Monday, November 19, 2007

Did Henry Overholser steal the seal?

A cousin writes: "Seems there is some story about an Overholser stealing the state charter from Guthrie and moving it (thus the capital) to OKC. You got anything on that?"

My reply: Hmmm, I've never heard anything about an Overholser connection to this story, but Guthrie residents have long maintained that Gov. Haskell "stole" the state seal from the capitol in Guthrie in the dark of night and took it to OKC. But from what I can make out from various sources, the story is exaggerated at best. There was an election to determine whether OKC or Guthrie should be the capital in June of 1910, and OKC won. Gov. Haskell sent his secretary for the seal that night, but the clerk there handed it over willingly. The election and the move were questionable legally, since an earlier law said that the capital could not be moved until 1913, but the courts ruled in OKC's favor.

This Tulsa World story sums it up pretty well.

I'm sure that Henry Overholser was a proponent of moving the capital, as it would have been good for his real estate interests. But there's nothing to suggest that he took the law (or the seal!) into his own hands. . . .

Friday, November 16, 2007

Happy 100th, Oklahoma!

Although I haven't really lived there for more than 20 years, Oklahoma is still home for me. Besides the fact that I was born and raised there and much of my family is still there, it's the one common denominator in my mongrel lineage. Oklahoma is where the daughter of a Czech immigrant and a French/Scotch-Irish horse trader met the son of English and Welsh coal miners, and it's where an orphaned English/German/Swiss/Scotch-Irish schoolteacher met a bookkeeper from the hills of Arkansas whose ancestors had been in America and inching west for 300 years.

So what parts of our family were in Oklahoma by November 16, 1907?

Clara Paxton was still an 8-year-old girl in Missouri and would not move to Oklahoma for another decade, but her grandfather Lee Overholser had lived there since the time of the Land Run, and her uncle Will and aunt Ella Overholser were living in Oklahoma City at the time. (Her brother Burton, incidentally, was born in Oklahoma City in 1896.)

Cal Jones was a 12-year-old boy whose family was probably living in Boynton, Indian Territory, on the day that it became Oklahoma. His parents Silas and Nannie had left Arkansas four years earlier.

Blanche Vermillion was seven months old, having been born in Wayne, Indian Territory, in April. She was living with her mother in Wayne, and the celebration of the new state must have been muted for them, as her father Walter Vermillion had died in September. Blanche was surrounded by cousins in the area, most of them grandchildren of George and Kate Jicha, who had settled across the river in Oklahoma Territory in the 1889 Land Run. Blanche's one living grandparent, John Washington Vermillion, also lived in the area, where he had settled as far back as '89 also.

Six generations of our family have lived in Oklahoma so far, and Clara's sons' families are on their seventh. It's probably not any kind of record, as a lot of Oklahomans reproduce more rapidly than we do. But considering our earlier family history of heading west every generation or two (always in search of farmland, something that's not so much an issue now), it's a pretty good run.

I wish I could be in Oklahoma today, but I'm there in spirit.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Quite Possibly My Coolest Ancestor

Okay, so you've heard about various veterans, preachers, and at least one possible con man so far on the blog, but the subject of this post may be my favorite: Martha McFarlane McGee Bell, who tradition tells us was a spy for the patriots in the American Revolution. The stories about Martha are a little vague in some places and sound a little . . . enhanced . . . in others, but the idea that she surreptitiously gathered intelligence about Cornwallis's troops has persisted for two centuries and has made her a heroine of the Revolution in the area where she lived, Randolph County, North Carolina.

Before I get started, though, let me tell you to whom she is related. Martha was Blanche Branch's great-great-great-great-grandmother, one of a succession of Grandmother Marthas: Blanche's own grandmother Martha Burrow Vermillion, her grandmother Martha McGee Burrow, and finally her grandmother Martha Bell, the spy herself. (Martha Bell was also the mother of the revival preachers John and William McGee, who I wrote about a while back.)

Martha McFarlane was born in Alamance County, N.C. in 1735, and we're told she was from a Scottish Presbyterian family. I haven't ever read anything about her family's social or economic position, but she married a well-to-do widower named John McGee and had five children with him before he died in 1773, leaving her "the richest widow anywhere in that region," according to Eli W. Carruthers, whose biographical sketch of her from 1854 is the earliest source for most of the lore about her. Carruthers goes on to say that she was "much sought after, especially by the young widowers and middle-aged bachelors; and it was then said that she was a 'little haughty,' but this probably originated with those who could not succeed in gaining her affections."

She married another wealthy citizen named William Bell in 1779 and moved to his home on Deep River, where he operated a mill and store. (A historian found ruins of the mill a few years ago—see photo above—but the site is now covered by a lake.)

Her biographer Carruthers goes into some detail in trying to describe Martha's looks, personality, and character, obviously walking a tightrope to make her at once boldly heroic yet acceptably feminine. His awkward attempts to justify her assertive and decisive actions suggest how difficult it must have been to reconcile those traits with femininity in the 19th-century South:

"She was not, at any time remarkable for personal beauty nor for the opposite, but was what, in common parlance, is called a good-looking woman.’ There was nothing about her that could be regarded as masculine and nothing in her deportment, ordinarily, that was at all inconsistent with the modesty and delicacy of her sex; but she was a woman of strong mind, ardent in her temperament and remarkably firm and resolute in whatever she undertook, which just fitted her for the trying scenes through which she was called to pass."

And later:

"If this should appear to the reader inconsistent with the modesty and delicacy of her sex, he must recollect that 'circumstances alters cases.' At all times, there may be occasions, and they were of almost daily occurrence at that period, when those qualities, so becoming ordinarily, must be subordinate to the higher principles of self-preservation and the public good. . . . the woman whose energy, prudence and dignified firmness were adequate to any emergency was sure to command a respect which would not be shown to more lovely or attractive qualities."

Carruthers is also curiously reluctant to say it outright, but it appears that Martha was a practicing midwife, albeit one who did not charge for her services until late in her life. He refers to her as "a sort of 'professional character'" who would travel throughout the county to attend to her duty "no matter what hour of the night the call was made"; he also alludes to her "medical skill" and even says she went on one of her spy missions "in the character of a midwife" but never says specifically what her profession was.

At any rate, it was not long after she married William Bell that she earned her fame. The Revolution was on by that time, and in 1781 Lord Cornwallis's British troops were trying to hold onto the Southern colonies, having taken Charleston, South Carolina, in the previous year. The area where Martha lived was divided between Patriots and Tories, and there was a great deal of violence off the battlefield as well as on. William Bell was a well-known business and political figure in the area who was also a prominent patriot. He spent a good deal of time away from home during the war, not as a soldier but under the protection of local militias, as his life was in danger from the local Tories.

In March 1781, Cornwallis and his troops faced the Americans at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, which is seen by history as a costly pyrrhic victory for the British. After the battle, Cornwallis's army sought to regroup and set up camp at Bell's Mill, where Martha Bell—but not William—was living. The locals must have enjoyed the idea of Cornwallis and his Redcoats meeting their match in this"woman of strong mind," for they told all kinds of stories about this brief encounter. The most repeated of these stories was told to Carruthers by a General Gray, who knew Mrs. Bell after the war. Cornwallis, after inquiring about the whereabouts of Mr. Bell, told Martha:

"‘Madam, I must make your house my headquarters, and have the use of your mill for a few days, to grind for my army while I remain here.'

'Sir, you possess the power, and, of course, will do as you please without my consent; but, after using our mill, do you intend to burn it before you leave?’

'Madam, why do you ask that question?'

‘Sir, answer my question first, and then I will answer yours in a short time.’

His lordship then assured her that the mill should not be burnt or injured; but that he must use it to prepare provisions for his army, and further added, that by making her house his head-quarters, he would be a protection to herself, her house, and every thing that was in or about it; for, said he, ‘no soldier of mine will dare to plunder, or commit depredations near my quarters.’

To which she replied: ‘Now, sir, you have done me a favor by giving me a satisfactory answer to my question, and I will answer yours. Had your lordship said that you intended to burn our mill, I had intended to save you the trouble by burning it myself before you derived much benefit from it; but as you assure me that the mill shall not be burned, and that you will be a protection to me, and to the property about the house, I will make no further objections to your using our mill, and making my house your headquarters while you stay, which, I think you said, would be only for a few days.'"

Among the other tales of Cornwallis's two-day occupation of Bell's Mill: Martha had hidden her cash under a rock and had to slip out to the yard to get it right from under the noses of the Redcoats camped there. When the Redcoats were trying to raid her cellar and steal her cider, Martha threw herself in front of the cellar door and dared them to come through her. When a soldier uttered something profane in her presence as he rode by on his horse, she wished for the horse to throw him and break his neck—and he did so only a few minutes later.

