Martha Jane Ousley
Martha Jane Ousley Branson was a pioneer of Mariposa County, CA. By the time of her death in 1908 at nearly eighty years of age, she was the matriarch of a substantial clan and enjoyed the admiration of her community. Her prominence ensured that certain facts about her were well known, including such basics as these: She was a native of Tennessee who came of age in Missouri. She married John Sevier Branson, who became a 49er. In the early 1850s, she joined John in California via the Isthmus of Panama, bringing along three small sons. After settling in Mariposa County, John prospered as a gold miner and by the late 1860s he and Martha acquired a large cattle ranch north of the village of Hornitos, where they completed the raising of their ten children and where they would in the early 20th Century reach the end of their own lives.
The capsule history described above was enough for the writer of her obituary and alas, her children did not trouble themselves to add much more while they were alive to make such contributions. This phenomenon is true of most families, but that doesn’t take the frustration away, because to a great degree, the loss was irreparable. It is no longer possible to say precisely what kind of person Martha Jane Ousley Branson was, nor know all that she went through. The first attempt at even the most basic of biographies did not begin until nearly all of her children were dead, and it was not until her grandson Ivan Thorpe Branson, born in late 1901 when Martha had only slightly more than six years left to live, turned himself to genealogical work in his retirement years that anyone really grasped how much information about her was simply “not there.” The lack was especially true of her life before she married John Branson. Her origins had been almost entirely forgotten.
At first, Ivan found little that would address this blank area. A few scraps turned up in old correspondence. He possessed the brief genealogy written in the early 1930s by his mother Mary Simmons Branson, one of Martha’s daughters-in-law. He was able to correspond with and interview a few elderly first cousins, ones born early enough to have known Martha well. These within-the-family sources, along with such documents as her death certificate and her Mariposa Times obituary, supplied the names of Martha’s parents. They were Joseph and Phoebe Jane Ousley. But even this much was fraught with doubt. Inez Branson, Martha’s granddaughter and a very well-educated woman, was certain the last name was Housley, not Ousley. And one of Martha’s daughters had once written in a letter that Martha was named after her own mother, meaning not just Jane as the middle name, but Martha as the first name. Ivan satisfied himself that Phoebe was the correct first name, a name passed down to Martha’s very first daughter. He could not find a definitive source of the maiden last name. The best guess was Longmeyer.
Ultimately Ivan did become aware of a major piece of the puzzle. A distant cousin wrote to him mentioning the 1890 book, The Owsley Family in England and America by Harry Bryan Owsley. That volume mentioned Joseph Ousley, identifying him as a son of John Owsley, a Revolutionary War veteran. John Owsley was in turn a great-grandson of Thomas Owsley, who settled in the Colony of Virginia about 1680 and eventually served in the House of Burgess. Among other essential lore, the book disclosed that the spelling of the name was often inconsistent, with various members of the clan spelling it Owsley, Ousley, or Housley -- with some individuals, including Joseph, switching back and forth between the choices over the course of their lifetimes.
Ivan never fully followed up on this lead. He did not take the time to acquire a copy of Harry Bryan Owsley’s book and see all it contained, depending instead upon what his correspondent had quoted from it. Surely he meant to do so “someday,” but in the meantime, his research focus was on his patrilineal heritage. Since Martha had not been born a Branson, her ancestry was secondary to his goals. Ivan died before “someday” rolled around. Had he chosen to truly look at what was available, he would have encountered a cornucopia of lore. Harry Bryan Owsley is only one of the many people who have endeavored over the centuries to preserve and discover information about the Owsley family. Today, the descendants of Captain Thomas Owsley of Virginia participate in on-going genealogical activities such as publishing, conferences, tours of historic sites, erection of memorial monuments, and DNA analysis as part of the Owsley Family Historial Society, an organization established in 1979. As will be described below in the section on Martha’s ancestry, the family line goes back up through Thomas Owsley’s mother Dorothea Poyntz into European royalty. That means that ultimately Martha’s line can be documented all the way back to approximately 500 A.D., either by going back to the Byzantine emperor who founded the line that Charlemagne was part of, or by going up the line of Anglo-Saxon kings to the chieftains who invaded England after the Romans had abandoned the island.
It seems incredible such a pedigree could have been forgotten, but for a long time, Ivan Branson was the only one of Martha’s descendants who came “within spitting distance” of this knowledge. His choice not to investigate meant that the heritage went unmentioned in his 1982 book, Bones of the Bransons, which was the source most members of the Branson/Ousley clan turned to when wondering about the dead-and-gone generations. It was only with the dawn of the World Wide Web that this began to change.
