A stone monument in Oak Hill Cemetery in Red Bluff, California bears the simple words, “Marietta, wife of M. Merritt” and “Rosanna, daughter of M. and M.E. Merritt” with their birth and death dates engraved, telling us that Marietta died at 22 years old and Rosanna at 21 days. Who were Marietta and Rosanna and what circumstances led to such early deaths for mother and child?
Marietta E Henshaw was born in 1856 in Iowa to James Henshaw and Margaret Trullinger. James was a farmer and carpenter born in Ohio in 1815. Margaret was born in 1821 in Fountain County, Indiana. She was from a strong German family whose ancestor, Hans Michael Trullinger, emigrated from Germany to Pennsylvania in 1743 as part of the Palatine German Immigration to the United States. Each coming generation would see that family move further West, from New Jersey to Ohio, to Indiana, Iowa, Nebraska and then to California.
Marietta’s father served in Company L, Illinois 16th Cavalry Regiment and died January 20, 1864 at Camp Nelson, Nicholasville, Kentucky during the Civil War. He is buried in Kentucky, Marietta was 8 years old and her sisters Elizabeth and Sarah were 9 and 12. Life on that Iowa farm must have been very difficult for Margaret Henshaw with a farm to run and three young children who still needed mothering.
On September 24, 1873 Marietta married Marion Merritt in Davis County, Iowa. In less than two years, Marion and Marietta would leave their families behind in Iowa and make the long and difficult trek to Red Bluff, Tehama County, California. We don’t know if they traveled by wagon over land or if they were able to take a train from Iowa to Sacramento and shorten the long overland trip. By whatever means they arrived, they would not be in California alone, Marion’s oldest brother, George Merritt was already living in Cottonwood, Tehama County, California and he and his children were eagerly awaiting the couple’s arrival.
Marion and Marietta settled on a ranch four miles north of the town of Red Bluff on the Sacramento River. It was here they started their new lives in California. How different the area must have seemed as compared to that in Iowa, with the fruit trees and green grass in winter. Winter wheat was a major crop in the area at the time. Growing wheat in winter was unheard of in the Midwest. Marietta often visited with her neighbor, Mrs. Pierce who lived less than a mile from the ranch on the Humboldt Road. In 1875, according to the book “History of Davis County, Iowa” Marion was said to be “engaged in lumbering and later farming” in Red Bluff.
Sadly, Marion’s brother George would die in 1876 at the age of 44, leaving behind six children, three of them under the age of eighteen. He is buried in the Cottonwood Creek Ranch Cemetery. George was able to send a letter to his sons in the lumber camp asking them to come down the mountain to see him. He had been sick with chills since he had returned from the camp three weeks earlier. Writing to his son Frank he said, “I am in an offel fix I think”.
On Wednesday, June 26, 1878 Marietta gave birth to their daughter Rosanna. It is likely that she had other pregnancies during their 5 years of marriage but this is the only one recorded. Tragically, the baby would die only weeks later. According to friends and family, from that time on Marietta would be subject to bouts of depression. One can only imagine the doubts and self-incriminations Marietta placed upon herself and we can wonder whether the isolation of the area and the times played a part in coming events.
On Friday, December 6, 1878 Marietta walked through the fields to her neighbor’s house one final time. She spent most of the day visiting with Mrs. Pierce and the newspaper reports that as she left, she casually asked Mrs. Pierce for some strychnine because the rats had become “somewhat troublesome” around her house. At 4 pm, her husband and a ranch-hand heard loud screaming coming from the home and rushing in, they found Marietta alone, screaming and thrashing and suffering greatly. The ranch-hand quickly ran to town stopping first at the nearest house and sending Mrs. Pierce back to help Marion. Dr. G.W. Westlake returned within an hour but there was nothing that could be done. Mrs. Pierce told the doctor about the poison. Marietta was 22 years old, her sad death chronicled in The Daily People’s Cause, Red Bluff’s local paper at the time.
Marietta’s funeral took place on Sunday morning, December 8 at 10 am at her home, the Reverend J.E. Fisher conducted the services. According to the newspaper a large number of friends and acquaintances attended. A large procession passed through town for the final interment at Oak Hill Cemetery. Marietta was buried next to her daughter. The monument in their memories still stands today as a stark reminder of how difficult life was in the 19th century.
Marion left Red Bluff in 1880, he had watched his brother die, his child and finally his wife, there appeared to be nothing more than memories tying him to California. We can only wonder about his last day, did he visit their graves before he left? He returned to Iowa and in 1882 married Magdalena Bircheinier. They had 2 daughters, Ida was born in Missouri in 1884 and died at the age of one year on January 12, 1885. Effie was born in Missouri in 1886 and was three years old when she died on August 25, 1889. Marion Merritt died in a tragic work accident on October 31, 1890 when a falling brick struck him on the head, he was 39 years old.
As Christmas nears, I think of Marietta and how she must have dreaded that first Christmas after the loss of her baby girl. My heart breaks for what she went through and the losses she experienced. Marietta Henshaw was my first cousin 4x removed.
1860 FC Lick Creek, Davis, Iowa; Roll: M653_317; Page 739; Image 227; Family History Library Film: 803317
1870 FC Fox River, Davis, Iowa; Roll: M593_386; Page 68B; Image 142; Family History Library Film: 545885
Ancestry.com. Iowa, Select Marriages, 1809-1992 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc, 2014. Original data: Iowa, Marriages, 1809-1992. Salt Lake City, Utah: FamilySearch, 2013.
Obituary: The Daily People’s Cause, Red Bluff, CA 7 Dec 1878
Ancestry.com. U.S., Registers of Deaths of Volunteers, 1861-1865 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2012. Original data: Registers of Deaths of Volunteers, compiled 1861–1865. ARC ID: 656639. Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, 1780’s–1917. Record Group 94. National Archives at Washington, D.C.
History of Davis County, Iowa: Des Moines: Iowa Historical Company, 1882
Ancestry.com. California, Voter Registers, 1866-1898 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011. Original data: Great Registers, 1866–1898. Microfilm, 185 rolls. California State Library, Sacramento, California.
Newspaper article of Funeral: The Daily People’s Cause, Red Bluff, CA 9 Dec 1878
Ancestry.com. U.S. and Canada, Passenger and Immigration Lists Index, 1500s-1900s [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc, 2010. Original data: Filby, P. William, ed. Passenger and Immigration Lists Index, 1500s-1900s. Farmington Hills, MI, USA: Gale Research, 2012.