Tuesday, April 21, 2020

A Southern Family Story, April 22, 2020

Despite the sarcastic remarks of Northerners,
the South can be so impellingly beautiful 
that sophisticated creature comforts
diminish in importance.
~Maya Angelou

In my last post I wrote about Cindy's GG Grandparents Julius Caesar Vessels and Fannie Narcissus Vessels, a couple from Northern Alabama during Civil War days. After becoming acquainted with this couple, I decided to search Narcissus' history, with some surprising results. Her family history contains some of the best finds in our family tree and some not so admirable.

Here is a 12 generation lineage that includes Julius Caesar and Narcissus, and traces one family line back to 17th Century Scotland:
  • Preslea Maida Shepard, b. 2010, the daughter of...
  • Nathan Shepard, b. 1977 (wife Chenda Sou) the son of...
  • Cindy Harris Shepard, b. 1948 (husband Steve Shepard), the daughter of...
  • Sammie Joe Harris, 1922-1999 (wife Paula Hicks), the son of...
  • Mary Lee McGowan, 1899-1985 (husband Fred Harris) the daughter of...
  • Edna Pearl Vessels, 1882-1967 (husband S. A. McGowan) the daughter of...
  • Fannie Narcissus Bradford, 1845-1891 (husband Julius Caesar Vessels) the daughter of...
  • Jesse David Bradford, 1813-1885 (wife Mary Chandler) the son of...
  • Katherine Keith, 1779-1831 (husband James Bradford) the daughter of...
  • Alexander Keith, 1748-1822 (wife Margaret Harned) the son of...
  • James F. E. Keith, 1695-1752 (wife Mary Isham Randolph), son of...
  • William Keith, (1663-1712) of Peterhead, Scotland
GGG Grandfather Jesse David Bradford. As indicated in the lineage above, Fannie Narcissus' father was Jesse David Bradford (1813-1885), who was originally from Wayne County, Tennessee, just across the border from northern Alabama. As a young man he made his way from Southern Tennessee into Northern Alabama where he met a girl from Virginia by the name of Mary Chandler. In Athens, Alabama Jesse married Mary, and soon thereafter found a job in the mining industry in Lawrence, Alabama just 30 miles west of Athens, south across the Tennessee River.

GGG Grandfather
Jesse David Bradford
The 1840 U.S. Census shows Mary and Jesse Bradford, in their 20s, living in Lawrence, Alabama. Their family at that time included one young white son, and three young black children, presumably slave children who lived with them and helped around the house. Within a few years Jesse left his work in the mines and moved his young family to Florence, Alabama, some 30 miles further west on the northern banks of the Tennessee River

Life On the Hood Plantation. In Florence, Jesse accepted a job as the Overseer of the Mary Hood Plantation, a prosperous farming operation. Jesse Bradford's job was to supervise the slaves who lived and worked on the plantation. Overseers were often ruthless, cruel, despised individuals. They were hired by the plantation owner to maintain order, to keep the plantation and its slaves secure, and to keep the business going by any means. This enabled the owners to avoid the hard work in the fields, and to leave the discipline and sometimes harsh punishments to the Overseer. It was not an honorable profession. But in the pre-Civil War days, it was an essential and accepted part of the process of maintaining the cruel slave culture.

The Mary Hood Plantation
Florence, Alabama
Overseers were generally paid well. GGG Grandfather Jesse Bradford lived with his family in their own home on the plantation and did well financially while he worked there. The 1850 U.S. Census shows him living on the plantation owning real estate worth $700. Ten years later the U.S. Census shows he had an estate worth $4,500, a considerable sum in the antebellum South. While Jesse and Mary Bradford lived on the Mary Hood Plantation they added several children to their family. The third among their 6 children was Cindy's GG Grandmother Narcissus Bradford (1845-1891) who spent the first years of her life on the Hood Plantation. She came to understand well the slave culture, the clear social strata of the South, and the ugliness of life on a southern plantation.

Southerners had a penchant for classic names of the ancient Greco-Roman world. In Greek Mythology, Narcissus was the name of a handsome young hunter who was known for his beauty. He loved everything beautiful, including his own image when he saw it reflected in a pool of water. Narcissus in the origin of the term narcissism, a fixation with oneself and one's physical appearance. In modern times it is also the name of a flower, which is more likely the reason her parents gave her the name.

Narcissus flower
Julius Caesar and Narcissus: A Wartime Romance. In the spring of 1861, when Narcissus was 15 years old, the Civil War began and life was upended for people in Alabama and all over America. At the time Narcissus and her family were still living in Florence, Alabama. During the War, young Narcissus met a soldier named Julius Caesar Vessels, from the southern part of the state. In 1863 Narcissus and Julius married in Florence, possibly while he was on furlough from the War. They settled for a while in Gravelly Springs, a sparsely populated community west of town.

In the 24 years between 1864 and 1888 Narcissus bore 11 children with her husband Julius Caesar. Tragically their last child, Johnnie David Vessels, died at just 15 months old in the spring of 1890. In 1889 their 22 year old son William Terry Vessels died. Then in the summer of 1891 Narcissus died at just 45 years old. We don't know what caused these three deaths in one family in just 2 1/2 years. In Narcissus' case, 11 pregnancies in 24 years would certainly have taken its toll. She and her two sons might have died from the Russian Flu pandemic that raged from 1889 to 1894. In any case these deaths in the Vessels family created a tragic hardship for husband Julius who was suddenly a single parent with 9 children, 7 of whom were between 19 and 4 years old.

At Rest in Athens. After the War, Julius and Narcissus relocated with their family to Athens, Alabama where her parents Jesse and Mary Bradford lived. It took Julius and Narcissus and their family almost two weeks to make the 60 mile trip. They traveled by wagon as they drove their livestock from their home west of Florence to Athens. In 1868 Julius purchased 80 acres of land north of Athens for $160. There Julius and Narcissus farmed and lived the rest of their lives.

Narcissus, who died in 1891, and husband Julius Caesar Vessels, who died in 1928, are both buried in the Reunion Cemetery which sits behind the Reunion Church of Christ, 8 miles northeast of Athens. Also buried there in unmarked graves are Narcissus' parents Jesse and Mary Bradford and several other family members. Julius and Narcissus, then are one more couple who takes their place in the great pantheon of our family history, people whose lives instruct, inform and inspire us. And for them we can be eternally grateful.
- - -
Steve Shepard
(he, him, his)

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