Families are… complicated

We think that now, in the days of serial divorces and changing genders, that families are complicated and messy. It has always been so, but in different ways in different times and places.

I came across a memory this morning on FamilySearch that started me down a path of unpleasant discovery. I’m both unsurprised and horrified by what I found, but the truth about our ancestry always provides an opportunity to also reflect, to count our own blessings, and be determined to improve on the past.

The story was of a Madgie Jemima Bowers. She’s 36 years old, never married, born in Tennessee to Rev. John Leonard Bowers and Martha in 1886. She has 6 brothers and a sister, Kate. She falls pregnant out of wedlock. The brothers were so upset with Madgie (of course, no mention of the baby’s father…) that they kicked her out of the house. Reverend John had passed away twenty years earlier, and we don’t know how her mother Martha felt about this. Her sister Kate had married and took pity on Madgie, taking her in. However, both Madgie and the baby died in childbirth.

Decades later, descendants in the area are talking and learn that Madgie’s headstone was found on a family property. Whether she was actually buried there, we don’t know, but when Madgie’s relative learned of this, she moved the headstone near her parents’ memorials in the Bowers cemetery.

My heart went out to Madgie for being treated this way, though I knew this was typical for unwed mothers until only the past 30-40 years. I also notice that her mother’s maiden name was Slemp–my unusual name! So, I had to dig in and find out more. Unfortunately, what I learned only made the picture worse.

Madgie was the 24th of 26 children born to Reverend John. His first wife, Mary, bore him 11 children in 16 years, dying at the age of 37. His second wife, Eliza, was 18 years younger and had 7 more children, dying in childbirth at the age of 28. His third wife, is Martha Slemp–27 years younger! She has 8 children and fortunately lives for 43 years after Reverend John’s death in 1902.

I know this wasn’t unusual for 19th century Tennessee, so I know my views are tainted with presentism, but that doesn’t make it any easier to swallow the fact that what I would consider to be an inconsiderate man is my 3rd Great-grandfather. Something else caught my attention though… how COULD he be my direct-line grandfather, if Martha’s maiden name was Slemp? What’s going on here?

Calvin Slemp, obviously a Civil War veteran

It turns out that Martha (Rev John’s 3rd wife) is the first-born of a Calvin Slemp–the scary looking guy to the right. Eleven years later, Calvin’s last-born (John) married Rev John’s 14th child (Sarah) from his 2nd wife, Eliza. That makes both Calvin Slemp and Rev John my 3rd great-grandfathers, and it also makes Martha AND her poor daughter Madgie in the story at the beginning of this post my 2nd great-grandaunt!

No wonder the Appalachians have the reputation they do for small gene pools.

So, what’s my takeaway?

This is Mother’s Day in the UK. As I think about the sacrifices these women made, the repression and suffering they endured… my heart just aches. Knowing that each of these mothers could’ve been treated with the respect and honor that my dad had for my mother… what a waste. An obituary online for Reverend Bowers says that he was “a man of clean character.” I certainly hope so. What I’d like to learn more of are the heroic stories of the women in his life. I’m sure there are many.

I did find another memory on FamilySearch of Madgie’s mother, as evidence of the stories I know are out there somewhere. She’s described by her granddaughter as “a dignified person, “marvelous cook, loved all her children very dearly. Loved God and read her Bible constantly. Well-educated. Spotlessly clean in all aspects of dress, house, etc. Lovely snow white (natural wavy) hair.”

My takeaway is to be grateful that I’ve learned to love and respect my mother and my wife as best I can, and I hope I can do more to preserve their stories for my daughters and granddaughters.


  1. It was definitely a man’s world back then. Hallelujah for contraception being widely accepted now! Those poor women’s bodies just gave out. It’s like The Giving Tree. Give until they are gone.
    What an interesting find, Chris!
    Oh by the way, Paul wants you to add him to your list of email recipients for your blog.

  2. Thank you for putting this together into a larger story with some perspective. I am also grateful for the good example our Dad. With very few, but carefully spoken words, he helped me choose my husband wisely. He wanted me to marry someone who loves respects me. And that I did!

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