In 1915 Cape Girardeau historian and railroad entrepreneur Louis Houck published a book entitled "Memorial Sketches of Pioneers and Early Residents of Southeast Missouri." The Naeter Brothers, founders of the Southeast Missourian newspaper, produced the hardbound book.
I came into possession of a copy through my mentor, Judith Ann Crow. But I wonder just how many were produced. A note at the beginning of the book indicates that the volume saw limited circulation: "For private distribution only, these addresses and memorial sketches, scattered leaves from the tree of my literary life, have been gathered into this little volume. With the exception of Louis Lorimier and Alexander Buckner, I attempt to record the life story of dear and loved personal friends, and who quietly after a life of usefulness went to the realms beyond. Their memory is dear to me and fondly I hope, for a little time at least, to preserve their honored names and virtues in these pages."
Among the dozen biographies that make up "Memorial Sketches," only three are devoted to women: Matilda Rodney Block, Zerilda Byrne and Jane Day Glasscock. I thought I'd share with readers Houck's kind words about the first of these ladies.
MRS. MATILDA RODNEY BLOCK
A Sketch of Her time and Family
The death of Mrs. Matilda Rodney Block, which occurred Jan. 22, 1902, at the advanced age of 86 years and 6 months, severs another link which connects the present generation with the early pioneers of our county and Southeast Missouri, and all remembrance of which, with ever increasing rapidity, is now fading into tradition, because little attention has been given -- to our shame be it said -- to the authentic preservation of their work, their labors, their hardships, their trials and even their mere names.
From the 22nd day of July, 1815, the day when Mrs. Block was born in Cape Girardeau County, in the then Territory of Missouri, to the date of her death, when measured by the ordinary length of human life alone, seems a long span of time, buy when we also take into account all the events that have happened during that period -- all the changes that have transpired, that the face of the country in which we now dwell has been transformed and the very globe has, in a measure, been shorn and despoiled of the immensity it seemed to possess at her birth, it is hard to realize that in the course of a single life all this has come to pass. Certain it is that locally the whole social fabric has been refashioned. Other people now occupy the land. The wood-crowded hills of the county, where the ax of the early American settlers first echoed through the lordly forest, and where they reared their log houses, established civilized and ordered society, have generally passed out of the hands of the original occupants and their descendants, and wide extending fields are now held by new Americans hailing from the banks of the Rhine or Danube, and their children. But when one, who in her youth saw the smoke curl up over the woods from the chimney-tops of the homes of these early pioneers, who was of them, belonged to them, of heroic lineage, and was so well and long known among us for her noble virtues, goes to her long rest, ti does not seem inappropriate at least cursorily to refer to her descent and to the days long ago when she was young and her people first came to the "Shores of Latium."
Mrs. Block was a great-granddaughter of Col. Anthony Bledsoe of Greenfield or Bledsoe's Lick, in what was afterwards known as Sumner County, Middle Tennessee. Her great-grand-uncle was Col. Isaac Bledsoe, named "Tullituskee" (waiving corn blade) by the Indians. Both were killed by Indians in 1786-7. Both were distinguished leaders of the people, and many of their descendants have since achieved renown in peace and war. Her grandfather was William Archibald Penny, a native of Wales, a gunsmith by trade, a profession of unusual importance to the early pioneers. He came fro South Carolina to Middle Tennessee in about 1774, where he married Susan Bledsoe, daughter of Col. Anthony Bledsoe, and grandmother of Mrs. Block. In 1808 Penney moved from Tennessee to the Territory of Missouri. His family then consisted of his wife and six children -- three sons and three daughters, and a number of slaves. The journey was performed on a keel boat with a number of other families, down the Cumberland and up the Mississippi rivers. After an uneventful voyage the boat landed at the "Red House" at Cape Girardeau. The "Red House" stood on the lot now occupied by the Catholic Parochial school.
