The Redoubtable Mary Boyd

Pioneers

By Rachel Laue, Graduate Research Assistant [May 2021]

The stories we hear of pioneer lives conjure a certain set of images. Often they are of hardy men breaking new ground, planting new groves, and going off to war. The contributions of women in these stories are typically depicted as domestic, supportive figures raising children and taking care of homes while men do the hard, physical work of pioneering. But the voices of the women can tell a different, richer story. And in some cases, they can completely contradict the standard narrative altogether.

 

 

The stories we hear of pioneer lives conjure a certain set of images. Often they are of hardy men breaking new ground, planting new groves, and going off to war. The contributions of women in these stories are typically depicted as domestic, supportive figures raising children and taking care of homes while men do the hard, physical work of pioneering. But the voices of the women can tell a different, richer story. And in some cases, they can completely contradict the standard narrative altogether.

 

In 1903, Florida settler Mary Boyd wrote a memoir of her life, “Reminiscences of Palatka,” at the request of her daughters. Boyd focused on the early years of her marriage, when she and her mother moved to Florida from Rhode Island in 1850, hoping to improve the latter’s health. They arrived in Palatka, described by Mary as “a deserted military station” full of roughly constructed buildings intended for barracks rather than homes. Eleven months after her arrival, she married Robert Boyd, the local sheriff and tax collector.

 

Mary’s family viewed her marriage as a success. “My aunt thought there was great promise for me and I might have been at least contented if Mr. Boyd had been kind to me and had provided as well as he might have done for the children and myself.” However, this was not the case, as Mary tells her daughters.  Their father “was a tyrant at home and nothing could please him.” She was immediately put to work, not only caring for their home and soon to arrive children, but also doing the bulk of Robert’s clerical work as he did not make enough money to hire a clerk.

 

What followed was a peripatetic, unstable existence for the entire family. Though they remained in the area of Palatka, the family seemed to be always in transit, moving from house to house as Robert’s fortunes went from bad to worse. The family lost their opportunity to homestead as Robert “failed to prove” his application to the agent. Their home was repossessed. Robert also consistently placed all his resources into lumber schemes that rarely paid out. In 1855, a large cargo of cedar was seized by the U.S. Government. In 1858, another shipment of cedar was lost to a storm. Boyd laments her husband’s laziness and blames his poor decision making for putting the family’s finances in constant jeopardy.

 

The most egregious example of this occurred after the Civil War, when the family was impoverished, living in temporary quarters with another family, and desperate for funds. Yet another load of cedar—collected in 1861, but unsaleable due to the ongoing war—was left to rot and subject to theft by Robert’s ineptitude. Mary writes that “As soon as peace was declared our friend Mr. M.A. Williams who was then living at Waldo sent a man to tell Mr. Boyd that the war was over and for him to go directly to Jacksonville where there were plenty of vessels and charter one to take the cargo of cedar timber which was lying at our country place two miles from Palatka, but he wouldn’t go and did not look after it until nearly all of it was stolen and in consequence of this we got only about four hundred dollars out of a cargo that was worth over fifteen thousand dollars.”

 

Attempting to save her family, Mary agreed to sell a small plot of land she owned in her own name, but was disappointed yet again when Robert failed to get the full value of the property; instead, trading it for a horse. She writes “The country place belonged to me and was a good mill site as we needed money so badly we decided to sell the place so Mr. Boyd went to Palatka and sold the place for two thousand dollars taking a pony for the 1st payment with a small sum of money. I had told him we should get twenty five hundred for the place in cash so that he could have something to go into business with.” Mary’s memoir ends with this recollection, almost as if she can think of nothing more representative of her troubles and Robert’s ineffectualness.

 

Throughout these economic struggles, Mary’s life was also touched by immense personal tragedy. She lost her first child, Robert Samuel, to cholera just shy of his second birthday in 1854. Her second child, Walter, took ill of measles and whooping cough and died just two years later. Mary was deeply affected by these losses. “The last three months of his [Robert Samuel’s] life I had him in my arms day and night except for just long enough to bathe and change my clothes.” Her account of Walter’s death is even more harrowing, and once again, her husband was to blame.

