Portrait of a Strong Woman

This weeks prompt is “strong woman” and in my research, I have found many women that fit that description!  These were ancestors who married in their teens, worked farms, had many children- usually a child every year or two- nursed the sick, took care of their elderly parents, watched children die from diseases and sickness and took care of their families all without any modern conveniences!  How I admire them all!  It was so hard to pick just one but I chose my third great-grandmother, Susannah J Porter James.   Just looking at her picture, which I was so very fortunate to find, I see a softness in her eyes but detect an air of stubborn determination about her.  Although she is elderly in the picture, she does not look frail or weak, but looks strong and confident.

Porter, Susannah J. , James James

Susannah J Porter was my third great- grandmother being the mother of Mary Ann James who married Columbus Ashlin.  Mary Ann and Columbus were the parents of Susan Virginia Ashlin , who married George Lyons, my father’s paternal grandparents.   Susannah J Porter was born the 14th of May in 1820 in Smyth County, Virginia near the Blue Ridge Mountains.  She was the daughter of William Porter (1778-1867) and Mary Polly Thomas (1801-1894).  There were a lot of Porters in Virginia at this time, originating from Ireland and England.  The Thomas ancestry can be traced back to early settlers of America and Virginia, a long and interesting lineage for future research.  Mary Polly was 18 when Susannah was born.   She lived to about 93 which was quite unusual for that era – another strong woman!

Susannah married Thompson B James on September 20, 1836 when she was just 16 years old.  Thompson was 23 at the time of marriage, being born in 1813.  He was the son of Ezekial James (1777-1838) and Frances Baker James (1791-1834).  His mother died before his marriage and his father, Ezekial, died 2 years after the marriage.    By 1840, Thompson and Susannah James were living in Smyth County, Virginia, in the same community as her parents.  They already had 2 daughters, Mary Ann James (my 2nd great-grandmother) and Frances Elizabeth James, born in 1838 and 1840.  So by the time Susannah was 20, she had 2 children already.

The next Census in 1850 lists the family still living in Smyth County and they have 3 more children!  William Porter James is 8, Louisa Freedom James is 5 and James Andrew James is 2.  The older girls are 10 and 12 years old.  Susannah was also pregnant when the census was taken as another son, Oscar Legrand James was born in November of 1850.

They lived on a farm that was valued at $1500.  That would be about $42,000 in today’s money.  It was not as high a value as many of their neighbors on the Census so I am guessing that the farm was smaller and they may have been struggling at times to make ends meet.  The Slave Schedule for 1850 showed that Thompson James owned three slaves which included a female aged 21, a male aged 18 and a male child aged 4.   On the large farm, many slaves were listed.

In 1845, 4 years later, another daughter was born, America Adaline James on October 30.  But the child died on February 17 of 1849 at about three and a half years old!  Cause of death is not known but it must have been heart breaking to bury a child.  Sadly, it happened far too often in those days.

Their last of eight children, Susannah Columbia James, was born on January 2 of 1853. But tragedy struck that year when Thompson died on December 24th, Christmas Eve!  He died of “consumption” which was the term used for tuberculosis in those days- a slow, painful death.  Thompson was only 40 years old and they were married for 17 years.  Susannah was left with seven children to raise on her own and a farm to work.  The youngest was only 1 year old and the rest were 3, 5, 9, 11.  The older girls, Mary Ann and Frances, I am sure were a big help but Mary Ann would marry 2 years later and Frances would marry in 1860.

By September of 1854, Susannah and her children faced more tragedy when the youngest child,  Susannah Columbia, died on September 3rd, just about 8 months after losing her husband and their father.  Another child was buried.

The 1860  Census lists Susannah as the head of the household and working the farm.  She is now 40 years old and has 4 children left at home ranging from age 9 to age 20.  The real estate value of her farm has increased to $2000 which is about $52,500 today.  Still a small farm, not rich but perhaps more comfortable financially.

On January 1, 1862, after raising children and working the farm by herself for about eight years, Susannah decided to remarry.  She marries a widower, William M James.  There were a lot of James families living in Smyth County, Virginia and it  is not known if this William was related to her first husband, Thompson James.  They did have different fathers but may have been cousins.  Susannah was 42 and William James was about 40 when they married.  William’s first wife, Elizabeth Halladay, died in 1860 and they had 3 children.  The youngest child of William’s was about 7 and one was about 11 so Susannah had more children to care for as well as three of her own.

It was the middle of the Civil War and lives were changing drastically for everyone in Virginia and the rest of the country.  Susannah’s son, William Porter James was serving in Co. A, 8th Virginia Cavalry for the Confederacy.  This had to have been another big worry for her to have a son gone to war.  Thankfully, her son survived the war and a prisoner camp.  He enlisted at 19 and became a Sargent.

By 1870, Susannah’s life of struggle seemed to settle down a bit as she and William lived on a small farm.  William was listed as a farmer at about age 50 and Susannah is keeping house.  They did have 2 black children living with them that they were caring for.  One was Leander Morrison, age 4 and one was Sarah A Morrison, age 7.  By 1880, Leander is 13 and working for them as a servant.  I like to think that Susannah’s later years were spent more peacefully and comfortably.

Susannah passed away  at age 78 in Cedar Springs, Smyth County, Virginia.  She was buried in the Blue Springs Methodist Church Cemetery in Smyth County.  Her husband, William died in March of 1900 at about age 79 and was also buried in the same cemetery.

I think her story speaks for itself of her strength and perseverance.  She was, in my eyes, a remarkable lady!  The Obituary of her son, William Porter James, tells how William “was a man who lived by the Golden Rule and won the friendship of hundreds…who regret his departure from this life.”  This tells me Susannah was a good mother who imparted good ideals in her children and raised them to be good citizens despite the hardships she and her family had to face.

James, Thompson & Susannah tree 001

James, Wm M, 2nd Husb. of Susannah Porter, grave 001


William Porter and Mary Margaret James and family
The William Porter James Family (son of Susannah Porter James.   William Porter James, Mary James, his wife.  Back row, Jid James, Bob James, Mike James, Tom James       Front: Sally James, Mary Almira Elizabeth “Lizzie” James Boyer, Braxton James, Crocket James and William E James.


William P and Mary M James (1)
William Porter James and Mary Margaret Pafford James


William P and Mary M James, and daughter Sally and Zed Sessler
William Porter James, Mary Pafford James, daughter Sally and Zed Sessler





Sources:  (Full documentation available upon request)

Trimble, David B, Montgomery and James of Southwest Virginia, Austin, Texas, 1992, pp.20-23.

Vogt, John and Kethley, T. William Jr., Smyth County Marriages, 1832-1850, Iberian Press Publishing, Athens, Georgia, 1984, p. 27.

FHL microfilms: 33,991; 2,048,585.

Find A Grave Memorials, database and images.www.findagrave.com, (Various memorials)

United States Federal Census, 1840,1850,1860,1870,1880, for Smyth County, Virginia.


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