Not all the blame can be laid on the modern generations. Martha herself contributed greatly to the obscuring of her story. First of all, she was probably illiterate. Consequently, she left no writings to shed light on her early life or upon her parents or grandparents. A further complication is that she may have been reluctant to discuss certain “skeletons in the closet.” Fortunately, in spite of her silence, much of her story can be pieced together. A great deal has already been revealed as part of the work Floyd Owsley, an active member of the Owsley Family Historical Society, has done upon the family of Joseph Ousley and Phoebe Jane Longmire. Floyd, who began his endeavors in the mid-1980s and continues them today, is well-positioned for this sort of study inasmuch as he is a descendant of Martha’s brother Robert Housley.
One of the prime puzzles of the Ousley/Longmire clan was confirmation that Joseph Ousley was indeed a son of John Owsley as described in Harry Bryan Owsley’s book. Some members of the O.F.H.S. had come to doubt this was the case because of a huge counter-indication. When John Owsley’s widow Charity Barton Owsley applied for government benefits in the late 1840s as the surviving spouse of a Revolutionary War veteran, she filled in a list of the children she had borne to John. That list does not contain Joseph. The list was likewise preserved in her family Bible, a book still exists today in the possession of a descendant. To any responsible genealogist, a discrepancy such as the Bible record was enough to cast doubt on the assumption that Joseph was John’s son. The debate went on for a number of years before the matter was resolved by DNA testing in 2003 and 2005 as part of an O.F.H.S. investigation spearheaded by Floyd Owsley. Male-line descendants of Joseph and of his brothers Robert, Matthew, John, Isaac, William, and Stephen submitted cheek-swab samples. Comparison of the Y-chromosome patterns in those samples confirmed all were sons of the same father.
So why was Joseph Ousley left off the list of children? That would seem to be -- and in fact is almost certain to be -- because he was not a son of Charity Barton. The list contained the names of her children, and therefore it lacked some of the children of her husband. John Owsley apparently had two families, one with Charity, and another with a woman whose identity has yet to surface. John married Charity in 1778 in North Carolina. They were spouses until his death in 1845, and had children with one another into the mid-1890s. But at the end of the 1780s John entered into a relationship with a woman in Grainger County, TN that produced a second family of at least four kids. Joseph was the eldest, born about 1790. Two daughters, Ann and Elizabeth, followed in the first half of the 1790s, and then finally Robert in about 1802. The names of Ann, Elizabeth, and Robert are similarly missing from the list in Charity’s Bible.
John Owsley did not divorce Charity. He fathered children with both women in an overlapping sequence. Presumably the unnamed woman of Grainger County was a “lady on the side,” but she appears to have been quite a bit more than a mistress. For one thing, the relationship was long-term, perhaps enduring until death. John acknowledged having fathered the second set of children and had regular contact with them, which apparently would include being the main means of financial support while they were minors. John was a cooper, and so was Joseph, indicating John taught his son the family trade. So what was the woman’s status? Was she perhaps even a second wife, i.e. was John was a bigamist? No marriage record has been found, but the possibility cannot be completely discounted, except to point out that if he did marry both women, he did not live with them on the same farm in the Mormon fashion. John and Charity spent the early 1800s in Claiborne County, TN. His second family remained in Grainger County. The two homes were not far apart in modern terms -- the two counties are adjacent to one another -- but the distance was great enough back then that we can be sure the households were not commingled.
So here is one reason why Martha may have been reluctant to get into the particulars of her heritage. Her father was technically a bastard. Martha may have been protective of her family reputation. It may, however, not have been her father’s heritage that embarrassed her, but her mother’s. Phoebe Longmire is likely to have had a substantial amount of Native American blood.
Today it is often a mark of pride to be able to claim that one’s American roots go so far back they precede the arrival of Christopher Columbus. But in Martha’s time, hatred of Indians was at its height, and Martha seems to have sided with this majority sentiment and refused to identify herself as part Indian. After her death, some of her grandchildren did say that there was Indian blood in her line “somewhere way back,” but the details had been lost, and it did not help matters when some of those descendants began tainting the credibility of those tales by embellishing them with unsupported claims. For example, during a 1970 trip to Jamestown, VA, Martha’s eighty-five-year-old granddaughter Grace Mildred Branson Warner pointed to a portrait of Pocahontas and claimed she was an ancestor!
