The earliest Robbins “mother” for which I have a photograph is my great-great-great-grandmother Nancy Robbins. Like a lot of photography subjects at the time she doesn’t look particularly happy, but then she had a hard life, yet a long one. She suffered numerous tragedies but persevered and is the ancestor of hundreds of people.
Nancy Robbins was born in 1793 to Absalom and Mary (Ogle) Robbins. She was raised in Virginia and Kentucky and married her first cousin Nathaniel Robbins in 1813, thereby keeping her maiden surname.
The first tragedy Nancy suffered was the loss of the couple’s first child, Harriet, in 1815. After the birth of their second child, Nancy and Nathaniel left Kentucky for Bond Co., Illinois, where they lived briefly. While there, their third child, Absalom, died in 1819 from the effects of a burn. Moving back east to Decatur County, Indiana, the couple had ten more children, all of whom lived to adulthood.
With Oregon fever at a height, Nathaniel and Nancy made the difficult choice to cross the continent to Oregon. Did Nancy have a voice in the decision? or did Nathaniel just announce they were leaving? The family set out in the fall of 1851 to winter over in Missouri, before setting out on the Oregon Trail in the spring of 1852.
They left Missouri in mid-April, and they hadn’t traveled far, in what is today southern Nebraska, when the emigrants were struck with cholera. A fast-moving disease, those stricken could be gone before they knew it. That’s what happened with three of Nancy’s children. Two daughters, Amanda Minerva and Bethiah Emmeline, died on May 31st, having been stricken early in the day, daughter Mahala followed the next day. Two days after that, son-in-law Absalom Barnes, who had left his own family back in Indiana, and was married to Bethiah Emmeline, followed his wife into the grave. Nancy and Nathaniel would now raise their orphaned Barnes grandsons. The travelers had to keep moving and the three daughters were buried in one grave, Absalom was buried further along the trail, and the Robbins family moved on.
Family stories recount that many of the emigrants were ill, including Nathaniel, for whom the wagon train would stop until he felt better, but there is never any mention of Nancy Robbins being ill. You can imagine her cooking, cleaning, nursing, and mourning, out in the elements month after month, along a hot and dusty or wet and muddy road.
When the wagon train arrived in eastern Oregon, Nancy lost her granddaughter Sarah Jane Robbins, aged about five or six. And after the family arrived in Oregon City, their destination, grandson Gilman Robbins, not yet eleven years old, died and was buried in a location now unknown.
The family settled in the western part of Clackamas County and filed their donation land claims. The couple and their children began building their lives in their new home and Nancy was the matriarch of an expanding family. We don’t know a lot about Nancy’s personal life beyond her role as a mother. We do know from the census that she could not read or write, not uncommon for an upbringing on the Kentucky frontier. We also know that she made wine! She won second prize for her current wine at the 1863 Oregon State Fair in Salem.
Tragedy continued to stalk the family however. Oldest son William Franklin Robbins was out bear hunting in 1856, when he reached down for his rifle and it went off, killing him instantly. Youngest daughter Angeline, who was said to be in poor health, died in 1862, at age twenty. Then, in December of 1863, Nathaniel Robbins, Nancy’s husband of half a century, drowned in the rain-swollen Tualatin River. Nancy endured those events, and there was more to come.
In 1872, the youngest surviving daughter, Nancy, named for her mother, died shortly after her last child was delivered. The following year, bachelor son John Dow Robbins, was found murdered on his land claim. His murderer was never found. In 1877, son-in-law William Sharp died after falling from his barn’s roof.
Nancy, the tough old pioneer that she was, finally succumbed at the age of 87, to what the 1880 Mortality Schedule seems to describe as “acute pleurisy.” By my count, she was survived by four children (five children-in-law) and 41 grandchildren. I did not try to count her great-grandchildren. One of her last surviving grandchildren was Nancy Lucinda Barstow, named for her mother and grandmother, who was 12-years-old when her grandmother died and who, herself, lived until 1961. These two Nancy’s lives covered 168 years of American history, from the presidencies of George Washington to John F. Kennedy. What would Nancy senior have thought of that?
(Jacob Robbins-Absalom Robbins-Nancy (Robbins) Robbins)