Descendants of William Lee Henderson and Eleanor Ann Selina Shelby
From the unpublished book written by Vivian Anderson Castleberry
Henderson Connections

Chapter 2:

Martha Elizabeth Henderson Shelby McGahey

Do any family members have a photo of Martha?

She is the only one we don't have, and I would love to fill this in!

Martha's Story

Martha Elizabeth Henderson (1842–1896) was born March 8, 1842, in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, the second of William Lee and Eleanor Ann Selina Shelby Henderson’s nine children.

Her older sister, Mary Amanda, was 22 months old when this second baby arrived. It was, likely—though there are no records available—shortly after Martha’s birth that the family, other relatives and friends began to shorten and/or alter her name. So it is that Martha Elizabeth was called Mattie, Mart, and Matt. It is this latter name—Matt—that is used by her younger brother, John Madison Henderson, in the journals he kept from 1879 to 1905. [1]

Matt was 3 years and 4 months old when the next child, Margaret Isabelle, arrived in the Henderson family. Afterward, from two to three years apart, other siblings—Joseph Asmon, Harriet Caroline, Sarah Jane, John Madison, William Daniel and Franklin Smith—were born to increase the family to nine children.

In addition, the early census reports, both in North Carolina and later in Alabama, show that the Hendersons usually had family members and friends living in their home.

Sometime between November of 1850 when Hattie was born in North Carolina and January of 1853 when Sallie was born in Alabama, the Hendersons left Mecklenburg County in North Carolina and settled near today’s village of Heiberger in Perry County, Alabama.

Matt would have been a young girl, somewhere between 8 and 10, when the family made its move to Alabama.

On December 3, 1861, when she was 19 years old, Matt married J. M. Shelby in rites solemnized by Judge Bailey in Perry County. (Marriage Records 1851-1863, #822).

At the present time (August 1995) J. M. Shelby remains a shadow in the Henderson history. He was possibly related in some way because Martha’s mother’s birthname was Shelby. The 1860 census record from Perry County lists a J. M. Shelby, a 25-year-old male, as a member of the Henderson household. His birthplace is given as Tennessee and his occupation as laborer. This probably meant that he was living with the family and helping out with the farm work. During those years, and on until the outbreak of the second World War, young men often moved into the homes of their relatives to lend a hand with the harvesting of crops.

Some family members believe that J. M. Shelby was the son of Eleanor’s brother James Madison Shelby and William Lee’s sister Amanda Ann, who left Perry County for East Texas in 1869, and were founders of the First Presbyterian Church in Tyler. James Madison Shelby also was one of the elders who oversaw the establishment of Bethesda Presbyterian Church in Lindale.

It is unlikely that Martha’s husband J. M. was a son of James and Ann Shelby because no census records place him in that family. [2] Also, there are land records in Smith and Henderson counties showing that a J. M. (who was not James Madison) Shelby inherited, bought and sold land in Texas. In addition, the bridegroom would have been a double first cousin to Martha Elizabeth and even though cousins often married in those days, it is doubtful that young people so intimately related would have wed.

Even more convincing that this could not have been the same J. M. Shelby is that the sparse records available reveal that Martha Elizabeth’s husband was killed in the Civil War. These “records” are elusive. Only two things are certain: stories passed down through the family are that Martha Elizabeth was a Civil War widow, and sisters Mrs. Mary Amanda McGahey and Mrs. Martha E. Shelby applied for compensation for their husband’s deaths during the Civil War on the same day, January 12, 1863, in documents recorded in Marion, Alabama. Eventually, Mary Amanda’s application was approved, but no records have surfaced of the disposition of Martha’s application.

If these records are accurate, Martha and J. M. Shelby had been married less than a year when he was killed, their wedding date being December 3, 1861, and her widow’s application being January 12, 1863, a period of 13 months and nine days.

There is no history of any children from Martha Elizabeth’s marriage to J. M. Shelby.

