Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Bethel Cemetery: Rhea, Etheredge, Sargent (Part 1)

It took three days to build strength enough to take on my family at Bethel --- a complicated bunch connected by a web of relationships that can cause the eyes of the hardiest family historian to glaze over. But I like them, in part because two of the strongest women I descend from are buried here --- Mary (Rhea) Rhea-Hickman, my great-great-great-great-grandmother; and Elizabeth (Rhea) Rhea-Etheredge-Sargent, her daughter, my..., well there's no need to go through all those "greats" again.

A fact of genealogical life is that men get all the glory, an unwarranted relic of the traditional patriarchy. Our grandmothers are lucky, in many cases, if we can scratch around and discover the surnames they were born with. Here, mother and daughter were born with the same surname, Rhea, then both married as first husbands their first-cousins, also named Rhea. That's a whole bunch of Rheas. It gets really confusing.

But if you're inclined to make jokes about the marrying habits of Kentucky hillbillies --- kindly keep them to yourself.

I'm proud of these women in part because as husbands dropped like flies around them, leaving broods of small children to raise, they just hitched up their skirts and soldiered on --- enduring adversities that these days would cause their hardiest grandsons to swoon.


The biggest group of family stones is at the rear of the cemetery, near the woods, on land that Elizabeth and her second husband, Thomas Etheredge, purchased from the U.S. government during 1854. The stones in the foreground mark the grave of Elizabeth's and Thomas's daughter, Lucinda (Etheredge) Hixon, and Lucinda's baby daughter, Rocella (1875-1877). The stone in the middle distance, with a pointed top once crowned by an urn, too, marks the graves of Elizabeth and Mary as well as Elizabeth's third husband, Edward E. Sargent.

Elizabeth's and Thomas's son, Dempsy Etheredge, is behind the fancier stone at right. Out of the photo to the right are the battered and broken 1860s tombstones of Thomas Etheredge and of Robert Etheredge, another son of Thomas and Elizabeth.


The Rhea family originates in the Great Valley of Virginia where three brothers --- Archibald, Robert and William Rhea --- popped up prior to the Revolution. They were no doubt Ulster-Scot immigrants from the north of Ireland, but little else is known. There are elaborate theories about their origins --- some published. These theories are, as a rule, nonsense.

William Rhea (who died 1802 in Bath County, Virginia) married Elizabeth Clark (who died 1804, also in Bath County). One of their sons was James (born ca. 1753), who married Elizabeth Meek. Mary Rhea, born March 29, 1787, in Virginia, and buried at Bethel, was their daughter.

The Rheas always traveled in herds (and always gave their children the same names). These factors, combined with their habit of marrying each other, results in dizzying complexities with a good deal of inbreeding tossed in for good measure. During the late 18th century, the Rheas poured in great numbers from Virginia into Kentucky.

James and Elizabeth (Meek) Rhea brought their nine children to Green County, Kentucky, during the early 1790s, then James promptly died --- at age 42 on Nov. 27, 1795. Mary, always known as Polly, was 8 at the time. Six year's later, Polly's mother, Elizabeth, married as her second husband Newberry Stockton on Nov. 16, 1801, in Barren County, Kentucky --- by then formed from Green County.

Four years later, when she was 18, Polly married her first-cousin, Thomas Rhea, in Barren County on June 18, 1805. Thomas was a son of Robert Rhea, Mary/Polly's uncle.

They settled down to farm and, during the course of a brief marriage had three children, Robert, Hannah and James. Thomas then died, probably somewhere in his 30s, during 1810. Their fourth child, my great-great-great-grandmother Elizabeth, was born posthumously on June 13, 1811, some months after her father's death, in Barren County.

Widows with young children, unless affluent, had few options at that time --- if they hoped to keep their family together --- other than to remarry. But Mary soldiered on independently, with assistance from her extended family, until January of 1819, when she married as her second husband James Hickman in Barren County. She had no additional children, however.