The Indian heritage had a prominent role in one of the often-repeated tales about Joseph Ousley and Phoebe Longmire, a tale that claimed Joseph was disowned by his father. Back in the 1990s this story was accepted as true by many members of the O.F.H.S. because it explained why Joseph’s name was not in Charity Barton’s Bible. However, once it became clear that Joseph’s name was left off because he was not Charity’s son, some began wondering if the disownment scenario had been invented as a means of explaining the omission of Joseph’s name at a point when no other explanation was available.
The tale’s source is Nancy Rebecca Owsley Morris (1871-1929), a granddaughter of Robert Owsley, youngest son of John Owsley and the one full-brother of Joseph. Nancy wrote that her grandfather had been disowned by his parents -- meaning John and Charity -- because he had stopped by at a house where a dance was occurring. Nancy said that John and Charity, as strict or “primitive” Baptists, believed dancing was a sin. In a zero-tolerance response, they cast Robert out of the family for his transgression -- even though Robert claimed he had only stopped at a house where unknown to him, a dance was going on, and did not actually enter the dwelling. Nancy went on to mention that one of her grandfather’s brothers had met with similar treatment because he had had the audacity to marry a woman who was a half-breed Indian. The brother could only have been Joseph, and the wife Phoebe Longmire.
The disownment of Robert for being at a dance seems like a tall tale on its face, but the disownment of Joseph seems credible. Joseph and Phoebe were wed in the early 1810s. Anti-Indian sentiment was strong in Tennessee at that time. The Battle of Tippecanoe occurred in 1811. During that conflict, Shawnee warriors killed John Owsley III, eldest son of John and Charity. In that period of grief, for Joseph to marry a part-Indian might well have seemed unforgivable. If true, there would surely have been a rift between father and son that must have endured for good. This would, among other things, mean that Martha Jane Ousley never knew her paternal grandparents, and helps explain why she would not want to discuss her origins. And yet there are not a lot of indications such a rift existed. Joseph is known to have continued to associate with his half-siblings and remained in the same general part of Tennessee as his father throughout his father’s remaining lifetime.
Was perhaps the detail of Indian heritage concocted out of thin air in order to bolster the story of a disownment? One has to wonder if that might be the case. However, the prevailing view within the O.F.H.S. is that the Indian heritage is in fact true, though some of the specifics are not clear. Martha may have been tight-lipped about the whole business, but her youngest brother James Ousley (1838-1919) was more open. In his old age, he often related to his granddaughter Annie Berry that his mother, Phoebe Longmire, was an Indian. And James’s daughter Phoebe Owsley Alsup (1862-1942) told her descendants that her grandmother had been Cherokee. James and his slightly older brother Crawford Ousley (Crawford is shown at left, James on the right) were the youngest of Joseph and Phoebe’s kids and came of age at a point when the old couple, feeling their own mortality, may have taken more time to relate their origins to their offspring.
The Indian heritage question was addressed by two rounds of DNA testing done under the auspices of the O.F.H.S. Unlike the earlier tests, which involved Y-chromosome pattern analysis to confirm male-line ancestry, the new studies looked for the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) pattern. Mitochondrial DNA is passed from mother to child without mixing with the father’s DNA, and so it remains consistent from generation to generation along the female line. (The very last descendant in the sequence can be male, though, because males are recipients of their mother’s mtDNA patterns.) A surviving female-line descendant of Phoebe Longmire (ironically with the surname Longmire) submitted a sample that was tested in September, 2005. A sample provided by another donor -- one of Martha’s descendants -- was tested in early 2006. The hope was that the resulting pattern would show a Native American mtDNA pattern, under the assumption that Phoebe Longmire’s mother or maternal grandmother was Indian. The test results unfortunately did not prove the case. The two samples matched each other, as they should have, but the pattern was of a type that originated thousands of years ago in northwestern Europe, which would suggest Phoebe was just as much a product of British Isles forebears as was her husband.
For now, the case is still open. Among the arguments against Indian blood are such things as Martha’s own features. Look for yourself at the close-up view of her shown at right. Martha was blessed with clean, even looks, large soulful light-toned eyes, and an aquiline nose. These features would pass down and are today enjoyed by many descendants. They do not particularly suggest she was the child of a mother who had any significant amount of native-American blood.
