“The Stolen Boy” is a fascinating story that has been handed down through my family. The main character’s name is never revealed, but there are several details in the story that prove it describes the life of my 3X great-grandfather, Ambrose Bowen Epperson. I am almost certain that Ambrose is also the author of the story, although the evidence for that conclusion is a bit more circumstantial. I will be devoting a series of blog posts to a historical and genealogical analysis of the story. The text of the story will be shared exactly as I received it, including all misspellings and grammatical errors.
In the fall of 1826, the step-father took the two brothers and four sisters back to Kentucky and got them good homes among their relations and friends. This Stolen Boy went to live with his brother, J. Time rolled on and this brother, J, was hard run. He would buy boat loads of corn, pork, chickens, etc., build his boat and run down the river to market. No railroads in those days so the market was down on the Ohio or the Mississippi River. At one time this brother, J, had a boat load of marketing and somewhere near the mouth of the White River, the boat run on a snag and sank, so he lost all. That trip broke him up.
About that time, the oldest brother moved to Ohio, so J stayed in the same neighborhood and had so much bad luck and sickness – the old fashioned shaking ague – that he was very hard run for a long time. In 1829, one of the brothers, S, had worked out his allotted time at his trade in the town of F, in Kentucky, had set up the business for himself and commenced corresponding with an old playmate of early days and through him learned that his brother, J, had a hard time in Housier. So they put their heads together to steal the little brother (the subject of this narrative) knowing or believing that his brother, J, would never give up for the little fellow to leave him. In the spring of 1830, the brother, S, came over to Housier on purpose to steal the little brother, but the brother, J was gone down the river as a hand on a boat. Not knowing when he would return, the brother, S, would not attempt the theft that time. So he and his friend lay still until the next spring.
(to be continued)
A Family Divided
In the previous excerpt, the author says that the two oldest brothers married and settled near their mother. This apparently refers to George Muir Epperson and John Barnett Epperson. After their mother’s death, the “Stolen Boy” (Ambrose), who would have been eight years old at the time, went to live with his brother John Barnett Epperson. The remaining children were taken back to Kentucky by their step-father. The fact that it says the step-father got them good homes with friends and relatives seems to indicate that the siblings did not all stay together in a single home. I can’t help but wonder why Ambrose was singled out by his mother to remain with his brother John. Perhaps Ambrose and John had a particularly close relationship. It’s also interesting that the mother didn’t ask her oldest son, George, to care for Ambrose. The reason could be as simple as George not being present before she died. Or perhaps there were family dynamics that led to her decision. George moved to Ohio not long after his mother’s death and is not mentioned again in the story.
If the dates in the story are accurate, Ambrose should have still been living with John in Indiana when the 1830 census was taken. I did find a John Epperson (presumably the 20-30 year old male in the household) living in Redding Township, Jackson County, Indiana. In addition to a 20-30 year old female and two children under the age of 5 (one boy and one girl), there is a boy in the 10-14 year age range (the right age to be Ambrose).
The brother referred to as “S” was almost certainly Squire Boone Epperson, the third oldest of the brothers. He was probably named for Squire Boone, a younger brother of Daniel Boone. Squire Boone was one of the first settlers of Shelby County, Kentucky where the Eppersons once lived.
In 1829, when Squire Epperson first appears in the “Stolen Boy” story, he would have been about 19 years old. The phrase “had worked out his allotted time” probably means that Squire had served some type of apprenticeship to learn a trade. That is, he would have agreed to work for a certain amount of time in return his training. He probably would have received room and board and may or may not have been paid wages. Such an arrangement might have been a necessity for an orphaned teenager.
Unfortunately I have not been able to determine what trade Squire Epperson learned in the town of “F”, or even what town “F” refers to. My best guess would be Frankfort, the capital of Kentucky, which isn’t very far from Shelby County. In the 19 Oct 1831 Frankfort Argus newspaper I found a notice of a letter for S B Eperson (sic) at the Frankfort post office. However, I could not locate Squire Epperson in the 1830 census. This probably means that he was living in someone else’s home at the time and was not considered a head of household.
Early settlers in Indiana and other Midwestern states often had a surplus of agricultural products, but no nearby market for them. Their solution was to build flatboats and take the produce to markets downriver, often as far as New Orleans. Thousands of these boats made the journey each year, manned by young men like John Epperson. Abraham Lincoln made two flatboat trips to New Orleans as a young man, one in 1828 and one in 1831. It’s fun to imagine that John and Abe might have bumped into each other along the way!
Alfred Waud [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Flatboats were rectangular craft, usually built of poplar or oak. As the name implies, the bottom of the boat was flat. The deck was partly or completely covered by a cabin to shelter livestock and the crew (in separation partitions if they were lucky). A average-sized boat might measure 16x55 feet, while large ones could be 100 feet long. Long oars called sweeps were mounted on each side and an even longer steering oar was located in the back. A 14x53 foot replica flatboat (below), built in 2009, can be viewed at the historic Netherland Inn in Kingsport, Tennessee.
By Thomas R Machnitzki (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
The cargo items mentioned in the story – corn, pork and chickens (probably live ones) – seem to have been among the most common products transported on flatboats, although many other types of goods were shipped as well. The journey from Indiana to New Orleans on a flatboat took one to three months. These boats were only practical for downstream travel, so they were usually dismantled and sold for lumber at the end of the trip. Many young boatmen returned to their homes on foot, since the price of steamboat travel was too expensive. This return journey took another three or four months, meaning that the men might be gone from home for many months.
Not all flatboat journeys were successful. Submerged trees, thieves, and other boats were common hazards faced on these trips. When John Epperson’s flatboat hit a snag and sank, the loss of so much cargo would have been catastrophic. It seems as if John could no longer afford to finance his own boat trips and had to resort to being a “hand” on other people’s boats. This would have been less risky in a financial sense, but also much less profitable.
The “Shaking Ague”
The story refers to John Barnett Epperson’s illness as “the old fashioned shaking ague”. This almost certainly means that he suffered from malaria. Today, malaria is a disease we associate with tropical regions, but that was not always the case. Malaria is thought to have been introduced to the Americas as a result of European settlement and the slave trade and became endemic throughout much of the United States. Even in the late 1800s, malaria was a problem in the central and eastern United States, particularly in areas near waterways. The Eppersons lived and farmed very close to the White River. John also regularly traveled the rivers by boat, so he was probably at high risk of exposure to malaria-carrying mosquitos. Of course, at that time, no one knew that mosquitos were the vector for malaria. The connection to water and low-lying areas had been noted, but it was believed that unhealthy air in such places was to blame. In fact, the word malaria comes from an Italian term meaning bad air – “mala aria”. Mosquitos were finally identified as the culprit in the late 1800s and malaria was eradicated from the United States by 1951.
Teresa is the the owner of KinSeeker Genealogy Services. She has a Ph.D. in Biology and a lifelong fascination with genealogy. She been researching her own family history for over 20 years and loves helping others "find their stories."
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