Telling my family's stories
William Henry Ritenour was born to Adam and Emily Ritenour on 15 April 1842 in Water- lick, Warren County, Virginia. This was a tiny town on the edge of what is now the George Washington National Forest, and was situated about 7 miles northwest of Front Royal. Like his father, he made his living as a laborer, mostly chopping wood to clear land and poling barges down the river. On the 1850 and 1860 censuses, he is listed as a wood chopper (Bureau of the Census 1850, 1860). He married a woman named Martha Ellen George, and they had 14 children.
Martha Ellen George was born on 31 Dec 1841 in Warren County, Virginia. Her mother’s name was Matilda, and very little is known about her. In fact, very little is known about Martha’s entire family. On the 1850 census, Martha and her mother are living in the Warren countryside, with a group of people identified with the same last name. Most of the older people are female, and the younger ones appear to be their children. There is no income given for the group, which is hardly surprising since the group was mostly unmarried women with their children. The census taker lists them as ’M’ for ’Mulatto,’ which was marked at the discretion of the census-taker, apparently based more on lifestyle than appearance. It likely indicates that they were aboriginal, since, by the U.S. government’s definition, there were no recognized aboriginal groups in Shenandoah (the tribes there having been exterminated before treaties were signed). Without a recognized treaty, and without a reservation, there were simply ”no indians” in Shenandoah. Hence, legally, the Georges would have to be black or mulatto, if they were not to be considered white. According to her great grandson Elmer Lee Ritenour, Henry married an Indian woman, which seems to be corroborated by the available evidence. Likely, the Georges were some remnant of the Shenandoah aboriginal group (thought to be the homeland of the Siouan language family) or one of the neighbouring group (e.g. the Shawnee or Catawba), who had scattered and intermarried with whites since contact, living a more or less indian-style life, as the situation allowed. Genetic testing of a matrilineal descendant of Martha George would help answer this.
In 1860, Matilda, Martha’s mother, was gone from the household, and has never been located elsewhere. The head of household is now Jonathan W. George, who is listed as a farmer, along with two other men Alphanius and Algerius, who work as a farm hand and a cooper, respectively. Combined, they were making $230 a year, which is much higher than the average of $100 that their impoverished neighbours were managing to make. They are still designated as ’mulatto.’ At this point, Martha, now 19 years old, was even listed as attending school. Like Martha, the rest of the Georges become ”White” on the later censuses, which further suggests aboriginal origin; Black people could very rarely become identified as legally ”white” and fully integrated into society, but it was not at all uncommon for aboriginals.
The identity of Martha Ellen’s father has proved extremely difficult. It was not uncom- mon for women in this position and racial class to have children from multiple men, or to be used for recreation by local men. One of her sons (Andrew Jackson) identifies her name as ’Martha Blackwood’ on his marriage certificate, which would suggest that the Blackwoods of Warren county (who live near them in the 1860 census) may have had some relation to her birth. Descendants of her son Isaac Newton identify her father as named Hale.
The Civil War
When the first battle of Bull Run took place on 21 July 1861, 52 miles from Waterlick, William Henry was not quite 19 years old. He was mustered into the Company F of the 4th Regiment, 7th Brigade of the Virginia Militia the day after the battle, on 22 July 1862. His commanding officer was Capt. Abraham Hupp, who served under Colonel W. A. Maupin, commander of the 4th Regiment. This militia was under the ultimate command of General Thomas J. ”Stonewall” Jackson, as the Valley District of the Army of Northern Virginia. William Henry was given thee rank of 2nd Lieutenant, and served in this militia until March 31st, 1862. During that time, his militia was involved in the Shenandoah Valley campaign of General Jackson, which was fought directly through his home area, from Strasbourg to Winchester and Front Royal. He was paid $240 in confederate money for his service.
On 16 Jan 1862 when William Henry was 19, he married Martha Ellen George in Warren County, Virginia. This took place while Henry was in the militia, and Thomas Ashby (a relative of the famous general Turner Ashby) signed the certificate. The marriage is listed as taking place first at the house of William George (possibly the Jonathan W. George on the 1860 census), then this was crossed out (in pencil) and replaced with Jonathan Ritenour. William Henry had a cousin named Jonathon (son of Daniel and Lucinda Rutter) living nearby, who may have been the one identified here. This is the name the minister cites on the return slip for the marriage. According to Elmer Lee Ritenour, this marriage was not approved of by people in the area (family? society?), and it pushed them to leave Warren County. About the time a universal conscription act was passed for the Confederacy, William Henry and the majority of the Ritenour family disappear from Virginia, although two of William Henry’s brothers, Thomas Benton and Isaac, both continued to serve in the Com- pany B of the 17th Virginia Infantry. Both men deserted – Isaac in 1861, and Thomas Benton in 1863. While Thomas Benton went permanently AWOL, Isaac was captured by the Con- federates and pressed back into service. He was wounded at the battle of Williamsburg in 1862, and disappears from military records in 1863.
