What became of Mrs. Howard?
July 1, 2013
One of the joys of my job as the Historian at Elmwood is how I have a never ending source of people to choose from when I get the urge to do a little ‘searching’.
One day I was wandering by the Howard Vault in Chapel Hill and I got to wondering, “Who was J. M. Howard and who is buried in there?”
Little did I know that my curiosity was going to lead me on a journey that stretches across half the United States, takes a few twists and turns along the way, and still leaves some questions unanswered.
But first, let’s begin with Mr. Howard. James M. Howard was born around 1814 and came to Memphis from Sumner County, Tennessee in the early 1840’s. He entered into one of, if not the first, wholesale grocery businesses in the city. Apparently he was quite successful because in 1852 when the idea of Elmwood Cemetery was being floated about town he was one of the 50 residents who forked over $500.00 to buy an initial stake in the venture. In the 1855-56 City Directory he was listed as a partner in a dry goods firm named Howard & Laird at 262 main and living on, at the time a fashionable, Beale Street. Unfortunately, he died in April of 1855 at the young age of 41.
The Howard family had the resources to build a mausoleum on their Chapel Hill #55 lot and the name of J.M. Howard was carved over the door. Mr. Howard was the first person buried in the vault. A year later, Alexander Howard was buried in the vault. Son? Brother? We do not know. In 1859 and 1861, two children, each listed only as ‘Child of J.M. Howard’ were buried in the vault. To add a bit more confusion, in the lot but outside of the vault were buried a Howard H. Rayner and a Mrs. Frank C. Rayner. How did they fit into the family picture? Well, more on that later.
But what about Mrs. Howard? She was born in Virginia on August 13, 1826. The earliest record of her was of her marriage to James Howard on Feb. 4, 1844 in Shelby County. Her name was recorded as Roberta F. Williamson.
The next time she shows up in public records is on the 1850 Federal Census. This time she is merely listed, along with husband James and three children, James, Fred and Mary, as R.F. Howard, age 23. So far, so good. But then the trail ends. Nothing. Zilch. Zero.
Those of you who do genealogy know the feeling. It’s called The Wall. But there is always a way through or around that wall. In this case it was Elmwood’s Assistant Director Jody Schmidt. Jody found an old newspaper notice of the wedding which said that she was the daughter of a Mrs. Wilkinson. Wilkinson, not Williamson!
Also residing in Elmwood near the Howard Vault is the Wilkinson family. A quick search of them turns up a daughter named Frances Roberta Wilkerson. Mrs. Frances R. Howard - not Mrs. Roberta F. Howard?
One more search turns up, in the 1860 Census of Memphis, a widow named Frances Howard, born in Virginia in about 1826 and living with children James, Mary, Ellena and Fanny. Mrs. James M. Howard has been found.
Not so fast. As quickly as she is found she disappears again. A Civil War, a Yellow Fever epidemic and twenty years have to pass before Mrs. Howard surfaces again and it is far, far from Memphis.
To be continued...
-Dale Schaefer, Historian