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Notes on Reuben Lewis Bristow (1811-1871)

By Neil Allen Bristow

Reuben Lewis Bristow was born 13 January 1811 in southwestern Bourbon County, Kentucky, the fourth son of James Bristow, Jr. and Jane Shelton Clarkson. He was named for an uncle, Reuben Lewis Clarkson (1779?-1849).1

On 17 July 1834, three years after the Bristows moved to Boone County, Reuben married Miss Statira Bonaparte Stephens, the elder daughter of Senator Leonard Stephens and Catherine Sanford Stephens.2 His bride's family were large landowners active in the civic and commercial affairs of northern Kentucky. Reuben's new father-in-law had just completed a term in the Kentucky Senate, and his brother-in-law, Napoleon Bonaparte Stephens, would represent the area in the Kentucky House before taking an active role in local politics.3 Leonard and his brothers William and John were investors in turnpike and banking companies.4

The young couple took over a farm at the mouth of Dry Creek on the Ohio River from his father, James Bristow, in April 1836.5 The next month, Reuben survived a serious illness, probably a bout with cholera, which had been a recurring epidemic since 1833. His sister Mary later recalled the incident.6

For those three weeks the life of my beloved brother was despaired of, and, Oh, what misery it was to hear him in the pits of delirium swearing the most bitter oaths. I had lost many of my nearest and dearest friends, but not one had died without expressing a hope of happiness after death. Now to look at him I so dearly loved, whom the physicians had given up to die, so entirely thoughtless, it really seemed more than I could bear. . . .

Statira Stephens Bristow
He recovered his health, and by 1840 Reuben and Statira had moved to nearby Grant County where they were enumerated with three small boys and two other adult males.7 A year later they were back in Boone, purchasing 100 acres on the Long Branch of the Gunpowder Creek from James Bristow.8 The family fell on hard times, perhaps from the lingering effects of the depression which had followed the Panic of 1837.9 In May of 1843 Reuben and Statira sold the Gunpowder Creek land, 75 acres to his younger brother, Anselm, and 25 acres to Fielding Delph.10 In November they had to mortgage some of their personal property, including three slaves (Sylvia, Nelson, and Ann), livestock, household goods, and two crops of tobacco. They even had to mortgage the silver spoons Statira had been given by her father.11 Their difficulties must have been temporary because the spoons, which were made from bullion Leonard had received as pay for his legislative service, are still in the family, and Nelson is mentioned two decades later, when he was drafted into the Union army in 1865.12

In 1847 their second son, Leonard Stephens Bristow, died of "congestion of the brain" just two days short of his ninth birthday.13

By 1850 Reuben Bristow and his growing family were living on Bank Lick Creek west of Independence in Kenton County, next to General Stephens' place, known as Beech Woods. Reuben and Statira called their farm Maple Grove. They owned 160 acres, of which 90 were improved. The land was valued at $7000. Farm implements were worth $100, livestock $600. The stock included 8 horses, 2 milk cows and 8 other cattle, 20 sheep and 100 swine. The fields yielded 150 bushels of wheat, 170 of rye, and 1,500 of Indian corn. Their orchard furnished $150 worth of fruit.14

Reuben and his eldest son, Julius Lucien,
in 1851 when the 16-year-old was leaving
for school in Paris, Kentucky.
As befitted a well-connected and industrious husbandman, Reuben played a part in efforts to improve the farmers' lot. In mid-March, 1856, he was elected as the first president of the Kenton County Agricultural Society.15

The family's holdings expanded over the next decades, thanks in large measure to the generosity of Statira's father. On the eve of the Civil War they had a farm of 300 acres, with 230 listed as improved, valued at $16,000. The implements required had also increased to a value of $200. Livestock numbered 11 horses, 2 mules, 9 milk cows, 2 oxen, and 10 other cattle. There were also 46 sheep and 250 hogs with a value of $2,025. 215 bushels of wheat, 1000 rye, 3000 Indian corn, plus 150 oats. They produced 200 pounds of wool and 100 of honey.16

