I thought I would write a little about my maternal third great grandmother, Mary Ann Erskin. She was the second wife of Jonathan Calvin Cunningham, his first wife having divorced him at the end of the Civil War. Jonathan Cunningham served in the Union Army and it appears his first wife favored the other side. We are descended through Laura Isabel Cunningham, born in 1872, the second daughter of Jonathan Cunningham's second wife.
I have been searching for information about Mary Ann Erskin since I was sixteen years old, when I first started doing family history work. At that time all I knew about Jonathan Cunningham's wives is what I learned from the census records. On the 1860 census in Barren Creek Township, Marion County, Arkansas, I found Jonathan Cunningham living with his first wife, Sarah P Cunningham, each of them 30 years old, and living with two daughters, Elizabeth, age 3, and Nancy, age 7 months. On the 1870 census, still in Barren Creek Township, Marion County, Arkansas, I found Jonathan Cunningham living with his second wife, Mary Cunningham. the census listed his age as 38 and her age as 22. They were living with two daughters, Nancy, age 10 (from the first marriage) and Mary E, age 1. On the 1880 census in Barren Creek Township, now in the newly formed Baxter County, Arkansas, I found Jonathan Cunningham as a widower, living with three daughters, Nancy, age 19, Mary E, age 11, and Laura A, age 7. At this point all I knew about Mary Ann Erskin was that her first name was Mary, she was born in about 1848 in Indiana, and that she probably had died before 1880. All I found was the one census record that made any mention of Jonathan Cunningham's second wife, Mary.
Over the years I would come back to Jonathan Calvin Cunningham's family and I did make some progress here and there. Some years ago my mother purchased a book about the history of Baxter County, Arkansas. Jonathan Calvin Cunningham is mentioned a number of times in the book, along with other relatives. I learned that Jonathan Cunningham grew up in a slaveholding family in Tennessee, but was very strongly opposed to slavery. He had moved to a part of Arkansas where there weren't many slaves in order to get away from slavery. He even declined his mother's offer to loan him sixteen slaves to clear his land in Arkansas. Jonathan Cunningham owned a boat landing on the White River, but wouldn't allow boats to dock at his landing if they had slave help on board. When the Civil War began, he enlisted in the Union Army to fight against slavery. Jonathan Cunningham is also mentioned in a book about men from Arkansas who fought in the Union Army, titled "Arkansas' Damn Yankees". I also learned from the History of Baxter County that Jonathan Cunningham had married Minerva Casteel and after her death had married her older sister, Tabitha Casteel. That book described Minerva Casteel as his second wife and Tabitha as his third wife.
Other interesting tidbits gleaned from the History of Baxter County include that fact that for a time Jonathan Cunningham was a riverboat pilot on the White River and that he was also part owner of a whiskey distillery. There was a story about a theft from the distillery that resulted in a serious fight between Jonathan Cunningham and one of the alleged thieves. The distillery was built up on piers to protect it from the river flooding. The enterprising thieves bored a hole into some whiskey barrels from under the floor and drained out some of the inventory. In the ensuing fight, Jonathan Cunningham is purported to have bitten off the man's ear.
I tried repeatedly to find a marriage record for any of Jonathan Cunningham's marriages, in Tennessee for the first marriage and in Arkansas for the second marriage. Eventually, I found a marriage record, dated 4 September, 1874 for Manevia Casteel, age 22, and Jonathan Cunningham, age 45. That would clearly make her the third wife rather than the second. It would also indicate that Mary Ann Erskin, the second wife, probably died before September, 1874. Some of this research was conducted on infrequent trips to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. Some was conducted the hard way by ordering microfilms from Salt Lake.
At some point my mother turned up a letter from her great aunt Ellar (Lurellar Sinor) which listed in detail most of her Baxter County relatives. Aunt Ellar's letter was written in 1970, the year I graduated from high school. She listed four wives for Jonathan Calvin Cunningham as follows:
wife #1: Unknown, who had one daughter named Nan Cunningham(not the Nan made famous by the limerick).
wife #2: Mary Erskins, who had two daughters, Mary Evaline Cunningham and Laura Isabel Cunningham.
wife #3: Minervia Casteel, who had one daughter who lived, Jane Cunningham (It saddens me to read the phrase "who lived" as I know some of the pain that lies behind that phrase)
wife #4: Tabitha Casteel, who had two kids who lived, Caroline Cunningham and Jim Cunningham.
I gradually obtained a little more information regarding Mary Ann Erskin, but it was a painstakingly slow process. I still had no marriage record and I had no clue as to her family other than she was born in about 1848 in Indiana. Now we enter the era of indexing, when thousands of people labor diligently to index many different types of records so that they are searchable on the computer. Even better than that, Family Search and Ancestry do some searching for us and are always giving us little hints.
About a week ago I logged into Ancestry.com, looked at Jonathan Calvin Cunningham and saw such a little hint, the marriage of "Anna Jonathan Cunningham and Mary Ann Erskin" in Butler County, Missouri on October 10, 1867. The combination of Jonathan Cunningham and Mary Ann Erskin in the same record instantly grabbed my attention. However, I just knew that the "Anna" had to be wrong. Fortunately, I was able to look at the original record and verify that was indeed the case. The actual wording of the document (of course written in cursive) was "before me came Jonathan Cunningham and Mary Ann Erskin to be united in the holy bonds of matrimony". Two indexers and one arbitrator all looked at the word "came" and read it as Anna. We really need to help more people learn to read cursive before it becomes like hieroglyphs. It also shows just how helpful indexing can be, in spite of mistakes. So it wasn't indexed exactly correctly. It was done well enough for me to finally locate this critical record.
I took the next step and looked at the 1860 census in Butler County, Missouri and found Mary A Erskin, age 12, living with her parents, John and Mary Erskin, and her six siblings. There is still a little conflict as to her place of birth. The 1870 census indicates she was born in Indiana. The 1860 census lists Illinois as her place of birth. I also found her family on the 1850 census in Crawford County, Missouri. The surname was spelled Earskin, but the ages and names of the parents and children matched up. That record also lists her place of birth as Indiana. I haven't yet looked yet to figure out the locations of Butler and Crawford Counties in Missouri. Their marriage in Butler County raises all sorts of interesting questions. How did they meet? Did Jonathan Cunningham serve in the army with her father or brother? I'm also a bit curious about the difference in their ages. They both lived through the Civil War as well. Obviously they lived both interesting and difficult lives. I'll look forward to getting to know them better some day.