Museum to highlight key woman from Williamstown’s past

WILLIAMSTOWN — Though Williamstown, chartered in 1822, was named for Isaac Williams, a notable trapper and hunter of the frontier, there are some that say his wife was more deserving of the honor.

“Rebecca Williams was a third-generation pioneer, a widow by 16, and was well-known for her healing skills,” explained Mid-Ohio Valley historian Lloyd Roberts. “And she was a reader… She had a book by William Wilberforce called ‘Real Christianity: Contrasted with the Prevailing Religious System’ which tells me she was a little bit of a rebel, I think.”

Rebecca Williams was born in 1754 in Cumberland, Md., and died in Williamstown in 1825.

Roberts is giving a talk today on Williams as the guest speaker of an event for The Castle, The Pink Museum and the Williamstown Area Historical Society. On Friday, he explained his passion for Williams’ story rests in the small details of her life.

“Local history is a hobby for me and I’m very interested in what happened here that reflects what was going on in the rest of the world,” Roberts said.

No drawing or painting is known to exist of the woman. However, Samuel Hildreth, a well-known doctor in the pioneer days of the Mid-Ohio Valley and a documenter of early settlement history, describes Williams’ character and feats in detail in his book, “Biographical and historical memoirs of the early pioneer settlers of Ohio, with narratives of incidents and occurrences in 1775.”

“Dr. Hildreth writes about her a lot as he met her and talked with her often,” explained Roberts. “One story he tells is when Thomas Mills was out torch fishing at night and was shot 14 times by Indians because he was the visible one holding the torch.”

In Hildreth’s book it reads, “When they reached the garrison at Wheeling, Mills was still alive, and taken into the town, where, under the care of Mrs. Rebecca Williams, and one other skillful matron, he finally recovered from his hopeless condition.”

“He had a broken leg and a broken arm, but there were no real doctors on the frontier, and if there had been they probably would have just amputated,” said Roberts. “But Rebecca and Mrs. Zane were able to nurse him back to health with slippery elm and Jimsonweed.”

Roberts explained that through poultices and salves Williams not only helped Mills fight the pain of his injuries, but staved off infection.

“She gave him a fighting chance to heal naturally,” he added. “Plus she had an affinity for setting bones well.”

But Linda Showalter, a special collections librarian for Marietta College, said her favorite story of Williams is one where she fought for the right to own her property, an uncommon practice in the original 13 states, especially along the frontier.

As the story goes, Williams’ husband willed the 400 acres which eventually became Williamstown to his heirs.

“But Rebecca fought it in court, she fought for three years and broke her husband’s will, she won,” said Roberts, noting the land had been intended for Rebecca, not Isaac, as payment from her brothers for keeping house when she lived with them after her first husband died. “She must have been quite a person.”

Additional tales of Williams’ struggles as a widow at 16, of paddling 50 miles on the Ohio River, of losing her three grandchildren and daughter within five years and of being a refugee after Native Americans captured Grave Creek will all be told by Roberts today.

“I think one of the most important things in looking at the history of people who were not notable or renowned is that they still achieved much in surviving in the wilderness and taming the wilderness,” said Showalter. “People connect more with these real or more average pioneers because you can identify with them, the real struggles of a real woman.”

Roberts plans to share not only the words of Hildreth as he expands on the life of Williams, but also that of Elizabeth Fries Ellet, author of “Pioneer Women of the West” who details the courage and fortitude of Williams throughout her early life, and notes from the May 13, 1884 edition of the Marietta Semi-Weekly Register.

“Rebecca was more than just a pioneer, she could have followed Isaac west as he hunted and trapped, he was good at it,” Roberts said. “But it was Rebecca that really settled the land and built up their home into what we consider civilization.”

The talk will be held at 7 p.m. today at The Castle, 418 Fourth St., Marietta, and is free and open to the public.

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