Sunday, January 8, 2017

Annette Louise Willson

View from the front porch of Mount Pleasant

     James Willson was born in Scotland about 1715. When he and his brother Moses were still quite young, they immigrated to Ireland with their parents. Soon the Willson family laid plans to sail to the American colonies, where other family members had already settled in Pennsylvania. The Willsons safely boarded the ship that was to take them there, but tragedy struck while still near the western coast of France. The ship hit a reef, took on water and sank. Many of the crew and passengers lost their lives, including the parents of James and Moses. Another ship nearby, also making way to America, came to the rescue of the survivors, including the now orphaned Willson brothers, who were brought to Philadelphia. The Willson relatives already in Pennsylvania were contacted, and they raised the two boys as their own. Moses appears to have remained in Pennsylvania, while James made his way south up the Shenandoah Valley to Augusta County and what would become Rockbridge County. [1]
     James Willson bought 700 acres "of government land," presumably part of the Borden Grant, and in 1756 built a house on what he called "Mount Pleasant." After James' death in 1809, part of this land went to a daughter, who sold it to a family named Scott. Ultimately, James' grandson, Thomas, bought it from the Scotts, and Mount Pleasant remained a Willson property until his death in 1857 [2].

Map detail of Rockbridge County, c. 1863

     In the Civil War-era map detail shown above, Fairfield can be seen at the bottom of the image. The red line running obliquely just above it is the Valley Turnpike, modern Route 11. Just above that, "G. W. Houston" indicates the location of Mount Pleasant.

Thomas Willson (1794-1857)

     Thomas Willson married Elizabeth Hopkins Poague in Augusta County on October 9, 1826. They made Mount Pleasant their home, and raised nine children there. The first was Amanda Jane, born in 1828. She married William Lyle Hunter of Augusta County in 1853. Amanda and William had three sons together until her death on May 19, 1866.

William Lyle Hunter (1828-1881)

     Annette Louise Willson was born at Mount Pleasant on October 26, 1829. Annette had two younger sisters. Mary Elizabeth (1831-1888) married Fairfield physician John Alexander McClung in 1854. Elvira Ann (1837-1864) married Samuel Rutherford Lackey in 1860.

Dr. John Alexander McClung (1826-1910)

     Annette had five younger brothers, all of whom fought for the Confederacy, and who will be subjects of future posts here. They were: John Edgar (b. 1833), James Howard (b. 1835), Thomas Mitchell (b. 1840), William Norval--also spelled "Norvell" (b. 1843) and Matthew Doak (b. 1844).

Annette Willson Houston

     The Willsons were people of substance, and could provide their children with the best opportunities available. Annette attended the Ann Smith Academy in Lexington. Her daughter, Lizzie, and at least three of her granddaughters also went to school at Ann Smith.

George Washington Houston

     On May 23, 1850, Annette married George Washington Houston of nearby "Level Loop." The Houstons made their home at Mount Pleasant, which became the property of George after the death of Thomas Willson in 1857.
     George and Annette had seven children:
- Three sons who died in infancy 1851-1861
- Finley Willson, born September 10, 1852.
- Mary Elizabeth "Lizzie," born April 29, 1854.
- William George "Will," born October 31, 1864.
- Ann Eliza "Annie," born October 6, 1866.
     In 1875, Annette's two oldest children were married. In October, Finley married Grace Ann Alexander of "Red House," also known as "Veranda." For the next 10 years, Finley and his family  would stay at both Red House and Mount Pleasant. Lizzie married George Washington Estes Row in December. They lived on the Row farm in Spotsylvania County, where Lizzie lived for the rest of her life.
     The early 1880s brought stress and heartache into Annette's life. In October 1881, two of her grandchildren died. On the 7th, Lizzie's son, Robert Alexander Row died in Spotsylvania. On the 13th, Finley's daughter Grace Ann died. George Houston died of pneumonia at Mount Pleasant on February 18, 1882. This circumstance obliged Annette's son, Will, to return home from the Augusta Military Academy, where he had been a student. That same year, the Valley Railroad prepared the rail bed and laid track through Mount Pleasant. The blasting made necessary by the presence of rock near the ground's surface caused much damage to the Houston property, and several times family members or employees were nearly struck by flying rock. The details of that episode, and Finley's efforts to protect his family, can be read here.
     Annette's two youngest children were married in the 1890s. Will married Mary Frances "Fannie" Ervine in 1894. They made Mount Pleasant their home, and in fact lived there for the rest of their lives. Annie married William Morton McNutt in 1898. They immediately moved to Victoria, Texas, where Morton worked for the railroad. They returned to Rockbridge about 1901.
     By this time, Annette's health began to fail. In a letter written to Lizzie Row on November 19, 1898, Fannie Houston noted that Annette "wished to write herself for the past four days, but after a little note to Annie concluded it was a little too much for her strength. She is sitting up now a good deal now and came to the table this morning but is far from strong yet...I think when Ma gets stronger and becomes interested in things again she will be better. Her nerves are very much unstrung..."

