The lines in her face tell it all. Time-worn and tired, Martha Jane Porter Paulk appears bogged down with her twelve children and exhausted from the constant moving with her family. Her look is always like that in the few remaining pictures of Martha. Born February 28, 1861, in Texas, Martha became an orphan early on. Her family had moved north to rural Arkansas and this is where Martha lived most of her life. Her mother was probably Elizabeth Porter who died when Martha was less than ten years old (Perleberg). Yellow fever, an epidemic in both Texas and the general south at this time, was the likely cause of her early death. Yellow fever is spread by a female mosquito’s bite, leading to jaundice, liver failure, bleeding of the mouth and eyes, and bloody vomit. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, yellow fever killed upward of 150,000 Americans (Patterson).
Martha’s father, John J. Porter, remarried a woman who did not have children. Tragically, her father soon fell ill and died himself. Even though he made his second wife promise to take care of his five children, his widow left Martha, her sister, and three brothers at the cemetery in Conway County, Arkansas, the very day of his funeral; perhaps she felt overwhelmed with raising five children on her own. The names of Martha’s parents are long lost with time, but one name, James D. McMahan remains. The unmarried James, Martha’s first cousin, graciously took Martha and her siblings into his home. He quickly married Emily Knowles Johnson, perhaps to have a mother for his five newly-adopted children. Emily had five young children of her own, and the couple took in two additional orphans to raise. This act speaks measures about the couple’s generous, Christian nature.
Martha’s family surname, Paulk, is a Scottish name with common variations such as Polk or Pollock. The name refers to ancestors who once lived on the Scotland/English borderlands at Pollok, a district on the southwest side of the city of Glasgow. The name “Martha” has strong Biblical connotations. Martha was the sister of Mary of Bethany, a tidy homemaker, and a close friend of Jesus. “Martha” comes from the Hebrew verb marar, which means to be bitter. However, this does not imply that Martha was a negative girl’s name. Her parents probably picked it because it means bitter in terms of showing strength. And a strong woman Martha indeed became.
In fact, barely fifteen years old in February 1876, Martha married Selden Paulk, a 31-year-old widow who already had two kids. Martha bore Selden twelve more children, though only eight lived past infancy, a high loss at the time. As a teenager, Selden served in the Union Army during the opening months of the Civil War. He was part of the 21st Missouri Infantry during the Battle of Shiloh, one of the bloodiest days in American history. Though only a two-day battle, over 23,000 men died. As New Orleans writer George Washington Cable put it, “The South never smiled again after Shiloh” (Allen 52). According to Martha’s great-granddaughter, Greta Schmidt Perleberg, the Paulk family were constantly on the move over the next thirty years, always in search of work, making stops in Conway County, Arkansas; Johnson County, Arkansas; El Reno, Indian Territory, Oklahoma; Ingalls, Indian Territory, Oklahoma; Vian, Indian Territory Oklahoma; and, finally, moving back to their farm on the Newton/Madison County line in Arkansas.
Martha’s life was extremely busy raising her ten children and making a comfortable home with every new move. It is surprising that Martha found the time to sew her quilt, “Whig’s Defeat,” while also keeping her large family fed and clothed. We can argue that Martha would usually sew for very pragmatic purposes, largely to make and mend her children’s garments.