By J. L. Starkey
Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.– James 2:14 (NIV)
Thoughts and prayers…oh, how tired I am of those words. Thoughts and prayers are everywhere, and they’re generally followed by [checks notes] more thoughts and prayers. The words frustrate me, since I’m not one to wait around and hope. Instead, I want to act…and help.
It’s a trait that extends back several generations in my family. It seems that my third-great-grandfather wasn’t the type to wait around and hope, either. Instead, on a cold winter night in 1870, he helped…and it cost him his life.
His story was shocking, tragic, and unexpected.
And had it not been for a single spelling alteration, I might not have found him at all.
A Clue from Mabel
It’s always bothered me that I can’t find death records for my third-great-grandparents. Everyone deserves to be remembered, but history seems to have forgotten Katherine A. Catlin-Hardin-Williamson-Watkins (You can learn more about her by clicking here.) And if history forgot about Kate, it pretty much erased her husband from existence.
But that changed last month.
On a beautiful mid-April day, I was going to find the rest of Kate’s story. I could feel it – this was the day! As I researched John and Kate’s granddaughter (my great-grandmother), Mable Fisher Rowe, I thought of that week’s How do you spell that? 52 Ancestors prompt. Amy Johnson Crow reminded researchers not to “get hung up on a spelling” of a name, and with that in mind, I searched for Mabel, instead of Mable.
“Well, I did get more hits, so that’s a win,” I mused as I reviewed the results. “And this article is actually about her mother, so – ”
Suddenly, my jaw dropped.
I was a week late and an idea short for the Spelling prompt, but suddenly, I had a topic.
Answers from Esther
The December 14, 1939, Arkansas City Daily Traveler included a feature about my great-great-grandparents (Justus and Esther Williamson Fisher) that listed each of their children – including Mabel Rowe . While the story contained enough information to write an article (or five) about Justus, it was a paragraph about Esther’s father that caught my eye.
From the start, he was something of a mystery. Even grandma, with all of her stories, knew nothing about him except that his surname began with W and was “Scottish, I am sure.” Over time, I discovered John B. Williamson’s full name (including that crucial middle initial!), his occupation, and so much more. What I didn’t find was how his life ended, and why he died so very young.
Records show that John B. was a Gallatin County, Illinois, farmer born around 1829 . On November 11, 1860, he married Catherine (“Kate”) Catlin, a teenage widow with a two-year-old daughter . Over the next decade, John and Kate had at least four children, and John bought and sold several tracts of land in New Haven, usually with the help of his father-in-law, Horace Catlin .
Maps show that the Williamsons lived uncomfortably close to the confluence of the Little Wabash and Wabash Rivers, which made me wonder if there was a reason for all of those land deals. Did John B. want to move his family to higher (and safer) ground?
He may have wanted just that, but he never got the chance to make good on his plan. John B. Williamson died before February 28, 1870, leaving behind a wife and five young children, but no last will and testament. Kate’s step-uncle was appointed to handle John B.’s estate, while her father was named guardian of the children . As the estate settlement dragged on, several individuals filed claims for payment, including Samuel Dagley, E. P. Stone, Robert Hargrave, A. B. Gilpin, and James Melvin .
John B. died during an unusually rainy winter in downstate Illinois, when a series of January storms caused “the most extraordinary rise on record” of the Ohio River. By January 18, the river had risen approximately eighteen feet in just 24 hours, and “friends on the Wabash” were told to prepare for “a great flood” .
New Haveners knew the dangers of living in “a land of floods and levees,” but local and state leaders thought the risks were under control. History books describe numerous mid-1800s floods, each followed by a series of levee modifications. Finally, by the late 1860s, the manmade barriers were deemed “…sufficiently high and strong…to keep out the water for all future time ”
But no plan was perfect, and by the end of January, although the water was receding, parts of Gallatin county presented a “Venetian appearance,” with residents traveling via skiffs they jokingly called gondolas . By mid-February, those makeshift gondolas remained the sole form of transportation in some areas that were still under ten feet of water .
It’s odd that those same history books and newspapers make no mention of a catastrophic flood in 1870. Apparently, life returned to normal relatively quickly, which begged the question: Were the dire predictions exaggerated, or were the residents warned in time to take action?
As I looked again at that 1939 feature story, I realized that I knew the answer to that question.
