When I concluded my career at the university and began applying myself to creative nonfiction writing, I decided to begin using my middle name–Robert–in my work. I didn’t understand its significance for me then, and maybe I still don’t, but some time later a friend, Kathleen Odonovan, remarked:
I think that, through your writing, you are getting to know the Robert in your name. Robert wants to be heard. Robert is stepping forward.
This was a profound thought for me at the time. Now I regard it as prophetic.
The name Robert was given to me because it was my father’s first name. His middle name, Lee, had been given to him because it was his father’s first name. So I suppose that using Robert as my middle name was my parents’ way of simply continuing a Simmons family tradition. In the past couple of years, I’ve found myself thinking more and more about my father’s family. Perhaps this growing interest is a subliminal quest “to know the Robert” in me.
A year and a half ago, I wrote a short poem about my paternal great-grandmother Harriet Potts Simmons. That poem came to me as a result of receiving a photograph of Harriet that was the only picture I’ve ever seen of her. In the poem, I considered the meanings of various objects in the picture–a log building, an open book in Harriet’s lap, and her polka-dot dress.
I used the poem to begin an essay titled Poem For Harriet, which contains three Epilogues describing various aspects of my understanding of Harriet’s–and my own–origins. Significantly, this essay introduces Harriet’s mother, Margery Damewood Dyer, my great-great grandmother. The essay concludes with an account of my recent discovery of Margery’s gravesite in a small cemetery in Dubois County near where she had lived her entire life.
This current essay elaborates on Margery’s difficult and conflicted life. It is possible to write now because of information recently discovered by two third cousins with whom I have only recently become acquainted and who also trace their lineage to the principals in this story. To Ellen Harris Hoff and Debi Potts D’Andre I offer heartfelt gratitude for opening these documents to me and adding so much meaning and insight into Margery’s story. Thank you.
Last night I dreamt you very near
Though the night was dark beyond the glass…
I knew you’d left before I woke
But you’d fogged the window when you passed…
And what I heard there in the dark,
Are the secrets I will never tell…
–Carrie Newcomer from There is a Tree
What is the meaning behind your name? This is a question I might ask when I’m interested in knowing someone more deeply. It can lead immediately into sharing our personal stories and provide a basis for exploring our respective identities.
My first name, Steve, was given to me because of my mother’s Uncle Steve Enos. When my mother was choosing my name, she thought of him. Steve Enos and I are two of only three men in our family to have ever borne the name. Similarly, my father and I are the only ones in the Simmons family who have been given the name Robert. Until recently I’ve seldom used it, but now I increasingly regard Robert as an important symbol of my connection to my paternal lineage.
Associated with my growing interest in the origins and significance of my name is an emerging awareness of the meanings behind my signature–and the signatures of others in my family. Once again, my friend Kathleen has recently given me a helpful perspective. She asked me to sign my name with my dominant right hand–and then she had me write it again with my left hand. The large amount of effort and concentration needed to make my signature with my left hand startled me–as did the poor results. That signature looked as if a child had written it, which is significant because the last time I wrote my name to any extent with my left hand was during grade school. I had broken my right arm then, and for a period of six weeks I did all of my writing left-handed. It never came easily for me then either, so in a sense Kathleen’s exercise took me back into that earlier time–and identity.
There is also a genetic influence in many people’s signatures. This was brought home to me when I recently discovered a copy of my grandfather Lee Simmons’ signature on his 1917 draft registration for World War I. It is the only sample of his signature that I’ve ever seen. When I first encountered it, I was stunned. I thought: “My Dad could have written that!” I’ve since found my father’s signature on his own draft registration from 1940, and it is very similar in appearance to his father’s. Lee Simmons died when my father was just six years old, so he had only limited personal influence on his son’s penmanship–yet the influence of his genes is another matter.
This interest in the meanings behind names and signatures has led me to conclude that such information can be quite insightful. A case in point is the signature of my great-great grandmother, Margery Damewood Dyer (who was Lee Simmons’ grandmother). I’ve only seen a few samples of her signature and the reason is simple. Margery was illiterate and could not write her name. Instead she placed an ‘X’ denoted as “Her Mark.” I discovered this while reviewing some archival documents from the period following her husband’s death during the Civil War. How ironic–and improbable–that written words of an illiterate woman who lived so long ago could have survived to come to me at this time.
Margery Jane Damewood was born in Indiana on November 26, 1835. She married John Dyer in Dubois County in 1853, and they had three sons before John enlisted as a Union soldier in the Civil War. He died of pneumonia in April 1864 while his unit was garrisoned near Lexington, Kentucky; Margery was just 28 years old then. She applied for and was granted a soldier widow’s pension initially amounting to $8 per month. This was her principal source of income over the next thirty years.
