Chapter 28: Dorothy, Whit, and Elizabeth


Friday, May 24, 2014, about 11 a.m.

As the officer said, the old train depot in downtown Chipley wasn’t hard to find. Fifteen minutes later, I’m sitting my car, in front of a seafoam-green building that definitely looked like a train station from the early 19th century.

The original train station in Chipley is long gone; this is the current Amtrak station. Source:

I note that trains still run through Chipley; I had to drive across two sets of raised tracks at an intersection with a barricade that lowers as trains rush by.

The difference between today and Emmett’s day is that passenger trains rarely stop here; trains are primarily freight. Chipley isn’t the train hub it used to be, especially since the advent of automobiles. I get that: Everyone wants to control personal travel. In Emmett’s day, going to and from communities was a novelty; romantic and sweet, special, out-of-the-ordinary. There was something special about planning a trip 100 miles away, or even 25 miles away, for example, where you’d stay with friends or relatives; it didn’t happen every day for regular people.

But in 2014, I know folks who commute 25, even 100 miles round trip a day for their jobs — definitely not a novelty, and certainly not romantic and sweet, particularly in an eight-lane traffic jam on a regular basis.

A side view of the Washington County Historical Society building; a caboose on the grounds. Photo taken by author.

I get out of the car with my computer briefcase and notebook; straighten my skirt and blouse, smooth my hair.

I’m anxious that I’m on time and presentable, and glad that I was able to make it today: The Washington County Historical Society building is only open on Fridays from 10 am to 2 pm. The curator emailed me a week or so ago that she’d open it up for me, even if I arrived on a day it was closed. She has no idea how grateful and humbled I am about that. In all the years I’ve been doing research, no one has ever volunteered to open up an entire museum for me to study artifacts. I want to be sure I’m not any trouble; I know that most curators and the staff in small museums are volunteers.

I notice a number of people going in and out — I didn’t think it was a busy place; I thought it would be me and the curator — but today, the place is hopping!

Taken by the author during a lull in the comings and goings of Chipleyites.

The historical society is definitely a community gathering place — when I opened the door, numerous long-time residents were milling about. I later learned these are folks who stop by weekly when the museum is open. Several are gathered at the long tables with checkerboard tablecloths in the open back room to talk, drink coffee, read scrapbooks. It’s interesting — there are other visitors from out of state here too; one woman in particular from Pennsylvania searching for Florida ancestors. I realize that the local residents here are valuable assets to the historical society: They are keen genealogists and history buffs who can offer useful tips to the visitors on navigating official Florida record holdings, contact names and numbers, as well as excellent seafood restaurants while in the area.

The rooms are full of interesting artifacts on the walls, in old glass display cases from general stores. It’s busy, bustling, cheerful.

The curator, Dorothy Odom, recognizes me right away and greets me as if I was someone well-known to her; indeed, we’ve been exchanging emails for several weeks and I feel right at home. She introduces me to her adult daughter, Chelie, holding a gray kitten, who also greets me warmly.

Wonderful friends in the Washington County Historical Society library, Dorothy Odom and Whit Gainey. Photo by the author.

Dorothy loves that I refer to her collection as artifacts. I don’t think she realizes how important her collection is to me (or really anyone else putting someone’s story together). Dorothy has basically the things that Emmett saw on a daily basis in a house or an office, stuff he took for granted, but the same stuff that made him who he was, in a subtle way.

Take Ivory Soap, for example: It was an everyday thing in Emmett Wilson’s world in the 1890s. Maybe Emmett used it; liked the smell of it, like I like the smell of it. Ivory Soap reminds me of my childhood, or maybe what I wished my childhood would have been: Safe, reliable, predictable.

Here’s a photo of an original Ivory Soap package taken on May 20, 2014 in Pensacola while touring 1880-period houses in Old Pensacola. The display features products typically found in a home between 1890-1910. Photo by the author.

A collection of artifacts at the Washington County Historical Society. The red arrow points to a bottle of mucilage. Photo by the author.

Maybe it is that I see these artifacts with new eyes, thinking, Emmett saw this item, or that product in his parent’s kitchen pantry. He may have picked something like that up, used it.

Maybe Emmett, on a dare from an older brother, took a swig out of that bottle of mucilage convinced it was an exotic highball, his lips encircling the small neck of the bottle. He tips the bottle back, his eyes grow wide as he tastes the stuff ….

