James Richard (J.R.) Boyce was a real sweetheart, a deep believer in the nobility of womankind. The Confederate Army major, who became a merchant in Virginia City, Montana, wanted to make sure that his ancestors knew what great stock they came from. So he left behind an highly detailed October 23, 1893, letter addressed to his grandchildren.
Unfortunately, some details in the letter have made it nearly impossible to trace the Major’s line of the Boyce family back to its North American origins. We’ll cover the maternal side of the equation first and deal with the male line in a second installment.
How is J. R. Boyce (1817-1898) related to the living? Well, he would be my third great-grandfather. His daughter, Annie Maria Boyce, married William Thompson, my second great-grandfather. Five of the couple’s nine children lived to adulthood — Joseph Edward (my great-grandfather), James Richard, Mabel Maud, and William Boyce Thompson.
J.R. was originally from Logan County Kentucky, where his father, Richard, was, according to J.R. a sheriff, judge, and plantation owner. He may have gotten the sheriff part wrong, based on a recent visit to the Logan County genealogy society; he’s not on their list. J.R. moved to Columbia, Missouri several years after marrying Maria Louisa Wright. He worked as a merchant there for 20 years. After losing his property after the Civil War, he moved his family to Montana.
J.R.’s mother, Mary Childs Smith (1784-1826) died when he was young, only about 11. He was raised by his grandmother. As you can see from the letter below, he had super-fond memories of both. They apparently did a swell job raising him.
“Perhaps I am the only one living who can from personal knowledge give the history of the grandmothers and mothers of my children, and in that they may in after years know something of the character of their ancestry. I pay this tribute to the memory of the dead for the benefit of the living, and those who may follow them. Hoping that the living as well as the unborn descendants of these noble exemplars of true womanhood, from them they descend, may profit by the perusal of this tribute to their worth.”
J.R.’s tribute to womanhood begins with his first wife (he doesn’t write about the second one) Maria L. Wright (1820-1875). “Maria L. Wright, the mother of all my children, was born in Boone County, Missouri, at the home of her grandparents. Her mother, Jane H. Wright, was on a visit to them when her first child, Maria Louisa, was born.
“Jane H.Wright was born in Virginia on the 30th day of Nov. 1795. She was the daughter of William and Rachael Wright, and was married at Nashville, Tennessee, to her cousin Wm. Wright, in 1819 (who resided at Russellville, Ky.).”
J.R.’s first wife, Maria Louisa Wright, was born on the 13th day of March 1820. She married J.R. on Dec. 8, 1836.
“Perhaps in her life a more devoted wife and mother never lived. One who more faithfully and conscientiously discharged her every duty as a wife and mother, deeply endowed with a sense of her obligations to God, and a profound reverence for all sacred things, was a living Christian, with her lamp ever-burning and ever reflecting the light of holy and devoted life, an example to her children and family. Patient, cheerful and consistent, ever careful, watchful and enduring, a living witness of the religion of Jesus. She was endowed by nature, cultured and trained to discharge the duties of American motherhood and wifehood.”
Maria Louisa died at Helena, Montana, June 28, 1875. She was buried in the Masonic burying-ground on June 30th. J.R. later occupied the grave right beside her.
J.R. describes his mother-in-law, Jane H. Wright, as “a beautiful woman with brown, piercing, luminous eyes—gentle as a lamb, loving, cheerful and bright. A splendid housekeeper; order and system reigned in her household, loving to her husband and children, yet firm and consistent, presiding over her household with a steady firm hand. She was a woman of great intelligence and marked integrity.”
How did J.R. know all this? He knew it from first-hand experience. He was raised by Jane Wright after his own mother died. Is seems mildly incestuous that J.R. would marry her daughter. But that may have been par for the course back then. At least they weren’t blood relatives. As for Jane Wright…
“Her daily life was a living comment and exemplification of the teachings of enlightened Christianity. Oh, how beautiful her life rises up before me, after a separation by death of nearly sixty years. I see her daily walk, her gentle kindness to her children and servants, and to the lonely boy (myself) whom she had raised from his eleventh year. I see her on her dying bed, calm, bright and happy, shouting her triumph over death, bidding her husband, children, myself, friends and servants adieu, and with a bright exalted smile passing to her bright home in Heaven. Can this be death? No! Oh no. It is just entering into Life. Her life here on earth was only a prelude to a brighter enduring life with Him whom she loved on earth.”
