What really is an unusual source? Is a Census record unusual? Could be, I suppose, if there were something really odd about it. I suppose lots of ordinary records could be unusual.
Even a regular vital record could be unusual. My grandmother told a story, that I have never been able to validate, that some of her ancestors wanted to marry but their families were against it. So, they asked one of the field hands on the farm, a black man, to get the marriage license for them. He did, and supposedly, their marriage license is recorded in the register of black marriages in that county, even though they were about as far from black as you could imagine, solid Irish stock. That would be unusual. (I’ve never been able to find any proof of this at all. It’s one of the mysteries I would love to prove or disprove.)
But, in this case, I have some records that are a little out of the ordinary to share. Nothing too odd, just not a place I would have thought to go find out the history of my ancestors. Letters written and mailed from the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, the journals of a Baptist missionary society, and a philatelists’ compilation of steamboat timetables all help to flesh out this story (which has turned out to be longer than I expected)
Meet Bettie Cooper Cason. Bettie Cooper (more formally, Elizabeth), was born 10 Sep 1834 in Bedford County, Tennessee to Micajah T. Cooper and Sarah A. “Sallie” Vincent. You might remember meeting Micajah and Sallie previously when we saw a letter he sent to Bettie.
Bettie was the 4th of 12 children in the family. At least three of these children did not live to adulthood. It appears that Bettie was a twin to Rebecca and that Rebecca died while still a young child, before 1840. Her family was relatively well to do in their neighborhood around Bell Buckle and Wartrace in Bedford County, Tennessee. (If you visit Bell Buckle today, it’s a very cute little town and worth a visit.) In 1860, Micajah reported $8000 in real estate and $15000 in personal property for the Census.
Along the way, Bettie met a dashing young student at Union University in Murfreesboro, Tennessee name Jeremiah H. Cason. How their paths crossed, I don’t really know. He had started preaching when he was about nineteen. Perhaps they met at a camp meeting or at church or something like that. Wartrace and Murfreesboro are not far apart but are not immediately adjacent, either.
I have a nice collection of Jere Cason’s letters that he sent to Bettie while they were courting. Kathleen, my wife, tells me that had I sent her the same sort of courting letters that Jere sent Bettie, we would probably not be here today. They were sort of preachy letters and not exactly the kind of thing that would win her heart. But, I guess that they did the trick.
Jere Cason had big plans. (We’re still getting to the unusual records, I promise.) He very much felt the call to foreign missions. Bettie loved Jere and also felt the call to share her faith in the mission field.
Bettie and Jere married in early July 1856 and spent the summer traveling together and raising money for the mission. Brother Taylor, the leader of the missionary program in the Baptist Foreign Mission board, wondered why they married early in the summer rather than just before leaving, like the other missionaries. But Jere assured him that marrying earlier in the year would make it possible for the two of them to travel together to raise money, and would be able to raise more money for the mission together than Jere could alone.
On 27 August 1856, Bettie and Jere sailed from New York City for the Yoruba Country of Africa along with two other missionary couples. Their traveling companions were Robert W. and Clara Priest from Mississippi and Seldon Y. and Mary Trimble from Kentucky.
Being on a very tight budget, rather than taking a steamship or even a direct sailing ship, they traveled on a trading ship that made its way up the western coast of Africa. This added many days to their trip and made their accommodations not quite first class.
Finally on 13 January 1857, after 115 days at sea, the little band of missionaries landed at Lagos in what is today Nigeria.
Letters are not really an unusual source. Nor are diaries. But a letter, written as a diary, from a ship in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, mailed ship to ship, is a bit unusual. This is one of my favorite sources. Bettie wrote a letter to her parents while on the ship. She wrote a bit each day and made it a bit of a diary.
This is a fascinating letter. It tells about life on the ship and about her newly married life. I am sure that I will come back to this in a later post. If you are interested, let me know. I have transcriptions of this and all of the letters that I have during their stay in Africa.
One of the funniest comments in the letter is when Bettie talks about how they are faring on the ship.
