Martha Ann Susan Robertson Potterfield Murphy
Martha Ann Susan Robertson was born in Albemarle County, Virginia on October 11, 1835. The Robertson family immigrated to Missouri in the early 1850’s. According to family tradition, John Robertson, Martha’s father, was a gentleman farmer, horse breeder and landowner.
Family lore tells a story about Martha watching her younger siblings. Her father was away from the farm and Martha’s mother had gone to a neighbor’s to serve as midwife. Apparently the baby didn’t come when expected, so Martha was left alone with the children over night. Martha’s brother and sisters were playing in a horse trough. They heard a sound like crying or growling. Martha realized it was a panther and got all the kids into the house and locked the door. The next day, when their father returned, he had to convince Martha to unlock the door.
When Martha was 20, she married John Henry Potterfield. They married at Hillsboro, Jefferson County, Missouri on March 8, 1855. They lived near Joseph Potterfield’s farm, just north of the Meramec River. Their first son, James Albert was born on January 5, 1856. They had at least two other children, but they did not survive childhood: John Joseph was born about 1857 and John William was born on May 20, 1864. Both boys died before 1865. They are buried at the Inks Cemetery near Eureka, Missouri.
This must have been a terrible time for Martha, as her husband also died on April 11, 1864. His cause of death is unknown. Martha was named executrix of John Potterfield’s estate. In July, Martha appointed Thomas R. Allen as her agent (attorney) in the administration of the estate of her late husband. T.R. Allen was a very prosperous and respected lawyer who founded the town of Allenton.
From the probate file, one can determine that Martha’s husband bred and raised horses. An inventory of his estate listed 12 horses, including a stallion named “Young Boxer”. Potterfield had “Young Boxer” out to stud, with at least 58 customers. This stallion must have been a valuable asset. In August 1864, Martha auctioned off 8 horses, but bought “Young Boxer” for herself.
During the Civil War, a Colonel Fenn of the U.S. Union Army, seized two of Martha’s horses, “one a stallion”, to protect them from “their falling into the hands of the rebels”. The horses were returned, but “as they were returned at night, the claimant had no opportunity to examine them, but that in the morning it was ascertained that they were entirely broken down and much diseased, and that they died of the disease, the glanders, and imparted it to two other horses, which also died.” This event resulted in an ongoing struggle to obtain compensation for the loss. Martha, with the help of her son, Joseph, petitioned the U. S. House of Representatives for compensation, beginning about 1886 through 1914. This struggle lasted at least 28 years.
Martha Robertson Potterfield married Nicholas Murphy on December 3, 1866. She was 31 years old; he was about 28. How they met is unknown. Family history says that Nicholas was working on Martha’s father’s farm. This seems unlikely. However, it is possible that Martha met Nicholas before her first husband had died. John Potterfield and Nicolas Murphy both enrolled in the 1st Regiment of the Enrolled Missouri Militia on August 27, 1862.
Nicholas Murphy later enlisted in Company “B”, 23rd Missouri Infantry (Union Army) on July 14, 1863. He was based in Glencoe, Missouri, a small town just north of Eureka and Allenton, where Martha and John Potterfield were living. It appears that Nicholas did not see much “action” in the war, as he was detailed to work as a clerk at Regimental Headquarters in Rolla, Missouri. In November 1863, Nicholas moved with his regiment to McMinneville, Tennessee until July 1864. The regiment then moved near Atlanta, GA. Nicholas continued serving as clerk at headquarters until he was mustered out on July 18, 1865 near Louisville, KY.
If Nicholas and Martha had not met when he was in Glencoe, then they must have met between July 1865 and December 1866, when they married. After their marriage, they continued to live on Martha’s farm near Allenton. As Martha’s husband, Nicholas became the administrator of John Potterfield’s estate, which was not settled until December 1869. At the settlement, $1,947.13 was paid to Nicholas Murphy as guardian of James A. Potterfield. He also received $1,747.13 for Martha’s portion of the estate.