The story that made Martha a heroine of the Revolution, however, comes immediately after Cornwallis left Bell's Mill. Writes Carruthers:

In the evening of the day on which the British left her premises, she made a visit to their camp, for the purpose, it is said, of reconnoitering, but under some other pretext. What was her precise object, or what induced her to engage in the enterprise, no definite or reliable information can now be obtained; but the tradition has been so uniform and so well sustained, that there can be no doubt of the fact. . . . her familiarity with every road and every bye-path, with every plantation and hill and dale, in addition to her patriotism and intrepidity, just fitted her for such an enterprise; and she would be in no danger, for Cornwallis, having been so lately sheltered under her roof, could not do otherwise than treat her with courtesy and respect. . . . Equipped and mounted on a first-rate horse, she set off alone and fulfilled her mission with entire success. the object, was to ascertain, as far as possible, the condition of the British army, and especially whether they were receiving any considerable accessions of Tories. Under the pretext of making complaint against the soldiers for depredations committed on her property, which had not become known to her until after they were gone, she went into the camp and hunted up his lordship or requested to be taken to his tent, to whom she made her complaint, but in doing this she had her eye upon everything, and managed so as to get the information she wanted, when she returned home in safety and much pleased with what she had done.

Carruthers goes on to suggest that Martha made another reconnaissance mission by night to check out "an embodiment of Tories which was said to be forming on the other side of the river." On the pretense that she was making a call in the area as a midwife, she went around to various houses asking about the presence of Tories in the area, ostensibly out of concern for her safety. Armed with the information she passed on, Carruthers writes, Colonel "Light Horse Harry" Lee "took them by surprise and broke up the whole concern" the next night.

Martha lived nearly forty more years after the Revolution; she died in 1820 at the age of 85. Carruthers notes that she became a Christian early in the nineteenth century, at about the time the Second Great Awakening was sweeping the country—and her sons William and John McGee were preaching to nearly hysterical revival meetings on the Kentucky-Tennessee frontier.

Martha's fame seems to have a lot to do with Carruthers's recounting of her story. A monument to her (see photo at the top of this post) at the Guilford Courthouse battleground, erected in 1928, reads:

Mrs. Martha McFarland [sic] McGee Bell
Loyal Whig—Enthusiastic Patriot
Revolutionary Heroine

We are indebted to E. W. Caruthers for the eventfull story of her life.

But the Daughters of the American Revolution, which had approved the 1928 monument, was less impressed with Carruthers as a source in 1997, when members of the local chapter wanted to erect a DAR marker at the site of her grave. The national organization at first turned them down, arguing that "no contemporary evidence can be found" to support Carruthers's stories. With a bunch of angry North Carolina Daughters on their hands, the national DAR finally compromised: on the basis of pay vouchers to Bell from the Revolutionary army (for unspecified goods or services) they allowed that she was in fact a patriot, even if Carruthers's tales could not be verified, and they gave her her grave marker (left). (There is also a highway bridge named for Martha just north of Randleman, North Carolina, on U.S. 220.)

More recently, a descendant of Martha's named Jennifer Wellborn wrote a book making the case for Martha's exploits. Unable to find further documentation, she instead took the tack of comparing the other Revolutionary stories in Carruthers's book with other contemporary documents. She argued that Carruthers was a reliable source in these other cases, and thus could be trusted as a source in the case of Martha Bell. She told the Greensboro News & Record that she wasn't surprised by the lack of contemporary evidence about Martha: "As a general rule, men of that era rarely wrote about women's feats of derring-do."

So here's to Carruthers, Wellborn, and especially to Martha Bell!

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

From the studios of KOP in Detroit, it's C.M. Branch

As some of you know, Clarence Milo (Miles) Branch (left, in an undated early photo) was already 31 years old by the time he arrived in Oklahoma City and met Blanche Vermillion. So I've often been curious about what he did during his early adulthood. One thing that Blanche always told me was that he was a police dispatcher in Detroit, something that never sounded particularly remarkable to me. But in recent years I've read up and discovered that if he worked with radio in Detroit before 1928, he was a kind of pioneer, as the Detroit police were the first to use radio to communicate with police cars (which were themselves a Detroit police innovation).

How did Miles get there? My time line for his early life is a little spotty. His sister Sarah told me that he left home when he was 16 after a dispute with his father, who denied him the use of the family buggy to go on a date. Just what he did for the next five years is uncertain, but we know that he was in the Navy in 1918-19, when he was 21. He joined just as World War I was ending, and Blanche always said that he was on a ship headed for Europe that turned around when the armistice was signed.

While he was in the Navy, Miles attended the Aircraft Radio School on the campus of Harvard University. World War I, of course, was the beginning of aviation in warfare, and putting radios aboard planes would be the next big advance. An online history of naval aviation says that the curriculum for aircraft radio electricians included "code work, semaphore and blinker study, gunnery, and laboratory work."

It's conceivable that Miles might have learned something about radio or electricity before the navy, but my guess is that his naval experience led him to his career as an electrician.

The next I know of Miles is in the 1920 census, when he was working in a rubber factory in Akron, Ohio. It must have been after that he went to Detroit.

He was not alone. Many people, including some of his siblings and cousins, left the coal mines of central Pennsylvania for industrial jobs in places like Pittsburgh, Youngstown, Ohio, and especially Detroit. With the auto industry exploding in the 1920s, I imagine Detroit to have been something like Silicon Valley has been in the last few years--a place brimming with money, energy, and the excitement of new technology.

While I have not found any written sources that mention Miles's involvement with the Detroit police, their early experience with radio is well documented. This article by Kenneth Dobson from the Detroit News describes how the city's police department was an early adopter of technology.

In 1909, for example, the Detroit police acquired their first patrol car, a Packard that the commissioner bought himself, as the city fathers were reluctant to fund such a radical idea. The idea caught on, especially as criminals increasingly had access to cars of their own. Police officers would wait at heated telephone booths around the city for calls from a dispatcher at police headquarters, then jump in their cars to pursue as many as five or six assignments at a time.

The system was far from perfect, needless to say, and radio provided some solutions. Writes Dobson:
In 1921, Detroit Police Commissioner William P. Rutledge began experimenting with patrol vehicles equipped with radios. Rutledge was "convinced that the automobile had given the criminal an advantage in speed that could not be overcome by police cars controlled by telephone. Gangsters could make their getaway while the booth patrol was still awaiting a telephone call.

Rutledge had a radio transmitter installed at police headquarters and in 1922 the Federal Radio Commission, the forerunner of the Federal Communications Commission, issued Detroit the first provisional commercial radio license, KOP.

But there were obstacles to be overcome before the radios could be made mobile. The vacuum tubes, which comprised the internal workings of the radio receiver, were fragile and required extensive cushioning. The electrical systems of the automobiles were not powerful enough to operate the radios, so six-volt batteries had to be mounted on the running boards. The battery was only good for four hours before it had to be replaced.

Other obstacles were less technical but just as formidable. Several times the Federal Radio Commission refused to renew the department's radio license because it failed to live up to requirements. One of these insisted that KOP broadcast "entertainment during regular hours, with police calls interspersed as required."

After one such refusal to renew , Commissioner Rutledge wryly asked: "Do we have to play a violin solo before we dispatch the police to catch a criminal?"
But the kinks got worked out, and by 1924 the Detroit News was calling for more radio-dispatched cars:
"The motor car has been a big asset to criminals, because it permitted a quick getaway. But the radio is swifter than any motor vehicle ever invented. By its use a well equipped police department can bar every city exit as soon as a description of the suspects can be obtained.... The police department now has three radio equipped flyers. It should have more. The motorized bandits would soon learn that Detroit had become a trap for them and they would move on to some town with less modern ideas."

A complete radio-dispatched patrol program was rolled out in April 1928. It was not until 1933, though, that another department, in Bayonne, New Jersey, installed the first two-way radio communication between dispatchers and patrol cars.

So where did Miles Branch (he probably called himself Clarence at the time, actually) figure into all this? I don't know. I imagine that he found his way to Detroit like so many others seeking work in the economic boom there and discovered a use for his background in radio. Perhaps there are records somewhere in Detroit that could confirm his employment with the department, but I haven't had time to go down that road yet. Whatever his involvement, it must have ended before or soon after the full-scale radio car program began in April 1928. By November of that year, he was in Oklahoma City and had married Blanche.

Below: Police radio operator B.D. Fitzgerald at the controls of the Detroit police radio dispatch equipment in 1925. Did Miles Branch sit at the same desk?

Friday, September 21, 2007

Next Time You're in Staindrop . . .

. . . stop and pay your respects at the graves of George and Sarah Branch, our English forebears. (Click on the photo to enlarge.)They are the parents of Lancelot Branch, who emigrated to America in 1867 and began our line. Staindrop is a village in Durham in the north of England; a fourth cousin in England found this stone in the churchyard a couple of years ago and kindly sent me a copy.

The inscription reads:

The quote at the end is from the book of Isaiah--kind of poignant for a couple who both died in the general vicinity of autumn.

