Continuing the story of Margaret Meredith Palmer (abt. 1823-1889) who was born in Lancaster County, Virginia and lost her mother, father, step-mother, and the aunt who raised her, all before she was 16 years old.
Let me be clear about Margaret's life at Clifton. She was not cooking or scrubbing or working the farm. There were 28 slaves on the plantation when her husband died. But neither was her life the social whirl of southern lore. Her letters to her uncle included the most prosaic details of life - the children's sniffles, getting groceries shipped from Baltimore, new seeds for the vegetable garden, the price she might fetch for her crop of corn, a request for a black wool hat. She sent orders for molasses (her young son had a penchant for "beating away" on the jugs with a stick - with predictable and sticky results), a good corn broom and $1 worth of cranberries.
Of far more concern to the young widow were the complicated legal and financial matters resulting from her husband's death. She agonized over whether she was capable of serving as legal guardian for the children, and who should serve if she could not. She and the children now owned Clifton jointly and all decisions had to be justified as in the best financial interest of her young children. Acting as guardian herself might force her to rent out their share of the farm and slaves for the highest income. A guardian could forbid their Catholic education, which was far more expensive than local schooling, when they were older. She struggled to raise the $8000 guardianship bond, applying to her brothers and uncle to act as security for portions of the bond. She dreaded going to court, asking "(m)ust I do it (take an oath) and on a Protestant bible?" Almost a year after her husband's death and very much at wit's end she wrote her uncle, "I know not what to do(.) I have recommended it in my prayers and wish the will of God to be done. Most gladly will I take any advice that your kindness will impart. Do dear Uncle pray for me and my dear children."
Beyond the details of the farm, her legal and financial concerns, Margaret's letters to her uncle showed deep faith and longing for greater access to the Catholic Church. There were no Catholic churches in Lancaster or Northumberland counties. She was "anxious to go to Baltimore this spring to make my Easter" and asked that he let her know what would be most convenient. She wrote she "will be very glad to attend a retreat if it is the will of Almighty God and shall be glad if dear Aunty (her uncle's wife) will write if she hears" of one in time enough for Margaret to attend. One letter written during Lent in 1849 closed with a request, "Pray for me kind Uncle and for him to whom you were so kind while living during this holy season of fasting and prayer."
I've known the facts outlining Margaret's life for many years but had not considered the emotional toll of such loss. Certainly she was not unique. Disease was common, medical care primitive and death a constant. Many of the letters refer to disease or deaths in the county. But these letters, some of them almost two centuries old, have illuminated her life and the lives of her Meredith kin beyond the details. They've brought her to life - more than a century after her death.
The years her children grew up were challenging. Her uncle Thomas died in 1853, her brother James in 1855 and brother Thomas in 1859. Mr. Gresham was appointed guardian for the children and helped her manage Clifton. Ultimately she did rent out the farm and many of the slaves, using the income to pay for the Catholic schools she so valued. It's not clear where she lived while they were in school in Maryland. The Palmer slaves were enumerated on her cousin's nearby plantation in 1860. She and the children returned to Virginia during summers until the Civil War. Following the war, her daughter settled in Frederick, Maryland and her son took over Clifton. Each married, had large families, and surely to her joy, were devout Catholics. Her son donated the land for the first Catholic Church built in Lancaster or Northumberland counties in 1885. Margaret spent time with both of them, but lived her last years with her daughter. She never remarried. She died on a visit to Northumberland County in 1889.
Sources: Letters from M. M. Palmer to Thomas Meredith, 1848-49. The letters are part of the Thomas Meredith Papers (MS1795) at the Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore, Maryland. They are contained in Box 2, Folder 3.