The Ritenour clan scattered in every direction. While his parents went to Berkeley County, West Virginia, William Henry headed for Pennsylvania, probably Franklin County about 1864. There, Martha gave birth to Thomas Grayson. Confederate troops regularly pushed north into this area from 1862 through 1864, with the battle of Antietam taking place close by. The central towns of this county were sacked and burned by Confederate troops in 1864. By this time, it was clear that the General Sheridan’s scorched-earth campaign in the Shenandoah meant that there was nothing to go back to Virginia for. The family then moved to the Clear Spring, Washington County, Maryland area, where Andrew Jackson was born in 1867.
In Maryland, William Henry worked as a day laborer, for poverty wages of $100 a year.
Isaac and Thomas Benton were also living in the vicinity of Clearspring at that time. To my knowledge, none of the Ritenour extended family stayed in Warren County, which was essentially destroyed by Abraham Lincoln’s 1864 strategy of carrying out collective punishment on the South. First hand accounts of the time indicate that there was wide scale looting, burning, and killing by Union troops, with most livestock and property being confiscated or destroyed. For people like the Ritenours, who had lived in the lowest level of poverty in an impoverished area for 100 years, there was really no good reason to go back.
In 1874, Henry and Martha moved 760 miles to Illinois, along with the rest of the Ritenours. The Binkley story of how this happened does not say whether Henry and Martha were on the book cart that came into Cherry Grove, Illinois, but whatever way they got out to Illinois was likely similar. Henry and Martha moved out to section 36 Woodland township, to the north of Mt. Carroll township.
They took out a loan to buy a (comparatively) tiny plot of land and built a house by the river, away from the main road. This is a highly rural area even today, consisting of rolling farmland and river hollows with dense foliage.
They joined the Hickory Grove Dunkard Brethren church in the town now called Wacker, in Carroll County. This church had been founded in 1858, and was one of only two churches in the rural area. Henry grew vegetables, which he loaded on his wagon and sold to the businesses in Savanna, which was about 8 miles away. This was called ’Truck farming’ at the time.
By 1900, their land was still mortgaged and most of the children had moved away and/or gotten married, leaving only one daughter and various grandchildren at home with Henry and Martha. Their daughter Nora [a.k.a. Laura] had married a Myers and lived close by.
Henry was in his 60’s by the first decade of the 20th century, and it had been 60 years of back-breaking labor. He could likely not work as hard as he had in the past, and Martha’s health was failing. By 1908, Henry had sold his land to his son-in-law, Jacob Buckwalter who had married Emily Matilda in 1895.
Martha died on 12 February 1909 from an unspecified disease. She was buried in the family plot at Hickory Grove Cemetery, behind her church. A long obituary ran on the front page of the Savanna newspaper the following day. It made no mention of anything particularly useful about her or her life. Her own family background is completely unmentioned.
After Martha died, Henry and a few of the remaining children moved to the Mt. Carroll Township, taking out another mortgage for a small plot of land. He continued truck farming, with the help of his children and grandchildren.
Around this time, Henry’s health began to fail, and he relied more on his children and grandchildren for help. He lost his youngest son, Benjamin, at the age of 30 on 20 July 1911 when he fell from a hay mow and was impaled on a pitchfork. Benjamin had helped out with the farming quite a bit, and left a new wife (Edna Grace Devine) and small child (Donald). Henry thus depended more on the extended family for help. One of the Ritenour descendants, Mary A. Falls, remembers:
Martha was the most religious and never put a meal on the table without a very long grace before eating. Henry was very strict and was sure that all his children and grandchildren headed straight for perdition. He tried, rather unsuccessfully to rule with an iron hand. … Martha was a very quiet woman, hardly ever a word out of her unless to give directions about something or to say a prayer. … When she was dying, she never complained, just got smaller, thinner, and quieter. … Despite his strictness and stern ways, Henry really loved Martha because he was so grieved when she died. … Annie [Smith], who kept house for her father after Martha died, was always hard at work, either cooking, sewing, or cleaning. She and her brother [Benjamin] (and any grandchildren that happened to be around [e.g. Erve]) had to help pick vegetables in the truck garden so that their grandfather could take them by wagon into Savanna and sell them to the hotels and restaurants.
By the time he turned 77, Henry could no longer work, and he gave up his land and moved in with his new son-in-law, Jesse Smith, who had married his daughter Anna in 1918. By 1916, Henry had developed some kind of digestion problems, and had pernicious anemia. He died 25 February 1920 at the home of Jesse Smith. He was buried 29 February 1920 in the Hickory Grove Cemetery next to Martha. A vague obituary ran in the Savanna newspaper two days later:
From the Savanna Daily Times, 27 February 1920: Henry Ritenour, of whose illness we have made frequent mention, died at the home of his son-in-law, Jesse Smith, just
south of Wacker, Wednesday evening at 6 o’clock, at the age of 78 years. He had been a sufferer for a long time from stomach trouble and a complication of diseases. Mr. Ritenour is survived by several children and has a number of relatives in this city. The funeral will be held from the Hickory Grove Brethren Church at Wacker, Sunday afternoon at 2 o’clock, burial to be made in the cemetery near the church.
There is no Civil War marker on the grave, and, at the end of his life, people thought he was from Pennsylvania – a family legend that persists to today. At the end of his life, he could neither read or write, having never attended school of any kind. At the end of his life, he had approximately $1,000 of net worth, consisting mainly of an $800 note, likely the total equity he had gained in his property before he sold it.