The Letter from Arkansas
Mary Linda Winstead Janke
Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and truth. –Buddha-
Transcript of 1860 Letter:
“Fort Smith, Arkansas, March 9th 1860 To The Post Master at Yanceyville, N Carolina
Dear Sir. Some time in December last a gentleman by the name of Benjamin Jacobs came to this place in company with his wife Catherine Jacobs and an infant son Elijah Jacobs. He had two Negro Boys with him as I understand and stayed with a man by the name of Samuel Edmondson, alias Ginger. Soon afterwards himself and wife was Boath Taken Sick and died. I am almost certain there was Foul Play. I think they was Poisoned. This Pious old Ginger took the Negroes off and sold them. I had taken out Letters of administration on the Estate of the Said Jacobs and yesterday, I called on Edmondson for the Purpose of Taken an Inventory of the Properties and find Nothing But two trunks of Clothing and one watch. I find the Deguaritipes of Some Friends of theirs. I learn the lady Said it was her Brother. I have that and a lock of the lady’s hare. Edmondson has a bill of sale for the Negroes but I am Certain it was forged. Because if he had bought the Negroes and paid for them there would have been money on hand. There was not a Dollar. I have hired a nurse for the infant. I find a receipt for Eighty Dollars in a bill of Sale from E. Jacobs to Benjamin Jacobs for a Negro Boy aged about 14 years which I suppose must have been one of the Negroes Sold By Edmondson. What induced me to write to you is I find the Envelope of a letter that was mailed at Yanceyville, N.C. To Benjamin Jacobs, Dubuque, Marion County, Arkansas and from that infer here must be Some of the Relatives of himself or wife in that Country. Please find out if you can and inform me Immediately. I will do the best I can for the Child So help Me God.
Farewell Please attend to the above and if you find any of the Friends let them Correspond with me Immediately.
H. L. Holleman
Fort Smith Ark.”
The letter (image of original set forth below), written in a strong, even, script, has been passed down in my family for 155 years. Its watermarked paper has darkened from the original cream to tan; the ink has faded from black to brown. Written on one sheet of paper, back and front, there was once an envelope where it rested between perusals. That is long gone, but the letter and its poignant message remain. It has been read so many times that the paper has given way in the folds; read over and over to see if maybe, this time, there will be something new to be discovered, something missed before. Long ago my grandmother mended these separations with cellophane tape so that no precious part of it would be lost. Always, when someone reads it for the first time, they ask the same question, “What happened to the child?”
I suppose most families have ancestors whose stories are not tidy, stories that cannot be tied up from beginning to end with neatness and certainty; legends that leave us with an unsolved mystery. Even when these situations are long past and all the principal participants dead and buried, we somehow feel responsible for reporting the final chapter of their story. I suppose we worry most over the innocent. In our case he was a small orphaned child a thousand miles from his closest relatives.
Benjamin and Catherine Jacobs, mentioned in the letter, were not married. Catherine Hall Winstead Bradsher was the wife of Benjamin’s brother-in-law, William S. Bradsher. Benjamin had married his first cousin, Martha Banks Bradsher. William was not only Benjamin’s brother-in-law, but also his first cousin, making his entanglement with Catherine very messy indeed. Catherine and William had four daughters ranging in age from 11 to just under 2 years old. Benjamin and his wife, Martha, had two daughters, 11 and 4.
Sometime after 08/31/1858, Benjamin, age 33 and Catherine, age 31 made the decision to leave their respective families and run away together. They took with them 2 enslaved boys, both about 14 years of age.
Even in 1858 it did not take 16 months to get from Leasburg, North Carolina to Fort Smith, Arkansas. It is not known what route this couple took or where they were when Catherine gave birth to Elijah on 11/15/1858. Assuming little Elijah was a full term baby, she would have been more than 6 months pregnant when they left Person County, so it is likely they did not travel far before breaking their journey and settling in some place safe for her confinement.
The letter telling of Benjamin’s and Catherine’s deaths was delivered to the Yanceyville post office in the spring of 1860. We do not know if the Yanceyville postmaster, Alexander McAlpine, gave it to Benjamin’s wife, Martha, or if he gave it to some other member of the Jacobs family, who later gave it to Martha. Benjamin’s father, Elijah, was aware that Benjamin was dead when he made a new will on July 23, 1860. In this will he leaves property to the daughters of his dead son, Benjamin.
