Thursday, November 11, 2010

Women At Sea: History Misremembered

Though today's lady gets a lot of attention in her home state of Texas, she is not (as she and her Texan brethren would have you believe), all that famous. Like Hannah Dustin and Diamond Lil (oh how Mrs. Long would cringe at that comparison), she is essentially a product of her time and place, no different in many ways than any other Anglo-American, female pioneer. She seems, however, to have had a snappy gift for self-promotion that foreshadowed future American idols like Joan Crawford, Madonna and Lady Gaga. My personal interest in Mrs. Long lays not so much in her many travels, the bulk of which were by sea, but in one particular meeting with an international pirate superstar. I’m getting ahead of myself, though.

Jane Herbert Wilkinson was born July 23, 1798 in Charles County, Maryland to Captain William MacKall, who served in the Revolutionary War, and his wife Anne (or Ann) Herbert Wilkinson. As an aside, I can find no explanation for the confusion in surnames in this family of 14. Some children are listed as MacKall or Mackall while Jane and some others are Wilkinson. A comment on this anomaly would be more than appreciated if anyone knows the answer. MacKall was a leading figure in the County but Anne does not seem to have been a popular hostess or even neighbor. She kept to herself with her large brood, of whom sturdy Jane was the tenth. It is telling that when MacKall dropped dead in 1799, Anne packed up the family and moved to Washington in what was then Mississippi Territory.

Having a fair number of strong boys to manage a farm, Anne and her children did relatively well on the frontier with 10 of her 12 children surviving to adulthood. By the time Anne died in 1813, many of Jane’s older siblings were married, established and able to take the younger children in. Jane went to live with her oldest sister Barbara, who was married to one Alexander Calvit. Calvit was a relatively wealthy landowner and her sister’s home on Prospinquity Plantation on the Natchez Trace must have seemed as grand as any palace to Jane.

By the time she arrived, Jane was pushing the envelope of marriageable age at 16. Never remarked upon as a beauty, there must have been grumblings at Prospinquity that Jane might languish into spinsterhood. Fortune smiled on both Jane and the Calvits when Dr. James Long, who had been serving as a physician under Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans, stopped in at Prospinquity on his way home to Virginia. He was welcomed at the plantation and stayed to help tend an outbreak of fever among the slaves. Jane and the good doctor (perhaps through the machinations of Barbara and Alexander) found each to the other’s liking. They were married in May of 1815. Considering that the Battle of New Orleans technically ended in mid-January of that year and that the need for doctors continued well into February and even March, it seems a rather hasty union.

Probably while in New Orleans James, like so many others, caught the filibustering bug. He was gung-ho to free Mexico from Spanish bondage but, rather than put up his money for arms, munitions and privateering commissions, James sank everything he had into a private army. He rounded up disenfranchised men who milled about the Natchez Trace after the War of 1812, armed them, supplied them and would himself lead them into Texas and establish first one fort and then the entire Territory as a free and independent state. Jane had hitched her future to a man full of dreams and prepared to die for them. Fortunately, she was hardy, loyal and blind to her husband’s follies, or so it seems.

Long left for Nacogdoches in June of 1819 and Jane stayed behind to give birth to their second child. It is interesting to note that their first daughter, Ann Herbert, was born in November of 1816 (you do the math) and that by the time James headed off Jane was no longer living at splendid Prospinquity but in the more humble house of her widowed sister Anne Chelsey. Rebecca was born shortly after her father’s departure and six days later her mother packed her things, climbed aboard a merchant vessel and followed James Long to Nacogdoches. Ann was left with Anne Chelsey.

Not surprisingly, illness dogged Jane’s journey. The Calvits had by now established another plantation in Alexandria and Jane was forced to seek refuge there. In short order, though, Jane dropped her infant off with Barbara and continued on to meet her husband, although she was still ill. Jane arrived in August to find her husband’s people living on the edge of subsistence. By October James was in Galvez Town making nice with the local pirates. The Spanish stormed the Nacogdoches fort and Jane and her fellows had to flee to the Sabine River. Long met Jane there and they returned to Alexandria and the Calvits, only to find that baby Rebecca had died.

