And what is the beauty
An open book…
Gaps between logs…
What do they have to say?
To whom do you belong?
Harriet Elizabeth Potts Simmons was my paternal great-grandmother. She was born in Dubois County, Indiana, in 1872 and lived her entire life within 25 miles of her place of origin. She married John Simmons at age 16 and they lived on a farm along Simmons Creek in Martin County. She was just 25 years old when her husband suddenly died in 1897 leaving her a widow with five young children. She subsequently re-married in 1904 and lived the remainder of her life in a simple house along Blue Creek in Lost River Township. She died in 1942.
EPILOGUE - HARRIET’S GARDEN
It was a dark, rainy Saturday afternoon in mid-April as Mary Ann and I poked through the back-country of Martin County, Indiana. We had come to my ‘homeland’ to connect with the places where many of my ancestors lived during the late 1800s and early 1900s. My great-grandmother Harriet Potts Simmons, about whom I wrote in “Poem for Harriet,” was one of those.
Several years ago I first traveled up Blue Creek to the place where Harriet and her second husband had lived on their 80-acre farm. Although I appreciated that experience, I knew relatively little about my great-grandmother then. But this time was different. Recent ancestry research and discovery of a photo of Harriet (the only photo I have ever seen of her), made at her Blue Creek farm in about 1930, caused me to feel more connected to her life story–and to her.
As I turned my car onto Blue Creek Lane and followed its winding path along the creek, I felt like I was going back in time. Densely-forested hills rose on both sides of the creek. I wondered what it must have been like for Harriet to live there one hundred years ago; even today the place feels so isolated and remote.
Then they began to appear–bluebells–growing EVERYWHERE on the creek banks and hillsides. There were hundreds of bluebell blossoms around me and I felt I had never seen anything like it before. I made a number of stops along the lane and took one photograph after another, but none did the scene justice.
Little has changed in that part of Martin County since Harriet lived there one hundred year ago. Although her house is now gone, the barn is still faintly visible across the creek and through the trees. It is a reminder to me that this lovely natural place was once a human place too–my great-grandmother’s place. I expect the progenitors of the bluebells that thrilled me so on that amazing Saturday were also growing in profusion there during my great-grandmother’s time too. I could sense her pleasure.
There is a well-known painting by South Dakota artist, Harvey Dunn, titled “The Prairie Is My Garden.” It shows a woman and her daughter picking wildflowers in the prairie that surrounds her simple pioneer house. The memory of this picture helps me to imagine Grandmother Harriet and her daughter slowly making their way along the stream bank each April picking large bunches of bluebells to decorate their simple house in the woods.
No matron in any time, or at any level of wealth, ever had a finer garden.
EPILOGUE II – TO WHOM DO YOU BELONG?
“Well, you know, when we look at the way things happened back then, there are a few skeletons in the family closet.” With these words, my cousin Mary Lou confirmed what I had suspected. My great-Grandmother Harriet’s parents, Marjery and John, were probably never married.
In my “Poem for Harriet” I concluded with a question—“To whom do you belong?” I had returned to Martin County, Indiana, in early October with the aspiration of shedding more light on this question. During a previous trip to the homeland that same year, I had located the gravesite of my great-great Grandfather John L. Potts, the man reputed to be Harriet’s father and whose name I didn’t even know until just a few years ago. Bolstered by some additional genealogical information I had acquired, I held hopes that on this particular visit I might find the gravesite of my great-great Grandmother Marjery as well.
But before I describe the outcome of my Martin County quest and the visit with my cousin Mary Lou, let me explain more of what I had learned about Harriet’s family of origin before my trip. Several years earlier I had enlisted the assistance of a friend in Minnesota, an expert genealogist, to help me trace my father’s family history about which I knew little then. After doing some research, my friend wrote to me:
“If the mother of Harriet Potts Simmons is Marjery Dyer, then you would be descended from her family lineage…One source says that her husband, John Dyer, died in 1862. I could not find her listed in either the 1860 or 1870 censuses, but in both 1880 and 1900 Marjery was listed as a widow. Your great-Grandmother Harriet was born in 1872–after John Dyer’s death. So who was Harriet’s father?”
My friend continued: “In Marjery’s 1937 newspaper obituary, it states that she died with the last name of Dyer and had nine children some of whom, including Harriet, carried the surname Potts. We need to solve this Dyer/Potts mystery.”
