Friday’s Faces from the Past: Elizabeth Ann Murrell and John S. Roberts



John S. Roberts and Elizabeth Ann (Murrell) Roberts, possibly in the 1870s or 1880s? Posted with kind permission of the Harlan Family Blog. (Click to enlarge.)

Roberts Family, Murrell Family (Click for Family Tree)

Elizabeth Ann Murrell was the first born child of Wiley Anderson Murrell (1806-1885) and Mary Magdalene Honts (1806-1887). Her birth was 1 February 1835 in Botetourt County, Virginia, where Mary’s family had lived for a while- we still don’t know where Wiley was living before the marriage in 1834.

[BTW, Botetourt is pronounced in a uniquely Virginian way: “BOT-a-tot.”]

Elizabeth was just five years old when the 1840 US Federal Census was taken. Her father was enumerated in District 8, Botetourt County, Virginia, and she likely was there too. (The 1840 census only lists the head of household.) She was specifically listed with the family in the 1850 US Federal Census, however, again in District 8 of Botetourt; she was 15. As her father was a farmer, she most likely lived the hard-working life of a farm family- she would have helped her mother with milking the cows, caring for and slaughtering the chickens, slopping the pigs, bringing water to the house for cooking, drinking, and bathing, and she would have stayed busy working in the family garden. And that was just the outside work! Inside, she would have watched over her siblings, made the beds and done housework, mended and possibly made family clothing and bedding including quilts, and cooked meals for the family and anyone who was visiting or helping to work the fields. Hopefully she was able to attend school, and maybe have fun at dances and neighborhood get-togethers.

Just a few years later, when Elizabeth was 18, she migrated with her family to Warren County, Illinois. Her father continued to farm, so Elizabeth would have continued her own hard work as a farmer’s daughter.

The Murrells and many of their neighbors were probably too poor to have had any slaves while in Virginia (none are noted in the census), but they would have been surrounded by an economic and social environment that depended on slavery, as did the rest of the south. They may have been isolated enough by the mountains- the Blue Ridge Mountains are on the eastern borders of the county, and the Appalachians on the west- that they did not see the horrors of human bondage on a daily basis, but it was still pervasive.  There was an incident in August of 1835 (Elizabeth was just 6 months old) concerning the lynching of an Englishman in Lynchburg, Virginia. (The irony of the place name is not lost.) It was said the man was an abolitionist who was circulating pamphlets that were anti-slavery, thus a mob hunted him down and “inhumanly [sic] executed” him. This was picked up by many papers, but thankfully turned out to be “fake news.” (History repeats itself.) The case was entirely plausible, however, and believed by many initially, adding to the tension in our country due to the vigorously opposing sides in the slavery question.

Elizabeth and her siblings would have grown up in this divisive climate. It is a question to ponder as to how the family felt about slavery. Some descendants feel that their move to northern Illinois, plus the fact that two of three sons enlisted in the Union Army, suggests that they too believed in abolition, and wanted to leave the South before a war exploded. They were probably smart enough to see that if there was to be a civil war, Virginia’s lands would be one of the places it would be fought. Residents of a place are generally caught between armies, and lose their food, animals, family treasures, and sometimes their lives, so a migration before the tipping point was a good choice,  though surely daunting. Of course, we will never know for sure about the family’s political beliefs, unless a diary or letters are found from the family. (Do you have any in a shoebox in the back of a closet??) But the family did all survive the Civil War, and that would have been much more challenging to do had they stayed in Virginia.



The story of Elizabeth Ann Murrell and John S. Roberts continues…


Notes, Sources, and References: 

  1. “How to Talk Virginian” at
  2. “Virginia Mob,” New-York Spectator, 20 August 1835:
  3. Vital records such as birth, marriage, and census that can be found on, FamilySearch, etc.
  4. Family stories written and told by Edith (Roberts) [McMurray] Luck.


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