The Penney family first resided on what was long known as the Rodney place on Cape LaCruz, but after a short time removed to a farm about three miles south of where the city of Jackson is now (in 1902) located, and near the farm at present occupied by Judge Joseph Medley. Here Mrs. Block's grandfather and grandmother resided until 1832, when her grandmother died. Her grandfather then took up residence with his oldest son, Anthony Bledsoe, where he died in 1842. The other sons of the family, who came with hi from Tennessee were respectively named Isaac Bledsoe and Thomas Bledsoe Penney, and a son born in Cape Girardeau County in 1810 was named William Archibald, and well known not only to our county, but also to many people of Southeast Missouri. Of the three daughters Mary (Polly) was the oldest, and her two sisters were named Matilda and Peggy. Matilda married Michael Rodney, and Peggy married Louis Lorimier Jr., son of Don Louis Lorimier. He was graduated at West Point in 1806, commissioned in the army, but after serving for some time resigned to devote himself to farming. He was appointed by President Madison Indian Agent for the Shawnee and Delaware Indians, then residing in what is now known as Stoddard and Dunklin counties, and acted as such agent until their removal. While there his wife's youngest brother, William Archibald Penney, spent much time with the Indians, and according to his statement the principal chief of the Shawnee and Delaware Indians, then living where the town of Bloomfield is now located, was named Wappapillatee. It should be remarked that Mr. Penney seriously objected to the attentions his daughter Peggy received from young Lorimier, and one occasion when he saw him coming to the house, he became furious and snatched down his rifle, saying: "G-d d--n his Indian soul, I'll shoot him," from which it would appear that he was not only prejudiced against the Indians and the mother of Lorimier, who was a half Delaware, but also inclined to profanity. His wife, however, frustrated his hostile design, and shortly afterwards young Lorimier eloped with Peggy. He died on his farm just west of town now in part occupied by the (New) Lorimier Cemetery. His widow after his death married Edward Walker and died many years after him.
The oldest daughter, Mary or Polly, married Thomas S. Rodney, a widower, whose first wife was Marie Louise Lorimier, and sister of the husband of her sister Peggy. Mrs. Block was their daughter. Thomas Rodney was a prominent early citizen. In 1805 he was sheriff and collector of the Cape Girardeau District, then embracing all the country south of Apple Creek, extending to the Arkansas and White rivers and indefinitely west. I have before me now a tax receipt dated Sept. 14, 1805, for $1.95 given to Mrs. Rebecca Giboney, written on a small piece of paper (about three inches long and one and one-half inch wide), yellow with age, signed by him as sheriff, from which it appears that he was a man of scholarly attainments. The Rodneys, too, were among the early pioneers of the country, and settled here during the Spanish government. Thomas S. Rodney afterwards removed to Pitman's Ferry and there died. Pitman's Ferry in those early days was the gateway into the Arkansas Territory. The route of travel from the Southeast did not then go straight across the country from Memphis and other points due west. A road had not even been cut across the St. Francis bottoms, but was afterwards cut out and bridged under contract with the United States, or Territorial Government of Arkansas, by Col. William Neely, who also had married a daughter of Col. Anthony Bledsoe and a sister of the grandmother of Mrs. Block. Col. Neely for a time resided in Cape Girardeau County, representing the Cape Girardeau District in the early Territorial Assemblies, but afterwards removed to the Arkansas Territory. The early route of travel from the Southeast, from Tennessee, North Carolina and Kentucky was across the Ohio River at Golconda, across the Mississippi at Green's Ferry, thence to Jackson, (hence the name of Old Jackson by which our county town is known as far as Texas) thence across the St. Francois at Greenville and across the Black, and thence to Pitman's Ferry across the Current to Batesville. After her father's death, which occurred at Pitman's Ferry, the family returned to Cape Girardeau County.
In 1831 Mrs. Block was married to John Renfro, but within six months after her marriage her husband was mysteriously killed, and thus tragically ended her early dreams. In 1832 she married Zalma Block, and after 50 years of married life, in 1882, they celebrated their golden wedding. Four years thereafter, in 1886, Mr. Block died, and now she has followed him.
