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Saturday, December 19, 2020

Rebecca

Rebecca Williams was a true pioneer. Her full name, Rebecca Tomlinson Martin Williams, tells much about her. She was born in 1754 in Cumberland, MD to Joseph and Rebecca Swearingen Tomlinson. She had six brothers and two sisters. Her brother Joseph II and his son Joseph III were early Wood County WV pioneers. Rebecca married John Martin, an Indian trader, in 1770. He was killed by Shawnee Indians that same year, leaving her a widow at age 16. She married Isaac Williams in 1775; they began the community at present-day Williamstown WV (then Virginia) in 1787.

In 1771,  the Tomlinson family moved to Grave Creek on the Ohio River at present-day Moundsville WV, then the southern-most settlement on the upper Ohio River. Rebecca lived with her brothers Samuel and Joseph II, serving as their housekeeper. She was alone for weeks at at time while her brothers were out on hunting trips or scouting for the army. 

Life west of the Appalachians was difficult. Conditions were primitive. Many new arrivals felt isolated from their friends and relatives that they left behind. There was the threat of Indian hostility, disease, and criminal activity. 

Two events in 1774 illustrate Rebecca Williams’ courage and resourcefulness - at age 20, described by historian Samuel P. Hildreth:

In the spring of the year 1774, she made a visit to a sister, Mrs. Baker, then living on the Ohio river opposite to the mouth of Yellow creek. It was soon after the massacre of Logan's relatives at Baker's station. Having finished her visit, she prepared to return home in a canoe, by herself, the traveling being entirely done by water. The distance from her sister's to Grave creek was about fifty miles. She left there in the afternoon, and paddled her light canoe rapidly along until dark. Knowing that the moon would rise at a certain hour, she landed, and fastening the slender craft to the willows she leaped on shore, and lying down in a thick clump of bushes, waited the rising of the moon. As soon as it had cleared the tops of the trees, and began to shed its cheerful rays over the dark bosom of the Ohio, she prepared to embark. The water being shallow near the shore, she had to wade a few paces before getting into the canoe; when just in the act of stepping on board, her naked foot rested on the dead, cold body of an Indian, who had been killed a short time before, and which, in the gloom of the night, she had not seen in landing. Without screaming or flinching, she stepped lightly into the canoe, with the reflection that she was thankful he was not alive. Resuming the paddle, she arrived at the mouth of Grave creek without any further adventure, early the following morning.



Diagram showing Rebecca’s canoe trip - an unlikely venture for a young woman traveling alone in 1774. From Williamstown WV History Facebook page


In the summer of 1774, the year before her marriage to Isaac Williams, she was kindling a fire one morning with her back to the door. She looked around, shocked to see a tall Indian close to her side. He made a motion of silence to her. She kept her cool and showed no sign of fear. He looked around the cabin, grabbed her brother’s rifle hanging over the fireplace, and left quickly. She then left the cabin and hid herself in the cornfield until her brother Samuel came in. Her calm response likely saved Rebecca and her brother from harm. 

Rebecca faced these two situations with composure and determination. These were traits were exhibited by many pioneer women, though their stories were often overshadowed by their male counterparts. 

She had some of these character traits in common with Isaac Williams whom she met during this time period at Grave Creek. They married in 1775.  Hildreth: “Their marriage was as unostentatious and simple as the manners and habits of the parties.” It was performed by an itinerant preacher.

Isaac Williams was a fascinating character. Born in Winchester, VA, he spent much of his early life in the upper Ohio valley. He was renowned for his frontier skills as a hunter, army scout, and Indian fighter. He served in the French and Indian War, Pontiac’s War, Lord Dunmore’s War, and the Revolutionary War. Isaac made money from trapping and from making land claims then selling them later at a profit. Isaac led a group that rescued a young girl who had been kidnapped by Indians near Neal’s Station on the Little Kanawha River. In 1790 he tracked unsuccessfully a band of  Shawnee Indians, including 16 year old Tecumseh, who had massacred several men driving cattle to Fort Harmar. He and Rebecca started the Williams Station* settlement at present day Williamstown WV. Isaac Williams never slowed down; in later years he operated the Ohio River ferry service and performed civic functions.

Rebecca had a role as a pioneer woman far beyond pure domestic chores. She kept the Tomlinson brothers household during their long absences. Likewise, after marriage to Isaac she managed their modest homesteads at Grave Creek and in western Pennsylvania when he was gone. She was active in the Williams Station community. It was situated on land that belonged to her. Rebecca’s brothers Joseph and Samuel Tomlinson had established land claims there in the early 1770’s. They reserved 400 acres in Rebecca’s name for her help in keeping house for them. That land ended up in Isaac’s name because of marriage laws at the time.

