Mar 26, 2021
The women who lived along the Staunton-Parkersburg turnpike in the 19th century are in many ways a mystery. One that has fascinated me almost since the moment I first drove up this road thirty years ago. Quartermasters of their domains, they are always and forever provisioning. They grow and gather and preserve, spin and knit and sew, buy and sell, barter and trade. All this as they give birth (generally once every two years), tend the sick, bury the dead and most of all make-do so the children might survive. Yet few accounts of the time describe what this means for the women themselves. Women, as fully physical and spiritual beings, as characters in their own stories, are mostly missing. The older I get, the more present is their absence in the narrative.
As I’ve come to know their names, their birth and death dates, the names of their husbands and children, as I’ve put together family trees that link the destinies of so many of the women who lived along this road, I’ve come to believe I can see them. Not the grim-faced women in high-collared black crepe posing in the rare photo, but the same women smiling, laughing, singing, cooing to their newborns. From family histories, I’ve learned quite a bit about what the women did—seemingly endless lists of productive activity. But I still know very little about what they thought. While I have given birth to one child, I can scarcely imagine what it is to be pregnant or nursing for more than twenty years. From census records, I have learned that women who did not die in childbirth often lived to very old age. What did they teach their granddaughters? Sometimes, as I gather eggs, or plant beans, or walk in the fields picking yarrow and mullein, I can almost hear them, talking to me.
No voice so plaintive as that of Margaret “Peggy” Arbogast Yeager. With her husband John and his parents Jacob and Sarah Ann, Peggy runs a prosperous farm on Top of Allegheny for 23 years before war arrives on her porch in the summer of 1861. Colonel Edward Johnson declares the Yeager lands, located along the summit pass of the turnpike, a confederate encampment that becomes a battlefield in December. Little does Peggy know, as the Colonel hires John as a scout, as the family determines to run a commissary—how could she know?—just how disastrous the war will turn out to be.
Imagine. Peggy is forty that fateful summer. Over the previous three years, she’s lost three of her eleven children, Leah Alice and Jacob Reece of diphtheria, and Sarah Jane, at the age of thirteen, after a fall from the family windmill. The grief must be a weight upon her. The loss of Sarah Jane, so close to womanhood, and certainly a character, perhaps a force of nature, given the cause of her death. How she must miss them. Even as she’s still nursing Emma, her youngest. Even as there is ever so much to do. Perhaps there’s a spectral presence, just outside her field of vision, stalking her children, haunting her dreams. Perhaps she never feels at peace. How could she?
Imagine. As more and more soldiers arrive, as they fill the fields with tents, chop down the sugar grove, and scour the forest for anything that might be eaten or burned as fuel, winter arrives early. John is often away, reconnoitering for the colonels, and worrying Peggy so that she drives thoughts of him from her mind. As fever descends on the camp, Jacob’s church is converted to a hospital. Then Jacob falls ill with typhoid and dies in October. Six weeks later, John is gone, taken not by bushwhackers or an enemy bullet, but by the same dreadful disease. Ten days after his death, minie balls rain down on the tin roof of her home, while she and her children shelter beneath the furniture.
And then, what? The war has only just begun. Blessedly, I suppose, Peggy doesn’t know this quite yet. All she knows in December of 1861 is that her farm has become a landscape of grief shared by thousands of miserable strangers.
For short periods over the years, I’ve lived up here alone, just about four miles from where Peggy is buried. The relatively remote, off-grid circumstances suggest the need for a certain level of contingency planning even when others are present. But when one is alone, what-ifs demand to be reckoned with. What if the electrical system fails? What if the pump won’t work? What if a tree blocks the road? What if I get hurt? I can’t be here unless I’m prepared to confront the answers to those questions and the consequences of those answers. Ignorance is not an option.
So, when the inverter fails or the generator won’t start, I have a back-up. When the back-up doesn’t work, I have oil lamps to light, a propane refrigerator and stove. Spring water can be toted from a gravity-fed tank. I’ve got a radio hooked to a battery just in case I truly need help.
Over these past twenty years, I’ve mostly been careful. And when I haven’t been careful, I’ve been very lucky.
Mountain farming in the 19th century is one giant contingency plan. Women’s lives are an endless hedge against want, perpetual effort to have enough of what’s needed to survive. What if a late freeze kills the apple crop? What if blight spoils the potatoes? What if the buckwheat fails to thrive in a fall drought? What if a child takes a fever or breaks a bone? Her family won’t last long unless a mountain woman has a clear answer, an explicit response to each of these questions, and countless more. The preparation required to deliver on those answers is labor that defines a woman’s days. Vegetables are canned and pickled and buried. Meat is salted and smoked. Medicinal herbs are harvested, dried, and carefully stored. On, and on.
Peggy is just such a woman. The success of her first twenty years as wife and mother are historical proof. And perhaps it is precisely because of her manifest competence as a farmwife that I imagine the last four years of her life as, most of all, incomprehensible to her. What if Jacob and John take ill and die before her eldest sons join a war? There is certainly no plan, crafted by Peggy’s mind, that included this disastrous scenario. No possibility she is prepared for the unimaginable, no matter how good at planning ahead she is.
On March 17, 1862, Peggy’s son Henry enlists in Company G of the 31st Virginia regiment. He serves through 1865 and survives, a veteran at 22. Her eldest son William enlists on April 2, 1862 and is killed in action February 6, 1865, at 25. Peggy dies three months later, May 11, just two days after the war’s official end. She is survived by her mother-in-law, who dies at 92, and seven children, two of whom live into the 1930s.
The cause of Peggy’s death is unclear. But I can guess.
March 15, 2021