Perhaps no woman was better known to the older generation in Southeast Missouri and on Crowley's Ridge and in Northeast Arkansas than Mrs. Block. For many years she and her husband were engaged in what is now called the hotel business in Cape Girardeau. This was before the era of railroads. Cape Girardeau in those days was the natural starting point for all travelers intending to visit the interior of Southeast Missouri and the northern section of Crowley's Ridge, and to Cape Girardeau the stream of travel from the interior districts came in order to go north and south on the river, and the old St. Charles Hotel was for many years the principal hotel in Cape Girardeau, and here in the course of years innumerable people experienced a hospitable welcome. Mrs. Block, by her genial disposition, kindness of heart and whose attentions to the wants of her guests, which never fail to win the respect of the sensible traveler, secured a large circle of admiring friends. All who came within the sphere of her influences were charmed by her womanly virtues and graces. Her charity was extended to the unfortunate and afflicted, to the poor and the needy, white and black, as unostentatiously as liberal. Nor were the unfortunate of her own family made unwelcome at her table or home. No one went away hungry from her door. Her house and home were the center of social life, and young people were always welcome, and always found in her a ready assistant to aid their pleasure and enjoyment. In her family and among her friends, by her sweetness of temper, her calm speech, her dignity, almost austere bearing, her great common sense, her charity, her kindness of heart, her generosity, she thus reigned as queen by right divine.
While Houck's tribute is flowery and a bit hard to follow, The Cape Girardeau Weekly Democrat published a simpler obituary for Matilda Rodney Block on the front page of its Jan. 25, 1902, edition.
MATILDA RODNEY BLOCK
Entered into rest at 8:15 o'clock, a.m., Jan. 22, 1902, aged 86 years and 6 months. Mrs Block was born in Cape Girardeau County, Mo., July 22, 1815; was married to Zalma Block on Nov. 1, 1832. They celebrated their golden wedding Nov. 1, 1882. Zalma Block died December 1886, since which time she has resided with her son, John W. Block, Brooklyn, N.Y., until June 1901, when she returned to Cape Girardeau and has since resided with her son-in-law, Dr. M.E. Shelton, since that date.
She leaves three daughters and two sons, Mrs. Emma Shelton and Mrs. Katie Whitelaw of this city; Mrs. Mary Steel, John W. and Wesley S. Block, of Brooklyn.
Mrs. Block belonged to a pioneer family. Her grandfather, Martin Rodney, emigrated to Missouri from Bledsoe's Lick, now Gallatin, Tenn., before the acquisition of Louisiana Territory from France by the United States. The census taken in this county in 1803 shows him to have been one of the wealthiest and most prosperous farmers. Her maternal grandmother, Susan Bledsoe, wife of William Penny, was a member of the celebrated Bledsoe family who were alike distinguished in peace and war, having made the name famous in civil and military annals.
They were engaged in all the wars of their country: The war for Independence, the war of 1812, the Mexican war and the war between the states. All of the name espoused the southern cause. None were too old, hardly anty too young, to enlist and they fought with such valor that all of the name were about extinguished. Her father, Thomas Smith Rodney, and her mother, Mary Penny, were married in this county and for several years he was deputy sheriff, but afterwards he removed to Pitman's Ferry, on the Current River in Arkansas, where some years afterwards he died, and his widow with her children returned to this county.
When young Mrs. Block was a tall, graceful girl and when matured by age was a handsome dame, possess of a winning personality and gracious manner that put the stranger instantly at ease. She was exceedingly generous, but did not display it in the usual ostentatious way by aiding schools and churches, but in feeding and clothing the poor. In her long life thousands of people were fed and clothed by her, and neither the mention of the acts nor the name of the beneficiaries ever escaped her lips. In life every day was admirably discharged. She was a patient and devoted daughter, a faithful and helpful wife, a wise and affectionate mother, and her kindness to the needy was boundless. In her fevered excitations during her last illness, she talked incessantly of the joys of her young life, then passed to a well deserved rest.
Zalma and Matilda Rodney Block are buried at New Lorimier Cemetery in Cape Girardeau.