Tuesday, March 16, 2010

“Dear Son and Daughter . . .”

by David Parmer

Two letters of the Blake family recently have come to light, each well over a century old, written by parents to their son James Alvin Blake who left his West Virginia home after the Civil War for the forests of Wisconsin.

This chronicle is in three parts. The first part is an introduction to the family and life of James Alvin Blake. The second part is about the letter sent to him by his father Joseph in 1873. The third part is about the letter his stepmother Elizabeth Jane (Sands) Blake sent in 1883. These two letters give us an unusually intimate look at life in the Oil Creek area before the railroad. We also see the hardships experienced by our forefathers. Disease, death and poverty visited the hearths of the log cabins which dotted the hills and valleys of the Oil Creek valley over a hundred years ago, and uncertainty stalked the everyday existence of the common folk who were our ancestors.

Right: James Alvin and Anna (Hall) Blake. James was the son who received the two letters from Orlando.

1. James Alvin Blake’s Heritage and Life
The 1830’s witnessed considerable migration to the northern end of Braxton County. Still largely unsettled by the third decade of the 1800’s, migrants from Greenbrier County and other counties began to find their way to the watershed of the Little Kanawha River. Waltons, Blakes, Williamses, and Ocheltrees were among the families who blazed a trail from Lewisburg in Greenbrier County. Part of that trail later would be followed by the Weston-Gauley Bridge Turnpike.

Left: map ofAlign Right central western Virginia/ West Virginia showing the Staunton Parkersburg Turnpike and the Gauley Bridge/Weston Turnpike as they we roughly located before and at the time of the Civil War. Click on the map to enlarge it.

Coming from Lewisburg in Greenbrier County, the pioneering Blake family, including parents Andrew and Margaret (Williams) Blake and their adult children, Rebecca, Hannah, Andrew Jr., Hugh, John and probably Patience and their spouses, settled along Clover Fork and over the hill on the waters of Knawls Creek during the early 1830’s.
~ Rebecca was married to Alexander Ocheltree,
~ Hannah was the widow of Isaac Ocheltree,
~ Andrew Jr. was married to Catherine Crysemore.
~ John Burton was married to Catherine’s sister Abigail Crysemore
~ Patience was married to George Matthews.
~ Hugh was married to Martha Williams

Several of these Blake families settled along Knawls Creek. John Burton and Abigail (Crysemore) Blake settled in the Oil Creek watershed on upper Clover Fork, near the Knawls Creek families. Several of the offspring of the Knawls Creek Blakes would also settle in the Oil Creek watershed. For example, George and Patience (Blake) Matthews’ granddaughter Patience Duvall would marry Jackson McWhorter Skinner, son of Alexander and Phoebe (Conrad) Skinner, and live on Clover Fork and in downtown Orlando. Several of Andrew and Catherine (Crysemore) Blake’s grandchildren would live along lower Oil Creek.

James Blake’s Parents
The (apparently) oldest child of early settlers Andrew Jr. and Catherine (Crysemore) Blake was Joseph T. Blake who was listed in the 1850 census as age 24, a resident of Braxton County and married to the former Elizabeth Walton, who was listed as aged 36. Elizabeth was the daughter of Samuel and Nancy (Hannah) Walton. Both sets of parents were from Greenbrier County.

Joseph and Elizabeth were parents of (apparently) only two children. One was a son, James Alvin, who was born in 1847. James Alvin was seven years of age when his sister, Mary Anne, was born in April 1854. Regrettably, their mother died two months later from complications of Mary Anne’s birth.

In 1856, two years after the death of his first wife, Joseph married Elizabeth “Betty” Jane Sands. Young James Alvin Blake would have been nine years of age when his father re-married.