 

“After the seizure of the cargo of cedar we were very much cramped for means, as everything we had went to pay debts that should have been paid by the sale of the cedar. We thought it would be cheaper to board than to keep house, so we rented the home place and boarded first with Mrs. Hightman in the house on Watts street opposite the F.S. building . . . Our little Walter died there in a terrible convulsion. As I said he was suffering from the effects of the measles and had whooping cough and fever. Dr Hause told me he must not eat any solid food and I was giving him soft hominy, corn starch, soft boiled eggs and milk and things of that nature. The day he died Mr. Boyd came in just before noon and asked what I had given Walter to eat. I told him and he had a plate of roast beef and rice brought in and took him in his lap and fed the child large mouthfuls of the beef and hard rice.

The little fellow was then put in a large rocking chair with pillows and he said “Mamma, let’s sing glory” that was what he called the “Gloria in Excelsus.” I sang it with him then he turned his head upward and said “mamma, I see my grandmother.” I said no Walter we cannot see her any more in this world, but he said “yes mamma, I do see her and my dear little brother Robby.” In a few moments he was in the dreadful convulsion from which he died. Dr. Hause said the hearty food was the cause of the spasm. He would have been three years old if he had lived one month longer.”

 

After Walter’s death, Mary demanded to be allowed to take her surviving son, George, north with all haste as he also had whooping cough and she feared for his life. She did, and the child recovered.

 

Perhaps, the best example of Mary’s stern spirit occurred during the war. In June of 1862, a Union gunboat landed at Palatka to take a family named Blood back north. Its arrival triggered a panic. “Gov. Mosely came running up the street screaming at the top of his voice ‘They are going to burn the town. Get out and save yourselves as fast as you can.’ And nearly every one who could left their homes taking with them children or what few things they could carry in their arms.” The gunboat’s mission was peaceful, but word had gotten to the captain that a local confederate soldier named Reddick had sworn to pick off officers on the boat with his rifle. Mary and another woman approached Reddick at his gun post and convinced him to leave town as his oath to shoot at the gunboat put both the lives and property of those in Palatka in danger. But the danger had not passed. Mary writes, “I asked if there was no man there that would go and beg them to spare the town for the sake of the sick and helpless and was answered that any man who would go there would be carried off a prisoner. Then I said ‘if no man can go I will do what a woman can do.’ So I left my babes with Mr. Boyd and the servants and started to save the town, I did not know how.” Mary went alone to meet the landing boats and spoke to the Union Sergeant, assuring him that no attack on the soldiers would occur, even telling him that she herself was born and raised in Rhode Island and not a secessionist. The officer initially brushed her off, but she persisted, insisting that the captain of the vessel come to speak with her and assess her intentions for himself. She must have been persuasive for shortly after the captain did indeed come to shore. As Mary tells the story:

 

“He spoke of the threat of Lieut. Reddick and I told him he was the only one that had threatened to fire on them and that there was not any organized company of soldiers in Palatka at that time, and that Lieut. Reddick by my urgent request had left town and that I knew he was several miles in the country. He asked who the soldiers were that were in Palatka now, and I told him they were men whose families lived in Palatka and that they had crossed the river during the night before, having been driven from their post at St. Johns Bluff some days before by the Northern troops. The men made their way to headquarters to report and had been home only a few hours to visit their families. This seemed to be a satisfactory explanation of the condition of things and the Commanding officer then said ‘Mrs. Boyd you have saved your town by being able to explain matters that had been reported to us. And, Mrs. Boyd, he said, if you live a hundred years you can look back on this day’s work as the best you have ever done. You were fortunate in knowing these things, and in being able to explain them you have saved much property and probably several lives.’”

 

This story became a favorite of Mary’s throughout her life. She recited it for women’s groups until her death in 1916. All of Mary’s stories illustrate a harsh reality for women in nineteenth-century Florida. One of terrible tragedy, financial ruin, and the threat of annihilation. But though prevailing ideas of gender may have relegated women to the domestic sphere and subordinated them legally and socially to the authority of men, women did not always allow such restraints to hinder them. Many took control of the lives of their children, their finances, and even the salvation of their towns. The fortitude, the perseverance, and the courage of women held settler communities together.

 

[The original documents of the Boyd family, along with Mary’s memoir and a printed transcript of it by Rachel Laue, can be found in the UF Digital Collection for “Pioneer Days in Florida” at https://ufdc.ufl.edu/AA00017202/00001/allvolumes ]