However the letter made its way to her, it was in the possession of my great-great grandmother, Martha Banks Bradsher (Jacobs) (Davenport), when she died on 06/ 26/1887. Her youngest daughter, Eunice Bradsher Jacobs (Winstead) (Wagstaff), found it among her mother’s important papers after her death. Eunice was only 6 when the word came that her father had died. It is doubtful that Martha would have discussed this little brother with her youngest daughter at the time. Finding out at 33 years old that she had a little brother was a bit of a shock. However, once Eunice learned of little Elijah’s existence, she very much wanted to know what had happened to him. Did he even survive long after the loss of his parents? If so, who took care of him? Did he grow up and have children of his own?
She dreamed of taking a wagon train out west to find Elijah. However, she could not talk any of the family into going on this adventure with her, so reluctantly, she gave up.
Yet, she could never quite give up on the idea of finding him.
Eunice’s husband, James Fletcher Winstead, died in 1889. She lived many years as a widow, but in the early 1900s she was married to Clemmon McGilbert Wagstaff. She continued living in the same house with “Mr. Wagstaff”, as she called her new husband, until his death, sometime before 1920. Her youngest son, Harvey, was given his parents’ homeplace when he married. Until her death in 1949, Eunice continued to make her home in this same house with her youngest son, Harvey Winstead, his wife, Mary, and their eight children.
Harvey and Mary Winstead were my grandparents. Sometime before she died, Eunice showed Mary the letter from Arkansas. Eunice felt that someday someone from Arkansas might come to Leasburg looking for our family. She wanted Mary to know the story and keep the letter in a safe place. Mary promised that she would keep it safe and if possible, do what she could to find Elijah.
When Mary was given the letter in the 1940s, she was very busy with her young family. Aside from asking older relatives if they knew what happened to little Elijah, there wasn’t much she could do to locate him. Finding someone from almost a century before and a thousand miles away would have been a far more daunting task than it is today. Reluctantly, she put the letter away in a safe place and went on with her busy life.
About 30 years ago I wrote stories of the Jacobs and Bradsher families for the Caswell and Person County Heritage books. I knew these books would be widely distributed to the genealogical sections of libraries all over the US and I hoped, once these books were in print, that someone from Arkansas would read the accounts and say to themselves, “You know, I think this may be the tie to our family.” While I was working on the stories for these books, Grandma Mary showed me the letter for the first time. I was thrilled and very much wanted to include the letter in my story of the Jacobs. However, Grandma felt it would reflect negatively on our family for the letter to be included. We had quite a discussion over it. Like most families, ours did not have to go back a hundred years to find a relative that didn’t behave. However, the letter had been left in her safekeeping and I respected her wishes. I did say that Benjamin left his wife and two daughters and went to Arkansas with a “traveling companion.”
My uncle, Therit Winstead, was visiting Grandma when we were discussing whether or not the letter should be included in the Heritage books. He became interested in trying to locate Elijah’s descendants. On a vacation that took him near Fort Smith, Arkansas, he decided to do some research there. He started by copying all the names and addresses of Jacobs from the local phone book. He then sent letters to everyone requesting information about whether or not they were kin to Elijah Jacobs, the son of Benjamin. He did not receive a single reply. Some 20 years later he went to Fort Smith a second time and actually did some research at the courthouse. He was able to find little Elijah on the census, when he was about 2 years old, living in the home of a Henry Kuyper. He found an Elias Jacobs, who was about 10, on a later census.
However, after that he could find nothing more. He met a local genealogist and paid her to do further research. However, he never heard from her. Uncle Nash Winstead’s daughter, Lizzie Winstead Dawson, had a friend living in Fort Smith. Lizzie had her friend research the records. She found about the same information Uncle Therit had, but nothing further.
After the publication of the Heritage books I did receive several inquiries and letters from members of the Jacobs family in Arkansas, but none of these correspondents was descended from Elijah or knew anything of the small child mentioned in the 1860 letter.
Ten years ago I was discussing Benjamin’s and Catherine’s story with my cousin, Robbie Washburn, at a Winstead family reunion. He was working on a genealogical website for the Winsteads and asked me if he might include the story. I did not hesitate to provide him with a short paragraph telling the basic story and he did add it to his website. While she was alive Grandma Mary had done what she thought best by not having the story included in the Heritage books, now I did what I thought best. This little paragraph on the internet would ultimately be the link that would join our family members with Elijah’s after 155 years apart. Still, it did not happen immediately.
After 30 years I had reluctantly given up hope that we would ever know what had happened to Elijah. Then on Saturday, 01/24/2015, I went out to walk my beagle, Rachel, at bedtime.
