My great aunt described Mary “Polly” Salyer (1842-1915) as a base child, which was the old way of saying she was a bastard child. Her father was a prominent Kentucky politician in the 1860s. Samuel Salyer (1812-1890), served as a representative for Floyd County in the Kentucky Legislature. His primary goal was to have Magoffin County formed and his constituents rewarded him by naming the county seat Salyersville.
The family story goes Samuel discovered a toddler as he was coming home. He brought the child to his wife, Melinda “Lindy” Arnett (1812-1901), exclaiming “I found this little child sitting beside the road and I just couldn’t leave her there so I brought her to you.” See what a charmer my great grand-daddy could be?
Lindy did not see the mystery; she replied, “Now Sam, I know that’s your child, she looks just like you.” Perhaps she knew her husband’s leisure activities too well because Polly was only one of his extra children.
To her credit, Lindy raised this found toddler, Polly, and many of his other extra children as her own.
Growing Up in Blended Family
Like many politicians in today’s papers, Samuel enjoyed the ladies. He took a shine to Margaret “Peggy” Picklesimer (1831-1876), a local seamstress nearly 20 years his junior. With his aforementioned charms, the couple soon had a baby girl. Sayler’s affairs seemed to be an open secret. While never married, the couple had four children: Mary; Sarah (1851-??); John Preston (1854-1897); and Farlena (1855-??).
Samuel gave his last name to his daughters, but he formally adopted her brother, John in 1783. This act was to ensure younger Salyer could inherit part of his estate. Peggy was only one of his many baby mamas to his 15+ children.
How I Picture a Mountain Mona Lisa
Polly’s family were early settlers in Floyd County, which is cradled by the Appalachian mountains of Eastern Kentucky.
There are two pictures of Polly Salyer that I have seen. In the first picture, she is sitting in a wooden chair with a large bible in her lap. The over-sized book nearly covers her chest, but she holds it steady. She is clinging to this book, even though she never learned to read or write. Her children could.
There is nothing vain about her appearance. She is wearing a long dark wool dress, lacking embellishments but not showing dirt. She may have raised the sheep that produced the fabric for her dress. Her drab grayish apron had blown up on her lap, meaning she was sitting on the porch. Like many mountain women, she secured her long brunette hair into a bun. The only jewelry she wears is on her left hand, it is a large gold wedding band. God and family are important to her.
When I look at this picture, I see my great grandmother Emily Mann’s close-set eyes, her straight hair, and her petite frame. I also see Polly’s father, Samuel Salyer; she has his jawline, nose, and those same eyes. Unlike them, Polly has the melancholy expression of a forgotten soul.
Meeting the Dashing Lewis Watkins
During Polly’s teenage years, the Civil War was being fought in her backyard. The Confederates were trying desperately to gain control of Salyersville and other Kentucky cities. In April 1864, the Battle of Ivy Point Hill took place in Salyersville. It was a bitter loss for the Confederates. The Magoffin county militia would remain on guard until the war ended a year later. It had to be a scary time for the young girl, the battles essentially being fought at her doorstep. However, being a young girl, she may have been more concerned with starting a family of her own.
I wonder how Polly met her future husband, Lewis Watkins (1850-1918). When Magoffin County formed from Floyd County in 1860, both of their families appear in the new county. They probably lived near each other.
They may have met through a social event, such as church. Unlike modern times, a church service was a day-long affair held a few times a year. The family would travel from miles away. The women would prepare a large feast that all could share.
Perhaps the petite Polly with her chestnut hair and serious eyes attracted Lewis’s attention. While Polly may have found Lewis’s fair complexion, large hazel eyes, and auburn hair unique. His ruggedly handsome face only made his kind, gentlemanly demeanor more attractive. Perhaps he reminded her of her father.
They would have courted for a few months before asking her father if they could marry. In January 1867, a local Baptist Minister performed the rites of matrimony.
The Move to Breathitt County
In the 1870s, Breathitt county was unsuitable for farming because of the dense untouched woods. There were few roads around Kentucky. To find a homestead, the settlers used trails or even led their horse through the gentle, flowing Quicksand creek bed.
All of their possessions were in a wagon or carried on horseback. The couple moved to Breathitt County with Lewis’s family after their second daughter was born. Thomas Watkins (1812-1895), Lewis’ father, was seeking a land grant from the state of Kentucky.
The family wanted a spot flat enough to build homes and have a farm. Another desired feature would be close enough to fresh running water, so you could cook, clean, and fish. The forest had an abundance of game, so there was a way to feed the family during the winter. Surviving would be difficult.
