Home Feature Articles Josephine E. Williams: Uncovering the Story of a Nineteenth Century Teacher, Diarist, Poetry Lover

Josephine E. Williams: Uncovering the Story of a Nineteenth Century Teacher, Diarist, Poetry Lover

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By: H. Scott Hankla


DSCN6278-001In my paternal grandfather’s old cherry desk was a worn, dusty portfolio made of heavy black cardboard, and on its cover and back were engravings of a building with the words “New York Crystal Palace for the Exhibition of All Nations.”[ii]  Inside the portfolio was a lavender cardboard envelope with lock and key containing poetry, a brief diary, letters, notes, recipes, and a sheet of Confederate postage stamps.  Opposite the envelope was an 1853-56 calendar with the date August 17, 1856 underlined, and the words, “Ann Eliza Heath, August 25, 1855 from her Afft [affectionate] Mother,” written in pen and ink.  The documents inside belonged to Josephine E. Williams.  My grandfather inherited these documents from his first wife, Nancy, who inherited them from her sister, Josephine.  It was these documents that led me on a journey to uncover the story of a woman and her family who disappeared from Mercer County, Kentucky.  Searching for a family with a common name like “Williams” proved difficult, but I picked up the trail by Googling the surnames that Josephine mentioned in her diary and this led me 500 miles south to Grove Hill, Alabama.

Josephine's portfolio

Josephine’s portfolio

“We will visit that once happy spot”

Mercer County Kentucky 

Josephine E. Williams was born in Mercer County, Kentucky, June 6, 1834, the fifth of eight children – Keziah Catherine, Thomas J., Nancy M., William S., Mary Jane, and twins John M. and Daniel G.[iii]  Her parents, James L. Williams and Elisabeth Greenwood, were married in 1824 and James was appointed constable the same year.

DSCN6323Josephine spent her first 13 years on a farm in southeastern Mercer County, a pastoral area of gently rolling land and streams with limestone beds and sycamore-lined banks. Her cousin, William G. Smock, reminisces about their childhood in a letter:[iv]

“We [Josephine and William] played together when we were little children and was very much attached to each other which will never be forgotten though we have been separated for many long years our childhood plays are fresh in my memory yet and all ways will be.  I would like so well to take a stroll over the fields and through the orchard that we have so often played in when I come over there  I think there will be many things made fresh in our minds that we have forgotten  we will spend a few days going over our old play grounds from far.  We will visit that once happy spot to me never to be forgotten.”[v] 

“The Most Prosperous Period”

Clarke County Alabama 

Josephine’s aunt, Elizabeth Williams, married William Bottom in 1807 and they had a son, James A. Bottom (1819-1884).  James established a successful mule trading business while in his twenties in Kentucky and Alabama.[vi]  His place in Clarke County’s history is noted by the Reverend T. H. Ball:  “About 1840 the mule traffic, from Tennessee and Kentucky into the county[Clarke], began to be quite a business. The first mule drover, whose name tradition presents here, was James Bottoms [Bottom], assigned to the year 1843. The cultivation of the many large plantations soon required more than a thousand mules, and year by year additions to this number were needed.”[vii]

James Bottom was a frequent visitor to Grove Hill, the county seat of Clarke County, where he purchased two town lots which he later sold to his uncle, James Williams.  Bottom is buried in Aliceton Cemetery west of Perryville, Kentucky. His gravestone, a large obelisk, dominates the cemetery.

In 1847, James Williams moved his family, except for his eldest daughter, Kaziah, to Grove Hill after hearing about its potential from his nephew, James Bottom.  “In this year James L. Williams came from Kentucky and commenced business as a merchant.”[viii]  Williams’ move occurred during the height of the Mexican-American War (1846 to 1848) which “enlisted the aid and sympathy of citizens of Clarke.”[ix]  In 1848, he purchased part of Lot #2 from John Jeffery in downtown Grove Hill, “that the old grocery store formerly occupied,”[x] for his mercantile business.

