My Family Story: The Overshadowed Legacy of Caroline Ritter (1852-1906)

The final profile in my 2x great-grandmother series is Caroline Ritter (1852-1906) Caroline is the paternal grandmother of my paternal grandfather, James Vincent Pryor. I didn’t learn her name for several years of my family tree research, after I stumbled upon a 4th cousin who filled me in on the Pryor history.

The Backstory

To be honest, we all just sort of assumed the Pryor’s came from England and landed in the Northeast because my great-grandparents settled there (see this post for more details.) But nope, that’s wasn’t true. Turns out MOST of the folks on the Pryor/Ritter side have been in this land for hundreds of years and settled mainly in Eastern Pennsylvania. They were part of early waves of Irish, English, and German colonizers who were brought here to claim and settle Eastern Pennsylvania.

Caroline was born in Franklin, Lycoming County, Pennsylvania, the 8th of 14 children. Her family were farmers.

Caroline’s father was Franklin Peter Ritter (1819-1910.) The Ritters had emigrated from Baden-Württemberg around 1707 settling in Berks County, Pennsylvania. They were Lutherans and likely fleeing persecution or discrimination. They began farming in this region, moving up to Lycoming County around the time of the Revolutionary War. It is very important to the story to note that Lycoming County was also a timber industry site. We’ll come back to that.

In 1819, Franklin Peter Ritter was born into a very large family of 15 children (this isn’t an absolute figure) He grew up on a farm and spent his adult life farming. He could read and write.

Around 1840, Franklin married Elizabeth Morris (1821-1900) from Moreland Township in Lycoming County. Newspaper articles written in the mid-twentieth century about one of the Ritter sons (more on that later) claimed Elizabeth Morris was a descendant of Robert Morris, a Founding Father and important white guy. That doesn’t seem to be true.  Her Morris ancestors arrived in the Americas around 1663, settling in Virginia and New Jersey. So it is possible that Elizabeth was a cousin of Robert, but I haven’t sussed that out just yet.

So the son of German-American farmers married the daughter of English-American farmers. They settled on a farm and raised 15 children. So far, a prototypical mid-19th century American story.

Almost smack in the middle of these kids was Caroline Ritter, my direct ancestor and 2x great grandmother. In 1874 at the age of 22, Caroline married James Buchanon Pryor (1850-1933) also from Lycoming County. Their first child was born in 1875; they had 11 children total and 8 lived to adulthood.

James B Pryor was also born on a farm in Eastern Pennsylvania. His father, William Prior, had emigrated from Scotland around 1840.  He served three and 1/2 years in the Union Army, dying in a Confederate POW camp in Andersonville, Georgia where he is buried. James’ mother was left to raise six children on her own. Her name was Maria Chapman Billman (1817-1879) and her family much like Caroline’s had deep roots in the Eastern Pennsylvania farmlands, stretching back to 1600, with her most recent emigrant ancestor arriving in 1730.

Like their parents, James and Caroline farmed. In 1906, she died of cancer – I can’t read the handwriting on her death certificate well enough to determine why type. But I can’t imagine cancer of any type in 1906 in rural Pennsylvania was better than some other type. After her death, James remarried in 1910 to Charlotte Shipman, herself a widow. James’ occupation also changed to laborer after her death.

The Brother’s Story

In most of the posts from this series, I look backwards and forwards along the parents and children of the 2x great-grandmother. But in this case, it is necessary for me to stop the narrative and take a sideways step to Caroline’s brother, William McClellan Ritter (1864-1952) because his literal fortune defined the lives of his many nieces and nephews, including Caroline’s children.

William made his fortune in timber and mining. I’m not comfortable saying he was a self-made man because I don’t know the specifics of his early years. But he founded a lumber mill company in West Virginia and grew it to become an international corporation, eventually bought out by Georgia Pacific in the 1960s. He was filthy rich. He mingled with Presidents and served on important advisory committees. He owned a mansion on Millionaire’s Row in Washington D.C.  And he hired his family in all sorts of positions.

Was William a Horatio Alger, rags to riches man? He certainly would have been exposed to that late 19th century mythos. The insistence that he was descended from Robert Morris, something I found in several sources, suggests it was important to frame William’s story in a certain light.  But was that William’s vision or the way others wove the narrative?

I had no clue that my 3rd great-uncle was a so-called ‘Captain of Industry (or Robber Baron?)’  When I did put 2 and 2 together, I hoped that his renown would mean I could find more out about his sister, my Caroline. Unfortunately, that is not the case – there was occasional media coverage of his siblings, but nothing comprehensive. Given that he achieved the height of his fame long after her death, perhaps that’s not surprising.

I’m not going to delve too much deeper into his story because it draws attention away from his sister, Caroline. Perhaps he warrants his own blog post. But it is important to acknowledge that William achieved this degree of financial success and that it had a significant impact on Caroline’s children. It put into motion many important events, including hiring Caroline’s son, Marion Wilbur, and sending him to Tennessee on business. That’s where M.W Pryor met my great-grandmother, Harriet Hackney. And it goes without saying that his contributions to the lumber and mining industries created tremendous environmental impact throughout Appalachia.

Because there are so many siblings of Caroline and children of Caroline, I’m going to use a list format to illustrate her story.

