Sometimes, our ancestors do things that are less than admirable. As I discovered recently, in the 1790s, my fourth-great-grandpa, Buckner Jones, fathered a child out of wedlock — or “bastard child” as it’s written in the 18th-century court records.
In about 1880, my great-great-grandpa, John Wesley Miles, left his wife and infant child in Kentucky for a Wild West adventure. As the story goes, John told his young wife Josephine — and I’m paraphrasing here — “Hey, Sweetie, I’m going to go get a sack of cornmeal, OK?”
Then he left and didn’t come back for 20 years.
When he did return, he was carrying a sack of cornmeal, which I guess proves he had a sense of humor. By then, however, Josephine had moved on, marrying — or at least taking up with — the older brother of her son’s wife. It’s said she held no grudges, though, and loved that scoundrel John until the day she died.
After returning to Kentucky, John married two more times, had more children and supposedly died at age 106. I say “supposedly” because the dates of birth I’ve found for him range wildly. The record of his marriage to Josephine says he was born in 1859. The 1940 U.S. Census estimates his birth at 1853. An article written about his 105th birthday claims 1850. His death certificate says 1851.
In short, who the heck knows?
So what was John doing for all those years away? That’s where things get even fuzzier. The story I always heard was he went to Oklahoma or possibly Texas, where he sold trinkets to the Indians, started a new family and — according to tales he told after he returned home — joined the U.S. Marshals.
In the 1950s, John told a newspaper reporter he tried to serve a “desperado warrant” on Cherokee Bill of the infamous Dalton Gang. He said he met U.S. Presidents Lincoln, Garfield and Teddy Roosevelt, and heard Gen. Ulysses S. Grant speak in Springfield, Missouri.
It would take lots of work and a good bit of luck to find out if any of those things could possibly have happened, and it might not be possible. However, according to “Uncle John,” as the reporter called him, he did go through Springfield en route to Indian country, so the Grant story could be true.
The reporter wrote that in Kentucky John “met up with another man and they walked to the nearest railroad and caught a train to Springfield, Mo. He says from there he walked over 300 miles into the Southwestern part of the country.”
In the 1880 U.S. Census, I found a John W. Miles working as a cowboy on a cattle farm in Jack County, Texas. This John Miles reported he was born in Virginia, but he’s 27 years old, which fits into the range of birth dates, and it’s in the right part of the country and at the right time. Could this be him?
Somewhere out West, there’s another family with a similar story: of a tale-telling man who came from Kentucky, started a family, and then left after 20 years — in their case, never to be seen again. I’m pretty sure I have relatives out there somewhere, and I’d love to find them someday.
I never met John Miles. He died in 1957, before I was born. My mom, aunts and uncles, however, recall him fondly. He’s a beloved figure in their family and no one is allowed to say anything bad about him. I might be ostracized at the next family reunion for calling him a “scoundrel,” but how else would you describe him? Loveable scoundrel?
The thing is, at this point, it’s not so much scandalous or shameful as it is interesting. So let those skeletons pour out of the closet.
The other day, I was doing some online research on a topic I’ll write about later this summer, when I happened upon these advertisements for a sideshow act called “The Albino, or White Negro Girl.”
The ads are dated 1864, 1866 and 1868, and each includes a photo of Henry and Helen Walker. According to the ads, Henry and Helen are “twin brother and sister, offspring of colored parents.”
Helen is obviously albino. Unfortunately, at the time, she would have been considered a “curiosity,” an “amusement,” something to be stared at for a fee.
In the earliest photo, the twins are 8 years old. They stand side by side, dressed in the finery of the day. Helen wears a massive bow on her head. Her hands are clasped in front of her. She looks stunned. Her brother, on the other hand, almost smiles.
The 1868 photo, advertising an appearance at Burnell’s Museum in Pittsburgh, also features an older, white man. He is standing behind the children, a hand on each twin’s shoulder.
Again, Helen’s hands are clasped in front of her and she wears what looks like the same big bow on her head. Henry doesn’t smile and stares into the camera. In my opinion, they both look sad.
The man in the photo is likely John Burnell, a showman who had museums in St. Louis, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, and possibly other cities. His museums exhibited curiosities: bearded ladies, “The Mer-Man,” “The Armless Lady” and, as advertised in The Pittsburgh Gazette on Nov. 23, 1868, the “white and black twins.” No doubt, these are the Walker children.
