a special story written by Tyler and GiGi Rock
She’s quiet but strong. If you didn’t know about the grove of fledgling oak trees on the hill, you just might miss her among the East Texas pines and the milkweed that is a special treat for the herds of deer that call the land home. There’s a particular difference in the sound of the wind as it sings in the forests of pines and when it moves on open land after the loggers come to take the trees away.
Then, it has nothing to catch it but blue sky.
It’s in the blue-sky moments that Harriet’s grove seems more like a gracious place of rest. She is resting there now, the same way she found rest there more than a century ago.
Harriet was only 16 when she and John Thomas married in 1854. He was 20, and was already on his way to becoming a master craftsman of woodworking. John was known for cabinetry; but his favorite thing to build was tables. He and Harriet both loved to fill their table with the bounty of their garden and offer it to whoever might be in need of a meal and a good bit of conversation. The table was a safe place for strangers and friends to gather, a comforting place in times of sorrow, a life-giving place always. They lived with Harriet’s family in the early days of their marriage, and dreamt about traveling to far-off places to help build a community, have a family of their own, and eat at the table with new friends.
The journey in late 1856 from South Carolina to their dream felt so distant. The Republic of Texas had become the state of Texas years before, and stories were plentiful of a place with lots of room to homestead and build a future that would offer freedom and grace to everyone. It was the grace that encouraged them the most.
John had heard it could take them up to five months to travel there by wagon. Though trains were much faster, there were no routes near the dot on the map that felt like home to him and his bride. So, it would be horses and wagons and ten-mile days for them. But the wagon allowed them to bring their favorite table, his tools, his church clothes, her two dresses and one petticoat, and both the shoes set aside for Sundays and the ones she wore most days—shoes covered in the mud of the fields and the sawdust of John’s designs.
There was something else the wagon would be carrying. Harriet was pregnant with their first child, and she took fabric from her favorite apron and crafted a christening gown for their baby before they said their farewells and began their travels. Winter was approaching, but their journey was moving them toward warmer and kinder days.
John and Harriet set out in the wagon in wide-eyed wonder, waving farewell to family as she snuggled in closely to her husband to warm herself from the cool October breeze. The journey through Georgia and Alabama passed quickly, and they celebrated Christmas as they crossed the Mississippi state line, visiting the younger sister of John. The family welcomed them with warm fresh bread, butter, and stew, and Harriet received gifts of fragrant dusting powder and swaddling clothes for the soon-to-come baby.
Navigating the Mississippi River was difficult, with few riverboats offering safe passage during the holidays. But a tenderhearted captain saw his own daughter in Harriet’s amber eyes, and shared the story of his delight in being a grandparent as he helped move the horses into place onto the boat. Like a tender parent, he helped John care for Harriet as the rough current tossed the riverboat like a toy one stormy evening. After three days, the captain said his farewells to the young couple with the big dream. He prayed for protection and provision, for the health of the baby, and for John and Harriet to find the freedom they longed to have. And silently, he prayed for Harriet. He noticed something in those eyes of hers. The young woman filled with such gumption held a weariness he could feel in his bones.
Mary Elizabeth Thomas was born just before dawn near the parish of Lake Charles, Louisiana. Her eyes the color of the stormy night on the Mississippi, her presence offered renewed hope and strength to John as he considered the future that he might provide to both of the women he adored. Harriet was his muse, and her creativity and intuition were the inspiration behind much of his craftsmanship. He smiled when he thought about how often she would tell him, “We make a most fine team, good John.” Yes, they were a powerful force to be reckoned with. And he knew his little girl would be just like her mom.
The family arrived in Texas on March 1, 1857. Two-month-old Mary Elizabeth was thriving, and the early Spring sunshine was a healing welcome after the long gray days of their winter’s journey. John found a grove of oak trees not far from a stream, and set camp for a few days of rest. There was sweet grass for the horses, plenty of wood to warm the evenings, and the song of the wind rustling in the trees. While their baby girl was growing strong, Harriet’s strength was fading. She had no complaint of pain, but she struggled to do simple things she enjoyed, like stoking the fire or holding her precious daughter.