Another relevant tale comes from Ivan Branson, who wrote down the details in the early 1960s right after the anecdote had been freshly told by his older sister Florence. In his youth, Ivan had heard his father Alvin Thorpe Branson tell the story a number of times. Ivan eventually published a version in Bones of the Bransons. Meanwhile the unpublished, uncensored version in his surviving notes can be summarized like so: During the summers of 1892 and 1893, Alvin Branson and his second cousin Hiram Branson earned their living by making pack-mule supply runs to the hotel in Yosemite Valley. The cousins returned from one such expedition accompanied by a teenaged “nearly naked” Yosemite Indian girl and her infant daughter. The teenager’s name was Josie Allen. She was the granddaughter of a Yosemite Indian chief and had possessed some status in the surviving native Yosemite community, but changes had occurred that made her feel it was unsafe to remain in the valley. The Branson cousins had chivalrously escorted her out, but now she needed longer-term security for herself and her baby. Alvin and Hiram endorsed the idea that she stay with Hiram. Alvin’s cabin was already crowded with a family that included his wife Mary and four children. But Mary must have needed extra convincing to accept the proposition that an unmarried man and woman would be cohabitating. She must have suggested that Josie be taken to Alvin’s parents’ large estate, Grasshopper Ranch, where there would be room for her and where there would be proper chaperonage. Alvin argued otherwise, stating, “You know how much Ma hates Indians. Says they should all be killed like wild animals.”
Maybe Alvin was exaggerating his mother’s bigotry. After all, the strategy of the moment was to clear the way for Hiram and Josie to remain together -- which they did for the rest of their lives, eventually marrying and having six children together in addition to raising the baby she had arrived with. However, it is unlikely Alvin made up a convenient lie without some sort of underlying truth as inspiration. Martha undoubtedly had on occasion said hateful things about Indians. This does not sound like someone who has Indian blood in her own veins.
And yet the stories told by James Ousley and his daughter have the ring of truth. Nor are the results of the mtDNA tests a reason to declare the Indian blood to be myth. Phoebe Longmire could have been part Indian if the heritage came from, say, her father’s mother. Also, a small number of Native Americans in the Tennessee area actually do have the mtDNA pattern in question, which is believed to have originated from a forgotten migration of Europeans to North America before the time of the Viking explorations and, of course, well before the voyages of Columbus. It is quite likely the Indian blood story is true, and Martha knew it to be true. If so, we have a window on her character. It says something about her that she was willing to condemn a group of people she could be said to have belonged to. This sort of behavior is a common syndrome exhibited by members of oppressed minorities. We shouldn’t judge her too harshly, though. She was conforming to the times she lived in. The regrettable aspect is that her choice denied her descendants access to the full story of their own heritage for over a hundred years.
Because the Owsley family has been so well studied and because the modern research efforts are so well organized, there is no need to dwell on Martha’s extended ancestral lineage here. Anyone wishing to approach the matter comprehensively is advised to begin by looking at what is offered by the Owsley Family Historical Society, whose website can be reached by clicking here, and by consulting Floyd Owsley’s personal genealogy website. (Click here.) The O.H.F.S. publications are an excellent means to acquaint you with the details of the American generations of the Owsley Family, from Captain Thomas Owsley’s arrival in Virginia in the late 1600s through the descendants born in the mid-1800s. Earlier European forebears are historically prominent, and an even wider array of sources is to be found. If one goes back far enough, some of the relevant people will be among those included in that famous reference of England’s early Norman noble and royal families, The Domesday Book. For those who prefer a quick summary, the following paragraphs touch upon a few highlights of Martha’s pedigree.
Martha’s last royal forebear appears to have been Edward III of England -- though the way European royalty intermarried, it’s easy to miss candidates. She can claim earlier descent from Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine, William the Conqueror, Charlemagne, and many other monarchs. Many of these 9th to 13th Century figures were her progenitors through multiple branches of her lineage, not just the one flowing from Edward III. Over the next few centuries after the reign of Edward III, the descent passes through a variety of England’s high families. In brief, the sequence goes from Edward through Edmund of Langley to Constance of York to Eleanor Holand to Sir Humphrey Audley (Tuchet) to Elizabeth Audley to Sir John Sydenham to John Sydenham to Anne Sydenham to Newdigate Poyntz.
Newdigate Poyntz, through his descent from his father John Poyntz, was a scion of an old Norman house and the founder of the Poyntz family of Benefeld of Northamptonshire. Newdigate was born 1608 (christened 16 November 1608) at Reigate in Surrey. He served as a captain in the service of Charles I of England and was killed 4 August 1643 in the siege of Gainsborough by the forces of Oliver Cromwell and the Roundheads -- the so-called Battle of Gainsborough. Newdigate’s name rose to the public’s attention in the early 1980s when the gossip columnists checked into the blood connection between Prince Charles and his bride-to-be, Diana Spencer. Diana was descended from Newdigate Poyntz (by his third wife Mary Parkyns), and Charles from Newdigate’s great-great grandfather Nicholas Poyntz (1528-1585).