“When the Flood Calls”
The situation was grim and worsening by the hour. The storms that started last week seemed unending, and now, there was talk of a levee breach.
On a cold winter afternoon, John B. thought about what was at stake. He had read the papers and knew the risks. He realized that a flood wouldn’t affect his family all that much…of course he knew that. They’d sold the farm in ’66, and for a tidy profit! Truth be told, it felt good to be rid of the constant worries about the levees and the rivers. This time, his losses – if any – would be small. Plus, they were safe on higher ground…for now, anyway. Everyone (and everything) he held dear was taken care of, and his life was pretty darn good, despite the rain and floods.
So why was he going? Why not just stay home, safe and sound, and pray for everyone else?
His mind made up, John B. kissed Kate, hugged each of the children, and took a few extra moments to cuddle three-month-old baby Charles. As he left the house, he looked back once more at his family, and then he walked to the barn and saddled his horse.
He hoped it wasn’t too late to warn the others, and he hoped that their losses were few. But most of all, he hoped that he would make it home safely.
Lives were saved on that cold winter night. So many lives were saved, and in her profound grief, Kate was thankful for that. Her beloved husband helped to save so many lives…
…except for his own.
Would Did John Williamson Do?
The probate records looked different now. No longer just words on a page, they told the rest of John B.’s story in heartbreaking detail. Each name and amount was another page in the final chapter of a life that ended far too soon.
There were the merchants, of course. Samuel Dagley and Eberly Payton Stone both filed claims against John B.’s estate, as did grocer Robert Hargrave. Next was A. B. Gilpin, better known locally as Doctor Augustus B. Gilpin, who tried to save John B.’s life on that cold winter night.
Finally, there was James Melvin, the local undertaker, who picked up where 1870s medical expertise left off, and saw to it that John B. had a proper funeral and burial.
Decades later, an Arkansas City reporter would tell the story, perhaps hoping to honor the selfless actions of a man seemingly forgotten by history:
“When [Esther] was…eight years of age, the levee that protected the surrounding country from the Wabash River broke. Her father went on horseback to warn families of the danger. When the water became too deep for horses he joined the rescue parties in boats, working in the icy water until about 9:30 at night. He became so chilled from the exposure that he died with a congestive chill before midnight.”– The Arkansas City Daily Traveler, 14 December 1939
As I gathered my thoughts on that beautiful April day, I recalled a long-ago conversation with my grandmother. She was telling us about the death of her younger brother, Justus, and she was quite insistent that he had died in a flood in the 1920s. Years later, I would research the life of Justus Willard Rowe and learn that he drowned in a tragic boating accident, not in a flood. (You can learn more about Justus by clicking here.)
“She knew,” I said to my husband. “Grandma knew about John B. Williamson. Her grandmother probably talked about him, and she mixed things up all those years later. She had to have known.”
Suddenly, I realized that John B. was never forgotten. Grandma may have mixed up the details, but she remembered him, in her own way. And thanks to an extremely perceptive reporter, John B. wasn’t lost to history, either. He was always there, waiting to be found.
Last month, the wait was finally over, and today, I am humbled to tell his story at last.
May John B. Williamson never be lost again.
- “Fisher Family Early Kansans,” Arkansas City Daily Traveler, Arkansas City, Kansas, 14 Dec 1939, p. 12, col. 1. Retrieved 21 Apr 2022 from Arkansas City Public Library (http://arkansascity.advantage-preservation.com/viewer/?k=%22mabel%20rowe%22&i=f&d=01011876-12312013&m=between&ord=k1&fn=arkansas_city_daily_traveler_usa_kansas_arkansas_city_19391214_english_12&df=1&dt=10).
- J. B. Williamson, U.S. Civil War Draft Registration, Illinois, 13th Congressional District, Class No. 1, National Archives and Records Administration (NARA); Washington, D.C.; Consolidated Lists of Civil War Draft Registration Records (Provost Marshal General’s Bureau; Consolidated Enrollment Lists, 1863-1865); Record Group: 110, digital image 335 of 384, line 7. Retrieved 20 Apr 2022 from https://catalog.archives.gov/id/109431800#.YotWETZCLTc.link. [See also: John Williamson, U.S., Selected Federal Census Non-Population Schedules, 1850-1880, Illinois > Agriculture > 1850 > Gallatin Roll M432_132, Page 364A, Digital Image 14 of 16, Line 6. Retrieved 10 Mar 2019 from Ancestry.]
