Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Brosius Family: Margrette’s Second Marriage

A widow had to wear hideous black dresses without even a touch of braid to enliven them, no flower or ribbon or lace or even jewelry, except onyx mourning brooches or necklaces made from the deceased’s hair. And the black crêpe veil on her bonnet had to reach to her knees, and only after three years of widowhood could it be shortened to shoulder length.
—Margaret Mitchell, Gone With the Wind (pp. 94-5)

While the attitude displayed in the preceding passage represents that of the fictional Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara, who had married for spite and did not feel any real grief for her husband, the description gives a fairly accurate portrayal of what a widow would have worn at that time. The description is a little exaggerated as far as duration is concerned; the knee-length veil could be shortened after a year and a day. The difference, however, may be accounted for in part by Scarlett’s relatively exalted social position, as mourning customs were dictated not in a one-size-fits-all manner, but varied according to status and personal taste. Because death often arrived unexpectedly, the clothing was often purchased ready-made. The full outfit could be afforded only by the wealthy. Poorer women often observed mourning by dying their own dresses black.

Widow’s weeds, as women’s mourning garments were nicknamed, were not—at least originally—intended to be restrictive (and whether they became such depended largely on the personality of the wearer), but rather as a sort of emotional protection. The clothing signaled to the world that a person was in mourning, and that care needed to be used in conversation so that one would not inadvertently stumble upon tender subjects. Moreover, a woman could weep privately behind her veil without the embarrassment of strangers seeing her tears or puffy eyes. And if by chance a widow were to be caught in her grief, the reason for it would be tacitly understood.

As the Civil War progressed, widow’s weeds became a more and more common sight. Margrette Brosius was one among this growing troop of women. Her husband, Adam, had died not in the war, but about a month before it began. Family lore holds that he was kicked by a mule, but that may or may not have been the case, as the Brosius oral history is notoriously inexact. Sometimes it is said that it was his son, John, almost sixty years later, who was kicked by the mule. No matter how it had happened, the bare fact was that Adam Brosius was dead and Margrette would have donned the uniform of a widow.

The children would also have been dressed in mourning. The baby Rebecca, possibly not even born until after the death of her father, would have been spared the heavy black and had instead perhaps some black ribbons tied on her white baby clothes. Mary and John, being older, would probably have worn black, or at least a black armband, for their period of mourning, which would have lasted six months to a year. This, though a long period of time to alter one’s attire by today’s standards, was still shorter than the length of time expected of a widow. This is not to say that, except for Scarlett O’Hara and perhaps a few others, the mourning garb outlasted the actual period of grief. In fact, many women—Queen Victoria is a notable example—chose to take up widow’s weeds for the rest of their lives.

The customary length of time for a widow to remain in mourning was two and a half years. Adam Brosius had died early in March 1861, therefore it was probably late 1863 or early 1864 when Margrette remarried. The war was still in progress, but somehow Margrette met and married a man named John Rodgers. He had been born in Ireland, and was almost precisely three years younger than she. In fact, their birthdays were only a day apart.

On 15 Jan 1865 they were blessed by the birth of their first daughter together. They named her Sarah Elizabeth, and called her by her middle name. Elizabeth Rodgers was born near the close of the Civil War; only a few months later, on 9 Apr 1865, Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, signaling the end of the war. A few Confederate armies held out longer—some as late as June—but Lee’s surrender was such a turning point that it has become the accepted practice to date the end of the war by it.

With the end of the war, the thoughts of many Americans returned to an idea expressed over a century earlier by Bishop George Berkeley:

Westward the course of empire takes its way;
The first four acts already past,
A fifth shall close the drama with the day;
Time’s noblest offspring is the last.

The idea had become known as Manifest Destiny. In other words, “Go west, young man, go West and grow up with the country.” The nation was burgeoning—had already reached the Pacific Ocean—and young people everywhere aspired to be part of the expansion. The Homestead Act promised free, or at least cheap, land; the transcontinental railroad was on its way to completion and already new rail lines were beginning to drape the wilderness like a web. New methods and technologies gave farms a chance to succeed on the Great Plains, a chance once deemed impossible.

The family now headed by John Rodgers in Crawford County, Pennsylvania, was not immune to the excitement. Whether John Rodgers had come to the United States with the intention of eventually going west, or whether he was enticed by railroad advertisements or friends, the opportunities of the west certainly began to catch his attention.

Kansas had achieved statehood shortly before the war, and now that hostilities were at an end, and the violent days of “Bleeding Kansas” were over, this new land must have seemed filled with potential for his growing family. With the addition of a baby they named James (“Jim”) on 15 July 1868 the family had reached seven members.

A move west was no small undertaking, neither logistically nor financially. If he was going to move his family west, John Rodgers would have to come up with a great deal of money to do it. But he saw one fair prospect at hand: the land left behind by his wife Margrette’s first husband, Adam Brosius. There was timber on that land, and timber could raise money. So John Rodgers harvested the timber.

Unfortunately, he must have neglected to discuss this decision with his stepchildren, because Mary, John, and Rebecca Brosius, though all still minors, sued him “for the waste he has committed” (Brosius). The land, they claimed, belonged to them, not to John Rodgers. They evidently came to some sort of agreement with their stepfather, however, because the suit was dropped.

In the meantime, Mary Brosius had reached maturity and had a suitor in a twenty-five-year-old widower named Joseph Patterson Christy, Jr. Pat, as he was called, had recently returned from Wisconsin with his son, Andrew, a toddler. Men were not accustomed to raise children in those days, and a toddler would have been quite a challenge for a suddenly single young man. Therefore, it probably seemed quite natural that Andrew was living at his grandparents’ house rather than with his father.

Perhaps the lawsuit against John Rodgers was dropped in order not to tarnish the joy of Mary Brosius’ upcoming nuptials. Within a month of the filing of the lawsuit, on 19 May 1869, she and Pat were united in marriage. Undoubtedly the rest of the family celebrated her wedding before beginning the journey west. Mary would remain with her new husband in Crawford County, Pennsylvania when John Rodgers and the remainder of his household combined with

All the pulses of the world,
Falling in they beat for us, with the Western movement beat,
Holding single or together, steady moving to the front, all for us,
Pioneers! O pioneers! (Whitman 198)
 (Continues with “Rodgers-Brosius family in Bourbon county, 1869-1873ish.”)

Citations and Selected Sources:

Berkeley, George. "On the Prospect of Planting Arts and Learning in America." 1726. The Home Book of Verse. Ed. Burton Egbert Stevenson. Seventh ed. New York: Henry Holt and, 1945. 2565. Print. 

Brosious, John. The Petition of John Brosious for Guardian. 13 Apr 1869. Petition to the Orphan Court of Crawford County. Office of Clerk of Courts, Meadville, Pennsylvania. Xerox copy sent to the author by Gloria Brosius.

Brosius, Mary. Petition of Mary Brosius for Guardian ad Litem. 13 Apr 1869. Petition to the Orphan Court of Crawford County. Office of Clerk of Courts, Meadville, Pennsylvania. Xerox copy sent to the author by Gloria Brosius.

Mitchell, Margaret. Gone With the Wind. Garden City, New York: International Collectors Library American Headquarters, 1936. 94-5. Print.

Rodgers, Margret Ann. The Petition of Rebecca Brotious for Guardian. 13 Apr 1869. Petition to the Orphan Court of Crawford County. Office of Clerk of Courts, Meadville, Pennsylvania. Xerox copy sent to the author by Gloria Brosius. 

Whitman, Walt. “Pioneers! O Pioneers!” Leaves of Grass. New York: Signet Classic, 1955. 196-199. Print.