The theme for Week 3 of the 52 Weeks Ancestor Challenge is “Tough Women: Who is a tough, strong woman in your family tree?” Looking through the generations of my female ancestors, both paternal and maternal, I see a lot of women who would fit this week’s theme. However, the one I haven’t written about anywhere very much, and who certainly must have been among the toughest of the tough, is the wife of Alonzo H. H. Baxter, Elizabeth O. Robinson Baxter (1850-1924), my maternal 2nd great grandmother.
A second great grandmother is a person’s grandmother’s grandmother, and I know from hand-written identifications of photos that Elizabeth was known in my grandmother’s generation as “Granny B.” Her pictures show her to be a tiny, wizened old lady who a grandchild would cross only at her peril–not the Norman Rockwell kind of grandmother with the comfortable lap.
However, one of the benefits of genealogy is that we get to meet our ancestors not as they ended up, frozen in time in the family album, but as individuals who were the sum of a complete life.
The Indiana Years
Elizabeth O. Robinson was born to a family of farmers in Monroe Township, Jefferson County, Indiana on 28 November 1850. Her parents were James Robinson and Mary Ann Barnum. She was the oldest daughter and the third of eight children. Her father seems to have been on his way to becoming a prosperous farmer (at the age of 29, his land was valued at $800, according to the 1850 census–a considerable amount for a man his age). Unfortunately, James Robinson died in 1861 at the age of 40. That means that Elizabeth’s mother was widowed when she was 34 years old and left with seven children (one of the eight had died as an infant) ranging in age from 15 years old to age one. It must have been 11-year-old Elizabeth’s job to help her mother in the house with the household chores and the younger children, ages 1, 2, and 5 while her older brothers, ages 15, 13, and 7, did the farm chores.
Details for the years between the death of Elizabeth’s father in 1861 and the 1870 census are sparse. What we can infer from the 1870 census is that the widow, Mary Ann, was successful in keeping the family together. All of the children, with the exception of Elizabeth, were still in their mother’s household, including one married brother. It seems the widowed mother had been able to keep the farm intact. Mary Ann lived in a community which included her parents and her in-laws, her siblings and her husband’s siblings, so she could have had a considerable amount of family support for the years since her husband’s death. There is no indication that Mary Ann ever remarried.
So where was Elizabeth in the 1870 census? She married Alonzo H. H. Baxter on 1 November 1868. He was obviously from a family who lived in Elizabeth’s community, since we find both families on the same census page: Elizabeth Baxter, age 19, head of household Alonzo Baxter, age 24; Mary, age 1; Margaret, age 52, Hanna, age 18, and Leonidas, age 20. Alonzo is a Farmer, with $7200 worth of land, and Leonidas “Works on Farm.” Here is another instance of the family head dying before his time, this one being Alonzo’s father, dead in 1861 at the age of 57. Margaret Baxter, his widowed mother, and two of his siblings lived in the household with the newly married couple.
The Pioneer Years
From this 1870 census, it looks as though the young couple was poised to live their lives in the Indiana community where they had been born, farming Alonzo’s family land. However, Alonzo evidently had other plans. His service in the Union Army during the Civil War had made him eligible to claim 160 acres of his own land in southeastern Colorado, which he did in 1868. But this post isn’t about Alonzo–it’s about Elizabeth–so what Alonzo did to claim his land will be told another day. By 1872, Elizabeth and their children, my four-year-old great grandmother, Emma, and her baby brother, George, born in June of 1872, had joined Alonzo on the land claim in Colorado, a trip made by ox team that took six weeks. Their 160 acres was located south of the Arkansas River, about 150 miles east of Pueblo, Colorado, near what would become the towns of (Old) Granada and Holly.
By January of 1873, Alonzo had done several things to “prove up” his claim on the 160 acres. According to Alonzo’s Homestead Case File, he had built “a house of lumber, 14 x 18 feet, with two doors and two windows”; he had plowed, fenced, and cultivated “about one acre” of land, and had made the following improvements: “built a corral and a chicken house, dug a well, and has worked on and owns an interest in an irrigation ditch designed to water the above described land” (1)
Elizabeth’s husband Alonzo was making a good living in these years of the early 1870s as a buffalo hunter. There were not towns in the valley at this time; one would have to travel east to Kansas or west to Pueblo to find a town. Neither Prowers nor Bent counties were in existence. The virgin prairie, unfenced and free land, was grazed on by thousands of buffalo, antelope, and herds of wild horses. There was nothing at this time to stop the movement northward of the trail herds from Texas–no railroads, fences, farms, or roads.
It must have been in the 14×18 foot frame house that Elizabeth spent the winter of 1878-79. According to Elizabeth and Alonzo’s son, George Baxter, who would write about this winter years later, Alonzo and “Old Rube” Irwin went south that November on what would turn out to be their last buffalo hunt (2). George writes, “He couldn’t have picked a worse winter to venture forth.” And I can only imagine, he couldn’t have picked a worse winter to leave his wife Elizabeth and five small children behind: Emma, age 10, George, age 6, Olive, age 4, Daisy, age 2, and Minnie May, an infant of 1 month. As bad as the trip was for Alonzo, and it was bad, it must have been immeasurably worse to be Elizabeth, left waiting with no inkling of when or whether she would see her husband again.
