When Mary Jackson Biggs died in 1905, she got a five-sentence obituary in one newspaper and a two-sentence blurb in another. Her headstone is carved with a sentence fragment: That she may rest from her labors and her works do follow her. Her husband, his heroic participation in the Underground Railroad, and his efforts to memorialize both white and black who died for the Union have generated perhaps hundreds of articles and recountings. Mary is generally not mentioned except as the wife of Basil. What is known about her as an individual has apparently been captured in fewer than ten sentences in most places.
Finding the stories of women in the 1800s means filling in absences with what must have been given what we know happened. Women were not listed in the United States Census by name until 1850. They were never listed by their maiden names once married. If there are no other records to specify a marriage and no one kept a family history, “Mary Smith” in a mid-sized city in the 1850 Census can apparently disappear by marrying “John Williams” during that decade–she will be Mary Williams in 1860.
For enslaved persons and even people of color, the situation is worse. Enslaved persons were not listed by name until the 1850s, and even when they were, they were recorded only by first name. Frequently, they had no last name, and in the postbellum period, many took the surnames of their former masters. African Americans descended from the 1840s in the United States typically cannot trace their family history further back than 1840 or 1850.
What we can say with certainty about Mary is that Basil Biggs is not the historical Basil Biggs without her. Mary was born with the surname Jackson in Carroll County, Maryland, in 1824. It seems likely that she was either born free or set free early in her life–she married Basil, apparently as a teenager, in the early 1840s. Online genealogies suggest she had as many as fourteen children, though obituaries placed her survivors at five. At least six total children can be accounted for–one daughter passed away at age twelve two years after the war.
Educating African Americans was illegal in Maryland, so as their children reached school age in the 1850s, Basil and Mary moved to Gettysburg where education was legal and where a school for black children had been established. Both Basil and Mary were illiterate–this move to ensure their children received an education illustrates their joint commitment to the betterment of the next generation.
In the decade that followed, Basil became a major figure in the Gettysburg extension of the Underground Railroad. But Mary has to have been an equal partner in sharing the risks, protecting the secrets, keeping the family safe, and cooperating with others. The Biggs were closely connected to Edward and Annie Mathews who lived at the Yellow Hill settlement. Some researchers believe the Biggs and Mathews were in-laws in Maryland, and evidence is good that Basil and Edward knew each other before moving to Pennsylvania. In fact, Hannah Biggs, the oldest daughter of Basil and Mary, later married Nelson Mathews, son of Edward and Annie, and Nelson would go on to join the 127th USCT Infantry, where he would see action around Petersburg and up to the surrender of Lee’s army.
Cooperation and kinship among the families and among the women is virtually certain. We should keep in mind, as well, that when Basil went out at night to conduct travelers along the Underground Railroad, the risk to the whole family was real. Under the Fugitive Slave Act, Basil was breaking the law, and family members in the know about it were aiding and abetting. Further, slave catchers were frequently indiscriminate–a black person in the North might have all proper documentation of being manumitted and still be sent South by an unscrupulous catcher. The capture of one person might lead to the rest of the family. As far as we know, Basil was never captured, and despite the presence of Southern sympathizers in the town (the democratic paper in town complained that free and escaped blacks migrating north had filled the prisons and degraded society), he appeared to operate successfully while running a good farm and serving as a veterinarian to town residents. During Basil’s late-night work, Mary was home with the six kids.
When news of the Confederate invasion in Gettysburg reached, Basil stayed in Gettysburg to watch their property as long as possible–Mary took the kids by herself toward Philadelphia. It’s hard to overstate the risks that she was taking. The countryside had Rebel cavalry roaming around, and at times, they chased black people through farmlands, captured them, and sent them South into slavery. The position of the Rebel army and cavalry was not known or certain to anyone–when George Meade took command of the Army of the Potomac in late June, he barely knew where the Union army was. We don’t know how Mary traveled or what she encountered. We know she and the children were not captured and not brought South.
After the battle, Basil became one of the key people exhuming Union bodies and moving them to the National Cemetery for $1.25 per body. Meanwhile, the Biggs family property had been decimated by Confederate forces. Not only were their home and valuables damaged, stolen, or destroyed, the family lost eight cows, seven steers, ten hogs, eight tons of hay, ten crocks of apple butter, sixteen chairs, six beds, and ninety-two acres of crops. While Basil was digging graves, who was putting the farm back together? We have to assume Mary led the family.
The importance of education and the spirit of fighting for civil rights was the Biggs family legacy. A veterinarian like his father, Dr. William Biggs spearheaded an effort to integrate Gettysburg’s public elementary school in 1924. Further, various obituaries of the Biggs children note that Basil and Mary bought property on the Taneytown Road shortly after the battle, and in fact, they owned the famous Copse of Trees or the Highwater Mark of the Confederacy and were persuaded by historian and preservationist John Bachelder not to cut it down. Bachelder argued that its preservation would be far more valuable to people later on, and indeed, Basil and Mary eventually sold that acreage for battlefield preservation at a healthy profit. Obituaries made the frequent point that the Biggs family were the only “colored residents” in the Taneytown Road section of town.
The lives and obituaries of their children speak volumes of the constitution of their parents.
In later years, Basil became known for his participation in the Sons of Good Will organization that created the Lincoln Cemetery in town. Mary devoted herself to the AME church. One obituary credited her with being one of the founders of the Church, while her longest obituary dwelt more on these efforts in Church.