As a genealogist, researcher, and great-grandson, I am very fortunate where Jessie Hermans Watson is concerned. For one, she seems to have been surrounded with people who liked to sit for and/or take photographs. And she kept a lot of those photos in an old black-lacquered jewelry box I got to live with for a time, a few years back.
Glancing at her vital stats, one could easily think Jessie was a heartland girl. Born in Wisconsin, married a Methodist minister, raised four kids in Iowa, and lived out her days in Colorado.
All that is true – but she was also an educated girl from Cohoes, New York, who became a country schoolteacher and Directora of girls’ schools in Concepcion and Iquique, Chile.
Her father Daniel’s ancestors came to New Amsterdam in 1660; her mother Ellie left Ireland as a toddler in 1851.
Jessie was born in Walworth County, Wisconsin, one would surmise, because Daniel chose that moment to take pregnant Ellie to meet his brothers who had settled there. Jessie was born in the village of Genoa Junction on April 6, 1876 – after which the family promptly returned to Cohoes.
Jessie met Adelbert Seymour Watson (“Bert” for our purposes here) in 1893 at a Cohoes church picnic. She wrote on the reverse of this photo: “Where Mr. Watson and I began our 40-year collaboration.” Both are dutifully X’d – she, front row right; he, standing extreme right.
Though the couple had an “understanding” for several years, Bert didn’t actually propose until he had to. He’d been offered an assistant’s position with a church in Mountainside, New Jersey, which he could manage while finishing his divinity degree at Drew Theological Seminary. Perfect – except the position wasn’t available to single gentlemen. So they married May 24, 1900, and were off to New Jersey. And pretty soon they would be off for a much larger adventure!
Sailing Day – September 1901 – Jessie & Bert in front; Truman (derby hat, left), Jessie May, Josephine, and Arthur (derby hat, right). Arthur was Bert’s brother – within the family, for clarity sake, his wife Jessie was known as “Jessie May”.
Bert and Jessie signed on as five-year missionaries with the Methodist Church in Chile. They were sent to Concepcion College, where Jessie acted as Preceptress (or Directora) of the girls’ school and also its housekeeper. Bert was Director – in charge of it all.
Two children were born in Concepcion: Edmond (1902), who learned as a baby to speak two languages interchangeably; and Kenneth (1904) who did not survive his first year and was buried in Iquique, where the family was transferred in 1905.
Winifred came along in June 1906, and was also a bit on the sickly side. So by the time Jessie became pregnant with Ruth, it was decided she and the children should return to the U.S.A., which they did in October 1907.
I’m forever humbled by the image in my head of Jessie, pregnant and keeping track of two small children during a voyage from Iquique to Panama, a rail crossing of the isthmus (the canal wouldn’t open for another five years), another sea voyage to New York, AND a train trip halfway across the continent to Bert’s parents’ home in O’Neill, Nebraska. Miraculously, Ruth waited until everyone was settled in O’Neill before making her debut in January 1908.
A couple of observations at this juncture: 1) I note that both mother and daughter made (and survived) long and undoubtedly difficult train trips across the country while pregnant. And 2) I’m in love with the photos of the time in O’Neill, when Bert’s parents (Truman and Josephine) finally got to meet their only grandchildren. (I should add, I suppose, that Jessie’s parents were both dead by this time. Ellie died several months after Jessie’s wedding; Daniel died during her time in Chile.)
In July 1909, the family was made complete with the birth of my grandfather, Howard, in a town called Epworth, Iowa.
With Bert as a teacher, principal and/or dean of students for a handful of Methodist colleges in Iowa and Missouri through the 1910s, Jessie was the pillar-of-the-community professor’s wife, mother of four, and erstwhile cymbalist with the Epworth International Concert Co.
When the last of Bert’s colleges shut down and he was assigned pastorates in Lamont and Plainfield, Iowa, Jessie was the consummate minister’s wife.
After Bert’s untimely death in 1934, she settled into life as Granny (as my dad knew her), and went to live with Ruth’s family in Longmont, Colorado. Winifred’s family was not far up the road in Hamilton, Montana, and Howard’s was a bit further east, in Valley City and Minot, North Dakota. Edmond lived here and there, working for the railroad-driven Postal Service – but he always seemed to be on hand when there was a family gathering.
Jessie and Edmond with Ruth’s family (left – husband Ken Rawson holding daughter Claudia) and Winnie’s family (husband Lloyd Goodman, with sons Richard and Gene). Hamilton, Montana – circa 1940.
In Longmont, Jessie was very much a part of her church community, even giving the occasional talk on her time and experiences in South America. She died on February 10, 1946, a few weeks short of her 70th birthday.
(I’ll do a Part 2 on Jessie at some point – she left a stack of writings and correspondence that gives even more insight into this smart, strong and loving lady.)