Thursday, April 30, 2009

Rebecca Johnston I, 1805-1807, the lost child

Last month, I ended my post on Stephen Johnston by stating that his sister, Elizabeth, would be the focus of the second post in the series on the Johnston children. In doing so, I did disservice to the Johnston's second child, a little girl who lived less than three years. In the annals of history, this is but a heartbeat - if that. Still, Rebecca was once a living, breathing, laughing and loving child and as such, deserves to be remembered.

And so, here is the story of Rebecca Johnston I.

John and Rachel Johnston's second child, Rebecca, was born September 03, 1805 at Fort Wayne in the Indian Territory (present day Fort Wayne, IN). Like her sister, Elizabeth, it can be assumed that Rebecca was born in the safety of one of the fort's blockhouses, though this is not known for certain. Of all the Johnstons' children we know the least about Rebecca. According to the family Bible, she died April 26th, 1807 at the tender age of 2 years, 7 months and 23 days. Fort Wayne, like any far-flung frontier outpost, was filled with sickness, or what were known as 'billious' fevers. In a letter dated 1804, John Johnston states that ‘for twelve months I had it with scarcely any interruption, every summer it is looked for as regular as the season comes. Nothing but my poverty and the circumstances of the Secretary of War having placed me here would have induced me to continue at this place on account of its unhealthiness.’ Another letter of the same time relates that his wife, Rachel, has also been ill. Most likely, the baby, Rebecca, died of one of these fevers.

When one studies the past, it quickly becomes apparent that the death of a child was not an uncommon thing. In fact, it was to be expected. The average for the era the Johnstons lived in was that half of a family's children would die under the age of six. So did that make the loss any easier to accept than it is today? A letter of John Johnston's recently found and transcribed seems to answer that question. It is written to his daughter, Mary Reynolds, and dated 1852. After speaking of the recent burial of her brothers Robinson and Stephen, and of her younger sister, Margaret (all of whom died within three years of each other in the 1840s), John states: 'All my loved dead are there now in one enclosure, except that dear child who died at Fort Wayne 50 years ago, and which I once endeavored in vain to recover, the War of 1812 having obliterated all localities.' Fifty years had passed, but John Johnston still regretted having to leave Rebecca behind.

There is a marker in the family cemetery with Rebecca's name on it. In this way, John Johnston made certain his eldest daughter, brief as her life was, would never be forgotten.

Next time: Elizabeth Johnston Jones

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