Ursula Kennedy Holmes, the First Wife of Thomas A. Holmes (1840s)

By David Schleper

Thomas A. Holmes
Thomas A. Holmes
Ursula Kennedy Holmes was the first wife of Thomas A. Holmes. But for some reason, very few people ever talked about her. L. Kessinger, who wrote The History of Buffalo County, Wisconsin, said in 1888, “All the parties whom I had a chance to consult with regard to the particulars of the life of Thomas Holmes, himself included, were persistently silent on this one point (concerning Holmes’ first wife)…”

According to Lafayette Houghton Bunnell, in the book, Winona (We-No-Nah) and Its Environs on the Mississippi in Ancient and Modern Days in 1897, “There was a demon of unrest in (Thomas A.) Holmes, partly inherited, and partly the result of a misalliance with a woman entirely unfitted for frontier life.”

Ursula Kennedy was the petted daughter of a hotel keeper of Baltimore, Maryland, and came west with her brother, Robert Kennedy, and his wife and two children. Ursula Kennedy Holmes was much younger than her husband, and no doubt married with an expectation of wealth and a return to her beloved Baltimore. She soon saw that that would never be fulfilled.

Besides her dislike of frontier life, Ursula was subject to periodic attacks that made her frantic with pain. Without an option of a competent doctor, she resorted to the use of opiates, which finally enslaved her. Ursula probably kept a supply of opium paraphernalia such as the specialized pipes and lamps that were necessary to smoke the drug. She would recline in order to hold the long opium pipes over oil lamps that would heat the drug until it vaporized, allowing her to inhale the vapors.

In 1840, Thomas built a strong trading boat of hardwood lumber, partly covered with a deck. After floating down the Rock River over the rapids, he loaded up his goods above the rapids on the Mississippi River, and was towed to Dubuque, Iowa. Holmes stayed in Dubuque for some time while his wife, Ursula, was under treatment for what was termed heart disease by the attending physician.

Later, Thomas headed to trade with the Indians, while Ursula stayed in Dubuque with some previous friends for treatment. Thomas returned from his trip up the river with lumber, and had built a comfortable house. Ursula, who returned in 1841, had rooms assigned by her brother, Robert, and his wife, who kept the house for Holmes as a hotel. Ursula seldom appeared, but stayed in her room.

Thomas and Ursula had a partially adopted child with “a very little Indian blood in her veins,” named Matilda. (I have no idea what a partially adopted child is…probably a foster child).

Matilda was the only one called on when Ursula had her almost insane attacks of pain and aversion, not only to her husband but brother as well, for Robert had not sympathy for, nor appreciation of her condition, according to Bunnell. Robert would call Ursula’s pain “tantrums.”

In 1843, Bunnell was heading down the river to attend his brother’s wife’s pregnancy. Ursula wanted to attend, and she wanted to have Matilda along. Robert called Bunnell aside and said that if the boat tips, please save the child first. “Coming from his brother, the warning angered me, and I replied that both persons and their lives would be held sacred by me,” noted Bunnell. The remark showed that Ursula had a distrust of her brother and her husband. Ursula and Matilda, arrived safely.

Bunnell noted that he often thought of Ursula, and the bravery and devotion to Matilda. Not long after, he heard that Ursula was back in Dubuque, and he heard of her sudden death from heart failure.

There was no hope for any reconciliation or adaption to the frontier life for Ursula from her husband, Thomas. Thomas’s character showed the difference between him and his fastidious wife. Once Thomas noted, “While I can only just about write my name now, I can skin a muskrat quicker than an Indian.” Thomas loved the smell of the Indian camp, and of skinning muskrats, rather than the civilized life that his wife wanted.

Bunnell noted that he admired her good qualities, and death had cured her of her diseases.

So now you know about Ursula Kennedy Holmes, the first wife of Thomas A. Holmes!

(Some information from Bunnell, Lafayette Houghton (1897). Winona (We-No-Nah) and Its Environs on the Mississippi in Ancient and Modern Days. Winona, MN: Jones & Kroeger, Printers and Publishers; and Kiester, J.A. (1896). The History of Faribault County, Minnesota: from its first settlement to the close of the year 1879: in three parts: first part, the annals of the county; second part, historical sketches of the several townships; third part, historical sketch of the government of the county, and of the several county offices; the story of the pioneers. Minneapolis, MN: Harrison & Smith, Printers).

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