Margery’s pension files, recently discovered in the National Archive, reveal a conflicted and difficult life after her husband’s death. In her own words, recorded by a scribe in 1903, Margery begins her story in a matter-of-fact way:
I have not remarried since the death of John Dyer.
Then her story takes a turn and skeletons begin to emerge from the closet:
I know I haven’t always lived just right but that was long ago…I have had six children since the soldier’s death, and they were all by the same man–John Potts. These children were: Eliza, Melvina, Harriet Elizabeth, Jesse Carmi, Charles and George. They all went by the name of Potts. I always lived alone with my children. I never lived with any man or his wife. Potts just lived in the same neighborhood of Dubois County, Indiana.
And the bazaar aspects of her story are revealed:
Potts 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.
Then the darkness comes to light:
He [Potts] 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 [in 1884].
Grandmothers and grandfathers and…
They poke at me and tug my sleeve.
Listen to us, our voices are real.
These things did happen.
Tell our stories, learn from our lives.
Keep our words with you…
–adapted from a poem by Pauline Brunette Danforth
I don’t know why my grandmothers, Harriet Potts Simmons and Margery Damewood Dyer, have so captured my interest. It started with a lone photograph of Harriet given to me by a relative two or three years ago. The questions raised by that picture led to my writing the Poem for Harriet, which posed a compelling question for me: “To whom do you belong?”
I now can see that this question was an acknowledgement at the time of the many uncertainties, mysteries and conflictions that define the Simmons branch of my family. As Margery’s story began to emerge, again energized by a single photograph of her given to me by a relative, I sensed that she had something to say even though I hardly knew about her then. But when her pension file was discovered, the door was opened and her “voice” came forth–and I listened.
As my knowledge of Margery’s (and Harriet’s) lives during the 1870s and early 1880s increased, I developed an empathy and fondness for them. Living as an illiterate widow under primitive conditions in rural Dubois and Martin Counties was a challenge then under the best of circumstances. However, these were not the best of times for either of them. I’m convinced that Margery’s account of her life during that period is accurate, and I can’t imagine what it was like for her and the children to live in such a fearful time and place. Margery again speaks:
Potts persuaded me in the first place, but afterwards he would threaten all kinds 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…I was actually afraid of Potts after the first time I yielded to him, and [subsequently] yielded through fear. He would come to my house when he was drinking and through fear I would yield to him, not having sense enough to know how to break off with him.
Harriet was born in 1872, so she would have been a young child when all of this was occurring. One of the most disturbing aspects of Margery’s account is that she needed to send for John Pott’s wife, Rebecca, to take him home whenever he showed up very drunk at her house. The ones who most likely did this dreadful errand were the children. It had to have been traumatic for Harriet and her siblings to live alone with their mother under these circumstances.
Why no one in Margery’s family or in the community intervened on her behalf is hard to understand. However, comments offered later by some of Margery’s neighbors provide insight into this:
I have known Margery Dyer since before she was married. We were raised not far apart. I knew her husband John Dyer who died while in the army…I judge that it [the relationship between Potts and Margery] began in about 1865, and continued up to his death. I was at John Pott’s house during his last sickness, although I can’t say I saw Margery there, but I understand she was there during his last sickness and helped wait on him. I have no interest in this matter whatsoever.
And from another neighbor:
I’ve known Margery since she was a girl. I also knew her husband. They lived together in this country before he went into the army and she has continued living in that neighborhood. I knew John Potts who also lived in that neighborhood. His wife Rebecca was a cousin of mine. Margery 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 Margery, although he continued to live with his wife Rebecca during that time. Several attempts were made to get an indictment against Potts and Margery, but they never succeeded. I think the reason of these failures was that they never could get anyone to testify that they had ever seen them “bedding” together. I am not interested in this matter.
These accounts by the people who actually knew Margery Dyer and John Potts, and about their relationship, suggest that it was a tragic but familiar case of neighbors and family doing nothing just because they weren’t interested or didn’t want to get involved.
Most troubling is my recognition that I exist today because of this distorted, disturbing relationship between my great-great grandmother and grandfather. I guess at some level I should be grateful for their relationship; I am here because of it. Yet, the truth is that my heart aches and grieves for the sad, fearful life that Margery lived for almost twenty years, as well as for the stigma borne by Harriet and her siblings around the circumstances of their births. I suppose that most of us have conflicted situations within our family histories, if we choose to look for them. Yet, I remind myself, there usually is a silver lining in every dark cloud.
