Rebecca Hawkins

From Wikitia
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Rebecca Littleton Hawkins
Add a Photo
Putnam County, Georgia
CitizenshipUnited States of America

Rebecca Ann Littleton Hawkins (nee Butts) was an American pioneer woman. After enduring twenty years of beatings by her husband, William Hawkins, she hired her neighbor Henry Garster in 1838 to kill him. The murder led to Garster’s hanging, the first in Jackson County, Missouri, in 1839. Rebecca had previously attempted and failed to murder Williamson herself with rat poison, for which she was tried and sentenced to five years in the Missouri State Penitentiary. The Jackson County community petitioned the governor for her pardon, which he granted shortly before Rebecca’s sentence began. The pardon saved her from the fate of being the first woman to be imprisoned in the Missouri State Penitentiary.[1][2][3][4][5][6][7]

Early life

Rebecca was born between 1797 and 1800 in Putnam County, Georgia, in the middle of the state, on America's rough, rural southern frontier. Rebecca’s father, Henry Butts, was born in South Carolina. Nothing is known about Rebecca’s mother, who may have died soon after Rebecca was born. Henry then married Susan Upchurch, who was also born in South Carolina. Henry was a cotton producer who owned seven slaves. Rebecca maintained lifelong close connections with her half-siblings, especially Salathiel, born in 1910. Her other siblings were Henry, born in 1911, Jackson, born in 1912, and Eleanor, born in 1915.[1]  

Woman of the expanding western frontier

Rebecca was married to Williamson Hawkins and living on a new American frontier in Stewart County, Tennessee, West Tennessee by the time she was twenty years old according to the January 30, 1820 census. She had moved from the edge of one frontier to another. She would move with Williamson to yet another western frontier in Jackson County, Missouri in 1830 and again with two of her sons and their families to what would be her final frontier in California in 1850. Rebecca was part of a great westward migration of Americans, who moved with their extended family groups multiple times during their lifetimes.[1] [8] [9]and shared a cultural heritage historians refer to as “southern backcountry”[9]

By 1828 Williamson had purchased 97 acres, near the West Sandy River where he had built and operated a successful grist mill. By 1830 when the Hawkins headed west to Missouri the part of Stewart County the Hawkins lived in had been separated into a new county, Henry County, Tennesse and become the largest in West Tennessee with a population of 12,249. Williamson had acquired a large household consisting of six slaves and five children under age ten, that required several wagons with draft animals to move all their trip provisions, and household and farm implements. Williamson and Rebecca, who was pregnant at the time, and their “southern backcountry” extended family made up of the families of Salathiel and Hester L Butts, Moses Stayton, Henry and Jackson Butts, and Eleanor Butts Baker, travelled together to Missouri in a large wagon train. The 500-mile, four to six week journey included a 175 mile stretch on a former Shawnee trail not much wider than a path, another 155 miles on “Boone's Lick Road” which passed near a large saline spring where Daniel Boone’s sons produced and sold salt, and finally a section of the old Santa Fe Trail. Upon their arrival in Jackson County, Missouri the Hawkins became “squatters” on prime land, recently occupied by Osage Nation Americans who still lived nearby, worth $5 an acre near the Little Blue River. In 1831 Williamson was able to purchase the land for $2 an acre using tactics that not only devalued the land, such as burning its timber, but by intimidating local officials. Many of the family members Rebecca travelled with from Tennessee, and their children, intermarried and later traveled together again in large wagon trains to California.[1]

Marriage and childbearing

Rebecca married Williamson somewhere between the ages of 17 and 20 years old which was typical for the women in her family and of that era. Women of that time in the South also had an average of seven to eight children although that would drop to 4.5 children per woman by the end of the century. [10][11]There is no known record of Rebecca and Williamson’s marriage, but together they had eight children[1] as follows:

William Henry Hawkins was born February 28, 1820 in Henry County, Tennessee and died in 1883 in Cottonwood, Arizona. He married Harriet M. Stayton, also born in Henry County, Tennessee in Jackson County, Missouri. William Henry left home by twenty years old and was the first in his family to go to California in 1846 as did other well-known neighbors from Jackson County, John Sutter, and the Donner Party. William Henry and Harriet had eleven children.