Anna Ritter – died in infancy

John Ritter – died in infancy

James Marion Ritter (1844-1927)

  • Served as a private in the Civil War. Married and had 3 children. Worked as a farmer and conductor. ** Namesake of my great-grandfather, his nephew.

Hannah Teressa Ritter (1846–1926)

  • Married a farmer, Burton Smith. They had one daughter and provided a home for her father Franklin in his older years.

John Thomas Ritter (1848-1933)

  • Became a carpenter, married and had 12 children.

Daniel Ritter (1850-1854)

  • Died as a young child. Cause of death unknown.

Charles H Ritter (1850-1915)

  • Married, had 4 children, and farmed his whole life.

Alvaretta ‘Allie” Ritter (1856-1918)

  • She married James Pryor’s brother, then 2 more husbands after he died. She had ten children with Mr. Pryor.

Elizabeth Sarah Ritter (1860-1923)

  • Elizabeth married the brother of James Pryor’s second wife, Charlotte Shipman. She had 5 children and died of a cerebral hemorrhage.

Flora Ardella Ritter (1861-1942)

  • Flora married and had six children. After her husband died, she made the national news with a brief ‘reverse May-December romance’ with a young man 41 years younger than her. They divorced and Flora took her first husband’s surname again until her death.

William M. Ritter (1864-1952)

  • See above.

Mary Angeline Ritter (1867-1872)

  • Died in childhood, cause unknown.

The Descendants

Whew. Got that? Okay, let’s move on to Caroline’s children with James Pryor.

Robert Henry Pryor (1874-?)

  • Unsure what happened to him. May have moved to Florida.

Harry T. Pryor (1875-1930)

  • Harry married in 1898 and was working for his uncle’s lumber business on the paper mill side. He relocated to Oneida, New York. He had four children.

George Wallace Pryor (1876-1877)

  • He died at age one.

Elizabeth Mae Pryor (1877-1970)

  • She married a Ritter (no relation to her mother’s family) and lived a long life in nearby Packer in Carbon County. She had one daughter. Her husband was a farmer.

Alvin Ramsey Pryor (1879-1964)

  • Alvin went to work for his uncle’s lumber company, heading overseas to England to work on importing American wood to Europe. He settled in Liverpool, married a local woman and raised his two children. He spent his life in England with some occasional trips back to Pennsylvania.

Flora Ella Pryor (1881-1948)

  • Flora married a local man and raised her four children in Lycoming County.  They moved to Boone, West Viriginia because Joseph was an employee of the Ritter Lumber company. They died and were buried there

Marion Wilbert Pryor (1886-1963)

Oliver Raymond Pryor (1889-1964)

  • He married Helen Mae Schneider and they moved to West Virginia to work in the company. They raised six children.

Infant Girl Pryor (1892-1892)

Elmer Dela Pryor (1894- 1964)

  • Elmer also went to London and stayed, but he became a naturalized resident of England.

Two Unknown Infants

So this is the first time I’ve discovered relatives who gave up their US Citizenship and established residency in another country, in this case England. That’s a bit atypical, but since both of these men had careers that kept them in London via The WIlliam M. Ritter Lumber Company, it makes sense. I wonder if they knew that their grandfather Prior had emigrated from Scotland about 70 years earlier.

It is incredibly easy to lose track of Caroline in this massive family tale. There’s so little information about her, probably the smallest amount of any of the 2nd great grandmothers whom I’ve profiled. I can’t find a single mention of her in the newspapers of the day which is odd since she did live near small towns with daily and weekly papers that would go on to report on her husband and his second wife in the society section.

There’s no death notice or obituary for Caroline. We know she lived because of her tombstone and a few records. There’s no known photo of her. There’s not been anything handed down in my immediate family about Caroline, not even her name. Even the story of her mother’s Morris ancestors has been distorted to connect her to a famous white guy – her story was twisted to connect two white men to one another. A connection to her was not even worth noting.

For literary and historical context, Caroline was essentially a peer of Mary Ingalls and Laura Ingalls Wilder. She also grew up as a farmer’s daughter and a farmer’s wife. While there’s no formal tribute to her legacy, I’d like to think her descendants are a tribute. We should remember that we came from women who have been mostly erased from the record.

Caroline was also the 2 great-grandma with the closest relationship to someone who had a substantial systemic impact on the lives of many, many people throughout the East Coast. Her brother’s lumber and mining interests created jobs, but also decimated the environment and left a lot of harm in its wake.

I continue to wonder that most of this story was not handed down to us. Our grandfather didn’t tell us much about his life (he died before I was born) or the lives of his family. There doesn’t appear to be any real reason, no trauma or incident, that squelched the relatively recent legacy of William M. Ritter. We joke because my mother’s generation inherited very small shares of Georgia Pacific so she gets residuals of like $1.41 per quarter, but no one ever talked about how we came to have those shares. I just assumed my great-grandfather bought them.

Rest in power, Grandma Caroline. I hope one day to visit Lycoming County and learn more about you at least find a photo of your grace. You deserve to have your contribution to our family honored.

I’ll have one final post in the 2x great grandma series wrapping up what I’ve learned and what comes next in my genealogy blogging.

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