When Cal Went to War

Here's something I found a while back and have been meaning to post: it's Cal Jones's World War I draft registration card. (Click to enlarge.) No great surprises--I did learn what he was doing for a living in 1917, as he's listed as an oil pumper with a company called Corbin and Bradstreet (which I Googled to no avail). He enlisted on June 5, 1917, two months after the U.S. entered the war. For some reason, he (or whoever filled out the form) put down the wrong birth year--he was born in 1895, not 1896. But his age is listed correctly as 21.

I found this in an archive at while I was taking advantage of a free trial there. Pretty cool. I'll try to post more documents and photos as I think of it; it's hard to find time for the longer, more encyclopedic entries, but I do like to put something up here from time to time.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Clara's Cotton Buyer

After Clara Paxton's mother and father died, she lived with a succession of relatives: her grandmother in Independence, Missouri, her uncle Charley and aunt Sue Overholser in Valley Falls, Kansas, and her uncle Will and aunt Ella Overholser in Oklahoma City. She lived with the Overholsers in the 1918-1919 school year, when she seems to have been taking courses at Central High School--probably to get some college preparation that her high school in Valley Falls had not provided. In 1919-20 she was at Hollins College in Virginia with Mary Overholser, and in 1920-21 she was back in Oklahoma City and earning her teaching certificate from what is now the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond. Because the Overholsers were part of what passed for society in Oklahoma City in those days (1918-1921), Clara turned up in the newspaper from time to time: hosting a lunch for friends at the Skirvin Plaza Hotel with her cousin Mary Overholser, attending a party here and there. On Sundays, the Oklahoman's society page would feature photos of pretty and prominent young women, apparently just so everyone would know who was who.

On September 26, 1920, it was Clara's turn (see clipping at left--click to make it larger). She was one of five women included that week, and the caption began "Two ambitious students, two charming brides, and an interesting young traveler in foreign lands. Upper left--Miss Clara Paxton, niece of Mr. and Mrs. Will L. Overholser, who is striving for a degree at the Central State normal at Edmond. . . . "

Two days after the picture appeared, a Mr. Sidney Caldwell in Duncan, Oklahoma, wrote her a letter (above--click on the pages to make them bigger). Mr. Caldwell had wisely ruled out the two brides and evidently preferred Clara to the interesting young traveler, who had just returned from Germany, and the other ambitious student, an undergrad at Cornell (unless of course he wrote to them, too.) Here's the letter in its entirety:
Duncan Okla.
Sept. 28--1920
Miss Clara Paxton
Centeral State Normal

My Dear Miss Paxton, I thought I would write you a little love letter to let you know I love you very much. I saw your picture in the Daily Oklahoman Sunday. It said that the college girls loved to receive letters from other towns and I thought I would write you a small letter to let you know I love you. If you will write me I will answer your letters.
I think you are the most beautiful girl in the world, and I don't know what you think about me. If you will send me a picture of your self, and I will send you a picture of myself. If you love cotton buyers that get a salary of $5000 a year you had better tie into me. I'm 19 and a little bit over and you look in the picture about the same age.
Don't forget to write, I must close as a wagon load of cotton is on the street.
Yours truly,
Sidney Caldwell
P.S. Be sure and write me.

I don't know what Clara thought about the letter; my guess is that she kept it because she thought it was funny (and of course a little flattering). What Mr. Caldwell had no way of knowing was that 86 years later, Clara's descendants could use the Internet to do a little fact checking on him. I found him in the 1920 census, and there seems to be some truth--well, truthiness--to what he told Clara. His FATHER is listed as a cotton buyer, but at the time of the census (January 1920), Sidney was still in high school. So perhaps he'd joined his father in business by September of that year.

So what do you think? Did Clara choose the right guy? Maybe if she'd gone with Sidney, we'd all be in the tall cotton now.

Why We're Not Razorbacks, Part III

So now you've read Cal Jones's story about his father's departure from Arkansas, and his sister Tommy's response disputing some of the details. Now, we'll look at what the Arkansas justice system had to say. Like Bill Clinton and Scooter Libby, Silas appears to have gotten himself in bigger trouble over perjury than whatever he might have done in the first place.

A few years ago, I wrote to the Washington County Courthouse in Fayetteville asking for any records they might have involving Silas Matthew Jones. They came up with one thing: a perjury indictment against Silas from November 6, 1903. The story told in the indictment doesn't directly address the killing of the dog at all, but rather some events in its aftermath.

The events in question—apparently an argument over the killing of the dog—took place on July 19, 1903. According to the sworn testimony of H.L. Robbins—that's Zode Robbins, the neighbor whose dog Silas killed—Silas "made use of violent abusive profane and insulting language towards and about one Della Carter and in her presence and hearing which language in its common acceptation was calculated to arouse to anger the said Della Carter and cause a breach of the peace." The exact words Silas is alleged to have said to Mrs. Carter? "You are a liar. I've got a rock for you. I'll hit you as quick as I would the dog."

The indictment, a hand-written document, says that four days later, Silas was in court having been charged with breach of peace. At that proceeding, under oath, he denied saying those words. The grand jury, apparently relying on the word of witnesses (more on that in a minute), decided that "in truth and fact" Silas did make that statement and that his testimony was "feloniously, willfully and corruptly false."

The cover of the indictment names the case ("State of Arkansas vs. S. M. Jones") and identifies the grand jury foreman and the witnesses. Besides Zode Robbins, the witnesses were Della Carter herself, Arizona Largent, J. Cherry, and Charlie Tunstill. I don't know how Tunstill fits in, but Cherry is identified as the justice of the peace at the original proceeding. As for the others, here's where it gets interesting.

In looking at some genealogy sources, I found out that Arizona Largent was the former Arizona Masters—not a desert golf tournament but a woman in Arkansas. She was the mother of Zode Robbins and Della Carter, who were half-siblings.

But the really funny thing is that Zode was a second cousin to Silas's wife Nannie Shumate—something that neither Cal nor Tommy had mentioned. It's possible they didn't know—or didn't remember it sixty years later. It's not a big coincidence; in their town of Durham in the 1900 census, at least a third of the residents appeared to be related to Silas and Nannie. But when Cal described the bad blood between his mother's and father's families, he wasn't kidding!

Was this indictment the paper that Cal remembered the man on the horse reading to his father? Was this what made him disappear out the back door and leave Arkansas for good? Cal says they left in the fall, which would square with the November date of the indictment.

This is all I have on the subject for now. I should say that Silas's grandchildren remember him fondly, and as a good man. The words he said to his neighbor that day—if he said them—might have been in character, or they might have been the meanest thing he ever said. I just hope that the meanest thing I ever said doesn't wind up on record in a courthouse somewhere!

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Samuel Paxton, maybe for sure

I recently found this photo (click to enlarge) among pictures and papers that belonged to Clara Paxton Jones, and I believe it is probably her grandfather Samuel Paxton (1834-1903), whose farm in Montrose, Missouri, is pictured here.

The photo was taken at Latour Studio in Joplin, Missouri, where Samuel lived the last few years of his life. There is no identification on it, but the subject's age and the photo's presence in Clara's pictures leads me to believe it is Samuel.

I don't know why, but whenever I look at him I can't stop thinking about Wooly Willy.

UPDATE, 7/22/07: A Paxton cousin remembers having a copy of this photo and confirms that it is in fact Samuel Paxton. Thanks, cousin!

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Why We're Not Razorbacks, Part II

In my last post I presented Cal Jones's report on why and how his family left Arkansas. This time, here's some of his sister Tommy's response, from a letter to Cal written just a few days later. Cal and Tommy were the second and third children, respectively, of Silas and Nannie Jones. As you'll see, her account differs in some particulars--it's kind of a hillbilly "Rashomon."

Tommy writes:

Now! While we are correcting and reminiscing let me correct you! First, I don't know who told you that I said Dad ran away from Ark. I did not! Them Zode Robbins' dogs did not attack Dad, but Zode had "sicked 'em" on to a young heifer that Dad had and they tore her to pieces. (I don't remember if she died.) But anyway they had a preliminary hearing (Dad killed the dog) and old Zode and Dad's own cousin Ambrose Clark swore to a bunch of lies so Dad felt that he couldn't get a fair trial and he took out. Mamma told me this a few years ago. But I remember when Dad had some of us kids at Grandma Shumate's one night and someone came to the front door and told Uncle George something and Dad grabbed us kids and we left by the back door and ran through the orchard for home and Dad left immediately. Later he came back and I saw him go into the barn and told Mamma, so she went to the barn and came back and said I was mistaken. I was just old enough to know there was something wrong. And I remember when he met us at a campfire just out of Westville, and somewhere in my things which are stored I have the little leather bag which Grandpa Jones gave him the gold in.

The biggest difference in their accounts is why Silas killed the dog--was it self-defense or retaliation? Tommy also seems to have known more about the legal proceedings, which we'll get to in the next installment.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Why We're Not Razorbacks

At left: Silas Jones as a young man, in a photo generously provided by a Jones cousin from Arkansas. (Click to make it bigger) I'd guess that this was a little before Silas's run-in with the law, which came when he was in his early 30s.

