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Autobiography of Mary Ellen Jones Williams

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Autobiography of Mary Ellen Jones Williams

Kendra Cameron (View posts)
Posted: 979819200000
Classification: Biography
Surnames: Jones, Williams, Ward, Ferree
This autobiography was written by my great-great-grandmother, Mary Ellen Jones Williams (1849-1944) in 1934. Grandma Williams was born in Iowa and later emigrated to Nebraska. Grandma Williams' mother, Priscilla Ferre Jones was born in Mooresville, Morgan County in 1825, daughter of John Tyson and Priscilla Ward Ferree. I hope it is of use to someone in Morgan County.

Written October 1934-March 1, 1935
Omaha, Nebraska

My family has been asking me to write some recollections of my life and the times through which I have lived. I will try to do the best I can, although I expect it to be of interest only to my immediate family.

Birth and Ancestry

I was born the 22nd of April, 1849, near Pleasant Plain, Jefferson County, Iowa. My parents were Evan Jones and Priscilla Ferree Jones. My father came from Indiana to Iowa, I think in 1839 and entered land and then went back the next year and brought his bride with him. She was Martha Johnson. They had four children, Cynthia Ann, John M., Rebecca J., and Martha, who died in infancy. I have heard that Cynthia was the first white girl that was born in Jefferson County. My father's first wife died when her fourth child was born. The children were taken care of by relatives. My mother came out to Iowa from Indiana with an older sister and family, John Davis and Sally. She was single. They had several children. My father and mother were married in June 1848. My father had a nursery of apples, plums and pears. A great many of the orchards around Pleasant Plain were from his nursery. Two of his brothers, John (Jones) and David (Jones), and their families came out there soon after he did. They were older, and their children, some of them, grown. The Jones Family all belonged to the Society of Friends. Quakers, a great many called them. Pleasant Plain and vicinity was settled by the Friends. They had a strong church there. Almost my first recollection is going to meeting and sitting for an hour, and perhaps not a word being spoken. They believed in silent worship, and to speak as the Spirit moved them, and surely their lives spoke for them. They were foremost in good works, taking care of the needy and looking after the sick. They were for temperance and against war, and opposed to slavery, and were ready to lend a helping hand when needed. The women were preachers as well as the men. They sat on one side of the church and the men on the other, and there were partitions that they could let down during their monthly business meeting. The women had part in the business as well as the men. They had their clerks and secretaries and overseers and representatives just the same as men. They were the first that practiced Women's Rights.

School Days

I remember my first day of school. My sister Amanda was a little over a year younger than I, and we did not start to school until she was five. We knew our letters and could spell in three letters when we started. Mother went with us the first day. The teacher was a neighbor girl, Hepsibah Howard. Her father was a preacher in the Friends Church. When mother left us, we both cried, but the teacher talked to us, and we were soon all right. We all loved her and when I think of a good teacher, I think of her. But I believe I always loved my teachers and loved to go to school. We had a cousin, Kate Jones, that went to the same school and we soon got acquainted with the rest of the school. The school was a mile and a half from home and that was where we all got our schooling. The schoolhouse was a frame building, and not a tree or shrub around it, and furnished very meager compared with the buildings of today. It was known as the Heston school.

