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.

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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.
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Ethel May (Nelson) Parrett, My Paternal Grandmother

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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