I quickly stop to look up the word on my phone —

— OMG. Well, I hope Emmett didn’t do that. I know absolutely that his brothers were pranksters. It’s possible it happened…

Dorothy touches my elbow to introduce me to retired Judge Perry Wells, a regular at the historical society; a senior gentleman with a kind, intelligent face.

I tell Judge Wells that Emmett’s older brother Cephas clerked for Judge W.O. Butler before he began a law career, and that I’m staying that night with the descendants of the Butler family while I’m visiting Chipley. Judge Wells nods approvingly, recommends I note the beautiful restorations of the Butler home and the photo gallery there featuring early 20th century photos of the home and family friends.

Coincidentally this day, Judge Wells had with him a small flyer for Jerry Williams Carter, essentially an old campaign flyer for Mr. Carter. I recognize Mr. Carter immediately — “Judge Wells, this is wonderful! Jerry Carter was Emmett’s campaign manager both times he ran for Congress!”

“Mr. Democratic Party,” Jerry Williams Carter wedding photo, 1910. Source:

I wanted to hug the judge for showing me the unexpected flyer; primary sources of information about Emmett have been few and far between to say the least. Dorothy says she’s happy to  print a copy for me. While I waited, Judge Wells suggested I take a walk through the downtown area, and points me over to a rack that hold booklets featuring a walking tour of Chipley.

Dorothy hands me the copy of the flyer, then introduces me to Whit Gainey, a quiet and thoughtful gentleman with an expansive interest in Washington County history. Whit asks me if I am going to visit the Wilson house on Sixth Street.

“I’m expected at the house after lunch, but in the meantime, I was going to head out to the cemetery to visit Emmett’s parents’ gravesites.”

“Do you know where the Wilsons are buried? If you don’t, I have a map and I’m happy to show you,” Whit said, “Otherwise, it’s easy to get lost.”


A half hour later, I’m riding in Whit’s red pickup truck. A country music station is playing quietly as Whit drives around the main street of Chipley; he points out a few landmarks. The old First National Bank, which is in sad condition (there have been some efforts to save it, but nothing successful to date); a row of old storefronts that are in good condition. We turn onto more residential streets, and Whit points out a few Victorian homes that are well cared for, places where Emmett and his family would have seen, probably had dinner with friends and the like. Otherwise, we ride mostly in silence to Greenwood Cemetery; he’s not much of a small talk person with a stranger, and that’s fine. I’m not good with small talk either.

We drive through a small neighborhood to get to the cemetery. “The Wilson graves are in the older part of the cemetery,” he said, maneuvering the truck off the pavement onto a grassy drive. He pulls to a stop near a tree; pulls out the cemetery map with the plots outlined, and nods toward a collection of tall, white monuments. “That’s them up ahead,” he said.

We get out of the truck, and as we walk along the grassy drive, Whit tells me that he’s spent a lot of time over here, photographing headstones and uploading the images to, the cemetery database.

Whit pauses, and turns away politely to look around at a few other stones while I walk towards Dr. Francis Wilson and Elizabeth Wilson’s graves.

I stand in front of them; I don’t know what to do. Finally, I’m here, I think. I’ve been reading about the Wilsons, studying their lives for over a year — but this feels awkward; uncomfortable. I think I should feel something else, because we’re family.

Maybe it is that this has been, pretty much, a one-way relationship for over a year.  An introduction might help.

“Hello,” I say out loud, quietly, to Francis and Elizabeth. “I’m Judy. I’m glad to meet you, and I wish I’d known you in person. This feels weird but it’s true.”

I start to feel better.

But damn, I think to myself, as I look about. I should have brought flowers. I move towards Elizabeth’s stone, and touch the top of it: Lichens. It hasn’t been cleaned in a long time. I look down at both plots: The graves were dry and dusty.

I realize they hadn’t been visited in decades.

“I’m sorry about that,” I say to Francis and Elizabeth. “I’ll be sure to come by whenever I’m in Florida.”

Whit is walking towards me; he pauses in front of the Wilsons.

“These are your cousins?”

“Yes,” I say, and I begin to take photos.

Emmett’s mother, Elizabeth V. Wilson. Note the lichens at the top of the stone; the dry, sandy soil around the graves. Photo by the author.