She managed activities there when Isaac was away - and probably helped when he was home. There was much to do. Williams Station became a busy place (it was often referred to as a plantation), with farming, twelve tenant families, slaves and their families, a barn, tavern, grist mill, blacksmith shop, and more. A Marietta resident in 1788 observed, perhaps with envy, that the Williams Community “raised 1,000 bushels of corn last season;.....they wintered without any hay, making use of the husks and stalks and some corn, between 60 and 70 meat cattle and horses; ....and a large number of swine.” Williams Station in the 1790’s was noted as a pleasant place to visit, offering “the most generous hospitality.”

          
Charles Sullivan painting - imagined view ca 1787 of cabins at Williams Station looking toward Fort Harmar in Ohio, Viewed at Chipstone.org

Pioneer women often served as nurse and physician out of necessity. Rebecca was well known for her medical skills. A local newspaper retrospective in 1884 noted that “Mrs. Williams was always kind to the sick and many were the herb teas and healing lotions which, like her namesake in the story of Ivanhoe, she gave to the sick pioneer and wounded hunter.” Samuel P. Hildreth, historian and medical doctor, talked to Rebecca about the treatments she used. He was impressed with her knowledge and skills and found some of her remedies useful. “Her principal dressings were made of slippery elm, leaves of stramonium (Jimson weed), and daily ablutions with warm water.”

One notable success occurred in 1784 near Wheeling when she and a Mrs. Zane treated Thomas Mills who had suffered multiple gunshot wounds, including a broken arm and leg. He was not expected to live, and if he did would surely have lost one or both limbs. Under their treatment and caring touch, he made a complete recovery, without loss of arm or leg.

Isaac and Rebecca Williams moved permanently to Williams Station in March, 1787. Joseph Buell, a soldier at Fort Harmar across the Ohio River, made note of their arrival in his journal on March 24, 1787: “Isaac Williams arrived with his family to settle on the opposite shore of the river. Several others have joined him, which makes our situation in the wilderness a little more agreeable.” Similarly, the residents at Williams Station were pleased to have more neighbors when the Marietta settlers arrived in April of 1788.

The Williams’ plentiful crop supply and charitable spirit prompted them to help the new Ohio settlers when a food shortage occurred in 1790. They made available their crops at a discounted price. One such episode stood out to me. The community at Belpre was facing starvation, in addition to disease and Indian threats. Belpre resident Charles Devol came up to Williamstown hoping to buy needed crops. He walked to Fort Harmar - at night to avoid Indian attacks - because the swift current in the Ohio River made canoe travel up river impossible. He was ferried across to Williams Station.

George M. Woodbridge recalled the event in his writings, stating that “Isaac gave Devol a warm welcome and Rebecca gave him a warm breakfast.” Devol was there all day. Isaac filled the Williams’ only canoe “to the gunwhales” with corn and directed Devol to set off for his home. Devol protested because he could not pay for that much corn and did not want to take their only canoe. Isaac told Devol, “return the money to the senders, this load of corn is the Lord’s; it is for the poor, the aged, the women, the children -  my command to you is to paddle out in the middle of the river....Good bye.” As Charles Devol pulled from shore, Williams shouted, “young man, have you a mother? Give her the love of Rebecca Williams.” Williams and Devol became good friends in later years.

Williams Station viewed from Ohio side with Fort Harmar in the foreground. Painting attributed to Sala Bosworth, viewed at americanheritage.com, “David McCullough ‘The Pioneers’”Image cropped by author. The original of this painting is at Marietta College.

Rebecca’s life changed when their daughter Drusilla was born on January 28, 1788. She was the first white child born in the area, perhaps named after her sister Drucilla Tomlinson Carpenter or her aunt Drusilla Swearingen Cresap. Rebecca focused on raising Drusilla and Mary Nancy Davis, an orphan niece. A family acquaintance recalled Drusilla as a “pretty daughter.” Drusilla married John Glassford Henderson (one of three Henderson brothers who moved to Wood County from Dumphries VA in the late 1700s.) They lived near or with the Williams family at Williams Station. Sadly, two (or three?) of their children died in infancy and Drusilla herself passed away in 1810 without children. Her death left a huge void in Isaac and Rebecca’s life. 

