In 1880, infant mortality in the United States was nearly 40%. If a woman gave birth to ten children throughout her childbearing years, she could expect to bury four babies before they reached the age of five. Ellen Sutherland was remarkable in that all of her children survived infancy.
Ellen grew up in a small family. She and her brother, Clinton, were the only children in the Powell household. Although there were plenty of cousins near her home in Indiana, she did not have the first hand experience of helping to care for younger brothers and sisters.
Newly married nineteen year old Ellen Sutherland moved into a home with her mother-in-law, Margaret, and sister-in-law, Maria. Margaret Sutherland had raised 14 children and step-children and helped care for dozens of grandchildren in Illinois and Iowa. Maria had been a surrogate mother to all of the younger boys in the Sutherland family, nursing the sick and binding their injuries. These women knew how to keep children alive during harsh times.
In 1880, the Sutherland household included Charles’ nephew, Robert. The child was dying of tuberculosis and Ellen helped nurse the boy during the last months of his life. The experience of caring for a dying child taught her how to keep her own children alive.
The survival of the Sutherland children is all the more remarkable since family tradition holds that Charles also died with tuberculosis. Ellen’s children were born into a household where their father carried a contagious (and fatal) disease.
There were plenty of helping hands in the early years of marriage but older family members died off as time went by. Maria married and went back to Illinois. Charles became sicker and sicker. Ellen sent her oldest sons to work as soon as they could hold a hoe just to keep food in the house.
She knew that they had no future in Iowa. The only way to keep the family together was to go south.