Sunday, November 10, 2019

A Tree for Fannie

It seems surreal, drawing up a pedigree chart for a character I found in a book. While not all books are fiction, reading the letters of Tally Simpson in book form somehow removes me, as reader, from the reality of this historical event, his participation in the Civil War. I can't help but see it as if it were a drama unfolding in the theater of my mind, rather than the micro-history that it represents.

To take up the pursuit for the real-life status of the woman Tally dubbed as "The Fair Unknown" thus seems like stepping between two universes. And yet, Fannie Smith was indeed a real person, fleeing her sacked hometown in Charleston, South Carolina, for the relative safety of the upcountry in Pendleton, home of Tally's extended family. There she lived, in the same town with the Simpsons, the Broyleses, the Millers, and the Taylors of my own family tree.

And stole the heart of one cousin of mine, four times removed.

Since I have seen her mesmerizing effect in the narrative of two different books so far, I wondered just what kind of person Fannie Smith really was—and whatever became of her, once the war was over, and she had returned home to take up the life she had had to put on hold. So I did what any genealogist can do: I built a family tree for her.

Not that I'm anywhere close to being done, of course. That sort of effort takes time, even the "quick and dirty" type of rushed tree making. But I want to piece together the historic Fannie Smith.

What I have been able to find, so far, is that Fannie was born Frances Rosa Smith, daughter of William Burroughs Smith, classified in his obituary as "the richest man in Charleston." Mr. Smith had seen a lifetime of success, rising from the status of a son of an "obscure citizen" through a series of beneficial business partnerships. Of one of them—partnership in the firm of Jones and Company—partnership extended far beyond business, leading to William's marriage with Mr. Jones' daughter, Frances Susan Jones, in 1840.

Of that union, we meet the eldest of three daughters: Fannie, born around 1843. Her sisters, Helen and Pauline, follow, each three years apart. But it is Fannie, the charmer, who takes Pendleton by storm, making her presence known to even us in the twenty-first century, by virtue of comments in letters and diaries sparked by her temporary refuge in Pendleton during the height of the Civil War.

What I'd like to learn is how she developed such a striking personality. The best tool for that discovery, of course, would not be a pedigree chart. Lacking any better way to reconstruct the mystique of "The Fair Unknown," though, I think this might be a fair substitute for a weekend diversion.

Above: Excerpt from 1860 U.S. Census for Charleston, South Carolina, lines 30-34, showing the household of William Burroughs Smith; Fannie is listed simply as "Miss Smith" as the oldest of William's daughters, while her younger sisters Helen and Pauline are mentioned by name; image courtesy; in the public domain.


  1. Nice information about the Smith family. It would be interesting to know if any other smitten boys left missives that tell about Fannie, other that Tally, Emmala, and Henry. Also - hope you can find a picture of her.

    Emmala's resentments, and Henry's infatuation, seem pretty normal. Tally's love is remarkable - for him Fannie seems a symbol of something better, something higher, than the grinding war. And Taylor disapproval or not, he is going to hang on hard to this hope for the good part of life.

    1. Lisa, I am on the search for any of those "missives" by lovesick rivals to Tally's aspirations. I suspect there are more mentions, as you have already discovered, so both of us can keep an eye out for them. I am curious to see if there was anything written by the "Taylor Shop" as well.


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