Ephraim Cutler claims that Hamilton Kerr, “tall and handsome and fleet of foot” as the deer he hunted, was actually the father of Drusilla. Kerr was a well known frontiersman and also a friend and hunting companion of Isaac Williams. Williams was reportedly enraged to find an infant in Rebecca’s arms after he returned from a year-long hunting absence. He swore he would disown the child. She grew up “amicable and surpassingly beautiful.” His vow was soon forgotten.

Rebecca Tomlinson Williams had a strong and occasionally eccentric personality, as indicated by some anecdotes:
  • She selected hers and Drusilla’s burial sites at an open area on a rise, not far from the Ohio River. “I want to be buried here where I’ll have plenty of room....I don’t want to be jostled at the resurrection.” The site was visible from the Williams’ cabin. But for Rebecca it became a depressing reminder of Drusilla’s loss. So, Rebecca and Isaac built a new home farther away from the grave.
  • Rebecca formed definite opinions about people she met. A 1884 newspaper article that featured an interview with a Nathan Ralston: “ ‘She was a fine woman’, he said, ‘to anybody she took a liking to, a fine woman, but if she didn't take a liking’ - an expressive grimace finished the sentence.”
  • She was a woman of faith. One of her books was  A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians,...Contrasted With Real Christianity, by William Wilberforce. It challenged Christians to live their faith actively, not just go through the motions. 
  • Rebecca left a note in the Wilberforce book:  “Steal not this book, for if you do, it will cause a great deal of woe,” followed by her signature. Without context of the situation, it is difficult to tell if this was humorous or serious.

Replica of Isaac and Rebecca’s cabin built by Williamstown Women’s Club at Tomlinson Park in 1938, since demolished. Viewed at Williamstown WV History Facebook page

Isaac and Rebecca were savvy about land ownership - partly of necessity. Every one of the land claims that both of them owned were contested by others over many years. This was common in western Virginia at the time. Land was often claimed by one person, then contested by others. The process to actually confirm a claim in court was convoluted and could take years to resolve. Isaac and Rebecca deeded some land in 1818 to Rebecca’s nieces and nephew. It was a prudent, though possibly unnecessary, step to give greater assurance of clear title to the land.

Isaac Williams died on September 25, 1820. Isaac’s will bequeathed part of his estate to Rebecca. The remainder was left to various relatives and friends, including a portion of the 400 acre land claim that originally belonged to Rebecca. Rebecca took an unheard of step for a married woman at that time: she contested the Will. That land belonged to her, and she wanted it back. The process took three years; on May 21, 1824, the Circuit Superior Court decided in her favor. The 400 acres was once again hers. Heirs who had received land had to deed it back to her. Moreover, she forced several families who lived on that land to leave.  The Parkersburg Women’s Club offered an insightful comment about the will contest  in their 1976 Bicentennial paper Pioneers and Early Incidents of Wood County Virginia, “(We admire Mrs. Williams courage at a time when women were mere chattels and applaud the forward-looking court...”).

Rebecca died in 1825 and was buried in the bucolic place she selected to as to “not be jostled in the resurrection.” Her life favorably impacted the lives of many. Williamstown was named for Isaac Williams, though one historian opined that “(Rebecca) is more deserving of the honor.”


*The early settlement had several local names: - Williams Station, Williamsport, and Williams Creek. Your author chose “Williams Station.” 


Sources:

Burke, Henry, “Slavery in the Ohio Valley,” Lest We Forget website: http://lestweforget.hamptonu.edu/page.cfm?uuid=9FEC4E18-D193-F6F4-6D644B7735915AF9

Fruitful Valley, a history of Williamstown WV

Hildreth, Samuel P. , Biographical and Historic Memoirs of the Early Pioneer Settlers of Ohio, Cincinnati, H W Darby, 1852 viewed at 

“History of Williamstown, Wood County WV and the Kinnaird Connection,”

“Living Soldiers of the War of 1812,” Marietta Semi-Weekly Register, May 3, 1884 Viewed at:

“Pioneers and Early Incidents of Wood County,” Parkersburg WV Woman’s Club Bicentennial Committee, 1976

Tomlinson, Joseph Jr, 1745-1825

Williamstown WV History Facebook page

Woodbridge, George, “Birth of the Northwest, Number 11”, The Tallow Light, Vol. 33 #4, p 200

Williams, Rebecca Tomlinson 1754-1825

2 comments:

  1. Wonderful and inspiring story of a pioneering woman. I marvel at the courage and determination of our valley:s early families. Well written!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Wonderful story. I so love learning about the history of Ohio. Keep 'em comin'.

    ReplyDelete