Alonzo left to hunt buffalo with supplies for “about two weeks.” On the way they ran into a blizzard, the likes of which is “seen in the Dakotas,” the thermometer below the zero mark. Because the storm caused the herd to bunch up, they were able to make a good kill, which involved skinning and dressing out the meat on the spot. Heading back with their load of meat and buffalo hides packed in the wagon, they ran into a second blizzard. The snow was up to the hubs of their wagon wheels, so their only choice was to wait out the storm in a camp on Bear Creek: “It was a long cold wait, and bitter cold and deep snow was Fearful.” George writes that it wasn’t until March that the two men made it home, leaving their wagon behind, riding horseback and “packing some of the horses with a hind quarter or so on each of them.” George spares his reader the details of Elizabeth’s reaction to the “two weeks” Alonzo had planned to be gone from home that had turned into almost five months.
“1878-79–One of the Coldest and deepest snow winters ever recorded in southeastern Colorado and western Kansas: known as the deep snow & Coldest Winter by all the Old Pioneers,” writes George. “Cattle died in great herds.” Obviously Elizabeth and the children survived, but how they survived has not been recorded. Maybe they moved into town like the Ingalls family did in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s book The Long Winter. I’m being only halfway facetious here. It seems unlikely that Elizabeth and her children could have stayed by themselves at the ranch through the terrible winter. Perhaps she and the children would have moved into the nearby town of Old Granada, where there was safety and companionship.
The Town Years
The last 35 years of Elizabeth’s life, from 1890 to 1924, the family seems to have lived a more town-centered life. I originally assumed that Elizabeth lived wherever Alonzo was living, but that does not seem to be the case. The few records, letters, and photos I have that relate to her indicate that Elizabeth was something of a gad-about during these years. It’s not clear whether her moves were designed to be temporary visits with her adult children, or if she actually took up residence away from Alonzo. Regardless of whether the homes were temporary or permanent, she is a very hard woman to track during these years.
This is the earliest photograph of the Alonzo and Elizabeth Baxter family that is found in George Baxter’s papers. The photo was taken in about 1891. Other individual formal portraits in George Baxter’s collection for 1890 are marked Trinidad, Colorado. So presumably the photo was taken in Trinidad. The photo shows the 20-year range between Elizabeth’s oldest child, Emma, and her youngest child, Edward. For a more detailed discussion of this photograph, see Researching Elizabeth O Robinson Baxter. Of course there is no 1890 U.S. census, but the Trinidad city directory indicates that the family lived in Trinidad for at least a couple of years, and then moved on, possibly to Pueblo, Colorado. Alonzo seems to have been working as a stone mason during these years, and there would have been plenty of work on the city and county courthouses and other buildings being built in the towns during those years.
The next extant family portrait shows a very different-looking family, one that seems to have embraced town life. The photo was taken in Pueblo, and from the apparent ages of the children, Leona and Edward, the youngest child, the photo was taken in about 1901. Elizabeth would have been 51 years old. She was a talented seamstress, and it’s likely she made the clothes that everyone is wearing.
Elizabeth’s youngest child, Edward, was 13 years old in 1901 in the above photo. By the time Edward was 15, in 1903, Elizabeth seems to have been on the move. During at least two years between 1903 and 1909, Elizabeth is found living with an adult daughter in a rooming house in Pueblo: Mrs. Elizabeth O. Robinson, seamstress (later “dressmaker”). She is not found in the 1910 census with Alonzo, who is living in La Junta with his daughter Olive and her family. In fact, Elizabeth isn’t found anywhere in the 1910 census. She’s spotted in Oregon, sometime between 1909 and 1914, visiting her sister. Whether she lived with her sister or was just visiting is anyone’s guess. Then the next citing in the records is with her son Edward who is working as a locomotive engineer in Salt Lake (city or county is unclear), Utah, according to his WWI draft registration card. By 1919, based on photos with the family, Elizabeth was probably back in La Junta, Colorado, living alternately with her daughter Olive Fertig’s family and her daughter Minnie Sanborn. Alonzo seems to have been the stable one, consistently found living with his daughter Olive in La Junta for the years between 1910 and 1924, when Elizabeth died.
I’ve teased out every detail from the few records, letters, and photographs in my collection relating to Elizabeth. Fifteen years ago I started with only a name on a gravestone: Elizabeth O. Baxter. I’m happy with what I’ve been able to learn about her, but I would like to know more–more details about her family of origin, which might tell more about the core Elizabeth; more about what her life was like as a young wife and mother in the Old West; and more about the last third of her life, when she apparently much of the time went her own way. Elizabeth, I’m not done with you yet.
Notes and References
(1) I received Alonzo Baxter’s Homestead Case File by applying to the U.S. National Archives. The cost was $50. It’s not possible to know ahead of time what information will be found in a particular file. Alonzo’s file was 21 pages and contained details about his service in the Civil War and also about the 160 acres he received as part of the 1862 Homestead Act. This file is an invaluable reference that I can use to prove my Colorado Pioneer lineage application. The National Archives has posted as an example the Homestead Case File for Charles P. Ingalls, father of Laura Ingalls Wilder.
(2) The typewritten copy of George’s account of the winter of 1878-79 is in my possession, part of the private papers of George A. H. Baxter.