Chapter 22: The Wilsons in British Honduras

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The third page of Katie Wilson Meade’s narrative of her family’s experiences in Toledo Settlement, British Honduras continues.

In yesterday’s post, the Wilson boys, Frank Jr. and Percy, went on an illicit Sabbath fishing trip:

Katie Wilson Meade’s narrative of the Wilson family in British Honduras. Source: Elizabeth Wilson Howard. Used with permission.

Father quietly turned to Percy and got the truth!

Frank got a good whipping for his lie. Percy didn’t because of his truth. Alas, it came later in the day — from Frank!

Father practiced medicine on horse-back, day and night riding through the jungle on trails cut through. There was only one real road, and that was up to Belize [the city]. It was a rugged business but he was rugged too! The four years of war did that! He (and others, of course) carried a conch shell and when they were uncertain where they were on a dark night they would blow into the shell and get an answer from the nearest home.

I can remember my brothers answering him on the kind of shell they kept for that purpose. In this way he kept on the trail and always got home safely, even on the darkest night.

Occasionally, in the day he would see monkeys playing in the trees over his trail. One day he saw them swinging across the trail from tree to tree holding the tails of those in front. Once one of them jumped down on the back of his horse and scared the poor thing nearly to death.

Another time he was returning home and saw a red mountain lion coming down from the mountain to his place. His cattle had been disturbed lately and now he knew what  had been after them. He called to one of his sons to bring his rifle. When the lion got close enough he shot him.

Another time he came home and found a big snake curled up in a large pit in the back yard. Again he used his rifle and killed him. The snake measured nine feet and was as big around as father’s thigh. We were never allowed out in the yard without an older member of the family with us because of the jungle. My mother heard wild animals scratching themselves against the house at night while she sat alone waiting for the “Doctor” to get home. The jungle grew very fast and had to be cut back at least once each week or it would have been up to our very doors.

The moon and stars seemed very close and they were larger and brighter then than they are in this country. Once, I recall my father waking me in the night and carrying me to the window and showing me a big gleaming light with a flaming tail — a comet. He said I would probably never have a chance to see another; which I haven’t!

This happened in the 1880s, so you may be able to place the comet. John Kieren could tell you.

This page has great information!

First, Katie gives us an image of the Wilson home truly in the middle of a wild, untamed, dangerous jungle. I can only imagine what it was like for Elizabeth Maxwell Wilson to raise children in this environment, and that Katie’s family found it preferable to living in post-Civil War America. There were some amenities, I have the feeling it would be similar to long-term camping.

Second, when Katie talks about the house being a plantation, one has the image of a huge white mansion similar to what the Wilsons knew during pre-Civil War days. The plantation house in Toledo Settlement had a thatched leaf roof — a clue that the building was not Tara from Gone With the Wind. (The Bocawina National Park in Belize has a photo of a modern thatched roof which is similar to what it would have looked like in the 1880s.) True, the house could have been large, but it definitely was not a mansion.

Another thought — if Elizabeth Wilson could hear animals rubbing up against the outside walls of the house at night while she waited up for Dr. Wilson to return home, the house could not have been a huge building with thick, insulated walls. This plantation was likely a modest house.

Third, the red mountain lion shot by Dr. Wilson might have either been one of the two lions mentioned in this overview of big cats in Belize: A puma or a jaguarundi.

Fourth, the comet! It was probably the Great Comet of 1882, which was reportedly easily visible to the naked eye.

Great Comet of 1882 as photographed by David Gill, Cape Town. Source: Wikipedia

Finally — John Kieren! I have no idea who this gentleman is, although I am looking for the connection to Katie. Likely this was not someone who knew the Wilsons when they lived in British Honduras, but rather a colleague of Katie’s.

The Wilson family saga in British Honduras continues tomorrow!