Before we went back inside, I took several pieces of mail out of my mailbox. Amongst the usual junk mail and bills was a letter from Bobby and Martha Coleman in Fort Smith, Arkansas. My first thought, before I even opened it, was that someone wanted more information on the Jacobs family lines that I had written about 30 years earlier. I put the pup to bed and sat down on the couch to read my letter. I read it through three times before I could believe what I held in my hand. Bob wrote:
I got your address from Rick Frederick, with the Caswell County Historical Association, and wanted to contact you regarding a possible family link.
My wife and I have been doing genealogical research on our families, and that research led us to the story of Benjamin Jacobs and Catherine Hall Winstead Bradsher leaving their families in North Carolina and eventually being murdered in Fort Smith, Arkansas, in 1859. Our interest in the story of this couple is because it is possible that my great-grandfather was their child, Elijah Jacobs…..”
Bob went on to say that his great-grandfather, Elephlit Coleman (born 11/15/1858 and died 10/24/1941) had been a stumbling block in their research into the Coleman family lines. There always seemed to be family legends that Elephlit, was not a Coleman, but had been adopted by James Coleman and his wife, Julia Moncrief Coleman. These stories came in two forms; He was supposedly a Jacobs, from a wealthy family, either Dutch or Jewish, from back east. In these stories his family dies or is murdered and a black maid servant flees with the baby, arriving finally in Fort Smith, Arkansas, where the child is given to James Coleman. Or, in another version, Elephlit’s family is traveling westward and stops in Fort Smith. There is a hotel fire and the parents are killed, but the child survives and is adopted by James Coleman. Bob says that it is likely his great-grandfather believed he was adopted as the stories remained a solid part of their family history. Elephlit never knew exactly where he was born, a fact that most birth parents would have been able to tell their child.
After reading our little paragraph on the internet, Bob concluded that the stories of Elephlit’s adoption could no longer be discounted. The new information gave them more substance than they had ever had before and he felt they deserved further investigation. He asked if we would be willing to give DNA samples to see if there was a genetic link between our family and his.
On 01/26/2015 I replied:
My great grandmother, Eunice Bradsher Jacobs (Winstead) (Wagstaff) waited a good part of her adult life for a letter like the one I received from you this past Saturday. I am not sure she knew about her little brother, Elijah, until after her mother died and she found the following letter (this is a transcript from the original) in her mother’s things……….. After the Jacobs stories were published in the Heritage book I hoped I would hear from someone that little Elijah had survived. However, as time went on I assumed he had not survived or had been adopted by another family and his own history lost in the process.
(I concluded with)..…..My father is as excited as I am and will be happy to give a DNA sample. How do we go about doing that?
I very much look forward to hearing from you. Do you have a picture of your great grandfather?
Mary Linda Winstead Janke”
Uncle Therit Winstead, who had inherited the 1860 letter when Grandma Mary died, was one of the first people I called. He was ecstatic and said, “How did you find him?” I laughed and said, “I didn’t. He found us.”
Within a couple of weeks, my father, Samuel Winstead, and I received DNA kits. We put our samples in the return mail within 2 days. Then there were several weeks of waiting for the results. Bob had also sent kits to some of the known descendants of Elijah’s adoptive father, James Coleman. We waited. Finally the results were available on the 23andMe website. There was a strong relationship between our family and Bob’s, but no relationship between Bob and the Coleman’s. We were both a little surprised at the lack of common genes between the Coleman descendants and Bob as we thought James Coleman might have been related to little Elijah in some way.
Our families are a long way from putting flesh on this skeleton of a family story, but we look forward to uncovering more information in time. For now, we are very thankful to know that Elijah not only survived, but lived to see his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
On Saturday, 06/13/2015 at 1:00 p.m., there will be a Winstead family reunion at Elmwood, the home of Michael Rudder. The address is 928 Ralph Winstead Rd, Leasburg NC 27291-9085. We would like to issue a special invitation to all our Winstead kin and especially to the descendants of all Elijah’s half-sisters:
Susan Jacobs (Snipes)
Mary White Bradsher (Loftis)
Eunice Bradsher Jacobs (Winstead) (Wagstaff)
Lura Dean Bradsher (Woody)
Please join us for this special reunion to welcome Elijah’s great-grandson, Bob Coleman, and his wife, Martha to our family. There will be a covered dish lunch, which all attending provide. Everyone brings enough food to feed themselves and those they bring with them. Then we put it all together and share. Please bring your favorite dishes and any genealogical information you have collected. It is always fun to find out what others have learned about our ancestors. We hope to see you there!
Mary Linda Winstead Janke
06/02/2015 latest edit