Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

After I wrote in a recent post about my great-great-grandmother, Lilla Carleton, my cousin, Joy Lowe Jossi sent me additional information about Lilla’s mother, Romelda, born sometime during the 1840s to John Lowe and Mary Ann Albury Lowe.

According to Joy, John Lowe (about 1813-1877) was a successful and well-to-do planter. He also owned a ship that delivered goods (probably sisal, pineapples or sponges) to New York and Baltimore. Presumably, he would have also brought dry goods (candles, fabrics, shoes, etc.) back to the cay for sale.

bahamas, abaco, green turtle cay, history, genealogy

Settlement Creek waterfront, Green Turtle Cay, Bahamas, late 1800s.

On one return trip, a young man whose surname was Carleton traveled to Green Turtle Cay. He soon ingratiated himself into John Lowe’s family, marrying his daughter Romelda (“Melda”) and persuading his new father-in-law to give him a large amount of money with which to return to the U.S. to purchase supplies.

To the dismay of the young bride and her family, however, Carleton jumped ship with the money and was never again heard from.

Romelda later bore Carleton’s child, Lilla, who no doubt served as a reminder of her father’s misdeeds. Adding to Romelda’s heartbreak, her siblings blamed her for the loss of a part of the family fortune.

Prevented by Bahamian law from legally remarrying, and with little help from her family, Romelda supported herself and her young daughter by cleaning floors and taking in sewing.

Bahamian records show that Romelda bore more children — three sons for different men, some of whom were married, and she gave each boy the surname of his father.

After reading my earlier post, another cousin, Evan Lowe, also emailed to say that he’d heard Lilla’s mother, Romelda, died from tumours, and that, in addition to Lilla, Romelda had sons with men whose surnames were Sawyer, Curry and Roberts.

Armed with this new information, I returned to the Bahamas Civil Registry and thrilled to find a Romelda who:

  • gave birth to a female child in Green Turtle Cay in 1864, the same year that we believe Ma Lilla was born (no other female children were born to mothers named Romelda around this time);
  • subsequently gave birth to three male children with different fathers, one of whom was a Sawyer and another a Roberts; and
  • died in 1916 of “milky tumours.”

It all fits, right? Just one problem. This Romelda’s surname is not Lowe. Nor is it Carleton. It’s HARRIS.

bahamas, abaco, green turtle cay, lilla, romelda, history, genealogy

Line 7 shows that Romelda Harris gave birth to a female child on November 21, 1864, the year we believe Lilla Carleton was born. interestingly, the child’s father is not named.

bahamas, abaco, green turtle cay, history, genealogy

Line 6 indicates that Romelda Harris gave birth to a male child of European descent on November 23, 1870. The father’s name is listed as Thomas Roberts, mariner.

Romalda Baby 1881

Per line 2 above, on January 5, 1881, Romelda Harris gave birth to a male child of European descent whose father was listed as James Sawyer, mariner.

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Line 1 above shows that on October 26, 1883, Romelda Harris gave birth to a male child of European descent. No father is listed.

Romilda Jane Harris Death

Line 4 shows the passing of “Ramilda” Jane Harris, 69 years. Her occupation is listed as seamstress.

So, either Lilla’s mother Romelda was never a Lowe at all – hard to believe, given the detailed information Joy has been given — or perhaps at some point Romelda married a man whose surname was Harris. Unlikely, since she was unable to obtain a divorce from Mr. Carleton.

Or maybe, to distance herself from her husband’s abandonment, her family’s rejection and the scandal that no doubt ensued, Romelda simply assumed a different last name. It’s possible. But though Green Turtle Cay’s population grew dramatically during the 1800s, the community was still relatively small — fewer than 2,000 people at its peak. Since many would have likely known Romelda personally, and been aware of the circumstances of her life, there was little anonymity to be gained by a name change.

