Sunday, July 05, 2009

A Noted Character Dies - Margaret French

With the death of the old colored woman, "Aunt Maggie," last Thursday evening an odd character who has haunted the streets of Leon for years was removed from our midst. Her history has been a strange one. Born a slave on a southern plantation in the ante-bellum days, nurtured as were the colored people of those times, who can wonder that her life has been otherwise than it has.

If all of the dead woman's history was known, what a strange recital of events it would be. "Aunt Maggie" has often told many of our people scraps of her early life, such as she could remember, and from such sources we state the following: "Aunt Maggie" was born on a plantation near Natchez, Miss. It is thought that her first master's name was Robinson. According to Maggie's story, Robinson would have made a fit companion for the cruel Legree of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" fame, for her back bore evidence of brutal whippings in great scars. Long before the war, Maggie's only daughter was separated from her. She related that one of her master's daughters was married to a man named French (presumably Gen. S.B. French of the rebel army) and she was bestowed upon the bride as one of the wedding gifts. About the same time, her daughter was given to another daughter of Robinson, who afterwards went to Europe with her husband, taking the colored girl along. From that time Maggie has been unable to obtain any trace of the lost child.

Nothing is known of Maggie's subsequent history until about the time the union army was marching upon Vicksburg when she allied herself with the army as customary with the negroes when the union soldiers were in the neighborhood of a plantation for any length of time. French was kind to her, however, and she adopted his name.

A mess from Company B, 4th Iowa Infantry, of which George Burton was originally captain, though later promoted to a lieutenant-colonelship, secured Maggie's services as cook. She remained with the regiment until after the battle of Mission Ridge, being present at the battle and also at Chattanooga and Lookout Mountain, often times acting in the capacity of nurse. After the battle of Mission Ridge, Col. Burton resigned his command and came home to Leon bringing Maggie with him, arriving here in the latter part of l864.

Maggie at once entered the services of the family of John P. Finley. When Dr. Finley went to Des Moines as an examining surgeon the same year, Maggie accompanied the family to that place. In January, l865, Mrs. Finley died from a fever, after which Maggie contracted the disease and was sick some time. The Finley family then came back to Leon, bringing Maggie. She resided with them five years and then started out for herself, purchasing the lot on which her house now stands, just south of the Presbyterian Church, with her savings and aided by Mr. Finley. A small house which had been built for her on Dr. Finley's land was removed to her own lots and later, what now forms the main part of the house, was built.

Mattie's one matrimonial venture was far from a success. She was married to Richard R. Williams, October l, l885. Williams was a mulatto who came here and worked himself into Maggie's affections simply for the purpose of securing her money. He was of a thieving disposition and served in the Ft. Madison Penitentiary two years for house breaking at Garden Grove before he came here to live. After securing all of Maggie's money, said to have been in the neighborhood of $l,000, her savings for years, he deserted her. When last heard from, a few years ago, Williams was serving a sentence of sixteen years in a Texas prison for cattle stealing. Maggie secured a divorce from him almost two years ago.

Maggie's life is well known to every person in Leon. The drink habit fastened itself upon her, more especially the later years of her life. But she never turned a needy person from her door and was kind hearted in this respect to a fault. Her honesty was a marked trait; she was industrious, economical, saving, though far from stingy. Unscrupulous persons often took advantage of her and secured sums of money from her under the guise of loans. She was well known in all the neighboring towns, and a few years ago, all the big events, celebrations and the like, would find Maggie on hand, stylishly dressed, and "cutting a wide swath." She was acquainted with all the traveling men, doing their washing for them, and thus became known over the state.

Her age has always been a matter of conjecture, but it is presumed that it was but a few years less than eighty at the time of her death.

Short funeral services were held at her home Friday, conducted by Rev. Gurley and the remains were interred in the Leon Cemetery. Before her death, Maggie acknowledged waywardness, and expressed her repentance and we have reasons to hope that her future will be brighter than her past.

- Published in the Decatur County Journal, Leon, Iowa, July 8, l897. This article was transcribed by Nancee McMurtrey Seifert and posted on the Decatur County, Iowa Genweb site.

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