First page of Annette Houston's last letter

     On May 24, 1899, Annette rallied to write her last letter to Lizzie. It is a cheerful note, full of news about herself and other family members. It reads, in part: "My Dear Lizzie, I wanted to write you on Monday but have not been very well for several days but am about as usual again....I have not been to N.P. [3] yet. W[ill] took me to the Snyder school house Sunday week to evening preaching. It was a beautiful evening. I enjoyed the drive and Mr. Wilson [4] preached one of his best sermons and everybody was so cordial. I was sitting near where Mr. Wilson passed when he came in. He stopped and spoke so cordially and after he was through preaching came and shook hands again and told me how glad he was to see me. It was 15 months since I had been to church before and when the weather gets hot will not be able to get there much this summer."
      The end came just a little over a week after she wrote this letter.

Finley's letter to Lizzie, June 2, 1899

     During dinner at Mount Pleasant on June 1, Annette suffered a stroke. Will phoned Finley at "Clifton," his home near Lexington. Finley drove out to Mount Pleasant and did what he could to help. He then wrote Lizzie and gave her the bad news:

"My Dear Lizzie
You will be suprised to receive a letter from me on this letterhead, & still more when I tell you it is 3 o'clock A. M. I had a phone message from Willie about 8:30 last night saying, 'Ma is very ill, come at once.' The line was not working well, so did not learn more until I reached him at one o'clock. Find that Ma was somewhat more complaining than usual yesterday morn, but got up when Aunt Lizzie came about 11 o'clock. At dinner she took her usual place & attempted to serve the coffee. Did not complain, although Aunt E noticed that she was very pale, seemed to turn so suddenly. Then she spoke of having a severe pain in her head, attempted to leave the table & would have fallen if they had not caught her. She was assisted to her chair by the window, declining to go to her room. They gave her camphor, rubbed her hands, etc. when she seemed to get better, but said she 'felt very queerly,' her 'hands & feet tingled & her mind seemed to be leaving her.' Willie thought her better & went on to his work. She walked to the kitchen to warm her feet & talked as usual, played some with Francis [5]. But later Fannie noticed that she was growing worse, so sent for W About six o'clock she lost consciousness--has been so ever since. She does not seem to suffer, but cannot be aroused, her pulse very quick and weak. I fear that the end will come very soon, or may come at any time. She spent part of last week & until Tuesday at Uncle Thos., attended church Saturday and Sunday.  She seemed to have a premonition of paralysis, spoke to W about it on their way home Tuesday eve. We are going to try to reach you by wire as soon as the office opens & will keep you posted..."

     Finley then added this postscript:

     "I wrote you a hurried note early this A. M. & later tried to reach you by wire, to let you know of Ma's condition. There has been no decided change since this morning, she is still just as low as she can be to live, the choking & gasping spells are more frequent & we think each will be the last. We had no idea that she would live through the day, any moment will be her last. She does not appear to suffer pain, is just slowly sinking...
With much love your affectionate Bro

     Annette Houston died early on the morning of June 3, 1899. Her obituary appeared in two local newspapers:

Lexington Gazette, June 7, 1899

     Lizzie took the train from Spotsylvania to attend her mother's funeral and to stay with her brothers for a few days. Later, she pinned flowers from her mother's grave to a piece of paper and kept them for the rest of her life:

     For Will, Finley and Annie (who was still in Victoria, Texas), the loss of their mother was a sad, but not entirely unexpected event, and they would be able to come to terms with her death. For Lizzie Houston Row, however, her own personal nightmare had just begun.
     Annette is buried next to her husband in the cemetery at New Providence Presbyterian Church. The inscription on her headstone reads: "Her children arise up and call her blessed."


[1] "Handwritten notes of Frederick Newton Willson (b. 1855 d. 1939), Professor of Mathematics at Princeton University and author of two books."

[2] Letter of Fannie Houston to Lizzie Houston Row, August 8, 1911.

[3] New Providence Presbyterian Church.

[4] Reverend Goodridge Alexander Wilson, pastor at New Providence 1892-1909.

[5] Son of Will and Fannie Houston.


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