I've been promising to get around to this post for a while: the story of how Silas Jones and his family left Arkansas. Unlike a lot of the things I've reported on this blog, this story has been part of Jones family lore for years, and Silas's son Cal wrote it all down in a letter to his sister Irma just after their mother died in 1964. I'll start in this post by quoting the relevant parts of Cal's letter. You should know that Irma was much younger than Cal, and all these events took place long before she was born. Their sister Tommy, whom he refers to in the letter, was just a year or so younger than Cal. He begins with some background, some of it touching on things I wrote about in an earlier post about the Joneses and Shumates in the Civil War.

After some initial remarks about their mother's death, Cal writes:

This letter is to set you straight on another matter which I had intended to discuss further with you but I just didn't get around to it. It was a remark you made, quoting Tommy, and I'm sending her a copy of this letter for I certainly want her mind put at ease.

A remark she had made to you about Dad being "run out" of Arkansas. This has been bugging me ever since and I want to let you know this matter just as it was, for I believe from what you said, Tommy has the thing completely out of focus, and to get you straight on this, I must go way back, even before our father was born. As you know, Grandfather Jones fought on the Union side in the Civil War, while Mama's father fought on the side of the Confederacy, both in Arkansas. Jones the Republican, Shumate the Democrat. After the War, Grandfather Jones decided he wanted to settle in Arkansas (he was from Alabama), and how he came to fight on the Union side I do not know, nor for that matter I don't know how he happened to be a Republican. But of course there have always been a few Republicans in all the Southern states.

I'll stop here just to say that Cal had part of this wrong--his Grandfather Jones (Charles Matthew "Matt" Jones) had come to Arkansas with his parents in the 1840s, when he was still a child; his family had settled there long before the War. Cal continues:

Now picture if you can a family of robust young Republican boys (the Jones Boys) growing up in a predominantly Democratic community where just about all the fathers had fought on the losing side, the Confederacy. Being the oldest son and I believe a little closer to our father than the others, I can tell you now that Dad and his brother Will, both excellent boxers and rough-and-tumble fighters, fought their way out, back to back a many a time. He told me that in their youth they usually had to double date, in order to be close together as much as possible.

At left: three of the "robust young Republican boys" in later years, from the same cousin who sent me the photo above. (Click to make it bigger.) Left to right: Will, Silas, and Edgar Jones.

Well, to cap this off, Dad went and married a girl out of a Democratic family, which spelled more trouble. That separated the brothers and they each had to go it alone, and by the way Will married a Shumate too, a cousin of Mama's. But by that time Dad and his brother had pretty well established themselves and didn't have to fight too much, but the old hatreds continued and the first year of married life he had to lick two of Mama's brothers, Johnny and George. After that they more or less left him alone but he was still quite a minority in the community.

That should be enough of the background, and now I will tell you what happened:

Yes, I guess you could say that Dad was "run out" of Arkansas, and when you hear what it was about you may smile a little, but if you have ever entertained the idea that he left because of some criminal act you can set your mind at ease.

Remember what I said about the old, persisting hatreds. Just across the road and 100 yards west of our house, toward Durham which was less than half a mile away, lived a man named Zode Robbins, one of the worst of the haters and a man whom Dad had had to quiet down a couple of times. He had two large ferocious dogs which he had trained to bark at Dad and which I'm sure he had hoped would attack him some time. When Dad went to the store or west on the road he usually rode a horse or drove a wagon, but this time he didn't. Remember I was either 7 or 8 years old, I just can't remember if it was the spring of 1903 or 1904.

I've been able to figure out it was 1903 based on court records. More on that later.

Anyway, Dad had part of his crop in and he and I were making posts for a fence, and he decided he needed a new saw and a hammer, and on the way back these dogs actually did attack him and he killed one of them with the hammer.

The whole community knew about this and there was quite a stir about it. I remember it. I remember it quite well, the conversations he and Mama had about it and naturally opinions were divided. Zode wanted Dad to pay for the dog and he wouldn't do it, so Zode went into Fayetteville and swore out a warrant for Dad's arrest. Of course I was too young to know about that, or what it meant, but I will never forget what followed. Dad and I were putting those posts in the ground when a man rode up on a beautiful chestnut colored horse. He had a fine saddle and I was impressed by that too, for we didn't have a saddle of any kind. I probably wasn't interested in the preliminary remarks, but I remember this manreading a paper to Dad while I was looking at the horse and saddle. I will never forget the last words he read from that paper "and for killing the dog." It was then that I knew Dad was in trouble, and I cut and ran to the house as fast as I could and told Mama about it. I can't remember if she was scared, but I'm sure she was, because law-abiding people are just not used to getting arrested. To cut it short, Dad and the man came on into the house and Dad told the man to wait while he got some things out of the bedroom. Well, he simply went out the back door and so far as I know, the next we heard from him he was working in the state of Washington.

Now you can smile to think how naive Dad was to think he was in real trouble over killing a dog. Even a son of a Union soldier in the deep South couldn't have been hurt too badly over that, but evidently he didn't think that way.

I started out thinking I could get it all on one sheet, but since I couldn't find a stopping place I'll just fill you in on what happened after that.

As I said Dad had started a crop. He was gone and Mama was left alone with six children, Hub was a baby. So it fell to Grand Dad Jones to look after us and see that that crop was tended. How he did it I do not know, but in the fall of 1904 we left Arkansas, and here is how that happened:

Dad had two fine teams of mules and I don't know what else, but Grand Dad Jones fixed up a covered wagon, filled it up with bed clothes, clothing, himself, a mother and six kids, plus a little wood-burning King Heater and we headed west. I remember that trip quite well, in fact I'm sure Tommy and Boy do too. Just before dark every day we would find a promising camp site and as Boy called it, we would "scamp out." Outside of the rough, jolting part of the trip, the one thing that stands out in my mind was that Mama, most of the time, had no milk to cook with. I'll never forget that gravy and those baking powder biscuits. And I remember one treat we had. Grand Dad shot a hawk and then got some milk at a farm house and we had a feast--as far as one hawk would go. I thought that was the best bread and gravy I had ever had. How long it took I don't know, but as covered wagons go, I guess we made pretty good time, alternating those two teams of big mules and most of us walking most of the time.

For the record, Google Maps tells us that by modern highways, the distance from Durham to Westville, their destination, is about 40 miles.

Then one night which seemed no different from the rest, we camped out again. Mother had done the best she could with what she had to do with and we were gathered around the camp fire eating whatever she had prepared. We looked up and there was a man coming out of the shadows. Yeah, you guessed it. It was Dad, and you can imagine what a reunion that was. We were in Indian Territory, and out of the clutches of the law, but into what was another story. I remember Dad letting me sit up with him and Grand Dad after the others had gone to sleep, and another incident was burned into my memory. Grand Dad Jones had bought our farm and he paid Dad for it right there, and I had the privilege of watching them count the money--all in $20 gold pieces, how much I never knew, out of a cloth bag.

Hay, I just thought of something. Where do you suppose you and I would be today if Dad hadn't killed that dog?

So there you have the story as told authoritatively by the eldest son. In the next post, I'll give Tommy's reply--she remembered things slightly differently, but the gist was more or less the same. After that, I'll report on what the Arkansas court records were able to tell us. But nothing else I've learned about this story can measure up to the wonderful details that Cal provided: the chestnut horse and saddle, the hawk dinner, counting out the gold pieces by the fire. I hope it'll inspire all of you to write down some family memories. People will be grateful for decades to come.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Paging Doctor Calaway

Because parts of Sherman Calaway Jones's name have been passed down to some of his descendants, I've been interested in finding out where his name came from. The name Sherman doesn't appear in the family before his birth, and I've never heard any explanation about how his parents, Silas and Nannie Jones, chose it. But since we know that his father was a Republican and the son of a Union veteran, I am inclined to believe that, despite the fact that they lived in Arkansas, Silas Jones named his first son for General William Tecumseh Sherman, who was loathed by Southerners for his destructive March to the Sea in 1864. It was just this kind of thinking that ultimately got Silas run out of Arkansas. (I'll get around to that story soon.)

So what about Calaway? Cal's daughter remembers being told that the name was in honor of a Dr. Calaway, but I've not been able to find such a person in their part of Arkansas at the end of the 19th century. But there's one other thing worthy of note: Silas Jones's grandmother, whose maiden name was Salina Hash, had a brother whose name was Alvin Calaway Hash; in his case, the name was probably in honor of his and Salina's great-grandmother Ann Calloway, who was of a line of Calloways that came from England to Virginia in the 1600s. So whether or not Silas knew it, Calaway was a family name. I hope I'll figure out where the mysterious Dr. Calaway fits in at some point. I'll let you know.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Me and William McGee

Well, after dealing with Levi Overholser's shady past, I think it's time to clean things up a little bit on the blog. So let me move over to the other side of the family and tell you about my ancestor the preacher.