Is it just and lawful for a widow to receive a pension who for over 30 years has lead an adulterous life and has given birth to 6 illegitimate children all of whom are a pest and a scandal to the neighborhood… –Perry Simmons (August 1903)
One man finally brought Margery’s relationship with John Potts to the attention of the authorities, although it was twenty years after Potts had died. It is also clear, however, that this person’s motivation was not to offer assistance to Margery. The man’s name was Perry Simmons. He was my great-great grandfather. I don’t understand why he wrote to the Pension Bureau to complain about Margery receiving a widow’s pension, but I have an idea.
Perry Simmons’ son, John, married Harriet Potts in 1888 when she was just sixteen years old and he was nineteen. They were farmers and may have worked some of the land owned by Perry Simmons in Lost River Township of Martin County. In 1890, Perry owned at least 410 acres (see map), which was a large farm in those times. In addition, Harriet’s mother Margery Dyer owned 40 acres of land bordering Perry Simmons’ property. I propose that John and Harriet, as newlyweds, lived in a house located on Margery’s tract. In addition to working her land, John also likely helped on his father’s farm too.
Harriet gave birth of her first child (named John) in 1889. Then came son Lee, born in 1890, who later became my grandfather. She and her husband had a daughter Vina in 1892 followed by another son Perry, who presumably was named for his grandfather. Throughout this time, there is little indication of problems between Harriet’s family and the Simmons family. But then Harriet’s husband John died, at age twenty-eight, in September of 1897. She was just twenty-five years old at that time with four small children and a fifth child on the way. Harriet chose to bury her husband in the Potts cemetery plot in Dubois County rather than in the nearby Simmons family cemetery located on the Perry Simmons farm. This suggests to me that there were issues brewing even then between Harriet (and perhaps Margery) and Perry Simmons. Considering the gender bias favoring males that existed in rural Indiana during that time, it’s possible that Perry Simmons had expected Margery’s 40 acres to eventually become part of the Simmons farm as a result of his son’s marriage to Harriet. That’s how it often worked then. However, Harriet and her mother may have had other ideas.
After his son John died, perhaps Perry concluded that Margery’s property would not likely end up within the Simmons farm through inheritance after all.
He may have then offered to buy Margery’s 40-acre tract, but maybe she refused to sell it to him. This snub, plus the fact that his son had been buried in the Potts family plot rather than with his own kin, may have been enough to prompt Perry to write his letter to the pension board commissioners. One final straw may have been that, in the words of a neighbor, Harriet had “absconded with a scallawag named John Jones” at about this same time. It’s clear from Perry’s disparaging comment about Margery’s children in his letter that he had little regard then for his daughter-in-law Harriet and her siblings.
You are informed that it is shown by evidence on file, adduced on special examination, that your conduct since the death of your husband, the soldier John Dyer, and since the passage of the act of Congress of August 7, 1882, has been in violation of the provisions of the said act, and you have thus forfeited your title to pension. –notice from the Bureau of Pensions to Margery Dyer (December 1903)
Perry Simmons’ letter prompted the Pension Bureau to initiate an on-site investigation by one of its special examiners. This person took testimony from Margery and three witnesses (two of whom were suggested by Perry in his letter). After taking the depositions, the special examiner issued his final report in November 1903. He wrote:
I found upon inquiry that this pensioner had in fact given birth to a number of illegitimate children since the soldier’s death, all of whom bore the name of one man, the reputed father…It being evident that the misconduct of the pensioner was of such a flagrant nature that she could not deny it, I decided that I would take testimony setting forth what is known to the entire community for miles around…
As for Margery, the report stated:
Although an illiterate old woman, she seems to have good common sense, and it at once occurred to her, without any suggestion from us, that she could not introduce any evidence that would help her case any. The facts are that she occupied the position of concubine to this man John L. Potts from about 1865 to his death in 1884, and gave birth to six children by him during that period. While it has not been shown that she actually had intercourse with this man after the birth of their last child, it is in evidence that the same outward relations between them continued up to his death, and for the purposes of this investigation, it seems a fair inference that their adulterous relations continued up to his death, as the same opportunity for such relations existed as before, when we know this illicit relation was going on
It’s significant to me that no mention was made by the examiner of John Potts’ alleged threats or coercion, which were central in Margery’s own testimony. In response to the examiner’s findings, Margery’s pension was terminated. A Pension Bureau notice dated February 1904 states:
I have the honor to report that the above-named pensioner [Margery Dyer] who was last paid at $12.00, to 4 Nov 1903 has been dropped because…she has forfeited her title to pension by open and notorious violation of the act of August 7, 1882.
At that time, Margery was 68 years old with no consistent source of income other than her pension. Thereafter she lived with her youngest son George in Dubois County for the rest of her life. It’s not clear to me what happened to the ownership of Margery’s 40-acre tract of land after she lost her pension.