I had learned a few years ago from a relative in Martin County (who was not descended from Harriet) that the popular local belief was that Harriet’s parents were Marjery Dyer and John L. Potts. Yet, as my Minnesota genealogy friend had informed me, there was a problem with this notion–there was no record that Marjery and John had ever been married. In fact, I further learned, John L. Potts had two wives, neither of whom was Marjery. His first wife died young in 1854 and he then married his second wife, Rebecca, a year later. She was 50 years old and still living with him at the time of the 1880 census. In that census, Marjery was named Dyer and lived as a “widow” with five children (including Harriet) each bearing the surname Dyer. John L. Potts died three years later leaving no record that he and Marjery were ever linked by marriage.
There are no surviving census records for 1890, but by 1900 Marjery still carried the name Dyer. Her daughter Harriet had married my great-Grandfather John Simmons by that time, but he had died in 1897 and she herself was a widow with five children, ages 1 to 11. The only offspring remaining in Marjery’s household in 1900 were her two youngest sons, Charles and George, who now carried the surname Potts. As my Minnesota genealogy friend had said at the time she did her initial research for me: “This is a great mystery!”
So the circumstances of my great-Grandmother Harriet’s birth were clouded at best. Family tradition suggests that Marjery’s husband John Dyer died as a soldier during the Civil War. She would have been eligible to receive a widow’s pension thereafter, which may help explain why she was reluctant to re-marry and give up her surname Dyer. As far as I or anyone else in the family knows, she never did. Yet the fact remains that she bore six children during the period from 1866 through 1882, each of whom later took the name Potts. John L. Potts must have been their father.
The area of Martin and Dubois Counties in southern Indiana, where Marjery and John lived in the 1870s, was very rural and remote. It’s possible, I suppose, that there were extenuating circumstances associated with John’s marriage to Rebecca during that time. Although she was only 50 when the 1880 census was conducted, she may have been incapacitated in some way; there is no record of John and Rebecca ever having had children of their own. And it is instructive for me to learn that some in the Potts family later knew Marjery as “Granny Potts” even though she never officially stopped using the surname Dyer. This suggests that Marjery and John may have formed some kind of “common law” relationship before he died in 1883, which might also explain why their children came to have the surname Potts.
The full answer to this mystery may never be known. Such longstanding unresolved questions seldom are, but they continue to fuel my interest—and pique my imagination. What must it have been like for Harriet during her first ten years of life? Did she and her family live under a stigma because of her parent’s questionable relationship? Today children are sometimes born to parents who never marry, but it was much less frequent or accepted within the context of the 1870s and ’80s.
It’s likely that Harriet took the surname Potts before she married my great-grandfather John at age 16. There is no indication that she ever identified herself by the surname Dyer after 1880. Was taking the name of Potts her way of clearing the air and acknowledging what everyone in the area already knew? Whatever the circumstances during her childhood, it must have been an uphill battle for her, and I expect that there were some in her area who never did forget the circumstances of her and her siblings’ births. Scandals sometimes die hard.
This all may help explain why my Dad seemed to know so little about his father’s lineage. His father, Lee Simmons, died at a young age when my dad was only six years old. His mother, my Grandmother Grace, seldom spoke of Lee’s family when I was a child, and then only from a distance. I think it’s possible that my Dad had little connection with his Grandmother Harriet or his great-Grandmother Marjery after his father died. Perhaps he was not encouraged to know them because of their questionable reputations and backgrounds. Even now, Marjery is remembered by some in the family as a rough character. One Potts relative recently recalled that Marjery was known to smoke a corncob pipe whenever family came to visit–not the usual thing for women to do in her day, or any day for that matter. I think it is highly unlikely that Marjery was ever counted among those within “polite society” in Martin or Dubois Counties during her time.
One way that Marjery did distinguish herself within my family’s history was through her longevity. She lived to be 101 years old in a time before antibiotics, advanced surgical techniques or other medical improvements. To my knowledge this is still the family record for lifespan. She bore her last child at the age of 46–another record. She was also reputed to have come from American Indian ancestry, which was another distinctive.