Joseph and Betty became parents of nine more children: William, born 1857; John T., born 1859; Francis Marion, born 1860; Sarah, born 1863; Joseph, born 1864; Patrick Newton, born 1867; Martha, born 1869; Virginia, born in 1871; and Charles Victor, born in 1873. James, the child of his father’s first marriage, had grown to manhood and would leave home even before some of his later siblings were born. The younger children would know him only as their brother who lived in the west, but before that there would be the matter of a Civil War.
The Cavalryman
The hills and valleys of northern Braxton County were in turmoil in 1861. Virginia had seceded from the Union and northwestern counties of the Old Dominion State had in effect seceded from the Old Dominion. Out of control Ohio troops roaming the Weston-Gauley Bridge Turnpike were summarily executing anyone they suspected of being a “bushwacker” and were burning the homes of those they thought probable of being Southern sympathizers. Southern-sympathizing partisans were earning the accusations of bushwhacking by taking potshots at the “bluebellies” riding up and down the Turnpike from vantage points high on the ridges and were disappearing before the Yankee cavalrymen could reach the heights to exact revenge.

Right: a Union Cavalryman's hat.

James Alvin Blake was mustered into the 3rd West Virginia Cavalry, 3rd Regiment at Buckhannon on November 9, 1863. Although he gave his age as 18, other records suggest he was closer to 15. During late 1863 and early 1864, the 3rd West Virginia Cavalry was assigned to guard and picket duties from Clarksburg to Charleston. James’ Company “I” participated in the raid on Lewisburg, at the battles of Droop Mountain, Moorefield, and Wytheville. In 1864 the 3rd West Virginia Cavalry was sent to the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia where it participated in several battles during Sheridan’s Shenandoah campaign. In early 1865, the unit participated in campaigns in central Virginia and was present at Appomattox when General Lee surrendered. In the course of the war James was a Prisoner of War, held at Libby prison where he contacted measles. During the war, the 3rd West Virginia suffered losses of 6 officers and 40 enlisted men and lost 136 to disease. James came through unscathed. James was discharged from service in 1865.

Annette Frank, his great granddaughter, tells us that James left for the West soon after his discharge from service because of acrimony in the neighborhood from former Southern sympathizers, many of whom were family. At the end of the war, James drew his final pay of $11.70 and his enlistment bounty of $75.00. He elected to retain his cavalry saber and paid the government $5.00 for it.

James Alvin Blake Left the Hills
James went to forests of Wisconsin in 1865. Vast tracts of virgin timber covered Wisconsin in the 1860’s which had been cleared of hostile Indians not long before. Huge forests were located on the Eau Claire, Black, and Chippewa Rivers and several nearby lakes. This standing timber brought wealth to those who were clever enough to take advantage of the assets of the region. James married Anna Jane "Jennie" Hill in Wisconsin. According to the History of Northern Wisconsin, James first located at the Wisconsin town of La Crosse and was in business with Martin Jefferson for about a year. He then went to lumbering along the Black River, both in the pineries and on the river where he rafted logs to the mill. Later in 1868, James worked in a saw mill and also worked on building a dam on the Black River near Alma.

Left above: Map of Wisconsin showing the towns where the Blakes spent most of their Wisconsin years. Click on the map to enlarge it.
Left below: generic photo from 1905 from the Chippewa Lumber & Boom Company

In 1873, according to our letter, James was considering buying a farm and moving back to West Virginia. However, in the 1880 census James listed his occupation as “lumberman” and his place of residence as Eau Claire, Wisconsin. 1881 found James working as a filer for the Chippewa Lumber & Boom Company in Chippewa Falls. By 1890, James and his family were living at nearby Chippewa, and in 1900 the family was living in Big Bend, also near Chippewa. .
From James’ great granddaughter Annette Frank we learn that James and Jennie and their family visited their West Virginia kinsmen for a brief reunion in 1908. A family story recalls that Jennie was horrified because none of James' female family members used a tera towel to dry the dishes. The census shows that by 1910 the Blake family was back in Eau Claire. But the big move was yet to come.