As a result of learning about the disturbing relationships that existed between Margery and both of my great-great grandfathers, John Potts and Perry Simmons, I’ve experienced a number of conflicting emotions. Much of my family research and writing before now has focused on my maternal lineage. In these, I’ve written about such persons as my grandmother Christine Lebline, my great-great grandmother Margaret Wilson, and my namesake Stephen Enos whose lives could even be described as inspirational. However, within my paternal lineage, and especially the stories of Margery Dyer, Harriet Potts, John Potts and Perry Simmons, there is mostly sadness, despair, fear and betrayal. I expect that John Potts likely made his initial advances upon Margery when he assisted her in 1864 by serving as a character witness and advocate while she applied for the widow’s pension after her husband died. I believe she would have been especially vulnerable during this time. Furthermore, Perry Simmons’ decision to report Margery to the Pension Bureau twenty years after the fact seems self-serving and spiteful. I find the actions of both of these men disgusting, and especially as my direct ancestors.
The persons whom I respect most in this whole tragic saga are Margery and her children, and I find their perseverance and resilience under such adversity to be an inspiration. Yet not all is lost within the male ancestors of my paternal bloodline. There is one man who played a positive role in Margery’s life and from whom I can draw inspiration. His name is George Green and he was my great-grandfather. He also farmed in Lost River Township of Martin County, just a few miles from where Margery, Harriet, John Potts and Perry Simmons were living. His daughter Grace (my paternal grandmother) married Lee Simmons (Harriet’s son) in 1916. George knew Margery, of course, through this marriage of his daughter and her grandson. Although Lee died young (in 1924) and Grace subsequently remarried, George still joined a small group of citizens who intervened with the Pension Bureau in 1932 on Margery’s behalf.
In her 1903 deposition to the Pension Bureau’s special examiner, Margery had testified:
I have lived a correct life since his [Potts’] death, and have tried to raise my children as best as I could. I joined the church about fifteen years ago, and have led a correct life since then.
This part of her testimony fell on deaf ears with the examiner. Thirty years later, however, a group of eight of Margery’s neighbors and acquaintances familiar with her pension difficulties, including George Green, contacted Indiana Senator Arthur Robinson and asked him to submit a signed “statement of character” regarding Margery to the Director of Pensions in Washington, D.C. The statement read:
The signers noted that Margery was over 90 years old and had “lived a moral and clean life for more than 40 years.” They attributed the motives of Perry Simmons’ initial reporting of Margery to the Pension Bureau as “spite work” and implied that the termination of her pension was unnecessary. Although stopping short of asking the Bureau to reinstate Margery’s pension payments, the intent of the letter clearly was to inform the Bureau that an injustice had been committed in 1904, and that it needed to make things right for whatever time Margery had left in life.
Senator Robinson forwarded the statement from George Green and his associates, and in April of 1932 he received a brief reply from the Pension Bureau Director stating in part:
This claimant…was dropped from the pension rolls November 3, 1904, for the reason that she had forfeited her title to pension…by living in open and notorious adulterous cohabitation since the soldier’s death…Mrs. Dyer’s case was specially examined before the adverse action was taken, and in view of the evidence obtained, the widow has no pensionable status under existing law.
I began this essay by calling attention to the meanings of signatures and the apparent genetic influences among signatures within a family. I conclude by drawing attention to the symbolic importance of another signature–that of George Green on the letter of support offered by Margery’s neighbors and acquaintances.
In Pauline Brunette Danforth’s poem about the meaning of the “voices” in our ancestry, she maintains that it’s important to listen to their stories and to learn from their lives. I’ve learned from these grandmothers and grandfathers of mine within the Simmons lineage–from Margery, Harriet, John and Perry. Some of it is hard to know. But there also is the example of grandfather George Green whose attempt to reclaim Margery’s name and public dignity before she died is a silver lining to this dark cloud in my family’s history. Although the results were less than he and his colleagues might have hoped, I’m sure their support meant much to Margery in her waning years. She may not have been able to read their affirming statement, but she knew it existed–and now its words exist for me too.
I conclude that there is yet another silver lining to this dark cloud. It is represented by all of us “children” who are descended from Margery Dyer and John Potts. Most of us still don’t know one another, but we each bear a significant “imprint” of these two who came before us. And, in a sense, we all are part of the redemptive path that is their legacy.
Look for the silver lining
When e’er a cloud appears in the blue.
Remember somewhere the sun is shining…
—from Jerome Kern and B. G. DeSylva (1919)
Steve Robert Simmons wrote this personal essay in 2012. All rights reserved.