Frontier Women

This is the story of Ada Mae Scott. It’s hard to explain her, though, without introducing you first to her grandmother (and mother-in-law), Laodicea Hartman.

Laodicea was born 10 December 1833 in Ohio to Jonathan Hartman and Susannah Russell. In the biblical context, Laodiceans were not the most committed folks to their faith, so it’s an odd name for a child in that respect. But translating from the Greek, it comes out more like “the people’s judgment” or “the people’s justice,” which is also an odd name, since the people’s judgment, in Greek legal systems, didn’t really amount to much. Still, it’s interesting to reflect on as we lay out her life.

Laodicea’s first husband, whom she married 2 July 1849, was Thomas Martin Scott. The Scotts were an interesting bunch — deeply religious, and almost tribal. They moved together in family units among particular nodes around the Midwest, sometimes bouncing back and forth within that network every few years. They also tended to intermarry.

Thomas Martin Scott was born in Indiana in 1824, the fifth child of 14 born to a couple of cousins. He was 25 years old when he married 15-year-old Laodicea in Iowa, where her family had moved from Ohio, and two years later, their daughter Phebe Marie Scott was born. A little over a year later, their second daughter, Nancy Ellender Scott was born. And about three years after that, in the spring of 1855, Thomas died. That made Laodicea a 21-year-old widow with two small children. But she was a survivor, and in 1856 or 1857, she remarried to a widower named Joseph Upton Cowan. They had three sons — Millard Fillmore Cowan (born 1858), Cyrus Presley Cowan (born 1859), and Joseph Edgar Cowan (born 1861).

Then, sometime in the next decade, Laodicea and Joseph Upton Cowan separated. There’s some family lore around prospecting for gold during this time, and this may have been the start of a longer-running Cowan family association with Alaska — but I can’t confirm that. (There’s a Joseph Cowan roughly the right age who marries in Montana in 1886 and dies in 1888, but after he and Laodicea part company, I can’t be sure what happens to him.) But in 1871, Laodicea married again, to Adolphus Herndon. She was now in her late 30s, but they had three children, and it’s not clear to me if some were adopted or all biologically hers. When she died in 1896 at the age of 62 in Kansas, she’d done a lot of living.

Her second daughter, Nancy Ellender (“Ellen”) Scott, followed the Scott pattern, marrying a cousin named Jasper Wilson Scott in Missouri on 20 June 1872. He was 19, and she was 20, and their first child, a boy named Thomas (presumably after her father), had been born a few months earlier. It is their third child, though, Ada Mae Scott, who is properly the subject of our story.

Left: Ada Mae is back row, center. Around her are her brothers, Thomas, George, William, Roy, and Robert, though I can’t identify which is which, except to say the baby in front of Ada Mae should be Robert.

Right: Ada Mae is again back row, center. On either side of her are her younger sisters, Dinah Laodicea (“Lalie”) Scott (left) and Phebe Scott (right), and their mother, Ellen.

By 1875, when Ada Mae’s brother George was born, the family was living in Kansas, where Ada Mae would also be born on 16 December 1876. Sometime in the next few years, Jasper was apparently thrown from a mule, resulting in a brain/spine injury. His health would decline over the next decade, even as he and his wife continued to grow their family and eventually moved to Washington Territory in 1886. His youngest daughter, Phebe, was born there on 18 March 1888, shortly before her father’s death on 7 June of that year.

That made Ellen a widow in her mid-30s with eight children, including a new baby. Ada Mae, the third child and eldest daughter, was not yet 12 when her father died, but I suspect his declining health and the number of her siblings meant she shouldered a lot of responsibility from early on. When I look at the picture above as her of a child, surrounded by her brothers, it’s hard not to see a tough little girl who grew up as “one of the boys.”

In 1897 or 1898, Ada Mae gave birth to a baby girl named Reah. Family lore records her father’s name only as “Mr. Mose,” and he and Ada Mae were evidently not married. Whoever he was, by 1900, he was out of the picture.

Like her mother and grandmother, Ada Mae was also a survivor. They were frontier women whose hard lives became all about family because they had to be. I’ve often wondered how society judged them, and I wonder how much they cared. I’d like to imagine the answer to the latter question is “Not.”

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