Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
Rollover text informationAmerican Experience Logo
Secrets of a Master Builder






spacer above content
People & Events: Martha Dillon Eads, 1821 — 1852

If it weren't for a bundle of letters handed down from one generation to the next, Martha Dillon, James Eads' first wife would remain a total mystery. She left little else behind -- just one solitary portrait photograph of a sultry-looking woman with large eyes and enigmatic smile, and some love poems she wrote for her husband that were published in a local paper. It is the hundreds of letters, long and intimate, between James and Martha, that tell the story of a marriage and paint a picture of a couple. The portrait of Martha that gradually emerges is of a lively young woman, madly in love with her husband, who grows increasingly weary, lonely and sad as she plays second best to his career.

Martha Dillon was born in 1821, the daughter of a wealthy member of St. Louis' elite, Colonel Patrick Dillon. Her mother died when Martha was young, and the Colonel remarried a younger woman, Eliza Eads, who was James Eads' first cousin. James probably first noticed Martha at the Dillon home during 1844. By this time, 24-year-old James was already known as Captain Eads. He commanded one salvage boat and was beginning to establish a profitable business retrieving sunken cargo from the Mississippi River. The smart and beautiful 23-year-old Martha turned his head.

After several months of courtship, James asked Martha to marry him. She would only agree with her father's approval: "Without his consent I must never be to you more than a friend." Colonel Dillon wouldn't hear of a union between his daughter and James Eads. In a letter to Martha, James reported the Colonel's response: "I am an ambitious man," Colonel Dillon said, "and am anxious to unite my daughter to some one of the families of the highest standing in the country."

James was not a man to take no for an answer. He begged his cousin to disobey her father: "Come dearest Martha, wait no longer but decide at once … " He persuaded his mother to send letters to Martha on his behalf. Ann Buchanan Eads wrote a warm, unschooled letter: "Dear Martha," she began, "you will meet a mothers welcome and shear a mothers love and I do not know anything to mar your happiness; except your father's disaprobation and wear he reasonable in his objections I should advise you and my son to relinquish your clames on each other for the preasent but he is unnreasonable."

Whether it was due to Ann Eads' endearing eloquence or to James Eads' persistence, in October 1845, Martha married the man she loved, against her father's wishes. Shortly before the wedding, James wrote to Martha about their future together: "I sometimes … fear that I may in after years, act like some other men, and treat my wife far less kindly than a heart as confiding and affectionate as yours so richly merits." In some ways James realized those fears. With the responsibility of supporting not only his wife and children, but helping his parents as well, James drove himself hard, frequently neglecting his family. For most of their marriage James and Martha lived apart. He convinced her to live with and look after his parents in the remote village of Le Claire, Iowa. He retired from the salvage business and tried to set up a glass works in St. Louis -- the first one west of the Ohio River.

It was a life of constant labor for both of them. Eads worked around the clock to get his new business venture off the ground. Martha, unused to household labor, was overwhelmed by chores and errands: "Today the mere cooking of the meals has occupied no little time. If, when the labor is divided we are so tired, how could poor mother [Eads' mother Ann] have stood it without any assistance." The couple wrote each other tender letters, but more and more frequently Martha begged Eads to come home. Heavily pregnant with her second child, she wrote: "I am not well tonight, but I am much sadder than I am sick, so sad indeed, that laying aside all prudential considerations with regard to your business, I implore … you will come up without delay." The letter today appears water stained -- could it be with tears? In any event, James didn't receive it in time and James Jr. was born in his absence.

James' glass factory had also put the couple under tremendous stress. In an age of unreliable transportation, getting the necessary raw materials in a timely and consistent manner proved difficult. So did finding the expertise to make the operation run efficiently. By mid-1847 the business was floundering. Without Eads' knowledge, Martha had begun taking in sewing to make ends meet. Desperately worried about their financial situation, she begged her husband to be honest with her: "James you must tell me what you really think about the Works," she wrote, "-- whether a crisis is approaching in your affairs … My anxiety on this subject is extreme." By the end of 1847, Eads was overwhelmed with debt and forced to return to his work as a salvager on the Mississippi.

James' career change added to Martha's worries. The salvage business did prove to be much more profitable than the glass works, and slowly Eads began paying off his creditors. But salvaging took Eads away from Martha and his children for longer periods. And Martha was all too aware that it was extremely dangerous work: "Do not dive if you can possibly avoid it," she wrote, urging him to send his workers underwater rather than go himself. "Those horrible boats trouble me. What chance would you have, if an accident should happen while you were below, and you could not succeed in catching to the hook on the [diving] bell."

Martha didn't lose James her husband. She lost James her son. The infant died on June 15, 1849 when he was less than a year old. Martha mentioned her son's death just once, obliquely, in a letter two months after he died. "Oh James," she wrote, "you surely will not condemn me to a long separation from you this winter. That and my other affliction together are too much for my health and spirits." She told her husband that his mother was also very anxious to see him "and I know so well, by my own sad heart, what a mother's feelings are when separated from an only son."

Martha didn't outlive her son by very long. In 1852 Eads' mother grew ill and after several months she died. Martha was exhausted with the task of running the household, looking after her ailing mother-in-law and caring for her own children. From their correspondence it seems that rather than coming home to spend time with his fatigued wife, James sent her to Brattleboro, Vermont to take a rest at a water cure, which was then in vogue.

On her way home, Martha received a letter from her husband. In closing he wrote: "I will bid you good night, consigning you with confiding love unto the care of Him who hath sheltered me through many dangers, and blest me with a wife much beyond my deserts. Good bye dearest Mattie." The letter was probably his final farewell. Martha died less than two weeks later, in October 1852, of cholera. Her death came just as the man her father had forbidden her to marry was poised to become one of St. Louis' wealthiest citizens.

previous | return to people & events list | next
Site Navigation

Secrets of a Master Builder Home | The Film & More | Special Features | Timeline | Gallery | People & Events | Teacher's Guide

The American Experience | Feedback | Search & Site Map | Shop | Subscribe | Web Credits

© New content 1999-2000 PBS Online / WGBH



Exclusive Corporate Funding is provided by: