One never knows all the challenges that another person faces, and certainly there are at least two sides to every conflict. The genealogist that pokes about in ancestral closets should not be surprised to find skeletons there. Family researchers frequently uncover intimate details about their very human forbears that require sensitivity and clear-eyed objectivity when exposed to public view. Some day, no doubt, some of the less savory details of my life will turn up in some sterile database and I would hope that any descendant of mine who stumbles upon them would bear in mind this favorite quote from Walt Whitman's Song of Myself:
"Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)"
Now here is my Great-great-great grandfather, Samuel Barker Sr. (1817-1900). Emigrating from Bramley, Yorkshire in the late 1840s and a pioneer in Ohio and Wisconsin, he remains as enigmatic and indistinct in family memory as his faded photograph. Until my cousin Karen shared with me a few pages from a family history produced by descendants from the first of his four marriages, the only side of the story that was passed down in our family came from his estranged 2nd wife Sophronia (Judkins) Carr and her son, Samuel Barker, Jr. (my Gr-great grandfather).
That tale is one of hard-hearted abandonment, of Sophronia and her two teen-aged children ending up in Cleveland, Ohio with but 25 cents to their name. As Sophronia's grandson, Raymond H. Barker recorded in a typed family record he compiled in 1932; "The home life of my grandparents on my father's side was far from happy as is evidenced in a few letters written back in the year 1865." He then transcribes one I have shared with you before, in which mother accuses father and half-brother of conspiring to deny mother her rightful property in a letter to her son. Heavy stuff to lay on a child far from home, and heavy stuff to find in the family archive.
The Barkers pulled themselves up in Cleveland, and Samuel Barker, Jr. became a successful printer who built a family business that continued for generations. The senior Samuel Barker was absent from their lives, and even when on a family trip taken across country in the 1892, stopping in Wisconsin to visit with the half-brother, they appear not to have sought out the estranged patriarch. This may have been the reason why Samuel Barker, Sr., drafting his will three weeks after his son's family passed through, left the children of Sophronia Barker $1 each out of his estate of $5,000, while the children of his first marriage received $700 apiece.
Samuel Barker, Sr.'s side of the story emerges in the family history compiled by the descendants of Elizabeth Ann Barker (1844-1916), a daughter from his first marriage to Sarah Lawson (1814- ca 1846/47). It tells of a man who married for love and was disinherited, but also appears to have married for paternity, given that we have a marriage record of May 20, 1839 and a first child born September 30th of the same year. This Barker history also records; "The legend goes that at first Sarah said she didn't want to leave England, but when Samuel said if she didn't go he would find himself another woman, she changed her mind." Both she and his infant namesake died very soon afterward, leaving her husband with three children under 10 years of age and living near Youngstown, Ohio.
Samuel Barker, Sr. married Sophronia (Judkins) Carr (1817-1885) in the last days of 1847. They had two children - my Great-great grandfather Samuel Barker Jr. (1848-1903) and his sister Eva Barker (b. 1854). In that year they moved to Dane County, Wisconsin. In the census of 1860, Samuel Barker, Sr. is listed as a laborer at the State Mental Hospital in Westport. Three years later, Sophronia sued for divorce.
There are many reasons why marriages fail, though divorce was much less common in the 1860s than it has since become. Until I have the opportunity to locate and read the actual court filings, I can only rely on what the family record of the descendants of Elizabeth Ann Barker has to say:
"From family letters it is known that Sophronia and Samuel, Sr. were not getting along in the early 1860's. Sophronia had become interested in spiritualism and held seances at the Barker home. Sam heartily disapproved of these."
There was a strong spiritualist movement underway in America during the middle of the 19th century. It was popularized by clairvoyants such as Andrew Jackson Davis, "The Poughkeepsie Seer", and became associated with abolitionist and early feminist movements. According to Mary Margaret Benson in a 1989 Library Journal review:
"Spiritualism claimed, through contact with the dead, to be a scientific investigation into the immortality of the soul. The movement was associated with free speech and the abolition of slavery. Because it maintained that divine truth was accessible to any individual, female or male, and thus was accessible outside the male hierarchies of family, church, and politics, it became associated with feminism as well; many early women leaders in all three movements were also spiritualists."
Whether or not Sophronia Barker was a proto-feminist, her involvement with seances clearly seems to have upset her "staunch Church of England" husband.
The date of Sophronia's divorce from Samuel Barker was May 23, 1863, and it was officially filed a year later. The court found in her favor and that her allegations were proved true. Her husband was ordered to pay an unspecified amount plus costs, and Sophronia's letters in 1865 refer to disputes over the funds owned her. That same year she and her two children resettled in Cleveland, but that was not the end of the matter. In 1867, Samuel Barker, Sr. brought a counter suit against her in which he charged her with willfully deserting him for one year prior to her divorce suit. Once again the marriage was ordered dissolved, in a judgment dated November 20, 1867 and recorded in Judgment book November 15, 1869. By that time, Samuel Barker, Sr. had once again remarried. It is unclear whether Sophronia ever received her settlement after the second divorce case was concluded.
The author of the family record has this to say about Samuel Barker, Sr.;
"We shall not attempt to assess the character of our great-great grandfather, Samuel Barker. From details found in the many papers and from reading between the lines, he emerges as a strong personality."
Indeed, neither he nor his estranged wife Sophronia can be known and understood as anything other than two people struggling with their own burdens and aspirations who were unsuccessful doing so together. One can surmise much - poverty, gender, the status of half-children and step-parents, religious beliefs, temperament - but one can also look in the mirror and know from intimate experience how inscrutable our own relationships may be to another. Perhaps I shall one day leaf further into the court records that dissolved - not once but twice - the marriage of these ancestors, or perhaps I shall leave them be. Not every rock requires upending. There are plenty more near at hand.