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1835: Love and Law in Ohio County Part 1

In Community, Community Contributors by OC Monitor Staff

**This piece was submitted as part of our Community Contributor series. 

By Gavin Richardson / OC Monitor Community Contributor

The following is the first of a four-part series about an 1835 trial taking place in Ohio County. According to Richardson, “the deposition list for the case reads as a kind of “who’s who” of founding Ohio County families.” Part two of this series will be posted Tuesday morning at 5 a.m. on

OHIO COUNTY, Ky. — In October of 1835, two men, Samuel J. Ford and Henry Stevens, filed a lawsuit in the Circuit Court of Ohio County seeking to recover a sum of money from a widow and her teenage daughter, Cynthia and Permelia Ford.

While the disputed sum, $160, might seem minor, in 1835, that amount could be worth as much as $4,500 today. But perhaps the real value of case #490 for the modern reader is the insight it provides into life in Ohio County in the early nineteenth century.

The case is fascinating, involving death on the Mississippi, an alleged love affair that may or may not have existed, a mysterious deathbed “gift,” and family members suing family members.

For local historians and genealogists, the deposition list for the case reads as a kind of “who’s who” of founding Ohio County families, including the aforementioned Fords, William Woodward, Joseph B. “Joe Jeff” Bennett, Edward Ward, Benjamin F. Midkiff, Samuel A. Field, Ashford Woodward, Ann Ford, Elizabeth Benton, Erasmus Benton, Philip Johnson, Richard L. Walker, George Plummer Bennett, Rachel Elizabeth (Baird) Barnett, and Thomas Barnett, among others.

Several of these persons belonged to Maryland families who settled Ohio County, and the case offers a rare opportunity to hear them speak in their own voices

The discussion below is devoted to summarizing the facts of the case, major testimony, and verdict. Nearly two centuries later, persons may still disagree on the outcome.

The background of the case is as follows. John W. Ford (1796-1834), a member of the Maryland Fords, arrived in Ohio County in about 1819 with his Georgia bride, Cynthia Cowan Ford (1796-1870). Here John developed a commercial venture transporting lumber down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans, likely supplying that city’s burgeoning shipbuilding industry.

It was on one of these ventures John W. Ford died “a little below Natchez on his way home,” according to the testimony of George Bennett, who was on the riverboat with John W. Ford. Also on the riverboat was Ford’s nephew, somewhat confusingly named John B. Ford, son of Samuel and Ann Ford. John B. was a partner in his uncle’s lumber transport enterprise and took charge of his uncle’s effects upon his death, which occurred sometime in early spring 1834.

The death of John W. Ford would leave his widow, Cynthia, in a precarious position. Although early records are imprecise, in 1834 she might have had as many as eight children in the household, most of whom were under the age of ten, with the oldest boy being 16-year-old Joseph Milton Ford. Cynthia may also have been pregnant at the time.

Richard Walker, a War of 1812 veteran and early Ohio County grocer and sheriff, testified the widow Cynthia was struggling to feed her family.

“In the month of April 1834, John B. Ford called at my store and stated that Mrs. Ford’s family wanted some food and was in a bad way to pay for them, and requested me to let them have what they wanted, not exceeding $20,” Richard Walker said. “A few days afterward, Miss Permelia Ford and her brother called and took up goods to the amount of $14.28, which I charged to the account of John B. Ford.”

The testimony of Edward Ward also reveals the family’s precarious financial state.

“[Some] short time before John B. Ford returned from New Orleans last year, I was passing by Mrs. Cynthia Ford, and having understood that [they] were likely to suffer, I called and [asked] her if it was so; she said it was,” Edward Ward testified. “I then [said] that she had better get a subscription … that I would subscribe some corn for her, and that if all neighbors would give her something, that it would do them until John, meaning John B. Ford, should return, and then he would not let them suffer. She replied that they were under great obligation to cousin John for his kindness to them already. And he had done so much for them that she was ashamed to ask him to do anything more for them.”

This corn subscription Edward Ward spoke of was essentially a form of cooperative welfare originating in England, in which persons of means would open subscription lists and pledge to help the poor, with “corn,” here either being corn-on-the-cob, or British corn, meaning wheat for flour. The fact Ward identified nephew John B. Ford, not John W. Ford, as Cynthia’s provider means the news of John W. Ford’s death had reached the family well ahead of the returning riverboat.

The above depositions depict John B. Ford stepping in and serving as the head of widow Cynthia’s household; indeed, according to Cynthia’s testimony, her nephew had lived in her household since 1829, though how regularly he lived there is questioned in the lawsuit.

At any rate, by the summer of 1834, John B. Ford seemed poised to rescue his aunt’s family from hunger and poverty. And according to Cynthia, he was also poised to marry his first cousin, her 16-year-old daughter Permelia.

However, as cruel fate would have it, by the next summer John B. Ford himself would be dead, and what he said and did on his deathbed would lie at the heart of Samuel J. Ford and Henry Stevens’s lawsuit.

Gavin Richardson is a native of Hancock County, Kentucky, with family roots in Ohio County as the son of Beverly (Ford) Richardson and grandson of Grace (Moore) Ford and Charles E. Ford. Gavin earned a B.A. in English and Classics from Vanderbilt University and a Ph.D. in English from the University of Illinois. He is Professor of English at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee. He is married with three sons, and is the great-great-great-great grandson of John W. and Cynthia Ford profiled in this essay.

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