Which William Was It?

You don’t have to research the Robbins family very long before you notice some first-names were used over and over again.  Even familiarity with the outline of the family doesn’t prevent confusion in trying to determine if it one Jacob Robbins or another which appears in a record.

William “Spectacle Billy” Robbins

Some of the names are common ones:  Jacob, William, Absalom, John, and Nathaniel, Nancy, Mary (or Polly), Elizabeth and Catherine.  Some names are less common, but still got repeated frequently:  Marmaduke, Micajah, Harrison, Norval, Bethiah, Theodoshia, and Mahala.

Early family historian William F. Robbins wrote about the naming patterns in the family and how nicknames were given to tell people apart from one another:


“Owing to the custom of giving one of the sons the name of the father, there came to be much confusion of names and many nicknames were used to distinguish them.  William the elder was “Old Billy,” and his son was known as “Spectacle Billy.”  Then there was “Rock Creek Billy,” Uncle Nat’s William, and Wilcord.  Of the Johns there were “Old Johnnie,” “Rockcreek Bill’s John,”   “Big Toe Jake’s John,” “John Henry,” “George’s Johnnie,” “Absolem’s John,” and Charity’s John Alex Purvis.  Of Jakes there were “Big Toe Jake,” “Oregon Jake,” “Old Billy’s Jacob,” “Buddy Jake,” and “William Anderson’s Jake.”  These names were not given in derision but to designate the person meant.  This confusion of names still persists as witness:  Will H., Will S., Will M., George William, Will F., William Riley, and William. Three men were known as Hence.  Dry Jake and “Aunt” Jim came from Scott County about 1849, and unless they are sons of the Uncle Jim referred to, there is no place in the family circle to which they can be assigned.  The name Hence is no doubt a corruption of Henry.  Dry Jake is said to have been so named because of want of moisture in his system, he neither spit nor sweat.  Aunt Jim earned his title by marrying a woman many years his senior who had already acquired the title of “Aunt.”

Some of these in the history we can clearly identify, others not so much.  For today, let’s take a look at some of the William Robbins’s.  “Old Billy” was William Robbins (1761-1834) while his son William (sometimes listed with a middle initial “B”) was “Spectacle Billy” (1797-1868), who apparently wore spectacles.  “Rock Creek Billy” (1801-1864) was the son of Jacob Robbins II, thus a nephew to “Old Billy” and a first cousin of “Spectacle Billy.”  “Uncle Nat’s William” was William Franklin Robbins (1816-1856) who moved to Oregon in 1852.  “Wilcord” has not been identified, at least by me (perhaps a reader of this blog knows who that is?).

We know of at least four “William Riley” Robbins’s and possibly more:  one was the son of “Rock Creek Billy” and his wife Elizabeth (Ferguson), one was the son of Jacob F. and Catherine (Myers) Robbins, another was the son of William Lewis and Mary Ann (Ferguson) Robbins, and John and Mary (Deweese) Robbins of neighboring Jennings County also had a William Riley Robbins.

Job Robbins and wife were the father of a William R. Robbins, as was John and Matilda (Barnes) Robbins, John Henry and Catherine (Ferguson) Robbins, and Jacob and Nancy Robbins of Scott County.  What do you bet each were really William Riley Robbins?

All of these William Robbins were related.  Today we struggle to sort them out and wonder if they knew each other.  Of course they did.  They had close relationships: father and son, uncle and nephew, first cousins, and second cousins, who all lived closely together.  The various nicknames helped identify them.

As I compile these family stories I’ll try to indicate which William or Jacob or Absalom I’m talking about!

Adventures of a Steamboat Captain

One of the busiest and most used transportation corridors in American history was (and still is) that of the Mississippi river valley.  Steamboats traveled the Mississippi river and its tributaries from the early 1800s up to the 20th century.  One of our kin, William Robbins of Hannibal, Missouri, was a steamboat pilot and captain on the Mississippi River, traveling between Keokuk, Iowa in the north and New Orleans in the far south.  His adventures in and around Hannibal recall the life stories of his near contemporary Mark Twain and that authors creations, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.

