Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Orphaned and Widowed, Part I

Margaret Meredith Palmer was my husband's great-great grandmother.   She was born around 1823 in Lancaster County, Virginia to Capt. John Meredith and Ann Currell Lee, married James A. Palmer on May 16, 1842 in Baltimore, Maryland and died in Northumberland County in 1889.

That skeletal outline of her life suggests many things.  She lived, as they say, in interesting times.  I have imagined a Tidewater version of Margaret Mitchell's Ellen O'Hara, the penultimate Southern Lady, without the wild Irish husband.  And there is a morsel of truth there.   She was born on one plantation, raised as a devout Catholic, and became mistress of another plantation upon her marriage.  Unlike Ellen O'Hara, she survived her husband and the Civil War.

My image of her changed when I sifted through papers belonging to her uncle, Thomas Meredith, a Baltimore merchant and, much to my delight, a hoarder.  He kept letters from his siblings, nephews and Margaret.  Much of my family history involves documents where ancestors scratched out an X.  It was a thrill to find first person accounts of their lives.   Far from glamorous, Margaret's first 40 years were filled with loss and struggle.

Her father, John Meredith was a cash strapped farmer and slave owner.  In 1822 he married Ann Lee Towill.  It was a second marriage for each.  He was a widower with a son, Thomas James, known as James.  She was a wealthier widow with four children.  Together they had Margaret and a son Thomas William, known as Thomas.  Margaret's mother died when she was a young child and her father married again in 1828 to another widow, her mother's cousin Ann Steptoe Brent.  They had a son William Vincent, known as, well, who cares at this point?

A brief digression - need I say how much I have regretted John's stunning lack of originality in choosing wives and naming his sons?  One of the great joys of those letters was that they clarified the tangled relationships and names.

Margaret's childhood seems to have been rather simple, and sweet.  Her father sent a note to his brother in Baltimore full of family news, money woes, gossip and closed with the note "Margaret & Tho sent you & sister a large potatoe each -- did you get them?" The potatoes were entrusted to a ship captain traveling back to Baltimore.  No word on whether Uncle Thomas got the spud.

Her life changed radically when she was about 12 years old.  Numerous letters refer to the ill health of her father and step-mother.  He died in February, 1834.  A year later her step-mother was dead.

From then on, Margaret's care and upbringing was shared amongst her tight-knit Meredith family.  Her brother James, a merchant in Richmond County, moved his three younger siblings to his home there, where they were cared for by their aunt, Caroline Meredith Shearman.  James and his aunt Caroline doted on the orphans.  Letters refer jokingly to young Willie's (alright, he was known as Willie) crush on a neighbors' daughter and concern that the children maintain ties to Lancaster County where Margaret and Thomas had inherited  property through their mother.  They were sent back to board for school at Col. Edmond's house where, her brother James wrote, "they have an excellent teacher there for the year - Mr. Emmanuel".   Her uncle in Baltimore assumed financial management of her affairs, arranged for her further schooling at St. Joseph's Academy in Emmitsburg, Maryland when she was older and served as her father figure for the rest of his life.  But in 1838, another anchor in her life, her aunt Caroline Shearman died.  James wrote his uncle in Baltimore that fall, "I hardly know what poor Margaret will do -- however she will not leave school till July, before only which time providence may make a provision".

To be continued.

Sources:  Letters from John Meredith, T.J. (James) Meredith, Joseph Meredith, Hannah Meredith Yerby,  Caroline Meredith Shearman (all of Virginia) and Sist. Margt Tre_st. of St. Joseph's Academy to Thomas Meredith. The letters are part of the Thomas Meredith Papers (MS1795) at the Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore, Maryland.  All the letters, save an 1840 letter from Sister Margaret, are in Box 1 of the collection.  The letter from Sister Margaret is in Box 2, Folder 1.