My interest in my family’s history began almost twenty-five years ago when my mother, Bonnie Ashworth, passed along to me an old, worn ledger book. The book contained poetry written over one hundred years ago by her great-great-grandfather and passed down to her by her Grandmother, Caroline Billingham Bentz (Grandpa Murphy’s granddaughter.) The family possessed several pictures of the him, but no one in the clan could remember precisely who this lyrical ancestor was. He was known to the family as simply “Grandpa Murphy.” The acquisition of this family heirloom marked the beginning of my long search for the identity of the mysterious Grandpa Murphy, and my family’s story; a search that would ultimately lead me to a small historical society basement on the Northern Neck of Virginia.
As one reads the forty or so poems, written over what seems to be a ten to twenty year period, one realizes that Grandpa Murphy is writing about his own life and surroundings. People and place names leap off the page to provide us clues as to the identity and location of the self described “Bard of Maple Grove.” Poems about Delaware (Ode to Delaware), Wicomico Church (Wicomico Chapel), Rehobeth (But He Never Meets With A Mishap) and Northumberland (Attention Old Northumberland) provide the most concrete evidence. In Northumberland County, Virginia (and within four miles of one another) are found the hamlets of Wicomico Church and Rehoboth Church. It seemed the logical place to begin my new quest to discover the mysterious Grandpa Murphy.
My first attempt to discern the identity of Grandpa Murphy was through a close examination of one of the pictures taken of him towards the end of his life. In the posed photograph, Grandpa Murphy sits in his Sunday best with a bowler resting on the table beside him. Peeking out from behind his overcoat is a small medal; it consists of a five-pointed star dangling from an American flag ribbon that, after closer scrutiny, reveals itself as a Grand Army of the Republic Medal. Alas, a hint! Grandpa Murphy must have served in the Union Army during the War Between the States. Unfortunately, at that time I was without Grandpa Murphy’s first name and home state, thus making it impossible to locate his military service record from the war.
In the basement of the Northumberland County Historical Society in Heathsville, Virginia the long search to discover the true name of our versifier came to an end. There, in the 1880 Virginia Census Records, is a complete description of Grandpa Murphy and his rather large family. Grandpa Murphy, in that census, gave his birthplace as the state of Delaware. He was born Jonathan G. Murphy in Kent County, Delaware around 1835. He was the son of Jonathan and Susan Murphy of Milford, Delaware. Grandpa Murphy came from a large family, having five brothers and three sisters.
Sometime around 1861 and while he was residing in Delaware or Maryland (it is unclear what his precise location was at this time of his life), Grandpa Jonathan Murphy married a young lady, two years his junior, named Caroline. In 1862 he enlisted in the Fourth Delaware Infantry Regiment, Company A, and served garrison duty in Washington D.C., Baltimore and Alexandria. The Fourth Delaware saw service in Gloucester, Middlesex, King & Queen and King William counties in Virginia as well as serving with distinction during the Overland and Petersburg campaigns. While Grandpa Murphy was serving the Union, he and his wife were blessed with the first of eight children, Thomas E. Murphy in 1863. During the winter of 1863 and spring of 1864, the regiment returned to Delaware. Approximately nine months after the regiment returned to duty in Virginia, and with the Civil War coming to an end, Caroline gave birth to her second son, Francis in 1865. Their first daughter was born in 1868, and the couple named her Sarah Ellen. Another son came shortly afterwards, in 1871, and was named Charles. The last child to be born before the couple moved from the Delaware/Maryland region to Virginia was Mary, born in 1874.
The Murphy family moved to the Wicomico District of Northumberland County, Virginia sometime after 1870. On December 4, 1876 the couple gave birth in Northumberland County to a daughter, Bettie A. Murphy. The birth register lists the father’s name as J.G. Murphy and the mother as Caroline Murphy. At the time, Grandpa Murphy was working on, or renting, a local farm. There is no evidence in the Northumberland County Court Records of Grandpa Murphy ever having owned property in the county. This assertion is supported by the county birth registry’s listing of his employment as “farmer” and the 1880 Virginia Census Records listing of his occupation as “laborour.” Another daughter, named Annie Murphy, was born to the family on December 4, 1880. While still residing in the Wicomico District of Northumberland County, Virginia, the couple gave birth to yet another daughter, Carrie on June 19, 1884. Jonathan Murphy appears in the Northumberland County Personal Property Tax List for a number of years during the middle of the 1880’s, before vacating the county.