Emmett’s father, Dr. F.C. Wilson. See the second line of text with the missing “PFC”, which has been pried off. Photo by the author.

Both graves have interesting additions at the bottom:

For Dr. Wilson, there’s a Confederate Army plaque — and someone has pried off the rank. I ask Whit about the damage to the plaque. He doesn’t think it was vandalism per se; he’s curious if there was an error on the plaque why a new one wasn’t ordered.

For Elizabeth, this is at the base of her tombstone:

The inscription at the base of Elizabeth’s tombstone. Photo by the author.

“Her death was the turning point in this family,” I tell Whit. “There were 10 children, the youngest was eight years old when she died. And Dr. Wilson,” I said, nodding at the other stone, “coped by burying himself in his work. He was a county doctor, one of three, so he was essentially not around for the two years up until his second marriage to Kate Langley Jordan.”

Whit gazes around the immediate area surrounding the Wilson graves. “The second wife isn’t buried anywhere around here,” he said.

“That may be telling,” I say.

As we walk back to Whit’s truck, he says, “People handle grief differently. Sometimes they don’t handle it at all.”

“I think kids pick up on that,” I say, as I climb into his truck. As he starts the engine, I thank him for taking me to visit my cousins, and we ride back to the historical society building in silence.

Next: A closer look at Dr. Wilson



Chapter 26: I suddenly grew up


The final page of Katie Wilson Meade’s narrative is brief:

Source: Elizabeth Meade Howard. Used with permission.

There were no wharves or piers to land near, so the “big” boys jumped over-board and carried us in their arms. It was a lot of fun!

We were much freer out there because there was no jungle to breed wild animals. At “Big HILL” we hd to watch out for tarantulas, snakes, and big red ants right in the yard. Here it was entirely free of such things. This sounds like a dreadful place to live, but we didn’t feel so at the time.

Looking back on it seems much worse than when we were living through it.

Our Mother was always cheerful and gay and would play on the piano and sing hymns on Sunday afternoons, teaching us to love them and to sing in church.

She gave us a happy life until I was 12 years old — I suddenly grew up then, and helped care for the three “little” boys.

The last page of Katie Wilson Meade’s narrative ends abruptly — and curiously.

What I knew in the early days of Wilson family research was that Emmett and Katie’s mother, Elizabeth, died in Chipley, Florida, when Emmett was eight and Katie 12 — but that was all I knew. Katie’s narrative suggests Elizabeth was a loving, hands-on mother, someone who paid attention to details, but wasn’t a martinet. Elizabeth was the kind of mother who kept the family close, who knew the importance of faith to get through all kinds of situations — good, bad, tedious.

Emmett’s mother, Elizabeth V. Wilson.

Make no mistake: Elizabeth had led a privileged life, but what wife would follow a husband into an untamed jungle if she wasn’t strong, if she didn’t have faith that bad times would work out if everyone pulled together, even if the move was something she was afraid of in some ways?

Katie says her father, Dr. Francis Wilson, was tough; Elizabeth was much the same, I’d wager.

And Katie indicates in her narrative that Elizabeth’s death was unexpected; impactful, not just to her, but to everyone.

I have no idea what Emmett thought or felt when it happened; Katie doesn’t indicate anything about what anyone else thought but herself — she had to toughen up, grow up suddenly. Likely Emmett felt the impact of his mother’s death sharply as well.

Next: Sudden death


Chapter 25: We began a new life


Page six of Katie Wilson Meade’s narrative continues from the trip out of the jungle back to civilization. This section picks up from the last sentence of page five in the previous post.

The men walked along side of the wagon, so when the oxen got stubborn the men yelled and lashed them with long raw-hide whips — But nothing doing! They wouldn’t move!

At last, a native worker made great balls of mud and pushed it up their noses and they struggles so hard they pulled us out!

We went from Punta Gorda to Belize that way. We boarded a ship in Belize, going up a rickety ladder hung over the side. It was a sailing vessel going to New Orleans.

The trip took about a week. It was here that I saw my first train, as it huffed and puffed into the station, the steam coming out from both sides and black smoke out of the smoke-stack. It was a fearsome sight to a child raised up to this time in a jungle.


