Caddo Parish

Why is Martha Washington’s great-great granddaughter buried in Shreveport?

One of my favorite books as a child was “George Washington’s Breakfast.” The main character was a modern day little boy with an insatiable curiosity about what George Washington ate for breakfast. I was like that little boy. Actually, I’m still like that little boy. I’m endlessly curious about inane things.

That brings me to this question: How did Martha Washington’s great-great granddaughter end up in a Shreveport cemetery? It’s long hike from Mount Vernon to the Deep South. Join me, won’t you?

The great-great granddaughter in question was Eleanor Angela Isabella Butler Williamson. She died in 1866 at the young age of 34 and was buried at Oakland Cemetery in Shreveport. A marker for her exists to this day.

Isabella– as she was known – was descended from Martha through her mother, Frances Parke Lewis Butler. Her father was Edward George Washington Butler. You’ve probably heard of Edward Butler’s adopted parents: Andrew and Rachel Jackson. Yep. That’s two ties to the White House in one family tree that ends in Shreveport.

From her birth at Mount Vernon, Martha’s great-granddaughter moved to Louisiana and died in Mississippi.

But back to Frances. She was born at Mount Vernon to Eleanor Parke Custis Lewis, who was Martha’s granddaughter. Supposedly, the night before George Washington died, Martha took time away from his deathbed to visit the new baby. Frances’ parents are buried at Mount Vernon, but Frances is buried in Pass Christian, Miss., which seems an odd place for a Martha Washington descendant to be buried. Then I remembered who reared her husband.

Andrew Jackson and his wife, Rachel, never had children of their own, but they opened their home to children who needed shelter. The most permanent additions included 1. Rachel’s nephew, 2. a young Indian boy orphaned by war and sent home to Rachel by Andrew, and 3. Rachel’s great nephew. However, the children of Captain Edward Butler and Rachel’s brother also stayed with the Jacksons for spells.

Edward George Washington Butler was named for the first president, reared by another president and married a George Washington descendant.

The Butlers were known for their military service. Captain Edward Butler and his four brothers fought in the Revolutionary War. Their descendants also served in the military and fought in wars. In fact, they coined a phrase – “Die like a Butler” – which means to die in battle.

Captain Edward Butler left four young children when he died at age 40. Andrew Jackson took them all in. Edward George Washington Butler may have been present when Andrew Jackson triumphed at the Battle of New Orleans. You have to wonder if Jackson’s family joined him in Louisiana for the ensuing celebration and fell in love with the culture. From his birth in Tennessee, Edward would grow up to graduate from West Point, meet his wife in Washington, D.C., own a plantation in Louisiana, winter in Pass Christian through the generosity of friends and die in St. Louis. Something drew him to Louisiana.

The last descendant? Frances left behind grandchildren so that doesn’t seem accurate.

It was Edward George Washington Butler who brought Martha’s descendants to Louisiana. His wife spent her life in the D.C. area, growing up at Mount Vernon and circulating in Washington society, until meeting her husband and moving to Iberville Parish in south Louisiana, where she would rear her children, outlive a son who died on the battlefield (where else) and move to Mississippi after her husband’s finances were destroyed.

Their daughter Isabella, who is buried in Shreveport, married an attorney who was a South Carolina transplant. They settled in Shreveport, where they lived amongst farmers and stagecoach drivers.

So, I guess, love and Andrew Jackson brought Martha’s descendants to Shreveport.

Caddo Parish, Cemeteries

The Smiths of Shreveport

This engraved bit of concrete marks the threshold of the Smith family’s section of Oakland Cemetery in Shreveport.

I spent Easter weekend in Shreveport, where I saw the Oscar-winning Coda, visited the auditorium where a young Elvis Presley forged his musical career, met my youngest nephew (he screamed every time I tried to hold him), drove through a historic cemetery and ate pastries, ham, turkey, fish and chips, a shrimpbuster (it’s a Shreveport thing), salmon, loaded potatoes, hot cross buns and God’s knows what else. I’m never eating again as soon as I finish this bag of Skinny Pop.

But back to the cemetery … I love visiting cemeteries, and Oakland Cemetery in downtown Shreveport is a must for history buffs. It’s the oldest, existing cemetery in Shreveport and sits on the outskirts of downtown. It’s not in the best part of town -although it’s directly across from Municipal Auditorium – so it’s best to bring a friend with you and visit during broad daylight. Just be aware of your surroundings.

Oakland is the final resting place of multiple mayors, at least four congressmen, an ambassador, yellow fever victims, a madam, Martha Washington’s great-great granddaughter and the first Shreveport police officer killed in the line of duty. You’ll also find members of Shreveport’s founding families here. The cemetery is no longer in the business of burying people so it’s very much a tribute to the past.

The Smith family’s plot caught my eye on a recent visit. I decided to find out who they were.

The patriarch of this plot was Joseph B. Smith, who died in 1889 at age 58. Known as J.B. Smith, he was born in Kentucky but moved to Shreveport as a young man. He went into the pharmacy business under his brother. Eventually, he and a partner opened their own hardware store in downtown Shreveport.

Smith prospered in Shreveport. The business flourished and he built a handsome home to accommodate his wife and their five sons. His death was sudden and relatively unexpected. He’d been feeling poorly for a few weeks but had seemed to rally until he suddenly came down with congestion and died minutes later. This is according to The Shreveport Times, which described him as clear-headed, cautious and painstaking.

It appears that Smith’s wife, Mary, took over the family business. She hastened to assure the good people of Shreveport that the hardware business would continue.

Mary, who was 15 years younger than J.B., would outlive him by more than three decades. She is also buried at Oakland although her marker is much more modest. Instead of a monument reaching toward the sky, she’s remembered with a simple marker set in the ground. It seems fitting that the headline for her news obit simply summarized her as the widow of a prominent businessman (who had been dead for 43 years).

Near Mary is her son Leon Rutherford, who was just 14 when his father died. Leon got a grand marker with a wreath and tribute in stone, perhaps because he died rather tragically.

Remember on Downton Abbey when Lavinia rather conveniently died from the Spanish flu, paving the way for Mary to wed her true love and stay in her childhood home? There was nothing convenient about Leon’s death, but he did die from the Spanish flu that was sweeping Shreveport at the time. In fact, the flu was so feared that the family skipped a church funeral and just did services at the grave.

Leon accomplished a lot in his rather short life.

Like I said, Leon was just 14 when his father died. He’d been away at school but he came home to help with the family business. Leon explored a lot of interests before landing on a career. He worked for a jeweler and a bank and ultimately decided to go to law school. He went into practice with a former governor.

From the law, it was a natural move into politics. Leon first served on the School Board before winning election to the Louisiana Legislature. It was at a speech that he likely caught the Spanish flu. He developed pneumonia and died two weeks later at his home on Fairfield Avenue.

Leon is one of two of J.B. and Mary Smith’s children who is buried at Oakland (the rest of their sons are at another Shreveport cemetery). The other is Joseph Bruce Smith, who died in 1942. It appears that Joseph, who was a real estate agent, never married.