By this time, the extended Rhea family was planning its next move --- into southern Illinois, commencing in 1824. The Hickman/Rhea family remained in Barren County, however, through 1830, then headed north --- perhaps even that year --- to Island Grove Township, Sangamon County --- not far from Springfield --- where they joined Mary/Polly's brother, James Rhea, and his family, who had settled there during 1824.

At some point between 1840 and 1850, James Hickman died in Sangamon County leaving Polly widowed for a second time. She continued to live independently or with relatives in Sangamon County until just before 1860, then --- in part because all of her other children had died --- traveled west to Lucas County, Iowa, where daughter Elizabeth and her second husband, Thomas Etheredge, had finally settled down. 

She lived with Elizabeth in Cedar Township from just prior to 1860 until her death at age 84 on Feb. 13, 1872. She was the third family member to be buried on the family lot in what now is called Bethel Cemetery.


Once settled in Sangamon County during late 1830 or early 1831, Elizabeth --- Mary's daughter --- became reacquainted with her first cousin, Richard Rhea --- son of James and Rachel (Jolliff) Rhea, who had been born on Jan. 14, 1808, in Barren County.

By 1830, Richard was a well-educated young man of considerable promise (Elizabeth, so far as we know, could neither read nor write --- it was not considered necessary at that time to educate women). His parents were pioneer success stories, among the most successful farm families in Island Grove Township.

Richard also had experience a call to preach --- by that time this branch of the Rheas had abandoned the family's native Presbyterian faith and become Baptists.

Richard and Elizabeth were married on May 22, 1831, in Sangamon County. It seems very odd indeed today that first-cousins would marry, and even more than a century ago it was mildly unusual --- but the novelty of these arrangements obviously didn't deter the Rheas.

By all accounts this was a happy marriage, and Elizabeth and Richard settled down to farm and had three children in quick succession: Mary A., born March 16, 1832; James M., born Feb. 17, 1834; and Elizabeth Rachel --- my great-great-grandmother --- born Feb. 27, 1837.

The family church in Island Grove Township had been constituted on Oct. 6, 1833, as Island Grove Church: Friends of Humanity ("Friends of Humanity" mean this was an abolitionist congregation), although it generally was known as the Berlin Baptist Church. Richard was ordained in the Springfield Baptist Association during 1838 and --- during January of 1839 --- was installed to serve as pastor of his home congregation.

Richard's health was, however, even then beginning to fail --- and the problem never was diagnosed. His probate packet includes many bills submitted by physicians, visiting specialists and druggists for this concoction and that. Despite it all, Richard died on Nov. 17, 1839, at the age of 31, and was buried in the Rhea Cemetery on the family farm --- long since bulldozed out of existence by a 20th century owner.


Three years later, on April 2, 1842, in Sangamon County, Elizabeth married as her second husband Thomas Etheredge, age 39, who had a son of his own, William Etheredge, then about 9 years old. Thomas, a son of Dempsy and Celia (Myers) Etheredge, was born June 20, 1802, in Norfolk County, Virginia, and had been married twice previously --- to Jane Camel on June 28, 1832, in Virginia; and then to Rutha Stripling on June 19, 1836, in Sangamon County.

Not long after their marriage, the combined family headed west to settle during 1844 or earlier in Round Prairie Township, not far from Fairfield in Jefferson County, Iowa.

Thomas and Elizabeth became the parents of four children during the early years of their marriage: Virginia, born Feb. 26, 1843, who died young; Lucinda, born March 24, 1844, in Jefferson County; Robert, born Jan. 24, 1846; and Dempsy, born June 19, 1851.

Not long after Dempsy's birth, the Rhea-Etheredge family headed west again, this time to land purchased from the government on the Lucas-Marion county line due south of the later village of Columbia and due east of the future location of Belinda Christian Church.

This was hilly wooded land, however, and the soil was thin and unsatisfactory --- entirely unlike what Thomas had been accustomed to in both Sangamon and Jefferson counties. He soon looked elsewhere.

During October of 1854, Thomas and Elizabeth purchased 160 acres in Lucas County's Cedar Township. Eighty of these acres were purchased in 40-acre tracts from William Crockett and from James and Clarissa Hall. The balance was purchased from the U.S. Government for $1.25 an acre and included the most northerly section of the then-new McDermott graveyard.

