Remembering Janet Sellars: My Scots 2nd Great-Grandmother

The lives of our female ancestors are frequently neglected by family historians. As I’ve researched my maternal ancestry, I’ve been impressed with the women in my family, who, like many women, led remarkably difficult and heroic lives that have gone largely unremembered and unrecorded. One of these women is Janet Sellars, my Scots great-great-grandmother.

Janet was the daughter of a cotton weaver, the wife of a wagon driver, and the mother of eight children. She was born on January 25, 1823, the only known daughter of John and Margaret (Mackay or Mackie) Sellars, who had three other known sons. The family lived about 20 miles southeast of Glasgow in the village of Carluke, near the Clyde River in central Lanarkshire. Janet was a popular name in Scotland in that era and the name and its derivatives, Jessie and Jean, show up  in many branches of my maternal family.

Weaver's Cottage

An Etching of a Weaver’s Cottage

When Janet was born, Carluke was a prominent cotton-weaving center with about 400 residents, the majority involved in some aspect of the cotton industry that would continue to flourish for another 40 years. Nearly all weavers’ cottages had a hand-loom, for the production of textiles was typically a family enterprise. The men nearly always worked the looms, while the women and children contributed by winding pins or doing needlework and embroidery. It’s likely that Margaret taught young Janet the requisite needle skills to be useful, for the Sellars children would not have attended school. While Parliament passed a law regulating child labor in factories in 1833, such laws  did not apply to families working from their homes in rural villages, where there was simply no time or opportunity for luxuries like schooling.

Janet was in her early 20s when she married John Clark around 1844, though no marriage record currently exists to document the exact date. John came to Carluke from the village of Fenwick in Ayrshire, a fertile agricultural area on the Firth of Clyde. (See map below.) His parents were James Clark and Marion Wylie. The Wylie family has been traced back to the 1500s. Some were large landowners in the Stewarton area.

Following their marriage, the Clarks moved to Wishaw, a coal mining town five miles from Carluke. The Clarks had eight children, evenly divided between the sexes, over the next 18 years. They followed the Scottish naming pattern of that era, naming their eldest son James, after John’s father, their eldest daughter Margaret, after Janet’s mother, the next daughter Marion, after John’s mother, and their fourth child John, after Janet’s father. They named their other children Janet, Robert, and Isabella. Unfortunately, another son, born on 1858, has never been identified by name.

Carluke 1880s

Wishaw, Scotland, in the 1880s

John Clark supported his large family as a wagon driver. He may have driven the 44-mile round trip to Glasgow early in his career. When the railroad came to Wishaw in the 1840s, his work likely became more local. It had to have been a repetitive, tiring job, requiring physical strength. His temperament may have been well suited for such labor, for once the wagon was loaded, he had time to himself, navigating the dusty roads alone, the Scottish sun rarely too hot. It was his life’s work until he reached the age of forty-nine. Then tragedy struck. Continue reading

Jasper Parrett: He “Out-Crusoed Robinson Crusoe”

When I was old enough to appreciate a good family story, my mother told me that Dad’s great-uncle Jasper—she drew out his name in an exaggerated, spooky Jaaaasss-sper—had been murdered at his gold mine in the Sierra Nevadas. Either that, she said, or he was bitten by a rattlesnake. She wasn’t sure which story was true. Every family needs an unsolved murder or grisly death to snare relatives into genealogical research. Some years later I took the bait.

I had to face the rumors about Jasper’s death when I began writing about the Parretts for my family history, The Parrett Migration. Jasper was a brother of my great-great-grandfather Joseph Parrett, one of the subjects of my story.

With minimal research, it was easy to put Mom’s titillating tale to rest. Jasper hadn’t been murdered after all, but the circumstances of his death still surprised and puzzled those who had known him for years. Jasper was a hermit, which explains to some extent why his life is tinged with mystery and intrigue.

