Something of Stephen’s years of maturation can be learned from connecting bits of information appearing in letters and other published accounts. Northeastern Ohio in the early and mid 19th century was a center of religion and education giving birth to two of the colleges associated with our family, Hiram College of the Disciples of Christ movement and Oberlin College established by the Presbyterians. Coitsville (Trumbull/Mahoning County, Ohio) was the home of Wm. H McGuffey of the primers fame. Trumbull County was a major stop on the Slavery Underground Railroad. The Hart and Bushnell families who both became prominent in Stephen Watkins’ life manned stations on the Railway.


Old Homes in Brookfield Ohio

In Trumbull County, Ohio Dana’s guardianship of Stephen was transferred to Orenus Hart of Brookfield, Ohio. Orenus is called “Uncle” in Stephen and Diana’s letters but I have no evidence that this represents familial relationship.

Orenus Hart had come to Brookfield Ohio in 1822 with his wife Sabra Lewis Hart and older children from Burlington, Ct. A son was married to an Applegate and there are some letters to Stephen from an Applegate in Windsor County, Vermont.

Great Grandfather Rolla’s letters indicate Stephen was active in Whig politics and church from at least the time of that move. From our letters we know that Stephen Watkins’ guardian, Orenus Hart, was, as was Stephen, an active member of the Disciples. He was active in politics beginning with the election of 1836. Orenus Hart and his future father-in-law, Wm. D. Hirst, were Whigs, passionately abolitionist and favored Negro suffrage prior to the Civil War.

Orenus Hart’s letter of 1852 describes the outcome of the Whig convention that was the beginning of the party’s  end:

“It will be no news to say in Politics we are that is Scott Whigs beaten so much as to be almost among the things that were. All that in consequence of the Platform got up by the South and indorsed by the Whigs of the north. The North must hereafter come together on the principle of right: a question of freedom and then hold on to the same altho the heaven’s pale. But it will be no interest to you for me to stick in to a short letter __ any discussion of Politics. The battle is over. The smoke is mostly evaporated & Nobody killed. ” Orenus Hart friend Stephen Brookfield Nov. 14th 1852; Prairie Tree Letters p. 57-58.

Stephen’s sister Diana was married in Ohio to Amos Ayres, a harness maker. Stephen and half brothers, John Snow Howard and Nathan Orlen Howard, apparently lived with the Ayres in Ohio. While Stephen seems more “cerebral” in his letters Diana is “full of the earth.” There were a number of Ayres children though many died in infancy. One of the most poignant letters describes the death of one of the Ayres children.

According to son, Rolandus Watkins, Stephen, having taught school for some time in Ohio, went to Blackjack, Wisconsin in 1844 or 1845. Here he taught school for a year then returned to Trumbull (now Mahoning) County and married Florinda Hirst 18 January 1846; it is recorded in Mercer County, Ohio. We know one of his students in Ohio was Sarah Bushnell who would become his second wife and I believe it likely that Florinda had also been his student.

stephe florinda

Stephen Decatur Watkins & Florinda Hirst Watkins.
About 1850

Florinda Hirst was the daughter of William D. and Sarah Porter Hirst. The parents were married in Ohio having come to western Pennsylvania/eastern Ohio from Franklin County, Pa. and Fredericksburg, Md. areas respectively. Florinda was born 26 October 1826 in Ohio. There were numerous younger siblings, all bearing flamboyant names, There were two sons, Rolandus Porter Hirst and Larodus Douthit Hirst. The aunts and uncles and later their children kept contact with their Watkins relatives into the 1920s. It is of some interest that the Hirsts contributed a quantum of that delightful mix of the f engineering mind and talent for writing and poetry in our family. More of the Hirst history into modern times will  be provided later.

Stephen, borrowing to supplement his inheritance, purchased land in Grant County, Wisconsin. Continuing his teaching, he set about clearing the land, building a home and developing farm land. Wood of the white walnut from the clearing was set aside and eventually was used for the construction of the secretary desk which remains in the family. There is a lovely letter from Florinda describing the house and setting.

One of the largest volumes of correspondence is between family in Ohio and Stephen and Florinda as they were were settling on the property in Wisconsin.

The family letter describing their trip and advising those who were yet to come grasped my attention so firmly that it set me on this course of compilation.

Florinda and Stephen began to create their family with the first child, a little girl arriving 30 May 1847. Is it a reflection of their education in the classics that this first baby was given the name Mary Ginevra. It surely was taken from da Vinci’s “first masterpiece” A Portrait of Ginevra. Emma Euginia was born 13 March 1850, Rolandus Aurelian 15 January 1853 and Dora Imogene 15 September 1855. We have Stephen’s record book containing not only births, marriages and deaths but also a diagram of the first Grant County apple orchard planted by him and also his school attendance book both covering a large segment of that time.