William and Nancy McDermott were the Rhea-Etheredge family's nearest neighbors in Cedar Township. Thomas's and Elizabeth's cabin, later the site of a substantial frame house, was a quarter mile due east of the cemetery.

Elizabeth and Thomas prospered in Lucas County and built that new home to replace the original cabin, but their time together was short. On Christmas Eve, 1862, Thomas died at age 60. He was the first to be buried in the family lot on what then was then his own land but known as McDermott Cemetery. Elizabeth, age 51, had been widowed for a second time.

Additional sorrows awaited during 1863.

Soon after the outbreak of the Civil War, Elizabeth's son, James M. Rhea, then 27, had enlisted on Aug. 10, 1861, to serve under Capt. H.C. Markham in Co. I, Eighth Regiment, Iowa Volunteer Infantry. James, a tall and sandy-haired young man with blue eyes, had bought land in Cedar Township during 1855, then sold it later for a nice profit. During 1860, he was working for Rankin Campbell at the Campbell mill on nearby Cedar Creek.

He was mustered into service during September at Davenport, then shipped down the Mississippi by riverboat with his comrades.

Perhaps emulating his elder brother, Robert Etheredge headed for Iconium in Appanoose County a year later and on August 9, 1862, lied about his age (he said he was 19, but was only 16) and enlisted in Co. F, 36th Regiment, Iowa Volunteer Infantry.

Robert was plagued by illness during his entire time in service and finally, on 20 February 1863 he became so ill at Helena, Arkansas, that he was discharged and sent home. He reached Lucas County during March, having traveled upriver to Keokuk, by train as far as Ottumwa and then across country on foot or horseback. His death occurred at home on April 9, 1863, age 17. He was the second to be buried in the family lot at Bethel. Like his brother, he was a tall young man, fair-complected with sandy hair and blue eyes.

Three months later, during July of 1863, James Rhea was critically injured in combat at Vicksburg and died at a regimental hospital there on July 25, following amputation of a leg. Buried hurriedly nearby in a hospital graveyard, his remains were disinterred after the war and reburied in what now is the Vicksburg National Cemetery, but could not be identified; he rests there among the "unknowns."

If interested, you can read more about James and Robert here in a post entitled "A letter home before the Battle of Shiloh.".


Elizabeth, having lost a husband and two sons during an eight-month period, continued to farm her land in Cedar Township, assisted by son Dempsy, until about 1870.

Dempsy seems to have had little interest in farming, however, and went to work for the railroad, eventually advancing to conductor --- an honored position in the railroading hierarchy of that era. He married Sarah S. Larimer in Russell on July 18, 1872.

Daughter Elizabeth Rachel Rhea, my great-great-grandmother, had married James Wayne Clair on Jan. 20, 1853, while the family was living on the Lucas-Marion County line. She was 15 and the time and he was 16. By 1870, they already had produced eight of their eventual 12 children.

Daughter Mary Rhea had married Joseph Francis Dunn on July 2, 1856, in Lucas County, and they moved into Missouri with her daughter from an earlier relationship, Ethelinda. For reasons lost to time, Mary and her mother became estranged --- and by 1870, neither Mary nor her family had been heard from for perhaps two years. Elizabeth never would hear from Mary again.

Daughter Lucinda Etheredge had married Amos Hixon on May 6, 1864, and they had settled down near their families in Cedar Township to begin a family of their own.

It was at this point, when she was 59, that Elizabeth married for a third time --- to a man 20 years her junior.  More about that next time.

1 comment:

Kaye VanFleet said...

Frank, like you, in my genealogy research I have often ran across marriages of first cousins. In the migration days, I am told, (and agree in the probability) that cousins marrying was probably due to the limited number of men and women in the new settlements. And like your family my ancestors moved in family groups too settling into areas of little or no population. Along with the fact that in those times there were no rules or laws about first cousins marrying. I have to agree it does make researching difficult st time, what with all the names often being repeated so often, especially the John; Thomas; George, Msry etc. being carried on in nearly every generation. Thank you for sharing this wonderful part of your family.