Newdigate’s daughter Dorothea Poyntz, a child of Newdigate’s first wife Sarah Foxley, was born in late 1631 or very early 1632 (christened 3 January 1632) in Benefeld. Dorothea married John Owsley in approximately 1650. John was the son of another prominent English family whose name was derived from heritage lands along the River Ouse. In terms of caste status the match between Dorothea and John was a union of equals. John followed in his father’s footsteps and became a clergyman. (His father, also named John Owsley, was the rector of Trull parish in Taunton in Somersetshire. He was married to Edith Edwards.) John first served as a clerk at Whittlebury Church in Northamptonshire (which is probably where he became acquainted with Dorothea), then won an appointment as rector of the Stoke-Coursey parish in Somersetshire in 1652. He served there until 1660. After the Restoration following the fall of the Commonwealth, John Owsley became the rector of the parish church of Glooston in Leicestershire.
John and Dorothea lived out their lives at Glooston, John passing away 25 December 1687 and Dorothea 2 August 1705. Their union produced twelve children, the younger seven arriving after the couple were installed at Glooston. (The church is shown in the image below right. Photo taken 23 Sep 2001 by Milancie Adams and Al Tietjen. One of the reasons for the formation of the Owsley Family Historical Society in 1979 was that the parish church, founded by the early 13th Century, was falling into disrepair because the hamlet had shrunk to only a few dozen residents, and the diocese was disinclined to spend the money necessary to maintain the historic relic as a functioning house of worship. A portion of O.H.F.S. revenues go toward the upkeep of the edifice and salary of the rector.)
John and Dorothea’s fourth child, Thomas Owsley, was born in 11 June 1658. He is known to have first arrived in the Colony of Virginia by September of 1677. Over the next three years, he was engaged in some sort of enterprise that required sailing back and forth between the colony and Europe. In 1679, he was taken captive in the Mediterranean by Barbary pirates, who released him upon receiving a ransom paid by Rector John Owsley and the parishioners of Glooston. The record of names and amounts contributed has been preserved at the church. Perhaps the incarceration numbed Thomas’s enjoyment of voyages. By the following year he had settled permanently in Stafford County, VA. He led a politically prominent life, serving as a county clerk, a justice of the peace, and a captain in the county militia. He took his oath as a Burgess of Stafford County 3 March 1693 and served until his death seven years later.
Thomas wed Anne Harris, the only child of Lieutenant William Harris. It was a socially advantageous union, and their children might have followed the example had not Thomas died at the relatively young age of forty-two, passing away 10 October 1700. Thomas II, the eldest of their six children, was only about ten years old and there had not been a chance to find him a match within the highest stratum of colonial society. From his generation onward, the Owsleys no longer numbered among the movers and shakers of the colony.
However, Thomas Owsley II did well enough. Born about 1690 in Stafford County, VA, Thomas became a respected figure and like his father was a major landowner in northern Virginia. He worked as a pilot and chain carrier in some of the early surveys of the area, a duty that may sound mundane but in his time was a task entrusted to men of prominence. He was a member of Overwharton Parish, Stafford County and later a member of Hamilton Parish, Prince William county. About 1730, Thomas II married Ann Hudson. (Her birth surname was not known at the time this website went live in 2005; she was identified only recently thanks to O.F.H.S. activity.) Ann was born about 1707 in Virginia and died about 1756. The couple became parents to ten children. Thomas Owsley II died some time between 30 March 1750 and 4 July 1750 in Fairfax County, VA.
Among the ten children of Thomas Owsley II was second son John Owsley, born about 1734 in Virginia. John married Ann Stephens in about 1752. Ann had been born in the early 1730s and was a daughter of Robert and Ann Stephens. The couple lived in Loudoun County, VA, where John had inherited land from his father. John would finish his short lifetime there. Court records show John was frequently in fights, and was charged at various times in his twenties with assault, battery, and trespass. He was stabbed to death in a brawl in October 1764, when he was approximately thirty years old. Francis Kennedy was convicted of the murder, but was later pardoned and released from jail. Ann survived him by many years, dying after 1810 in Tennessee.