Hannibal, Missouri (1857)

Born in Kentucky in 1828, he, his parents, and his siblings moved to Decatur Co., Indiana, where they only spent a few years in the 1830’s before moving on to Marion Co., Missouri, where William was raised to adulthood.  When his father moved to Davis Co., Iowa, in the early 1850’s, William stayed behind, as he was already married and running a farm.  Within a few years he had begun piloting and then captaining the famous sidewheel steamboats.

There was danger in traveling the river: running aground, hitting snags, collisions, and scariest of all, fire!  William Robbins recounted in newspapers and reminiscences several instances of disaster on the river.

We are informed by Mr. WM. ROBBINS, pilot of the Des Moines, who arrived yesterday morning on the Hannibal City, that a terrible calamity occurred about 3 miles above St. Louis, the particulars of which we give below:  It seems that the steamers Hannibal City and Ocean Spray were running a race, both boats at the top of their speed, when suddenly it was discovered that the Ocean Spray was on fire, about midships on the lower deck.  The Pilot, with great presence of mind, turned the head of the boat towards shore and stood firm at his post until the boat was run ashore.—The pilot and his wife, with several others, jumped from the hurricane deck to the shore and escaped without material injury.  When this boat was first ascertained to be on fire, many of the passengers jumped over board and found a watery grave, many were burned to death, and we are informed by those who witnessed the appalling scene, that it was truly awful.

The shrieks of men, women and children, were heard above the din of the roaring elements, and though they could render no assistance at that time, still all on board the Hannibal City were anxious to do all in their power to alleviate the sufferings of the unfortunate passengers of the Ocean Spray.  There was a heavy wind blowing at the time, and had the Hannibal City attempted to have approached her, except with the greatest of caution, she must inevitably been burned too.

The steamer Keokuk, which was laid up immediately opposite the scene of action, was also set fire by the Ocean Spray in making her land, and was burnt to the waters edge.  The hulls of both boats, then floated down to the Island opposite St. Louis, when the ferry boat run out into the river, caught them and towed them to shore.

We are told that the entire blame of the whole affair rests on the officers of the Ocean Spray, as they had been for some time bantering the Hannibal City to a race, and thus it ends!

(“Terrible Accident!” Hannibal (Mo.) Messenger, Sat., 24 April 1858, p. 2, col. 2.)

Another time Robbins remembered when he was taking a trip on a river boat as a passenger:

“After he retired from the River, in 1877, he took a trip on the Golden Eagle with his friend Captain Dave Asbury from Canton, Missouri, who had also become a pilot in 1853.  Captain Asbury was in charge of the Golden Eagle at the time of this happening.  On that particular down-river trip to St. Louis, the Golden Eagle was completely destroyed by fire.  Robbins was en route to St. Louis on a business trip, and was carrying a large sum of cash in his wallet.  He was also taking a calf to market.

He was sound asleep when the cry, “Fire! Fire!” awakened him.  He hurriedly jumped up and pulled on his trousers and ran out of his stateroom and found his calf on the lower deck.  Half asleep, he had not yet realized the seriousness of the fire.  Stumbling through the darkness leading the calf, they both fell down the forward hatchway into the hold.  But they finally made their way to safety.

Captain Asbury had ordered the boat to pull to shore.  Luckily, they were close enough to the shore, all the passengers were rescued before the boat was complete destroyed.  Robbins saw other Hannibal people of his acquaintance, one of whom was Mr. Spencer Carter, a mill owner and banker. Robbins helped Mr. Carter and his daughter to shore.

Suddenly, Robbins remembered he had neglected to retrieve his wallet from under his pillow where he had hidden it.  In the old steamboat days, when men bunked down they hung their trousers at the foot of the berth.  Robbery was so common that valuables were never left in the pants pockets as thieves would naturally look in the pockets.  It was too late to go back to the boat, so he lost a large sum of money.”

(“A Steamboat Fire and Miller Township Man,” in Withers Mill—Miller Township: A Collection of Stories about a Neighborhood (1989) by J. Hurley Hagood and Roberta Roland Hagood.)

William Robbins (1828-1904)

At least through his almost twenty years of piloting and captaining river boats, and the rest of his lifetime of traveling on them, William Robbins only lost his wallet and not his life!  He was found dead of a heart attack in his farm’s pasture in 1904 and is buried in the Bear Creek Cemetery in the countryside outside of Hannibal.