Childhood Memories

When I was five years old, my father passed away. He was sick only a few days. About all the doctors knew in those days was to bleed their patients. I can remember very little about my father. I was the oldest of four children, Amanda, Elam F. and Henderson Ferree. My youngest brother was just a baby when his father died. I do not remember when my Aunt Susy (Susannah Ferree) came to live with us. She was my mother's sister. After they got things settled up after my father's death, the older children's uncle, their mother's brother, John C. Johnson, came to see about things and he thought it best to take them home with him. He was well to do and could provide a good home for them with him. He had a good farm near Richland, six miles from where we lived. I can just remember them going away and how badly I felt, seeing them go. After that Mother had a tenant house built and the farm was rented out. I think it was the year after my Father died. We went to Indiana. The railroad had been built as near to us as Burlington, Iowa. That was fifty miles from where we lived. Mother had never seen a railroad, and some of the folks thought it was a great undertaking. Some friends of ours were going to drive to Burlington and then take a boat, so my mother and aunt and we four children went in the wagon with them. It took us two days to go. I remember crossing the Mississippi on a steamboat. I do not remember much about the rest of the way. But I remember about my Grandfather's place. He had a double log house with two big fireplaces in it. They did not have any stoves. My grandfather was a wagonmaker, and had a shop near the house. We children liked to go to the shop and play with the long shavings. We would play they were ribbons. My grandfather was a jolly, round-faced man. He would sing to us and tell us stories. My grandmother was a small, gentle, soft-spoken Quaker lady, one of the dearest persons I ever knew. The both came from North Carolina. My great-grandfather had slaves and after he died, the slaves were parceled out among the heirs. A man and his wife fell to my grandfather. They brought them with them to Indiana and gave them their freedom. They built a cabin for them to live in and they worked for them and paid them wages. They had several children, and I have heard my mother tell about going to the cabin, and Lydia would tell them stories and sing for them, and tell ghost stories, which would almost make them afraid to go home. She was a good cook and the family all cooked the southern way. My grandfather belonged to the Whig party, and the fall we were there (1856) he taught us to cheer for John C. Fremont. They lived on the main road to Indianapolis. Their post office was Moresville in Morgan County. I remember going to meeting with my Grandmother. She rode horseback and I rode behind. Every girl had a side saddle. That was the way they rode the most of the time.
I remember about the sugar camp. In February they would tap the sugar maple trees. It was about a mile from home. They had a cabin out there and they would boil the sap in big kettles over a fire outdoors. They would make syrup and sugar and would have enough to last the most of the year. They let us visit the camp and sometimes they would have to boil it down after night. I remember one evening we went out to see them at work. They would save some and make taffy for us.
The furniture in the house was plain but substantial. I remember the pewter dishes and spoons but they had other dishes that they used. I do not remember about their pictures, only samplers that they had framed. One was from the Bible; Ephesians 4:31,32. I spelled the verses out and learned them by heart, and I have no doubt they had a great influence on my grandmother's family as it did on mine.
My grandmother on my father's side was living near Plainfield with her youngest daughter, Aunt Lucinda Hadley. She lived to be quite old, past ninety. She was almost blind. I remember more about my Aunt's children. Some of them were about my age. We visited the numerous relatives of my mother and father. My sister and I went to school with our youngest aunt. We were there a year and then came home. The railroad was built as far as Mount Pleasant by that time. That was twenty-five miles from home. We were glad to get home and had varied experiences with the renters. Some of them had children, and we were always glad when there were children to play with. I don't know if my mother and aunt shared in our joy. When we got home we found that our nearest neighbors had sold out and left. We were very disappointed for they, our old neighbors, had children about our age that we went to school with. Our new neighbors were the Coffin family, and we became very intimate with them. They were good neighbors. When I was nine years old, my mother married again, a man by the name of Benjamin Maris, a relative of the Coffin family. He was a native of North Carolina. My aunt still lived with us. In a few years, my grandparents and the aunts and uncles that were at home, came out on a visit from Indiana. The most of the family were living in Iowa. They came in a covered wagon. After they had been there awhile, they liked it so well, they traded their farm in Indiana, for one in Iowa, and they stayed in Iowa the rest of their lives. Soon after this we welcomed a little sister. She was a very dear child. Her name was Rachel Ann. She only lived to be a year old. We children were all in school now. My youngest brother had one summer of school when he took sick. He had an abscess in his head. He only lived a few weeks. I suppose it was what they call mastoid trouble now. He was a handsome little fellow, and the pet of the family. Two of the youngest of the family gone in less that a year. My brother Elam always seemed lonely after that. He and his brother were inseparable.

