Rachel Annie Osborn was born December 15, 1849, in McDonough County, Illinois. Her parents were Andrew J. Osborn and Elizabeth Cockerham. Andrew and Elizabeth were both born in Indiana and had migrated to Illinois in the 1830s with their parents. They met and were married in McDonough County in March 1841. Two years later, Andrew and Elizabeth, along with Elizabeth’s parents (Rachel’s grandparents), founded the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in the small settlement of Industry, Illinois. Rachel was the third of seven children, three girls and four boys. She was just 10 months old when the 1850 Census was enumerated. At the time, the Osborn family, now five strong, were still living in Industry Township.
By the time of the 1860 census, the family had moved northwest to Tennessee Township. Their nearest post office was in Colchester. The Osborn family had expanded by two. As pioneer families grew and new settlers came to the area, McDonough County experienced a population explosion, from 7,616 in 1850 to 20,069 in 1860–an increase of more than 150%!
The Osborns welcomed two more children in quick succession, in 1861 and 1863. Then, sadly, on January 3, 1864, Rachel’s mother died, leaving her husband and seven children to mourn her loss. Rachel had just turned 15 years old. A few months later Rachel’s older sister married and moved to Missouri. I imagine that Rachel carried a lot of the responsibility for the care of her four younger siblings. I imagine, too, in a rural, close-knit country community like that which the Osborns were part of, friends and neighbors helped out where they could. In 1870, Rachel (then 19) and her younger siblings were all still living with their father, who worked as a farm laborer. The family had moved a few miles west to Hancock Township, just across the McDonough-Hancock county line. The census, which provides a snapshot at a particular day in time, did not reflect that any of the Osborn children attended school. However later censuses, as well as public documents and correspondence, indicate that all could read and write. I would guess that they all had some degree of formal education at one or more of the many country schools scattered throughout the area.
On October 20, 1870, Rachel married William H. Nichols, who had moved to Rachel’s neighborhood after the war. They were married at the home of Reverend William Welch, a Baptist minister who lived in Tennessee, Illinois. Rachel’s childhood friend and neighbor, Mattie Farris, was present at the marriage. Years later, when Rachel applied for a widow’s pension based on William’s Civil War service, the record she obtained from the County Clerk’s office to prove her marriage showed the marriage date as October 16, 1870, but in an explanatory affidavit, Rachel was adamant:
There must have been an error in date of Marriage Record at County seat as I am very positive of the correctness of my statement as being October 20th 1870 instead of October 16th 1870 as shown by the copy of records. Marriage license was procured Saturday, October 15th 1870 and marriage ceremony performed Thursday October 20th 1870.
Rachel and William welcomed their first child, Charles Elmer, in 1872. Ida came along in 1874, followed by Annie in 1877. For a time, Rachel and William occupied the same house as another young couple, Archibald and Mary Dorethy, when both had small families.
While Rachel’s family grew during this decade, her family of birth would fade away from McDonough County, and perhaps, Rachel’s life. By 1880, all four of her grandparents had died. Her father and siblings had scattered far and wide: to Arkansas, Idaho, Texas, and Wyoming. Surviving correspondence shows the brothers stayed in contact with one another, but there isn’t a whisper about whether they were in touch with their sisters or whether the sisters were in touch with each other. I doubt that Rachel ever saw her father again. This circumstance was not uncommon in the day, but somehow it strikes me as so sad!
The 1880 census shows the Nichols leasing a modest, 40-acre farm in Hancock County. In 1882, their second son, Finis Ewing, was born. Elsie, the Nichols’ fifth and last child, was born in 1884. William suffered with debilitating, chronic dysentery and other serious health issues stemming from his time in the Army during the Civil War. In 1893, a medical examiner determined that he was “wholly incapacitated for earning a support by manual labor,” and William was awarded an invalid’s pension. The 1900 census shows William’s occupation as farmer, though he must have relied heavily on Rachel and his children to help support the family. By 1900, Charles and Ida had married, although both made their homes in Tennessee Township near their parents, and I feel sure they helped out when they could.
Finis married and moved to Galesburg in 1905, but Annie (27) and Elsie (20) were still living at home when their father died in February 1906. Rachel applied for a widow’s pension. Several long-time friends and acquaintances filed affidavits to help Rachel prove that she was entitled to the pension, that neither she nor William had ever been married to anyone else, that they had not divorced, and that she, Rachel, had no other means of support. Rachel described the sum total of her real and personal property: Four acres of land in Hancock County on which she lived, under mortgage for $250 with interest at six per cent per annum; one span of work horses, each of which was twenty-one years old; household and kitchen furniture to the value of $50. (Although her property was in Hancock County, her mailing address was Rural Route 1, Tennessee.) Charles testified on behalf of his mother that the homestead was not all in cultivation, nor could it be, as the land was rough and uneven, having originally been timber or brush land. He clarified that his mother did not sell any of the products of her garden and truck patch as all were required for her own support. In late October 1906 (bureaucratic delays then being about what they are now), Rachel’s application was approved.
Rachel’s youngest child, Elsie, married and left home in 1910. Annie never married and lived with her mother until Rachel’s death in 1912 at age 62. Rachel was survived by all five of her children, several grandchildren, and her brother Steve. Rachel rests alongside William in Hills Grove Cemetery in McDonough County, forever her home.
Rachel’s branch of the family tree has been full of surprises. Literally hundreds of my dad’s close DNA matches share an ancestor with Rachel. Many of these matches trace their ancestry back to a prolific Osborn family group who settled first in North Carolina and then in the New River Valley in Virginia before the Revolutionary War. Rachel’s mother descended from this group, whose patriarch was Ephraim Osborn. Rachel’s father came from these Osborns, too, but he may have descended from a brother of Ephraim. Several Osborns, along with other pioneer families (including Stewarts and Penningtons who had ties to the family of Daniel Boone) migrated from Virginia and North Carolina, through Kentucky, to Indiana and further west into Illinois. Families who migrated together often intermarried, creating endogamous populations. Descendants of these families often share DNA through more than one ancestor (as does Rachel). As it turns out, Rachel’s second great grandmother on her mother’s side was Hannah Boone, Dan’l youngest sister. (Click here to see Rachel’s family tree.) I wonder if Rachel knew she was related to Daniel Boone, or if that would have had any particular significance in her day? It was not a story that was part of my family’s oral history, but one I learned only through research. We may not have a Cherokee princess in our family tree, but thanks to Grandmother Rachel, by golly, we have Boone DNA!