In the 1870 census, Thomas Watkins, Lewis’ father, lived beside them. The entire family worked together to survive. In 1872, the State of Kentucky granted Thomas Watkins 200 acres in the Quicksand Creek area. This property must have passed to the sons when Thomas he died in 1895.
By 1893, the Watkins family would gain nine more children. They had five boys and six girls; Lillian (1867-1940), Mary Ellen “Molly” (1868-1926), Margaret (1869-1926), Samuel (1874-1941), Cora (1874-1934), Emily (1878-1973), John (1879-1909), Granville “Judge” (1881-1927), Green (1887-1921), Clay (1890-1929), and Mosella (1893-?).
Polly was lucky. Many women either did not survive their pregnancy or their child would die before reaching adulthood. Her eleven children became adults with families of their own. It was a success story in 1900. Sadly, of her boys, only Samuel would live past the age of 45, mostly because of their own misdeeds.
Marriage Troubles On the Horizon
Lewis Watkins perhaps had a mid-life crisis. After 33 years of marriage and 11 children with Polly, he left her to marry the widow, Mary Prater Baldridge (1855-1933) in 1902. Around this time the index of Breathitt County court records shows a Mary Watkins suing a Lewis Watkins, which I suspect was a divorce.
Divorce was uncommon in the early 1900s, even taboo. In a religious community, you were breaking your vows and putting your mortal soul in danger. Polly was used to her father’s philandering, so she may have ignored Lewis keeping company with other women. There’s no way of knowing Polly’s exact reaction to the divorce; it had to be painful and embarrassing for a God-fearing woman.
When they separated, the couple had three minor children (Clay, Green, and Sella) and a grandson (Lee) living with them. In 1905, the Breathitt County News reported that Watkins had purchased the Lunce Farm about a mile from the county seat of Jackson. By the 1910 census, Lewis was living on the other side of the county with his new wife and Lee. His two sons, Clay and Green, live next door with their families.
I wonder if the boys stayed with Lewis, and their youngest daughter, Sella, stayed with her mother in the family home. It’s also possible that Samuel, the older brother, moved in with them. In the 1905, the local paper reports that Samuel is selling his home in Lambric to move closer to his father.
It is unclear where Polly was living in 1910. The census doesn’t list her with any of her children or other family members.
Winter Funeral for John Watkins
In the second picture of Polly, she is sitting beside her son’s coffin. The 30-year-old John had drowned in the flooded river trying to keep logs from causing a jam. The picture shows a building with a window that might fall out soon. It almost looks like an angel is hovering inside the window.
It was common for the funeral to be held at the family home and to have pictures taken. It is a beautiful coffin with a window for viewing the body and fancy side handles. They are probably preparing to bury him. His brothers would be the pallbearers.
In the photo, her other family members are standing. Polly remains close to her beloved child. Lewis has his hat in his hand as a sign of respect for his son. He has a handkerchief in the other hand where he has been drying his eyes. Her son, Green, has his hand resting on her shoulder as if he is holding her to this world. He’s worried about his mother.
With slumped shoulders, it is almost like the grief is too heavy for her. Her hair is still dark, so it doesn’t betray her age. Her light jacket is all that protects her from the wintry day and she is grasping a white cotton handkerchief filled with her tears. She would not live to see another children’s burial.
Her Death and Burial
Near the time of John’s death, she gathered the children together and asked for a caretaker. She knew she was dying. Her middle daughter, Emily Watkins Mann, took on the responsibility. Polly had been sick with uterine cancer for several years. In the above picture you can see how swollen her abdomen is. It was a protracted death because there is no way to treat the disease in the 1900s.
In September 1915, Polly passed away at Emily’s home in Quicksand. My great aunt recalled her mother saying there was a lot of blood when Polly died. Emily would have just given birth to her ninth child, who was my great aunt, Flora. The older children would have assisted with the family duties while their mother helped her mother pass into the next world.
On the death certificate, the person who reported the death was Judge Watkins. He reported Polly’s marital status as widowed. I didn’t find evidence of a re-marriage and her surname didn’t change. Her dutiful son may have felt disillusioned by his father or just knew it humiliated his mother. The status of widow gave her a minor victory. Perhaps the Lewis she loved was dead to her.
Her obituary doesn’t mention the separation or another husband. It only says that she and Lewis had spent their adult lives in Breathitt County. They buried her in the Lewis Watkins’s Cemetery. Her son, Green, probated her will with Lewis putting up the money as the guarantee.
In three more years, Lewis would pass away and lay to rest near her in the Lewis Watkins cemetery in their Breathitt County. They buried his second wife, who remarried, across the county, some place more proper.