This is a story about Charity Melvina May, a girl born of pioneer stock. Her father was an Indian scout and friend of Sam Houston as well as a citizen of the Republic of Texas. Family lore says her mother had Cherokee ancestry. Her family heritage was, indeed, fascinating, but her life was hard and filled with sadness.
Charity and her twin sister, Sarah Arkansas, were born October 28, 1846, in Marshall, Harrison County, Texas which, at this time, was a mere village. Caddo Indians lived in this part of East Texas for centuries before the Spanish explorers arrived as early as the sixteenth century. American pioneers did not begin to move into the area until the late 1830’s. When the Mayes lived in Harrison County in the 1840’s it was rugged country filled with forests of pine, cypress, and oak.
Charity and Sarah were the last two children of George and Mary Jane Upton May. Records indicate that Mary Jane May possibly gave birth to ten children but three died as infants. Nevertheless, this was a large pioneer family that moved from Tennessee to Texas under difficult circumstances.
By the time Charity was 3 years old, her family was living in Victoria County, Texas. We know in 1849 her father, George May, recorded his last will and testament in the Victoria County Courthouse. In 1850 the May family is listed on the 1850 United States Federal Census living in Hallettsville, Lavaca County, Texas. There were six children living in the household – Josephine (18), Samuel H. (12), John (10), Mary (8), Sarah (4) and Charity (4). By the way, Charity’s name is spelled incorrectly as “Cherela.” As we know, the census takers were sometimes way off on their spelling!
One year later, George May died leaving his wife and large family to make it on their own. It has been said that Mary had learned the ways of the Indian very early in life and knew how to live under the direst circumstances.
Though little is known how they managed, the years after Charity’s father died must have been very difficult. We have read stories or seen movies that romanticized life in early Texas, but we should take those “with a grain of salt.” It is hard to imagine being a single parent providing food and clothing for a family; taking care of the business of raising cattle and the produce of a farm; and fighting disease or nursing childhood illnesses. I wonder what it was like to kill rattlesnakes or other varmints or suffer the sweltering heat and humidity in their crude houses. It sounds rough and rugged to me.
Chances are the childhood of Charity and her siblings was cut short. Like so many children living in these early days of Texas, they had to do the work of adults. Since there were two older boys in the family, Mary Jane would have depended on them to do the farm work while the girls helped in the house. They learned very early how to survive.
Charity was in her early teens when she met Lewis Nance. His family lived nearby and it is likely they visited occasionally. Lewis and Charity developed a relationship and married April 30, 1862.
This should have been a happy time in this young couple’s life, but that was not meant to be. The United States was engaged in the Civil War, and not long after their wedding, Lewis enlisted in the Confederate States Army. Like her mother, Charity was left with the responsibilities of running a farm and home on her own.
About a year after they married, Lewis and Charity had their first child, Margaret “Maggie” Nance March 4,1863. The Civil War was still going on and Lewis was away most of the time. Since she was so young and a new mother, having her mother and other family near by must have been important to her.
By 1865 the Civil War had ended and Lewis returned home and began working to get his life back together. Farming and raising cattle was his means of doing it. Land records in Lavaca County tell us that he began to acquire land. In his book, The History of the Nance Hereford Ranch, Jim W. Kuhlman gives a detailed account of Lewis’ land transactions. (Kuhlman, 42-47)
Over the next years, Lewis and Charity’s family began to grow and on February 28, 1965, they had their first and only son, George Edward. Two years later, Katherine “Katie” May was born on September 24, 1867; and then Sarah “Sallie” Viola arrived November 18, 1869, and Louise or Louie “Lou” came along sometime in 1873.
Evidently, as a cattleman and farmer, Lewis provided fairly well for his family after his time served in the military. Sadly he lived only until 1874. His tombstone in the Hallettsville Cemetery (sometime called the Old Hallettsville Cemetery) does not give any birth or death dates. The inscription is: “Lewis C. Nance, Corporal Company D, 2nd Texas Cavalry, CSA” There is family lore that Lewis died of sunstroke while plowing his fields. His wife, Charity, was left a widow in her late twenties with five small children and pregnant with a sixth child. Their daughter, Adelia “Addie,” was born about 3 months after Lewis’ death. This information was given by a family member, Allen Belle Turrentine Johnson. (Kuhlman, 47)
Jim Kuhlman gives this additional information about Charity’s life after her husband’s death.
Marcus Reuben, a twenty-one year old white man helped with the farm work. Her mother, Mary Upton May, was good help raising the children. Her twin sister, Sarah, and her stock raising husband, Richard Jones Clark, lived close by. The only son, George Edward, was good help with the farm work. (Kuhlman, 47-48)
In a phone visit with Allen Belle (Charity’s granddaughter) on May 20, 1995, she recalled that her grandmother, Charity Nance, would not speak much about her family because she was ashamed that her grandmother had been an Indian, the Indian woman who married the army officer. Allen Belle noted that she personally was very proud to be 1/16 Indian. ‘I don’t think I resemble my Indian heritage and I was never wild, but I am proud of my Indian lineage,’ she said with a chuckle and a heart filled with sincerity. (Kuhlman, 48-49)
Around December 1894, Charity purchased some property from J.P Nelson in Yoakum, Texas, located in the southern part of Lavaca County. She then moved from the Nance farm near Hallettsville to Yoakum. While living in Yoakum, Charity and her daughters made a living boarding railroad men who worked out of Yoakum. Three of her daughters, Maggie, Katie, and Sallie, met their future railroad husbands waiting on tables at Charity’s boarding house. Later her daughter Sarah Viola “Sallie” Nance Pipkin boarded railroad men when she lived at Sweetwater, Texas, according to Dorothy L. Green in a telephone conversation on October 23, 1994. (Kuhlman, 50-51)
Spending her final years in Yoakum, Charity, the beautiful woman with such a rich family history, died on Wednesday morning, September 4, 1901. Her obituary was found in the Cameron Herald, September 12, 1901.
Mrs. C.V. Nance died at the home of her daughter, Mrs. J.A. Turrentine in Yoakum last Wednesday at 4:25 a.m. after a 10-week illness. She is survived by five daughters and a son, Mrs. J.A. Turrentine of Yoakum, Mrs. John Bush of Houston, Mrs. J. Varnell of Cameron, Mrs. W.S. Pipkin of Beaumont, Miss Lou Nance of Yoakum, and G.E. Nance of Goliad County.
Charity May Nance was buried in Oak Grove Cemetery in Yoakum. The tombstone inscription is: Charity V. Nance, October 28, 1846 – September 4, 1901, “Mother”
Ancestry.com. 1850 United States Federal Census [database online]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc. 2009.
Ancestry.com. 1860 United States Federal Census [database online]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2009.
Ancestry.com. 1870 United States Federal Census [database online]. Provo, UT, USA, Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2009.
Ancestry.com and The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints. 1880 United
States Federal Census [database online]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2010.
Ancestry.com. 1900 United States Federal Census [database online]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2004.
Cameron Herald, Obituary for Charity May Nance, Volume XX, No. 11 (Whole No. 999), September 12, 1901.
The Handbook of Texas Online, “Harrison County”, www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles;HH/hch8.html
Kuhlman, Jim W., The History of the Nance Hereford Ranch, 1996.
Lavaca County, marriage record, vol. B, p. 131, Hallettsville, Texas.
Written by Lucy Ann Nance Croft