Only five of Annie Maria Boyce’s 10 children lived to adulthood, and ill-health forced her to spend summers in California, according to letters left behind by her son, Joseph Edward Thompson. Like many Western pioneers, Annie Maria Boyce lived a hard life, though she was steadfast in her faith and a great inspiration to her children.
Born in August, 15, 1846 in Boone County, Missouri, Annie traveled with her mother and father, Col. James R. Boyce, to Virginia City, Montana after the Civil War. She married William Thompson in 1867 at the age of 23. Thompson, who had come to Montana in 1863, was a prosperous lumber dealer and miner.
The couple had children in quick succession but many died at an early age. The names of two children remain a mystery. J.E., writing about his childhood from his death-bed, explained the harsh pioneer conditions in Montana in a series of letters to his son, William Boner Thompson.
“In pioneer days, doctors were not so good, drugs poor, and many kinds of foods did not exist there, but we had all the diseases there were. It is a wonder that children lived to grow up in those days,” J.E. wrote.
“All grease was saved to make either soap or candles. Some oranges came in and were sold at 25 cts. each. Think of father’s struggle to feed and clothe a family and mother’s wonderful care of us all. It wore her out and she died in her early forties.”
“Mother died when I was about 15 [he was actually 19]. As I see it now, she knew her days were limited and wanted to leave a thought with us and did. She said over and over again that we were raised as gentlemen and wished us to always remain gentlemen. Many a time I have thought of her last message and it had great power in making me a better man.”
Notes left in the Library of Congress by Hermann Hagedorn, the biographer of William Boyce, Annie’s first son, indicate that she was born prematurely–at seven months. They also indicate that she contracted Bright’s disease, a kidney condition that includes painful kidney stones.
One son, Arthur H. Thompson, died in 1887 at a little more than one year of age. He’s buried, along with his parents and some siblings, in the Thompson colonnade at the Mount Moriah Cemetery in Butte. Little is known of second-born Lula, or Alvin, or Marvin. Even less is known of two children for which we don’t have names. Flora, who died in 1925, probably in her early 40s, is buried beside her mom in the colonnade.
The Thompsons were stout Methodists. William Boyce recalls in his biography, The Magnate, that preachers often came to dinner on Sunday night, sometimes joined by circuit riders holding revival meetings in town. The visitors ate so much at dinner that young William was often left with no more than a chicken neck. Many of his descendants went on to love chicken, too.
Montana winters must have been tough on Annie, who fancied herself a Southern girl. She was born in Missouri to a family that traced its roots back to Virginia. Her father, James R. Boyce, was a major in the confederate Army who lost his property in the war. After the war, he found his way to Virginia City, Montana in 1864 and established a general store.
Annie was 14 and living on a Missouri plantation when the Civil War erupted. She told her children that Southern troops hid in the woods not far from where she lived. After everyone else in the household had gone to bed, Annie and her sisters would cook meat and bake bread. The next morning they would casually wander into the countryside, cut into the woods, and feed the soldiers.
If Virginia City, where Annie and husband William first lived, was no easy place to raise kids, Butte was even worse. When the family moved to the hardscrabble town in 1880, there were hardly any trees. Annie would tell her children and husband that she dreamed of one day living again in a Kentucky cottage with flowers and views of rolling hills.
Instead, from the door of their bare brown house on Granite street, Annie looked out on smelters and roasting ovens that belched sulphur smoke into the sky night and day. The odor of rotten eggs was everywhere, even on lovers’ lips, wrote Hagedor. But there wasn’t a lot of polite society in Butte at the time. The eastern labor brought in to work the factories didn’t keep the best company.
J.E. remembers Butte as “the toughest town in the world….There was a sharp line between the good and the not so good woman. More not so good. The fast houses were all in one district and it was a large district. Saloons were everywhere. The main street had at least one saloon and gambling house for every store.”
Annie Marie, who had 10 children over the course of about 17 years, was very religious. She went to church every Sunday and to prayer meetings on Wednesday nights. She sent her boys to two Sunday schools and one regular service every Sunday. The family observed Christmas, the Fourth of July, and other holidays and birthdays.
Annie’s sons told her everything and found her unfailingly sympathetic. Though she lived a hard life, she was never stern, according to a nephew, “and didn’t take life hard as many women of rigid principles do. Perhaps it was her Southern blood that made her take life easily.”
“My home was a home of love,” remembers William Boyce, who adored his mother and helped her with her flower beds. “A good example was set. The standards of right living were maintained, nor was discipline ignored or lightly enforced….No playing cards were permitted us youngsters or anything of that sort.”
One acquaintance, though, E.B. Howell, remembers that the Thompson household wasn’t particularly neat. “She was none too orderly and her household was not an orderly one.”
Annie lost her eldest daughter, Lula, in Virginia City at some point. Her youngest child, Mabel Maud, was born in 1886, only eight years before she died. Life as a Western pioneer certainly took its toll on Annie Maria, who died on November 17, 1894 in Butte, Montana.