My mother’s father gave her about 60 acres of land about half-way between Pensacola and Tallahassee, and we built a new house on it and began a new life. Father practiced medicine in the little town and for forty or fifty miles in the surrounding country. He was available day and night, from a baby case to small-pox to yellow fever. He would off a man’s leg one day and pull his tooth the next!!

A much beloved “family doctor,” whose chief interest in his life were his patients and his family of ten children — eight boys and two girls. A brave man and a Christian gentleman.


Occasional reference to the ‘Big’ boys in this story means the five older boys who were born before either of the girls. My sister, Eudora, was four years older than I; then came a pair of twin boys, and last, my youngest brother, Walker. All these married in due course of time, except Emmett Wilson, the Congressman.

There are so many nieces and nephews scattered around in Florida I cannot tell the names, nor where they live.

When I was born the natives working on the Plantation came in to see the ‘picayune bambino’ and from that day to this I was called “Pic;” all the folks in Florida still use that nick-name — in Miami, where I visit each year the friends of Eloise (my niece) call me “Aunt “Pic”. I don’t mind; it reminds me of the old days of long ago.

In the Spring our parents took us all on a little trip to the Sapodilla Keys (Islands), not many miles from the coast of British Honduras where only natives lived. We ran around half clothed and played with the natives and loved every minute of it.

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:

The “City of Dallas” was a 915 ton steamer that ran regularly between the Port of New Orleans, Belize, and other Carribbean destination, according to the website. The ship’s master at the time the Wilsons boarded for their trip back to the United States was Reed.

Information about the “City of Dallas” from Macheca Fleet.

Katie mentions climbing aboard the steamer by way of a ‘rickety ladder,’ perhaps a rope ladder tossed over the side. Katie and Emmett’s mother, Elizabeth Wilson, was about three months pregnant with Walker Wilson in June, 1884, the date of their departure [Walker Wilson was born December, 1884 in Chipley, Florida]. Poor Elizabeth — I hope she didn’t suffer seasickness in addition to morning sickness simultaneously during the week-long voyage between Belize and New Orleans.

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

From New Orleans, Katie said the family took the train to Chipley — it is possible they would not have had to pay for the fare, because Elizabeth’s father, Augustus Emmett Maxwell, in addition to his important political connections, had railroad connections — he was once president of the Pensacola & Montgomery Railroad, and family members could travel free or at a significantly reduced rate. But, it is more likely Maxwell paid for the railroad trip because there are several family sources that state the Wilsons’ sugar plantation investment was not successful (despite Katie’s description of a box of gold British coins in an earlier post).

Even though he was not president of the railroad in 1884, it is likely Maxwell paid the fare for the family because of the financial problems reported at this point in other Wilson family genealogies. Source: Herringshaw’s Encyclopedia, page 626

Here’s another clue that the Wilson family’s finances were in bad shape: Katie said that Augustus Emmett Maxwell gave his daughter, Elizabeth, 60 acres between Pensacola and Tallahassee. We now know that property was in Chipley, Washington County, Florida, and today it is located outside the city limits, on Orange Hill Highway. I wrote about it in an earlier post, here, which explains why I thought Maxwell gave the property to his daughter (and not Dr. Wilson).

Dr. Frank and Elizabeth Wilson’s original home on Orange Hill Road, about 1890. The property was given to Elizabeth by her father, Judge Augustus Emmett Maxwell, around 1884-1885, and not Dr. Wilson. Source: Elizabeth Meade Howard.

The mystery of who “Aunt Pic” was was finally solved with this page of Katie’s narrative. I’d seen the reference to ‘Pic’ here and there in the genealogies, but I wasn’t sure if that was a reference to Katie, Dora, or even Lula Wiselogel Wilson (Cephas’ wife, and Katie’s sister-in-law), or if it referred to another Wilson relative.

“Eloise”, mentioned in the narrative, was Eloise Smith, the daughter of Dora and W.E.B Smith.


There’s one more page of Katie’s narrative; stay tuned.



Chapter 20: Katie’s Story About British Honduras


Katie Wilson Meade, June 23, 1936, Bluemont, Virginia.

Although Emmett mentioned in an interview that he was too young to have any real memories about what his life was like when he lived in British Honduras (he was two years old when his family emigrated back to the United States), his sister, Katie Wilson Meade, wrote a narrative about her memories living in British Honduras, and I have copies of the pages, thanks to Katie’s granddaughter, Elizabeth Meade Howard.