John Owsley has as of 2005 become the subject of a family heritage mystery. Samples of Y-chromosome DNA taken from seventeen modern-day Owsley descendants has revealed that John’s pattern does not match the pattern of his brothers, while the brothers’ pattern does match that of other Owsleys. Clearly, John could not have been the biological child of Thomas Owsley II. Among the possible explanations are that his mother cuckolded his father, or that John was an adopted son. John himself adopted his younger brother Pine Owsley (aka Pointz Owsley). John’s sister Sarah Owsley bore at least two children out of wedlock -- perhaps John was an out-of-wedlock child of his father’s sister Sarah, about whom not enough is known to be able to prove otherwise. Floyd Owsley has suggested another theory that fits the facts quite well. No one knows the origin of Ann, the wife of Thomas Owsley II. Her name is known only because in his will, he named her as one of his heirs. It could be she was his second wife. An unknown first wife might have died after bearing Thomas’s first son, Thomas III, and Ann took her place, arriving as a young widow whose baby son John had been sired by her previous husband. It makes sense that Thomas would have adopted his infant stepson and and treated him as a natural son thereafter, including giving him the Owsley name. Such a scenario -- which is not at all unreasonable to contemplate -- would explain why Thomas II’s eldest son and the younger sons all had the right Y-chromosome pattern, but John did not. Unless Ann’s heritage is discovered, we may never know the answer, and therefore Floyd’s theory remains as valid as any. In any event, John was treated as the son of Thomas Owsley II during his lifetime, and so he is treated as such here.
This brings us to another John Owsley, the one mentioned in the first few paragraphs as the father of Joseph Ousley. In the O.F.H.S. discussions, he is often called John Owsley II. He was the third of the five children of John Owsley and Ann Stephens. He was born 6 November 1757 in Loudoun County, VA. John was only a boy of seven when his father was murdered. Undoubtedly this meant he had to “make do” for himself from an early age and did not enjoy the social prominence experienced by his grandfather and great-grandfather. An indication of his status was his eventual occupation of cooper.
John was raised in Loudoun County, and possibly did not leave the area until the upheaval of the Revolutionary War. John enlisted and fought in 1776 and 1777. His service meant he was pensioned in 1833 when Congress rewarded the surviving veterans of the conflict. Resuming his life as a civilian, he set up a new life for himself in Rowan County, NC, where his mother Ann and step-father John Adams had settled near the community of Salisbury. The relocation resulted in John meeting Charity Barton, whom he married in Rowan County on 16 August 1778. Tax rolls confirm John and Charity living in Rowan County in 1778.
In the next few years, the couple moved to Wilkes County, NC, where they lived in or near the community of Roaring River. In 1783, John served in Captain Enoch Osborn’s Company of the Virginia Militia from Montgomery County. (When John applied for his pension, he cited a service of one month guarding the frontiers of Virginia as one of his qualifications.) Two other members of that militia were John and Isaac Barton, Charity’s brothers. Montgomery County bordered Wilkes County, NC in that era. John’s mother and stepfather also came to Roaring River, arriving no later than 1784 -- deeds show that five sons of John Adams (by his first wife) owned vast amounts of land in the county.
Later in the 1780s, John was drawn to Tennessee, apparently going off without Charity, who did not follow until a new home was ready for her and the kids in Claiborne County. Charity appears as sole head of household in the 1790 census for Wilkes County, NC. While on his own, John began his relationship with his other lady in Grainger County, and then participated in the on-going life of that second household for many years, as indicated by his siring of son Robert Owsley in the early 1800s and the fact that son Joseph learned to be a cooper.
The farm in Claiborne County was in the midst of those belonging to other settlers who had come from Wilkes County. Second family or not, the home was John’s main one and remained so until his death. John and Charity’s presence in Claiborne County can be confirmed though various land transactions from 1802 into the 1840s, as well as by census records. John died 19 December 1845, and Charity 20 February 1848. Both were buried in Pleasant Point Cemetery.
And so we come back to Joseph Ousley, son of John. Much of his early life is described earlier in this document. His last decades with Phoebe, all of them spent in Tennessee, appear to have been relatively uneventful, the biggest development being a move from Campbell County to Union County in the 1850s. Joseph and Phoebe’s household appears in Union County in the 1860 and 1870 censuses. In the 1880 census, Phoebe is shown as a widow living with son John Housley back in Campbell County. Joseph’s precise death date is unknown, except that it occurred between the 1870 and 1880 census surveys. Phoebe’s death date is likewise uncertain, save that it occurred after the 1880 census.
