Thursday, February 7, 2019

It's Complicated

One of my goals, in traveling to northern Florida to research my maternal grandmother's roots, was to see if I could explain what I felt was a myth buster regarding a local story. This week was my chance to practice communicating that defense of my hypothesis: Mary Charles may have been shot, but she didn't die from the wounds allegedly inflicted upon her by native tribesmen when she bolted out the front door of her pioneer parents' home without the agreed-upon red scarf sign of protection.

You may recall the story of Mary Charles, the young woman who supposedly was killed by Indians as the result of a momentary blunder. Local Suwannee County historian Eric Musgrove had shared that story in the Suwannee Democrat years back, and I had subsequently found it online at the county's own website. This week was my chance to visit with him and interview him about the sources for this story.

Eric Musgrove prefers to dub this scenario a legend. It's just an oral history passed down for many decades, as he puts it. And yet, I had been able to trace the life of one local woman named Mary Charles, who seems likely to have been daughter of the same parents as the Mary Charles of the Suwannee County legend. This Mary certainly lived well beyond childhood, having married and claiming a daughter of her own. While I have yet to determine this Mary's date of death, I can assure you it was well after any threat of attack had been removed from the area—certainly long after the Charles family had ceased operating the ferry by Charles Springs which had been the site of local tensions between white settlers and Native American inhabitants of that area in northern Florida.

True, Ruben and Rebecca Charles, operators of the ferry and stage coach stop, could have had more than one daughter named Mary. The one I found might have been born after the first had been killed. That scenario has been repeated in many family histories, and I can't assume it would be any different in the facts underlying this "legend."

However, let's review the details I've found. First, I had stumbled upon the discrepancy while searching for something else: whom the parents of my second great grandmother, Emma Charles, might have been. I found Emma and her siblings in the 1860 census in the household of someone else: Melburn and Drucilla Odum and their daughter Mabel. Along with the Charles siblings and these unknown adults, there were two Hines girls. How did all of these people connect?

Looking for the Hines girls in the 1870 census, I found them in the home of Mary McLeran. Now I had another problem: who was Mary McLaren? And why did she have an Odum daughter and a Hines daughter in her household?

The search was now on for the identity of Mary McLaren—and for whatever became of Mabel Odum's parents. It took searching through some Suwannee County probate files—thankfully, just after the county was formed in December of 1859—to discover Mary's statement that she was wife of William T. McLaren. The search for Drucilla revealed Mary's statement in Drucilla's probate file that they were sisters, and a marriage record in Madison County indicated, at the occasion of her first marriage, that Drucilla's maiden name had been Charles.

Thus, that made her sister's maiden name also Charles. As in Mary Charles. Granted, there could have been other people in that area with the same name. Thankfully, an entry in the 1850 census tied Mary and Drucilla together in the same household—that of Rebecca Charles, widow of Ruben Charles, the family of the legend of Mary and the Red Scarf.

It did take a lot to put those connections together. Even though I was able to link the paper trail together into a neat—and fairly convincing—package, as Eric Musgrove observed in yesterday's visit, there is no way to tell for sure. No paper trail, no written documentation, no written testimony of eyewitnesses. Just the story, passed down through generations, leaving us with the impression that Ruben and Rebecca Charles' daughter Mary was the victim of a tragic slaying in her youth.

Searching through the records at the courthouse yesterday didn't reveal much more to strengthen the conclusion. But it did turn up a few leads, as did my visit to the genealogical society's library the previous day. Fortunately, as Charles was a significant name in the area for so many years, I didn't have to search for long to find other documents to help piece together the life of Mary Charles McLaren, even if she doesn't turn out to be the fabled Mary of the Legend of the Red Scarf.


  1. Oh the trials of common names!

    1. Yes, coupled with the difficulty of having ancestors who insisted on a lifestyle of living on the edge of civilization.

  2. Mary and the red scarf... I recall her story! Hope you get to the bottom of it! :)

    1. Oh, believe me, Far Side, I really want to. Not sure that will happen the way we hope, but I'm getting ideas on how to reconstruct the scenario, even if I can't find conclusive documentation.


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