Thanks to a comment made on the website Sideshow World, where I found the photos, I was able to learn more about Helen and Henry.
The 1860 U.S. Census for New York City lists 4-year-old Helen — called “Ellen” in the census — and brother Henry living with their mother, Phoebe Walker. Phoebe is described as a 36-year-old, mulatto washerwoman. The children also are mulatto. All were born in New Jersey.
No father is listed. Maybe Phoebe was a single mother; maybe she was a widow. Without more research, it’s impossible to know. Another question is, how did Helen and Henry end up traveling the country with Burnell?
During my research, I kept stumbling upon references to parents who “sold” their children to showmen like Burnell. Maybe that’s what happened to Helen and Henry.
Maybe their mother sold them to Burnell because she was in a desperate financial situation. Maybe she let Burnell take them out of love, thinking they would have a better life and more opportunities. Maybe Phoebe died and Burnell found the children in an orphanage.
According to an online commenter, Helen’s great-grandson, Helen grew up and later went by the name “Nellie.” She married three times, first in 1872, when she was about 16 years old. Her first husband, Charles Price, also was albino. She is buried in Ohio.
Also, the commenter didn’t even know Helen had a brother until he saw the photos.
As for what happened to Henry, the 1870 census lists him as a 14-year-old “domestic servant” living in the Burnell household in Pittsburgh. I have yet to find a record of Henry after that.
I wonder if the children ever saw their mother again.
There are lyrics to 17 songs written in C.W. Holbrook’s diary. They were written down by various hands, none of them Holbrook’s. Who all these music lovers were is a mystery, probably one lost to history.
Some of the songs written in the diary were composed long before the Civil War, others in the following decade. The wonderfully titled ballad “I’ll Be No Submissive Wife” was composed by Alexander Lee in antebellum 1838, while “Write A Letter From Home,” by William Shakespeare Hays, was composed in 1867, after the war.
It appears some of the songs were written in the diary during the war, including two versions of “Root Hog or Die,” which was both a popular song and saying of the day.
The catch-phrase “Root Hog or Die” had been around for decades and had to do with self-sufficiency. Both Union and Confederate troops sang the “Root Hog or Die” song.
Southerners were fond of a version that incorporated Abe Lincoln, who was apparently so unpopular with Texans he didn’t even make the ballot for the 1860 presidential election.
Sometimes, the song was customized for a particular unit. A version of “Root Abe or Die” written in the diary and attributed to “Texas Ranger – Dr. Frazier” goes like this:
The Lone Star Defenders a gallant little band On the tenth of June left their native land To defend their Country away they all did hie They go it in the Sun or Shade “Root Hog or die”
Hurrah boys Hurrah, we Rangers know our rights And if they trample on our toes we make them see sights
Chorus The Lyon ceased to roar and Siegel on the shy Big Abe little Abe root Abe or die
Twas at the town of Dallas, we all did concentrate And formed into a Regiment within our native State Then with our brave commander, we bid our friends good-bye And Started North to make the Dutch “Root Abe or die”
Twas on the fourth of August we reached McCulluch’s camp And there we stopped a day and night to trim and light our [illegible] The Southern boys united here and on each one would cry To morrow boys we’ll make em get “Root Hog or die”
Then on the fifth we started to hunt the Lyon’s den Between our camps and Springfield we thought we’d find his men But when they learned that Greer and his Rangers were so nigh The Dutch though it time for them to “Root Hog or die”
McCulluch pitched his camps about ten miles from town And there on Wilson’s Creek we secured the country round But we couldn’t catch them out from town and I’ll tell you the reason why They knew the Southern boys would make them “Root Hog or die”
Twas on the tenth of August we heard the Lyon roar [illegible] among our boys the grape and Shell did pour [illegible] opted to surprise us and take us on the sly But he found that Southern boys didnt “Root Hog or die”
He told us his lovely Soldiers to whip the South they must But e’er he saw that triumph he had to bite the dust His brave and noble deeds were done and I’ll tell you the reason why Because the “Hogs” could’nt “Root” and of course he had to die
When Woodruff’s well known battery like thunder peels did roar It made old Siegel tremble for he’d heard its voice before He heard it down at Carthage and to take it he did try But he with his brethren had to “Root Hog or die”
This great Siegel fought us bravely for two long hours or more And then his fine Artillery had to cease its roar For when the Rangers charged him he knew he had to fly And through a field of corn we made him “Root Hog or die”
Montgomery’s men in Kansas are getting very bold There was a regiment of them on the field as we have been told To whip the “Texas Rangers” they were anxious here to try One third of them was left to “root” and the ballance had to die
Now if Old Abe’s not satisfied and wants to fight again All he has to do is muster up his men To whip Greer with his Rangers he can always get to try And we’ll show him every time how they have to “Root or die”
You can watch a performance of “Root Hog/Abe or Die” here.