(Family line:  Jacob Robbins-Absalom Robbins-John Robbins-William Robbins)

Nathaniel Robbins and Oregon’s Constitutional Convention

On February 14, 1859, Oregon was admitted to the Union as the 33rd state.  Two years before, a Constitutional Convention was held in Salem, the state capitol of Oregon Territory, to write a constitution for the new state.  Nathaniel Robbins, son of William and Bethiah (Vickrey) Robbins, born in Virginia, raised in Kentucky, living his adult life in Decatur Co., Indiana, before emigrating to Oregon in 1852, was the oldest member of the Constitutional Convention at 64-years of age.

Nathaniel was elected with 169 votes to represent Clackamas County at Oregon’s Constitutional Convention in June of 1857.  He had been nominated by the Clackamas County Democratic Party in April.

Nathaniel Robbins (1793-1863)

At this time newspapers were strongly associated with particular political parties, so while the Salem Oregon Statesman was a Democratic party newspaper, the Oregon City Argus was a Republican one.  This explains why some news was reported in one newspaper and not the other;  it depended on the political persuasion of the individual(s) involved.  The Argus would sometimes report that Nathaniel Robbins was a member of the “locofoco” party, which was a derogatory term at that time for the Democratic party.  When Nathaniel and others were nominated by the Democratic party the Argus had this to say:  “Upon the whole, we think this is about as good a ticket as could have been manufactured out of the material of this miserable party, although some of it could have been bettered a good deal.”

And it seems that there was some negative campaigning during the election, and Nathaniel Robbins, as an apparent “free-thinker”, came in for his share as the Oregon Statesman reported:

“BIGOTRY PROPERLY REWARDED—We are told that an opponent of Mr. Robbins, who was running on the democratic ticket of Clackamas for the Constitutional Convention, electioneered against Mr. R. on the ground that the latter was an infidel.  In one precinct where he urged this objection were quite a number of liberalists, politically opposed to Mr. Robbins, intending to vote against him, but who changed and voted for him, when they heard him opposed on account of his religious belief, actually giving him more votes than he received majority, and electing him.  When a man, competent and worthy, is opposed on account of his belief upon the subject of religion, we hope it will ever be with the same success as in Mr. Robbins’ case.”

The constitutional convention had been called by the people as the first step to statehood.  The convention convened on 18 August 1857 in Salem; presiding was Judge Matthew P. Deady.  On August 20th Dr. Robbins was appointed to the Education Committee, serving with delegates Peebles, Boise, Maple, Shattuck, Starkweather and Kinney.  This committee drafted the portion of the Oregon Constitution dealing with education and school lands (Article VIII, which can be viewed online, in its original handwriting).  This article was passed by the Convention on September 15th.  Three days later the Convention voted to adopt the new Constitution, it was signed by the delegates, and the Convention adjourned.  Later that fall the Constitution was accepted by the voters of Oregon.

Debates about education reveal a few general characteristics about the convention: Its delegates favored a solid fund to pay for a basic system of common schools; many wanted to exclude non-whites from attending school; and they were deeply ambivalent about the value of higher education and the wisdom of providing state support for it. The delegates made “liberal and abundant provision for the education of the rising generation” by setting up a common school fund. The fund would be based on the sale of public land as well as other money that accrued to the state in the form of forfeitures and escheated property such as estates without heirs. The interest and other revenues from the fund would be distributed to school districts around the state. These provisions caused no significant debate.

However, disagreements soon arose over who should attend the public schools. The committee draft simply referred to “children.” David Logan objected, worrying that someone could “wring in a nigger or an Indian under the provision as it stood.” He wanted the text to read “white children.” But the realities of living in a frontier territory led others to oppose banning non-whites. John White of Washington County noted that “there were many half-breed children in his county.” J.C. Peebles from Marion County agreed, adding that “there were many voters in his county whose children had Indian blood—half-blood or less. They paid taxes, and their children ought to enjoy the benefits of common schools.” The final version of the constitution referred only to “children.”

Another debate centered on funding higher education, especially in relation to religious influence. In the 1850s, a university education was very uncommon, usually associated with a religious denomination, and often seen as a symbol of elitism. Nathaniel Robbins, who was a country doctor, “read” medicine with a local physician in Indiana to learn about doctoring – he did not go to school for a medical education.  Many delegates distrusted higher education and thought it was unnecessary for building the mostly agrarian society they envisioned for the state.