The Rev. William McGee (1768–1817) is credited in many works as one of the men who kick-started a huge religious revival that began on the Kentucky-Tennessee frontier and spread across the country at the beginning of the 19th century. (It is known today as the Second Great Awakening.) A series of small revivals that included William and his brother John culminated in the Cane Ridge Revival in 1801--a weekend camp meeting that brought thousands of people to a rural church in Kentucky for what a Vanderbilt University historian has called "arguably . . . the most important religious gathering in all of American history." William McGee is also noted for being one of the founders of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, a denomination that split from the Presbyterians a few years later.

Before I go on, I should tell you how William fits into our family. He was Blanche Vermillion Branch's great-great-great-grandfather, a great-grandfather of her grandmother Martha Burrow. I realize there's a lot of generations between us and William, but over time I'll fill in the gaps. But for now, here's his story:

William McGee was born in 1768 in Guilford County, North Carolina. He was the fifth and youngest child of John and Martha (McFarlane) McGee, Scotch-Irish Prebyterians who were among the wealthiest people in the county. John McGee died in 1773, when William was only five years old, but John left his family well provided for, and his mother later married William Bell, a mill owner who was himself very well off. (Martha McFarlane McGee Bell has a remarkable story of her own connected to Cornwallis's campaign through North Carolina in 1781. I'll get to that story in another post.)

When he was ten years old, William began studying with the Rev. David Caldwell, a local Presbyterian minister and Princeton graduate who ran a well-regarded academy for boys. Caldwell's school was described by a 19th-century historian as "an Academy, a College, and a Theological Seminary" where students studied classical languages and theology. The school trained many of the ministers who would go on to fuel the religious revival. William, intending to become a minister, spent ten years studying with Caldwell and was, it is suggested, impeccably prepared for the ministry by the time he was twenty.

The only trouble was, he didn't feel that he had had the "conversion experience" that he felt was necessary to his Christian life, and was burdened by the spectre of sin. His older brother John later wrote: "His distress was unspeakable, under a conscious sense of the frowns of an angry God which hung over him. This may seem strange to some, when they are informed of the manner of his life prior to this time. I do not believe he ever drank a pint of ardent spirits, or swore a profane oath, in his life. He was the most moral youth I ever saw."

And John, it seems, knew from sin. While William was studying his Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, John--"a wild young man," one source tells us--ran off and bummed around on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. While he was away, he wrote home with a big surprise for his mother and brother: with no formal training at all, John had joined the Methodists and had quickly become a preacher on the traveling circuit.

I should explain that the Methodists and Baptists who were traveling the South after the Revolution were seen as a threat to the Presbyterian domination of the Scotch-Irish. The Methodists and Baptists were preaching a more experiential, less intellectual religion, and a more inclusive gospel that suggested that people could, by embracing Christ and the church, effect their own salvation. This was contrary to the Presbyterian doctrine of predestination--the idea that God had predetermined who would be saved and who would not, and nothing people could do could change their fate. People who had just won a war for the right to govern themselves were receptive to the Baptists and Methodists telling them that they could have a role in their eternal life as well.

Martha Bell so disapproved of her son's new faith that she considered disowning him. When he came home two years later, he wanted to hold prayer with his family. His mother was opposed, but WIlliam persuaded her that they should hear him out. As a historian later said, "they soon began to believe there was a change in him and began to treat him with respect."

John's arrival seems to have helped William sort out his doubts and fears. As one historian put it: "William McGee was chosen by the family to be a preacher, but God made a preacher first of John McGee, and he was God's instrument in the conversion of his brother, who soon began to preach the Gospel."

We don't know when William became a licensed Presbyterian minister, but it was probably around 1795. Not long after that, he and John both went out to the Tennessee frontier to preach. William took charge of a congregation in Sumner County, in the middle of the state's long border with Kentucky, a place where religion was seen to be in decline.

And this is where it gets interesting. The Presbyterians of that day carried on an old Scotch-Irish ritual of holding communion in large groups about four times a year. People would come from long distances and be tested on matters of religious faith and knowledge before they were permitted to take communion. It was at one of these, at Red River Church across the border in Kentucky, in June 1800, that the first stirrings of revival were seen. William McGee was invited to participate, as was his brother John--a sign of Presbyterian-Methodist cooperation on the frontier. I'll let Mike Sublett of Restoration magazine tell it from there:

Friday, Saturday, and Sunday passed quietly and reverently - as these Presbyterian Communions were wont to go. On Monday, though, as one local minister preached, a woman who had long sought assurance for her salvation began shouting and singing. The preacher concluded the sermon, and all the ministers left the church - except for the McGee brothers.

Presbyterian William sat on the floor near the pulpit and began weeping. Soon the congregation was weeping, seeking the full security for salvation. Methodist John rose to preach; a witness said he exhorted people to let "the Lord God omnipotent reign in their hearts, and to submit to him."

People began to cry and shout.

Then the woman who had first started shouting let out a shrill of anguish. Methodist John McGee, seemingly entranced, made his way to comfort her. Someone (probably his Presbyterian brother) reminded him this was a Presbyterian church; the congregation would not condone emotionalism! Later John recalled, "I turned to go back and was near falling; the power of God was strong upon me. I turned again and, losing sight of the fear of man, I went through the house shouting and exhorting with all possible ecstasy and energy, and the floor was soon covered with the slain" - people were falling in ecstasy.

James McGready, the minister who had presided over that meeting, knew he was on to something, and scheduled what is considered the first religious camp meeting a month later at Gaspar River Meeting House, not far from Red River. The results were just like Red River, and William McGee is said to have preached with passion. "Towards the close of the sermon," McGready later wrote, "the cries of the distressed arose almost as loud as his voice."

The revivals continued in other locations that fall, and among those who heard about them was Barton Stone, another Presbyterian minister and former student of David Caldwell, McGee's former teacher. Stone was pastor of a church at Cane Ridge, Kentucky, in Bourbon County near Lexington. (He would later be one of the founders of the Restoration movement, out of which the Disciples of Christ and Church of Christ denominations were born.) In the spring of 1801 Stone attended one of the camp meetings he'd been hearing about on the Tennessee-Kentucky border, and he came back with plans for his own, which took place in August 1801. He spread the word that it would be an experience not to be missed, and the turnout was greater than anyone expected. The McGee brothers came to preach, among many other ministers, and many thousands of people descended on the rural spot--far more than the locals could accommodate. I've seen estimates ranging from 10,000 to 40,000 people. One writer has called it "The Religious Woodstock of 1801."

Cane Ridge is as famous for the excesses of enthusiasm that occurred there--a kind of mass hysteria--as is it is for its influence on American religion. Stone himself later described some of the things that went on, which he described as "religious exercises": "falling" (the fainting previously described); "the jerks," a series of spasm-like movements that sometimes affected the head and sometimes the whole body; a beatific kind of dancing; "barking," which was just the jerks accompanied by grunts; an entirely solemn and humorless laughter; and singing.

All this made the traditional Presbyterian authorities uneasy, and their support for the revival movement was tepid. It was this tension that would soon lead to a split between the larger Presbyterian body and the ministers on the Kentucky-Tennessee frontier.

But the presenting issue was not theology or worship style but education. It was hard to get qualified preachers on the frontier, and in McGee's presbytery, they had ordained a number of young men who had not had a formal education in theology and ancient languages. McGee took the side of the "young men," as they were known during the long dispute with the larger church that followed. I imagine he was torn--he himself had been the product of a careful and rigorous education, and yet he had seen the powerful work that his Methodist brother and other untrained ministers had been doing on the frontier.

Beyond the question of education was another one that the revivals brought to the fore: McGee and many of his fellow Presbyterians on the frontier, witnessing the sensational and dramatic conversion experiences of the revival, began to have doubts about the doctrine of predestination. McGee himself is said to have been deeply confused and undecided about this, and his uncertainty kept him from signing on right away when some of his colleagues took steps to separate from the larger church in 1809. But by 1810 he joined the new Cumberland Presbyterian denomination and indeed is considered one of its founders.

McGee continued to preach in frontier churches until his death in Tennessee in 1817. He and his wife Anna King--the sister of one of his ministerial colleagues--had eight children. One of them, named Martha for his mother, married James Burrow and moved to Lawrence County, Missouri. (Most of the McGees moved to a different part of Missouri after William's death.) Among James and Martha's children was a son named William for his preacher grandfather. William Burrow died in the Civil War, fighting for the Union in the battle of Fayetteville. His wife, Frances Stacy, died around the same time, leaving two orphaned daughters-- Artelia Jane and Martha Burrow. Martha later married John Washington Vermillion; they were the parents of Walter Vermillion, Blanche Branch's father.