Another song in the diary is “My Love He is a Sailleur Boy.” It starts with:
My love he is a sailleur boy, so gallent a bold He’s as tall as any a flag-staff. Scarcely nineteen years old For to cruise around this wild world he has left his own dear And my heart it is a bursting because he isn’t here
Like “Root Hog or Die,” there were variations of this song, too. “My Love He is a Zou-Zu,” was written for the Zouaves. These units — mostly Union, but some Confederate — were modeled after French North African troops. The men wore flashy uniforms with baggy pants and turbans.
My sister, Theresa, and I headed down to the Pittsylvania County Court House in Chatham, Virginia, the other day in search of dead relatives. More specifically, we were looking for the Jones family, who lived in Pittsylvania County in the late 1700s and early 1800s.
But first, here’s how the Joneses fit into my family tree.
In my guest bedroom is Great-Great-Grandma Elizabeth Holt’s bed. The big oak bed was likely made in the late 1800s. It was stored in a shed for many years, which is why one side is a little warped, but I wouldn’t give it up for anything because it’s the one “family piece” I have.
Having old, family furniture — even one slightly warped bed — makes me feel aristocratic and Southern, when in truth, I’m a middle-class, Ohio native.
Anyway, “Grandma Holt,” as she’s known in the family, was born in Tennessee. Her parents, Pascal Holt and Rachel Jones, were from Virginia. They married in Henry County in 1822.
Rachel Jones was born in Pittsylvania County and her parents were Buckner Jones and Nelly Wilson. Buckner is a great name, and if you search “Buckner Jones” you’ll find lots of them — black and white and from various parts of Virginia.
Buckner’s parents were Mosias Jones and Lyddia Clarke. Best I can tell, Mosias’s parents were William Mosias Jones and Lucy Foster.
What I was really aiming at was the Foster clan, because if Lucy is my sixth-great-grandmother, then I’m related to the folks who built Foster’s Castle, a 17th-century, Tudor-Stuart-style house in New Kent County, Virginia.
Finally, an “ancestral home” for me! If you’ve been following the blog, up until now only my husband, John, had ancestral homes. I had to go back 330-some years to find this one, but I’ll take it.
Foster’s Castle was built by Col. Joseph Foster in about 1685. According to the National Register of Historic Places nomination form, it’s “one of Virginia’s four surviving Tudor-Stuart style structures with porch projections,” which was “a major seventeenth and very early-eighteenth century Virginia building form.”
Col. Foster, who would be my seventh great-grandfather, also supervised the construction of St. Peter’s Church, where George Washington and Martha Custis were married.
Foster’s Castle still stands. While I don’t think being able to prove I’m the seventh-great-granddaughter of the guy who built it will get me a private tour, it’s kind of neat to know. I wouldn’t turn down a tour, though, in case the current owner sees this.
But back to Buckner Jones and the Pittsylvania crew. Before I could start planning tours of my ancestral home, I had to prove that Buckner’s parents were Mosias and Lyddia and that Mosias’s parents were William and Lucy.
So, off Theresa and I went to the Pittsylvania County Court House, home of some really old records.
Pittsylvania County was formed in 1767, and while this is its third court house, they’ve never had a fire. That means the records are as old as the county.
A lot of times, when looking for old records, you find out that the court house burned down. The Yankees came through and torched it or someone knocked over an oil lamp or something. Regardless, the records went up in smoke.
Deeds, wills, court orders, etc., are kept at the county clerk’s office. Most of these books have alphabetical indexes. The indexes direct you to the book and page where your ancestor can be found. If your ancestor is mentioned in one of the books, they’re not too difficult to find.
The folks at the Pittsylvania County Clerk’s Office are also really nice and helpful, so don’t hesitate to ask for help when you’re doing this kind of research.
While I didn’t find anything about William Mosias and Lucy, who might have never lived in Pittsylvania County, I did find out some things about Buckner’s dad, Mosias. In his 1796 will, Mosias gives Buckner and his sisters one shilling sterling each.