In the winter of 1863 General Leonard Stephens wrote his brother William in Missouri, "Reuben Bristow has been very unlucky with his hogs.
The Hampshire Belted Pig
Known as the Kentucky Thin Rind
They took cholera & out of 120 good hogs has but few left and he thinks they will all die."17 In December General Stephens noted, "The Beech Mast is keeping the Hogs so far which is certainly a help. We sold our surplus hogs for five dollars & a quarter gross, delivered & weighed at Covington. Reuben Bristow got five dollars & sixty-five cents for his. They were better hogs."18 The hogs raised by Reuben and his father-in-law were probably descendants of English imports, such as the Hampshire Belted, a "hardy and prolific" breed, which became known as the "Kentucky Thin-Rind."19

Although Reuben sold most of his hogs to meat packers in Cincinnati, some were kept for the family's use. A fellow Bluegrass resident gave a colorful description of the process of transforming livestock into foodstuff.20

The Kentucky farmers killed and cured the hogs, which supplied the greater part of their meat consumed during each year, when the first real cold weather set in. "Hog-killing time" was an important event, therefore, and it was not easy to determine whether the negroes or small white boys most enjoyed it. Long before daybreak an immense fire of logs would be blazing near the hog-pen, on which large stones were placed. When these stones were heated red-hot they were thrown into big troughs filled with water, and as soon as the water was at boiling pitch the carcasses of the slaughtered hogs would be placed in the troughs and kept there until the hair, thoroughly scalded, could be readily scraped off. Then the carcasses would be hung up on stout cross poles and disembowelled, preparatory to being taken to the "meathouse" to be cut up into hams, chines, sides, and sausage meat. Much else, also, that was edible, did that useful animal provide. Even while the work was in progress, hogs' tails and livers were broiled on the big fire and eaten with a relish that only the small white boy and the adult darkey can experience. We were wont also on such occasions to procure our stock of "bladders," which, inflated and hung up in the garret to dry, were relied upon, in those comparatively primitive times, to produce the quantum of noise without which Christmas would have scarcely realized the bright expectations of boyhood.

The Southdown Sheep
Valued for both wool and meat
While hogs seemed to be Reuben's major form of stock, he and his brother Anselm also raised sheep. In 1850 more than a million sheep were counted in the state, and slightly fewer in 1860.21 Stock were allowed to roam free to forage in the woods and fenced out of fields instead of being fenced in pastures or paddocks. Mary wrote to their father in 1855 about Anselm's troubles guarding his sheep from depredations by neighborhood dogs.22

[Anselm] had bought hay and corn in the neighborhood and had moved his sheep here some weeks previous to our moving. The dogs got amongst them and killed seven of his best sheep, among the rest his fine lamb that you will recollect he brought from Bourbon in his buggy. I never saw a poor fellow so hurt as he was about his lamb. He could have sold him for 25 or 30 dollars. They lost about fifty dollars worth of sheep I suppose in one night. Ance made a rail pen somewhat in the shape of a snowbird trap, put the dead sheep in it, and if any of his own dogs got in, flogged them unmercifully with his buggy whip before he let them out. If any of the neighbors' dogs that he did not know got in, they received a dose of powder and lead, and was dragged out. He is at open war with dogs at present.

Even at the close of the twentieth century, those who work the land know well that the farmer is at the mercy of forces beyond his control, both natural and human. Disease and adverse weather could ravage crops and livestock. The drought of 1854 was especially severe, as General Stephens wrote:23

You speak of the drouth as having been extremely bad in your state. I assure you it has been worse with us than I ever knew it before in my life & the consequence is that there is bound to be a great scarcity of grain here, & its effects are already felt. Corn is selling in the field at three dollars per barrel & it is all laid at more than it will make by at least a barrel in the acre, which, of course makes it cost the buyer that much more. The grass, too, is all dried up & eat up so, that we are bound to have a hard time of it the coming winter. We have very few vegetables of any kind. We have about a half crop of corn in this neighborhood. The small grain & grass crop was tolerably good & well saved.