It is not simply the discovery of place names that confirms Grandpa Murphy’s residence in the Wicomico District of Northumberland County, Virginia. In two of Grandpa Murphy’s poems we meet a man by the name of Bill Simonds. The poems are light-hearted and describe a young man searching for, and finding, his true love. Another perusal of the 1870 and 1880 Virginia Census Records finds a William Simmonds and family listed as residing in the Wicomico District of Northumberland County, Virginia at the same time as Grandpa Murphy. Another bit of interesting evidence is found not in the poems themselves, but in small scraps of paper tucked between the pages of the ledger. On these inserts, Grandpa Murphy listed a variety of tasks he performed for, and was ostensibly paid by, Warner Ball. The Ball family has been residing on the Northern Neck of Virginia since the earliest days of Virginia’s settlement. Close analysis of a map of Northumberland County turns up a number of Ball references, including Ball’s Creek near the Rehobeth Church area. There is also a slip of paper apparently listing the names of some of the residents of Rehobeth Church. Still further evidence of Grandpa Murphy’s residence in Northumberland County is found in his poem Hard Bargain Hill. In this verse, Grandpa Murphy makes reference to an old Northumberland County home, known as “Hard Bargain.” Hard Bargain was built at the end of the eighteenth-century and, during the period when Grandpa Murphy resided in Northumberland County, was owned by John Emory Harding. The house is located in Ball Neck, just east of Rehobeth Church. Grandpa Murphy’s poems also speak of a number of church meetings and gatherings at a place called White Marsh. White Marsh (White Marsh Church) is the earliest Methodist Church on the Northern Neck of Virginia. The congregation was organized in 1792 and their eighteenth-century church still stands today. It is located just west of Rehobeth Church in Lancaster County, Virginia. Grandpa Murphy also wrote a poem about a small Methodist Church in Wicomico Church itself (Wicomico Chapel). This church was erected in 1859 and housed Confederate soldiers during the Civil War.
Grandpa Murphy’s poems tell not only the story of Northumberland County, but also the story of his personal beliefs and values. It is clear from Grandpa Murphy’s poetry that he was a deeply religious man. Many of his poems, like Old Year Passes By, reflect his serious, emotional connection with his creator. There are also to be found poems like Kind Friends Now Give Attention, that are of a lighter tone, and almost playful. Through poems like Attention Old Northumberland Grandpa Murphy’s political viewpoints on Southern Reconstruction are made apparent. The poem encourages the residents of Northumberland County to cast aside the anti-Reconstructionist Southern Democrats (referred to by him as “Bourbons”) and support the pro-Reconstructionist Republican Party. His patriotism is also on display in one of his last known poems, The Maine, about the sinking of the United States’ battleship Maine in Havanna, Cuba’s harbor. In the poem Good Templars we also learn that Grandpa Murphy was a supporter of the temperance movement. A number of Grandpa Murphy’s poems address the mortality of himself and others. The poems My Own, Thirty Years Ago, and 40 Years Ago provide us with insight into Grandpa Murphy’s attitude towards his own journey through life.
The poems of Grandpa Jonathan G. Murphy open a small window into the lives of the people of the Wicomico District of Northumberland County, Virginia during the turbulent years following the Civil War. They also allow us, particularly those of us descended from him, to appreciate our familial heritage and history. The quest to discover the life and times of Grandpa Murphy led me down the course of understanding my family’s history. I have discovered much in the years since starting this quest and it is a constant work in progress. After 1890, Jonathan G. Murphy moved his family to Trenton, New Jersey where he lived out the remainder of his days. He died in Trenton in November of 1918 and is buried in Trenton’s Riverview Cemetery.
The original manuscript copy of Jonathan G. Murphy’s book of poetry was donated by the author to the College of William and Mary’s Special Collections Department. The original, along with the author’s transcriptions, can be viewed there. You can order a copy of his poetry here.
© Noel B. Poirier, 2020.