About 1912 James and Jennie left Wisconsin and migrated farther west to Washington, the Evergreen State. Two of thei daughters had married and moved there. At first they lived in Lents, Washington. In 1913 they settled in Camus, on the north bank of the mighty Columbia River. James worked in the mill at Crown Willamette until he was injured in 1915. His leg was broken in the mill when he was walking near the tracks and a car came by and a protruding piece of lumber hit him. Anna (Hill) "Jennie" Blake died in 1919. James died in 1927.
Right: daughters of James and Anna Blake, Mary, Anna and Edna Blake. There were two more children: Hazel, who died at the age of four, and Elizabeth.

The Letters

2. His Father’s Letter
Joseph T. Blake to James A. Blake

Braxton Co. West Va
April the 20, 1873

Son and daughter I seat myself this morning to inform you we are all well at this time hoping this may find you the same We received your kind and welcome letter and was glad to you was all well More over we was all glad to hear that you was coming home. James you wanted me to buy land and you would send some money I have not bought it yet I have the offer of two or three farms one is a little farm containing 50 acres price 400 dollars It is joining the Garling Ocheltree farm Terms two hundred dollars paid this fall the rest paid in two years the man will make any sort of deed that you would want a house a stable smoke house corn cribs a good young orchard a grass road The rail road will be in one mile the place The man wants you to let him know soon

James tell me how much money you can pay on a place Elias Cunningham will let me have a place with good improvement for six(?) hundred dollars.

James, when can you come home if you have got your discharge yet make the best of it you can do if you intend to come make and save all you can I am sure you can do better if you want to farm according to your own letter times is hard hear but if a man has land he can live this country is better than when you left it

I have told you all I can about land
I have no news I can tell you at this time we had a hard winter and a cold spring so far the messels is all around us – are in one mile of us at this time None of us has never had them yet Jenny we would all like to see you and the baby I suppose it still grows fine give it a kiss for every one of us can little Mary sit alone yet If she can she is a little woman Come home little Mary We have wrote to you latly and have had no answer yet tell us what you are doing this summer James I am not very able to work any more but I want to do all I can I must tell you about grain ear corn is from sixty to seventy- - wheat one dollar fifty cts bacon 10 cts oats 50 cts eggs 10 cents per dozen butter 50 cts per pound we can get coffee hear from 25 to 30 cts pound I have told you prices of things hear I ask you to wrigt as soon as you get this letter this fall or wen direct your letter to –vil Braxton Co Wes Va I must close for this time so good by for this time

I remain your father until death

According to Annette Frank, great granddaughter of James and Anna Blake, in this letter Joseph was urging his son to return to West Virginia from Wisconsin and take up farming in West Virginia. Joseph discussed two farms of interest: the “Garling” Ocheltree farm (actually “GarlandOcheltree, son of John and Lucinda (Blake) Ocheltree and the Elias Cunningham farm. The Ocheltree farm could be had for $400 and the Cunningham farm for $600. Both farms were in the Knawls Creek – Clover Fork neighborhood and undoubtedly James would have been familiar with both. We know, of course, James chose lumbering in Wisconsin rather than farming in West Virginia.

Sadly, Joseph died of typhoid fever at age 49 the following year on Christmas Eve, leaving his widow landless and with nine children, five of whom were under the age of ten.
3. His Stepmother’s Letter
From Betty Jane Blake to James A. Blake
February 25, 1883
Dear Son an Daughter I seat my Self to answer your kind and welcome letter I hope this will find you well. It leaves me well. I would like to go to you of I thought I could live satisfied out there. The children are willing to go but I don’t think I could be contented so far from the home of my childhood. Joe wants me to go to him in Kansas. He says it is fine country but I think I will stay here an do the best I can. I wish I could see you an Jennie and the children. Tell them I am so proud of them picture Mary has them now. I must get them home. I am going to Mary’s soon. Mary has two children Ida and Roy. Ida has black eyes and Roy has blue eyes. The young one is the largest. Your Aunt Martha Skinner has five children married the people is getting married they never think of hard times. Well it ain’t as hard as living a widow for I think I see trouble enough to go crazy. It is so hard to provide for a family when they can’t have plenty to go on. It is hard for a man and it is a good deal harder for a woman. Soon as the boys get big enough to do me any good they leave me to do for the rest. I am going to tell Joe he has to help me --- days. Love nor money won’t bring him back to W Va but he can send something. James, you said you would send me some money if you do God will reward you for he knows you will be keeping the poor and needy for I sometimes think I can’t get along but I put my trust in God so you belong to the church. I think Jennie is a good woman her letter makes me think she has a good heart. I will have to bring my letter to a closeasking you to rite soon and often. From your mother