Mary Beckley Bristow
Reuben's sister, about 1861
Mary wrote to her father the following April about the aftermath.24

You say in your last that you grieved for Reuben because you feared he would not have food for his stock. I think he is better off in that respect than almost any of his neighbors or friends. Selling his hogs in the fall off the rye, before they had eaten any corn, was the saving of him I suppose, for everybody that fed hogs last fall lost their corn, and it would have been better for Brother Julius and Anselm to have sold their cattle and sheep last fall — or even given them away — than to have kept them through the winter. The corn they eat [sic] was nearly a clear loss unless we could have kept them until the grass came, and that was impossible. It has been very difficult to get corn for bread and to feed the work horses, and I suppose they will have to go to town for the next they get, as their is [sic] none to be had in the country. . .

A few years later when the southern states attempted to leave the Union, Kentuckians were divided in their loyalties. The Bristow family was among those so torn. Reuben's sympathies were with the South, but his cousin, Francis Marion Bristow (1804-1864), a congressman from south-central Kentucky, tried in vain to preserve the Union.25 Although Kentucky did not secede, Federal authorities viewed the border state's inhabitants with suspicion, and the Union army behaved in many respects like an occupying power. Although Reuben avoided arrest (as some of his more outspoken neighbors did not), family tradition holds that when he resisted selling some horses to the Union Army, they were found dead the next morning.

In the fall of 1861, Mary reported that her brother had escaped death in a train wreck.26
Trainwrecks were frequent

My brother Reuben was on the cars returning from Cynthiana; a collision of Cars took place. By the shock he was thrown down and both feet caught between two cars. I do hope my first emotion when I heard of it was one of gratitude to my God that it was not worse. Have been to see him twice. The first time I thought his hurts would not be very bad, but they got much worse and sloughed to the bone. He is now getting much better again, but can't walk a step yet.

Reuben's father-in-law supplied more detail in a letter to William.27

Reuben Bristow in returning from Cynthiana about four weeks since got very badly injured by a collision on the RailRoad & has been pretty much helpless since, until within a few days now, he had been riding round a little. His legs were caught between two of the cars, & it is a mistery that they were not crushed off. One of them was badly mashed, tho I suppose no bones broken. There were others badly injured & one man a conductor killed dead & one so badly hurt as to die in a short time. The rest as I understand are all recovering.

Not long after Reuben's accident, Reuben's second son, Jerome, together with a close neighbor, William Corlis Respess, both in their twenties, set out on the 9th of October from near Independence with some like-minded young men to join up with the CSA. Unfortunately, the group of would-be recruits was apprehended three weeks later by some Home Guards at the Van Meter farm in Clark County, and the boys spent the next several months enjoying Yankee hospitality at as prisoners of war at Camp Chase, Ohio.28

Jerome and Willie did go south again and enlisted in the CSA at Lexington when it was temporarily occupied by Braxton Bragg. His enlistment was recorded (as J J Bristow) 20 Sep 1862 in Company I, 2nd (Duke's) Kentucky Cavalry, a unit filled with men from Boone and Kenton Counties.29 He apparently remained with that unit until the end of the war.30

Willie managed to return home long enough to marry Jerome's sister Catherine (who was known as "Bit" from her small size) in December 1862.

His aunt Mary made several references to Jerome's absence in her diaries. The family was worried that he had been among those captured in Ohio on John Hunt Morgan's Great Raid of 1863, but illness had kept him from riding with his unit. In a letter to his aunt in January 1865 from near Abingdon, Virginia, Jerome described some close escapes in combat. "In the first battle near Abingdon, he had a ball shot through his hat. In the last battle fought at or near the same place, a ball passed through his over coat, making twenty-one holes. Of course the coat must have been rolled up. I can't see how else it could have been."31

In the later stages of the war, the Union authorities began drafting slaves as well as free men, a policy which caused great consternation in Kentucky and other Border States. Reuben and Statira lost hands to the Army, as her father reported to his brother in January of 1865.32

There is a nother draft ordered to take place on the 15th of Feb & two or three of them are liable to be drafted, & substitutes are now so high as to put it out of the question to hire them, & indeed they are now staying with an expectation of being paid for their services, so that they are really no longer slaves but hired servants.

Reuben Bristow's Nelson was drafted & he protested against going, insisted that his Master should buy him off which he did, & then he went in a short time and enlisted so there is no security or certainty in their staying, and then there are individuals all the while persuading them to go.

