It is a sad truth, but we have lost the faculty
of giving lively names to things.
Names are everything.
I never quarrel with actions.
My one quarrel is with words.
Celebrating my aunt Vicki Johnston! Last week my aunt Vicki Gower Johnson celebrated her 85th birthday. Aunt Vicki lives in Chandler, Arizona, a suburb of Phoenix, near her daughter Paula Harrell Tuzzolino. The sister of my mother Maida Gower Shepard, we honor Vicki as one of the senior members of our family. Born in Oklahoma, but raised in San Diego, Vicki lived for 40 years in Oak Harbor, Washington before moving to Arizona a few years ago. Congratulations to Vicki on turning 85! The first picture from 2008 shows Vicki on the right with her sister Maida.
Shifting Gears. In recent weeks I have posted about famously named people in our family tree. Now I will take a break from the famously named and look at a few people who were not so famously named. They are the infamous characters in our family history, the bad girls and bad boys among our ancestors. People like Jessie James Emery.
A Youthful Indiscretion. My GGG Grandparents Jackson and Mary Gower had one daughter among their four children, Hannah Elizabeth Gower (1870-1943). These Gowers lived in the small rural community of Sylamore in Stone County, Arkansas, birthplace of my maternal Grandparents, Leroy Gower (b. 1899) and Nola Shannon (b. 1903). In the fall of 1893, 23 year old Hannah Gower struck up a relationship with an 18 year old fellow with the colorful name of Jessie James Emery. He had recently come from Pettis County, Missouri, some 250 miles to the north, very possibly to help with the harvest or to seek some other kind of work. The devastating economic depression of 1893 had people like Jesse James Emery all across the country on the move looking for employment.
We don't know much about the quality of the relationship Jesse James and Hannah had. Compared to today, you could get away with a lot in the sparsely populated hills of Northern Arkansas. All we know for sure is that their relationship brought about Hannah's unplanned pregnancy. No "shotgun wedding" took place, even though it must have been an embarrassment for the Gower family in this small peaceful farming community where they lived.
Getting On With Their Lives. In June, 1894 Hannah gave birth to her baby and gave him the name Marvin Almus Emery Gower. Young Marvin stayed with his mother Hannah and her family and took their name, Gower, as his last name for the rest of his 86 years. In 1900, when Marvin was just 6 years old, Hannah found a responsible father for her son when she married a local man named James Henry Pierce. Together they began a family of their own, which included young Marvin.
In 1895, just a year after the birth of Marvin, his biological father Jessie James Emery married a local woman with the unique name of Olive O. Oyler, and together they started a family of their own, which did not include young Marvin Gower. The US Census records for the year 1900 show that Hannah Gower's family, and Jessie James Emery's family were neighboring farmers in close proximity in Sylamore. But not for long. Soon after the turn of the century, the negligent father Jesse James Emery left Arkansas with his new family and made their way some 1,500 miles to Montana where they settled and where he died in the summer of 1929 near Billings, Montana.
Named After the Famous Outlaw? Bad boy Jessie James Emery was born in Southwest Missouri just 90 miles from the home of the outlaw Jesse James (see picture from about 1882). Our Jessie James was born in 1875 when the infamous James Gang was at the height of its criminal activity, robbing banks, trains and stagecoaches, and staying on the run from the law. Western Missouri was known as "Little Dixie" in those post Civil War days, because of the many southern sympathizers who lived there, including the James Gang, who targeted Union Soldiers and Civilian Abolitionists.
It may have been no accident that Jessie James Emery was named after one of the most infamous yet popular outlaws ever to come out of Southwest Missouri. In those days Missourians were fond of glamorizing outlaws like Jesse James as a way of rooting for the underdog and snubbing their noses at the authorities. Many thought of the James gang as being like Robin Hoods who curried favor with the common folk. It was against this backdrop that bad boy Jessie James Emery was born and given his name. Jesse James Emery therefore is the first of several disreputable characters in our past that I will highlight in coming weeks.
It is quite a shift to write about infamous characters in our family tree. It reminds us that our family, like all families, is a mixed bag. There are those whose lives and stories we gladly celebrate, but then there are those whose lives are cautionary tales. Yet even they have their place in our family history. Their stories also need telling even if simply to give us perspective when we think "too highly of ourselves."
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