When genealogists think of the word “service,” the first thing that usually comes to mind is a list of ancestors who served in the military. In the US, that usually means in one or more of the series of colonial wars, the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Mexican War (1846-48), the Civil War (1861-65), the Spanish-American War (1898), the two World Wars, and then Vietnam and on into the wars in the Middle East over the past 30 years.
For this prompt, however, I’m going to talk about two women in my family tree whose support for their families while their husbands were at war is the very definition of service. I’ve taken these two biographical sketches from a book I wrote during Women’s History Month in 2018. In that book, I wrote about one of my female ancestors on each day of the month. In this paragraph from the introduction to this book, called Women Who Shaped Me, I explain why the word “service” applies to these women:
I was captivated by these women’s stories. Until I began to write the stories for this project, I had not tried to see these stories from the women’s points of view. The stories changed when I wrote them that way. Their fathers’ adventures became periods of fatherlessness. Their husbands’ decisions to pursue the promise of land (always to the west) were sometimes only brief episodes of disruption and relocation, but more often were part of a constant process of leaving behind everything that was familiar in search of something new and unknown. The military service that had defined the men’s lives turned into periods of time where the women raised their children alone and the children lived without their fathers. Their husbands’ deaths became traumatic events in the lives of entire families, resulting in relocation, remarriage, or poverty.
Elizabeth Wilson (1745 – )
My paternal 6th great-grandmother Elizabeth Wilson was the second of eight children born to Nathaniel and Martha Newhall Wilson, born in Leicester, Worcester County, Massachusetts, about 50 miles west of Boston. One of Elizabeth’s paternal 2nd great-grandfathers, Jacob Wilson, came to Massachusetts in 1641. Her paternal 3rd great-grandfather, Thomas Newhall, came to Massachusetts with the Winthrop Fleet in 1630.
Elizabeth married Parley Brown in Leicester in 1762 when Elizabeth was 17 years old and Parley was 25. Parley’s 3rd great-grandfather, William Brown, arrived in Salem in 1635. This family is a little hard to trace, because several generations of men named William married women named Mary, so things are a little confusing. Interestingly enough, Parley is also descended from the Thomas Newhall I mentioned in the paragraph above, so Parley and Elizabeth were 4th cousins. They had four sons, including my 5th great-grandfather Nathaniel Brown, who was their second child.
When Elizabeth and Parley married, they had little idea of what was to happen in their lives. They had four sons in quick succession – between 1765 and 1775 – and then revolutionary fervor overtook Massachusetts. Elizabeth’s father-in-law, John Brown Sr., had served as a captain during the French and Indian War in the 1750s, and had been present in 1758 at the surrender of Fort Louisbourg in Nova Scotia as part of the long-lasting struggle between Britain and France for control of North America.
In addition, John had been part of the committee from Leicester, Massachusetts that drafted instructions for the town’s representatives to the Provincial Congress in 1774. The Provincial Congress, which lasted from 1774 to 1780, was the de facto government of Massachusetts after British Governor Thomas Gage dissolved the provincial assembly as a result of the Boston Tea Party a year earlier, in 1773. This assembly was the first autonomous government in the 13 colonies. Its meeting site moved from place to place, because a number of its leaders (John Hancock and Samuel Adams among them) were being sought by British authorities, and would likely have been arrested if they were found. It was precisely this possibility that led people like Paul Revere to ride to warn that “the British were coming;” John Hancock and Samuel Adams were actually in Lexington, MA, on that storied April day in 1775, and they fled to avoid capture.
Elizabeth’s father-in-law, John Brown, Sr., served as one of a group of residents of Worcester County who instructed the Worcester representatives in the Provincial Congress to carry out the wishes of the people of Worcester. This position suggests that John Brown, Sr., was a well-respected elder statesman whose judgment and experience were valued at this tumultuous time in Massachusetts history.
In 1775, Elizabeth’s husband Parley answered the call to arms and participated in the Lexington Alarm. He was not alone; his three brothers (some were half-brothers), John, Benjamin, and William, also answered the call. Elizabeth stayed home, caring for her young family, as her husband and his brothers took off once again, this time to participate in the Battle of Bunker Hill two months later in June of 1775. Parley’s older brother John was wounded in this battle, and Parley, against John’s wishes, risked his life to save his brother. We find Parley and his brothers again at the Battle of White Plains in New York in 1776, but things don’t turn out so well. Parley was killed in this battle, at the age of 39, and his half-brother William (age 18) was captured and then died on a British prison ship in New York harbor.
Elizabeth must have been grief-stricken by the news of her husband’s death. But the anxiety of this family was far from over. In all, four of Parley’s brothers (2 of them were half-brothers) and three of Parley’s nephews served in combat in the Revolution. Elizabeth was living in the midst of a family that sent a total of 14 of its members to service.
All of these men except Parley and William survived the war, and Elizabeth lived to see her children grow and prosper. I don’t know when she died.
According to the town records of Leicester, Elizabeth remarried in 1780, to a man named Jeremiah Chase. This would have been a logical move for a 35-year-old widow with four children, two of whom were under the age of 10.
Vandia Orilla Brown (1825-1900)
NOTE: If you have been reading my weekly posts for this series, you may notice that I’ve written about Rilla before. My Week 9 post on “Females” contains much of this information about Rilla.
My paternal great-grandmother Vandia Orilla Brown (always called “Rilla”) was born in Fredonia, Licking County, Ohio in 1825, the third of eight children born to Harley and Anna Alden Brown. (She was Elizabeth Wilson’s 2nd great-granddaughter through Elizabeth and Parley’s son Nathaniel. Given how much Rilla’s family line had moved since leaving its Massachusetts roots – to Vermont and New York before settling in Ohio – I would be surprised if Rilla knew anything about Elizabeth.)