(N.B.: Katie’s granddaughter, Elizabeth Meade Howard, graciously shared the typed narrative, and has given me permission to share the information. Please note that the original contents and information belongs to Elizabeth Meade Howard.)

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Chapter 21: Katie’s Memories of British Honduras

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We continue with the second page of Katie’s narrative of her family’s years in British Honduras. There’s a lot of good information on this page, specifically related to the Wilsons  settlement in Punta Gorda.

The second page from Katie’s narrative. Source: Elizabeth Meade Howard; used with permission.

This place was situated on a creek named after some Englishman — Joe Taylor! There was a great building called the “Mill House”  and I can remember dozens of big barrels of brown sugar standing under that shed. They were there waiting to be hauled to Belize and shipped to the U.S.A.

An early recollection is of the sugar cane being cut down with machetes (a sword-like knife that every man carried all the time on account of wild animals). The cane was rolled in to bundles and carried by the native workmen to the “Mill-house” to be ground. These Caribs were a mixture of American, and Spanish and spoke a sort of “pidgeon” (stet) Spanish.

Their women-folk were the house servants. One of them dropped me from her arms down a flight of steps and broke my collar-bone.

The Caribs fed the sugar-cane in between large metal rollers which squeezed out the juice, and was kept rolling by being hitched to a pair of oxen that walked round and round all day long. This juice ran down into a metal basin and was boiled until it thickened into syrup, then it was run through an evaporator– starting as syrup and coming out as brown sugar.

With the aid of Julious (stet) Payne, an Englishman from the old country, and two brothers, Beers, from Montreal, Canada, our parents started a little Episcopal Church on the edge of the Plantation. Mr. Payne, who was my Godfather, was also the lay leader, Organist, and general handy-man around the Church. A very fine fellow and friend of all the “Big” boys. He later married the lady who was my Godmother, a native of British Honduras.

We were supposed to keep the Sabbath holy, but sometimes slipped a bit, as the following incident will show.

My brother, Frank, loved to fish. So one Sunday he persuaded Percy, the angelic one, to go fishing with him. They went down to the creek and had marvelous luck! When time came to go home they were afraid to take the fish home, it being Sunday. Old Frank was not going to throw back his good fish, so he strung them on a line which he tied to a tree and let them float in the stream.

Monday morning came and the boys asked permission to go fishing. They went but did not stay nearly long enough. Father knew they had not stayed long enough to have caught that many fish, so he accused Frank of catching the Sunday, which Frank stoutly denied!

Stay tuned for the continuing saga of Frank, Percy, and the Illegal Fishing Expedition, which continues tomorrow!

 

(N.B.: Katie’s granddaughter, Elizabeth Meade Howard, graciously shared the typed narrative, and has given me permission to share the information. Please note that the original contents and information belongs to Elizabeth Meade Howard.)

 

Elizabeth Maxwell Wilson, Part III

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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.

Charles Swett's Travelogue of 1868. It really is more of a field report of the Confederate expatriates' life in the unsettled tropics. The book is expensive, but, I obtained a copy from InterLIbrary Loan. Source: Amazon.com

Charles Swett’s Travelogue of 1868. It really is more of a field report of the Confederate expatriates’ life in the unsettled tropics. The book is expensive, but, I obtained a copy from InterLIbrary Loan. Source: Amazon.com

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.

The Wilsons lived in Toledo Settlement, Punta Gorda, British Honduras (now Belize). They emigrated from the Port of New Orleans to Belize City; then traveled by ox cart down to Punta Gorda. There were few roads; this was not an easy move for this family. Source: www.scf.usc.edu

The Wilsons lived in Toledo Settlement, Punta Gorda, British Honduras (now Belize). They emigrated from the Port of New Orleans to Belize City; then, traveled by ox cart down to Punta Gorda. There were few roads; this was not an easy move for this family. Source: http://www.scf.usc.edu

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.