James J. Hawkins was born in Henry County, Tennessee in 1822 and died in Jackson County on June 10, 1848. He remained single.

Eli W. Hawkins was born in Henry County, Tennessee in 1823 and died sometime after 1880 in Los Angeles County, California. His wife is not known but he had at least three children.

Pendleton Biddle Hawkins was born in Henry County, Tennessee in 1824 and died sometime after 1883 in Hueneme, Ventura County, California, California. He married Elizabeth Ann Butts on March 14, 1850 in Jackson County. Missouri. Elizabeth Ann died in 1850. Pendleton then married Adeline Dickey in 1855. Pendleton and Adeline had ten children.

Martha Jane Hawkins Stayton was born in Henry County, Tennessee on August 22, 1828 and where she died is not known but she last lived in Porterville, California, Tulare County, California in 1870. She married John F. Stayton, also born in Henry, Tennessee, on April 1, 1849 in Jackson County. Martha and John had ten children.

Elizabeth (Betsy) Ann Hawkins Butts was born in Jackson County, Missouri on November 27, 1830, and died in Kern County, California on June 4, 1889. Betsy married Alexander Houston Butts, who was born in Henry County, Tennessee on December 20, 1849 in Jackson County, Missouri. Betsy and Alexander had nine children.

Jesse A. Hawkins was born in Jackson County, Missouri in 1834 and died sometime after 1857 where he was last known to live in San Joaquin County, California.

Doctor Salathiel Hawkins was born in Jackson County in 1836 and died sometime after 1857 where he was last known to live in Jackson County in 1857.

Property rights

When Rebecca married Williamson, she became subject to the law of coverture which made her financially dependent on her husband. Other than her dower interests, approximately one third of her deceased husband’s estate, she did not have the right to own property. She had no control even over property she brought to the marriage or money she earned during the marriage.[12] Rebecca’s limited legal rights, combined with her illiteracy, would have left her with few survival options without Williamson’s financial support. Rebecca assigned all her dower rights from Williamson’s estate to her attorneys as security for her defense. Williamson had acquired property worth approximately $500,000, in 2020 equivalent dollars. [1] Rebecca and the children lived on income from the estate, including slave rental income during the twelve-year period that it took to settle the estate. Ultimately Rebecca received little from Williamson’s estate.[1]


Education was not as readily available to Rebecca as a “southern backcountry” woman as it would have been in the northeastern part of the country. It would have been considered too stressful and would have made her unattractive and unmarriageable.[8] [13] The literacy rate in Rebecca’s community was about half of that in the larger towns and cities and far lower for women than men, who needed to be literate to conduct business. Rebecca, as with most women in her family, wrote no letters and signed her name with a mark.[1] By comparison Williamson and all but one of Rebecca’s brothers and sons were literate.[1]


Rebecca enlisted the help of two slaves Ned and Mary, a married couple, to poison Williamson.[1] Williamson had inherited Ned and Mary, who probably helped raise him and ultimately served three generations of Hawkins family members. Mary was Rebecca’s confident and probably served as midwife at Rebecca’s births. Mary suffered 30 lashes for her part in Rebecca’s conspiracy plans to poison Williamson.[1] Jackson County, where the Hawkins’ settled, has been referred to as “Little Dixie (Missouri)”, where slavery was legalized as part of the Missouri Compromise in 1821. Williamson acquired more slaves, as did his neighbors, when his business expanded. [1] [11] [14] By the time Williamson was murdered, he owned ten slaves valued at $128,754 (in 2020 equivalent dollars) who generated average annual rental income for Williamson’s estate of $8,127. Ned and Mary and the rest of the slaves from Williamson’s household were not sold when Williamson’s estate was finalized in 1850 and the rest of his property was sold. They remained with Hawkins family members, but it is unknown what happened to them when the family migrated to California, a free state, in 1850.[1]

Alcohol use in the nineteenth century

Williamson was probably frequently intoxicated when he beat Rebecca.[1][5] Williamson had outstanding debts to vendors for several gallons of whiskey at the time of his murder. He, like many men at the time drank excessively compared to 21st century Americans, more than twice as much.[15] And it was usually hard liquor, mostly whiskey. However, Williamson’s excessive drinking and the cruel beatings he gave Rebecca would have been frowned upon by her family and church community[15] [16]many of whom likely participated in the Temperance movement societies[16] that were popular at the time.This would explain the overwhelming support Rebecca’s community’s gave her in obtaining her pardon.


