Catherine Jones Thomas

Part I

According to A.P. Rose in his book “Lyon County, MN, 1884-1912,” “Benjamin B. and Catherine (Jones) Thomas, were two of the best-known residents of southern Lyon county. They were natives of Wales, who came to America at the ages of nineteen and twelve years, respectively. They were married in Allegany County, Maryland, and there all their children, excepting Ruth, were born. The children of the family are Mrs. William Huges of Garvin; Ann (Mrs. Richard Huges), deceased; Benjamin F.; James J. of Tracy; and Joseph B. of Garvin. The family came west in 1860, living in Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, and Blue Earth County, Minnesota before coming to Lyon County with ox teams, and settlement was made on Section 4, Custer Township. The father took as a homestead claim the northeast quarter of the section. A log house, with shake roof and puncheon floor, was built on the place and in that the family lived for some time. No railroad had yet penetrated the county, and during the first winter Benjamin Thomas made five trips by ox team to Lake Crystal to bring in materials and supplies. Both parents died on the Custer homestead, the father in 1884, the mother in 1892.” They are buried in Bethel Cemetery in Custer Township.

Then, according to the C.F. Case, History and Description of Lyon County, Minnesota, published in 1884, “First white settlement of Custer (known as Saratoga at that time) began before the Indian massacre of 1862. But due to the uprising additional settlement did not occur until 1868. The town was organized in 1876 with B.F. Thomas (son of Catherine and Benjamin B.) elected clerk and treasurer. A considerable portion of the population of Custer was of Welsh extraction and the census of the town would probably give about 240 people. The Thomases settled on the northeast quarter of Section 4 in Custer Township,” along the Cottonwood River.

Two diaries of antiquity were discovered by the great, great, great, great granddaughter of Catherine Jones Thomas, Kathy Pleschourt, who in turn lent them to Christine Sartor for the purpose of writing a paper for college credit in March of 1998.

The Lyon County Historical Society gratefully acknowledges the donation of two diaries from Diane Carpentier, of Northfield, and her sister Marilyn, which were written by their ancestor, Catherine (Jones) Thomas. Following is Christine Sartor’s paper:

INTRODUCTION

“According to Catherine’s tombstone, she was born in Wales on Feb. 11, 1823, (there is some confusion as to what her true birth year was, but it was probably 1822 or 1823) and died in Minnesota in 1890 on Aug. 10. The two diaries are most likely part of a series of diaries written by Catherine, but are the only ones that survived the 100-plus years since they were written. The two diaries span as follows and cover nearly five years of Catherine’s life when she was ages fifty-six to sixty-seven: October 1, 1878 to August 31, 1879; July 22, 1885 to May 19, 1889.

At age eighteen, Catherine married Ben Thomas on Feb. 29, 1839, at 8 p.m., according to family records. However, simple calculations reveal that, if the dates are correct, then she would have actually been closer to sixteen or seventeen years old upon her marriage. They were married in Wales and immigrated to a farm near Tracy, Minnesota where they lived in a little log cabin.

For the most part, Catherine was very diligent in making daily entries in her diary, although mostly they were just a few words. Even so, it is possible to get a glimpse of what life was like for this pioneer woman in Minnesota during the last decade or so of her life. The following excerpts attempt to show patterns and make sense of her entries.

HARDSHIP AND WORK ON THE PRAIRIE

October 24, 1878…I do not feel well and still have to work hard…

January 31, 1879…I feel very tierd today…

May 3, 1879…do not fell like work…

July 20, 1886…still hot an dry I wish I was rich so as not to have to work so hard…

October 1, 1886…feel very tierd…

June 1, 1888…had all I could do…

July 1, 1888…very tierd…

August 21, 1888…all work hard I am so tierd can hardly walk

January 4, 1889…fell very tierd and sick…

(English was Catherine’s second language, after Welsh. Understandably, throughout her diary were several misspelled words. They are entered herein as spelled. For example, “tired” was always spelled “tierd” and “here” was always spelled as “hear.”

Throughout the diary of Minnesota pioneer Catherine Thomas there is much evidence of incredible hardship. A typical week in her life as a fifty-six year old woman justifies the following examples of diary entries in which Catherine noted her exhaustion:

April 17, 189…planted potatoes a very plesant day went to help Rees plow

April 19, 1879…work in the garden all day

April 19, 1879…started cleaning house and had to go to Mrs. Alden

At age fifty-six, she planted potatoes AND plowed all in a day’s work, each of which are fatiguing tasks by themselves. The next day she woke up and worked in the garden all day and cleaned the house the following day — her schedule was relentless. In addition to this grueling work schedule was her ongoing daily work. Besides the difficult seasonal work she (also did the following): cooked on a wood-burning stove; hauled water from the river; churned and marketed butter; took care of sheep in the capacity of herding, preparing and selling the wool; milked and tended the cows; cleaned; raised and took care of seven children; cooked for the work crew; and played a very dynamic role in the community — probably as a midwife.

(To be continued)

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