Others supported a university, saying that “children wanted to learn more than was taught in common schools.” Likewise, one delegate said there was enough money for both common schools and a university and claimed that “it was the poor who wanted the university, not the rich. The rich could send their children anywhere.” In the end, the delegates postponed the decision on founding a state university until ten years after the passage of the constitution.  It is not known what Nathaniel Robbins views on these issues were – there are no records kept of how individual delegates voted.

Sadly, and to Oregon’s dishonor, the Convention passed to the voters the choice of (1) allowing or disallowing slavery and (2) allowing or disallowing free blacks to reside in Oregon.  Oregonians voted strongly against slavery, but they voted more strongly against allowing free blacks to live in the state.  Free African-Americans would have to look north, to the Puget Sound region in Washington State, for a place to reside.  That part of the Constitution wasn’t removed until 1926.

(Family line:  Jacob Robbins-William Robbins-Nathaniel Robbins)

A Young Soldier Found in the “Dead Room”

One of my interests in family history research is bringing to light little known or totally unknown family members.  A 20-year-old, who served a couple of months in the Civil War before dying of disease, without ever marrying or having children, is an example of one of our “forgotten” relatives.

We wouldn’t know much about the life and death of Jefferson Robbins, if he hadn’t died young during the Civil War, and if his mother hadn’t applied for a federal pension based upon his military service.  That record provides a surprising amount of information about a young man in the Union Army dying of disease shortly after enlisting.

The son of Hiram and Catharine (Wise) Robbins, Jefferson was born in Harrison County in 1841.  (Hiram had first married in Decatur County but after the death of his wife, moved to Harrison County where he remarried).  Harrison County is a lovely, green, farming and wooded area, on the north bank of the Ohio River where the first state capital of Indiana, Corydon, was located.  When the Civil War broke out, the 20-year-old Jefferson enlisted in nearby New Albany, Indiana, on 18 September 1861 and was sent across the Ohio to the military camps in Kentucky.  Three months later he was dead.

Of the 600,000 casualties (north and south) during the war, two-thirds were caused by disease.  Dysentery, typhoid fever, malaria, pneumonia, and small pox among others were the common killers of the day.  Jefferson Robbins died of typhoid fever on 19 December 1861.  Typhoid is an intestinal infection that is spread by ingesting food or water contaminated with the bacteria “Salmonella typhi” and caused huge epidemics in army camps.  Symptoms included fever, headache, belly ache, red lesions, and either constipation or diarrhea.  There was no effective treatment.  Only in 1911 was a vaccination available and made mandatory for U.S. soldiers.

A neighbor back in Harrison County was visiting his son, also in the army and in the hospital in Louisville, and while there the father asked if any other members of his son’s company were in the hospital.  He was told that Jefferson Robbins was there.  He searched through the wards but could not find him.  He was finally told by the hospital steward to check the “dead room.”  There he found the body of Jefferson.  On his own initiative he brought the body of the young soldier back across the river to his mother in Indiana.


Excerpt from Catharine Robbins Bishiop application for a pension based on her son Jefferson Robbins’ Civil War service

Jefferson’s death must have struck his mother Catharine very hard.  Her husband Hiram Robbins had died in 1852, she was remarried to a Michael Bishop, who soon deserted her, leaving her in a limbo situation with five surviving children.  So not only had she lost her oldest son, but Jefferson helped support his mother and was probably in the army for the $13 a month pay that privates received. We know that he supported his mother before his death because her pension application provides an economic history of her life in the years leading up to the Civil War.  A neighbor wrote out an affidavit in which he stated “…the said Jefferson Robbins was a work hand on the farm of this affiant at the time of his enlistment in said service and had been for more than 2 years previous; that he used the profits of his labor economically and after took a portion of it in such articles as were necessary to [and] for the comfort and support of his mother, Catharine Robbins; that he manifested great anxiety as to the welfare and comfort of his mother…”

In her pension application Catharine stated “…that the said soldier wrote her one or two letters after his enlistment but they have been destroyed, and cannot be furnished; that he died before he was paid for any service as a soldier and she therefore received no money from him while he was in the service, and cannot therefore furnish any letters sent her from the army by her said son; that she has not owned any property of any kind whatever since the death of her said husband, save and except about $200 of personal effects as household goods.”  Catharine received her pension, though not without a criminal investigation into her original attorney’s behavior of keeping some of the money she was owed, but that’s another story.