Martha Elizabeth Henderson Shelby was a widow for at least four years. She was a month shy of being 25 years old when she married William T. McGahey on February 5, 1867. The wedding ceremony was performed by the Rev. John S. Arbuthnot in Perry County (Book 1866 to 1876, #3). William's tombstone gives his birthdate as December 15, 1834, making him seven years older than Martha.

William, in yet another of the convoluted chapters of family history, was the brother of John F. McGahey, Mary Amanda’s first husband. John had been dead for some years when Martha and William married. Mary’s children and her sister Martha’s children were double first cousins.

Martha Elizabeth was 37 and her husband 44 when they moved with the entire Henderson family from Perry County, Alabama, to Smith County, Texas. With them were their two daughters, Lillie May, 11, and Eleanor Lee, 8. Both daughters were born in Perry County: Lillie May on June 20, 1868, and Eleanor Lee almost exactly three years later on June 18, 1871.

Martha and William, with their daughters, traveled to Texas by train with the family’s patriarch, 71-year-old William Lee Henderson, and with the other women and children in the family. William came by train because he was crippled. The other men moved the household furnishings by wagon train. The entire family—parents and the eight siblings, their spouses and children—bought property and settled within a few miles of each other in an area near the Sabine River in northern Smith County.

Three years and eight months after William and Martha moved to Texas, he died. Lillie was 15 and Eleanor 12. For a time the grieving widow and her daughters continued to make their home with her parents where they had established residence prior to William’s death.

Martha then moved her daughters into Lindale where she opened a boarding house. It was a bold move on her part. There were very few working options open to women. Women could teach school, take in sewing, give music lessons, and take in washing, but unless they were left wealthy, most widowed women moved back with their parents or were cared for by their brothers or other males in the family. Many remarried soon after the death of their husbands.

Martha Elizabeth Henderson Shelby McGahey became that rare individual—an independent woman. With whatever funding she could put together—and perhaps with the backing of her father—she bought a building on the northeast corner where Lindale’s two main streets cross and opened her boarding house.

She was Lindale’s first businesswoman.

She catered to the town’s elite. For most of the time she owned the boarding house, the town’s bachelor doctor was a permanent resident. As the railroad was built through the area, its builders were itinerant occupants of the several upstairs rooms. She provided a clean, wholesome atmosphere. And she was an excellent cook, setting a table that lured both professionals and day laborers. When family members went from the Bethesda area into Lindale on business, they always stopped for a meal, and often for overnight visits.

In his journals, John Madison Henderson, Martha’s brother, often mentioned taking food, wood and other supplies to his sister, conferring with her on business matters, and doing chores for her while he was in town. Once he mentioned building on a house for her, making her descendants wonder if—at some point—Matt could have closed the boarding house and moved into another home.

To supplement her income, Matt did the laundry for some of her permanent boarders. Both of her daughters helped her until Lillie May married William Forrest Ferguson in September of 1887.

Eleanor Lee was 25 and still single when Martha Elizabeth died on October 3, 1896, at the age of 54. Eleanor, who was known by her family as Ella, then made her home with her Uncle John and Aunt Mollie until she married Samuel Arthur Vernon.

Martha Elizabeth Henderson Shelby McGahey rests beside her husband in Bethesda Cemetery. Her tombstone reads, “M. E. McGahey . . .”  The only way it is known that the person buried there is female is a small inscription above an embossed hand pointing heavenward that reads, “We loved her.”

At her death, Martha had been a widow for 13 years. She had assumed total responsibility for herself and for the rearing and education of Lillie May and Eleanor Lee.

[1]       On most censuses and her gravestone, she is listed as Martha or M. E., but her daughter Lillie’s death certificate lists her as “Mattie,” confirmation that it was not just her brother who used a form of this nickname.
[2]       They had a son named John McKnitt Shelby (1849–1917), but he is well-documented and never married his double first cousin Martha.

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