Perhaps my headline exaggerates just a bit. My great-great-grandmother probably did receive more letters in her lifetime. Heaven knows she handled hundreds of letters when she worked as a Postmaster at the Killbuck Post Office in the 1860s and 1870s. But to set the scene for this particularly life-changing last letter, let me take you back to Killbuck, Ohio, in October 1850 and remind you of Mary’s life up to then.
Mary and Jesse’s Story Up To 1850
Mary Bassett traveled with her parents to Keene, Ohio from Keene New Hampshire, shortly after the founding of that little town near the Ohio Canal. When she arrived in 1826, at sixteen years old, she already had enough education that she shortly was teaching school–privately, at a neighboring farm. She was only 19 when her mother died and Mary met and married the merchant Asahel Platt. Asahel came from a very religious family, perhaps even more religious than Mary’s father who descended from Pilgrims, and her mother, who came from the Puritan New England family of Stone.
Mary had brought a hand-made wooden chest with her from New Hampshire, and in it she kept precious hand-woven and embroidered cloths and clothing. She also kept important letters. (Fortunately for me, her daughter also kept the letters, and did HER daughter–my grandmother.)
Mary and Asahel had only one child, who died in infancy. They had moved to Killbuck in neighboring Holmes County, where Asahel opened a general store. But their domestic life did not last long. Asahel died young, leaving Mary a widow at twenty-three years old. Her father died the same year, and during the next few years, Mary returned to Coshocton County. Perhaps to save money, she moved into the home her parents left.
There she met Jesse Morgan, newly arrived from the state of New York. He was educated, lively, and must have seemed a good choice after the strait-laced family of her first husband. They were married, and to lessen the burden on his new wife, Jesse farmed out his two oldest children–both boys. One of the girls returned to New York, but one of the girls stayed in Killbuck, with Mary. My great-great grandmother’s marriage had taken her back again to Killbuck.
I believe that Mary would have been happier to have Jesse be a teacher, but he was the restless sort who believed there was a fortune to be made somewhere. Jesse was determined to pursue that fortune. Mary may not have been overjoyed by his frequent absences, but she surely adapted. He traveled through the mid-West buying and selling horses and sometimes land. He wrote to her frequently when he was “on the road,” and she stored his letters away, until this last letter. They had a baby girl, Harriet (Hattie) Morgan who would be my great-grandmother, in addition to Malvinia, the daughter from Jesse’s first marriage.
The Last Letter Arrives
I can’t imagine the agony that ensued when Mary read this last letter. She apparently had never met the author, Solomon Frisbie, the husband of Jesse’s sister, Charlotte.
There Mary sits, in Killbuck, Ohio, with her 8-year-old daughter and Jesse’s 15-year-old daughter in the small town of Killbuck. She has not heard from her husband for many months, perhaps as much as a year. (The last letter to Mary from Jesse in the bundle she saved is dated September 1847.) Although she is accustomed to his being gone for long stretches of time and correspondence is slow, it has been long enough that she must be worrying.
Now she learns that Jesse has been dead for a full two months before she knew his fate. The pain must have been terrible.
Did Mary know that Jesse had gone to California? What my mother knew of her story and the evidence of letters saved contains no hint that she knew. Surely if she had received any letters from Jesse during his trip to California, she would have kept them, since she kept so many other letters from the road. Mr. Frisbie’s letter would have been her first indication that this time the distance traveled by Jesse was far greater. But worse, he had been killed in a riot. The painful knowledge that this time he would not return from his wandering contained the blacker feeling of disgrace. Multiple shocks contained in one letter.
It would seem to me that she would have been shocked that the brother-in-law back in Pennsylvania knew that Jesse had set out for California (even written him a letter when he was “on the road”) but had not kept in touch with her. And it strikes me as very odd that Jesse’s sister and brother-in-law knew that he had married and lived in Holmes County, but did not know his wife’s name or what town he lived in. They probably were unaware that he had a child with Mary.
Delivering the Last Letter
Solomon Frisbie gets points for trying his best to find Jesse’s widow. He sent a letter to the Postmaster at Holmesville, obviously (and erroneously) assuming that Holmesville was the county seat of Holmes County. The population of Holmes County was sparse and I imagine it did not take long for this last letter to find its way to Mary Morgan.
Solomon Frisbie’s Letter
Besides the fact that he did not know exactly where his brother-in-law lived and did not know the name of Jesse’s wife, I am struck by pessimism. He clearly expected bad things to come to anyone who dared undertake the journey to California. And Solomon, who lived all his live in his corner of Pennsylvania, must have thought Jesse was a wild man. He definitely expected Jesse to die, and thus made it a point to get a newspaper that covered California news and diligently read the obituaries, ultimately ‘rewarded’ for his diligence. The other thing he has no idea about is what Jesse does for a living. Jesse had not been a wool carder since he left Pennsylvania, many years before.
In Solomon’s letter to Mary (the anonymous widow), the brother-in-law assumes that Jesse surely must have accrued valuable property in California. (He may have considrable property there, and thinking you would want to look to it.)Perhaps, like so many others, he had fallen for the legends of riches just waiting for the taking. At any rate, he offers his assistance to the widow–perhaps hoping there would be enough to spread around, or perhaps as the husband of the sister closest in age to Jesse, just fulfilling his familial obligation.
How Will the Widow Survive?
In fact, Jesse had not been in Sacramento long enough to amass anything, and probably left Ohio with barely enough to survive the long trip. Poor Mary at forty years old with an eight-year-old daughter was once again a widow, and this time left without financial support.
I know that she had a small inheritance from her first husband and was a prudent manager, as she invested in properties in Killbuck.But as she worked later in life as a seamstress, I have to believe that she was earning some money with her fine needlework. We found some samples of her work in the wooden chest with a hand written note by her daughter.
Also, Mary did have the support of her Bassett sisters and Stone relatives in nearby Coshocton County. And unlike many widows who moved in with family or quickly remarried, she remained single and stayed in Killbuck with her daughter. She must have loved Jessie even after what might look like betrayal from our vantage point.
Jessie Morgan: a Scoundrel or a Hero
The best evidence of that is the fact that no ill will against her husband remained in the family. My grandmother spoke of him almost admiringly as an adventurer who was ‘done wrong.’ Despite newspaper articles that accused the rioters of being unlawful troublemakers, within the family Jesse was seen as a hero to disenfranchised people seeking their rights against greedy landowners. My great-grandmother named her middle son William Morgan Stout, which she would certainly not done if she felt animosity toward her absent father.
And Jesse’s own children used the Morgan name with their children, so they also apparently felt no ill will against him.
*You can read the details of Jesse’s untimely end in the post written by my brother about the well documented Squatter’s Riot in Sacramento. Jesse’s name even appears on a plaque. The squatters riot was covered widely in newspapers of the time, and also is described in history books. However, at the time, the squatters were reviled and nobody bothered to record where Jesse might have been buried. (One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s anarchist.)
More Information About Jesse and Mary’s Lives
I will return at a later date to Jesse’s trip to California with the 49ers and some further mysteries of his life and death, but a this point so much of that story is speculation that I prefer to move on to talk about some other ancestors with less vague histories.
The information in this story comes mainly from the letters, although it also contains my speculation based on family history and the deduction based on records of Mary’s and Jesse’s life and family heirlooms.
If you have not been following the story of Mary and Jesse, here is a guide to the stories of their lives.