Harriet leaned against one of the oak trees on the morning of March 6th and opened the pages of her favorite book of poetry, Leaves of Grass.
“Listen to these words, John,” she said quietly, her fingers gently following the words on the page. “’In folks nearest to you finding also the sweetest and strongest and lovingest, Happiness not in another place, but this place… not for another hour, but this hour.’
“Sweetest and strongest and lovingest. Not another place, but this place. Thank you, good John. Thank you for giving us this place.”
She closed the book, and then closed her eyes to rest.
She never opened them again.
John called to Harriet, and then ran to her to see if he could awaken her. He quickly harnessed the horses, and lifted his beloved into the back of the wagon. With Mary Elizabeth cradled in his arms, he traveled to the nearest town in search of help. And he collapsed into the arms of a doctor who delivered the news that nothing could be done. His bride, his best friend, his adventuring muse was gone.
People in the town gathered to help John and his baby girl honor Harriet. A farmer offered goat milk for little Mary Elizabeth, and he helped John built a simple casket. The farmer’s wife made a wreath of blue, pink, and yellow flowers, and the entire town traveled with John to the grove of oak trees to grieve his loss as he buried his wife.
“I don’t want her to be forgotten,” John said. “I want everyone to know Harriet.”
“I can help, sir,” a voice rose from the small crowd. “I can make sure everyone knows her name.”
The voice belonged to a man skilled in masonry. He had seen grave markers before, and believed he could take a piece of stone and craft an appropriate memorial for Harriet. John and the man traveled for three days to find granite, and it took the mason more than two weeks to carefully chisel the words in stone.
John F. Thomas,
March 6, 1857,
Aged 19 Years.
John never remarried, dedicating his time to his daughter Mary Elizabeth and opening his home to anyone needing a good meal at the table. He remembers the moment he looked at his daughter sitting across from him and seeing Harriet in her amber eyes and cinnamon hair. “We make a most fine team, good Mary,” he said. She smiled. “We do, dad. Yes, we do.”
“I miss your mom,” he said quietly.
“I miss her too,” she replied, wiping away tears.
Mary Elizabeth knew at that moment what she would one day do. When her dad breathed his last breath, she took him to the grove of oak trees where her mom had been waiting for 53 years. “Sweetest and strongest and lovingest. Not another place, but this place. You make a most fine team,” she whispered. At that moment, the wind seemed to whisper in her mom’s voice, “Yes we do, love. Yes, we do.”
My granddaughter and I met Harriet on November 21, 2021, while hunting beauty in the Piney Woods of East Texas. Armed with journals, pens, and binoculars, we set out to discover all the delights found in the woods.
Harriet was resting quietly near a grove of oak trees in a woods now used mostly for timber that will become stationery or paper towels or perhaps a box used to send gifts at Christmas. She was alone there; a single stone post-it note rising above soft dirt covered with moss and sticks was all that told of her days.
A white tail deer scampered in front of us as we walked toward her grave, and the birds above sang a final song before settling in for the night.
“She’s beautiful,” I whispered.
“Oh GiGi, she’s so young,” Tyler whispered in response. Harriet was only 19.
We both stood in silence, to honor her. And we made a promise that we would return.
The tall pines of winter have been harvested, but the oak grove remains. And we kept our promise.
We offered up beauty for her resting place. Locals say she has no story, so we gave her one. And in a twist, when the little burial plot was cleaned, we discovered a second grave. It was unmarked. We offered up beauty for it as well. And we included it in the story.
Tyler did all the research on migration from the eastern United States to Texas in the 1850s, as well as what people might wear, what kind of jobs people had, and how they got around when there wasn’t access to railways. She also learned about the average ages in which men and women got married, what kind of milk would be best for a baby, and what a person who makes grave markers is called. We collaborated on the storyline, and I was honored to be a bit of a muse and the “words-people” in this little work of historical fiction.
We are already thinking of additional things we might want to include in this story. Or maybe we’ll simply write another chapter or two. No matter what, we’re glad to give Harriet a story. Because everyone deserves to be known.