Grove Hill was surrounded by cotton plantations, some of them new, having been recently converted from cane brakes.   T. H. Ball writes:

“The most prosperous period in the growth of this county was now near at hand. In Grove Hill in 1850 were, among the principal house holders [and the year they arrived] the following: Judge Terrel Powers, 1830, Colonel James Savage, 1834, Colonel George D. Megginson, 1834, Charles E. Woodard, 1844, James S. Dickinson, 1846, James L. Williams, 1847….”[xi]

James enrolled several of his children in Macon Male and Female Academy, newly opened in 1846 and furnished “…with valuable philosophical and chemical apparatus obtained from Boston.”[xii]  Thomas, age 20 and Josephine, age 15, were listed in the Academy’s records in 1849[xiii] and the twins, John and Daniel, “…formed quite a part of the life of the academy, who were members of the Sabbath school, and who carried on for some time a section of Cadets of Temperance.”[xiv]  Josephine would later become the principal of Macon Academy in the 1862-63 school year.[xv]

In 1853, at age 51, James succumbed  to yellow fever, a fairly common epidemic in the Mobile area, but rare in Grove Hill 80 miles north.[xvi]  No tombstone has been found marking his grave; he may have been buried in a mass grave for yellow fever victims near the center of town.

One of Josephine’s brothers, William S. Williams, 27, married Ann Eliza Heath, a Grove Hill teacher, in 1859.  They both died a few weeks after their marriage.  T. H. Ball writes: “The following is copied from a memorial stone, in a little enclosure, at the head of a burial mound. ‘Sacred to the memory of Annie E. Heath, consort of William S. Williams. She was born in Michigan, educated in Connecticut, and died at Grove Hill, Alabama, August 17, 1859, aged twenty-one years. A mother’s treasure. Not lost but gone before.’” [xvii] 

This is the same Ann Heath whose name is inscribed in the Crystal Palace portfolio, mentioned previously, that contained Josephine’s papers.

“The Winds are Sighing a Requiem”

The Civil War

By 1860, the only members of the once prominent Williams family remaining in Grove Hill were Josephine and her younger brother, John.  Her sister, Nancy, had returned to Kentucky to live near their sisters, Keziah and Mary Jane.  Her two other brothers, Thomas and Daniel, had moved to Arkansas.[xviii]

Josephine broods about the pending war in her diary:

Colonel Dickinson House in Grove Hill

Colonel Dickinson House in Grove Hill: Former home of Colonel Dickinson. Josephine and Mrs. Alice called on the Dickinsons on Thanksgiving Day, 1860. (Photo by the author, January 2014)

“Nov 29, 1860.  We must all pray for the good of our beloved country; the gloom (blacker than midnight darkness) that is now hanging over her, thretning[sic] every moment to envelop her.  Nov 30.  ‘Tis the last day of Autumn, the sadest yet sweetest season of the year.  The winds are sighing a requiem, among the pines, over her departure.  Alas!  what changes will doubtless occur, before she next spreads her mantle of decay over this flowery land.  What a fit emblem of the frailaty[sic] of human nature.”[xix]

In 1861, John Williams joined Cleveland’s Clarke County Rangers, who were assigned to Wirt Adams Regiment and were later renamed Wood’s Cavalry Regiment.  Josephine expresses her anxieties about John and the war in a letter to an unknown recipient:

“I scarce know how to begin to address you after so long a silence.  Since I received your last letter such a pall of sorrow has been over my heart that I felt to intrude them on you would be taxing your good nature too much.  Not a week has passed over my head since then but I resolved to write but kept procrastinating.  Therefore knowing all my good intentions I hope your kind nature heart will be more ready to forgive.  Last Oct my brother [John M. Williams] left me for the war.  He joined Capt Cleveland’s co [Company] of cavalries. Col Wirt Adams Regiment, they belong to the gallant but now lamented A S Johnston’s division, they passed the winter in Bowling Green.  He [John] was home [probably Mercer County, Kentucky] on furlough at the time of Johnston’s retreat from Bowling Green but joined his co at Nashville.  I believe that I have been prone to look on the dark side of the picture of life ever since my brother left me.  You have no idea of my anxiety of mind after hearing of the battle of Shiloh, knowing Col Adams Reg to be there, a week elapsed before I could hear aught.  Capt Cleveland was in the thickest of the fight but only had two men slightly wounded. 

