Family Secrets

by Sherry Derr-Wille

In the late 19th century, orphans became a ward of the county. When that happened to my grandmother, she was sold as a bond servant, setting the course of her life into motion. At the age of 18 the man who held her bond had taught her to read and write, be a good Christian woman, and the mysteries of housekeeping. Giving her a watch, a bible and $10 she was on her own for the first time since she'd been bonded at the age of three and a half.

In the midst of the depression, my father found himself on his own at the age of twelve. His life was one of a little boy lost.

Last but not least, is the way in which my family impacted my life. This is our story and one that would not survive if I didn't take the time to tell it.


June 1892

Mary watched from the uppermost corner of the council chambers of the county court house. It was the only thing she’d asked of God and St. Peter when she entered heaven. To gain eternal rest, she had to know the fate of her youngest daughter, Annabelle, and her stepson, Ralph.

After twenty-five years of marriage to her first husband, Charles, he died suddenly, leaving her alone on the farm. Her four daughters were married with families of their own and little time for their half-breed mother.

She’d survived the winter by milking her cows and sending the milk to the dairy in town. She also tended her flock of chickens and sold the eggs at the general store.

Knowing she could never handle the planting alone, she considered selling the farm and moving to town. Of course, she knew she wouldn’t be welcomed there. Her high cheekbones and coarse dark hair did little to disguise her Indian heritage.

In the past, whenever word of an Indian uprising in the west reached Lafayette County, Wisconsin, she’d born the brunt of her neighbors’ outrage. She had no control over the actions of the Sioux, Comanche, Cheyenne or Apache, but it didn’t seem to matter. She was caught in the middle of a war not of her making.

With spring, her nearest neighbor, Ralph Totton, came to visit. He was about her age, but since he’d married late in life he had a nine-year-old son, Ralph Jr. Over the past winter, he’d lost his young wife, as well as the daughter they wanted so badly, in childbirth and needed help raising his son and running his farm.

“I’ve come with a proposition for you, Mary,” Ralph said. “My son needs a mother and I need a wife. What you need is someone to run your forty acres. I want to marry you and take care of you.”

Ralph’s proposal came as a shock. Mary hadn’t considered taking another man as a husband, but he did make sense. She couldn’t run the farm and he needed someone to help him with his son.

“I’ll have to consider it. How will your son take to having me as his stepmother? I mean…”

“If you’re speaking of your Injun blood, it means little to either of us. Ralph Jr. misses his mother. He needs a woman’s hand.”

Mary knew the tears filling her eyes should shame her, but they didn’t. Only Charles loved her unconditionally. Their mother’s large boned build and coarse features shamed her own daughters. She’d always been grateful her children favored Charles’ German mother.

To her amazement, Ralph came to her side and comforted her. He wasn’t as handsome as Charles, who had swept her off her feet and captured her heart when she was but fourteen, but he was sincere.

Within the month, Mary and Ralph were married and the two families joined as one. So as not to make either of them uncomfortable, Ralph built them a new house in the middle of the two acreages.

Although her daughters were outraged at her remarriage, Mary knew what she did was as necessary for her survival as it was for Ralph’s son to have a mother.

Ralph Junior adjusted well to his new mother. It took no time at all for her to come to love him as though he was one of her own children.

When Mary learned she was pregnant, she embraced the news with a mix of joy and trepidation. As she expected, her daughters took the news badly. In contrast, Ralph and his son were overjoyed. He insisted on doing the things she’d always done for herself and helped her in addition to doing the fieldwork.

The first snow of November blanketed the area when Ralph announced he was going to town for supplies. Although she argued the roads were treacherous, he only laughed at her fears, and then kissed her lovingly before leaving.

Later that afternoon, well past the time when Ralph should have been home, the sheriff came to her door. When he told her of Ralph’s death, he went into great detail.

On his way to town, several young men had surrounded his sleigh, taunting him about his half-breed wife. When they spooked his team, Ralph lost control. In the accident that followed he’d been thrown from the seat and the runners of the sleigh cut his throat. Death was immediate.

For the second time in her life she was alone.

"Family Secrets" - Sherry Derr Wille


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Family Memoir

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