The Truth Will Out:  Annie Wittenmyer

In preparation for a recent program featuring Annie Wittenmyer and the orphanage she is forever linked to in Davenport, Iowa inconsistencies within reference works were found bringing up a number of questions. Turning to some basic documents used for family history research and a book by Thomas R. Baker called The Sacred Cause of Union:  Iowa in the Civil War clarification (and documentation) that Annie Turner Wittenmyer was actually NOT a wealthy widow whose husband died before the Civil War came to light. Rather, she was a DIVORCED single mother striving to provide for her child in the 1860s with an enormous sense of empathy and desire to improve the quality of life in her community through her charity work.

Born in Adams County, Ohio in 1827 to John G. and Elizabeth (Smith) Turner, Sarah Ann Turner was the eldest child in the family. On May 26, 1845, in Scioto County, Ohio she married William Wittenmyer, ten years her senior. He was a widower with two young daughters, “Sallie” (Sarah) and Louisa.  

By September 1850 the Wittenmyers had moved to Keokuk, Iowa. The census records William, age 36, merchant, and head of household, Sarah A. age 26, Sarah age 14, Louisa age 8, and William W. age 2 years. This provides the name of what is probably their first child together, born circa 1847-1848.

The 1856 Iowa state census finds the family still in Lee County with the exception of little William. Instead, two 1-year-olds born in Iowa are recorded with William and Annie named Elbert and Ellen, along with the two older girls.

“Wm. Whettenmyer” [sic] is listed as residing on the corner of Blondeau & 11th in Keokuk in a City Directory for 1857.

According to Baker’s research, the value of taxable property in Keokuk dropped enormously in 1858 and many were unable to pay taxes. Wittenmyer was a merchant with real estate holdings and business enterprises in several southeast Iowa communities. Having recently built a large colonial style home near Keokuk’s Main Street valued at more than $10,000 the couple feared losing their dream home and being forced to declare bankruptcy.

Somehow, the couple hung on financially, although their taxes went unpaid. The 1860 federal census shows both of Wittenmyer’s daughters from his first marriage, Sallie and Louisa, out of the household. Ellen no longer appears and instead of Elbert, there is a Charley, age 4 years. It is possible (likely) Charley and Elbert were the same person, as his given name was Charles Albert. The value of Annie’s real estate is listed as $10,000.

So far, no burial locations for the children William W. nor Ellen have been found near Keokuk. Iowa did not keep death records until 1880, so unless a cemetery or church record can be found (Annie was Methodist, William a “spiritualist”) their resting places may remain unknown.

Exactly what happened next to the couple? Author Baker states in his book that by 1860 the couple spent much of their time apart. Both of the older girls had married and moved away and documents prove Charles stayed in the care of his mother. The loss of several children during the marriage apparently aggravated the religious gulf between William and Annie and most certainly the financial strain contributed to their difficulties. Divorce papers in Lee County, IA were not discovered by Baker, however, the divorce could have been filed elsewhere, likely after the June 1860 census date and (hopefully) before his subsequent marriage in Illinois in 1864.

Apparently, William did not share much with little Charles nor Annie regarding his whereabouts. A transcribed letter from Annie to an aunt dated Christmas Day 1868 states:

 “I do not know where Mr. Wittenmyer is. I have not heard a word of his whereabouts for a long time. He has not been to see Charlie for more than two years I think. He married again, and lived for a time in Chicago, but his wife left him about more than a year ago, which is the last I have heard of him. I thought you would be interested to know about him. He is as crazy as ever.”

In 1870 William and his new wife Susan Wittenmyer are recorded in the federal census as living in Cook County, Illinois and he is again listed as a prosperous dry goods dealer.  

They continued to reside near Chicago until William Wittenmyer’s death in January 1879.

Daily Davenport Democrat in 1867

Sarah “Annie” Turner Wittenmyer passed away in 1900 at her homestead in Sanatoga, PA. In her will, Wittenmyer left her farm and a store building on Main Street in Keokuk, Iowa to son Charles Albert Wittenmyer stipulating  “that the taxes shall be paid annually” so Charles need never go through the hardships of financial ruin that she had endured in Keokuk fifty years prior.

According to an article printed in the Daily Davenport Democrat in 1867, Annie Turner Wittenmyer was “not to be out-ranked, out-flanked or out-generalled.” Why then did she (and/or her son Charles) perpetuate the myth of her widowhood? We cannot know HER truth, but we can know THE truth. 


Baker, Thomas The Sacred Cause of Union:  Iowa in the Civil War (2016)

State Historical Society of Iowa-picture of Annie Wittenmyer 1860s

Shoemaker and Rudity, Marriage records of Scioto County, Ohio, 1803-1860 (1987)

United States Federal Census Records

Iowa State Census Records

Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps; Keokuk, Iowa

Richardson-Sloane Special Collections Center Ephemera Collection-Biography:  Wittenmyer, Annie; transcribed letter

Illinois Statewide Marriage Index, 1763-1900,

Find a Grave obituary for William Wittenmyer (no date citation)

Pennsylvania U.S., Wills and Probate Records, 1683-1993

Daily Davenport Democrat, November 1, 1867, page 1

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1 Response to The Truth Will Out:  Annie Wittenmyer

  1. Chris says:

    Nice job Karen! Interesting information.

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