Stephen and Florinda Watkins’ Desk Made from wood cleared for first home in Wisconsin. As it looks today.

Florinda’s brother Rolandus acquired land for the W.D. Hirst family still in Ohio, naming it Perennial Cascade. Stephen and Florinda combined farming, family and school teaching. In 1847 the W. D. Hirst family migrated from Coitsville, Ohio and settled at Perennial Cascade in Grant County, Wisconsin (Territory). There are many letters covering the periods prior to the moves. Stephen’s reverence for education was if anything exceeded by that of the Hirst patriarch, W. D. Hirst. His expectations are displayed in all of that family’s correspondence. Far beyond that, the letters of this time period are so beautifully written and textured with the emotions and personalities of their authors that I feel I know something of what was in their hearts and eyes.

By 1851 the remainder of the Howard and Badger families, including John’s brother Nathan Orlen had migrated to Wisconsin, leaving Amos and Diana Watkins Ayres and their several children in Ohio. Stephen and his half brothers describe their mother as a worrier but with humor and affection. Her letters certainly reflect this same. Stephen having just traveled to Ohio to escort them on the river trip, his brother Orlen writes:

“She as you may well guess borrowed a great amount of trouble thinking that all the engineers firemen &c were anxious to destroy themselves and all others by blowing up the boat but the farther we came the more at ease she felt. She was nearly worn out when she got here & had one of her bad spells just before we got home…” (Stephen) “Mother was considerably disappointed when she came hear and saw Stephens children, finding them rather prettier and smarter than she was calculating to find them.” N. O. Howard “My Dear Sister”; [signed S. D. Watkins and mother and N. O. Howard. Lima May 23rd 1851], Prairie Tree Letters, p. 42-4

The author of this letter, Stephen and Diana’s half brother, Nathan Orlen Howard, was to become ill and die suddenly soon after coming to Wisconsin.  There is a letter in the collection describing the sad events.


Sacramento Valley with Mt. Shasta in the background

In 1854 Florinda’s brother Rolandus after teaching and farming in Grant County, joined the national migration to the California gold fields. His letters contribute to the story. Rolandus does not spare in sharing the Hirst capacity for romantic flourishes and many of his letters are priceless literature describing the era and the environment. For an example see Rolandus on the Mountain. The brother Rolandus remained on the West Coast, Oregon and California, married and had two sons Henry Herbert and Charles Hist. He lived into his 60s. Our great grandfather, his nephew, is his namesake Contact was maintained with his wife Maria Theresa Calhoun Hirst into the 1900s.

We are  grateful to Hazel Hinkins Johnson a Hirst descendant and her living surrogate Bernita Craven Jenkins for preserving and sharing copies of letters and information about the other W.D. Hirst children. Rolandus Watkins’ sister Emma also kept in contact with the Hirst descendants in California and provided considerable information on the latter day line.

John Howard

Professor John Howard, late in life.

John Snow Howard married Mary Hannum of Wisconsin and immigrated to Mountain Home, Arkansas where he established The Male and Female Academy. In fact according to the Baxter County history the modern town of Mountain Home sprang up around the Academy, Great Grandfather Rolandus Aurelian corresponded with his daughter Lillabelle (Belle) Howard Bodenhamer. I made our last contact with the Howards through Judi Sharp, a direct descendant. and am grateful to her for the photographs and additional Arkansas history. Professor John Howard is yet an honored historical figure there.


Lima Union Cemetery

Sadly for the Steven and Florinda Watkins, the full nuclear family life was a brief period. Florinda died of tuberculosis in 1858. Tuberculosis, the plague which prematurely ended the lives of so many of the Hirsts. Florinda was preceded by her older sister, Mary Jane Hirst Burns and husband Thomas Burns. The property on which the Lima Union Cemetery rests was taken from a corner of the Burns farm, I assume at the time of the Burns’ deaths. Also Watkins relatives, Mary and Orlen Howard, several of the Ayres children, and Elizabeth Senter are buried there. But as to the Watkins and Honeys only the 1861 Elizabeth Honey Badger Senter gravestone can be found. It remains well tended. Emma gives a more detailed description of the burial sites in her 1916 letter to R. A. Watkins. Prairie Tree Letters, p. 186-7. Our generous colleagues in Grant County have provided photographs and precise cemetery records. Florinda Hirst Watkins’ siblings, spouses and a number of nieces and nephews died young of tuberculosis.  Many are buried in this cemetery.

