We continue with the story of Emmett’s mother, Elizabeth Maxwell Wilson.
In our last post, Emmett’s parents were living in Holly Springs, Mississippi, with six young children, renting a house next to Elizabeth’s sister, Lucy Maxwell Meade and her husband, Everard. The Wilsons has been married almost 10 years, with not much to show in terms of money and professional opportunities. Emmett’s father, Dr. Frank Wilson, was a dedicated and well respected country doctor, having a difficult time making ends meet during in Reconstruction-era Mississippi.
Meanwhile, things were not going well for Dr. Wilson’s parents, Cephas and Emily Wilson and Dr. Wilson’s siblings, who were struggling to keep the homestead (property taxes were high; the Cephas Wilsons has lost almost everything at the end of the Civil War). Survival was becoming an exercise in futility, as money was running out, time was running out. The Cephas Wilson family had few options, and did not relish the idea of becoming homeless.
Cephas and his sons had come across a pamphlet, Charles Swett’s Travelogue of 1868 (copies are still available today, via Amazon.com), which described a group of ex-Confederates from Mississippi and other Southern states who had fled Reconstruction to settle in British Honduras (now Belize), and recreate a plantation life. The British government wanted settlers who knew how to grow sugar and cotton, and were willing to relocate, establish the crops, and make a good living. Several members of the Alabama Wilson family thought this was a good option, took what remained of their savings, and, in 1869, emigrated to Punta Gorda, British Honduras.
According to an interview Emmett gave in 1913, Dr. Wilson visited his family in British Honduras two or three times between 1870 and 1875. Dr. Wilson’s family managed to get a sugar plantation established, and they offered him a part interest. The British government was also interested in Dr. Wilson relocating to British Honduras, as medical professionals were in short supply. They would pay him well, help him and his family relocate.
Apparently, Dr. Wilson felt the money and opportunity to live among family members, and away from the struggles of Reconstruction far outweighed the struggles the family would face relocating to a jungle with no infrastructure and minimum civilization. Things were that bad for the Wilsons, apparently.
This was not just a situation of being disenchanted over minor things.
It was so bad that Dr. Wilson had to borrow $1000 from his father to make this move. I’m certain Dr. Wilson would have talked this over with Elizabeth instead of making this decision on his own. Did they also think to ask for help from Elizabeth’s father, Judge Maxwell, before taking this drastic step? Did they think they had already imposed enough on the Judge’s hospitality to ask for help?
(One source that discusses life during Reconstruction is The Day Dixie Died, by Thomas and Debra Goodrich. It provides good background reading on life during Reconstruction, but it is neither comprehensive nor objective.)
Emmett’s parents must have believed that the economic and political situation in the South was not going to improve, and their best bet was to start over somewhere else, even if that was in a jungle. At least other family members would be there with them.
Dr. Wilson and Elizabeth moved to Toledo Settlement, Punta Gorda, British Honduras in 1875.
Despite the opportunities to establish a new, independent way of life, it was not easy. According to a narrative written by Emmett’s sister, Katie Wilson Meade, their home in Toledo Settlement was a simple house thatched with palm leaves. An overseer ran the plantation while Dr. Wilson practiced medicine on horseback, traveling from settlement to settlement every day. The Wilsons grew sugar cane and produced barrels of brown sugar, which was shipped to the United States.
Katie’s narrative also describes how no family member was ever allowed to be outside alone; someone would have to carry a weapon on their person at all times because wildcats roamed the jungles, as did boa constrictors (one that was as thick as a man’s thigh was shot in the front yard by Dr. Wilson himself). Katie describes how Elizabeth used to wait up at night for Dr. Wilson to come home after seeing patients; that she could hear large animals rubbing against the side of the house in the darkness. I can imagine how she must have felt, not knowing if the beast outside was capable of destroying the wall that stood between herself and her children, or if perhaps that animal lay in wait for her husband.
There were no schools except what the Wilsons and their neighbors could organize on their own in the settlements; any furniture had to be handcrafted right there on the plantation itself; if it couldn’t be made on the plantation, it had to be imported, which was expensive. Then, getting the imported products from the Port of Belize to Toledo Settlement was a journey in and of itself. Elizabeth was living her life on a frontier, unlike anything she could have imagined doing. It was difficult and challenging; but Katie reports that her mother was always cheerful even in the face of hardships, and if she was worried, her children did not see it.
Elizabeth and Dr. Wilson had three more children while they were living in British Honduras: Katie Elizabeth, born in 1878, and Emmett and his twin, Julian, born one day before Elizabeth’s 36th birthday, in 1882.
During this period, Elizabeth and Dr. Wilson realized that their children needed a more solid education than what they were receiving via community schooling, and they made the difficult decision to send their sons back to the United States. They sent Percy, then Frank Jr. back sometime between 1880 and 1884.
In June of 1884, the Wilsons decided to sell their property and return to the United States. According to Katie’s narrative, there were two reasons her parents chose to give up the plantation in British Honduras: First, it was difficult, expensive, and dangerous sending young boys back to the United States alone, and they missed their sons dreadfully. Second, the sugar plantation was not successful. Dr. Wilson’s father and brothers had all returned to the United States by 1880, because the plantations were not successful.
Elizabeth was three months pregnant when she, along with her two young daughters and four sons climbed up a rickety ladder and boarded the City of Dallas at the Port of Belize, to return to the United States via the Port of New Orleans.
There’s one more part to Elizabeth’s story, to be continued in a few days.
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