For the next several posts, I’ll let Katie tell the story. (Please note that the information in the text following is a verbatim personal narrative of Katie Wilson Meade, and is not reflective of the views of this blog’s author.)


Page one of Katie Wilson Meade’s story of her childhood in Belize, British Honduras. Published with permission of Elizabeth Meade Howard.

In 1878, I was born in a thatched house (thatched with palm leaves and other leaves I can’t recall) on a sugar plantation in Toledo Settlement, Punta Gorda, British Honduras, Central America.

The plantation was named “Big Hill.” My parents were Doctor Francis Childria Wilson and Elizabeth Virginia Maxwell. Father was born in Lunenburg County, Virginia, and removed at an early age, to Mt. Hebron, Alabama. His parents acquired a cotton plantation on which prospered so well they finally had 3000 acres. His father had a good many slaves at the time of the War Between the States, and at that time he gave my father a negro boy named Jim. Jim went through the whole war with his young master and many times managed to get food for them both when they were in sore need. Much later in life I was privileged to visit this old plantation and actually saw five of the old slaves. One white-haired old fellow swept off his had and bowed nearly to the ground, calling me “little Missy.” It was quite an experience for me.

Augustus Emmett Maxwell, Emmett’s grandfather.

Mother was born in “Oakfield,” her father’s country home outside Pensacola, Florida. Her father was a lawyer and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the State of Florida. This man rode on horse-back from his home in Florida to the University of Virginia. While there, he married a girl named Sarah Roane Brockenbrough, daughter of a Proctor of the University. Judge Maxwell was in U.S. Congress before the War, and later resigned to become Senator in the Confederate Congress. He held 16 different public offices in his state.

Now to Honduras — My father practiced Medicine after the War in Mississippi until a group of sons of some cotton planters decided to go to Central America and he joined them. They sailed to Balize (now spelled Belize) and from there looked over the plantations. Father bought one near Punta Gorda. He had an overseer who ran the place while he practiced medicine. They raised sugar cane and made brown sugar which was shipped in big barrels to the United States to be refined.

A little bit of conflicting information from the last two posts about Dr. Wilson and property ownership, isn’t it? Even though we have a sworn statement from Katie’s brother, Francis Jr., that Dr. Wilson never relinquished his American citizenship, the fact Katie claims he owned British property when one had to be a British citizen makes me wonder….

Of course, Katie wrote this reflection at least 30 years after the event, so she may not have had all the facts straight. Still, her personal recollection is the only one I have (so far) unless another one turns up.

Stay tuned for the second page.


(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.)



June 23, 1891



Emmett’s mother, Elizabeth V. Wilson.

On June 22, 1891, Emmett’s father, Dr. Francis C. Wilson, returned to Chipley, and his family, after a four-month separation. Dr. Wilson had been in Kentucky, attending medical school for one semester, to obtain a now-required medical credential so that he could continue to practice medicine in Florida.

The separation was a hardship for the family. The family was dependent on Dr. Wilson’s salary, and his absence meant money would be tight for awhile. Also, it meant Elizabeth would single-parent 10 children, manage Dr. Wilson’s medical practice (maintaining records, paying bills, providing nursing services when necessary, and so forth), and run the household. But Elizabeth was resilient and strong. She was not a stranger to difficult situations; I’m sure she told Dr. Wilson that she would manage just fine, everyone would pitch in, and not to worry. Things would be back to normal in only a few months.

And indeed, on June 23, 1891, things seemed back to normal for the family. That morning, Dr. Wilson immediately resumed his medical practice.  He hitched his horse to his buggy, packed his medical bag, and invited Elizabeth to come along with him as he made his rounds in Chipley.

Elizabeth Maxwell Wilson, about 1865.

I imagine Dr. Wilson wanted to spend some quality time with Elizabeth, as they rode out together in the buggy along the dirt roads of Washington County, on that warm, sunny day in June.

We can imagine Elizabeth catching Dr. Wilson up on all the family activities and news. Theirs was definitely a love match — I imagine them talking about how much they missed each other. It is easy to imagine Dr. Wilson telling his beloved Elizabeth that would make it up to her for keeping everything together so well all by herself, especially now that he was home for good.