Williamson’s cruelty to Rebecca was well-documented in the accounts of witnesses shared at Rebecca’s trials. But in the Patriarchy society [17] [18] [9] that she lived in, Rebecca had few, if any, socially acceptable and legal options to counter the spousal abuse she experienced. Patriarchy extended husbands wide latitude to force sex on wives and to exercise corporal punishment.[8] The old common law rule of thumb suggested a husband beat his wife with a whip no bigger than his thumb. [18] This would have limited Rebecca’s family, neighbors, and church from legally intervening to protect her. With limited understanding of Intimate Partner Violence and its connections with alcohol consumption (which is still being studied by Social Scientists in the 21st century.[18] [19], Rebecca’s attorneys had no available self-defense argument for Rebecca because the murder was pre-meditated. Neither could they attribute her crime to a psychological syndrome brought on by years of abuse such “Battered Wife Syndrome”[20] or “Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome” [19][20]. Nevertheless, Rebecca’s advocates demonstrated that even if her crime was not legally justifiable, it was understandable.

Crime and punishment

Henry Garster a neighbor and employee of Williamson’s shot him through the heart as Williamson dozed in his chair next to the fireplace. Rebecca had paid Garster $150 to shoot her husband Williamson and removed a chink from the Hawkins’ family log cabin on October 27, 1838 leaving a hole large enough for Henry Garster’s squirrel gun. After shooting Williamson, Garster left tracks in the fresh layer of light snow back to his home. Rebecca had unsuccessfully attempted to kill Williamson herself in early September, with ratsbane, a rat poison made from arsenic. In less than four days the Sheriff arrested Garster and charged him with murder. Rebecca was arrested at Williamson’s burial on October 31, 1838 and charged with murder and poisoning. The Hawkins’ slaves, Ned and Mary, a married couple, were also arrested that day for poisoning Williamson.[7][6][5][4][2][1] Rebecca was held in custody for 35 days until December 4, 1838 when the Grand Jury voted a “true bill” for an Indictment for murder against Henry and Rebecca and another against Rebecca and Mary for poisoning. Rebecca was released on bail and the charges against Ned were dropped and he was released. On the following day, December 5, 1838 Mary pleaded guilty and was sentenced to receive thirty lashes, a penalty determined under Missouri law based on her status as a slave.[1]

On May 10, 1839 Garster was the first man hanged in Jackson County after he was taken to the Temple Lot [21]by wagon riding on top of his own coffin. Henry Garster did not petition for bail, was arraigned and pleaded not guilty to the charges in the indictment on Friday, December 7, 1838.[1] While awaiting his trial in jail, set for April 1839 Garster and cell mate Alpha P. Buckley escaped, but only Garster was recaptured.[6] Garster’s escape attempt probably biased the inhabitants of Jackson County against him but no change of venue was requested for Garster. Rebecca shared the same attorneys as Garster (which would have been a conflict of interest in the 21st century) and yet Rebecca received better representation than Garster perhaps because she had more funds. For instance, the attorneys requested and received change of venues for both of her trials but made no such attempt for Garster. He stood trial in Jackson County on Wednesday, April 10, 1839 and was found guilty of murder in the first degree. After his hanging, Garster’s property was sold to cover his court costs which did not leave enough money to cover his attorney’s fees.[1]