Reuben's mother
Jane Shelton Clarkson Bristow, about 1861
Reuben's 85 year-old father, James, had died in 1855 on a visit to his grandchildren in western Illinois. His mother, Jane Shelton Clarkson Bristow, succumbed to tuberculosis and old age in January 1863. She had been suffering with infirmity for some time.33 Two years later, his elder brother, Julius Clarkson Bristow, died, leaving their single sister, Mary, to join Reuben's household.34

With the collapse of the Confederacy in the spring of 1865, Jerome returned to Maple Grove. He may have avoided Federal Minié balls, but he did contract rheumatic fever or a similar ailment, either as a POW or later, because he died of heart disease only five years after the war, at the age of 30. His obituary noted that his death was "regretted by his comrades of Captain Franks Company, Duke's Regiment, CSA."35

The family weathered the upheaval of Emancipation and the depression that followed the war. In 1870 the census recorded R. L. Bristow with 600 acres, 400 improved, valued at $60,000; implements were put at $1000. Reuben paid $800 in wages, probably most going to freedmen who had been emancipated five years before. Livestock valued at $5,390 had not increased much: 12 horses, 1 mule, 10 milk cows, 30 other cattle, along with 45 sheep and 220 hogs. Output from the land included 403 bushels of winter wheat, 300 of rye, 2500 of Indian corn, 200 of oats, 256 of barley and 40 of potatoes and 15 tons of hay for a total value of $14,400. Other farm products included 500 lbs butter, 360 honey, and 65 gallons of molasses.36

Unfortunately, Reuben did not have long to enjoy life, as his sister recorded.37

For some time previous to Jerome's death, his Father was suffering, at times very severely, with a sore in his mouth that we were very uneasy about. He grew worse all the time, tried many of the most eminent physicians, but received no benefit. Such intense suffering I have never witnessed; it seemed at times more than the human frame could bear. In May he resolved at all hazards to have his jaw opened, which was done, and a pound of decayed flesh was extracted. For a few weeks we had great hopes of his recovery, but alas the disease had taken too deep a hold on his system, and we found our hopes futile, but rejoiced that his sufferings were not so great afterward, though the awful disease, cancer, was slowly but surely destroying his mortal body. His flesh and strength generally declined, until he became the most entire wreck I have ever seen. I do not think the nearest friend he had on earth, who had not seen him frequently during his protracted suffering, would have recognized him. But the Lord, we trust, was teaching him and leading him to living fountains of water, and when the breath left his body, his tried spirit was taken to that bright home above where God has wiped all tears from his eye. During his long illness of eighteen months he often seemed anxious to leave this world. Often [he] would say, "Oh if I only could go home." I told him the Lord would take him at the right time. Once I repeated the words of the poet, "Although I fear death's chilling tide, still I long for home. . . ." He answered, "Ah, that is it. I am not afraid to die but dread the dark valley, but if Jesus be with me, I shall fear no evil."

I have never witnessed more patience than he exhibited throughout his sufferings. We always in good weather would move his rocking chair in the porch. For some days in September, it had been cold & rainy and he had been confined to the room, had become too feeble to walk but a few steps at a time. I went in one morning to help him to dress. I said, "It is a beautiful, bright morning. You can go out in the porch. Are you glad?" "Indeed I am," [he] said. He was quite cheerful while dressing and eating his breakfast. Soon after, we moved him out. Whilst I was arranging his chairs, he stood up, looking all around. All at once he burst out into tears. I caught his arm. He saw I was troubled. Raising his hand towards heaven, he said, "I was just thinking, if yon sun made this earth so beautiful, what would heaven be, illumined by the sun of righteousness?" Immediately the words of the angel to John when in the Isle of Patmos, "And there shall be no night there, and they need no candle, neither light of the sun, for the Lord God giveth light, and they shall reign forever and ever," came to mind. "And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes, and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow nor crying. Neither shall there be any more pain for the former things are passed away." I feel assured that my beloved brother is now in that happy clime, Free from sorrow, pain and care, from every sin and hurtful snare.