The couple retrieved Ann, now three, from the newly married Anne Chelsey Miller and James turned back to Texas. Now that he was chummy with Jean Laffite at Galvez Town, he dragged his family, their one slave, a twelve-year-old girl named Kian, and his remaining men to Point Bolivar northeast of what is now Galveston Island. James seems to have been enchanted with Laffite, who – as he was packing up to leave the island – invited the Longs to what Jane remembered as a “sumptuous feast” aboard his flagship General Victoria (remembered by Jane as La Fierté: The Pride).

None of it amounted to much as Long, driven now to personal destruction in liberty’s cause, hauled his family back and forth to New Orleans, Point Bolivar and various places in between. By 1821 they were back in the tent city at Point Bolivar which now boasted a half dozen families as well as military men. James followed Laffite off to Mexico that September, leaving his pregnant wife with pubescent Kian and four-year-old Ann. He would be captured by the Spanish, taken to Mexico City and killed – the Spanish called it an “accidental death” – April 8, 1822.

Jane knew nothing of her husband’s death until the summer of 1822 and, though the others slowly sailed away from the lonely “fort” at Point Bolivar, she waited dutifully for James to return. She gave birth to another daughter, Mary James, on December 21, 1821 under an ice-encrusted tent. She managed to fool the local natives into believing the fort was still full of militia and she and the girls with her almost starved until March of 1822. A party of retreating settlers found them and convinced Jane to come east. The trek was slow and Jane did not return to Alexandria and the comfort of her sister’s home until September of 1823. By that time she seems to have resigned herself to her fate and, though she did return to Texas to first open boarding houses and eventually run a ranch and cotton plantation that succeeded for a while, she never really attained the station in society that her birth and marriage must have given her leave to imagine.

Both Mary and Ann married well. Ann and her husband Edward Winston moved to Texas and started their own ranch not far from Jane’s in the late 1830’s. It was at this time, with her children grown and her life settled if not terribly prosperous, that the men (according to Jane, anyway) came calling. Famous Texans like Sam Houston and Ben Milam courted her aggressively but she refused them all as she was still mourning James Long. Only Mirabeau Bonaparte Lamar (who, if his parents had added Robespierre, would have had the entire French Revolution in one name) was given Jane’s confidence, if not her hand. He listened to and wrote down her stories of pioneering in Texas. He promoted her assertion that she, as the first white woman to give birth on the Territory’s soil, was the “Mother of Texas” (in fact there is clear documentation that at least six Anglo-American babies were born in the Territory between 1807 and 1821). And, most fascinating of all to me, wrote down her recollection of the pirate Jean Laffite:

He was of middle stature, perhaps a little above it, graceful, well-spoken… dark hair, brown complexion and a pair of eyes as vivid as the lightning and as black as ebony. In conversation he was mild, placable and polite; but altogether unjocular and free of levity. There was something noble and attractive in his aspect in spite of its occasional severity; and between the fierceness of his glance and the softness of his speech, the disparity was striking…

Mrs. Long told Lamar she heard Laffite’s many stories of his life at sea but that she found him frustrating in conversation. He would not reveal “… important information… respecting himself” despite his tall tales. In this Mrs. Long and Jean Laffite seem very similar to me. What did the “Mother of Texas” really think about the life she had quite literally been dragged into by her dreamer of a husband? Lamar does not say, and doubtless neither did Jane.

Jane Herbert Wilkinson Long outlived both her daughters and fell into the care of Ann’s children. By 1877 she was living with one of Ann’s sons, James Winston, and his family. Mrs. Long died there December 30, 1880. She is buried in Morton Cemetery in Richmond. Jane remains a fascinating study of pioneering America and a heroine of early Texas with statues and markers scattered around the state, particularly in Fort Bend County. How much truth there is to the stories she told Lamar is open for debate. But then so are a lot of things we call “history”.

Header: Jane Long c 1870


Timmy! said...

Ahoy Pauline! Another historical figure I had never heard of before (not being from Texas and all)... Interesting story. It's funny how you never can tell how much of these stories is true and how much is made up...

Oh, and a big thank you to all our veterans and current service men and women this day, Pirate Queen.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! Yep; there's a lot we don't know about so much of history. Wait till the tale of Jane's nutty husband shows up here, but that's another story for another time.

And yes, Huzzah! for our veterans and all those who currently serve. Freedom, as it has often been noted, isn't free.