Letters about Letters: An Example of Serendipity

Anyone who has done family research for any length of time has experienced serendipity, that totally unexpected and fortunate occurrence which brings forth some marvelous source or record or photograph or family connection.  So it is with three letters which unexpectedly appeared one day, describing other letters which reported a sad story of the Oregon Trail.

A distant cousin in Wyoming, Abbie Current, sent three original letters (two from 1852 and one from 1861), to cousin Barbara Stinger in Oregon, because she thought the letters were important in our family’s history of the Oregon Trail.

All the letters were addressed to Elizabeth (Robbins) Wadkins (sometimes spelled Watkins) of Scott County, Indiana.  One letter is dated August 21, 1852; it is from William Robbins (father of James Gilman Robbins of last week’s post) of Decatur County, Indiana, to his sister Elizabeth Wadkins.  The next letter is dated August 27, 1852, and it is from Elizabeth’s niece Nancy B. Anderson of Greensburg, Indiana.  The third and final letter is also from Greensburg, dated January 18, 1861, and is from Abram and Charlotte (Robbins) Anderson to Charlotte’s sister Elizabeth.  (Abram and Charlotte were the parents of the middle letter sender, Nancy Anderson.)  This post will deal with the two 1852 letters.

By the time these letters were sent to Elizabeth (Robbins) Wadkins, her brother Nathaniel, with his wife and family, had been gone from Decatur County for eleven months, and were still on the road to Oregon.  They had left in September of 1851 and arrived in Randolph County, Missouri, to “winter over” before leaving for the Pacific Northwest in the spring.  While in Missouri, they were joined by their cousin Jacob Robbins (sometimes called Jacob Jr. but more accurately Jacob III).   We know from family reminiscences that the Robbins party sent letters back “home” to Decatur County when they arrived at a place that had a post office.  Fort Laramie (in what is now Wyoming) was such a place.

But, no such letters have ever come to light.  They could have all been lost or destroyed over the years, or they could still be sitting in a wooden chest in someone’s attic or barn.  What we do have, are two letters which mention letters sent by Nathaniel Robbins.

In the first letter Nathaniel’s brother William reports to their sister Elizabeth (spelling and punctuation has not been corrected):

“I received a letter from Nathaniel on last Saturday it was dated Ft. Laramie Nebraska Teritory July the 3rd it stated that him and his family was all well that was alive.  He lost 3 of his Daughters on the 30th of May with cholera.  Mahala Died half past 7 oclock Emeline half past 9 and Amand half past 12— they was all interred in one grave on a high mound one mile west of big Sandy, they then moved forward some six or seven miles to little blew river thair Absalom Barns Died and was buried on a high mound on the road side.  I have received a letter from John Herren son William which told us that they was all well the letter was dated May the 3rd…..”

Explanation:  Nathaniel’s three daughters and one son-in-law died of cholera in southern Nebraska, a few days before reaching Fort Kearney.  William Herren of Salem, Oregon, was the son of Dosha (Robbins) Herren, another sibling of William, Elizabeth, and Nathaniel.  The Herrens had moved to Oregon in 1845.

In the second letter Nancy B. Anderson, Elizabeth and Nathaniel and William’s niece, reports:

“My granmother and aunt Mary Kirkpatrick has both departed this life since you was to see us and we have received a letter from uncle Nathaniel dated July the third he has seen a very serious time since he left he has lost four of his family Amanda Emaline Mahaly and Absalom barns with the colary but now he writes that the rest of the family are all well and he is going on his journey”

Explanation:  Nancy is referring to her grandmother Bethiah (Vickrey) Robbins who died in December of 1850 and Mary (Robbins) Kirkpatrick, who died in June of 1851.  Even though Elizabeth only lived about 50 miles to the south, she hadn’t seen her family in some time.

The source of these letters, Abbie Current, is not a descendant of any of the families mentioned in the letters.  How did they come down to her?  The letters were sent to Elizabeth (Robbins) Wadkins in Scott County, Indiana.  None of Elizabeth’s siblings lived in that county.  There were, however, many other Robbins cousins there, including several named Nathaniel Robbins, who were Abbie’s ancestors.  It is most likely that someone in the Wadkins family came across the letters, saw a reference to Nathaniel Robbins, and assumed they were connected to the Nathaniels in Scott County.  All the Robbins’ in Scott County are related to the Decatur County families, but the connection is a generation or two earlier.  Whatever miracle resulted in the letters being  preserved, we can be grateful that they survived and were shared a century and a half later!

James Gilman Robbins

The photo at the top of this website is a small portion of a much longer photograph of the 1922 Robbins Reunion in Decatur County, Indiana.  One of the “stars” of this reunion was the oldest attendee, James Gilman Robbins.  He was so prominent that his photo appeared on invitations to the event.

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James Gilman Robbins was the third child of William and Eleanor (Anderson) Robbins.  His siblings Sarilda (Robbins) Styers, John Everman Robbins, and Merritt Holman Robbins, were very successful and have interesting stories of their own, but this post focuses on James.

He lived his entire life in Decatur County, born there in 1829, and passing away near Horace in 1927.  He was married to a woman with the indomitable name of Elmira Stout in 1853 and they had three children.  Elmira’s father, the Rev. Joab Stout, was a Baptist minister at the Liberty Baptist Church, the later site of the 1922 reunion.

Besides the usual records that lay out his life’s timeline, a county history (A Genealogical and biographical record of Decatur County, Indiana, a compendium of national biography by Lewis Publishing Company) provide some additional details about his career, in the typical language of 1900 local histories:

“James G. Robbins was educated in the common schools and by hard work gained a practical knowledge of agriculture. He remained under the parental roof until he was twenty-five years old assisting in the farm operations of the homestead until he be came of age, when he and his brother Merritt (now dead) rented the place and managed it on their own account.”

“A few years later [after his marriage to Elmira] he went back to his father’s homestead, at his parents’ request, to afford them the care they required in their old age, and later inherited the place, which he subsequently gave to one of his own sons. He early gave intelligent attention to general farming and to the handling of stock, in which he was so successful that he gradually acquired a large amount of land. He has given to each of his children a good-sized farm and retains a fine home for himself.”

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James G. Robbins was a large land owner in Decatur County, with his land laying southeast of Horace, in Sand Creek Township.  He needed land for his next business venture.

“In 1876 he began breeding thoroughbred shorthorn cattle, purchasing stock in Kentucky for that purpose. He has made purchases since, always of first-class stock, and now owns the finest herd of cattle in eastern Indiana. He has made exhibits at various fairs and has always proven a formidable competitor, He has sold calves in about every state and territory in the United States and is known throughout the entire country as one of America’s leading stockmen. He is an honorable, enterprising, successful and public-spirited man, independent in his views, and influential as an earnest Republican who has never sought and would not accept any public office.”

Shorthorn cattle were developed in Britain in the 18th century and had become a popular breed, with both a dairy and a beef variety, with the American Shorthorn Association established in 1874.  James’s interest in cattle was passed down through his family.  In fact, his grandson-in-law Arthur C. Stewart, with his sons Gilman and John, established Stewart Select Angus in Greensburg in 1954, with descendants of James Gilman Robbins carrying on the business and the tradition to the current day.  You can read about their history at the Stewart Select Angus website.

James outlived his wife, his siblings and all his in-laws.  He was, without a doubt, the “grand old man” of the Robbins Reunion in 1922.

[Jacob Robbins-William Robbins-William Robbins Jr.-James Gilman Robbins]