The stories infused the photographs with emotional weight, adding a new tension between the images…and the realities of people’s lives. —Anne Makepeace
A few years ago, I was given a single photograph of my great-grandmother, Harriet Potts Simmons. It’s the only picture of her that exists, so far as I know. It raised for me a number of interesting and perplexing questions about her. For example, in the photo there is an open book lying in her lap. What does that signify? I’ve since learned that Harriet was one of the first women in her family who could read and write. Maybe that’s what the book symbolizes.
Harriet is also wearing a polka-dot dress, possibly the nicest one she owned at the time. What did polka-dots mean for her? And in the background of the picture there appears to be a primitive log structure, maybe a barn or an outbuilding. The photo was taken about 1930, but it looks as if it might have been made in 1880. What does this have to say about Harriet’s life and time?
As I thought about this photograph over the months after I received it, an overarching question came to me:
To whom do you belong?
I now realize this question wasn’t just for Harriet. It’s my question too.
Harriet Potts was the third of six children born to Margery Damewood Dyer and John L. Potts between 1866 and 1882. However, John Potts was married at that time to another woman; Margery was a Civil War widow living alone with her three children not far from his house. Their relationship was a scandal in the rural community where they lived then.
At sixteen years old, Harriet married a neighbor boy, John Simmons, who later became my great-grandfather. They lived on a farm owned by John’s father along Simmons Creek in Lost River Township of Martin County, Indiana. John subsequently died at the age of twenty-eight in 1897. Harriet was just twenty-five years old with five small children at the time.
In my journey to discover to whom I belong, I’ve learned more than I care to know about my great-great grandfather, John Potts. His abuse of Margery Dyer over a period of many years was deplorable. However, I believe there was another figure in this story who may have suffered even more than Margery. She was Rebecca Morgan Potts, the woman to whom John was legally married during the entire time of his involvement with Margery. Rebecca, to my knowledge, never gave an account of this distressing period of her life, and I’ve come to regard her as “a silent one.” Although she is not my blood relative, I’ve developed an admiration and affinity for her story. Now I’ve come to listen to it more closely.
Rebecca Morgan was born in 1830 in the same area of southern Indiana where she lived all of her life. She, like Margery Dyer, was illiterate and had little formal education as a child. I don’t know anything about her family or childhood years except that by age twenty (in 1850) she was living with the John Williams family in nearby Paoli, Indiana. Williams and his wife were somewhat prosperous farmers and it’s possible that Rebecca was their relative. I think it’s likely she worked for them and helped care for their six small children.
Rebecca then married John Potts in April 1855, just seven months after his first wife Sarah died. John and Sarah had three young children at the time, and I expect his marriage to Rebecca so soon after Sarah’s death had more to do with necessity than love.
By the mid-1860s, John Potts had befriended his neighbor, Margery Dyer, and they had established a sexual relationship. Rebecca’s apparent passivity about this is perplexing, and especially as John fathered six children by Margery over a number of years. One who knew Rebecca and John during this time was her cousin, David Morgan, and he later described the situation:
Rebecca Morgan was a cousin of mine. Mrs. Dyer and Potts lived for a long time within a half-mile of each other, and it was well known in the neighborhood that John Potts raised a family of children by Mrs. Dyer, although he continued to live with his wife Rebecca during that time.
Margery Dyer herself recalled the arrangement this way:
Potts just lived in the same neighborhood…He lived with his wife Rebecca all the time I was having children by him, and he and his wife had no trouble about this. She treated my children by Potts just as well as if they had been their own, and I visited her house often, and she and Potts both visited my house frequently.
Margery then spoke about the darker aspects of her relationship with John Potts:
He was a terrible man to drink and was hard to manage when he was drinking. Often he would stop at my house on his way home when drinking and I would send for his wife and she would come to my house after him. I continued my relations with Mr. Potts from the beginning prior to the birth of my first child off and on up to his death.
He persuaded me [to have sex] in the first place but afterwards he would threaten all kind of things if I wouldn’t yield to him. He said if I didn’t give these children his name, he would take them from me.
Once their relationship moved beyond its initial consensual stage, it appears to me that Potts’ actions towards Margery became a clear case of rape and abuse. Although others in the community knew of the situation, no one intervened. Margery was left only with Rebecca to call upon for support when fending off John’s drunken abuses. When asked later why she didn’t break off with him at some point after their relationship became abusive, Margery simply said, “I wasn’t stout for a long time.” Sadly, as sometimes happens in cases of verbal or physical abuse, Margery saw this situation as having resulted from her shortcoming.
