Sunday, March 29, 2009

John Washington Vermillion, 1857-1928

Someone I've tried to learn a little more about in my research is Blanche Branch's grandfather, John Washington (Wash) Vermillion. Blanche's father Walter Vermillion died when she was just five months old, and her other three grandparents died before she was born, so Wash was an important person in her life. She spoke of him with affection and reverence, and she attributed some of her life decisions (most notably being a Republican and a Methodist) to his influence. From a variety of sources I've been able to put together a partial chronology of his life.

According to his grave marker at the Hillside Cemetery in Purcell, Oklahoma, Wash was born on January 19, 1857, most likely in Lawrence County, Missouri (in the southwest part of the state--see map at left, click to enlarge). His parents were John H. Vermillion and Mary Smith. His mother was born in Tennessee, we know from the census, but we know little more about her except for some hunches. (It's hard to narrow down the possibilities for someone named Smith.) His father was born in Missouri, where the Vermillions had arrived in the 1830s from Ohio. (If you go back further, the Vermillions descend from a French protestant immigrant named Giles Vermillion who came to Maryland in 1698.)

In 1860, the census has John H. and Mary Vermillion with children Reuben (3), Wash (2) and Andrew (1) in Spring River Township. In this and subsequent censuses, John is listed as a farmer. Before Mary Vermillion died in 1888, she and John had 12 children in all, though some of them apparently didn't survive past childhood. (John would have another three with his second wife before his death in 1900.) In the 1870 census, 12-year-old Wash is listed with his parents and siblings; for Wash's "occupation," the entry reads "works on farm."

On November 25, 1875, when he was 18, Wash married Martha Burrow, a Missouri native who had lost both of her parents when she was about 5. (See marriage record above--click to enlarge.) I'll talk more about Martha in another post, but I'll note here that she was the great-granddaughter of the revival preacher William McGee and great-great-granddaughter of the Revolutionary spy Martha Bell. Wash and Martha soon got a piece of land to farm themselves: they were enumerated in the 1880 census in Aurora, the township just east of Spring River, with Martha and sons Walter (2) and Willie (5/12 yrs.). This squares with Blanche Branch's report that her father, Walter, was born in Aurora. Wash and Martha had five children in seven years: Walter Edward (1878), William R. (1879), Ira Monroe (1881), John (1883), and Cora (1885). It wasn't too long after Cora was born, apparently, that Martha Burrow died.

I have never run across any cause of death or even a date of death. One clue is an undated photograph taken of Wash and his five children without their mother (at left; click to enlarge). Bearing in mind that Walter (standing at left) and Cora (in front of Walter) were seven years apart, I'd guess that they might be 10 and 3, which would mean the picture was taken in 1888. If so, Wash found himself widowed with five children by the time he was 30 years old.

It would come as no surprise that he would want to marry again. And Susannah (usually called Susan) Bassett Lamar, the woman he married, was probably motivated as well. A year older than Wash, she was the widow of one William Henry Lamar and had two teenaged daughters. They probably married in 1894. (There may have been another wife between Martha and Susan: the 1910 Census reported that Wash had been married three times, Susan twice. But I haven't yet been able to track down any other evidence of another marriage.)

Around 1889, Wash took his family to Indian Territory, where he established a farm in the vicinity of Wayne in McClain County (see map at left). A 1900 newspaper account of his son Ira's murder trail (more on that here, here, here, and here) says that the family had been in the area for 11 years, so they would have arrived in Indian Territory just as Oklahoma Territory was opening to white settlement across the Canadian River.

The 1900 census shows Wash and Susan and four of his children in the Chickasaw Nation of Indian Territory, near Wayne in McClain County. His son Willie had died the year before at the age of 20; he is buried in Purcell.

While still mourning his son Willie, Wash and the family faced another tragedy in 1900 when 18-year-old Ira, drunk, lassoed Joseph Nemecek and dragged him to his death. In reporting on the sensational crime, the local press took pains to say that Wash was respected in the community and lauded him for standing behind their son throughout his trial. (According to prison records, Wash would be Ira's most faithful correspondent during his 13 years in prison, writing to him nearly 200 times.)

The episode must have been difficult for Wash, and perhaps it contributed to the family's decision to move to the state of Washington in 1901. Wash and Susan, daughter Cora, and son Walter took up farming in a township called Mesa in Franklin County (see map at left: Mesa is the small encircled red spot within Franklin County). This is an arid country covered with sagebrush. Blanche Branch's mother Mollie Jicha went up to Washington to join Walter and marry him in 1902 or thereabouts; Blanche always said that a result of her time there, her mother couldn't stand the smell of sagebrush.

(Left: sagebrush on the Snake River in Franklin County, Washington, 1800s.)

Blanche always spoke of the Washington venture as a sort of failed experiment. It wasn't long until most of the Vermillions returned to Indian Territory. Wash and Susan and Walter and Mollie were back in Wayne by 1906. It's not clear whether Wash's son John ever moved to Washington, and Ira spent all that time in, um, Leavenworth. Only Cora, who married Frank Lamb in 1906/7, stayed in Washington, learned to farm the country fruitfully, and begat a large flock of Lambs who are still in the area today.

In 1907, Wash lost a second son: Walter died from tuberculosis, leaving a wife, Mollie, and children John (4) and Blanche (five months).

On May 5, 1910, Wash and Susan were recorded in the census as living in the town of Wayne. Wash was not listed as a farmer; instead he had no occupation and the explanation "own income." Blanche said that he owned wheat combines. And in the years 1910 to 1912, Wash must have been busy with some sorts of ventures in southwest Missouri and northeast Oklahoma, as some of his letters to Ira have return addresses from towns in those areas.

At the same time, something happened to Wash's marriage to Susan. Because in 1911, Ira began getting letters from another Mrs. J. W. Vermillion, a woman named Carey (I've also seen it spelled Cary) who was only 26 years old (about his daughter's age). I had always assumed that Wash and Susan's marriage ended in Susan's death, but I saw an online source recently that suggested that Susan died in Purcell in 1917. So that one may have ended in divorce.

In 1912, Wash and Carey moved to Oklahoma City, where Blanche said he owned a furniture store. Some time between 1914 and 1920, Wash's third son John died, leaving a wife and a son, Leonard.

I don't know much about Wash's later years, except that he seems to have lived in Wayne during his last decade. He died in 1928, when Blanche was 21. Wash lost so many people by the time he reached his three score and ten. He outlived his first wife and three of his four sons. His surviving son Ira lived in Washington and Arizona after his release from prison in 1914 (and did another stint in prison for counterfeiting), and his daughter Cora and her large family were far away in Washington. Though he had his young wife for company, Wash must have been surprised and saddened to be so bereft of family in his old age. I would think that he would have especially valued Blanche, John, and Leonard, his nearby grandchildren. It's no wonder Blanche remembered him so fondly.


Apple said...

Wash's life sounds so sad. It's the unhappy events that history seems to record well and we're left to guess at the happy times that he must have had.

SJSealesWA said...

Thank you - thank you. Your stories are like reading a great book. I'm sure Wash and his family had some happy times. Washington is a beautiful state - I lived there for over 10 years and remember it very fondly.