A flair for the dramatic

Marcia Bradford was a stern, no-nonsense kind of woman. At least, that’s what I’ve heard. Look at that face. I wouldn’t have crossed her…

Here she is shucking corn (far right) and looking like Whistler’s Mother.

Here she is shucking a baby:

I think it’s remarkable that I know anything about Marcia’s personality. She is my great-great-great-great-great-grandmother. To provide some context, when you find yourself that many generations back in the family tree, you have 63 other great-great-great-great-great-grandmothers to research and obsess over. Marcia, or Grandma Capen as she is known in the family, is the only ancestor from that generation that I’ve heard any family stories about. She clearly left an impression on her descendants, fostered by a long life (she lived in to her 90s) and an apparent flair for dramatics.

Marcia was born 21 February 1820, in Turner, Maine, to Ephraim Bradford and Lovisa Dawes. Her grandfather, Wait Bradford, moved the family there from Kingston, Massachusetts, shortly after the Revolutionary War. In Turner, Marcia was surrounded by an extended network of relatives. Many of the town’s earliest families were from Plymouth County, Massachusetts, and they seem to have kept close contact with their kin back home. Some, like Marcia, even returned to the Kingston area in adulthood, choosing their parents’ or grandparents’ hometown over their own. It was there, in 1842, that Marcia married Peter West McLauthlen as her first husband. Their children went on to found successful tack manufacturing and cranberry harvesting businesses around the South Shore of Massachusetts. You know, real nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century stuff.

Some, like Marcia, even returned to the Kingston area in adulthood, choosing their parents’ or grandparents’ hometown over their own.

The historical record tells little of Marcia’s adolescence, but there is one family story that, if true, could flesh out some of the details from this period of her life:

Marcia hated being up in Turner. I don’t know why, but it’s fun to speculate. Maybe it was the frontier setting, the economic pressures of the short Maine growing season, or a difficult home life. In any event, she wanted out. So one night, as the story goes, Marcia ran off with one of her father’s horses, riding through the night until she reached Kingston. It’s difficult to determine when exactly this midnight ride took place except that it was before her marriage. She must have been in her late teens or early twenties, which sets the story in the late 1830s.

Like a game of telephone across the generations, I suspected the story had morphed quite a bit from the reality. I did some digging (think creative Google searching, not intense research) to assess whether it was possible.

From Turner, Maine, to Kingston, Massachusetts, is about 200 miles, and much too far for Grandma Capen to have made the journey in one night. Maybe the pair made it to Portland, about 50 miles south of Turner, with Marcia expertly managing the horse between a walk and a trot. From there, the journey would have been easier, aided by a system of turnpikes and roads connecting Portland to Portsmouth, Portsmouth to Boston, and finally Boston to Kingston.

Even so, the journey would have taken at least four or five days. I wonder, too, if Marcia didn’t run off with some money, because she would have needed it for lodging and to feed herself and her horse. An obvious question, raised by the geography of Marcia’s coastal route, is why she wouldn’t have taken a ship from Portland to Boston, then Boston to Kingston. Maybe she did, but the details were dropped from the story. Better yet, she knew the story of a horse ride would ensure her legacy five generations down the road.

Whether the story is true or not makes little difference. Its value lies in the way that it has shaped my understanding of my long-ago ancestor. When you are left with little more than a few pictures and an array of vital records, you concoct personality where you can. Seeing the conviction that rests in Grandma Capen’s scowl, I am convinced that she made the entire trip – in one night – atop a bionic horse.

Note

Marcia (Bradford) McLauthlen married William Capen in 1887 and died at Kingston 28 January 1911.

About James Heffernan

James earned his BA in history at Boston College. Before joining the NEHGS team, he worked in the conservation department of the John J. Burns Library at Boston College and the research library at Plimoth Plantation. Propelled by his interests in genealogy and history, James spent a semester abroad at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland. In addition to Slavic history, he is very interested in the history of Colonial America and 19th century Massachusetts.

7 thoughts on “A flair for the dramatic

  1. I wouldn’t have wanted to cross any of those ladies, but considering their lives they don’t look too bad. I can’t imagine the grit and determination required by women in those days just to survive much less raise a family. They all awe me!

  2. James,

    I always enjoy your posts for the flavors of humanity and humor that you bring out in your research and tales. I especially like your line of:

    “When you are left with little more than a few pictures and an array of vital records, you concoct personality where you can.”

    And to this I might add – “And why the heck not?”

    Like you, I have little doubt that Marcia made it in one night. As I recall, bionic horses were quite the rage in 1835. Silly folks who don’t believe are simply those who “do not know.”

    Great fun –
    Jeff

  3. i wonder if she had relatives, or friends from church, who helped her along the way. She may have had friends who found her a place to stay once she reached Kingston.
    Young women 190 years ago had no legal rights or protections. Whatever happened to her that convinced her it was better to risk death than stay in Maine must have been traumatic.
    She was a very courageous young woman. i hope you can find more of her story; and share it.

  4. She didn’t take a ship because a ship wouldn’t serve as transport once she got there. And a horse is good companionship and oh so much more fun! I love your post and your wild cowgirl grandma!

  5. I loved reading the words you used to tell and explore your family’s story. It inspires me to consider how I might share the story of my 3rd great grandmother’s quilt, since we are not certain which woman created it. Thanks Sally Brown

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