How Rebecca coped with–and perhaps rationalized–her husband’s longterm involvement with Margery Dyer is not easy to understand. How did Rebecca persevere through the shame caused by her husband’s actions, to say nothing of possible verbal and physical abuses to which she herself might have been subjected during that time? Only she could have explained how she navigated the situation. I do, however, have a few thoughts.
Some have reasoned that Rebecca, as a poor, illiterate country girl, probably felt she needed to marry John Potts as a means of support. She may also have seen her role in marriage as a caregiver to her husband and his children, however they came to be. This would have been consistent with the patriarchal culture that existed in rural southern Indiana in the mid-1800s. That area was also heavily influenced then by religious fundamentalism, which also fostered a decidedly male-centric view of marriage.
Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, bore him no children. She had an Egyptian handmaiden whose name was Hagar, and Sarai said to Abram, “You see that the Lord has prevented me from bearing children; go in to my handmaiden so that it may be that I shall obtain children by her.” And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai. —Genesis 16
It’s possible, I suppose, that Potts (who was literate) might have even referenced accounts of the Old Testament patriarchs to support his having children by Margery. If Rebecca was unable to have children (she and John had none during their thirteen years of marriage prior to his involvement with Margery), he may have used such biblical texts to shame her and justify his actions. If so, it compounds the depravity of it all.
We’ll never fully know the explanation for this sordid ordeal; maybe that’s just as well. John Potts became terminally ill in the early 1880s, and Margery along with her children often came to his house to be with Rebecca and help care for him. After he died (in 1883) only Rebecca attended his funeral. What, if any, contact continued between Rebecca and Margery after John’s death is not known.
Sometime in the late 1890s, Rebecca died; she was in her late 60s. She was buried beside her husband at Hickory Grove Cemetery in Dubois County.
It was a pleasant October morning as I turned off the county road onto a short lane leading back to Hickory Grove Cemetery. I’d been there several times before, and I always looked forward to seeing the shagbark hickory trees that stand near its entrance and from which the cemetery gets its name. The fall foliage was at peak color, and a maple tree along one side of the cemetery seemed to be absolutely glowing. I smiled and thought to myself, “This is a good sign.”
Part of my reason for coming to Hickory Grove on this occasion was to locate Rebecca Morgan Potts’ grave site. I assumed that would be easily done because I had already been to John Potts’ grave a year earlier, and had been informed by a relative that “Rebecca is buried right there with John.”
After entering the cemetery, I initially went to the monument of my great-grandfather John Simmons, the husband of Harriet Potts. In the 1990s, when I initially sought to know more about my Simmons ancestry, no one knew where John Simmons’ grave was located. Some speculated that since he died young, his family was too poor then to buy a headstone. They proposed that maybe he had been buried in an unmarked grave with his kinsfolk at the Simmons family cemetery on their farm in Lost River Township. It bothered me then to think that my great-grandfather was laid to rest in a place where there was nothing left to acknowledge his existence.
Then I received a letter in 1995 from my father’s cousin, Howard Sherfick. I’d met Howard five years before at a family funeral. I learned then that he was a genealogist and knew Martin County well. We began to share times together whenever I visited Martin County, and he introduced me to many of the landmarks of importance to our family’s history there. Although he himself was not related to the Simmons branch of my family, he still took an interest in trying to help me locate my great-grandfather John Simmons’ grave site.
Howard’s letter read:
I have found your great-grandfather Simmons. It is known he married a Potts from the Simmons Creek area. If she didn’t bury him in the Simmons Cemetery, she must have buried him where her own people were…the logical place to look was the cemetery at Hickory Grove. I visited that site last Friday and sure enough, there was his stone. It is tall (about 4 feet) with a slant top. One one side: John W. Simmons Apr 14, 1869 – Sept 18, 1897.
I learned from Howard’s letter that John Simmons had been, in fact, likely buried in a grave with no headstone, at least initially. However, a monument was erected for him ten years later after his eldest son, John, also died and was buried alongside him.