Parson Jones was wounded & taken prisoner.  Mr. Megginson had a brother badly wounded and taken prisoner.  He has now gone to see if he can hear any thing of him and if possible administer to his wants.  How hard it seems that we are not permitted to sooth the anguish of wounded & dying friends.  The only thing to solace our grief is that this earth is not man’s only abiding place, for we are as often called to mourn in the bitterness of our hearts over the vanity of earthly things.”[xx]

Clarke Couty Museum in Grove Hill

Clarke Couty Museum in Grove Hill: Former home of Dr. William Alston. Josephine visited the Alstons on January 7, 1862. (Photo by the author, January 2014)

On January 1, 1862, Josephine writes in her diary, “The cloud that had so long been hanging over our political horizon has at last burst upon us.  Noble and manly forms have forsaken homes, friends, and all the heart holds most dear to drive the invader from their soil – their brave hearts preferring death to a tyrants yoke.”[xxi]

During the Civil War, Josephine was a “Domestic” and lived with Judge Henly Coate and his wife, Ann, 30, James, 18, Richard, 9, Mattie, 7, and Mary, 5.[xxii]   She was also a teacher and principal at Macon Academy.

It was during this period that Josephine kept a brief diary describing her life in Grove Hill.  She also loved contemporary poetry and made pen and ink copies of her favorites: “I Have No Home,” “Will Nobody Marry Me,” “A Wet Sheet and a Flowing Sea,” “The Old Arm-Chair,” “Take Me Home To Die,” “The Willow Song,” and “We’ll All Meet Again in the Morning.”  These poems, like Josephine’s diary and letters, are deeply emotional and reflect her bouts of depression.

Josephine’s brother John was wounded but survived the war and mustered out May 5, 1865 with the rank of Corporal.[xxiii]  On April 6, 1865, his regiment, Wood’s Cavalry, defeated Croxton’s Brigade of Federal troops near Pickensville, Alabama, which was the last victory of regular troops on Confederate soil.[xxiv]

“Blessed are the Pure in Heart”

Boyle County Kentucky

Hankla-Walker House pre 1942

Early painting of the Hankla-Walker House, pre 1942. (Artist unknown.)

Following the Civil War, Josephine moved to Boyle County Kentucky near her childhood home to live with her sister, Nannie, and their uncle, Thomas G. Williams, and his wife, Mary.[xxv]  Josephine was a teacher and probably established and taught at the Goodnight School House located a few hundred yards from Thomas’ house.[xxvi]

The brick, Federal style house the Williams’ family lived in was built circa 1835 and was located about a half mile from the Battle of Perryville, site of some of the most intense fighting of the Civil War.[xxvii]  The house was recently restored and it and the surrounding farm look much the same as they did the day of the battle and when Josephine lived there in the 1870s.  The Hankla-Walker House, as it is known today, is on the National Register of Historic Places and is located within the boundary of the Perryville Battlefield National Historic Landmark.


Hankla-Walker House in Boyle County, Josephine’s home from about 1870 to 1884. (Photo by the author, October 2012)

In 1875, Nannie Williams, 45, married my grandfather, Lorenzo Goodknight Hankla, 29.  After Thomas died in 1876, they purchased Thomas’ house from his estate, and moved in with Josephine around 1880.[xxviii]

Josephine’s health declined and in a letter to T. J. Williams dated February 2, 1882,  Lorenzo writes, “Your Aunt Joe is in very bad health now.  I fear she will not recover.  Your Aunt Nannie is up though in delicate balance.”[xxix]  In Josephine’s will dated February 17, 1882, she names “my friend, L. G. Hankla” her Executor.  She leaves her gold watch to a niece, Josephine Brady, and bay mare to her sister, Nannie.  Money and household furniture are left to these two and another niece, Josephine Rainey, and Josephine’s younger sister, Mary Jane Brady, and her brother-in-law, J. W. Brady.[xxx]

Josephine’s estate was modest but she apparently had much more owed to her based on a letter from her cousin, Will Smock:

“What about our big fortune has it all disappeared or what is the prospect if any when we get that dear Cousin [Josephine] then I intend visit all my Mothers relatives will it ever come I fear not if it ever was there it is lost to us for ever but perhaps it is wrong to look on the dark side of the picture – it is a pleasure at times to build air castles we can imagine what great and good things we will do when we get it if nothing more.”[xxxi]

“Our big fortune” never came to Josephine.  All that is left are her diary and papers from the Crystal Palace portfolio.

Josephine is buried in Perryville’s Hillcrest Cemetery.  Her tombstone is engraved: Our Sister / Josephine E. Williams / Born June 6, 1834, Died Mar. 4, 1882 / Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God. 


Hankla House from Grove Hill

Hankla House from Grove Hill

High on a wooded bluff above the Chaplin River on one of the most scenic parts of Josephine’s land (now the Hankla Farm) is a large, solitary Overcup Oak.  This species of oak normally occurs only in low lying areas of the deep South.  I would like to think that Josephine brought an Overcup acorn from Grove Hill and planted it in the 1870s as a reminder of her Southern heritage.