Blanche, of course, was a Methodist, and whatever pride she might have had in her ancestor (I found all this information and shared it with her late in her life) was probably tempered by the fact that William was not a Methodist. But he came as close as a Presbyterian could--to the point of not being a very good Presbyterian! And one detail I didn't find until recently would surely have pleased her. As some of you know, Francis Asbury was one of the leading lights of Methodism--John Wesley himself appointed Asbury as one of the two first Methodist bishops in America, and he led American Methodism for 32 years, taking time to travel throughout the country preaching. He kept a journal of his travels, and on January 26, 1790, he stopped in on William McGee's family in North Carolina. Here is what he wrote: "Thence we went to Mr. William Bell's, on Deep River, and were received in the kindest manner; before I left the house, I felt persuaded that that family would come to experience the power of religion."

Asbury nailed it.

Friday, June 15, 2007

A Bad Apple on the Family Tree?

All right, I think all you Overholser descendants had better sit down. This is not easy to say, but there is increasing evidence that Levi Overholser just may have been, well, something of a crook. I was prepared to dismiss his reported willingness to settle disputes with a revolver as just evidence of a colorful character. But now, from the same intrepid historian who turned up the details of Levi's involvement in the railroad business (thanks again!), come these two newspaper items from 1868, when the Overholsers were apparently living in Vincennes, Indiana (which was news to me).

First this one:

The most of our readers have doubtless heard of the failure of Mr. Levi Overholser, of Vincennes, formerly doing business at Palestine. There has been a great deal of gossip as to his real failure, and some suits growing out of the matter in order to test the legality of certain sales of property made by him at about the time of his failure. A week or two ago a suit was instituted in the U. S. District Court, at Indianapolis, to compel him to go into bankruptcy. The following item, which we find in the Indianapolis Journal, would seem to indicate that his failure (?) did not leave him in a penniless condition:
"Mr. L. Overholser, a wealthy citizen of Vincennes, Indiana, lately secreted in his house about $16,000, and contrived to let it become known that he had the money. One night last week the house was entered by burglars, completely ransacked, the money found, and the thieves got safely off with it. The owner would be willing to give $2,000 for the recovery of the money."
--Robinson Argus, April 30, 1868

Then, a week later,

Last week we copied an item from the Indianapolis Journal in relation to the robbery of Levi Overholser of the sum of $16,000. -- Since then we find in the Journal the following item in a letter from Vincennes. Overholser was charged of having acted dishonestly before the announcement of this theft, and if the money was stolen it but confirms these charges. Mr. O. is very generally believed to be the real owner of some $15,000 worth of real estate in this county, and which he very conveniently has in the name of another party in order to keep his creditors from getting hold of it:
"The Overholser robbery seems to have created more excitement out of Vincennes than in it. The business transactions of Mr. O. have not been of the most creditable character. -- When his creditors desired a settlement he seemed to have no money to pay them, and proclaimed himself a bankrupt, though all the time he has been doing a thriving business. No one here seemed to have any confidence in him or sympathy for him, and when the robbery was proclaimed it produced a smile of doubt rather than tears of sympathy. No headlines announced the robbery in our county papers, while the editorial comments made were anything but flattering to the loser. If Mr. O. had sixteen thousand dollars to lose, he would have had many to sympathize with him for his great loss if he had given any indication that he intended to pay his honest debts."
--Robinson Argus, May 7, 1868

So this looks . . . not so good. But you will notice that both of these items--and the previous one about his pulling a gun on a business associate--come from the same newspaper. I think the only thing we can REALLY conclude is that the Robinson Argus was blatantly anti-Overholser and clearly had it in for Levi. Right? Right?

Or maybe he was just a crook. As I told the historian who found the clips, I'd feel guilty about living off his ill-gotten gains if we still had any.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Levi Overholser's Guide to Business Negotiation

I used to wonder if the Overholser brothers faced much danger in those chaotic first days of Oklahoma City, when law enforcement was spotty and property disputes could turn ugly very fast. But it looks like Levi Overholser, at least, could hold his own--and wasn't afraid to draw a six-shooter if necessary.

I mentioned below that a railroad historian had found references to Levi's involvement in the building of a narrow-gauge railroad in Illinois before he moved to Kansas and Oklahoma. That historian has very kindly sent me those references, mostly from Illinois and Indiana newspapers between 1878 and 1882. It sems that Levi was one of several businessmen that built a section of this railroad from Switz City, Indiana, to Effingham, Illinois.

The project was financially troubled, and some of the builders went bankrupt. Levi and some others filed a suit against the main construction company in 1878. A volume called "History of Greene and Sullivan Counties" explains that "This proved to be the most fruitful cause for litigation ever in the [county?] and for some time gave almost constant employment to the entire Sullivan bar as well as a number of attorneys from other places, especially Chicago." So in addition to hiring hundreds of men to build the railroad, our Levi was doing his part to create jobs for lawyers, too.

The newspaper clips mainly discuss the progress of the railroad, with frequent mentions of Levi or Lee Overholser and the firm of Overholser and Schafer. At about the time it was finished in 1880, this item appeared in the Argus, a newspaper in Robinson, Illinois, a town along the railroad line and near Palestine, where Levi and his family are known to have lived:

"Monday morning at Palestine some pretty warm words passed between E. Pratt Buell, General Manager of the narrow gauge railroad, and Levi Overholser, late contractor on the road, relative to a sum of money borrowed from Overholser by Buell, which the latter claimed he had repaid. Overholser drew his revolver, and was only prevented from shooting by the prompt interference of bystanders."

As far as the larger financial dispute over the railroad is concerned, Levi appears to have settled not for blood but for 65 cents on the dollar--the amount one of the financiers paid to the main construction company's creditors when he took it over.

Levi bought four shares of the completed railroad in 1882, at which time he is listed as a resident of Newton, Illinois, one county west of Palestine. The family must have moved there after the 1880 census. An item in the "Local Correspondence from Palestine" column in the Robinson Argus from July 12, 1882, supports this: "Mrs. Mary Overholser and Hattie returned to their home in Newton Wednesday."

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Levi's Railroad Ties

I got an e-mail in response to my recent post about Levi Overholser from someone who has researched the Effingham, Springfield, & South Eastern Railroad, a line that ran through Palestine, Illinois. He said that the major subcontractor that built the line (ca. 1878-1881) was the firm of Overholser and Schafer, and that one of the partners in that company was one Levi Overholser, also known as Lee. While we can't be sure it's our Lee, there may well be something to it.

I don't know what excites me more: having another piece of the historical puzzle, or knowing that someone actually read the blog!

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Salathiel, Jeroboam, and More

You can hit a brick wall pretty fast when you try to research a surname as common as Jones. Our Jones line disappears into Jackson County, Alabama, in the 1820s, when our ancestor William "Billy" Jones was born there. We know that Billy's father was born in South Carolina, but we do not know his name. A cousin who has been doing genealogy research for years has tried to track down Billy Jones's father, and while she's not found anything close to definite, she has found some possibilities. My favorite is a man named Salathiel Jones who lived in Jackson County at the right time, was born in South Carolina, and had a son around Billy's age. I'd love to have a Salathiel in the family, wouldn't you?

Thinking about Salathiel reminds me that there a bunch of cool and/or weird names in my family history. Here are a few favorites. Depending on which side of the family you're on, some of these may be in your tree too. Feel free to consider them if you're planning a family:

Jeroboam Howard (b. 1759): an ancestor of George Bailey Paxton on his mother's side. Jeroboam, like Salathiel, is an Old Testament name. (At left is King Jeroboam, from the first book of Kings.) Those were big in the 19th century.

Jehu Jehu: C.M. Branch's great-grandfather. There were at least three generations with this identical first name-last name combination in his mother's Welsh family.

Grizzie Riddle (1826-1876): Billy Jones's wife. The name Grizzie was not all that uncommon among the Scotch-Irish; it derived from Griselde, a name that appears in the Canterbury Tales. Still, I'll give five bucks to anyone who honors the family legacy by naming their daughter Grizzie.

Ferdinando Thayer (1625-1713): an ancestor of Cal Jones via his father's mother, the source of my only New England ancestors. Ferdinando was an early settler of Mendon, Massachusetts, and, it is said, a renowned wrestler. I don't know anything about the origin of the name, but it definitely sticks out amid a bunch of Isaacs and Thomases in the Thayer family.

Argyle Blackstone (b. 1650): also from way back in Cal Jones's grandmother's family, but from a Virginia line. This one always sounded like someone from a romance novel--kind of a Rhett Butler type, maybe.

Charity Grubb (1687-1761): an ancestor of Cal's other grandmother. The name Charity appears many times in this Quaker family, but "Charity Grubb" sounds like a name for a soup kitchen.

Johan Andersson, aka Stalkofta (1627-1685): a distant ancestor of Cal's mother. Johan came to America as part of the Swedish settlement called New Sweden (later Delaware). He became known as "Stalkofta"--or "steel coat"--among the other Swedish settlers, apparently because of his habit of wearing armor when hanging around the fort. He took the name as a surname, and it was gradually anglicized to "Stalcop," a name still seen frequently in the Southern U.S. Any of you who are unsatisfied with your current surname might consider a favorite article of apparel: "Bob Fleecepullover," maybe, or "Karen Haltertop."