It was gratifying to now know the location of John Simmons’ grave, and it became a sacred place for me. I went there as often as I could whenever I was back in Martin County. So it was reasonable on this visit that I should initially go to his gravesite upon entering the cemetery. Yet I also knew I had come to Hickory Grove this particular day for another reason. After a few moments by John Simmons’ monument, I turned and walked slowly towards where I knew John Potts’ headstone was located nearby. After all I’d learned about him since my last visit to Hickory Grove, I wasn’t looking forward to seeing his headstone again. However, the anticipation of finding Rebecca’s grave carried me forward. I could now see John Potts’ headstone a short distance away, but I didn’t see any other markers nearby. It’s true that old grave stones are sometimes destroyed or taken from historic cemeteries, and it did cross my mind that perhaps Rebecca’s marker had been removed at some point.
There’s a principle I learned during my career as an educator that returns to me often: We see what we know. As I walked towards John Potts’ headstone, I knew what Rebecca’s stone should look like, although I saw nothing like what I expected to find. My prior knowledge blinded me to the truth.
Then I saw with new eyes. Two feet to the side of John Pott’s headstone was another small, rough stone buried in the soil. Still clinging to my prior notions, I thought for a moment it might be the broken base of a headstone–maybe Rebecca’s. However, as I inspected it more closely, I realized that this was no ordinary cemetery monument. It was simply a chunk of native rock from the area that appeared to have been placed there to designate someone’s grave. It was about ten inches wide and a bit thicker at one end than the other. It was roughly hewn to create edges and sides and to give it a semblance of a gravestone appearance. It had no inscription and did not appear to have ever had one. Instead lichens grew on the stone’s smooth surfaces indicating that it had been in this place for a long time.
The reality of what I had just discovered slowly settled in—a rock…set into the soil…and that was all. My emotions were mixed. There was gratitude, I suppose, at finding at least a marker. Deep inside of me I knew this was Rebecca’s grave site, but I also understood that without an inscribed marker, I could probably never prove it. I also felt a deep sadness–again–for Rebecca. She had lived a hard life under a cloud of shame. And when the day came for her death and burial, it now appeared to me that she hadn’t even been given the dignity of a headstone like her husband’s. I was later told by a relative in Martin County that such rock markers were sometimes used by very poor people to mark the graves of their children, although even for such folks it was much less common for adults.
I took some photographs of the stone from various angles, and as I did so I began to appreciate its subtle beauty. My mood lightened as I thought of the possible circumstances by which Rebecca’s gravestone came to be there. I imagined someone who cared about Rebecca walking through a nearby creek bed looking for just the right rock to mark her grave. She knew that it must be simple because that was Rebecca’s way. Maybe the colors of this particular stone caught her fancy while it lay beneath the water in the creek. She took the rock home with her and someone later hewed it into its present shape and set it into the soil at the grave site.
I thought of Rebecca’s funeral and burial service. I know there was one because her cousin, David, later recalled having attended it. I envisioned some of Margery’s and John’s children being at that service. After all, Rebecca treated those children well according to Margery. Most were now grown with children of their own, and maybe one of them offered some kind words about Rebecca at the service–words that she never would have heard spoken while she was living.
In my imagination, the one who selected and prepared Rebecca’s gravestone was my great-grandmother Harriet. She was, after all, the eldest of Margery’s and John’s children who still lived in the area at the time of Rebecca’s funeral. Born in 1872, Harriet also had known well Rebecca’s influence during her childhood. She had just lost her husband, John Simmons, the year before Rebecca died. Times were hard and she could not afford a grave marker then. So I expect she selected a rock from that same creek bed and used it to mark his grave. She, of course, intended it to be only a temporary marker; someday she would have the means to put in a better one (and she did). I also expect Harriet thought that Rebecca’s rock marker would be a temporary one too; that was not to be.
Finally, in my imagining, Margery was at the service too along with Harriet. In one especially quiet moment during the ceremony, Margery reached back into her memory and thought of that moment she and Rebecca shared as John Potts took his last breath. A sudden hollow feeling moved into her; tears formed in her eyes, but could not flow. She remembered Rebecca’s sobs as they held each other in the minutes that followed his death. Both women were silent–no words. They knew their tribulation had passed.
Steve Robert Simmons wrote this personal essay in 2012. All rights reserved.
Grateful appreciation is expressed to Debi Potts D’Andrea and Ellen Hoff. Without their assistance and encouragement, this essay would never have been possible. Thank you, my special cousins.