Robert Titus Pence and Elizabeth Conger … their names written in faded ink on a colorful page, along with their children. Nearly 175 years have passed since they wed in 1847 – but it still speaks. I hear the whispers as I carefully explore the pages, images, and scraps inserted by those long gone.
Robert’s grandfather, Johann Heinrich Bentz, changed his name to Henry Pence when he emigrated to the colonies in 1749, arriving in Philadelphia with his family at age 9 – hard to imagine a journey like that for a little boy. Henry married at age 25 and had at least 16 children, raising them in the colony of Virginia, including Robert’s father, “Judge” John Pence. Born there is 1774, John really was a judge, and eventually settled in Oquawka, IL on the western border, married 3 times and fathered 16 children as well. Just think of how many grandchildren Henry must have had! Robert was born in 1817. After his first wife and infant daughter passed, Robert married Elizabeth Conger in June 0f 1847, and raised their family of 11 children in Oquawka.
“RT Pence 1876” is written on an otherwise blank front page of the leather bound bible, making it nearly 150 years old. It is huge and heavy, worn – perhaps from use, but probably mostly from age. It is difficult to imagine someone reading this by candlelight, carrying it across the continent over generations. The “family record” page is in color, and legible – but the binding is collapsed, pages missing and torn. Like many of the items that have found their way to my files, library and stacks of paper – it is irreplaceable. A reminder of people mostly forgotten except through a few preserved stories and photos with forgotten faces. They speak to me through these once lost treasures – and their unspoken testimony.
After their first child, son Harry, was born, Robert captained a wagon train to Hangtown, California, during the gold rush – now, Placerville. The account of that journey was shared with the readers of the Oquawka “Spectator”, departing in March 1850 and arriving in July. I had always thought that was how his family came to be here in California, spreading west – but I was wrong. He returned home, safely but not richer, and remained for nearly 20 more years – their last child, my great grandfather Arthur Sherman Pence, was born there in 1847. In 1870, Robert and family lived in Kansas, but eventually he bought ranch property in Parkfield, California.
I have always thought it providential that so many pieces of my family history have somehow found their way into the stacks of paper I now sort through, gaining and understanding of how challenging it was for my ancestors to come from other continents here, hoping for a brighter future. It was not easy for any of them, from Germany, Portugal, Scotland and Britain, nor from the family members they married from Spain, Mexico, and other areas of Europe – building new lives, surviving, sacrificing and struggling. Their lives are woven through time into a tapestry whose colors I am just beginning to see – a living legacy across the west and beyond.
The Sutro library here in San Francisco has a copy of a book written by another son of Robert’s, Kingsley Adolphus Pence – who, although married, died childless, but lived a fascinating life. Like me, he developed an interest in writing about his family heritage, and published his book in 1912, now available online as well as in many genealogical libraries, including many photos and anecdotes. Another distant relative, Richard “Dick” Pence, was a pioneer as well, an early advocate of computer based genealogy. He maintained a website about the extended Pence family which I found online, and corresponded with before he passed in 2009. He provided me with the transcription of my great great grandfather’s journey west. It is intriguing to me that two generations at least before me were drawn to understanding their family’s past.
As I turn through the pages of the Bible, I realize I am probably the first in decades to do so. How it came into my Uncle Morley’s hands I am not certain, but I am grateful to have it now. There is a letter from Robert Titus written from Parkfield in 1886 – mostly illegible, to one of his sons. I know that my great grandfather, Robert and Elizabeth’s youngest child Richard, eventually worked for the railroad in California and Oregon, where he met his wife Nellie, one of the pioneer Applegate family. As was the case with many families, unlike his parents, they had only one child – my grandfather, whose two children were my uncle and Mother. There are letters from Arthur to his brother, thankfully typed – and from them I learn that he needed his brother to provide a notarized statement of the Bible as proof of Arthur’s birthdate and citizenship. This would make him eligible for the Railroad Retirement act of 1934, in the depths of the depression – he had remarried and was reaching out for help, and the Bible record of his birth gave him the proof he needed to receive it.
There are also clues to the heritage of Richard Titus Pence wife, Elizabeth Conger, who was little more than a name to me. I find inserted among the pages a copy of the Oquawka Spectator from August, 1902 … describing her passing and burial. There are also two handwritten brochures from her brother, an O. T. Conger, who is mentioned in the newspaper. One appears to be a treatise on “Foreign Missions” that he presented in Lincoln, Omaha, Malvern and New Albany on occasions ranging from 1874 to 1885; another, in very tiny detailed script, is titled “A quiver of arrows” and includes thoughts and stories – apparently a reference for him in developing sermons, as a little digging shows him to have been a respected Baptist minister. I find online his obituary showing he left behind a widow and 3 children – I hope one day to find a descendant who would see these as treasures to preserve of their own heritage.
But it is the remembrance article from 1902 that tells me the most about Elizabeth, her family, and the impact of faith on at least some of her children. Robert had passed in 1889 and she spent her final years with a daughter’s family in Colorado; at the time of her passing, five sons remained alive, and one, Robert Lincoln Pence, accompanied his mother’s body back by train from Colorado to Illinois, to be buried where her husband family had been laid to rest at Rozetta cemetery. As I read the words, the depth of feeling is conveyed in a way that still holds power over 100 years later ..
“And now, in the old grave yard, where are laid her father and mother, where he sisters are laid, where he husband and our father, where her daughters and our sisters are sleeping, in the presence of old associates, the casket, borne by the arms of old friends, is our mother laid. Perhaps we, her sons, may never be permitted to see the graves of those near to us again, but in this old haven of rest, the old burial ground at Rozetta, it seems meet to leave her”.Oquawka Spectator notice of passing of Elizabeth Conger Pence, August 1902
I do not know fully the history of how my ancestor’s viewed faith – many families then, and some now, simply had bibles given to them. So, it is impossible to know what meaning faith had to these souls long gone; whether the Bible was simply a volume to record births, or a source of hope and encouragement. For now, it is time to put it away again, until such time comes as another follows after my quest ends. It and other documents of faith for families over centuries has served many different purposes, and for many today they are of lesser relevance – but the impact of faith itself on their voyages, their quest, reaches into our own even if only buried deep in our DNA. Whatever answers they sought, and found, are not unlike those that many of us have today, in very different times. They too, perhaps even more so, faced an uncertain future, with hopes and dreams, fears and obstacles. The faith of our fathers and mothers may be one we do not share, or even know – but its seeds brought forth our own lives as well. I find comfort in these letters, and these tattered pages, knowing that as they sought strength and guidance to make their way through the challenge of an emerging world, so shall I. So shall, hopefully, we all.