Beginnings of Slavery Agitation

About this time there was a great deal of talk about slavery. "Uncle Tom's Cabin" by Harriet Beecher Stowe, had just come out. My mother obtained a copy of it, and she and my aunt took turns reading out loud in the evenings. They let me stay up to hear it, and I remember it to this day. I never read it afterwards. One of them would read as long as she could. Her emotions would be so stirred and then the other would read. There were many runaway slaves, and there were people in the North that aided them all they could. They were called abolitionists. They had an underground railroad, as it was called. The Friends were very active in this. There was one within a few miles of us. They were very secret about it. Someone would bring the slaves there after night, hiding them under cover of the wagon. The same night he would take them to the next station, getting home before morning. There were some Southern sympathizers, and that made it hard, however, I never knew of a slave being caught and sent back. It was told that some boys blacked themselves up and went to the man after night. He rigged up his wagon and started with them. After they got a few miles away, they jumped out and left him. I cannot vouch for the truth of the story, however.

The Civil War

I remember quite well the summer and autumn of 1860. Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican, was nominated for President on the Republican ticket and Stephen A. Douglas on the Democratic ticket. Sentiment ran high. There were rallies and speakings and nearly everyone would turn out. Our county and state of Iowa were largely Republican. There were wide awake bands organized and the young men belonged to them. They had a band and uniforms; carried lamps after night. They made a fine appearance. There would be speakers and a Glee Club would sing patriotic songs. Nearly everyone would go. After Lincoln was elected, he went to Washington for the inauguration. He had to be guarded all the way. His life was threatened many times. The South had been preparing for war. Buchanan was president. It was said he sat on the rebellion like a bread and milk poultice and drew it to a head. The South was in the majority in the Senate and the House. They had sent the arms and uniforms and about all the munitions of war south. When war was declared, the North had to arm the soldiers the best they could. When our flag at Fort Sumter was fired on, there was great excitement. Lincoln called for seventy-five thousand volunteers. Soon the quota was filled. The South had the gray uniforms, so the North had to have a different color. They chose the Blue. It seemed at first the South would win. Soon Lincoln called for 300,000, and the boys and the men flocked to the recruiting stations faster than they could arm them. Every day we would hear of some of the boys we knew having gone. Then after a battle, we were so anxious to scan the papers to see if any of the boys we knew were among the killed or wounded. Not only young men went, but a great many men went that had families. Among the first that enlisted was our school teacher, Harvey Walters by name. He had taught two years. We all felt sorry to see him go. He was a good teacher. He never came back. Our neighbors, the Williams boys, were the first to go from our neighborhood. Jesse, the oldest, enlisted in the Seventh Iowa Infantry, and Jonathan enlisted in the 17th Iowa Infantry in the spring of 1862. He was barely eighteen years old. Newton enlisted a year later in the 30th Iowa Infantry. They all served to the end of the war and all got home safe. Jonathan, the youngest one, who afterwards became Father of this family, reenlisted and served to the end of the war. He was in the thickest of the fighting. He was in the siege of Vicksburg, and in many other hard fought battles. I think it was in 1864 that they were camped near Dalton, Georgia. The troops were called out, and eight of the corps were left to guard the railroad. (The Rebels had been tearing up the Railroad and capturing