From left to right: Hillis, Jasper, Edward and Collins Parrett. Hillis, Jasper’s nephew, worked at the mine with Jasper for a time and eventually inherited it. Edward and Collins, Jasper’s brothers, were visiting from their farms in Iowa.

He was also something of a romantic frontier hero, a Civil War veteran who headed west with the rest of the crowd hoping to make a fortune in mining. It turned out, in the late 1870s, he entered the first of what would become fourteen claims in the Sierra Nevadas. Jasper was in his mid-thirties, a bachelor. His family back home in Iowa heard he had made good. Real good. Continue reading

Marion Wyllie Clark Bulloch, My Scots Great-Grandmother

Marion Wyllie Clark Bulloch, 1851-1938

Marion Wyllie Clark Bulloch, 1851-1938

Marion Wyllie Clark was born in the middle of the nineteenth century on June 29, 1851, in Wishaw, the heart of Lanarkshire, Scotland’s coal mining and cotton weaving region. She was third of eight children born to Janet Sellars, the daughter of cotton weavers, and her husband John Clark, a wagon driver and farm laborer. Marion’s parents had been married seven years when she was born. They followed the Scottish naming conventions of that era and named her Marion Wyllie after her paternal grandmother, who lived in nearby Ayrshire, where John had grown up.


Textile weaving was an important industry in Scotland in the nineteenth century.


Marion was born at a propitious time for genealogists in future generations. Because 1851 was a census year in Scotland, information about Wishaw is readily available. The town had 4100 residents in 1851, double the number reported in the census a decade earlier. The railroad had come to the parish in recent years, generating an industrial boom and new job opportunities. Until then, the area had been a home for Scotland’s flourishing cotton-weaving industry, which had provided a living for Janet’s family. Most Wishaw homes had a textile loom and, except for the very young or old, all members of a family typically were required to perform one or more of the varied tasks required to turn cotton into fabric. Textiles were hauled north to Glasgow, first by wagon and later by train, and sold throughout Great Britain and elsewhere. Other Wishaw households eked out a small living as tenant farmers who typically worked for either the Coltness or Wishaw estates, owned by the Stewart family. James Stewart, who owned the Coltness property, was a successful economist and author who published books pioneering his economic theories. By mid-century, however, the cotton weaving industry in that area was giving way to coal mining and brick and tile works.

When Marion Wyllie was born, Wishaw’s long main street housed artisan workshops and service trades in the upper end and row housing for about 120 pit workers and their families in the lower section. The majority of the mining families lived in either the Byrnes or Wilson colliers’ rows.

Marion was eleven when her father died in a freak accident that caused him to be crushed between two wagons. By then there were eight children in the family, five of them younger than Marion, one, six-month-old Isabella. In that era, there would have been no life insurance to help out a widow in the event of the death of her husband. Likely the family had barely subsisted on the meager earnings of their father even before his death. One can imagine the grief and financial crisis the family endured after John Clark’s passing. Then, six months later, the tragedy was compounded when year-old Isabella died. Marion’s older brother, James, was barely seventeen. It was common in that era for children to begin helping support the family in their early teens, so it was likely James had probably started working a couple of years earlier, probably as a coal miner. Now he was the main breadwinner for the family, but at his age, he wouldn’t have earned enough to make ends meet.
Continue reading

Ethel May (Nelson) Parrett, My Paternal Grandmother

Bellshill 2 5989

Ethel Nelson, Pueblo, Colorado, ca. 1919

My paternal grandmother was my age when she died. I was startled to discover this recently when I studied with fresh eyes the span of dates that comprised her life. Funny, she had seemed so old to me the last time I saw her when I was seventeen.

What wouldn’t I give to sit down with her now, two women the same age, and catch up on the events of each other’s lives? We’d sit at her green Formica table in her sunny yellow kitchen with the marble-patterned linoleum on the floor. As we chatted, we would look out the picture window to the tiny manicured yard edged in pansies she had planted on her hands and knees in her house dress, since women of her generation didn’t wear pants, even for gardening. We would share something good to eat, maybe a piece of her famous coconut cream pie, because she was a woman who went out of her way for company.