Rilla married Miles Arnold in Licking County in 1844, where they had five children in the space of 10 years. Three of these children died as babies – Oscar Eugene Arnold (1845-1847), Elizabeth Victory Arnold (1847-1847), and George Washington Arnold (1854-1855). In 1856 Rilla and Miles moved to McLean County, Illinois (between modern-day Bloomington and Champaign, in the east-central part of the state) with their two surviving children, Joseph and Rosa. In the same year, they had one more child – my great-grandfather Warner Lismond Arnold– before moving back to Ohio in 1858.
They had two more children – Nelson Franklin Arnold in 1858 and Miles Arnold, Jr. in 1861– in Ohio before Miles Sr. enlisted in the 76th Ohio Regiment in April of 1861 to serve in the Civil War. Miles served for three years, throughout the South. His regiment participated in the battles of Fort Donelson, Shiloh, Corinth, Vicksburg, and the Chattanooga Campaign at the end of 1863.
The soldiers in the Union armies were given a break over the next couple of months, and Miles must have gone home to visit his family, because Rilla would give birth to another child in August of 1864, after Miles returned to his army unit.
After Miles went back to the army in the spring of 1864, he participated in the Atlanta campaign. In the Battle of Atlanta, on July 22, 1864, he was shot three times on the battlefield and left for dead. On the day after the battle, when the armies went out to collect their dead, Miles was found to be still alive. He was taken to the base hospital and then sent home after he had recuperated enough to travel.
Rilla was waiting at home while all of this was going on. She was pregnant, with five children (three under the age of five) to care for. When Miles came home, it cannot have been easy for Rilla. To add to the difficulty, their son (Charles Miller Arnold, named after Miles’s commanding officer) was born in August of 1864. When Charles died just over a year later, in September of 1865, it must have seemed like an unfair compounding of tragedy.
The family continued its wandering ways, despite Miles’s injuries. In 1866 they went to Bloomington, Illinois (the same general area where they had lived for a couple of years in the 1850s), where Rilla had another child, Lucy Gilman Arnold, in 1866. They returned to Ohio in 1869, where Rilla gave birth to Emma Violette Arnold in 1870. In the 1870 census, Miles is described as an “invalid.” Apparently, parts of him worked just fine.
In 1871, they went once again to Illinois, this time to Ferris in Hancock County in the western part of the state (where Miles as a young man in 1843 had led a wagon trip for a local wagoneer). They didn’t stay long, however, as they soon moved on to Beloit, Kansas, where they lived for four years before returning to Ferris in 1875. Although I can’t prove it, Miles may have taken advantage of preferential treatment afforded to Union veterans of the Civil War under the amended Homestead Act; instead of having to wait five years to “prove up” their claim and gain ownership of land, veterans could offset this waiting period by the number of years they served. With Miles’s three years of service, they were able to assume ownership of their land after only two years. Once they owned the land, they sold it and returned to Illinois in 1875. They did not move again.
Miles never did fully recover from his wounds. The 1870 census identifies him as an “invalid,” and in the 1880 census he is identified as a carpenter, with the annotation in the “sick” column saying that he had two problems – he was “wounded in the arms and shoulder in the Army” and that he had “heart disease.”
Miles died on March 8, 1899. Although I have not been able to find his precise cause of death, his wounds and heart disease certainly played some role. He must have been a tough guy – despite everything, he lived to age 78. At the time of his death, Rilla and Miles were living in Hancock County, Illinois, with their six surviving children, all six of their children’s spouses, and 33 grandchildren. Rilla must have felt like they finally put down some roots.
Rilla died in Hancock County on July 8, 1900, 16 months after Miles’s death. They are buried in Moss Ridge Cemetery in Carthage, Hancock County, Illinois. The grave marker does not mention Rilla.
The service these women provided to their country was as consequential as that of their husbands. Both women were left at home with small children while their husbands went off to war. Elizabeth never saw her husband Parley again, and had to learn to cope with her grief and that of her sons as she raised them to adulthood. Rilla lived out her days with her husband Miles, although he never fully recovered from his wounds. His long life – he lived for 35 years after he was wounded in battle – is a testament to Rilla’s service.
Both women were surrounded by families that had also been impacted by the wars they experienced. Elizabeth saw 14 of her family members go off to war; Rilla saw Miles’s brother Adna serve in the same unit as Miles, and her two brothers registered for the draft in Ohio, although I haven’t been able to find details of their service. The women around them – mothers, aunts, sisters, and friends – helped them cope with the circumstances in which they all found themselves.
Elizabeth remarried and lived out her life in relative obscurity; she did not have children with her second husband, and her only heirs were through the line of her son Nathaniel – my 5th great-grandfather, who was living in Vermont by 1790 and in New York not long after that. I have no record of Elizabeth’s life after her 1780 marriage to Jeremiah Chase. Rilla accompanied Miles as they moved several times after the war – from Ohio to Illinois and then back to Ohio again, to Illinois again, and then to Kansas, finally settling in Illinois after 10 years on the move. She is remembered because she had lots of descendants to keep her memory alive.
Here’s what I wrote in the conclusion to my book:
The stories of the lives of the women in this book are not well known, except to the people who lived with them and loved them.
Their stories are not of heroism in battle or public service. There are no statues of them in town squares or books about them in university libraries. You won’t find most of them on the voting rolls or property registries. Traditional records document only the barest outlines of their existence. To tell their stories, I had to extrapolate from existing records and employ some historical imagination to talk about what their lives might have been like.
Their stories are the timeless stories of women over the centuries. Theirs are stories of quiet and unheralded service.