Where is Ellen Birdsell?

In writing about genealogy, I originally planned to devote a segment to each of the strong women from whom I descend—partly the nuts and bolts of the research itself, but focusing more on their character and personality as I’ve come to know them, who they were as individuals. One or two of them were influential and left an indelible mark, albeit small, in the annals of history. Others were adventurous and markedly independent for the times in which they lived. All seem to have had traits in common—incredible strength, stubbornness, outspokenness, an iron will, and just plain gall—traits I suspect have been passed down to me through inherited DNA. While most of them probably had more enemies than friends, I find these women fascinating, and I looked forward to writing their stories.

Given the news of the past few days, however, the ongoing reports of Hurricane Harvey wreaking massive destruction on the south Texas coast, an obscure, nearly invisible great-great-grandmother on my father’s side has elbowed her way into first place. She was the wife of Lockwood William Birdsell, about whom I have a goodly amount of information, but she wasn’t particularly notable—at least not that I’ve been able to discover—and official census records about her are ambiguous. In most, she’s called Ellen Birdsell, but sometimes she’s called Helen Birdsell. She and her family were actually counted twice in the 1860 census in rural Texas, only days apart, yet one record suggests she was born in 1832 while the other says 1834. Both state she was born in New York. The 1880 census, taken in San Antonio, suggests a birthdate of 1836 in New York, of Irish-born parents. The 1900 census says she was born in Ireland in March 1829 of Irish-born parents and came to America as an eleven-year-old in 1840. Though plausible, I’ve never been successful in locating an immigration record, so I don’t know if she came alone or with family, or if any of this is even true. The death certificates of several of her children give her maiden name variously as Ellen Shener, Ellen Glenn, and Ellen Wren. I have no idea who her parents were despite years of pursuing possible leads that ultimately led nowhere. She remains an enigma, one of those ancestors called, in the language of genealogists, a “brick wall.”

I believe Lockwood and Ellen probably married in New York in 1848, though I have no proof.

The Republic of Texas was annexed as the 28th state of the United States on December 29, 1845, and I have found Lockwood on an Agricultural Census Schedule dated July 8, 1850. By the 1860 census, the couple had five children, all allegedly born in Texas, although one obscure record claims the oldest, daughter Mary, was born “at sea” in 1842, an unlikely date. They were living in Karnes County, fifty miles south of San Antonio, where Lockwood had purchased 160 acres of land and was raising cattle and horses. I surmise Ellen was a typical hard-working frontier wife and mother, but I cannot know this for certain. In the early 1860s, Lockwood no longer owned the land but was still raising stock.

When the Civil War broke out, Lockwood—a New York Yankee, by all accounts—was conscripted into the Confederate Army and saw action for six months as a private assigned to Company G, 8th Texas Infantry, also known as Colonel (Alfred M.) Hobby’s Regiment, which distinguished itself in the battles of Corpus Christie and Galveston. By early 1864, Lockwood was “sick in Goliad Hospital,” according to official military records, and finally in August of 1864 he is listed as having “deserted in Karnes County.” A family legend fleshes out the story: “Lockwood was drafted into the Confederate Army, but never received any pay. With a wife and a houseful of children depending upon him for support, when he became ill and was confined to the hospital in Goliad, he simply got up from his sickbed and walked home. He was captured once and was going to be shot, but he escaped and was not captured again.”

The defeat of the Confederacy in 1865 did not bring peace to Texas. Indian depredations were once again on the rise, and there was widespread unrest. Lynching of freed slaves was not uncommon and often went unpunished. In an effort to gain control—of the Indians and of the many still-defiant Texans—the United States government created a string of military posts to protect rural settlers. One of these was Fort Mason in Gillespie County, north of San Antonio, where a Frontier Battalion (Companies A and B) was established in 1870 under the command of Captain Franklin Jones. Lockwood served two and a half months as a lieutenant in Company A and was discharged on November 11 of that year. This Frontier Battalion was disbanded a few months later, replaced by the newly formed Texas State Police; Lockwood served for a number of months with the 1st Brigade at Galveston, earning $60 per month.

