. Harris of Tennessee. Lydia is for his sister-in-law, Mrs. Lydia Harris.”
|1860 Shelby County, TN census|
Lydia is listed as Martha L.C. Powell
Lydia didn’t marry until she was 33—to a 57-year-old man, Elisha Ray, who had been widowed twice. She apparently used her spinsterhood to good advantage, traveling and writing stories about her adventures for the hometown newspaper. She carried her writing implements, silver inkwell, and paper in a shagreen (sharkskin) box with gilt trim. She visited a spa in Hot Springs, Arkansas, where she took an oxypathor treatment that she claimed made her look 10 years younger. (Google it; it’s really interesting.) She visited a home in Florida that she described as “decorated like a Turkish bashaw’s.” She visited Wales, where she bought a washstand, highboy, wardrobe, and bed made of mahogany with carved roses and angels, that she left to Aunt Clara in her will. (Uncle Angus refused to take possession of them, as it would have required that he hire a wagon to fetch them.) My cousin owns two pictures that Lydia painted—one of a swamp in Florida and one of sheep in Wales. In 1910 Lydia was living in Briscoe County, Texas, with her sister Bennie (Powell) Keeble. The 1910 census shows her occupation as “Teacher (art.)”
Lydia married Elisha Boykin Ray on 10 May 1882. He had been married previously to Mary Susan Lake, who died in 1864, and Ann Rebecca Wright, who died in 1872. Years ago, my cousin showed me a photograph of Elisha Ray with Lydia (she thought) and his two young children. She seemed to remember that Elisha had a boy and a girl from his previous marriage, and that the boy had died young. I posted the photo on ancestry.com and then received a message from a Wright researcher who found the photo through a search for Elijah Ray, who had married her great-grandfather’s sister, Ann Rebecca Wright. According to her, Elisha had at least five children with his first wife; he and Rebecca never had children, but she helped him raise the children from his first marriage. His children, the youngest of whom was born in 1862, would have been grown when he and Lydia married in 1882. The woman I corresponded with feels that the following photograph depicts Elijah with her ancestor, Rebecca Wright, and two of his young children. I hold out the hope that it is somehow Lydia, since I have no other picture of her.
After I had begun to research the Powells and the Fowlers, I found a book in the library of the Oklahoma Historical Society called Annals of the Fowler Family (more about it in the next post.) It was published in 1901, and the author, Glenn Dora Arthur, had corresponded with many of her Fowler cousins, trying to document as many Fowler descendants as she could. Two of her correspondents were Lydia and Eliza Helen, Lydia’s mother. Lydia really comes to life in the long and chatty letter that she sent to Mrs. Arthur.
She addresses Mrs. Arthur as “My Dear Relative,” and then goes on to relate interesting stories of Fowler relatives during the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, such as this one about Rahab Cooper, wife of Godfrey Fowler, my 5th great-grandmother:
“She and her children were in the kitchen and she was spinning, when, just as she was drawing out a thread, she glanced up the road and saw the British coming; she hastily raised the trapdoor and bade all the children enter the cellar and keep wonderfully quiet; she then took her babe—my grandfather—and went up in the attic. The English soldiers entered the home and she could hear them laughing about chasing all the women and children away. They remained only long enough to eat up a lot of roasted potatoes and drink all the brandy in the house. They then left without discovering either hiding place,”
and this poignant anecdote, maybe not as historically significant, but just as revealing of the times:
“There is a sad romance about the eldest daughter of great-uncle Bullard Fowler; her name was Tillitha. She never married, although she was engaged three times, but all three terminated disastrously. In the first instance her intended was thrown by his horse and killed while he was on his way to wed her; the next one sickened and died near the wedding-day; the third went to Holly Springs on business just prior to his marriage, and he died there among strangers. She had suitors afterwards , but she never promised to marry anyone again.”
Mrs. Arthur makes this very Victorian response to Lydia’s letter:
“Some women have a decided fondness for family reminiscences, and I judge that Mrs. Ray has inherited this interesting trait from her very interesting mother, whose letter set me on my quest for ‘our ancestors.’ Women, as a rule, have more time for remembering traits and incidents of different members of the related families. They talk them over as they mingle in the home work; and on rainy days and winter nights something of the dear past is suggested by the snatch of a song, the odor of a flower, or the similarity of the weather, when one begins,--‘It was just such a night as then when’—and immediately everyone listens.”
I would greatly admire Mrs. Arthur as well for her helpful contribution to Fowler history were it not for her occasional cattiness. I can’t quite forgive her for the unnecessary comment she made about Lydia’s explanation of the origin of her name:
“If there are any discrepancies in these facts I am unable to correct them, as I give them just as they have been given to me. As a rule women are more prone than men to draw on their imagination when their stock of facts is exhausted, but I have requested facts only in every instance.”
As a genealogist, I can certainly appreciate Mrs. Arthur’s devotion to the facts, but unless our ancestors come to life for us, what is the point of names and dates? Lydia may have had imagination, but I’m so glad she did, or I would never have heard such interesting stories about my Powell and Fowler ancestors.