After my cousin Mary Lou confirmed my hunch about my great-Grandmother Harriet’s beginnings 140 years ago, I asked if she knew where Marjery Dyer’s gravesite was located in the area. I told her that I was interested in going to see it. However, like others before her to whom I had asked this question, she did not know its whereabouts. But to my surprise, she mentioned that she owned a photograph of Marjery. I immediately asked if I could see the picture and perhaps have a copy. She informed me that the photo had been in a local newspaper during December 1936, right after Marjery turned 101 years old. And in addition to giving me a copy of Marjery’s picture, she also included the text for the accompanying article, which reads:
Dubois County’s oldest resident Mrs. Margaret Dyer, on November 26, celebrated her 101st birthday at the home of her son George…Despite her age, Mrs. Dyer is still active. She can still get around the house alone and dresses herself. She kept up her record of voting since the enactment of women’s suffrage by casting her ballot for President Roosevelt in the general election last month…[She] has spent her entire span of years in this and in adjoining Martin County.
Like the photo of my great-Grandmother Harriet that I had acquired earlier from another Martin County relative, these two pictures remain the only images I know to exist of these iconic women in my family’s story. Most importantly, I now know to whom Harriet belongs…and I am honored.
EPILOGUE III – CLOSING THE CIRCLE
I have only recently gotten to know my twin. As with other twins, we share the same birth date in the same year; I was born about five hours after her. In our case, however, we have different parents! You see, my twin is actually my second cousin, and her name is Mary Lou Billings. She lives in my homeland of Martin County, Indiana, where my father’s family originated. I have known about Mary Lou and our common birthday most of my life, but we never actually met in person until about ten years ago.
Mary Lou shares my interest in our family’s history and during a recent visit I made to Martin County, we arranged to take an excursion together into the countryside to look for the gravesites for some of our ancestors in common. Of special interest to us was a desire to locate the grave of our great-great grandmother, Marjery Damewood Dyer. Neither of us had seen her headstone before nor had anyone else we knew of in our family for that matter.
With assistance of the internet, we learned that Marjery’s gravesite was supposed to be in a small country cemetery located near the hamlet of Crystal in Dubois County, Indiana. Mary Lou and I agreed to undertake a roughly twenty-mile journey together from the town of Shoals to the Crystal Community Cemetery. We intended to stop at several other rural cemeteries along the way, but our connection with Marjery’s gravesite would be our last destination—the “grand finale” so to speak.
As we approached the village of Crystal on Highway 56, I kept my eyes fixed on the left side of the road watching for the cemetery; I had been told that it was rather hard to find. Suddenly I caught a glimpse of some tombstones back on a hill away from highway. We watched for the access lane, found it, turned left, and proceeded up the hill towards the closest grouping of headstones, which seemed to be the older part of the cemetery.
Although we had gotten a number for Marjery’s grave plot from the internet, it was a Sunday afternoon and I knew there would not likely be anyone around from whom we could ask directions. So Mary Lou, Mary Ann and I each set out on foot into different areas of the cemetery and began going stone-to-stone looking at the names and hoped we might find something. Even though the cemetery was not large by city standards, it still felt like we were searching for a needle in a haystack.
Mary Ann and I know what it’s like to come up empty-handed when searching for an ancestor’s gravesite. We’ve learned that vandalism or the forces of weather can take their toll on old headstones. We once searched for a long period of time for the headstones of some of Mary Ann’s ancestors in the city cemetery of Springfield, Illinois. We had even been given specific directions to the location of their plots by the cemetery custodian, but were still unable to locate the headstones. We concluded that the stones must have either been removed or become illegible, and we finally suspended our search.
After searching the headstones at Crystal Cemetery for fifteen minutes or so, I was approaching what I judged to be the perimeter of the oldest burial ground. Looking farther up the hill, all the headstones looked too new to be ones that would fit for the 1937 burial of Marjery . I was about to head back to where Mary Ann and Mary Lou were still searching when I spotted a small marker standing all by itself near the cemetery’s boundary. I walked over to it and looked at the inscription:
Marjorie J. Dyer
Here she was! I hailed Mary Lou and Mary Ann and they immediately came over to examine my find. I was not initially impressed by the small, unassuming marker. I’m not sure why that was because I well knew that Margery had not been a woman of means. Even while I was having difficulty finding her grave, it had crossed my mind that maybe Marjery or her family could not afford a gravestone at the time of her death. I think that is still a distinct possibility considering that 1937 was during the depths of the Great Depression.