This has been a delightful day. We have sailing more rapidly than usual, which we are glad of, for our voige has been slow and tedious; though it would be pleasant to us were it not for one thing; the unpleasant smell of the vessel frequently makes us sick, especially of a morning when we first get up but as this is nothing serious, I think we have no reason to complain, but rather rejoice when we look at the other sisters; they have been sea sick all the time & were you to see them you would conclude that you never had seen anyone sick stomache before. This is the thirteenth day we have been on board, and Sister Priest has thrown more or less bile off her stomach every day. My sickness before I left home has proven to be a fortunate thing for me. I have never been sick enough to miss my meals. Mr Cason thinks I look better than I did before I was married.
Another unusual source to learn about Bettie Cooper Cason is the letters of the wives of the other missionaries. At the Foreign Mission Board archives of the Southern Baptist Convention in Nashville, I found the collected correspondence of J.H. Cason and the other Africa missionaries. To my surprise, I also found a number of letters from Clara Priest, wife of R.W. Priest. In particular, one of her letters corroborated part of what Bettie said. Clara talked about the journey on the boat and about the places that they stopped to trade. While Bettie mentioned that a boat had been spotted and that they would trade mail, Clara actually recorded the date, position, and what ship they met. So, I can identify where in the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Africa, the letter I have was “mailed”. Of course, however, this was very early in my genealogical career and I made a serious newbie mistake. I failed to make copies of EVERYTHING! I just spent two days tearing the house apart looking for that letter, only to finally find just my notes about the letter. Looks like it’s time to go back to Nashville again.
My unusual sources for this week are about searching in the archives of a church missions organization for information about my ancestor. Along with that, I searched the newsletters of the Baptist Foreign Mission Board. The newsletters and quarterlies printed reports from the missionaries. In the correspondence and reports submitted to the Foreign Missions Board, I found another poignant letter from J.H. Cason, Bettie’s husband, gives a window into their life in Africa. Remember how Bettie was feeling “seasick” only in the morning? In May 1857, she had a daughter. On 15 May 1857, Jere Cason writes:
On the 1st day of May we were delighted by the birth of a fine daughter. It grew and promised well to be raised. On the 12th it died and I followed it to the grave in a small band of Africans. Mrs Cason is doing pretty well and we hope she will be up in a few days.
You wished a good letter this time from me but you may not be accommodated as I am a little jaded mentally and physically from lack of sleep anxiety &c.
Ultimately, Jere and Bettie returned to Tennessee early due to her health. Reading the rest of the (unpublished) correspondence, it seems that things were very tense in the mission field and there was some disagreement about whether it was appropriate to return. But Jere felt like the best thing for his wife’s health was to return home.
Bettie apparently had always had sort of poor health. She was a twin. Her twin sister died as a young child. Losing a child after a few days was hard. She apparently had an injury falling from a horse. But, reading between the lines in some of the letters, it seems like she perhaps had no business going to Africa in the first place.
I have long wondered about their trip home. I felt sure that they landed in New York, since they took a steamship from England. But I could not find them in the passenger lists for New York, which are pretty complete. In one letter, Jere noted that they planned to sail on 4 November 1857 from Southampton in England on the Vanderbilt line and that they expected to arrive on 18 November 1857.
Looking online for 1857 steamship timetables, I found a very complete list from an unusual source. The U.S. Philatelic Classics Society published a book that details all of the known mail ships sailing during the period I was concerned with. It said that on the Vanderbilt line, the steamship Ariel sailed from Bremen, Germany to Southampton, England to New York. It left Southampton on 4 Nov 1857 and arrived on 18 Nov 1857. From that, I was able to look at the Ariel’s passenger list and found why I could never find Jere and Bettie in the index. On the passenger list, their names look much more like Cannon than Cason.
In the end, following the sources for her husband’s occupation to the Archives of the Foreign Missions Board of the Southern Baptist Convention and their publications over the years really provided a much better window into Bettie’s life than I would have had otherwise. So, keep chasing those strange leads that don’t sound like they would lead very far.
I’m sure you will hear more about Bettie in the future, but that’s enough for tonight.