And a 1797 inventory of Mosias’s estate included the following: “chest, old feathers, pewter dish, Dutch oven & hooks, barrel, poll ax, hoe, chair.” It’s interesting to see what kinds of things people owned centuries ago.
The find of the day, however, concerned Buckner. Late that afternoon, as I was starting to lose steam and interest, Theresa shouted two words from across the room: “Bastard child!”
According to a court order dated January 1793, “Ede Harris having charged Buckner Jones of begetting of a Bastard Child on her body it is ordered that he give security for the maintenance of the said Child in the sum of five pounds per annum payable to the overseers of the poor of this county for the term of five years. Where upon Mosiah [sic] Jones his security enters himself as such for the payment of the fine as aforementioned.”
I don’t know who Ede Harris was yet, although there was an Ede Harris who lived during that time period in neighboring Caswell County, N.C. I also don’t know if the child was a boy or a girl or what happened to them.
What I do know is Buckner Jones had a bastard child, and I couldn’t be happier.
Last week, I told you a little about the Mt. Vernon Grays, who joined the Third Texas Cavalry in August of 1861. This week, I’ll focus on individuals. What were their names and, best I can tell, what happened to them during and after the Civil War?
I used a variety of sources, among them Douglas Hale’s book, “The Third Texas Cavalry in the Civil War”; census, government and public records; family histories; and an online roster of the Third Texas Cavalry’s Company H.
I wish I’d also had a time machine.
In his diary, C.W. Holbrook says there were nine Mt. Vernon Grays, but based on enlistment dates, there were more than nine men in Company H who could have traveled with Holbrook from Titus County, Texas, to Springfield, Missouri.
For some people, the dates were right, but they weren’t mentioned in the diary and I couldn’t place them in Mt. Vernon before or after the war. Sometimes, I found a possible candidate in the 1860 Titus County census, but I just wasn’t sure.
So, here are the seven I feel really good about:
George Stringfellow — George H. Stringfellow is mentioned numerous times in the diary before the group reaches Springfield. He was a merchant from Hopkins County, Texas, which in 1861 abutted Titus County.
Hale writes that Stringfellow “had advanced in front of the regiment, and a Yankee sharpshooter shot him through the head. Though his comrades knew that Stringfellow ‘had 5 or 600 dollars in his pocket … [his] position was so exposed, none would dare to venture to him.’”
I don’t how Holbrook and Stringfellow were acquainted before the war, but it’s obvious they were friends. After Holbrook’s final entry in the diary (and possibly after Holbrook’s death), Stringfellow writes the following entry. It sounds like a eulogy.
To C.W. Holbrook
If but a wish of mine could make it so, it should be thine to glide through this rough world as softly as the fragrance of the rose, that’s borne upon the zephyr’s gentle breath. It should be thine to ride life’s turbid wave and lightly as the fallen leaf which moves upon the bosom of a placid lake, sent by the softest breeze that ever blew across the silvery tide, a breeze too soft to make the little trembling wavelet rise and yet of force enough to waft it on to the far heaven of its final rest.
A.E. “Gus” Bell — The 1860 U.S. Census lists Augustus Bell living in Mt. Vernon with his widowed mother and likely sisters, Louisa and Kate. The census taker recorded Augustus as 20 years old and born in Tennessee.
Bell is mentioned in Holbrook’s diary three times as “Gus Bell” or just “Bell.”
On Aug. 12, 1861, Holbrook writes that Bell has been left behind to tend to an ailing George Stringfellow. This explains why Bell and Stringfellow enlist three days after Holbrook. Bell enlists in Company H as a private.
After the war, an Augustus Edwin Bell (also called “A.E.”) lived in the Fort Worth area. The 1870 census lists him as a 31-year-old merchant, born in Tennessee. If this is him, Gus Bell married and had children, and he and his family are buried in the City of Greenwood Cemetery in Parker County, Texas.
Charles T. Hamilton — Called “Hambleton” in the diary, Charles T. Hamilton was, as Hale wrote, “a Titus County planter’s son.” He was born in Missouri and is listed with his family in the 1850 and 1860 censuses for Titus County. In the 1860 census, he’s a 19-year-old “day laborer.”
His father, Richard Hamilton, was a New York-born farmer with real estate assets of $7,635 and personal property assets of $5,520. In 2015 dollars, $7,635 equals about $218,000. According to the 1850 census, Slave Schedule, Richard Hamilton owned five slaves, which would have been considered personal property.