Once he told me he had the poorest idea of heaven of any body in the world who had professed to know God and his Christ. I told [him] I had often thought that of myself, but had come to the conclusion that Jesus was all the heaven I had ever known or cared to know. If I was one of the members of his body, I should be with him and like him, and I thought I should, like old David, be satisfied when I awoke in his likeness. He agreed with me [on] that. At another time he told me with tears that he feared he had never known one thing about religion, but after awhile he seemed better reconciled, and was again repeating the words, "God is love." Those words I have no doubt were applied to him in an early stage of his sickness, for very, very often he repeated them, and the day before his death, when he could not speak intelligibly, when a friend was talking to him, he wrote on his slate, "God is love. I am not afraid to die." The morning before he died when I went to him, he asked me how long I thought it would be before he could go home. I said, "Reuben, are you very anxious to go?" He answered, "I wait the Lord's time," and he looked humble and gentle as a little child. He spoke more plainly all day than he had for several days previous. About seven o'clock in the evening, he told us he was dying, raised his hands, repeated three times, "Lord have mercy on me," then ceased to breathe.

Although we had been long expecting his death and sometimes [were] almost willing he should go, yet when he was gone, I felt that. . . .

His passing (16 October 1871) was noted in the Covington paper. "A prominent and much esteemed citizen of this county died Sunday last after a long and painful illness."38 His will, written two weeks before his death, named Statira and two of his sons, Julius and Ben Frank, executors.39

Statira survived her husband by thirty years, dying in the new century at the home of her youngest daughter and namesake, Statira Benning Bristow (Mrs Joseph Coombs).40 Reuben had been buried in the Independence Cemetery, a couple of miles from his home at Maple Grove, but his remains were later removed to Highland Cemetery in Fort Mitchell, in the hills above Covington, where they rest next to those his wife, his mother, his sister Mary and his elder brother, Julius Clarkson Bristow, as well as several children and grandchildren.

Mary died in 1890, almost two decades after Reuben, and their brother, Anselm, lived on until 1905 on his farm near Union. An 1883 Atlas shows the houses of Reuben's children along a run west of Banklick Creek.41 His descendants drifted away from the farm, taking up urban occupations, and the land passed into other hands. The Bristow name lives on as a country road linking Union and Florence to Independence, running through land once known as Maple Grove.



[Click on the footnote number to return to the text.]

1 Somewhere along the way the spelling of his middle name changed from the British "Lewis" to the French "Louis" perhaps because the latter seemed more elegant. His son, Louis Lunsford Bristow, who was named (perhaps indirectly) for a renowned Baptist preacher of the previous century, Lewis Lunsford, also took the French form, as did Reuben's grandson and namesake.

2 Marriage Bond and Return, dated 3 Nov 1834 [sic], posted by Leonard Stephens: "Reuben S. Bristow and Statia Stephens." Married by John G. Ellis. (Filed under July bonds. Perhaps Ellis was slow in his paperwork.) Stephen W. Worrel, Campbell County, Kentucky, Marriages, 1795-1850 (Falls Church, VA: author, 1992), 28.

3 Napoleon (1814-1887) served two terms in the legislature, and more than two decades as Clerk of State and Federal Courts, and later was President of the Covington City Council.

4 See Leonard's letters to his brother William, who moved to Monroe County, Missouri in 1838. Originals are at the Missouri Historical Society, Saint Louis; transcripts are in Ruth Douglass Stephens, Stephens Family Letters and Documents.
My transcription with notes is also posted on the Web.

5 The transfer took place on 19 September and is recorded in Boone Deeds K: 503. On 21 June Reuben had purchased 5½ acres from George and Sarah Anderson. Boone Deeds K: 270. The locale is still known as Anderson's Ferry, and a small ferry does still convey travelers across the Ohio River.

6 Bristow, Diary, 55. His younger brother, Benjamin Franklin Bristow, had succumbed to the disease two years before, leaving a pregnant wife and two small orphans.

7 1840 Census, Grant County. 78. The boys were Julius Lucien, Leonard Stephens, and James Jerome. The other adult males may have been brothers or farm hands.

8 Boone Deeds M: 479.

9 Richard B. Morris, ed., Encyclopedia of American History Revised and enlarged edition (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1961), 536.

