A few brief recollections of yesteryear’s mothers

Posted by Tom Camfield

“Full many a flow’r is born to blush unseen, and waste its sweetness on the desert air.”—Thomas Gray, Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard

I looked out near the front door the other day and found that the faithful old deep-red peony was just opening into bloom for yet another year. It seems appropriate that it’s coming into full bloom just in time for Mothers Day May 13, as my plant’s roots can trace their ancestry back to my grandmother Mary Jane (Custer) Camfield (see photo, age 21) who was born in 1872. 

I don’t know when Mary first acquired this peony herself, but my father obtained it from her, and I got it from him (and he died 30 years ago here in P.T.). This flower’s been blooming at my house for around half a century, I guess—through good times and bad. It’s definitely a cut above some of the thin-blooded fancy hybrids sold to gardeners these days—and it has a meaningful history. Mary loved flowers. I can still remember distinctly her proudly showing some of us her blooming pansies about 75 years ago.

Another mother in the early family was my father’s paternal grandmother Fannie Warner’s mother Clarissa Louisa (Green) Warner (see photo), born in Vermont in 1829, the same year Andrew Jackson became 7th president of the U S. Mary Jane and Fannie (born in 1853, eight years before the Civil War), both died in Port Townsend; Clarissa Louisa died at 52 on the South Dakota prairie in 1881, the year after the family arrived there from Michigan. She had borne 8 children. Fannie was the Port Townsend area’s oldest resident when she died at 98 in 1952.

Mary Jane Camfield accompanied her husband from Michigan to South Dakota to Alberta to Oregon to Port Townsend, where in advanced middle age he helped build the local paper mill in 1927. She bore and nurtured most of her 10 surviving children in a log homestead cabin in the middle of nowhere Alberta. But her song remains unsung except, perhaps, by some heavenly choir. 

Another unsung mother of my past family history was Rachael Allen, wife of my Revolutionary War minute-man ancestor Joseph Camfield. She was left behind to hold down the farm with her 11-year-old son Ira and younger children when Joseph periodically marched off with his militia unit in Massachusetts. She died at 33 and is buried alone somewhere in Vermont, where the family resided briefly just after the Revolution. I can only imagine the long, hard days that woman endured during her short life.  

I could go on and on with the many mothers in my extended family history—some abused and/or betrayed, many cabin-bound and overworked. Often as not dying young, at least several of them from birthing children to my knowledge. My own existence barely descended at one point in colonial times when a Camfield wife died after giving birth to her only child (and her husband also later died without remarrying). Similarities in some regards remain around the country (and world) today. We haven’t come all the way in equality for the human soul—sexually as well as ethnically—as the years have trudged by, although really encouraging progress has slowly been made. 

My own mother was 12 when American women got the right to vote in 1920. She never drove an automobile during her lifetime. 

There is a portion of my mind that likes to believe that whenever I write about and/or print a photo of an ancestor or other departed person I have known (especially in and around Port Townsend), that person’s spirit is revived, wherever it is. 

I have this thing about mothers back through history, especially as a genealogist of long standing. For one thing, history has in years past always been dedicated almost entirely to the male line. Local area history is as good an example as any. Who has ever read much, for example about the wife of local pioneer businessman and speculator Charles Eisenbeis? I’m as old as historians get around here, and I couldn’t even tell you her first name, let alone her maiden surname, offhand. Who was Noah’s wife during the Biblical flood?

Those searching out their family history often get hung up on just the male family line, the surname that’s been passed down. Let me tell you, that’s a real mistake! It’s following the female lines into all the allied families that opens up worlds of colorful history—and it’s all still direct blood lines and applicable genes. That’s how I found  my own Mayflower ancestry. One of William Bradford’s direct descendants, Cynthia Bradford, married my great, great, great, great grandfather Ira Camfield, himself a child of the American Revolution (the aforementioned Rachael Camfield’s oldest son).

Finding the ancestry of wives is rewarding, but also difficult. Even when a woman’s maiden name is known, establishing the names of her parents sometimes can be challenging. Things have improved with the  establishment of ancestral web sites on the Internet, but sometimes the information submitted for inclusion there is erroneous, not properly documented, and the personal anecdotal history is often pretty skimpy.

In years past, wives/mothers generally had little opportunity of making their mark on history. But it’s mothers who birth and nurture succeeding generations, who largely instill virtue into the psyche of today’s and tomorrow’s society. 

I began my family-history searching in pre-Internet days, in the 1980s. Everything was done by regular mail or the use of available books at major repositories such as Seattle Public Library. It was slow work. I even borrowed books by mail from a genealogical library in Boston.

Anecdotal history, of course, continues to short change the mothers. There’s always plenty to read about what the men were up to. But apparently the women just stayed around the ranch house doing chores and bearing children.

I haven’t written about my own mother here, but I’ve been attentive to her in 4 or 5 of my books, one entirely about her Calhoun ancestry, all of which are in major libraries around the country, and she will greet occasional researchers there in subsequent years. My first-ever book in 1995 took her ancestry back to the early 1100s in Scotland. She died in Port Townsend in 1996 and is seen in the small photo at the beginning of this blog with her only three grandchildren. 

I’ve written before about my maternal grandmother Bertha “Birdie” (Brown) Calhoun, orphaned young, adopted several times, who wound up a single mother of some of her eight children in a dysfunctional, poverty-ridden family

My own wife (of 66 years)—Jean (Westall) Camfield—is not yet historic and there’s not enough space here to do her justice in this short-lived blog. Her biography, like my mother’s, could not be efficiently condensed in such limited space as is available here. Her life and ancestry, along with her Westall/Blankinship ancestries has a book of its own, and she also  is covered well in four or five of my other books.

“And some there be, which have no memorial; who are perished, as though they had never been and are become as though they had never been born . . .”—See Ecclesiasticus 44:1-14




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