Ethel and her parents

Ethel flanked by parents, Paul and Ada (Johnson) Nelson, who emigrated from Sweden in the 1880s

I would be a better listener now than I was when she tried to tell me the story about her parents, Ada Johnson and Paul Nelson, who emigrated from Sweden when they were teenagers and met each other in Kentucky working in the same hotel. They married young, eventually parenting eleven children, of which Grandma was the eighth. The family was living in Pueblo, Colorado, in 1903 when my grandmother was born. Ada and Paul named her Ethel May.

About ten years ago, I found the 1910 census record that showed where the Nelson family lived in Pueblo. Later, on a vacation to Colorado, I drove to that address on Elm Street and parked my car at the curb. A small, white, wood-framed house stands on that property and could very well be the Nelson home, given its weathered, dilapidated state. I stood on the sidewalk in front of the house, taking pictures, my mind whirling with unanswered questions. A few blocks away, I found Pueblo Smelters where Paul Nelson worked, within walking distance of home. Large, grey, and rusty, the steel plant still stands, a silent, decaying remnant of the noisy thriving enterprise it must have been in its day when it employed most of the men in Pueblo.

Between bites of coconut pie, I’d ask my grandmother how a family so large managed to make a life in a house so small, how her father could earn a living for thirteen on the salary he earned as a steelworker. Continue reading

Bill and Bella (Bulloch) Miller, My Maternal Grandparents

Writing about People

Bill and Bella in 1914 with son David and baby daughter Marion dressed in her christening gown

I am a Scottish coal miner’s granddaughter. It seems hard to believe. I have lived my entire life in California, a life as different from my grandfather’s as the sunny California beaches are from the dreary Scottish coal mines. His name was William Miller, but people called him Bill. His petite, plucky wife, my grandmother, was named Bella. They both died before I was born, so I was never able to thank them for the legacy they left me, a legacy honed with grit, hard work, and sacrifice. These qualities got them to California in the mid-1920s with six young children in tow and helped them battle the Great Depression that bore down on them not long after their arrival. In the end, these qualities were not enough. They both died young, defeated by what they had left Scotland to avoid. Here is their story.

Miners' Row Housing copy

Typical late-19th century miners’ “row housing” in Scotland

They were a poor family in Bellshill, Scotland, a coal mining town twelve miles south of Glasgow, in Lanarkshire. Bill’s father and grandfather were both coalminers. His grandfather had migrated to Scotland from Ireland to escape the Irish potato famine. Born in 1887, Bill was the second of four children in his family. Bella was born later that year to William and Marion Bullock, the seventh of eight children. Her father was also a coal miner, as was his father.

Bill and Bella married in 1910 when he was 23 and she, 22. They were an attractive couple, though a study in contrasts—Bill, with his dark eyes, hair, and complexion; Bella with her blue eyes, fair skin and sandy-colored hair. She was a good foot shorter than her five-foot-ten-inch husband, and more talkative and comfortable around people. Within seven years, they had four children, a boy and three girls.

Life was tough for coal mining families then, even more so than now, with long workdays and meager pay. Bill had been working in coal mines since he was a boy, and knew little else. But working conditions had become intolerable as increasing miners’ strikes kept him unemployed for long periods of time, substantially decreasing their already limited income. Deciding they had had enough, they began thinking about letters they had received from Bella’s sister Jessie Mallon, who lived in Duryea, Pennsylvania. Her husband, James, had acquired a job in the coal mines near Pittston and claimed he could find work for Bill as well. Bill should come and work for a few months, find a place to live, and then send for Bella and the children.

It had to be a difficult decision, requiring weighing family ties against the opportunity to provide a better life for their children. Their parents on both sides were in their 70s. Travel was expensive and sometimes precarious in those days. Who knew if they’d ever see their families again? Perhaps this was just a foolhardy idea, a waste of money they would regret forevermore. Wouldn’t it be safer to stick with the known rather than risking everything?  Continue reading