Midday, Dr. Wilson and Elizabeth rode into downtown Chipley, and stopped at a drugstore, to get a cool drink. One of the storekeepers brought the drink out to Elizabeth — she drank it — then collapsed, unconscious.

Dr. Wilson took Elizabeth immediately to the nearest house, where the neighbors put Elizabeth in bed right away.

Despite all his best efforts, Elizabeth never regained consciousness; she died several hours later.

It is not known what Elizabeth drank at the drugstore. Some family members believe she died of an aneurysm, but because an autopsy was not performed, the cause of death was not conclusive.

Elizabeth Maxwell Wilson, Part III


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:

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:

Cephas and his sons had come across a pamphlet, Charles Swett’s Travelogue of 1868 (copies are still available today, via, 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:

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:

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:

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:


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

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

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

Elizabeth Maxwell Wilson, Part II


It is difficult to write about Emmett’s mother, Elizabeth Maxwell Wilson, because most of the details of her story are couched in her husband Dr. Frank Wilson’s story. Bear with me as I tease out the details about Elizabeth.

As mentioned in an earlier post, Dr. Wilson started his medical studies at a university, but once the Civil War started in 1860, he dropped out, much to the irritation of his father, and enlisted with the 11th Alabama Infantry.

Dr. Wilson took pride in his service during the Civil War. Officially, he entered as a private, and, he was mustered out as a private. Family genealogy reveals that he had a field promotion to Captain before Appomattox, but it was never made official. Someone who didn't like Dr. Wilson's official rank pried if off of the brass plaque.

Dr. Frank C. Wilson, Elizabeth’s husband. Dr. Wilson took pride in his service during the Civil War. Officially, he entered as a private, and, he was mustered out as a private. Family genealogy reveals that he had a field promotion to captain before the surrender at Appomattox, but it was never made official. Someone who didn’t like Dr. Wilson’s official rank pried it off of the brass plaque. You can see the remnant of the rank, “PVT”  in the second line of the plaque’s text.

Dr. Wilson didn’t serve in any medical capacity during the war; he was a regular soldier. He went in as a private; he was mustered out as a private.

In my last post, the letter from Elizabeth is dated February 4, 1865. At that time, Dr. Wilson was still serving in the Confederate Army; I know this because Dr. Wilson’s war record states he was with Lee when at Appomattox when Lee surrendered on April 9, 1865. If Elizabeth and Dr. Wilson were serious about each other, I’m sure she would have written about him, instead of the other fellow, “Duncan,” who was not such a great correspondent! The thing was, Dr. Wilson did not know Elizabeth yet, but, he knew her family, because Dr. Wilson’s father and Judge Maxwell stayed in touch with each other over the year.

The family genealogy reports that after the surrender at Appomattox, Dr. Wilson came home to his family in Mt. Hebron, Greene County, Alabama. In Fall of 1865, he went to Pensacola to begin his medical studies as an apprentice to an established physician. Why Pensacola? There was the Medical College of Alabama, in Mobile, likely the school he had started his original studies in 1860. Dr. Wilson probably thought he’d save up and re-enroll. But life — and love — intervened.

I surmise that when Dr. Wilson arrived in Pensacola in Fall of 1865, on the advice of his family, he looked up Judge Maxwell, to renew family acquaintances and to get advice on establishing himself in Pensacola.

He stopped at the Maxwell’s home, Oakfield Plantation, which was six miles north of Pensacola proper. He introduced himself, and, Judge Maxwell introduced Dr. Wilson to his daughter Elizabeth.

Today, what was known as Oakfield Plantation is a subdivision bisected by a railroad line, a few miles away from Interstate 110 in Pensacola. Source: Google Maps

Today, what was known as Oakfield Plantation is a subdivision bisected by a railroad line, a few miles away from Interstate 110 in Pensacola. Source: Google Maps


Dr. Wilson arrived at Oakfield Plantation with not much more than what he had in his suitcase: Clothing, books, a little money, a lot of heart. He was restarting his medical studies; he didn’t have the means to support anyone other than himself in the Fall of 1865. Logic says that Dr. Wilson, medical student, wouldn’t have been in a position to marry anyone for at least a few years.

But love trumped logic, because the courtship of Dr. Wilson and Elizabeth Maxwell was less than six months.

