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.

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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.

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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.

Island Roots Raffle Tickets Now On Sale

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Less than a week until Green Turtle Cay’s 2015 Island Roots Heritage Festival

Tickets are now on sale for the annual Island Roots Heritage Festival fundraising raffle. Grand prizes are a Go Pro Hero 3 Silver Edition with memory card, and an unlocked, 128GB iPad Air with WiFi and 4G LTE.

Tickets are $2 each, and will be available all this week at Curry’s Foods in Green Turtle Cay, and at the festival committee booth at Settlement Point May 1 and 2.

This year’s raffle is structured slightly differently than in the past. Instead of one draw for multiple prizes, there will be separate draws for each prize, enabling ticket buyers to choose which prize they’d like to win.

Winners will be announced Saturday night, May 2, at the festival main stage.

I’m proud to say that this year’s raffle prizes were purchased and donated by a group of Green Turtle Cay lovers and second homeowners including:

  • Patti and Mike Mulligan, long-time GTC visitors
  • Gayle Rogers, a GTC lover from Seattle
  • Linda Waller, GTC lover and festival volunteer. (During the Island Roots festival, Linda will be hosting her annual Kentucky Derby party at Sundowner’s. Complete with mint juleps and bourbon balls, the event is a fundraiser for Every Child Counts, an Abaco school for students with learning, developmental or physical disabilities. Bring your fancy hat and don’t miss it!)

It costs close to $50,000 to stage the Island Roots Heritage Festival, and all funds raised through the raffle will be used to defray these costs.

Please support the festival by buying as many tickets as you can!

Searching for Olaus Johansen: An Update

A couple of months back, I wrote about the search for the grave of Olaus Johansen, a WWII sailor who died and was buried on Abaco after his vessel was sunk by a U-boat.

In mid-March, writer and historian Eric Wiberg, a film crew from a Norwegian TV program, and two of Olaus Johansens’s granddaughters travelled to Abaco to try to locate his final resting place.

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Norwegian TV film crew interviews Marcus Davis of Crossing Rocks

Though a non-disclosure agreement prevents Eric from sharing details about the outcome of their search until the Norwegian TV program airs later this fall, he recently sent the following report about their experiences while on Abaco.

“On Sunday the 14th of March, in order to fulfill a 6-year search for a Norwegian sailor buried in southern Abaco during WWII, I met with a film crew from Norway at Marsh Harbour Airport.

Over the next five days, we — the producer, a soundman, a cameraman, and two granddaughters of the deceased sailor whose ship had been sunk by a German U-Boat off Abaco in March 1942 — travelled extensively in the area.

The first day we went to interview an old-timer (Mr. Winer Malone) in Hope Town and got some great footage of the WWII monument and beach there.

We located to Sandy Point, near where we thought the men landed, and stayed at Oeisha’s Resort, where we were very well looked after. Again, we obtained amazing footage of fishermen at Crossing Rocks, the old railway and lumber camp at Cornwall 6, Hole in the Wall Light and environs (the cracked bridge), and scenic Sandy Point itself. We even chartered a boat to see Cross Harbour Creek, which was teeming with sea life, including sharks and turtles.

Everywhere we went we were hospitably looked after — within 2 days it seemed that everyone knew what we were doing. Word gets around quickly in these communities. Amazingly we met a Norwegian woman married to a Bahamian, the son of a Norwegian man and Bahamian mother, and several excellent tour guides and naturalists.

Amanda Diedrick and her contacts Jack Lowe and Alton Lowe provided several phone interviews. Patrick Bethel, Donald Pinder, and Oeisha and her sisters were all extremely helpful, as were Siren and Marcus Davis and Mr. McKinney of Crossing Rocks.

Overall I found it a new and very exciting experience to work with a film crew. Fortunately because the camera crew carried their own equipment and generally minded their own business, we did not “stand out” as much as I thought we would, and people were comfortable to let us just do our job.

The Norwegians were great company – good humored and hard working – and we decamped to “Eric’s Pub” in Sandy Point to go over the day each evening, and often swam in the lovely beach opposite Oeisha’s.”

Once the Norwegian program airs, Eric promises to send a link to it (hopefully with sub-titles) and to share with us what, if anything, the search party found.

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