Lela Ann Harbert was born on 13 March 1873 in Mason County, West Virginia, to Elbert Francis and Sarah Ellen (Shriver) Harbert. The Harbert family had lived in what became the State of West Virginia since Virginia was a British Colony.
Lela was the third of nine children and her father was a farmer. Like many of his contemporaries, he decided to migrate west and homestead land in Custer County, Nebraska. In April 1887 he followed his friend and neighbor, Francis Everett Amsberry, who had moved his family to Nebraska by renting a half of a box car in 1885.
But life out west did not go well for the Harbert family. Lela's mother died in 1888 when her youngest daughter was just 17 months old and Lela Ann was 15. The younger children were farmed out to willing friends and the older ones were left to fend for themselves. Their father was no longer much of a presence in their lives.
On 25 March 1889 in Custer County, 28-year-old James Martin Amsberry, son of Francis Everett Amsberry, married 16-year-old Lela Ann Harbert. According to a poem he wrote about his wife in 1913, he fell in love with her two years before when he went back to West Virginia to collect debts from people who owed his father money.
In two separate claims James acquired 240 acres of land in Custer County and by 1900 he owned the farm and a printing business. He and Lela had six children between 1890 and 1907.
|The James Martin Amsberry Family circa 1896. |
James is holding Tinsie Ethel, Roy Frances and Carl
Everett are standing and Guy Matthew is on Lela's lap;
photo courtesy of Ancestry.com member ChrisIller.
In 1902 Lela's brother, John Harbert left his wife, who he married in 1896, and young son. Lela was incensed after a visit from her brother. She wrote to his estranged wife, Jennie:
"He told me he intended to get loose from you as soon as he could but when he investigated he knew he had not a ghost of a chance...He has been running around with Emma Bennett, a woman of disreputable character and also has two illegal children...to parade around the street with that dirty thing...He has acted so mean with us about the rest he owes us that I won't keep no secrets for him. I am done with him...I guess if he lands in the pen, it won't be any worse disgrace than we are enduring now anyhow...I want him to have to pay you about $50 a month, and have to keep on the wrestle to earn it and not have so much to spend with some other woman about like Em Bennett or pour it down his neck.
In 1915 James and Lela's two oldest children, Carl Everett and Roy Francis, and their wives moved to Oregon. A few months later Lela, along with her two youngest children, Hugh Martin and Vivian Louise, followed her older children to Oregon, leaving her husband behind. James followed the next spring after selling his newspaper, The Miller Sun, a public auction. I get the sense James didn't have much business sense as the family always seemed to struggle financially.
|Amsberry Men: Father, James Martin|
Amsberry on the left and his oldest sons,
Carl and Roy to the right circa 1916;
photograph courtesy of Ancestry.com
Times were hard for the family in Oregon. They survived on apples the first year. They built a wooden platform and erected a tent and that's where they lived through the winter before Lela's husband arrived. That summer the men built a primitive house. Lela's daughter Vivian described what happened next in her book, My Mother's Daughter:
"The next few years are rather mixed in my mind. Apparently Mama became tired of carrying water uphill from the spring, and eating whatever wild game my brothers could trap and retrieve ahead of the coyotes. So without fanfare, she bundled me up and took me off again into an unknown world. I saw my Dad only a few times after that.
Mama never seemed to be out of a job...Another time she took care of an invalid lady in Portland. I remember how upset she became when Dad called on her there. I couldn't understand what was going on, but not terribly long after that Mama started talking about a divorce...She was repelled at the sight of Dad and equated her life with him as a form of slavery thus befalling every married woman. She grouped all the male gender together as having a single purpose in life, that of 'using' the female counterpart for his pleasures. The very odious overtones of her remarks scarred me for life. For years I thought of sex as a dirty word and something to be hidden in a closet!"
|Lela Ann (Harbert) Amsberry date unknown;|
courtesy of Ancestry.com member
Lela Ann (Harbert) Amsberry lived a sometimes tragic and always difficult life but I think of her as a tough woman mostly for warping her youngest daughter's view of men, marriage, and sex. She seemed a cold, unforgiving woman. Her life perhaps marred by tragedy and what for her was an unhappy marriage. Sadly, her husband loved her until he died in 1939, likely at the Oregon State Hospital for the Insane where he had been an inmate on or before 1930. He wrote in his diary, "One thing if it is the Lord's desire, I hope to be restored to the mother of my children, the wife of my youth."
This is my entry for Amy Johnson Crow's 52 ancestors in 52 weeks challengeoptional theme Tough Woman.
Excerpted from Echoes from the Blockhouse: The Thomas Harbert Family Saga by Brian and David Harbert.
Lela Ann Harbert was born on 13 March 1873 in Marion County, West Virginia, to Elbert Francis and Sarah Ellen (Shriver) Harbert. The family moved to Mason County, West Virginia, before 1876 and then to Custer County, Nebraska, in 1887. She married James Martin Amsberry on 20 March 1989. They had six children between 1890 and 1907. In 1915 Lela Ann moved to Oregon with her two youngest children. She divorced her husband between 1920 and 1930. He died in 1939 and she died in 1952. They are buried beside each other in the same lot in Multnomah Park Cemetery in Portland, Oregon. So James got his wish and was reunited with "the mother of my children, the wife of my youth."
Dead Poets Society