P3270031About the Author: Henry Scott Hankla is a native of Danville, KY and a long time resident of Frankfort. He holds B.S. and M.B.A. degrees from the University of Kentucky, and is retired from Kentucky State Government where he was the Director of Policy and Budget at the Kentucky Department of Justice and the Director of Administration at the Natural Resources and Environmental Cabinet. He serves on Frankfort’s Urban Forestry Advisory Board, the Frankfort Audubon Society Board, and the Kentucky Geographic Names Committee. He is a member of the Kentucky Historical Society, Sons of the American Revolution, and the Boyle County and Harrodsburg Historical Societies.

Scott and his brother, Ren, own and operate a 330 acre Boyle County farm that has been in the family for seven generations – since 1779. The land is on the National Register and is protected by a conservation easement held by the Bluegrass Conservancy.

Scott recently restored the 1832 brick home where Josephine Williams spent her final years.

   Lorenzo “Ren” Goodknight Hankla (1846-1920), a descendent of Hans Michael Goodnight, who settled the present-day Hankla Farm in 1779.

[ii]   The Crystal Palace was a building constructed in 1853 for The Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations, a world’s fair, Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exhibition_of_the_Industry_of_All_Nations.

[iii]  H. Scott Hankla, “Josephine E. Williams Family Tree” member file,  Ancestry.com. http://trees.ancestry.com/tree/53139847/family .

[iv]  Letters and diary entries have been transcribed as originally written and punctuated.

[v]   Letter from William G. Smock to Josephine Williams, March 29, 1880.  Author’s collection.

[vi]  Ancestry.com, 1850 United States Federal Census, District 1, Boyle, Kentucky.  The census lists Bottom’s occupation as “Trader.”

[vii] Reverend T. H. Ball,   A Glance into the Great South-East, or Clarke County, Alabama, and Its Surroundings, 1540 to 1877 (Chicago: Knight and Leonard, 1879),  210.  Library of Congress.  https://archive.org/details/glanceintogreats00ball.

[viii]       Ibid., 218.

[ix]           Ibid., 212.

[x]     Clarke County, Alabama. John Jeffery to James Williams, 1848.  Deed.  Book E, 417.

[xi]    Ball, A Glance into the Great South-East, 222 (emphasis added).

[xii]   Ibid., 212.

[xiii]         Ibid., 225.

[xiv]         Ibid., 414.

[xv]   Ibid., 712.

[xvi]         Ibid., 237.

[xvii]        Ibid., 243.

[xviii]       Clarke County, Alabama.  John M Williams to H.C. White, January 5, 1860.  Deed, Book J, 577.

[xix]         Diary of Josephine Williams, 1860-1862.  Author’s collection.

[xx]   Draft letter from Josephine Williams, undated.  Author’s collection.

[xxi]         Diary of Josephine Williams.

[xxii]        Ancestry.com, 1860 U.S. Federal Census.  http://trees.ancestry.com/tree/53139847/person/13461056649/facts.

[xxiii]       Alabama Department of Archives and History. Alabama Civil War Service Database. http://www.archives.alabama.gov/civilwar/soldier.cfm?id=220708.

[xxiv]       Dunbar Rowland, Military History of Mississippi, 1803-1898, (publisher unknown)  http://mississippiscv.org/MS_Units/1st_MS_CAV%28AW%29.htm.

[xxv]        Ancestry.com, 1870 U.S. Federal Census, District 2, Boyle. http://trees.ancestry.com/tree/53139847/person/13461056649/facts.

[xxvi]       Map of Boyle and Mercer County, Kentucky. D.G.Beers & Company, 1876.

[xxvii]      Kenneth W. Noe, Perryville: This Grand Havoc of Battle (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001), xiv.

[xxviii]     Ancestry.com, 1880 U.S. Federal Census. http://trees.ancestry.com/tree/53139847/person/13461056649/facts.

[xxix]       Letter from L. G. Hankla to J. L. Williams, February 2, 1882.  Author’s collection.

[xxx]        Boyle County, Kentucky, Josephine E. Williams Will, February 17, 1882.  Will, Book 2, 241.

[xxxi]       Letter from William G. Smock to Josephine Williams, October 7, 1881.   Author’s collection.

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