According to Hale and the roster, Hamilton is killed on Dec. 26, 1861, at the Battle of Chustenahlah, in the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma.
Allen Houston Hargrove — Allen Houston Hargrove is mentioned in the diary six times before the group reaches Springfield. Among other things, he goes with Holbrook to visit a girl.
On Sept. 25, Holbrook writes, “I have been in town almost all day took diner at the Hotel with my friend Hargrove we sasshaed [sic] around town generally and called on Miss Muller and had some fine music, for Missouri.”
The Company H roster indicates Hargrove was wounded in action on Sept. 19, 1862, at the Battle of Iuka. After the war, he married Mary Sparks in Titus County. They had three children, Ida, Era and John. Ida died in childhood.
The 1870 censuses describes Hargrove as a farmer. He died in 1900 and is buried in Wise County, Texas.
Martin Jones — While he isn’t on the Company H roster, Martin Jones does appear in the diary. On Aug. 12, 1861, Holbrook writes that, while in Fayetteville, Arkansas, “we had the pain of seeing one of our county boys confined in jail, Martin Jones, he had shot one of the Arkansas volunteers in a drinking gambling spree.”
There were Martin Joneses in Titus County prior to the war, but I can’t say for sure that one of those is him. If I find out anything else about Jones, I’ll let you know.
Theophilus B. “T.B.” Turner — Theophilus Turner is mentioned in the diary several times before the group reaches Springfield. The 1860 census lists the Missouri-born Turner as a “stock raiser” on the farm of Titus County physician Leonidus Collins.
While he traveled from Texas to Missouri with the Mt. Vernon Grays, according to the roster, Turner didn’t enlist until Feb. 8, 1862, in Crawford County, Arkansas.
Holbrook’s diary says that on Aug. 15, Holbrook and another man called “Rice” went “home with Theo.” Turner’s widowed mom lived in Springfield. An entry on the 16th indicates Rice and Holbrook returned to camp without Turner.
On Aug. 15, Turner writes this in Holbrook’s diary:
Mr. C.W. Holbrook
You have torn yourself from your kindred and friends and have come hither to imbark in the cause of your countrys defense, and to keep the enemy from invading and desolating your home. Your courage meets my aprobation and may the smiles of the myrters who have long since ascended to the realms of selestial peace. Rest upon thee and all others who have voluntarially came out and are battling for our rights and Liberty, which have been so firmly implanted in the bosomes of the american freemen as to never bee obliterated. May thee and thy come in the same glorious cause ear long restore to this portion of our dilapidated nation peace and prosperity and more. May the wings of comerse bee opened to the breeze and allowed to Sail on distant Seas.
While I’m having trouble confirming this, the roster says Turner was captured at Big Springs, Mississippi, on Feb. 12, 1863, and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp in Alton, Illinois. Alton Prison was apparently a horrible place and many prisoners died there. Turner, however, is not listed among the dead.
The 1870 census has a Missouri-born T.B. Turner working as a laborer in Walla Walla, Washington. More research is needed to establish whether this is the Theo Turner.
An interesting note: the 1870 census lists Turner’s brother, Thaddeus, living next door to Holbrook’s parents and siblings in Titus County. Thaddeus lives with his mother, Mary, and someone named Delia, probably his wife.
Holbrook had a sister called “Delie.” Perhaps this is her.
Columbus Williamson “C.W.” Holbrook — In his last diary entry on Oct. 3, 1861, C.W. Holbrook writes “some of the boys are killing hogs” and the plans are to “leave here in a few days for Kansas.”
What happens after this is not entirely known, but it appears Holbrook died during the war of something. After the war, his younger brother, William Walter Scott Holbrook, pens this eulogy in his brother’s diary:
Mr. C.W. Holbrook
My dear brother that fell a victim in the war. He is gone to his eternal abode where there is piece, joy and happiness throughout the endless ages of eternity. Your brother.
How did Holbrook die? Apparently, measles, typhoid and dysentery were rampant. As Hale reports, “of the nearly one thousand troopers in the Third Texas, almost a third were absent from duty owing to severe illness” in October 1861.
Supporting this, a Nov. 28, 1861, letter from John Payne Hill, a Confederate captain engaged to Holbrook’s first cousin, Mary Elizabeth Holbrook, mentions “Columbus,” who has been ill:
… Col. Bolen came into our camp this morning … bringing several [letters] for Columbus and two for Rice, which I will send by the first dispatch leaving here. I have not seen C, but he sent me his compliments a few days ago by one of our messengers and said he had been sick but was then on horseback.
