Saturday, July 20, 2013

J.R. Edwards

So it's time for a post about one of the interesting characters in my family history.  Let's start in the recent past.

When I was ten, my mom announced a new baby was on the way, and there was some family discussion about what the baby should be named. If it was a girl, my mom would have picked the name, because she wanted a girl badly after two boys. But everyone offered up opinions on boy names.When the baby came, it was a boy, and my parents announced that his name would be Jacob Roe Henson. This wasn't one of the names that had been discussed; it seemed to have come out of nowhere.

Dad's mother, known to us as Mamaw (Appalachian for Grandma), turned white as a sheet when she heard the name. It would be years later before I fully understood why.

It transpired that Jacob Roe was Mamaw's father's name --- and she hated her father. Hated him so much she never spoke his name, which is why none of us except Dad knew where the name Jacob Roe came from.

His full name was Jacob Robillard Edwards. Years of genealogical research showed that Mamaw had pretty good grounds for hating the guy. J.R. Edwards was born in western North Carolina six weeks after the Civil War ended. He married early and had five kids by 1894. The kids seem to have stopped coming after that, even though in the summer of 1900 he was still with his family in Carolina. In 1901 he went to the area around the Tennessee/Virginia border to work as a logger. He never went back to North Carolina. Whether he left his wife directly, or had to go to Virginia for work and decided he didn't want to go back, I do not know.

In Virginia he met Nancy Jane Thomas and evidently had some trouble with her folks, because in a letter he said "they was not good people". He and Nancy went to West Virginia, where Mamaw, their oldest, was born in late 1902. They had three more children over the next six years. I have my doubts that he went through the legal formality of obtaining a divorce from his first wife, but he and Nancy lived as husband and wife in West Virginia.

In 1909, he once again moved on to greener pastures. He got a neighbor girl pregnant, and they ran off to seemingly the farthest point they could go without leaving the country: Bellingham, Washington. There was logging work there.

Nancy was left with four kids in a time when women couldn't get jobs. She took in laundry, but soon became ill and died in 1914. With J.R. long gone, the kids were effectively orphans. They were farmed out to Nancy's friend, but the friend's husband turned out to be a drunken jackass. So at 13, Mamaw had to manage her three younger brothers as they struggled to stay out of the way of their "benefactor". J.R. was nowhere to be found. Thus the hate.

The rest of Mamaw's story is another post. J.R. and his young paramour went to Washington, where he continued to work as a logger. At one point, and I believe this must have been during one of the minor British Columbia gold rushes, he decamped to Prince George, BC to work a gold stake, but nothing came of it. He had six more kids in Washington, the last born in the late 1920s when J.R. was in his sixties.    

Around 1932, letters from J.R. started arriving in the mailboxes of his kids, who were scattered between Indiana and West Virginia by then. He was unhappy, he said, overworked and unappreciated in his old age, and had come to regret leaving his West Virginia family behind. But, he implied, if only they would come out to Washington to visit him, he would tell them the whole story and they'd understand.

Mamaw, as well as her two brothers, Gary and Roe, never answered the letters. But their sister Fannie not only answered the letters, she started a correspondence with a heretofore unknown half-sister, Josephine, who was born to J.R. in Washington. Fannie also wrote to J.R.'s first family in North Carolina. But the letters, many of which I have, never answered the real question of why he ran. I suspect he didn't have a clear reason. He was just a rolling stone, a trait that has been passed down to several of his descendants, probably myself included. He said in one letter, "It is a poor idea for anyone to think where they live is the only place." On that I have to agree with the old bounder.

In 1936, word came that J.R. had drowned in the Satsop River, near the Schaefer Brothers' logging camp where he still worked at the age of 71. Family legend had it that foul play was involved, or that it was suicide, but all the legal documents say he just fell into the river while fishing. His tackle was found on the shore.

Why did Dad name his son after someone he knew his mother hated? Years later he claimed it was inadvertent. He said he just liked the name Jacob, and also had an Uncle Roe, and didn't realize Uncle Roe's name was from his father, J.R. Edwards. I don't buy that; I think he did it on purpose to annoy Mamaw, who he never really got along with. J.R. was his favorite ancestor, which is puzzling. Dad had very rigid views on the sanctity of marriage, yet he overlooked the fact that J.R. had run off with a neighbor girl and left his kids destitute.

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