It should be mentioned that the ancestry of Phoebe Jane Longmire actually does go back quite a ways in various genealogies. In those records, her parents are identified as John Longmire and Nancy Marshall of North Carolina, whose roots include ancestors with the surnames Clay, Britt, Connolly, Green, Mitchell, and Marston. All eight of Phoebe’s great-grandparents appear to have been born in the British Isles. However, it is still possible the Indian heritage legend is nonetheless true. It was quite common for Indian and part-Indian landholders in the early years of the United States to assume the official identities of white tenants or neighbors in order to keep control of their property. Phoebe or one of her parents may have “borrowed” some or all of the family tree just described.
It should also be mentioned that Phoebe’s middle name has not (yet) been found in any document created during her lifetime. Some genealogists -- Floyd Owsley included -- therefore leave it out. I (Dave Smeds) have included it here on this website because I am satisfied by the story told to me over the phone by Martha’s great-granddaughter Esta Jane Fowle Service in 2006. I asked Esta Jane to confirm that she had been known primarily as Jane in childhood, as family notes indicated. She replied that yes, she had been known as Jane. Her mother, Alice Bretelle Johnson Fowle, felt it was important to give her that name in honor of her own mother, Mary Jane Branson Johnson. Bretelle, as she was known, had been named for her father’s favorite sister, but Mary Jane had expressed unhappiness that she had not gone ahead with her own preference to use the middle name Jane. As fate would have it, Alice Bretelle Johnson did not have a younger sister, so ultimately the name Jane went unused in her generation, which broke the sequence. Mary Jane said it was unfortunate because she had inherited the middle name Jane from her own mother who got it from her mother. In other words, Phoebe Longmire had been Phoebe Jane Longmire. Esta Jane is now deceased and so it is all hearsay that Phoebe’s middle name was Jane, but I see no particular reason to doubt it.
Joseph and Phoebe were buried in the churchyard cemetery at the Powell River Baptist Church in Campbell County. The church was just up the hill from the bridge over Cedar Creek, and the graveyard came to be known as the Cedar Creek Bridge Cemetery. The early Twentieth Century photograph at left shows the bridge with the church in the background. In 1934, the Tennessee Valley Authority built Norris Dam. The lake formed by this project submerged the site of the church and its cemetery. All of the graves were relocated to Baker’s Forge Cemetery. The TVA created a new marker for Joseph and Phoebe, but the dates were not accurately transcribed. This unfortunate situation was alleviated when a new monument for Joseph and Phoebe was placed in the Baker’s Forge Memorial Cemetery 8 August 2000 by the Owsley Family Historical Society.
Martha was born 2 June 1828 in Tennessee, almost certainly in Campbell County. Her father (as Joseph Housley) appears on an 1813 petition filed in Campbell County to move the county seat, and he is listed on the 1823 tax list. The household he headed appears there in the 1830, 1840, and 1850 censuses. It stands to reason Martha spent the whole of her childhood in Campbell County; however, no documents have been found that absolutely place her there at birth. Joseph and Phoebe did return to Grainger County for a year or so in 1816, and it is possible they might have briefly left Campbell County at other junctures.
Martha is not to be confused with her niece Martha Jane Housley (1848-1907), also of Campbell County, daughter of Robert Housley. The niece became the wife of Andrew Jackson Bratcher.
How Martha met John Sevier Branson is not certain. Though John was born in Tennessee, no records show him as ever residing in Campbell County, and John and his birth family were in Gasconade County, MO by the end of the 1820s -- perhaps reaching that locale even before Martha was born. The first encounter undoubtedly took place in Missouri. The most likely scenario is that Martha went as a teenager in the mid-1840s to join kin who had migrated earlier. Her first cousin Robert Housley Gilmore, the son of her aunt Ann/Amy Housley (one of the two full sisters with whom Joseph Ousley/Housley was raised in Grainger County) had settled in Gasconade County. Robert married Rhoda Branson there in 1841. Rhoda was John Sevier Branson’s sister, the one closest to him in age (two years older). Around this time Martha’s brother William Ousley (thirteen years her senior) was living in Crawford Township, Osage County, MO. Martha is known to have resided with William during the time she was waiting for her husband to return from the California gold fields (i.e. from the spring of 1849 to the autumn of 1850). It is quite likely she was part of William’s household as a single woman earlier in the 1840s, and at some point would have been introduced to John, her cousin’s brother-in-law.
Martha and John’s marriage occurred some time in the mid-1840s, probably the beginning of 1846 (this would agree with the information provided in the 1900 census). It was yet another mingling of the Branson and Ousley/Housley clans, something that had happened several times over the 1700s and first half of the 1800s, including the pairing of Rhoda and Robert, and would happen a number of times further, one example being in the early 20th Century when Martha’s grandson John McDonald married Josie Johnson (Josephine Samantha Johnson), the daughter of Martha’s sister, Caroline Housley.