Further complicating this situation, I have yet to find any other reference to the surname Harris during the mid-to-late 1800s in Green Turtle Cay’s online civil records. So, if this woman was indeed born a Harris, where were her parents? Siblings? Aunts and uncles?

Though much mystery surrounds Romelda Harris, one thing is certain – her life was not easy. Not only was she abandoned by her husband, shunned by her family and unable to remarry, but she also suffered the pain of losing a child. Records show that in 1877, Romelda Harris bore another daughter, a child of mixed race, whose father was not named on the baby’s birth record.

Romelda Baby 1877

Line 6 shows that Romelda Harris bore a female child of mixed race on July 29, 1877.

Sadly, that infant died just two years later, on August 14, 1879, of whooping cough. Again, no father is mentioned in the death record.

Death of Romelda Baby 1879

Line 4 shows the death of an “infant child of Romelda Harris” on August 14, 1879.

No doubt there were those who judged Romelda Harris for her choices. And probably some will now. But whether or not she was my great-great-great-grandmother, I feel terribly sad for her. In 19th century Green Turtle Cay, a young woman abandoned by her husband, shunned by family and single-handedly raising her children would have had very few options. Her choices — if we can even call them that — were likely made out of loneliness, humiliation and desperation.  Some might have fled the island or worse, chosen a more tragic and permanent exit. But Romelda stayed. That she survived so many hardships, raised four children and lived a reasonably long life is in itself an accomplishment, one for which I admire her.

But was she Lilla’s mother, my great-great-great-grandmother? That I still don’t know for sure. Perhaps the descendants of one of Romelda Harris’ three sons could offer some insight. My next step is to see what I can find out about them — their first names, their children and grandchildren, their lives.

Two steps forward, one step back.

10 thoughts on “Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

  1. Since my grandfather’s people were from Green Turtle, I find all of this very interesting. Are the records above held in Nassau or Green Turtle? And… what is the A for? E is European, M is Mulatto, A ? Abaconian? Thanks, Shelley Malone / hopetowndream@earthlink.net

  2. Could the man have been named Carleton Harris? People may have remembered that he was called Mr. Carleton, but Carleton may have been a first name? Just a thought…

    Sent from my iPad

    >

    • Hi, Priscilla. Thanks for your note. It’s an interesting suggestion, but no, I think his last name was Carleton, because later records of Lilla (i.e., the births of her five kids) show her maiden surname as Carleton, not Harris. Only Romelda shows up as Harris in all the relevant records. I’m on the cay now, so hoping to be able to dig deeper… Will keep you posted. 🙂

  3. Hi Amanda. I suspect that Romelda Jane never married Mr. Carleton but gave her daughter the father’s surname. Just like she did with James B Sawyer and Thomas Roberts. He may have run off because he did not want to marry. We need to keep looking for a birth record of a Romelda Harris (in the 1840s) – just so we can rule it out as a possibility. My. My.

    • Hi, Ann. Thanks for your note. You’re right — we need to find Romelda’s birth record. Perhaps they were only engaged..? Frustratingly, the Bahamas Civil Registry’s online records go back only as far as the 1850s… but I’m in GTC now, and I’m hoping to do some research and see what other records I can come up with.

  4. My wife is fourth generation conch from Key West. Family and friends are Munroe, Roberts, Harris, Crosoe, Tynes, Pinder, Lowe, Curry. Many conchs came from Spanish Wells, Abacos, etc.

    We are chartering from MHH this June, first time sailing in the Bahamas. Looking forward to it!

    • Hi, John. Thanks for getting in touch. Yes, I understand many Key West folks can trace their ancestry back this way. No doubt you’ll visit some of the Abaco Cays… your wife should definitely check out the Wyannie Malone Museum in Hope Town and the Albert Lowe Museum in Green Turtle Cay — she’ll find lots of great information about what life would have been like for her ancestors! Have a wonderful trip, and do get in touch afterwards to let me know how it went!

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