The steamer "City of Dallas," a ship of the Macheca Line, which ran between the US from 1868 to 1900. This is the ship that carried Emmett and his family back to the U.S. in 1884. Source: http://onewal.com/jpmacheca/mships.html

The steamer “City of Dallas,” a ship of the Macheca Line, which ran between the US from 1868 to 1900. This is the ship that carried Emmett and his family back to the U.S. in 1884. Source: http://onewal.com/jpmacheca/mships.html

 

Manifest of the passengers on the City of Dallas, June 1884. The Wilsons only had a few trunks of possessions and clothing to take back to the United States, not much more than they had brought with them on the original trip to British Honduras back in 1875. Source: NARA, via Ancestry.com

Manifest of the passengers on the City of Dallas, June 1884. The Wilsons only had a few trunks of possessions and clothing to take back to the United States, not much more than they had brought with them on the original trip to British Honduras back in 1875. Source: NARA, via Ancestry.com

There’s one more part to Elizabeth’s story, to be continued in a few days.

Brotherly Confirmation

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This is a deposition signed by Frank C. Wilson, Jr., witnessed by his wife, Mae, in 1945. This document is in in the possession of Katie Wilson Meade's granddaughter, Elizabeth, in Charlottesville. There is a lot of useful detail about Emmett's family in it.

This is a deposition signed by Frank C. Wilson, Jr., witnessed by his wife, May, in 1943. This document is in in the possession of Katie Wilson Meade’s granddaughter, Elizabeth, in Charlottesville. There is a lot of useful detail about Emmett’s family in it.

This is a document that was shared with me by Katie Wilson Meade’s granddaughter, Elizabeth, during my visit to Charlottesville in January.

The story behind this document is that Elizabeth’s father, Everard Wilson Meade, wanted to join the Navy during World War II, and the lack of an official birth certificate was an issue.

This document was notarized in Florida, probably in Marianna, as that is where Frank and May Wilson were living in 1943. There is a lot of great family background information in this one, concise document.

 

Bovina, Mississippi; Interesting New Twist

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While I was in Mississippi last week, I had an experience that seems so typical of the research work on Emmett’s story; i.e., I discovered that Emmett’s uncle lived, literally, down the road from my ancestors in Vicksburg at the turn of the last century.

Did they know each other? Maybe.

Emmett’s uncle was Simeon Brockenbrough Maxwell, his mother Elizabeth’s youngest brother. There’s not much information available about Simeon, except that he was born in Tallahassee, lived in Pensacola at the same time as his older sisters Lucy and Elizabeth; and, after his sisters married, he went West to seek his own fortune, in Mississippi.

Bovina, Mississippi, to be exact.

Bovina, Mississippi; a tiny community in Mississippi. Source: Google maps

Bovina: a tiny community in Mississippi. You can be sure it lives up to its name, as there are many cows about. Source: Google maps

That was a surprise. Why? Because my family comes from Vicksburg. What are the odds that Emmett has a close relative that lived about eight miles up the the road from my own relatives?

1900 U.S. Census, Bovina, Mississippi.

1900 U.S. Census, Bovina, Mississippi.

Simeon married Emma J. Overby on November 12, 1873, in Hinds County, Mississippi; they moved to Bovina where he was a farmer. They had several children: Frank, Edward, Julia, John, Georgia, and Emma.

If you look closely at this census, you’ll see that it lists that Emma Overby Maxwell had 10 children, but only six are living. In this census, she’s 42 years old, married for 27 years.

Confederate expats settled in British Honduras with the idea that they would recreate another plantation world. Very few were successful; Emmett's family tried to get a sugar plantation going, but it failed miserably. Source: Amazon.com

Confederate expats settled in British Honduras with the idea that they would recreate another plantation world. Very few were successful; Emmett’s family tried to get a sugar plantation going, but it failed miserably. Source: Amazon.com

Also, notice that her son, Edward was born in British Honduras. That’s interesting!

