Friday, December 20, 2013

Illegitimate Child of Robert Dysart

One hundred and fifty years ago, on October 14, 1863, Robert Dysart, the son of Peter and Jane Dysart, died on Folly Island, South Carolina of typhoid fever, one of the eleven Bovina 'boys' to die in the Civil War. Robert left to mourn his loss his parents, Peter and Jane Dysart.  And though not married, he also left behind a four month old son. Robert has the distinction of being the only Bovina Civil War fatality to have left behind a child. This son would have been referred to in the 19th century as a bastard child, but he appears to have grown up in a stable home and was not shunned because of the circumstance of his birth – nor was his mother.

We likely will never know the whole story of how Robert met Eleanor Thomson, the mother of his child. Eleanor was the daughter of John R. Thomson. Robert and Eleanor probably were “seeing each other” before he headed off to war. The baby likely was conceived just before Dysart’s departure with the 144th Infantry in September 1862, for nine months later, in June 1863*, Eleanor gave birth to a son, who she named for his father. If Dysart had not gone off to war, would he have married Eleanor before the birth of their child? He was down south fighting and likely did not have the option of rushing home to make things right. But we can only speculate as to what Robert would have done if the war had not intervened.

Their son ultimately was known as Robert Thomson, using his mother’s maiden name, but in the census records, his name varies.  His first appearance in the 1865 census lists him Robert Thomson, living with his mother and Thomson grandparents. In 1869, when Robert was six years old, Eleanor married a prosperous widower, John Thomas Miller**. Miller had lost his wife a year before and was left with five children to raise, ranging in age from 16 to 2.  The 1870 census listing for the John Miller household includes a boy, Robert Miller.  In the 1880 census, Robert again shows up with his stepfather and mother, this time listed as Robert Dysart.

By the time of his marriage to Mina Kaufman in December 1888, Robert officially is going by the name Robert A. Thomson, and would do so the rest of his life.   The record for his marriage, however, does include the fact that his father was Robert Dysart. Robert and Mina settled in the Stamford area and were well regarded there.  They had one daughter, who predeceased them.  Robert died in 1939 and is buried in the Bovina Cemetery, as is his wife, who died in 1954. They were survived by one granddaughter, Barbara Shaw.

Did Robert Dysart know about his son? Given that the child was four months old when Dysart died in South Carolina, it seems unlikely that someone would not have written him about it.  And how did Robert's parents react to this grandchild? Peter and Jane both died in 1877 and left no documentary evidence, such as letters or a will, that would let us know whether or not they acknowledged the child. When they were married in or around 1837, however, they found themselves in a situation very similar to that of Robert and Eleanor. It seems that they would not have had grounds to ostracize this child and his mother.

Peter Dysart was born in Scotland in 1807. He came to America in 1833 and was in Bovina shortly after his arrival. Peter married a Bovina woman, Jane Patterson, though there is no record of the actual date of the marriage. Their first son, Robert, was born in May of 1837. It is likely that Jane was pregnant when she married Peter, for in September 1837, she was accused before the Associate Presbyterian Church session of Anti-nuptial fornication (ie, pre-marital sex). Someone must have done the math and figured out that the marriage and birth date were less than nine months apart. After some discussion with the session members assigned to speak with her on the charge, Jane agreed to be rebuked and was restored to church privileges.

One can speculate that the response from the grandparents either was sympathetic, because they had been in a similar situation and it was their dead son’s child, or they wanted nothing to do with the child because it was a situation that brought back bad memories. We probably will never know, but evidence indicates that most people in Bovina accepted the situation. The fact that six years later Eleanor was married to a prominent member of the community and that his children accepted both mother and child into the family says that the circumstances of Robert's birth were not held against them. Of course, one also can see the practical side to this marriage. J.T. Miller needed a mother for his children and Eleanor Thomson needed a father for her son. But what started out as a marriage of convenience lasted until John's death 30 years later. A year after their marriage, they had a daughter Margaret, the only child they had together.  Eleanor survived her husband by 20 years, dying in Hobart in 1920. Her obituary mentioned not only her son but listed as surviving daughters her step daughters, as well as her daughter with Miller. My general sense is that Eleanor was a good step mother.  For the youngest step-daughter, Lib Miller Blair, Eleanor would have been the only mother she knew.

Sometimes, people think of a community like Bovina in the 19th century as being very censorious but it seems that in this situation, at least, the community and family knew the circumstances (I suspect that if Robert's paternity was a secret, it was a pretty open one), accepted them and moved on. We sometimes do not give our ancestors enough credit for how forgiving they could be.

* Though Robert’s obituary says his birthdate was June 20, 1864 and his headstone says 1865, I have determined that June 1863 likely is the date, based on his first appearance in the New York State census in 1865.  The census was done based on inhabitants in a place on June 1, 1865 and his age is very specifically given as 1 year and 11 months, making a date of June 20, 1863 the most likely one.
**J.T. Miller lived for many years where the Jack and June Burns farm is located.  And Miller was my 3 greats grandfather.

No comments:

Post a Comment