My sister and I visited Jefferson’s grave in Indiana in 2015.  It is located in a quiet corner of a quiet county.  You drive southeast out of the small farming community of New Middleton and then off on a long gravel road through the woods until you reach the small secluded cemetery.  It is cared for and it didn’t take long to find Jefferson’s grave.  Standing in front of it, and remembering the story of how he came to be here, I couldn’t help but wonder if we weren’t some of the first people to visit his grave since his family laid him to rest in 1862?

(Family line:  Jacob Robbins-Absalom Robbins-Micajah Robbins-Hiram Robbins-Jefferson Robbins)

The Early Generations – A Tentative Outline

The Early Generations – A Tentative Outline

There are still mysteries in the early generations of the Robbins family.  Owing to the sameness of names in the family as well as the paucity of records, we can only come up with a tentative outline of the family of Jacob and Mary Robbins.  Some names, dates, and relationships are well established, others are the result of conjecture.  We have more resources now than family historians had before the 1990s.  I started genealogical research in the late 1970s using a typewriter and the U.S. postal service.

Today we have personal computers and the Internet, giving us quick access to records and the ease to search many records quickly and efficiently.  History problems that I didn’t think would ever be solved have been cleared up but other still remain.
This outline is subject to change with further research.  Some controversies, such as the question of whether Bethiah Vickery was married to two separate men named William Robbins, with children from each marriage, is not addressed in this outline.  Future blog posts may cover those issues.  Corrections and additional information is welcomed, but it must be accompanied by documentation.

First Generation

Jacob Robbins (dates unknown) married Mary [–?–]

Second Generation: Children of Jacob and Mary Robbins

William Robbins (1761-1834) – married Bethiah Vickrey
Absalom Robbins (1765-1859) – married Mary Ogle
Jacob Robbins Jr. (1767-?) – married Rachel Robbins, Nancy Hanks, and possibly others
James Robbins (c1771-?) – married Hannah Jarrett
Mary Robbins (c1774-1844) – married Valentine Chastain*
Martha “Massey” Robbins (1779-1863) – married Rene Chastain*
Margaret Robbins (c1784-?) – married Thomas Robbins Sr.

*The Chastain family is well researched by a national family association.  I have not followed their research for some years and the children of Mary and Martha are not listed here.

Third Generation: Child of each sibling

Children of William Robbins

Abel Robbins (1779-1865) married Mary Watkins
Charity Robbins (1781-?) married Buell Wooden
Benjamin Robbins (1783-?)
Marmaduke Robbins (1786-1838) married Elizabeth Parsley
Jacob Robbins (1786-1873) married Polly Parsley
Elizabeth Robbins (1788-1872) married Jesse Watkins
Mary (“Polly”) Robbins (1791-1851) married John Kirkpatrick
Nathaniel Robbins (1793-1863) married Nancy Robbins
John Robbins 1795-1881) married Margaret Warble and Ruth Anderson
William Robbins (1797-1868) married Eleanor Anderson
Charlotte Robbins (1799-1874) married Abraham Anderson
Theodoshia (“Dosha”) Robbins (1804-1881) married John Herren

Children of Absalom Robbins

Micajah Robbins Sr. (1788-1865) married Elizabeth Vickery
Elizabeth Robbins (1790-c1886) married Philip Stark
George Robbins (1792-1887) married Nancy Pruitt
Nancy Robbins (1797-1880) married Nathaniel Robbins
John Robbins (c1799-1857) married Edith Sanders
Mahala Robbins (1802-1866) married David May
Absalom Robbins Jr. (1810-?) married Jemima Hanks
Charity Robbins (c1811-1892) married James Hanks and John Purvis

Children of Jacob Robbins Jr.