I forgot to tell you May got married. She got married on her birthday. Her man is Joseph Scarff. I will give you the children ages
Frank is 22 Dec 14
May is 20 Feb 13
Joe is 18 March 8
Pat is 16 April 8
Alice is 14 March 27
Bell is 12 June 9
Charley is 10 Oct 21

James if you send me any money send it soon for I am in great need.
May god bless you
Left: Charles, Bell, Martha, Patrick Newton, Joseph and Frank with their mother Elizabeth Jane (Sands) Blake Donaldson.
This second letter to James, written by his step-mother Elizabeth “Betty” Jane, was dated February 25th, 1883. This letter responds to a letter from James, which apparently offered her a home with her stepson and his family in Wisconsin. Elizabeth declined the offer because of her attachment to the land of her birth. Elizabeth did however ask for financial assistance from James, stating her situation as “poor and needy.”

Whether any help came from her stepson is lost to the ages. We do know from the 1900 census that the widow Elizabeth (Sands) Blake had married James Donaldson about 1883 and they were living on Oil Creek below Orlando. Fifteen years his senior, Elizabeth was then 59 years of age and James was 44. The 1900 census reports that James was a “day laborer,” presumably in connection with the oil and gas fields which were then being exploited in the area.

In Conclusion, The Folks Back Home
Most of the Blake family remained in the Orlando area. Brother Francis Marion “Frank” was the Postmaster, youngest brother Charles V. Blake was Orlando’s first RFD mail carrier and Patrick Newton “Newt” was Orlando’s own newspaper columnist Uncle Zeke. However, one of James’ younger brothers, Joseph George “Joe” Blake, who was born in 1864, left his West Virginia home in 1885 and located in Minnesota. After living a while in Minnesota, Joe Blake moved to Eau Claire, Wisconsin which was also the home of his half brother, our James Alvin Blake. By 1920, Joe was operating a garage and service station in Eau Claire. P. N. Blake, known in Orlando as “Uncle Zeke,” was the full brother of Joe and a half-brother to James Alvin. Uncle Zeke frequently chastised his brother Joe in the Buzzardtown News column for failing to write to his West Virginia siblings. On April 2, 1930, Uncle Zeke wrote:
There is a man in Chippewa,
He went there years ago.
I guess he must have gone to stay,
At least it seems just so.

He operates a service station.
His name perhaps you know.
He is as ugly as all creation;
We always called him Joe.

When he receives the Democrat
And reads this little poem,
Perhaps he might pick up his pen
And write a letter home.
Curiously, Uncle Zeke, never mentioned his brother James in his column. Neither did he ever mention his step-father James Donaldson or his mother’s (James’ stepmother’s) death in 1919.
Left and right: Gravestones of James Alvin Blake and Anna Jane(Hill) Blake

. . . . .
Note 1: Concerning the Name “Crysemore” Greenbrier County natives and Braxton County pioneers Andrew Blake Jr. and his brother John Burton Blake married sisters, Catherine and Abigail Crysemore respectively. The correct spelling of the name “Crysemore” is uncertain. The first acquaintance of this writer with the name “Crysemore” came many years ago in the Greenbrier County Courthouse while reviewing the marriage records of the Blake brothers. Since the last name of the sisters was spelled “Crysemore” this writer has always spelled the name accordingly. Since that first experience with the name, this writer has seen the name spelled a number of different ways, for example, “Crissmore,” “Crissamore,” “Crismore,” and “Crisamore.” Undoubtedly, there are other variations of the spelling of the name. There are many thousands of descendants of Catherine (Crysemore) Blake and Abigail (Crysemore) Blake who probably want to know the correct spelling of the name of their Crysemore ancestor. Despite the many choices available, this writer will continue spelling the name “Crysemore” while others will continue spelling the name the way they first saw it spelled. Who can say which is correct?