The jury found Rebecca not guilty of murder in the first degree on August 8, 1839, the same day the trial began. Rebecca had been charged as an accessory before the fact in the first count of murder and as a principal on the second charge of poisoning. Therefore, Rebecca could not be charged for murder unless Garster was first proven guilty of murder which is why her murder trial had been set for April 12, 1839, two days after Garster’s trial. The timing proved to be to Rebecca’s advantage as Garster was no longer alive to testify against her.[1] However, the jury found Rebecca guilty of poisoning Williamson on July 20, 1841 and sentenced her to five years in the Missouri State Penitentiary. The date for this trial had been extended several times while Rebecca waited for her murder trial to end and for the change of venue requests to be granted. She was finally tried in Harrisonville, Missouri, Van Buren County on July 19, 1841.[1] Rebecca confessed to the crime the day Mary and Rebecca were arrested. Mary accused Rebecca of being the mastermind, first sending Ned to get the poison from Henry Garster and then telling Mary to put the poison in Williamson’s coffee cup. Although Rebecca admitted that Mary’s account was true, she said her “heart failed her” and she threw out the poisoned coffee before giving it to Williamson. But after that evening’s beating Rebecca said she had a change of heart and followed through with the crime the following day. Williamson became so ill that he wrote his will, but he did not die.[1] At the trial, Rebecca’s attorneys argued unconvincingly that Mary’s statement was inadmissible because it was a slave’s testimony against a white person and second that Rebecca was trapped into a confession. After the guilty verdict, the judgement was suspended while Rebecca appealed to the Supreme Court.[1]

Rebecca was the first woman sentenced to the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City on September 11, 1841 when Justices George Thompkins, William B. Napton, and William Scott (the same Justice who would later write the (in)famous majority opinion for the Dred Scott case eleven years later in 1852), upheld the lower court ruling in Rebecca Hawkins vs. State of Missouri. Conditions suffered by the few women who would later be imprisoned there were exceptionally harsh. The worst instance was of a female Abolitionism who was chained in her cell and repeatedly raped by prisoners and guards while she called for help.[22]

However, Rebecca’s community submitted four pardon petitions and four personal letters to Governor Thomas Reynolds.[1][2][5] They argued that Rebecca should be pardoned for the same reasons she had received the lightest sentence allowable under the law. Her confession was made under unusual circumstances, she had been brutally treated by her husband, she had eight young children to care for, and she had an exemplary character. The four petitions were signed by 351 influential farmers, landowners, and officials, such as Doctor Lawrence Flournoy, who testified at the trials who along with John Smith, was also a Judge of the County Court, and John King, the Sheriff. Four heartfelt letters the governor received were sent by the judge who presided in all three Hawkins trials, John F. Ryland (a separate note was also enclosed in Ryland’s letter from the Clerk of the Circuit Court, Samuel C. Owen), Circuit Attorney from Lexington, Henderson Young, the principal witness for the State in her poisoning trial, Lewis Jones, and William Patterson, who later became a member of the Missouri Legislature from Jackson County. Governor Reynolds granted Rebecca’s pardon effective as of August 2, 1841 allowing her to escape a cruel fate.[1]

Final frontier: California

In 1850 Rebecca, sons Pendleton B. and Eli W., and nephew Levi Butts, and their families, made a 1,960-mile, four-month overland journey, for the last frontier of her lifetime to the California gold mining encampment of Sacramento, Sacramento California to setup a “boarding house”. Rebecca left from Independence, Missouri, the popular jumping off point for westward migration on the Santa Fe Santa Fe, Oregon-California Trails Association, and Oregon Trails. At a point 240 miles west of Fort Fort Kearney Pendleton’s wife, Elizabeth Ann died in a section of the trail where a Cholera epidemic killed thousands in 1849, 1850 and 1852 and graves were dug to bury six to nine people at a time. Rebecca moved with her daughter Martha Ann, son-in-law, John Stayton, and children to San Joaquin County in 1856 or 1857 where John made numerous real estate transactions.[1] No record has been found of Rebecca after 1860.[1] Most of her children and their families scattered throughout California leaving hundreds and perhaps thousands of descendants.