John Henry (“Hance”) Robbins (c1797-?) married Catherine Ferguson
William Robbins (1801-1864) married Mary Moffett and Elizabeth (Ferguson) Robbins
Aaron Robbins
Jacob Robbins III (1809-1896)

Children of James Robbins:

Ransom Robbins (1793-1868?) married Rebecca Green, Polly Wooden, Elizabeth Guin
Jacob Robbins (1796-1874) married Mary (“Polly”) Robbins
Mary (“Polly”) Robbins (1798-1886) married James Green
John Robbins (1805-1888) married Mary Margaret Deweese
Matilda Robbins (1807-1888) married Thomas Robbins
James Robbins (1811-1885) married Mary (“Polly”) Burton
Andrew Martin Robbins (1814-1882) married Mary (“Polly”) Hale

Children of Margaret (Robbins) Robbins

Thomas Robbins Jr. (c1805-1858) married Matilda Robbins
William R. Robbins (c1807-1880) married Polly Turner and Hannah C. Chastain
Mary (“Polly”) Robbins (?-?)
(This last family is probably the least well documented family line at this time).

A Tale of Two Reunions



The red brick Liberty Church stood tall on the flat farmland near Greensburg, Indiana.  On a hot Sunday in June, 1922, one thousand people gathered to celebrate the first Robbins family reunion in the county, a special event, it being the centennial of the family being in Decatur County.  In 1822 the first Robbins family members settled in Decatur County.  James Gilman Robbins, the oldest in attendance at the reunion, celebrating his 94th birthday the day before, was born a few years after the first settlers arrived.

Among the reunion attendees was 88-year-old Harvey Robbins, who had left Decatur County as a 17-year-old in 1851, on the start of a year-long trek to Oregon.  This was his first visit back to his birthplace to visit family.  Now an elderly white-bearded man supported by a cane, Harvey was still an adventurer at heart and a noted raconteur, telling stories of crossing the plains, fighting Indians, and mining and freighting in the inland Northwest.

An elderly family historian, William Franklin Robbins, a double-cousin of Harvey, through his father’s (Robbins) and mother’s (Spilman) family lines, and not that different in appearance though fifteen years younger, read out a long history he had written of the Robbins family and their presence in Indiana.  He pointed out some of the surviving grandchildren of the original settlers, including the visiting Harvey.  He also told a humorous story to demonstrate the large number of family members in the county:

“A man traveling from Greensburg to Vernon on horseback about this time found a Robbins family at every house along the way.  So when he arrived at a blacksmith shop at the foot of the hill beyond Gaynorsville he addressed the smith as Mr. Robbins.  The owner of the shop, surprised, said, “You are mistaken, my name is Lucky.”  And the traveler rejoined with “You surely are Lucky not be a Robbins.”  It is said that the Mr. Lucky had married a Robbins.”


Seven weeks later, and 1900 miles west, on another hot Sunday, there was a Robbins reunion of the western branch of the family.  A smaller but no less enthusiastic group gathered in the western woods at Molalla, Oregon. The elderly Harvey, possibly still in Indiana, or perhaps recovering from his long journey, was unable to attend.

His niece Ipha Robbins, another early family historian, wrote to a cousin who was unable to attend about the Oregon reunion, as well the sharing of the centennial story from Indiana:  “We had some pages of the Robbins history of a hundred years from Indiana with the group present at their anniversary in June last…They had 1000 present and 62 families of us represented.  It is a wonderful picture and a revelation to me.  I thought we were some bunch of the Jacob R. strain but Indiana far outnumbers us!”  There was a realization that there were still many family members outside Oregon, but even Ipha had no idea of the true extent of the family in 1922.

Time and Distance

These were two of many reunions, held across the nation and over decades to gather family together for remembrance and re-acquaintance.  Some were mentioned in newspaper articles and family reminiscences, but the reunions of 1922 were special, in memorializing the family’s residence in one place for a century.

In those hundred years a lot had happened to the Robbins family.  People were born, married, had children, and passed from the scene.  Successful farms and businesses were established in Decatur and surrounding counties, family members served in America’s wars and took part in political and religious life.  And, many family members left “home” and set out for parts near and far.  Some moved to other points in Indiana, some returned to Kentucky, where the family had been before Indiana, while others went west to Illinois, and Missouri, and Iowa.  Others joined the pre-Civil War rush to Kansas, and some made the long trek to the Pacific Northwest and California.  And some traveled further still, to foreign countries.

They all had their stories and this blog will share as many as possible.  Most will focus on those hundred years, 1822 to 1922, but some will stray earlier and some later, and they will cover great distances.  Stay tuned and keep reading!