To get a sense of the course of Martha’s life once she became Mrs. John Branson, the simplest approach is to first read the biography of her husband. Click here to go straight to John’s page. Assuming you’ve just done that and have returned to this spot, below are a few addenda specific to Martha. It’s a shame there isn’t more to offer, but in the 19th Century, the individual doings of women were not often recorded, and Martha is no exception.
Martha was obviously a hardy woman, to have ventured off across the Isthmus of Panama with three little boys in the primitive conditions endured by travellers in the Old West of the early 1850s. It is also obvious that Martha served as the nurturing and steady heart of her immediate family. Moreover, she provided for her loved ones without the benefit of female kin her own age to assist her. The stability of her household is attested to by the fact that so many of her children remained close to Grasshopper Ranch until her very last few years, and so many of the grandchildren partially grew up there.
This is the house at Grasshopper Ranch in the 1890s. Martha is the old lady in the rocking chair. The two adolescent girls are her granddaughters, Elsie and Eunice Harrington, daughters of Nancy Anne Branson.
One faint scrap of biography specific to Martha appears in Bones of the Bransons when Ivan Branson mentions that Martha was known as an accomplished midwife. Her husband’s Confederate sympathies were not enough to prevent her from lending her services to a young black woman in the late 1860s. The woman couldn’t pay Martha to help with the birth (a job which included cooking and housekeeping for the family during the post-partum phase), so Martha suggested they trade in kind, since Martha was due to have a baby herself a few months later. (Ivan Branson speculates that the resulting offspring were Louella Rogers, later a long-time postmistress of Hornitos, and John Sevier Branson, Jr. This guess is probably correct. Louella was a daughter of Moses Rodgers, who as the boss of the Washington Mine employed or would go on to employ a number of Martha’s sons and a son-in-law. (If you go to John's biography page, you will be able to see a photograph of Moses Rodgers and fifteen other Mariposa County pioneers -- one of the other fifteen being John Sevier Branson -- posing in front of the Barcroft Saloon in Hornitos in 1890.) One has to wonder if Martha would have been so tolerant of an Indian mother-to-be.
It is an open question how much Martha agreed with John when he favored the cause of the Confederacy in the Civil War. Martha’s brothers, brothers-in-law, and Tennessee-based nephews fought for the North, not the South. One would assume she would have shared the views of her birth family members. Yet perhaps she did not. There is no indication she ever saw any of her siblings in the flesh even once in her life after coming west as a young woman. She may have been the nonconformist of her family and her loyalties may have been fully in keeping with her spouse and the miners of Phillips Flat. But if she did feel in her heart that the Union cause was the right one, imagine her distress when John decided to celebrate the assassination of President Lincoln. She may have kept silent to preserve harmony within her home and community, but privately she must have been in turmoil.
Martha served as a midwife as late as 1901, when she helped daughter-in-law Mary Simmons Branson, Alvin’s wife, deliver Ivan. She was then seventy-three years old, and the two-day labor took all of her stamina. On the subject of Ivan, he was initially named Donald (a name chosen by his older sister Maude as a reward for staying home to help with the birth and post-partum period instead of leaving Mariposa County to attend business school), but Martha protested strenuously that this was an old Scots name and was therefore unsuitable. What she had against the Scottish is uncertain. She was equally unhappy when her daughter-in-law changed Donald to Ivan, declaring that name to be too Russian. She later remarked that she wished she had kept her mouth shut.
Martha died 12 January 1908 at Grasshopper Ranch and is buried in the Oddfellows Cemetery in Hornitos beside John. Pictures of this graveyard are posted on the Mariposa County Research website. Click here to go the page.
One of the rare surviving photos of Martha is this one, which surfaced in February, 2008 amid the mementoes preserved by one of her great great grandsons. It was a portrait taken in about 1903, probably at a photography studio in Merced, of four generations of the Branson/Ousley clan. Those shown are Martha herself, her daughter Nancy Anna Branson Harrington Napier at left, Nancy’s eldest daughter Mary Josephine Harrington McDonald at right, and behind them all (probably standing on a stool, as he was only four or five years old), with his hand on Martha’s shoulder, is Josephine’s son Robert Seafield McDonald. The latter was Martha’s very first great-grandchild.
To return to the Branson/Ousley Family main page, click here.