A muster roll from November and December 1861 shows Holbrook “on furlough.” If sick, he survived because on Feb. 9, 1862, Capt. Hill mentions Columbus and Theo (probably Turner) in a letter to Mary Elizabeth:
… I regret I was not in camp the night your cousin Columbus and Theo stayed here. … I did not see them (C & T) but by the hands of C, I am in possession of your very nice and acceptable present the … what do you call it? …
An un-cited, online reference says Holbrook died at the Battle of Pea Ridge, in March of 1862, but he’s not listed among the casualties. Holbrook isn’t listed with those buried in a nearby Confederate cemetery either.
Perhaps, Holbrook died later of injuries sustained at Pea Ridge, or of disease or by accident. It’s possible we’ll never know. S.B. Barron, who chronicled his service with the Third Texas in “The Lone Star Defenders,” had this to say about the challenges of reporting “the truths of war”:
The future historian, the man who is so often spoken of, is going to have a tough time if he undertakes to record the truths of war. When commanding officers will give some facts and then round up their official reports with fiction, conflicts will arise that, it appears to me, can never be reconciled.
As my husband likes to say, “True, that.” Until next time.
Recently, while in Chatham, Virginia, doing research at the Pittsylvania County Court House, my sister, Theresa, and I got hungry.
On the way into town that morning, we saw Kim’s Kitchen, a nondescript restaurant located next to the Old Dutch supermarket on Main Street. It didn’t look like much — just a cavernous space in an old strip center — but we immediately decided that was where we would have lunch.
Sometimes, the best restaurants are the ones that aren’t the most architecturally impressive. Case in point, the Frontier Diner in Little Rock, Arkansas. Husband John and I stopped there for breakfast en route to a wedding in Louisiana last summer.
The Frontier was located on a frontage road, next to a major highway. It wasn’t fancy. It was surrounded by pickup trucks. But inside was a friendly staff and a perfect breakfast. Sure, it was just eggs, bacon, biscuits and hash browns, but it was perfect and I’d definitely eat there again.
At Kim’s, Theresa and I sat down and then asked our waitress what she’d recommend for lunch. She said the roast beef was one of their biggest sellers, so that’s what we ordered, along with mashed potatoes and gravy, macaroni and cheese and cornbread. The waitress described it as “Northern” cornbread, adding that it was sweet.
We both ordered sweet tea, too. How could you not?
Our food arrived shortly thereafter and, as expected, the roast beef was excellent. Let me tell you, though, if you’re a fan of rare roast beef — the kind you see at fancy carving stations — this is not that. Kim’s is more of a chopped roast beef, served in a gravy. No knife is required and it almost melts in your mouth.
I was in heaven and ate every last bit of it.
I’ve heard fried catfish is the special on Thursdays. I can’t wait to go back.
On July 31, 1861, Columbus Williamson “C.W.” Holbrook left the little town of Mt. Vernon, Texas, bound for Springfield, Missouri, and the Civil War.
As Holbrook writes in his diary, a “company of nine” left that day to “join the army of the Southern Confederacy.” They called themselves the “Mt. Vernon Grays.”
Identifying your group by a geographical area and the word “Grays” was apparently a common thing for Confederate soldiers to do.
For example, my husband John’s great-great-grandfather, Lt. Col. William Henry Ramsey, was a “Pigg River Gray.” They were named for a river in Pittsylvania County, Virginia.
Gray, of course, was the color of the Confederate uniform.
So, who were Mt. Vernon Grays?
The Mt. Vernon Grays, who would join the Third Texas Cavalry’s Company H, hailed from the most prominent families in and around Titus County, Texas. In his book, “The Third Texas Cavalry in the Civil War,” author Douglas Hale describes the men of the Third Texas as “an elite minority.”
Hale writes, “Since the men provided their own horses and equipment, cavalrymen were most often drawn from those more prosperous elements of society that could afford the considerable expense involved. The men of the Third Texas were disproportionately representative of the well-to-do.”
George Stringfellow, mentioned repeatedly in Holbrook’s diary, fits this description. The 1860 U.S. Census for Hopkins County, Texas, lists Stringfellow as a 21-year-old, Alabama-born merchant with a personal estate worth more than $8,000. This translates to about $277,000 in 2016 dollars.