- Marriage license index listing for Williamson and Hardin, “Illinois, County Marriages, 1810-1940,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3Q9M-C9BG-H9ZF-5?cc=1803970 : 28 Nov 2018)>image 1 of 1; county offices, Illinois. Marriage Index to Vol. A, 1859-1867, digital image 72 of 357.
- “Gallatin, Illinois, United States Records,” images, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3Q9M-C3QT-D98F-Y: May 1, 2022), image 152 of 786; Gallatin County (Illinois). Recorder. [See also: Gallatin County Deed Records, Vol. X, 1863-1866, pp. 395-396 (digital images 597-598 of 694). Retrieved 20 Apr 2022 from FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3Q9M-C3QY-H93M-Q?i=596&cat=232450).]
- Lloyd, H. H., Atlas of Illinois, Counties of Saline, Gallatin, Hardin, Pope & Massac. Chicago: Warner & Beers, 1872. Image credit: David Rumsey Map Collection, David Rumsey Map Center, Stanford Libraries. Retrieved 20 Apr 2022 from https://www.davidrumsey.com/luna/servlet/detail/RUMSEY~8~1~221720~5505569.
- “Gallatin, Illinois, United States Records,” images, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:939J-K85P-9: 12 Mar 2019), image 569 of 688; Illinois. County Court (Gallatin County). [See also: “Illinois Probate Records, 1819-1988,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:939J-K85D-5?cc=1834344&wc=SFKG-SPD%3A162587801%2C162644701: 12 Mar 2019), Gallatin > Probate records 1869-1871, Vol. C > image 154 of 186; county courthouses, Illinois.]
- County Court Records for John B. Williamson, “Gallatin, Illinois, United States Records,” images, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:939J-K85H-B: Mar 13 2019), images 607-608 of 688; Illinois. County Court (Gallatin County).
- “A Great Flood Coming,” The Evansville Journal, Evansville, Indiana, 18 Jan 1870, image 4, col. 3. Retrieved 3 May 2022 from Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn82014296/1870-01-18/ed-1/seq-4/>. [See also: “The High Water,” Cairo Evening Bulletin, Cairo, Illinois, 24 Jan 1870, p. 4, col. 2. Retrieved 3 May 2022 from Genealogy Bank; “Fearful Tornado—Great Destruction of Life and Property” The Holt County Sentinel, Oregon, Missouri, 21 Jan 1870, p. 2, col. 2-3. Retrieved 1 May 2022 from newspapers.com.; and “Storm and Flood,” The Cincinnati Daily Enquirer, Cincinnati, Ohio,18 Jan 1870, p. 1, cols. 1-3. Retrieved 3 May 2022 from newspapers.com.]
- Smith, George Washington. “Gallatin County.” A History of Southern Illinois: A Narrative Account of Its Historical Progress, Its People, and Its Principal Interests, vol. 1, Lewis Publishing Company, Chicago, IL, 1912, pp. 469–474. Retrieved 20 May 2022 from Google Books. [See also: “The Floods.” History of Gallatin, Saline, Hamilton, Franklin and Williamson Counties, Illinois, from the Earliest Time to the Present, Goodspeed Pub. Co., Chicago, IL, 1887, pp. 103–105. Retrieved 4 May 2022 from Allen County Public Library via Internet Archive.]
- Chastain, Jimmie. History of New Haven, Illinois, Carmi Democrat-Tribune Publishing Company, Carmi, IL, 1943.
- “Brief Locals,” The Cairo Bulletin, Cairo, Illinois, 31 Jan 1870, p. 3, col. 2. Retrieved 3 May 2022 from newspapers.com.
- “Under Water,” Nashville Journal, Nashville, Illinois, 10 Feb 1870, p. 3, col. 2. Retrieved 3 May 2022 from newspapers.com.
- Lee, Russell, photographer. The first bank in Illinois territory. Note how the levee has been bowed out to protect the building. During the flood, the waters excavated some of the levee on each side of the bow, weakening it considerably. Apr. Photograph. Retrieved 26 May 2022 from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/2017763832/>.