52 Ancestors In 52 Weeks, Week 9: Where There Is A Will…

William Henry Stevens, Sailor in Civil War

William Henry Stevens 1843-1926

“So that is who he is,” I told myself as the mental clues gelled in my head.  Throughout my childhood, I had heard my grandmother say, “Oh, she/he is related on the Stevens side.” At that age, I had no idea what those words meant nor was I curious. As I fast forward to my “genealogy years”, I was finally able to grasp an understanding and make an introduction.

I first met William when I started grafting branches to my family tree. He was a name with attached dates and places. He had a wife and nine children. He was born in England and died in Kansas. Was that the beginning and end of his story, or was there a crucial middle to his life’s tale? As writers and readers, we know that the middle of a narrative piece holds and embraces the details…genealogists learn that, too.

As I fast forward again, I was to meet live, now-to-me cousins on Ancestry. Here were gals who were related to me on the Stevens side. They held the keys to the middle part  of Will’s life story along with the glorious details. They had portrait photos, wedding photos, letters, family photos of Will and his family. Through them, I met the flesh and blood William Henry Stevens, my second great grandfather.

Where there is a will would certainly be a motivational cry for young Will Stevens. He came to America in 1864 while the Civil War was still waging…an immigrant at the age of twenty-one.  He had been in the British Navy. After being in New York City for six months, he joined the Union Navy. He was assigned to three different ships which were often engaged in blockading Confederate harbors. He spent much time in the crows nest and reported on what he saw. As a result of that job and being close to cannon blasts, he became deaf in one ear. He also sported alligator and cross tattoos…a fun fact for me. After the war, he made his way back to Manhattan, New York, and Jersey City, New Jersey. He worked as a laborer for the American Gas Company.

Isabella Anna Couchman 1860's   Where there is a will…a year after the war, he married his sweetheart, Isabella Anna Couchman. She, too, was an English emigrant; she was a seamstress. They lived for a time in New Jersey as their family grew. Whatever the calling and attraction, the family moved to Memphis, Tennessee. Again, he chose work with a gas company. After the war, Memphis was a place of unrest and Reconstruction change. Did Will and his family feel that? Is that one of the factors that led him to the next family move?

Where there is a will…President Lincoln and Congress’ Homestead Act enabled settlers to gain free land in the Midwest. Will accepted that invitation when he claimed land in Kill Creek Township, Osborne County, Kansas, in 1872. I wonder what he knew about farming…an English emigrant, sailor, former resident of four major cities, gas company employee. He came to Kansas by himself and settled in a dugout on his property. A year later, the rest of his family followed. Besides a strong will, what other virtues guided and strengthened him? Did his family feel isolated out on the farm? How did he learn to plow and sweat under the harsh plains’ sun? Did he hunt and fish to feed this family? Buffalo were hunted by early Kansas settlers…were he and his sons hunters…city boys? A family story revolves around Indians coming to their farm and stealing baby clothes from a trunk…clothes surely made by seamstress Isabella’s hands. Strong willed people often possess resiliency and perseverance; surely, Will carried these qualities in his soul, mind, and heart. Were these passed along to his children…and to me? The value of hard work flowed through his veins. Family talk has it that he was a man of few words. But was he a man of many thoughts and feelings?

Harvest on Stevens homestead

Where there is a will…Will lived 83 years which is lengthy for a Civil War veteran. In 1916, he and his beloved Isabella celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. One of the treasures shared by my new cousins is this picture taken at that party. What joy the couple must have experienced when surrounded by their children and grandchildren! Where there is a will, a man wraps strength and serenity in his familial arms.

sepia 50th wedding anniversary of William and Isabella Stevens

Post Script: My grandmother, Isabella Mary Boultinghouse (named after her grandmother), is to the right of the woman in the striped dress in the center of the photograph. Yes, she is the one with the flowery hairdo.

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