Gruffydd Nannau (b. 1568): a Welsh ancestor of Clara Paxton via Levi Overholser's mother. The Welsh names always look like someone was typing with their eyes shut--and sound like something from Star Wars.

Anybody out there know some good ones I left out?

Sunday, May 27, 2007

The Other Overholser

You don't have to look very deep into the history of Oklahoma City to encounter the names of Henry Overholser (1846-1915) and Edward Overholser (1869-1931). Henry came to the city on the day of the 1889 Land Run with six prefabricated wood-frame buildings (above) on railroad cars and quickly became an important real estate and entertainment impresario. The mansion he built in 1903 was for years the city's social center (and is now a house museum operated by the Oklahoma Historical Society).

Edward, Henry's son by his first marriage, inherited some of his father's interests but succeeded where his father had failed: he was elected mayor of Oklahoma City in 1915. (Oklahoma City history blogger Doug Loudenback has written about Henry and Edward on his blog.) It was primarily for Edward but also in part for Henry that the city's reservoir was named Lake Overholser in 1918.

But what does this have to do with my humble origins, you ask? Some of you who are Clara Paxton's descendants or relatives already know that there are Overholsers in our tree: we descend from Henry's older brother Levi (Lee) Overholser (1836–1905), who also came to Oklahoma City in its early days and also did well in business there, though not as spectacularly as his brother. If, as is often said, Henry Overholser was the father of Oklahoma City, that would make our Lee the uncle of Oklahoma City (and me the city's first cousin thrice removed!).

So here's where the Overholser brothers came from: They were born on a farm in Montgomery County, Ohio, near present-day Dayton, sons of John and Elizabeth (Niswonger) Overholser. Their grandfather, Jacob Overholser, was a blacksmith in Pennsylvania before moving to Ohio, and his children were all baptized in the Lutheran-Reformed Church. (The Overholsers of our acquaintance would later be Presbyterians--a close fit theologically with the Calvinism of the Reformed church and probably a concession to the fact that the German Protestant churches were harder to find as they moved southwest.) The Overholser family was German in origin, while Elizabeth Niswonger's forebears (originally Neuenschwangers before they met up with Scotch-Irish attempts to pronounce the name in the hills of Virginia) had come from Switzerland.

Levi and Henry were among 13 children in their family, and it was probably assumed that they, too, would be farmers. The 1850 census shows a 14-year-old Levi on his father's farm, listed as a "laborer." But Levi and Henry both ended up leaving the farm for careers in business--the earliest among any of my ancestors to trade farm life for small-town life.

In the 1860 census, we find Levi living in a hotel in Palestine, Illinois, a town near the Indiana line and about 230 miles from his father's farm. His occupation is "clerk." Also in Palestine in that census is Mary Young, an 18-year-old living with her siblings and widowed mother. (Her father, we know from the previous census, was a shoemaker.) The next year, 1861, Levi and Mary were married. We don't find them in the 1870 census, but we know from other sources that all five of their children who survived into adulthood were born in Palestine between 1863 and 1875. Levi's obituary says that he was "engaged in the general merchandise business and made a success of it" during this period. (They say this happened in Ohio, but the Oklahoman was apparently no less prone to error in 1905 than it is now.) In the 1880 census, no occupation is given for Levi, but he is listed in Palestine with Mary and their five children: "Elley, Charley, Gracey, Hattie M., and William."

Meanwhile, Henry Overholser had left home by 1870. He was living with his wife and two children in Sullivan, Indiana, just 23 miles from Palestine. Probably not coincidentally, he lived next door to Mary Young's brother William, and both were in the dry goods business. There was probably a good deal of collaboration in business among this network of kin.

Some time after 1880, the family left Illinois for southeastern Kansas. We don't know for sure when Levi and Mary moved there, but their oldest child, Ella, married J.C. Haskett in Illinois in 1880 and gave birth to their first child, Frank, in Baxter Springs, Kansas, in 1883.

We don't know why the family moved west, but the usual answer was economic opportunity. It's possible that the Overholsers were already casting their eyes on the Unassigned Lands of Oklahoma, as the Boomer Movement to open those lands had begun as early as 1879. Levi and Mary's oldest son, Charley, spent some time in the territory before the Land Run, according to his 1928 obituary in the Valley Falls (KS) Vindicator: "As a young man Charley had more than the average share of adventure as a cow-boy on the plains of the Indian Territory in the days immediately proceeding [sic] the opening of Oklahoma, when all the bad men from the entire nation seemed to naturally gravitate to this last 'no-man's land.'"

In the meantime, Henry had made his way to Wisconsin, made a fortune, divorced his wife, and was looking toward Oklahoma himself. But unlike so many who came and pitched tents, Henry built some of the city's first "permanent" structures (in quotes because he soon replaced them with brick buildings). And though he's never mentioned in the history books, Levi was there very early on: in an 1889 Oklahoma City directory, Henry is living at 201-1/2 West Grand, on the second floor of one of his buildings, and Levi and his 15-year-old son Will are next door in another of the prefabs at 203-1/2.

According to Levi's obituary, he didn't move to Oklahoma City until 1892 or '93. But I suspect he and perhaps Will spent a lot of time there in the intervening years, waiting until a semblance of order and civility had been established before bringing Mary to the city. (The other children all left home around this time: Grace married George Paxton in 1893 and was living in Joplin, Missouri; Hattie married Bert L. Jones that same year and lived in Columbus, Kansas. Ella and J.C. Haskett remained in Baxter Springs (before moving to Oklahoma City in 1912), and Charley had traded in the adventurous life of a cow-boy for a career in dry goods in Valley Falls, Kansas.)

While Henry Overholser promoted railroads, telephones, an opera house, the state fair, and real estate, Levi dealt in property and insurance in a partnership called Overholser and Avey. In 1893, Levi and Mary traveled to Chicago for the Worlds Fair (as we know from a souvenir handkerchief of Mary's); the fair's gleaming vision of a planned, classical city must have inspired the Overholsers--and shown them what a long way their young city had to go.

When Henry built his mansion in 1903--way out in the cornfields of NW 15th Street--he and Anna (wife #2, his trophy wife) introduced it to society with a big party. The next day, as we read in the Oklahoman society page, was reserved for family: besides Henry's son Edward, they had Levi and Mary, the Hasketts, and Will Overholser and his wife Ella to dinner.

Levi died in 1905; the cause listed in the cemetery records is "stomach trouble." The Oklahoman, under the headline "Prominent Citizen Dead," reported that he left an estate of $100,000. He and Mary lived at the time at 1602 N. Robinson, an address later occupied by J.C. and Ella Haskett when they moved to the city. (Will and Ella Overholser later lived at 1610 N. Robinson. Neither home still stands.)

Mary died two years later in Baxter Springs, presumably while visiting the Hasketts there. Again, the Oklahoman reported (left, click image to enlarge) that the estate was worth about $100,000 (about $2.1 million in 2006 dollars), most of which was in real estate.

Levi and Mary had five children who survived to adulthood (we know from the 1900 census that Mary had also had five children who were no longer living, presumably having died in infancy) and at least 11 grandchildren. Here's a quick rundown:

Ella Overholser (1863–1937) married J.C. Haskett. As I said, they lived in Kansas until 1912 and then moved to Oklahoma City, where all three of their sons ended up living. Their sons were: Frank C. Haskett (1883-1967), Paul E. Haskett (1886-1966), and Clarence R. Haskett (1892-1962).

Charles L. Overholser (1865–1928) married Susan Gardiner. They had no children, but they raised Grace's orphaned daughter Clara Paxton during her teenage years.

Grace E. Overholser (1869–1901) married George Bailey Paxton. They lived in Joplin, Missouri. She died of pneumonia in 1901. George died of Bright's Disease in 1910. They had two children, George Burton Paxton (1896–1948) and Clara Paxton Jones (1899-1971).

Harriet (Hattie) M. Overholser (1873–aft. 1930) married Bert L. Jones. They lived in Columbus, Kansas, and had three children: George Lee Jones (1896–bef. 1928), Clair L. Jones (1898–?), and Helen Jones Winter (1904–?).

William Levi Overholser (1875–1964) married Ella King. They lived in Oklahoma City and had three children: Mary Overholser Meder (1898–1977), William Levi Overholser Jr. (1907–1993), and Charles Kent Overholser (1909–1962).

As always, I wish I had more information and pictures of some of these people. If you have any to share, please e-mail me at

UPDATE, 6/12/07: A railroad historian has sent me some newspaper references that suggest that Levi was involved in building a railroad near Palestine. It got rather contentious, and at least once Lee had to pull out his revolver. Details here.

UPDATE, 6/15/07: It gets worse. Levi may have been something of a crook. . . .

