Little Jonnie Lathrop, or, Life and Death on the Prairie

GILE Caroline Jane Webber and Helena Annette cropped

This is my great-great-grandmother, Caroline Jane (Webber) Gile. I love this picture. Usually in pictures this old the people don’t really smile, and old photos of babies usually have them by themselves or in mother’s lap, and half the time baby is blurred out because she is moving too much for the camera to focus. But in this photo, the mom is holding the baby up next to her face, and you can see the hint of a smile on her face as she lovingly cuddles and proudly shows off her baby at the same time.

This is Caroline with her firstborn child, a daughter, Helena Annette “Nettie” Gile. It was taken in Ohio in about 1866. During the next six years, Caroline gave birth to two sons, both of whom died as infants. Sadly, this was a common thing back then, and it was not the first time Caroline had experienced the loss of a loved one, either. When she was 11 years old, she lost her father and a brother to sickness. Ten years later, she lost another brother, John Barton Webber, while he was away fighting in the American Civil War.

In about 1874 or 1875, Caroline and her husband and daughter left her family and the graves of her babies behind in Ohio to start a new homestead in Kansas. Either during the move or soon afterward, she became pregnant with another baby, a boy. He was born in September 1875 and Caroline gave him the name John Lathrop Gile. I don’t know for certain, but I think she probably named him John after her brother who died in the Civil War. He was the closest sibling to her in age, she grew up with him, and as a soldier would have been a great hero in her eyes.

I can only imagine what it was like to be a pregnant woman living on a new homestead. They lived in a dugout those first few years. Caroline probably wrote to her family about their hardships, because her brother sent a letter back with $5 (roughly $100 in today’s money) along with some advice and encouragement. He told her to “Keep a stiff upper lip,” and to “take courage” and “look heaven ward where our inhereten[ce] lies[,] beyond the world of trial”. A lot of the words are faded from the old letter, but it looks like he told her some stories about when their family first settled on their homestead in Ohio, and gave her some advice about planting and raising crops.

After two years on the homestead, Newell and Caroline faced another trial: five months after Caroline’s mother died in Ohio, Caroline also lost her little boy, the same little John Lathrop I mentioned earlier. They buried him on their homestead, and his grave is still there, a lone grave on the prairie belonging to a two-year-old boy.

John Lathrop Gile grave

Upon hearing the news, another brother, Richard Merrill Webber, sent some encouraging words:

Altho I have of times thought of you I have not wrote for a long time But we herd last evening that you wear aflicted as you had lost your little Boy . . . it calls to my mind our father an Mother and too [dear] Brothers that have gone it is hard to part with friends but so it is death is in the land and we cant tell who he will call next But you must bare up under your afliction as well as you can their are many in the world worce off than you.

Merrill’s wife, Mary, added her own words:

Carrie I am sorry that you have lost your little boy it seem hard I wish I was where I could run in and see you. I wish that we was out of det I would try and have Merrill come up their and se you once more but I dont spose we cant come this fall.

I love how she says “I wish I was where I could run in and see you.” You can just hear the love and concern in her voice—she wants to run over and give Caroline a hug and comfort her in person. When you read these letters, you can tell that these people are not just relatives, they are a family. It makes me feel more connected to them to see how they connected with each other.

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