Note 2: about James' mother's family; Elizabeth Walton's family:
In 1848, Franklin (believed to be a middle name) Walton, who is either a brother or uncle of Samuel Walton, owned a large tract of land in northern Braxton County. In this year Franklin bought 684 acres from John C. Haymond. A couple of months later, Franklin re-conveyed this 684 acre parcel to Samuel and Nancy Agnes Walton by deed of lease. The term of the lease agreement expired by 1851 and Franklin then conveyed 434 acres of the land located on Chop Fork to Samuel’s three youngest daughters Margaret, Martha and Miriam Walton. Franklin Walton conveyed the remaining 250 acres to Samuel’s grandsons Andrew, George and John Walton, who were sons of James McClung Walton and Eveline (Brown) Walton. Samuel and Nancy (Hannah) Walton’s oldest daughter, our Elizabeth, was already married by this time to Joseph T. Blake and she was not involved in the land transactions. The real estate conveyed bordered on lands owned by Hugh Blake, Andrew Blake, James Williams, and Mose Cunningham.

In 1849, Samuel Walton was in poor health, although he would not die until 1855. An interesting agreement was executed in 1849 between Franklin Walton and Samuel Walton which provided that Franklin would care for Samuel’s family as long as they remained in the family, which presumably meant for so long as they did not marry. In exchange for this promise by Franklin, Samuel transferred to Franklin, two horses, two cows, and twenty-four head of hogs. An amendment to this agreement was made in 1851 to specify that Franklin would provide care for Samuel’s daughters Margaret, Martha, and Miriam Walton. The agreement was notarized in 1853.

NOTE 3: about James' stepmother's family; Elizabeth Jane Sands' family:

Elizabeth "Betty" Jane Sands, the second wife of Joseph Thomas Blake, and step-mother of James Alvin Blake, was the daughter of pioneer children James F. and Mary (Riffle) Sands. Elizabeth was the sister of

~ Samuel Sands who married Millie Perrine,

~ Susan Sands who married Andrew Graff,

~ Sarah Sands who married Patrick Taggart (grandparents of Clarence McCauley),

~ John Sands

~ Alice Sands.

Elizabeth’s mother, Mary, was the daughter of Isaac Riffle Sr. and his wife, Elizabeth.

Note 4: Annette Frank tells us that during the Civil War, Thomas J. Hill and John F. Hill, two brothers of Anna Jane Hill (who later married James Alvin Blake) served with the Eighth Wisconsin Regiment which participated in many battles in the western theater of the war.
During the early summer of 1861 after the Civil War had begun, an Indian of the Lake Flambeau tribe in Wisconsin sold a magnificent bald eagle which had been captured to Daniel McCann of Eagle Point, Wisconsin. McCann, in turn, sold the eagle to a just-forming unit of the Eighth Wisconsin Regiment to use as a mascot.

The handsome eagle was dubbed “Old Abe” and was fitted out with a ribboned necklace and a breast rosette. His cage was resplendently decorated with miniature flags giving the 8th Wisconsin a “one-of-a-kind” mascot to take into battle.
Anna’s brothers, Thomas and John, at various times during the Civil War, were honored by being designated as “War Bearer of the Eagle and Peace Attendant” of “Old Abe.”
This unique mascot was widely envied by other Union units and was much in demand to be seen by the Yankee soldiers. After serving as a mascot during the war, “Old Abe” served his state in an exhibit in the State Capitol of Wisconsin at Madison until its death in 1881.

. . . . .

Many thanks to Barbara Ulowetz Hottle, great grand daughter of James Alvin Blake, for sharing these letters with us. The original letters repose in a safety deposit box, gathering age. We are fortunate to have the transcribed copies of the letters to present with this story.

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