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America’s Last Civil War Widow Dies at 101 Missouri Cherry Blossom Festival via Facebook
Missouri Cherry Blossom Festival via Facebook

When you hear there was still a surviving Civil War widow in the year 2021, it might seem hard to believe. Impossible actually. The Civil War ended in 1865… 156 years ago. But Helen Viola Jackson made history through her unusual marriage to a Civil War veteran at the height of the Great Depression.

Helen Viola Jackson

Via the Missouri Cherry Blossom Festival

Helen Jackson grew up on a farm in Missouri with 10 siblings. Naturally, they struggled during the tough years of the depression. Jackson was a teenager at the time. She was just seventeen years old when she began stopping by the home of local widower James Bolin to help around his house. Bolin needed the assistance; he was 93 years old. He was also a Union veteran, having served as a private in the 14th Missouri Cavalry until 1965. Bolin still earned a nice Civil War pension for his services fighting the Confederates. He encouraged the young Ms. Jackson to marry him so she might collect the pension after his impending death. So she did.

The nuptials between Helen Jackson and James Bolin took place on September 4, 1936, at Bolin’s home in Niangua, Missouri. But due to the 76-year age gap (!) between the couple, their marriage was… unconventional. Jackson continued to live on her family farm, retained her maiden name, and in fact, kept the wedding a secret entirely. Jackson did not go public with her story until 2018, speaking to Historian Hamilton C. Clark. As a founding member of the Missouri Cherry Blossom Festival, Jackson also created an oral history recording for the organization which relays the details of her life.

Missouri During the Civil War

Helen Jackson’s mysterious marriage was confirmed by The Daughters of Union Veterans, who tracked down wedding documents and a signed witness affidavit. However, Jackson never did receive the union pension payout that James Bolin had promised. Although she was married to Bolin for three years, upon the Civil War soldier’s death, his daughter threatened to expose Jackson’s arrangement should she make a play for the money. “All a woman had in 1939 was her reputation,” Jackson explained to Our America Magazine, the official publication of the Missouri Cherry Blossom Festival.

Confirming a Legacy

Helen Jackson, who never remarried, held on to her historic secret for nearly a lifetime. It was not until the later years of her life — while planning her own funeral — that Jackson revealed this shocking past to her pastor Nicholas Inman. Inman encouraged Jackson to open up to the whole community. And rather than a tarnished reputation, she was met with great respect and celebration. (And thankfully, those funeral arrangements were premature.) Jackson was a charter member of the Elkland Independent Methodist Church, a charter member of the Cherry Blossom Festival Auxiliary, a lifetime member of the Webster County Historical Society, and the first recipient of the Cherry Blossom Medal for her volunteer work with the Missouri Cherry Blossom Festival. She was even an honoree on the Missouri Walk of Fame — at the age of 99.

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Helen Jackson spent her final years at the Webco Manor Nursing Home in Marshfield, Missouri. On January 7, 2021, her death was announced by the Associated Press. She was 101 years old. And with her passing, we lose the last known widow of a Civil War veteran. That is unless another teen bride comes out of the woodwork.

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Emily Mack About the author:
Emily Mack is a staff writer for Rare. She currently lives in Chicago and has very strong opinions about where to find the best hot dog. She studied nonfiction writing at Columbia University in New York City, and recently graduated with the Ellis Avery Prize for creative writing. Her favorite topics are Cher, fast fashion, Chicago urban legends, and Jack Nicholson movies.
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