the supplies that were being sent to the Union army.)They heard the firing all day at Rasacca, Georgia, and knew there was hard fighting. Towards evening, the stragglers began to pass and told them that the Rebels were victorious and had captured the regiment. So the eight of them took to the woods. The rebels discovered them, however, and sent their men to capture them. They ran and hid in the underbrush and swamps. They started with their knapsacks and their overcoats, but they had to leave everything but the clothes they had on and their guns and canteens. One man that was older than the others would not leave his things. They tried hard to get him to do so. He could not keep up, so they supposed he was captured or killed. One time they hid in a deep excavation where a large tree had been uprooted. Two of the rebel soldiers saw them, but the boys saw them first, and they had all their guns trained on them. The one that was the nearest said to the other, "Bar off to the left, Pete." So they ran the other way. The boys finally reached the union lines after two days of traveling and hiding. They did most of their traveling after night. They did not have anything to eat except for a few berries. They were sent to headquarters and sent home on Furlough. The rest of the regiment were sent to Andersonville Prison, where a great many of them starved and died from neglect. They, the seven that were left, were transferred to another regiment, and then sent home for a month's furlough. Every soldier that came home was a hero and everyone made over them. There were parties and entertainments for them. Everyone tried to show them a good time. When their furlough was over, the went to New York by rail, and took a boat from there to Savannah, Georgia, and joined Sherman's Army in its March to the Sea and went on to Washington and went on the Grand Review. Lee and Johnson had surrendered and peace was declared. But they and the whole country were saddened by the assassination of President Lincoln. He was so happy a the ending of the war. He truly was a great man, and as Secretary Stanton said after his death; "He was a man of the ages." The North was plunged in sorrow. But Garfield remarked at the time that: "God reigns, and the government at Washington still lives." The country was in debt and England had no sympathy for us. It was all for the South. President Lincoln was the man for the times and he was so modest and unassuming. It was said when he went to Gettysburg to help dedicate the burial ground for the soldiers and when he made that great speech, he felt he had not said anything worthwhile. When he got through, everyone was silent. They could hardly take it in. "Sometimes silence is the best applause." The orator of the day made such a great eloquent speech, but now it is forgotten. If only Lincoln could have known that his talk was considered a masterpiece and that the soldiers in their campfires in all their G.A.R. meetings have it read or someone to recite it, and it will live as long as we have a country. Never was a President more criticized or abused. Part of the country wanted peace at any price and were opposed to freeing the slaves, and blamed all the trouble on Lincoln. No wonder his great heart was almost broken. The soldiers were mustered out of the service in the summer of 1865 and they came home and took up the work where they had left it. I do not know that I have made it plain, but writing this, I have been living in the past and sometimes I would have to stop for several days. During the war all our talk was about the soldiers and the battles and the prisoners. Many of them starved to death in Andersonville and Libby prisons and sometimes, when we would sit down at the table, we could hardly eat for thinking of them. My oldest brother, John M. Jones, enlisted and went through the war and got home safely. We wrote letters to the boys and told them the home news and he had recitations at school, and the most of them were about the soldiers. I remember part of one that I spoke at school:

The Heroes of '62

Steady and firm in their dread array,
Ever to Union and Freedom true,
Before our countrymen stand this day,
The noble heroes of '62.
Heroes in word and deed and thought,
On whom the hopes of a nation rest,
Heroes as true as those who bought
With blood, our homes in this mighty West.

The fire that burned in our sires of old,
Though a hundred years have since then flown,
Have not for a moment's time grown cold,
In the hearts of our gallant countrymen.
The gallant Heroes that held their ground
At Bunker Hill and at Lexington
Have long since gone. But the world has found
Their daring equals at Danielson,
And Winchester has its fearful tale, too,
And Pittsburgh Landing its slaughter,
And sleeping beneath the bloody vale
Lies many a Hero of '62.

Friends Meeting House

I left off telling our home life to tell about the events leading up to and about the Civil War. I will go back to our home and school life now. I wish I could draw a picture as I see it of our Meeting House. The Friends did not call it a church. It was quite large and plain, with a partition through the center, and two doors. The men sat on one side and the women on the other. The partition was closed, except at their business meetings. There was a gallery of several elevated seats, and the elders and ministers and overseers sat there, facing the congregation. The men sat with their hats on, the women with their plain silk bonnets. There was no singing, and everything was as still as could be. The preachers never brought a Bible, but they were supposed to read and study their Bibles at home, and I have heard them preach and quote the Bible all the way through. There was no clock and I do not think anyone had watches. They assembled at eleven o'clock, and at twelve the meeting was closed. The way they dismissed the meeting, the man sitting at the head would shake hands with the one next to him, then they would all shake hands and go out without anything being said, unless it might be "How art thou?" and then they would go home as quietly as they came. And woe be any child that misbehaved. They would be led out of doors. They were very strict about reading the Bible, and every family must have a Bible. They would supply them if they were not able to get them and they also had the Discipline of the Church. I almost knew it by heart. I remember one rule, "Talebearing and detraction are discouraged, and when differences arise endeavors are used to end them." Their marriage ceremony was different too. That was also in the Discipline. When a couple were to be married, they gave their intentions at the regular monthly meeting, and they would be married, if there were no objections, at the midweek meeting after the next monthly meeting. It was quite an event, and everyone was expected to go. The people would assemble and then the wedding party would march in, and the bride and groom would take the seats facing the congregation and the attendants, and sometimes there would be two or three couples of them. They would all sit quietly, until the head man would arise and say it was time to proceed with the ceremony. He would sit down and the wedding party would arise, and the man would take the woman by the hand and would say, "Friends, in the presence of the Lord and before this assembly, I take this, my Friend, (mentioning the name) to be my wife, promising by Divine assistance to be unto her a loving and faithful husband until death shall separate us," and the woman would go through the same ceremony. Then the clerk would come forward and they would sign their names and they would leave the church, and the congregation would keep their seats until they got away and then the congregation was dismissed. There was usually a reception or dinner at the home of the bride for the particular Friends. The people that call themselves Friends are very different now. They have singing and carry on their meetings like other churches now. A few years ago I was in Los Angeles, and attended services at the Friends Church at Whittier, said to be the largest church of theirs in the United States. They have a college there, too. That is where Mrs. Hoover was educated. I had not been to a Friends Church for so long I went more through curiosity, but I felt very different after I was there. They had opening exercises like others and a choir. The preacher that day was from London, England, an elderly man, a fine looking man. And he looked like I could imagine one of the apostles might have looked, a very saintly look. He took for his text, Philippians 4:3: "Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things honest" and the rest of the verse.
It was a wonderful sermon to me, and there was such a reverent spirit, and the people seemed so pure-minded and godly, I have never forgotten it.


Our school days were uneventful. We had for our textbooks, Webster's Elementary Spelling book, McGuffey's Readers, and Ray's arithmetic, Part III, and we had copy books for our writing. The teacher would write the copy. I remember some of the copies, "Were many men of many minds, many birds of many kinds," and "Command you may your mind from play, every hour in the day." We had slates to cipher on, and a blackboard. Some of the teachers practiced corporal punishment, and I remember one that kept a bunch of hickory switches standing in the corner. We had so much snow in the winter time and it drifted badly. The roads were all fenced with rail fence or hedge, and the roads would be drifted full. We would have to stay at home until the men would get out with their ox teams and clean it off. In the spring of the year after the first frost went out of the ground, the roads would be impassable. We would have to walk at the side of the road, or go through the pastures. I remember one evening we were coming home from school. We had to cross the road. We all got through safely except my sister. He shoe came off, and she stood there on one foot, yelling for help, and a young man that years after became her husband, waded out to her and picked her up and carried her to the fence and set her on the fence, then went back and got her shoe and put it on her. We went on home without any further mishaps.
We used to have spelling school in the evening. All the children that were large enough and some of the parents would go, although we did not have any PTA They would spell too, and some of them would help the teacher give out the words. There would be two leaders, and each one would try to choose the best spellers. They would spell down and the one that stood up the longest would be the champion. Sometimes they would go to the dictionary after they had spelled all the hard words in the spelling book. There was always a class in the dictionary for the advanced spellers.
We used to have good times sleigh riding. A whole load would go together and we had sleighbells and a lively team, and we would have a merry time. And we had quiltings and corn huskings. Someone would invite the girls in the afternoon to quilt, and the boys would husk corn in the barn. We would work hard to get the quilt out so we could shake the cat, and some of the boys were sure to find a red ear. And that would entitle him to kiss the prettiest girl. Our hostess would get a bountiful supper for us. After that we would play games, and have charades and conundrum and whirl the platter. There was always someone to sing.
In those times no one knew about canning fruit. We had to dry our fruit. We used to have apple cuttings in the evening and we would invite the boys as well as the girls. We would have the apples picked in baskets or boxes, and have them setting on the floor in the big kitchen. We would sit around them with pans and paring knives. And we would talk or sing and have a good time while we worked. One evening we had an apple paring at our house and one of the girls that was sitting across from a young man kept throwing apple cores at him. He did not let on for awhile, but finally he got tired of it, and he picked up a handful of parings and cores, and threw them at her. He threw them too high, and they struck the clock and shattered the glass of the middle section. They were very sorry, but that did not mend the clock. That was seventy years ago, but I remember the incident well.
I remember when we were small, and our aunt lived with us of going to the timber, and picking wildflowers in the spring, and in the fall gathering hazelnuts and hickory nuts. It was always a treat to go. The timber joined our place, but we did not go alone for fear of getting lost. My aunt was a member of the Baptist church, and she had a hymn book. Just the words, no music. She used to sing of an evening, and we learned the hymns by heart. That is the way they used to sing. My mother was a Baptist until after she was married. My father's folks all belonged to the friends. I have heard my mother say, when they went to church the preacher would be the only one that had a hymn book. He would read the hymn all through; then, he would read the first two lines and the congregation would sing them, and he would read two more, and so on until the hymn was sung. I have heard my mother tell of an incident (I do not know if she was there) of an elderly minister that was singing the hymn, and he could not see very well, and he said, "My eyes are dim. I cannot see. I left my specs at home today" and the congregation sang the lines just the same. My mother had four little girls by her second marriage, Eva Jane, Carrie Evelyn, Louella, and Sibbie Ann. My sister and I almost quarreled about taking care of them when they were babies. We loved them so, and I don't remember of ever getting tired of them. They grew up to be good women. Two of them were schoolteachers before they were married.

Economic Conditions During the Civil War

I remember the hard times we had during the war and after. We had to live on what we could raise on the farm. We could not get either coffee or sugar. We used to parch wheat or rye and use it for coffee, and we had sorghum molasses for sweetening. We had to make our cakes and pies with sorghum. And one year the chinch bugs took the wheat, and we had to live on corn bread, and for supper we often had just mush and milk. Eggs were two and three cents a dozen. Common calico and Indian Head muslin were fifty cents a yard. We had our wool, and everyone made their flannel and jeans and blankets. We had to wash and pick the wool, and then send it to the carding machine, and they would make it into rolls. Then we would spin it and color it, and then weave it into cloth. Every family had a loom. My sister and I did the spinning and Mother did the weaving. We had some work to do in those days, but I do not know but we were as happy as we are now.

School for the Soldiers

After the war, they let the boys that had been soldiers go to school free if they were over age. Several went to our school. We used to have Literary Societies or Lyceums, some called them. We met once a week at the schoolhouse. We had recitations, select readings, and speeches. We had a paper that the members contributed to, and once a month we had open society. We would get jokes on one another, and had great deal of enjoyment out of it, as well as learning.
I remember one of our "poets" wrote some verses on a couple that were prominent in our society, and it was read at one of our meetings. The piece is as follows, if I remember it:

O Katie Dear, what shall I do?
I'm surely going blind.
As I went home last Sunday night
Great trouble did I find.
The night was very dark, dear Kate,
But my heart was very light
And every time the lightning flashed
I ran with all my might.
And, oh, I dare not tell you, Kate,
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