Women of the Border: Mary Kelly Bettis

Missouri pioneers

Missouri pioneers

The life of my great-great-great grandmother, Mary Kelly Bettis, spanned three stages in the evolution of the southern border.  She was born into a family of hunters, trappers and Indian traders, who settled on the St. Francis River, in the remote southeast corner of Missouri, in the first years of the 19th century.  Isaac Kelly, her father or perhaps her brother, settled at a ford on the river, on the trail that ran southwest from St. Louis to Texas, and raised enough corn and cotton to feed and clothe his family.  His father Jacob Kelly, who arrived a few years later, owned a few cattle and horses, and a few slaves.  Ten or fifteen years later, when game had become scarce, the family moved on, west and south to the White and Current rivers, where Isaac traded with the relocated Cherokees.

Travelers who described such hunter-trader families painted a picture of poverty and squalor:  ten or a dozen people living in a single log cabin, with dirt floors and minimal furniture, and a diet consisting only of fried pork  and corn bread.  From her earliest childhood, Mary would have cared for the animals and worked in the fields and in the garden, in addition to cleaning, carding, spinning, and weaving the cotton for the family’s clothes.  She never learned to read or write.

At around the time that her family moved on, her own life changed.  The Bettis family, prosperous farmers and the owners of several dozen slaves, arrived from North Carolina in 1805, part of the “second wave” of border settlement.  By 1812 the three Bettis brothers, Elijah, Ranson, and Overton, had settled on Isaac Kelly’s abandoned land, cleared and planted more of it, and established first a ferry and then a mill.  Ranson, the middle brother, married Mary in 1811.  By 1818 the settlement, originally known as Bettis Ferry and later as Greenville, was the county seat of the newly established Wayne County, and the Bettises and their relatives were its leading citizens.

Mary’s new home was still a log cabin, but a larger one, perhaps with as many as four rooms and puncheon floors, and enslaved people to do the hard work of running it.  All of the Bettis men were literate, and Mary’s only child, a daughter named Cinderella, was taught to to read and write.  Freed from field work and animal care, Mary would still have been responsible for the management of the house and garden, the smoking of hams and the making of clothes and candles, and the storage and preparation of food.  White and black women on such farms sometimes worked together in a “loom house,” producing the textiles for a now much larger household.  Their children often played together, at least until the enslaved ones were old enough to be put to work.

Seventeen years later the Bettis family moved again, following the Kellys to the junction of the Black and Current Rivers in northeast Arkansas.  The arrival of the steamboats had inspired Ranson with new visions of prosperity.  On a bluff above the Black River he established a trading post, naming his new settlement Bettis Bluff.  When Randolph County was established in 1835, Ranson and his son-in-law Thomas Drew maneuvered to have the town, now renamed “Pocahontas,”  declared the county seat, and donated fifteen city blocks in the town center for the construction of a courthouse and other public buildings.  And Thomas began his climb up the treacherous cliffs of Arkansas politics, becoming Governor of the state in 1844.

When Ranson died in 1842, Mary inherited his two houses and several city lots, along with gardens, an orchard, stables, a store, a mill, a warehouse, the ferry privilege, and sixteen slaves.  The inventory of his personal property included a “barouche” worth $75, plus fine furniture including three writing desks, three looking glasses, a brass clock, two brass candlesticks, a dining table, a set of Windsor chairs, a “sundries cupboard,” a tea service, and a silver watch.   Mary, the Indian trader’s illiterate daughter, supported her eloquent but improvident son-in-law until she died in 1852.

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