Hey Mom! Guess Where I’m Going?
There’s lots of kinds of surprise that we find in our families. Sometimes, we find a surprise ancestor as we are looking for someone else. Sometimes, in these days of DNA, we find “surprises” of a completely different sort. What was that song? “Your daddy’s not your daddy, but your daddy doesn’t know”? Luckily, I’ve not any any NPEs (non-paternity events) in my research.
Sometimes, our ancestors do surprising things. We can document some of these, but others are stories of legend. I’ve got one of each of those this week. Elizabeth Cooper, “Bettie”, was born 10 Sept 1834 in Bedford County, Tennessee to Micajah Thomas Cooper and his wife Sarah “Sally” Vincent. The family lived near Bell Buckle, Tennessee, which is a very cute little town today with a couple of nice shops and restaurants, and Wartrace, Tennessee. This is the heart of the Tennessee horse country. The Coopers were fairly well to do, not wealthy, but certainly comfortable and above average for their area. So, Bettie grew up in a safe and comfortable world.
In 1855, she met a young preacher, a student at the local college (Union University), Jeremiah H. Cason. Everyone called him Jere (pronounced Jerry). He must have been a convincing and dashing person in person. I have a number of the letters that he wrote to her while they were courting and they were more like sermons than love letters. My wife said that had I courted her with that sort of letter, we would not have just had our 22nd anniversary! But, in person, I am sure he was something special because in June 1856, they were married.
I guess that’s surprise number one – this daughter of a comfortable family marries a preacher, guaranteeing a life of moving from town to town and of certainly a lower standard of living than the one she grew up with. But, it was a role that must have filled her soul. From her letters, she seemed as in tune with his call as he was.
The big surprise for the family was that not only was Jere a preacher, but he was planning to go to the foreign mission field. And he was planning to take Bettie with him! At the outset, there wasn’t a certainty of where they would go. The Baptist Foreign Missions Board would choose where they needed them the most. So, Bettie, from a little town in Middle Tennessee was going to pick up stakes and go somewhere exotic with this young preacher. Maybe China. Maybe Africa. Maybe somewhere else.
The call came shortly after their wedding for them to go to Africa, to the Yoruba Country, in what is today Nigeria. This prospect was both a surprise and a fear for their parents. I wrote in an early blog about a letter I have from Micajah Cooper to Jere and Bettie as they were on their way that talks about how scary this whole prospect was for both of her parents. You can see the letter and read a transcript here.
In August 1856, the boarded a train for New York and in early September, a ship bound for Africa. They landed in Lagos, in Yoruba, in early January 1857 after working their way up the coast of Africa trading in various ports. I am sure that every single day was filled with a million surprises. The places that they served, the four cities of Lagos, Abeokuta, Ijaye, and Ogbomosho, were all large cities, larger than any others in the South. Some of these had over 100,000 people!
The next surprise was a baby girl, born on the first of May, 1857. Tragically, the next surprise was her death on 12 May 1857. They called her Sally Vincent Cason. And the next surprise was likewise difficult. After the birth and death of Sally, Bettie’s health failed resulting in an abrupt and surprising return to America after just a year in Africa.
Do you see what she’s doing?
After their return to America, Bettie and Jere settled in, serving churches in Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama. With the Civil War, Jere went off to serve first as a Chaplain and then as a soldier, losing his arm in East Tennessee. After the war, they moved west, serving churches in Arkansas and then across Texas. You can see a map of some of the churches that they served.
Some of these surprising stories are hard to verify. The things we’ve talked about before all have documents to back them up. We have lots of letters and census and official records to show where the family was and when. We have published accounts of their ministry. But the best stories come down in the family.
Both my grandmother, Mary Higgs Wren, and her sister, Bettie Higgs Finney, told me a story of their grandmother, Bettie Cooper Cason. Neither of them actually knew Bettie. But they both knew Jere. So, the story must have come from him or from their mother, Lida Cason Higgs.
Apparently late in the 1800s, while Jere and Bettie were serving a church in west Texas, the circus came to town. Along with the circus came the side show. And this side show had a group of “Savages from Darkest Africa” that the local townsfolk could go an gawk at.
Well, apparently Bettie caused a tremendous stir in that little west Texas town, in the days of segregation, Jim Crow, a very active Klan, and all sorts of discrimination. She went over to the Savages from Darkest Africa and talked to them! Not only did she talk to them, but she talked to them in THEIR OWN LANGUAGE! I am sure that a lot of the old biddies in the town were wagging their tongues for weeks after that. I mean, the scandal of it all. And how in the world did she know the language of the savages, anyway?
But all those years earlier, her surprise marriage led her to a surprise call on her life that led her to a surprise encounter with people from a place in a her past and a chance to not only surprise, but SHOCK her neighbors.
I think I would have liked to know Bettie and Jere. They must have been powerful characters.
Until next time,