During the 1870s and 1880s, Lockwood’s name appeared in San Antonio city directories, working as a teamster or express man. In 1883 he purchased residential property in the “Maverick Addition,” and then in November of 1891 sold it to his wife Ellen for one dollar. On that deed he is described as “of Garland Co., Arkansas,” suggesting that Ellen and Lockwood had separated. Ellen remained in San Antonio and was twice listed in city directories as “widow of Lockwood,” a more respectable status at that time than being separated or divorced.

Another surviving deed dated March 1894 reveals that Lockwood Birdsell “from Hot Springs, Arkansas” purchased for $200 a property in Rockport, Aransas County, Texas. He soon returned to Texas to occupy this house because in August of 1899 he applied for and was granted a pension based on his Civil War service, stating in the application that he had lived in Rockport for five years and owned a small home, but was otherwise indigent. The application does not mention Ellen, but at some point prior to the 1900 census, Ellen rejoined him there.

On September 8, 1900, a hurricane slammed ashore from the Gulf of Mexico. There was little warning and no defense. In the early morning, high tides were evident, then heavy swells began to appear, but the blue sky prompted a confidence that nothing out of the ordinary was about to occur. Most residents had seen these storms before and weren’t worried. By mid-morning, rain clouds took over the sky and the wind began to pick up. By mid-afternoon, the hurricane hit with an intensity and fury that only increased through the night. By the next morning, the storm had passed and the sun shone brightly, but the devastation was complete.

This hurricane remains, in terms of human life, the worst natural disaster in America’s history. The primary force of the hurricane struck Galveston (a port built on an island a few miles northeast of Rockport), completely wiping out that city and killing 8,000 of its 38,000 residents, but the force of the storm spread death and destruction up and down the Texas coast. No record has been found of Lockwood selling the little house in Rockport. I suspect it was destroyed.

At some point Lockwood returned to San Antonio to live with a married daughter until his death in December 1908, at the age of 92. He was buried in City Cemetery No. 3. His death certificate indicates he was a widower.

But what happened to Ellen? Death certificates were not required in Texas until 1906, and even then compliance with the new law was sporadic and slow in coming. Repeated inquiries by mail to Aransas and Bexar county officials turned up no information at all.

Finally, in 2015, under the auspices of Find-A-Grave, I found an answer. The Rockport City Cemetery had recently been surveyed and the results posted on-line. In that cemetery, the surveyors located a small metal marker inscribed only “Mrs. Birdsell, February 1903.” Despite knowing so little about this great-great-grandmother, at least I finally knew when and where she died and where her remains were laid to rest. In March of 2016, on the 113th anniversary of her death, I ordered red roses placed on her grave. That act brought peace and closure. Or did it?

According to yesterday’s news reports, the town of Rockport has been completely destroyed by Hurricane Harvey’s 170-mile-an-hour winds. All residents have been evacuated, and further catastrophic flooding is anticipated. Will Ellen’s grave marker survive, or will her bones be washed up and scattered in a sea of mud, once again disappearing without a trace?

Author: Patricia Minch, Writer, etc.

Growing up an “Army Brat,” by age eighteen I had lived in nineteen different homes in half a dozen states, Europe, and the Far East, and had traveled extensively beyond those. A National Merit Scholarship finalist in 1958, I attended the University of Texas, El Paso, and the University of California, Berkeley. Years later, I took additional courses at Cabrillo College in Aptos, California, and then spent thirteen years as a self-employed editor for court reporters. An avid writer, genealogist, gardener, landscape designer, amateur architect, woodworker, and antiques collector/dealer, I am also wife, mother, and grandmother. I’ve written feature articles for local newspapers and recently completed my first book, a narrative non-fiction account of my father's experiences as a guerrilla in North Luzon (Philippines) during WWII. I currently live with my husband, a retired college instructor and Air Force veteran, in Northern California.

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