SHAWNEE TOWNSHIP — Her full name was Sidney Howard Nelson Davison.
But to those who knew her — and in Shawnee Township in the middle of the 19th century that was seemingly everybody — she was simply Aunt Sidney.
Isaiah Pillars, a former Allen County prosecutor, state representative and Ohio attorney general, was only about 8 years old when his mother died in the early 1840s and he was sent to live with Aunt Sidney, her husband, Benjamin Davison, their son, George Liberty Davison, and Benjamin’s brother, James, in a log house in Shawnee Township.
Benjamin Davison “was of austere disposition and one of the extreme old-time Presbyterians,” Pillars told a reunion of the Hovers, Adgates and other pioneer township families, according to a story in the Aug. 21, 1891, edition of the Lima Daily News. “To have any amusement on Sunday, even to whistle or to laugh, to him was sacrilegious.
“Aunt Sidney, his wife, was of a different disposition,” Pillars recalled. “She was a woman of a very emotional nature, and one of the kindest and most affectionate dispositions. She was even more than a mother to me. She had passed through much affliction and knew how to sympathize with others. She was of a deeply religious nature, and well do I remember of her having prayer meetings at the house for the women of the neighborhood.” Pillars went on to describe her as “a woman of rare intelligence, a great reader. She could repeat much of the poetry of Burns and Byron from memory.”
Aunt Sidney certainly “passed through much affliction” during a life that began in 1795 in New York state and ended nearly 90 years later in 1885 in Illinois. In the years between much of that life was spent in a house that still stands at 1950 Shawnee Road.
The daughter of Thomas Howard and Elizabeth Armstrong Howard, Aunt Sidney married Joshua Nelson in New York in 1817. A son, Goveneur Howard Nelson, was born to the couple in 1819. Joshua Nelson apparently was the source of much of the “affliction” endured by Aunt Sidney. “After a few years of married life she and her husband separated, for what reason I never learned,” Pillars said in his 1891 address.
A letter from Nelson to his brother, the Rev. Caleb Nelson, in Tioga, New York, early in 1828 suggests he had become estranged from his family. “If I thought that these lines would add new poignancy to your afflictions or open a wound in your breast which may have become almost closed during my long absence and silence, I would not indeed, send them; and verily darkness is on my mind as to the result … ,” he wrote on Feb. 13, 1828, from Oxford, where he apparently was attending Miami University. He goes on to ask about his wife and son. “Is it well with Sidney? Is it well with the boy?”
In a postscript, he gave a hint of his plans. “I shall continue here a sufficient time to receive an answer to this. My further arrangements may depend upon your answer for a short period; otherwise my plans are arranged,” Nelson wrote. “My prayers you have; may Heaven’s smiles surround you! Adieu, Adieu; think me happy as an upright walk can make me.”
That “upright walk” took him to what was then the Republic of Texas. On May 26, 1830, Nelson wrote Stephen F. Austin, widely regarded as “the father of Texas,” seeking citizenship in the new republic. “Sir: Having been in this colony since the 20th of January 1829 … I am desirous of becoming a citizen … I have no family. My native country the State of New York, my age is 39 years. My occupation (is) school teacher,” he wrote.
Aunt Sidney, in the meantime, had settled in Grand Rapids on the Maumee River with her son and parents. In his 1891 address, Pillars noted that Aunt Sidney, after several years of not hearing from Nelson, “supposed he was dead and married Davison, and with her child came into the wilderness in Shawnee before the township was formed and settled upon land about a half mile south of here, upon the high western bank of Hog Creek.”
Davison was born in 1792 and had arrived in Trumbull County from Pennsylvania around 1800 with his parents and nine siblings. A son, George Liberty Davison, was born to Aunt Sidney and Davison in 1836.
Nelson, meanwhile, did well in Texas. According to a history of Southwest Texas, “Nelson made his way to Texas in the days when it was a Republic and invested heavily in lands in the new country. He died here in the early ‘40s and it was largely for the purpose of settling up the estate and looking after these lands that Goveneur H. Nelson came to Texas in 1845.”
Actually, Nelson seems to have died before then. On May 13, 1839, Goveneur Nelson wrote his mother from Texas where he had gone to settle his father’s estate. “All the personal property has been sold which consisted of one hundred head of choice cattle and some considerable of other property and the day before my arrival there was a sale of a large amount of valuable land.”
Like his father, Goveneur Nelson, settled in Texas — and became estranged from his family. On Nov. 11, 1846, he wrote his mother from San Antonio, noting that he had not heard from his family in Shawnee Township for two years. “I can live among strangers, I can push my fortune over unexplored forests, I can laugh at the storms of the elements and enjoy the bivouac, but I cannot endure the neglect of those I love and esteem as relatives and friends. What has become of my dear little brother, George? Can it be possible that he has been allowed to forget me?”
Goveneur Nelson fought in the 1846 Mexican War after which he settled in San Antonio. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, he “organized one of the first companies that was raised for the confederacy in Texas,” according to the southwest Texas history. The unit was sent to the western border of Texas to protect against attacks by Indians and federal forces stationed in New Mexico. “However,” the history notes, “his heath gave way and he died in San Antonio in 1864.”
His son, Thomas Nelson, also fought Indians in Texas before becoming a civil engineer. When he died in February 1926, the San Antonio express wrote that he “had a hand in the construction of the first highways ever built in Bexar County with bond money …”
Aunt Sidney’s other son, Goveneur Nelson’s “dear little brother, George” (George Liberty Davison), enlisted in the Union Army during the Civil War, serving as a member of the fledgling U.S. Ambulance Corps.
Although Benjamin Davison died in 1854, the Davison home remained a popular spot for township gatherings. “About the year 1856-7, there was a Fourth of July picnic in the sugar grove of Aunt Sidney Davison. A big crowd of young and old was present. The Declaration of Independence was read. There was the usual picnic dinner, then speeches, songs and toasts,” Cyrus Hover wrote in a history of Shawnee Township. “In the summer of 1860 the ladies of Upper Shawnee met at this home, which seems to have been quite a hospitable one, and made a large flag for a rally which occurred some days later.”
Several years after the Civil War, Aunt Sidney moved to Illinois to live with her son, George. She died there in February 1885. “Mrs. Davidson had a large circle of relatives, among the early settlers about Lima, and a much larger acquaintance among the people, and as ‘Aunt Sidney was a welcome guest at the homes of pioneers,’” the Lima Times-Democrat wrote Feb. 18, 1885.
Reach Greg Hoersten at firstname.lastname@example.org.