10 Boone Deeds N: 571.

11 Boone Deeds O: 39, 40, 49.
Statira's spoons

12 Stephens Letters, 68. [12 Jan 1865]

13 Bristow, Diary, 28.

14 1850 Census, Agricultural Schedule, Kenton County, 691.

15 Covington Journal, 15 Mar 1856, 2. His brother-in-law Napoleon served as temporary chair and Thomas Stephens, another in-law, was chosen Treasurer.

16 1860 Census, Agricultural Schedule, Kenton County, 19.

17 To William Stephens, 13 Feb 1863. Stephens Letters, 52. Hog cholera, which is caused by a virus, should not be confused with bacterial cholera afflicting humans, although the symptoms are not unlike: fever, diarrhea, loss of appetite, and lethargy.

18 Stephens Letters, 58-59.

19 Elizabeth Ritter Clotfelter, Agricultural History of Bourbon County, Kentucky prior to 1900, Master's thesis, University of Kentucky, 57-63.

20 Basil W. Duke, Reminiscences of General Basil W. Duke, C.S.A. (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1911), 229-230.

21 Joseph C. G. Kennedy, Agriculture of the United States in 1860, 1: 121.

22 Bristow, Diary, 37-38.

23 Stephens Letters, 28-29.

24 20 Apr 1855. Bristow, Diary, 40.

25 Francis' son, Benjamin Helm Bristow, led a Union cavalry regiment, and later served in Grant's cabinet. Sketches of the two are included in John Walton, "Politicians and Statesmen: the Bristows in American Government" in Genealogies of Kentucky Families from the Filson Club History Quarterly. (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing), 68-89. [The article is now online at Duane Bristow's excellent site.]

26 Bristow, Diary, 87-88.

27 To William Stephens, 18 Oct 1861. Stephens Letters, 49. I have not been able to find any newspaper accounts of the incident.

28 Their capture was reported in The Covington Journal, 2 Nov 1861, 3.

29 See Kentucky Adjutant General's Report, 580, 594. The James Bristow listed by the AG in Co. E, 7th Cavalry, may have been a cousin, but I have not traced him.

30 Fragmentary pay records of the 2nd (Duke's) Kentucky Cavalry found in the Compiled Service Records (National Archives film M 319-10) show he was paid as a member of Company I in 1862 for 1 Aug to 31 Oct and Nov and Dec by Maj. Llewellyn, and that he received a bounty of $40.00 (probably for supplying his own horse).

31 Bristow, Diary, 88, 104 , 109, 110, 121, 124.

32 Stephens Letters, 68.

33 She was buried in the Stephens family cemetery at Beech Woods, General Stephens' home. He wrote to his brother William on the 29th, "We had a burrying here on this day week ago. Old Aunt Ginny Bristow, Reuben's mother, died, & they decided to burry her here. The old Lady was quite old, being about 86. She died with disease of the lungs." Stephens Letters, 51. A much fuller account appears in Bristow, Diary, 100-102.

34 Diary, 124-125.

35 Covington Journal, 12 Nov 1870, p. 2. A similar notice appeared in the Cincinnati Commercial, 29 Oct 1870, p 7. (Thomas B. Franks succeeded Samuel D. Morgan as CO of Co. I. See AG's Report, 580.)

36 1870 Census, Agricultural Schedule, Kenton County, 1.

37 Bristow, Diary, 137-138.

38 Covington Journal, 21 Oct 1871, 2. Whether Reuben, like many of his contemporaries, indulged in chewing tobacco is not known. The habit was widespread, as demonstrated by the omnipresence of spittoons, which were required items in every public building of the era. I wonder how many of today's crop of ballplayers will share Reuben's fate.

39 Kenton Wills 1: 410. Signed 29 Sep 1871, with a codicil of the same date directing the sale of some land in Boone County to satisfy a debt to Addison Huey. Probate 20 Nov 1871.

40 Kentucky Post, 11 and 12 Apr 1902.

41 Atlas of Boone, Kenton & Campbell Counties, Kentucky. Philadelphia: D. J. Lake & Co., 1883.


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