Saturday, April 3, 2010

Orphaned and Widowed, Part II

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.

It's not clear where Margaret lived after her aunt's death, but in 1842 she married James Palmer at her uncle Thomas Meredith's home in Baltimore.  She and her husband settled onto Clifton, a plantation just outside Kilmarnock, Virginia.  In 1847, only five years after her marriage, Margaret was widowed and left with a toddler daughter and infant son.  She was no more than 25 years old.  Once again she turned to her family for support.  Her brothers Thomas and William each moved in for periods of time over the next 3 years.   That she leaned heavily on them and her uncle is evident from a series of letters she wrote in 1848 and 1849.

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.


  1. Susan,
    I enjoyed reading both articles, and I'm madly jealous of your good fortune to have such a trove
    of family correspondence! Welcome to the
    geneablogging community!

  2. Thanks, Bill. Getting my hands on the Thomas Meredith Papers was surely one of the highlights of my research efforts. Makes me feel better about my own pack rat tendencies.

  3. Susan, I really enjoyed reading both your articles about Margaret. "Disease was common, medical care primitive and death a constant." is a great sentence. What a strong, emotional statement. I've read several biographies of 19th century figures recently, and that sentence describes their situation perfectly. So sad, but so accurate. Thank you for sharing Margaret's story.

  4. Margaret's story is so sad it made me tear up near the end. Well written!

  5. What a wonderful recounting of Margaret's life! You have deepened the dimensions of what can often seem a dispassionate recounting of historic facts, and brought her life to us on these pages...


  6. Really nicely written story. What tough lives they had.


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