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Katerina Jicha, Pioneer Woman

Today is the 118th anniversary of the Oklahoma Land Run, the day that one of my ancestors—and about 50,000 other people—tore into the Unassigned Lands of central Oklahoma in an effort to claim some of the last free land available in the country under the Homestead Act. So while today I want to salute Jiri (George) Jicha, who made the run that day, this post is mainly a tribute to his wife, Katerina (Kate) Jicha, who raised the seven children and ran the farm after George died—just eight months after staking his claim. (Kate and George were the maternal grandparents of Blanche Vermillion Branch.)

Many of you are familiar with the Pioneer Woman statue in Ponca City, a monument to "the heroic character of the women who braved the dangers and endured the hardships incident to daily life of the pioneer and homesteader in this country." There was a competition to create the statue in 1926; the winner was Bryant Baker, who titled his work "Confidence" (above). You'll notice that there is no man in the tableau. The reason for his absence is not specified, but other entries (I saw mockups of all 17 once at Woolaroc) were more explicit: I seem to remember some in which the woman was fending off marauders with her rifle as her husband's body lay nearby.

Anyway, I never gave much thought to the Pioneer Woman until a couple of years ago, when a cousin of a cousin sent me Kate Jicha’s probate file. Reading about her estate and the sequence of events made me realize we had at least one bona fide Pioneer Woman in the family—just surround the statue with six more kids and it could be our Kate.

Katerina Janda was born to Mated Janda and Magdalena Zemanova in 1842 in Zdeslav, a village in the region of Czechoslavakia known as Bohemia. (One of her great-grandsons visited the town in the 1990s.) She married Jiri Jicha sometime before 1872. When he was 41 and she was 39, they joined thousands of other Bohemians in emigrating to America.

I haven't done enough historical reading to know why the large migration happened; does anybody have any insight about it? When I asked Blanche if she knew why they came, she said she remembered her mother telling her something about people being so hungry in Bohemia that a soldier took a bite out of another soldier's arm. Make of that what you will.

With six children, George and Kate sailed for America in 1881. Blanche's mother Mollie Jicha told her that she remembered sticking her hand in the water in New York Harbor when they arrived. (They were a few years too early to see the Statue of Liberty or to be processed at Ellis Island, by the way.) They must have moved out to Nebraska right away, because their seventh child Joseph was born in Nebraska that same year.

George and Kate may have had family connections in America already. Kate's brother Joseph Janda apparently had emigrated to America around 1870.

After six years in Nebraska, the family moved to Indian Territory; I'm not sure where, but I'd guess they were in McClain County, where some of the family lived in later years. On April 22, 1889, the tenth birthday of his daughter Mary, George Jicha lined up to cross the river near Purcell and take part in the Oklahoma Land Run. The territory was opened for settlement at exactly 12 o'clock, and people raced to claim the best land they could. The family story is that George found a fine tract of land but was chased off the claim by a woman with a gun. The implication has always been that the claim was rightfully his (and that perhaps she was a "sooner"—someone who had sneaked into the territory early and squatted on a claim). But perhaps she was just a speedy and determined Pioneer Woman herself.

At any rate, as his grandson Vivian Nemecek told the story, George had to settle for "school land" east of Noble. Whole square-mile sections of Oklahoma Territory and others were set aside to be leased, the income going to fund schools in the territory. If that is indeed what George claimed, he must have bought a farm sooner or later, because the 160 acres that Kate and her family worked belonged to her at her death.

George died on December 23, 1889. He was 50 years old. Their children ranged in age from 8 to 17. They were in a place that had some Czech settlers, though apparently not the large numbers of places like Nebraska—or small pockets like Prague, Oklahoma. Kate must have lived to see her family's customs challenged by the realities of their new world. Although they had been baptized as Catholics, all of her children became Protestants, and they all took anglicized names. And although two of her daughters married fellow Czechs, the three other children who married chose American-born Anglo Saxon Protestants.

Kate only lived to see one of her children married. The match displeased her, though I don’t know why. Her daughter Josie, at age 18, married a 19-year-old farmer named John Black who had taken care of his young sisters since their father had died in 1890. Josie's descendants say that Kate "disowned" her for marrying John. This is not true in a financial sense, as Josie was treated the same as her siblings in Kate's will, but she must have registered disapproval in a way that hurt Josie. Blanche Branch once mentioned an aunt named Josie whose husband "practically kidnapped her," so there is a tale of some kind to be told there. Maybe it'll turn up over time.

Here is a picture of Kate and six of her children. (Click on it to make it larger, if not clearer.) I don't know the date, but it was probably after 1893 (when Josie married, as she is not in the picture) and before Kate died in 1897. Seated left to right are Jim, Kate, and Mollie. Standing are Mary, Joseph, Jennie, and John.

If Kate didn't like Josie's marriage, one wonders what she would have thought of her daughter Mollie's choice of husband. A few years after Kate died, the 28-year-old Mollie married 24-year-old Walter "Whit" Vermillion. Whit was a horse trader whose brother, Ira, was in the federal prison at Leavenworth for roping an old Czech farmer named Joseph Nemecek (whose sons later became Mollie's brothers-in-law) and dragging him to his death. I'll tell this story in greater detail in a later post.

Kate wrote a will (left) on May 26, 1897; she died 21 days later. She left her estate in equal shares to her seven children, but stipulated that the farm should not be sold until her youngest children, Mary and Joseph, reached 21 years old. She intended that they have the farm as a place to live until then.

The probate file includes inventories and receipts that give a glimpse into farm life at the time. In the summer of Kate’s death, the Jichas had 50 acres of corn and 14 acres of cotton, and had also raised wheat and oats. They had 8 horses, 3 mules, 12 head of cattle, 2 pigs, and assorted plows, cultivators, and wagons. When all these were sold five years later, the most expensive item was a mule that brought $100.25. (A blind mare went for $5.)

For the five years before Kate’s son Joseph reached 21, her executor, a local Czech named Joseph Valouch, had to keep track of what was bought or sold. In the meantime, the children began to leave home. In 1898, the third daughter, Johanna (Jennie), married Jim Nemecek, another native of Bohemia. By the 1900 census, only John, the second son, and Mollie, the oldest daughter, were living on the farm. Mollie left for Washington state around 1901 to marry Walter Vermillion, whose family was homesteading out there. (They would return within a few years.)

The estate was settled on August 30, 1902, the farm having been sold for $3500 to Joseph Nemecek, a brother to Jim Nemecek. Receipts in the probate file show that all Kate’s children received their share of the estate—$540.75 apiece—on August 30, except for Mollie, who received her share in Washington state a month later. (An online “inflation calculator” says that that amount would be the same as about $12,500 in 2006 dollars.)

Getting all this down, I find that I’ve learned only enough about the Jichas to realize how much I don’t know. But this is an ongoing process, and I hope I’ll have more information and insights as time goes on. In the meantime, just for the record, here are Kate and George's children and grandchildren:

1. Jim Jicha (1872–1946). He apparently had mental problems of some kind, and was institutionalized at one point. Blanche Branch remembered him fondly and viewed him as a kind of seer or psychic who predicted events in Europe like the Russian Revolution. She remembered that he called her "bobule" which I have since learned means "berry" in Czech. He did not marry.

2. Margaret (Mollie) Jicha (1873–1931). I've mentioned her marriage to Walter Vermillion. After returning from Washington, they lived in Wayne, Oklahoma. They had two children who died young, Fay and Louis. Their other two children were Blanche Vermillion (Branch) and John Walter Vermillion. Walter died in 1907, just a few months after Blanche was born. Mollie married again then divorced, after which she and Blanche moved to Oklahoma City.

3. Josefa (Josie) Jicha (1875–1912). I mentioned her marriage to John Black. They had four sons: Hugh Black, John Black, Homer Black, and Clyde Black. [UPDATE: A cousin tells me I missed John and Josie's daughter Mary. Duly noted.]

4. John C. Jicha (1876–1959). He married Emma Evatt in 1909. John ran a store in Wayne. They had five children: Evatt Jicha, John Curtis Jicha, William Paul Jicha, Doris Jicha (Lamar), and Mary Evelyn Jicha (Russell).

5. Johanna (Jennie) Jicha (1878–1966). She married Vaclav (Jim) Nemecek in 1898. They had five children: George Nemecek, Mary Katherine (Katie) Nemecek (Long), Thomas Nemecek, Margaret Nemecek (Barton), and Kenneth Nemecek.

6. Mary (Marie) Jicha (1879–1935). She married Andrew Nemecek, brother of Jim Nemecek, in 1903. They had six children: Joe Talmadge Nemecek, Murel Andrew Nemecek, Vivian Nemecek, Genevieve Josephine Nemecek (Mote), Mary Frances Nemecek, and Helen R. Nemecek.

7. Joseph Jicha (1881–?). I lose track of Joseph at 21, when he receives his share of the estate. He doesn’t appear in a census after that, and Blanche Branch never mentioned him when telling about her aunts and uncles. My assumption is that he died while still a young man.

As always, I’d love to hear from anyone who has information or just memories to share about these families. You can add to the comments below or e-mail me at