When the large family of Elijah Bettis Jr. decided to move west in 1805, they were among the richest residents of Moore County, North Carolina. Elijah Jr. was recognized as a “trained medical doctor” (more on that later,) and either he or his son Elijah III was keeping company with the elite of Moore County in the Pansophia Lodge of Masons.
But at the same time, the true gentry of the lowcountry were beginning to move west into Moore County. In these eyes of those new arrivals, the Bettises were still merely yeoman farmers, whose backcountry manners did not allow them to associate with the better sort of people. An agent attempting to sell a large house in their neighborhood described it as “remote from all suitable society.” A few years after they left, a local writer exulted that “The Society on Deep River is respectable the old Settlers have given way to men of property Decency & Character.”
Arriving in the remote southeast corner of Missouri, Dr. Bettis’ three sons transformed themselves into the leading citizens of a town that they themselves had founded. The family was close-knit; both of the sisters who had migrated with them named their first three sons after their brothers, Elijah, Ransom, and Overton, rather than after their own husbands. But the brothers did not return the compliment. Their daughters received fancy “literary” names: Cinderella, Charnelcy, and Narcissa. And then there was “Arthurey” or “Harriethusie” Bettis, born in 1824, whose parentage is unknown but who may have been Overton’s illegitimate daughter. “Arethusa” is the name of a nymph in Greek mythology and the title of a poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley, still almost unknown at the time of Arthurey’s birth. Although it is unlikely that any Bettis ever read a line of Shelley, somewhere on the frontier they had crossed paths with someone with a classical education, and borrowed some of it.
The opening of the trans-Mississippi frontier gave settlers like the Bettises a chance to redefine themselves, to stake a claim to a higher social status than their former communities had allowed them. The names of their daughters were one way of asserting that status, to establish that not only were they finally respectable, but that some of them had actually read a book.Share