On October 23, 1867, Martha and Nicholas’s first son Joseph Miles was born. A second son, William Nicholas Murphy was born on July 1, 1869. Both Joseph and William were born in Allenton, Missouri.
Sometime between 1870 and 1880, Nicholas and Martha moved their family into the City of St. Louis. In the city directories, Nicholas’ occupation was listed as a carpenter. Nicholas’ brother, Joseph, lived with the family off and on during this period. A third son, Robert Emmet Gaylor was born in July 1874.
Around 1879, Martha “adopted” Nettie Williamson. Nettie was the daughter of Livingston & Christine Williamson, who had been their neighbors in Allenton. Both Livingston and Christine died when Nettie was a child. Nettie's’older sisters were able to take care of themselves or were taken care of by other family. Martha took Nettie and a younger sister named Mary.
While the Murphy family lived in St. Louis, Martha was employed in a number of occupations. She is listed in a City Directory as running a grocery. Family traditions from a number of different sources indicate that she ran a boarding house. Whether or not she owned the property she rented is yet unknown. Martha’s death certificate indicates that she was a dressmaker. One of the few photos we have of Martha shows her with two young women and a sewing machine. Martha probably worked to help support her family. She clearly was an energetic and confident person.
Nicholas Murphy died on October 21, 1887, at the age of 49. He must have died a slow and painful death as his death certificate lists cause of death “Cancer scirrhus (a hard slow-growing malignant tumor having a preponderance of fibrous tissue) on gland penis and groin”. Affidavits found in Martha‘s “Widow’s Claim for a Pension” continually refer to the years of poor health and dysentery that Nicholas endured.
Martha was 52 years old when Nicholas died. His stepson, James Potterfield had already married and had two children of his own. But Nick and Martha’s sons were still young: Joseph was 20, William was 18 and Robert was just 13. In addition, Martha was raising Nettie Williamson and her sister. Martha was the sole means of support for a family of 6. Of course, her sons helped contribute to the family income. City Directories show Joseph working at a bank as early as 1885.
In 1890, Martha’s son Robert was murdered. He was only 19 years old. Robert was stabbed to death in a beer hall near the family home. Martha took him back to Allenton for burial. Apparently, she maintained relationships with her family and friends in Allenton. She may have still owned land in the area.
Around 1896 the family moved to 2728 St. Louis Avenue, in downtown St. Louis. The family would remain at this address for the next 30 years. Now this area of St. Louis is almost abandoned and very unsafe.
Sometime between 1900 and 1910, Joseph and his wife Nettie moved to Arkansas. Martha continued to live with her son William and his family. Although she was now into her 70’s, Martha was still working to help keep the family going.
Sometime between 1910 and 1920, Martha returned to Allenton. On the 1920 Federal Census, she is listed as living with a nephew, Joseph Kellerman (although it is more likely that she or Nicholas were related to Joseph’s wife, Jessie Murphy Kellerman).
Martha Murphy died on March 23, 1922. She was 86 years old. Cause of death was “chronic stomach trouble with dysentery” (perhaps she had colon cancer?). She was buried in Allenton, Missouri. The Pacific, Missouri “Transcript” ran the following obituary:
“Mrs. M. Murphy, the invalid who has been in the care of Mrs. May Moon the past nine months, died on Thursday morning at the age of 86 years. She was buried from the home of Mrs. Moon on Saturday afternoon, internment taking place in the Allen cemetery. She is survived by three sons: James Potterfield and Wm. Murphy of St. Louis and Jos. Murphy of Arkansas. Deceased was well known and loved here having formerly lived here a good many years. She will be long remembered by her deeds of charity and kindness”.
Martha Ann Susan Robertson Potterfield Murphy lived an amazing life. She outlived 2 husbands and 3 children. She experienced life on the American frontier and in the crowded and often dangerous city. She lived through 2 terrible wars. Nearly 80 years after her death, her family still tells stories about her life. Her strength and resolution have not been forgotten.
Written and researched by Erin Murphy, Martha’s great-great-granddaughter.