  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 1.12 1.13 1.14 1.15 1.16 1.17 1.18 1.19 1.20 1.21 1.22 1.23 1.24 Bundschu, William B. (2003). Abuse and murder on the frontier: the trials and travels of Rebecca Hawkins: 1800-1860. Independence, MO: Little Blue Valley Publishing Co. hdl:2027/mdp.39015060621979.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: date and year (link)
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 "Garster-Hawkins | KC History". Retrieved 2020-10-09.
  3. Kremer, Gary R. "Strangers to Domestic Virtue: Nineteenth Centry Women in the Missouri Prison". Missouri Historical Review. LXXXIV: 293–310.
  4. 4.0 4.1 "Execution of Garster in 1839". Kansas City Times p. 3, col. 6. March 2, 1878.{{cite news}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 "Frank Haight: Old documents revealed tale of spousal abuse and murder". The Examiner of East Jackson County. Retrieved 2020-10-09.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 "The First Hanging". Jackson Examiner. October 27, 1905.{{cite news}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  7. 7.0 7.1 The History of Jackson County, Missouri, Containing a History of the County, Its Cities, Towns, Etc., Biographical Sketches of Its Citizens, Jackson County in the Late War... History of Missouri, Map of Jackson County, Chapter "Jails". Kansas City, Missouri: Union Historical Company. 1881. pp. 839–842.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Hine, Faragher, Robert V., and John Mack (2017). The American West: A New Interpretive History, Lamar Series in Western History, Chapter 11 "As the West Goes" (Second ed.). New Haven: Yale University Press.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 Fischer, David Hackett (1989). Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America, a Cultural History; v. 1. New York: Oxford University Press.
  10. McMillen, Sally G (1990). Motherhood in the Old South: Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Infant Rearing. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.
  11. 11.0 11.1 Faragher, John Mack (1986). Sugar Creek: Life on the Illinois Prairie. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  12. Chused, Richard H. (1983). "Married Women's Property Law: 1800-1850". The Georgetown Law Journal. 71 (5).
  13. Soltow and Stevens, Lee, and Edward (1981). The Rise of Literacy and the Common School in the United States: A Socioeconomic Analysis to 1870. Chicago: Chicago Originals, University of Chicago Press.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  14. Mutti Burke, Diane (2010). On Slavery's Border: Missouri's Small Slaveholding Households, 1815-1865. Early American Places Ser. Athens: University of Georgia Press.
  15. 15.0 15.1 Rorabaugh, W. J. (1993). "Alcohol and Alcoholism." In Encyclopedia of American Social History, by Mary Kupiec Cayton. New York, Canada: Scribner American Civilization Series. New York: Toronto: New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons; Maxwell Macmillan Canada; Maxwell Macmillan International. pp. 2135–42.
  16. 16.0 16.1 Dannenbaum, Jed (1981). "The Origins of Temperance Activism and Militancy Among American Women". Journal of Social History. 15 (2): 235–52. doi:10.1353/jsh/15.2.235.
  17. Dobash and Dobash, R. Emerson, and Russell (1979). Violence against Wives: A Case against the Patriarchy. New York: New York: Free Press.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  18. 18.0 18.1 18.2 Nadelholft, Jerome (1993). "Domestic Violence." In Encyclopedia of American Social History, by Mary Kupiec Cayton, 2115–24. Scribner American Civilization Series. New York: Toronto: New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons; Maxwell Macmillan Canada; Maxwell Macmillan International.
  19. 19.0 19.1 Ewing, Charles Patrick (1987). Battered Women Who Kill: Psychological Self-Defense as Legal Justification. Lexington, Mass: Lexington Books.
  20. 20.0 20.1 Segrave, Kerry (2008). Women and Capital Punishment in America, 1840-1899: Death Sentences and Executions in the United States and Canada. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Incorporated Publishers.
  21. Ouellette, Richard D. (2005). "Zion's Gallows: The Cultural Geography of the Mormon Temple Lot Site". The John Whitmer Historical Association Journal. 25: 161–74.
  22. Kremer, Gary R (April 1990). "Strangers to Domestic Virtue: Nineteenth-Century Women in the Missouri Prison". Missouri Historical Review. LXXXIV, no. 3.

External links

Add External links

This article "Rebecca Hawkins" is from Wikipedia. The list of its authors can be seen in its historical. Articles taken from Draft Namespace on Wikipedia could be accessed on Wikipedia's Draft Namespace.