If you recall in an earlier post, Emmett was also born in British Honduras, in 1882.

When our Emmett ran for Congress in 1912, much was made of the fact that he was born while his parents were in the British colony as ‘temporary residents,’ and he would get all testy when his citizenship would be called into question by members of the press.

I find it odd now that this is the THIRD family set from the Wilson clan that decided to ‘temporarily reside’ in a faraway British colony.

If Emmett were sitting here, I’d say to him: “Bud, your family had lost everything they had, and they were trying to recreate another plantation world in Belize. Own it. One doesn’t just move entire families to an undeveloped jungle when there’s no money, no prospects, just for kicks and grins.” Emmett’s father had to borrow $1,000 from a relative just to move to British Honduras, money he knew he’d be hard-pressed to pay back in his lifetime (it was the equivalent of about $20,000 in today’s dollars).

Temporary residency, my ass.


Simeon Maxwell was someone I hadn’t investigated much simply because he didn’t seem to be a major presence or influence in Emmett’s life.

Simeon and his family left Belize before Emmett was born; they lived in British Honduras from 1875 to 1879. I found the emigration record:

The Simeon Maxwell family sailed out of Belize on the E.B. Ward, Jr., into the port of New Orleans on October 22, 1879. Emmett's grandfather left about this time as well; Emmett's parents would stick it out until 1874, when they pretty much had lost everything in the failed sugar plantation venture. Source: Ancestry.com

The Simeon Maxwell family sailed out of Belize on the E.B. Ward, Jr., into the port of New Orleans on October 22, 1879. Emmett’s grandfather left about this time as well; Emmett’s parents would stick it out until 1884, when they pretty much had lost everything in the failed sugar plantation venture. Source: Ancestry.com

Simeon hasn’t been mentioned in family stories or documents other than that he was Elizabeth and Lucy’s brother, and that he moved to Mississippi in his early 20s. He and his family returned to Bovina after their experiences in Belize. But, discovering that he was actually in Belize at the same time as Emmett’s parents, and a few other Wilson relatives was interesting; it reinforced the idea that Emmett’s citizenship might have certainly come into question at one point.

What happened to the Simeon Maxwell family?

St. Alban's Episcopal Church, Bovina, Mississippi.

St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Bovina, Mississippi.

Unfortunately, I haven’t found anything remarkable, other than they moved to Bovina, they were a farming family, they lived their lives, they died here.

Father is Simeon; Mother is Emma O Maxwell. The youngest daughter was also named Emma.

Father is Simeon; Mother is Emma O Maxwell. The youngest daughter was also named Emma. Notice the death dates, and how close they are.

I’ve tried tracking down obituaries to find out what happened to Simeon and his family; if you notice the dates, Simeon and his son John died only within two and a half months of each other. John is only 21. Also, the two Emmas — mother and daughter — died within a few months of each other.

They are, left to right, Emma O Maxwell, Emma the daughter; John, and Simeon. The foot stones have the initials of the deceased.

They are, left to right, Emma O Maxwell, Emma the daughter; John, and Simeon. The foot stones have the initials of the deceased.

I find it odd, but comforting, thinking here’s a direct relative of Emmett who may have known MY direct ancestors.

Bovina (a tiny community in 1900, still tiny in 2015, as it did not even show up on my car’s GPS) is only eight miles down the road from Vicksburg, and considered part of Vicksburg’s micropolitan statistical area. If, back in the day, Bovinians wanted to go shopping for things not found at the local dry goods store (there was only one or two in Bovina), for instance, they’d go to Vicksburg, a larger, bustling, busy port city.

Perhaps my ancestors saw them on the street, doing their shopping. Maybe they smiled at each other, and said hello in passing. I like to think that.

I’ve passed by the exit on Interstate 20 on my way to Vicksburg for years. I’ve never had a reason to stop there before — until now. I’ve found another branch of the family. I hope to discover more about them in my continuing research saga.

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