Our grandmothers Elizabeth Senter Badger and Mary Tarr Honey Eaton Watkins died and are buried in Grant County, Wisconsin. The Honeys and Howards and Badgers were very much a part of the Stephen Watkins family. They are also an interesting branch, in terms of both their origins and and more recent history. They migrated to Kansas before the Civil War and descendants remained at least well into the 20th century. There will be a page devoted to their history.

In 1859, the year following Florinda’s death, Stephen traveled back to Ohio and married former student Sarah Bushnell, later Sarah B. Watkins Davies. Her father was a physician in Hartford, Ohio. She was an Oberlin College graduate. All of Stephen and Florinda’s children speak in many letters of their love and closeness to Sarah Bushnell Watkins, later Davies. She was clearly a caring influence for Florinda’s children as they grew to maturity in Lancaster, Wisconsin.

After a time in Wisconsin, the Ayres family migrated to the far Western corner of Iowa. There is no mention of Amos at this time or since and we are uncertain of his situation from that point on. Diana is reported to have lived to a quite old age and she was certainly corresponding with her nieces and nephews well into the 20th century.   I have been unable to trace surviving descendants though I know there were some from anecdotal information from other genealogists.

There is minimal Watkins correspondence covering the Civil War period but what we know affirms the impact it had on our family as so many others.


Charles Ignatius Clark. Conventional military photo.

Our great great grandfather Charles Ignatius Clark was in the Confederate Cavalry. He died shortly after enlistment in Lamar County, Texas. representing the second chapter in the family drama that began with brother against brother in violent war.

Charles’ brother, John Garvin Clark,  was a member of Lincoln’s circle at the founding of the Republican Party.  At the outbreak of war he was serving in Wisconsin State Legislature. He was a strong advocate for abolition and the Union. A more complete history of this fascinating line, the Clarks is included in letters and on a separate page and the biography of John Garvin Clark in the Appendix of Prairie Tree Letters.

There are a number of letters in the collection in which Charles demonstrates the acrimony that existed between the brothers at war’s beginning.

A secret kept in the Clark family, really until his letters were uncovered recently, was Charles’  passionate advocacy for the Confederacy and slavery while the John Clark descendants and we Watkins believed he had been “impressed” against his will into the Confederate Cavalry and celebrated his brother John’s beliefs as family tradition.


Larodus D. Hirst Conventional military photo.

The Hirst family suffered the sacrifice of Florinda’s younger brother, the exuberant Larodus, in the Union forces He was killed in 5/12/1864 at the Battle of Bloody Angle  at Laurel Hill, VA near Fredericksburg, VA.

LD marker

Larodus Hirst marker in Fredericksburg National Cemetery.

Larodus D. Hirst (corrected spelling) National Cemetery Fredericksburg, VA,
He lies in the National Cemetery at Fredericksburg.

I have had some contact with one Hirst descendant, of Larodus Hirst, Arietta Livingston. She and Dale Neisen have provided the information regarding his service record and photo of his grave marker in the Fredericksberg National Cemetery.  She also informs us that the  chin dimple sported by many of our males is a Hirst endowment.

Stephen’s half-brother, John Howard fought with the Confederacy, was captured by Union forces and was apparently in some manner released from captivity by relatives in Wisconsin whom I assume to be Stephen. He and Sarah could have been of help by way Sarah’s association with Col. John Clark, Union Army Colonel law partner of to her brother R. W. Bushnell, or perhaps Henry Hart (son of Orenus) who was serving in the region of his capture.

letterFamily friend and son of Orenus Hart, Henry served in the Ohio Cavalry in the west. His letters covering this time may be read here.

Orenus’ final letter in the collection is painfully poignant as he recounts the death of his son, Henry, in Andersonville Prison:

“…my fair Henry captured June 29 /64 some six weeks before his 3 years time was out & starved to death at Andersonville, Ga. Died March 21st 1865. I never can get over it but with his mother must go mourning down to the grave. No language of which I am master can express the abhorrence I feel towards the actors actions and abettors of that land of more than average barbarity. I cannot write about it and will leave it for you to imagine my feelings & try something more agreeable to think about if spared until tomorrow..” Unsigned – [Without doubt authored by Orenus Hart] Brookfield T. C. Ohio July 24th /66 ; Prairie Tree Letters, p. 92.

Ironically it appears Henry was likely captured in the battle of Pea Ridge that also saw the injury to our mother’s Confederate grandfather,

There are few Stephen Watkins letters after Florinda’s death though Stephen maintained contact with his half-brother John Snow Howard.

Meanwhile our mother, Gladys Cooke Watkins’, Grandfather Aaron Cardwell and Great Grandfather Hiram Cardwell were serving in the Confederate Army in the West. Both survived.

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