Another source of my initial disappointment was that whomever had erected her stone made some significant errors in the content of its inscriptions. Most glaring was that the birth year shown for Margery–1845–was ten years later than her actual birth, which was 1835. Moreover, the spelling of her first name on the stone–Marjorie–was unlike any of the spellings I’ve seen for her when she was living. Usually her name was spelled Marjery or Margery. Considering such errors, I think it’s possible the marker was erected some time after Marjery’s death—perhaps after the The Depression was over and it became more affordable. If so, it’s probable that someone other than an immediate family member (i.e. someone less familiar with Marjery and her life) may have procured and installed the marker, thus accounting for the errors.
In addition to these ideas, I’m also intrigued by the notion that the stonemason who carved the inscription (and who might not have known Marjery at all) assumed that she could not possibly have lived for so long. He may have taken it upon himself to “correct” this mistake by lopping ten years off her lifespan and carving the year 1845 instead. He thus made Marjery a more reasonable 92 years of age at the time of her death–and apparently no one objected when the stone was installed. Stranger things have happened.
And finally, there is the matter of the location of Marjery’s marker in the cemetery. There do not appear to be any other marked burials near her gravesite–it stands alone. She was living with her son and his family near Crystal at the time of her death, and one would think that others, including family, might have been later buried near her plot. That is often the case for rural cemeteries in the area. Yet another mystery…
Despite my initial disappointment at finding Marjery’s diminutive marker with its errors and mysteries, I soon began sensing a strong connection to the place. I felt a deep gratitude, and especially for having shared the experience of finding Marjery’s gravesite in the company of my “twin” cousin. As Mary Lou and I stood beside this symbol of our common heritage, I considered the long, improbable journey that brought the two of us (who share Marjery’s genes) to this special moment of reunion with her and each other.
I looked again at the simple marker. This time I looked beyond its small size, errors and mysteries and I noticed instead the extra-long dash the carver had put between the dates of Marjery’s birth and death. I thought: “That long line does seem so appropriate for one who lived such a full, yet elusive life.” Later, I recalled these poignant words from a poem (The Dash) by Linda Ellis:
…now only those who loved her
know what that little line is worth.
I’ve come to realize that Mary Lou and I may be the only ones who know the details of our great-great grandmother’s enigmatic life–who know what that little line is worth. We may, in fact, be the only ones left who love her. The circle is now closed, and through Mary Lou’s and my journey to our grandmother’s graveside, Marjery has finally called her children home. And in that thought, I am blessed.
A Concluding Word
I began this essay by asking “To whom do you belong?” The question was specifically directed in the poem towards my great-grandmother Harriet whose lineage was, and still is, mysterious. As many questions have been created through my subsequent investigations as have been resolved–as is always the case for good research projects.
Now it is right to return for a final touch with Harriet. Her resting place is at Waggoners Chapel Cemetery next to her son (and my grandfather) Lee N. Simmons. He died before her in a tragic railroad accident in 1924, and although she had lost another son even earlier, I expect Lee’s death was especially difficult for her considering the circumstances. Harriet herself died in 1942, five years after her mother Marjery. Although I have no hard evidence, I do have a hunch that Marjery’s headstone was installed in the Crystal Community Cemetery at about the same time as Harriet’s was at Waggoners Chapel. The Depression had waned by 1942 and it’s possible the family could more readily afford a marker for her by then. Plus the sizes, materials and designs for Marjery’s and Harriet’s stones are similar. It would have “just made sense” to erect the stones for mother and daughter together–and if one thing characterized the times when these women lived, it was that things were done when it made sense to do them.
This essay has also been a journey for me–one of finding to whom I belong. I’ve come a long ways in this quest over the past year. Although I’m sure I will learn more and there will be further surprises, I now have a peace about what I know of this branch in my lineage. By standards of society in their times as well as now, these women were “rough around the edges”–relatively uneducated and uncultured. But they were also courageous; they overcame obstacles and difficulties in their lives unlike anything I will ever know. Most importantly, they are a part of me and my being–and I am honored and blessed to know them.
This poem and epilogues were written by Steve Robert Simmons in 2011 and 2012. All rights reserved.