As a boy, J.R. was no doubt told many stories about the early years Wright family descendants. Jane’s mother, Rachael Sawyer Wright, was born in Virginia. She was the mother of thirteen children, ten of whom “grew to manhood and womanhood.
“She was a woman of inflexibility of character, more noted for her commanding energy and indomitable will power, yet ever just, conscientious and affectionate, commanding the love and veneration of her family. From affection for her, and their implicit and unquestioning obedience, none ever thought of questioning her authority or disregarding her commands, for they were the law of their youth and obeyed in after life with constancy and affection, feeling and believing the she was ‘always right,’ both in name and actions.
J.R. wrote that Rachel Sawyer Wright “died as she had lived, calm and collected. When she realized that her dissolution was approaching, she was ready to meet it firm in faith, with a well grounded hope of eternal rest—always calm, firm and consistent in her walk and with a heart and hand ever open to relieve the wants and administer to the afflicted. Her home was always the abiding place of hospitality and the home of the preachers of her church (Methodist) who penetrated the then wilds of Missouri, in the year 1818, when but few houses of any size were erected in Boone County, Mo., and her house being large was for years the preaching place for all the messengers of Christ, who availed themselves of that privilege.
“This closes up your grand and great grand mothers as far as I know your mother’s side,” Boyce continued. “I have only incidentally alluded to your grand fathers, as I believe your mothers the purer and better, although their husbands were good men.
“I was born on the 11th day of October, 1817. My father, Richard Boyce, was married to my mother, Mary Childs Smith, in the year 1816, in Logan County, Kentucky. She was the daughter of James and Mary Smith, and was born in Hardy County, Virginia, in the year 1780. Both families removed to Kentucky early in the year 1800 (the precise date I do not know.” Public records indicate the family did move to Kentucky at about that time.
J.R.’s mother died in 1818, when he was 11,”and my recollection of her is limited to that period. But from my aunt, Martha Smith, afterwards Martha B. Fester, I have learned much of the early history of my mother’s family, and from her I have learned to honor the progenitors of my mother. They were the Smiths, Marshalls and Childs, all the best and purest of old Virginia families.”
Ok, now we’re talking — J.R. hailed from early Virginia “royalty.” His maternal grandmother, Mary Smith, “was well educated and a woman of very lofty character, raised in the best society of her day. She was a woman of marked intelligence, a good manager in her household, and as I recollect her, a lovely old woman, honored and loved by all.
“Of my own mother I can scarcely write. To me she was and is an angel, a ministering spirit, ever bearing herself as a calm, lofty character of great sweetness of temper and of marked intelligence, honored by all in her neighborhood as a very superior, highly cultivated woman of deep consistent piety and loved by all her children.
“They loved her to idolatry, and her step children to adoration. I have often heard them say that they loved her better than they did their own mother. Her servants loved her as a mother and to her they ever appealed for sympathy and kindness and never in vain. She was lovely in life, and in death, glorious.
“Oh, how deeply on my young memory was impressed the scenes of her death. They were marked and peculiar. For months previous she had a presentiment of her death and talked of it to her family with all the calm confidence as of something that she knew, but did not dread, and only regretted because of her children and family. She met it according to her premonition, as calmly and as confidently as if going to sleep. After bidding her servants, friends, and last, her children and my father, a last, long farewell, and singing—
“Jesus can make a dying bed
As soft as downy pillows are
While on His breast I lean my head
And breathe my life out sweetly there.”
“She turned her face to the wall and went to sleep as sweetly as an infant, and opened her eyes in Eternity. These last senses of her saintly life and death are engraved upon my memory never to be afraid. Her dying admonitions, and her calm triumph, will live in my memory until I have passed thru the dark valley. Death was no monster for her. He was but the messenger to loosen the ties of life and introduce her to a higher and better life.
“Shall I say more? Only this, that your mothers on both sides have been noble women, not a blot to mar the fair pages of their history. Those who have gone were all deeply devoted to God and duty, and I hope, yes, believe, that those who follow the illuminated lives show have gone before will leave as fair and beautiful a record. May the great God grant it, my dear grand children.
Your Grand Father, J.R. Boyce
October 2nd, 1893