Dr. Frank and Elizabeth Wilson's marriage record.

Dr. Frank and Elizabeth Wilson’s marriage record.

Dr. Wilson and Elizabeth were married February 22, 1866 at Oakfield Plantation by the Episcopal priest from Christ Church in Pensacola. This was a home wedding, which was sensible: The war had just ended. Money was short, as were dress goods, sugar, and other everyday necessities that were plentiful before the war. It would have been in bad taste to have an ostentatious, showy wedding when less fortunate neighbors were still struggling less than one year after the war.

The Wilsons lived at Oakfield Plantation for almost four years. While they were there, their first son, Max, was born in December, 1866. A second son, Cephas, followed in 1868.

In 1870, the Wilsons are in Holly Springs, Marshall County, Mississippi. They rented a home next door to Elizabeth’s sister and her husband, Lucy and Everard Meade. This was a practical move: There was a need for physicians in rural Mississippi, and, because Elizabeth’s family was there, they wouldn’t be strangers as they started over in a new place.

The date on the U.S. Census for Holly Springs is August 19, 1870. The youngest child is Frank Jr., only two months old. Cephas, the next youngest was born in Pensacola in 1868. The Wilsons may have been in Holly Springs for at least a year.

The date on the U.S. Census for Holly Springs is August 19, 1870. The youngest child is Frank Jr., only two months old. Cephas, the next youngest was born in Pensacola in 1868. The Wilsons may have been in Holly Springs for at least a year.

When the Wilsons arrived in Holly Springs, they didn’t have much other than a few trunks of possessions, and some furniture given to her by Judge Maxwell.

Living in Holly Springs was quite different than living in the spacious Maxwell home in Pensacola, a plantation certainly large enough to accommodate extended family for indefinite periods of time. Elizabeth’s father may have been fine with them staying on forever, and perhaps Elizabeth was fine with staying in her childhood home, too.

Elizabeth Maxwell Wilson. This photo was taken at about the time the letter was written.

Elizabeth Maxwell Wilson.

I believe Elizabeth would be happy wherever she was, as long as she had her husband and children with her.

She strikes me as the type that might not have been bothered with the struggles she encountered raising a family with little money, and having to be creative with whatever resources she had available. In fact, her daughter Katie writes that Elizabeth was always positive, upbeat, as she taught her children how to playing the piano, often encouraging her children to sing hymns along with her. Katie presents Elizabeth as a joyful parent; resilient, living her life on life’s terms, and not being resentful over whatever might have been had the war never taken place.

The person I think was bothered the most about having to struggle financially for several years was Dr. Wilson. It was very tough going for him and Elizabeth the first years of their marriage; he ministered to patients who probably couldn’t pay him in cash most of the time, and he still had to provide for his family. That must have been frustrating and worrisome for a man who was needed constantly by both his family and his patients. I don’t think Dr. Wilson was able to eat a complete dinner with his family that often, because he was so busy.

If you notice in the 1870 Census, his personal estate is valued at only $180. He does not own property. That $180 was the value of what they had, plus whatever available cash — which probably was not much.

Compare this to the 1860 Census, only 10 years earlier, where Dr. Wilson’s family financial situation was this:
Notice that Dr. Wilson is the oldest son of C.L. Wilson, planter and owner of a wealthy estate. Source:

Notice that Dr. Wilson is the oldest son of C.L. Wilson, planter and owner of a wealthy estate. The Wilson personal estate was valued at $28,500 in 1860 — millionaires in today’s dollars. Source:

See also the 1860 Census for Elizabeth Maxwell’s family:
Elizabeth "Lizzie" Maxwell's family was wealthy, too. Source:

Elizabeth “Lizzie” Maxwell’s family was wealthy, too, with a personal estate of $8,000. Source:

The Wilsons remained in Holly Springs for the next five years; they were active in the Episcopal church, and Dr. Wilson’s medical practice grew.  Four more children were born here: Frank Childria Wilson Jr., in 1870; Percy Brockenbrough Wilson in 1871; Everard Meade Wilson in 1873; Eudora Neely Wilson in 1875.

But big changes were coming for the Wilson family: An opportunity came about to rebuild their lives as they once knew them, before the Civil War broke out. It was risky; would Dr. Wilson take it?

Stay tuned for the next installment in a day or so.