Holbrook also was a merchant. Another Mt. Vernon Gray, Charles Hamilton, is described in Hale’s book as “a Titus County planter’s son.”
As privileged young men, it’s likely they were not accustomed to doing what might have been considered “women’s work.”
As Holbrook writes on Aug. 5, within a week of leaving home, “…we had our first experience in washing. If some of our Mt. Vernon friends had seen us all around a tub scrubbing our dirty shirts they would no doubt have laughed heartily at our awkwardness.”
Next week, “Who were the Mt. Vernon Grays?” continues with names and a little bit about each man — at least the seven I’ve been able to identify so far. Until then.
I recently finished the novel “True Grit,” by Charles Portis. It’s the story of Mattie Ross, a headstrong Arkansas teenager who heads off with two lawmen to avenge the murder of her father in 1870s “Indian Territory,” also known as Oklahoma.
The book was published in 1968 and has been made into two movies. The 1969 version starred Kim Darby as Mattie and John Wayne as one-eyed U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn. The 2010 remake, directed by the Coen Brothers, starred Hailee Steinfeld and Jeff Bridges in those roles.
I love Jeff Bridges. I would love to find myself sitting next to him on an airplane or at a bar someday. I loved his 2009 movie “Crazy Heart” and have been to that bar in Santa Fe, Evangelo’s, where part of it was filmed.
Evangelo’s is named for its founder, Angelo Klonis, subject of a famous World War II photo. Today, his son, Nick, runs the bar.
But back to the book.
Without spoiling anything, there were many words and phrases used by the author that I didn’t recognize. I imagined these were phrases used during the 1870s. So, I took some notes along the way, with the intention of looking them up later. Here’s what I found:
Blue-john — When talking about some milk that wasn’t up to her standards, Mattie calls it “blue-john.” According to the Urban Dictionary, she was referring to skim milk.
Pudding and tame — When Texas lawman LaBoeuf asks Mattie her name, she impertinently replies, “Pudding and tame.” An 1880 book with a near-eternal title, “Notes & Queries: A Medium of Communication for Literary Men, General Readers, etc.,” describes the phrase as part of a schoolyard rhyme: “What’s your name? Pudding and Tame; if you ask me again, I’ll tell you the same.”
Order of the Rainbow for Girls — Mattie refers to McAlester, Oklahoma, as “international headquarters of the Order of the Rainbow for Girls.” The International Order of the Rainbow for Girls is a Masonic organization founded in 1922, long after Mattie’s fictional adventure. Its headquarters wasn’t moved to McAlester until 1951, which would make Mattie near 100 years old when telling her story, but I guess it could happen. And it’s fiction.
Jay Gould — Mattie says, “They say Jay Gould had no heart!” in talking about a railroad man who was being a cheapskate. Apparently, Jay Gould was “one of the most unscrupulous ‘robber barons’ of 19th-century American capitalism.” So, it’s understandable why Mattie would say this.
Jamaica ginger — Rooster talks about someone called “old Cook” who was “all bowed over and his neck was stiff from drinking Jamaica ginger.” I found several references to Jamaica ginger online, but most concerned Prohibition. Basically, it was a “medicine” that got you drunk and it had some pretty bad side effects, including making you walk funny.
Dogfall — Bad guy Lucky Ned Pepper asks Rooster, “Do you think one on four is a dogfall?” In rodeo terminology, a dogfall is an illegal steer-wrestling maneuver.
Varnish train — After her adventure, Mattie rides home to Dardanelle, Arkansas, on what she calls a “varnish train.” She was referring to the fancy, wooden passenger cars of the day that were heavily varnished.
As someone with “write a novel” on her bucket list, I often find myself admiring great lines written by other writers, or being jealous that I didn’t write them myself. In “True Grit,” when describing how a particular gunshot hit its target, Portis writes, “The ball flew to its mark like a martin to its gourd…”
Simple, but you can totally see it, right?
I also appreciated (and identified with) this quote from the book. It’s attributed to Rooster, a man who’s had a string of jobs but makes his living tracking down (and shooting) bad guys: “Nothing I like to do pays well.”
This week, I was going to write about the Mt. Vernon Grays — who were they and, best I can tell, what happened to everyone after they joined the Third Texas Cavalry in August of 1861.
I did say, however, that this would depend on how the research was going. So far, it’s gone well. I’ve discovered some neat stuff, but I’m just not ready to post this article yet.
So, this Civil War Wednesday will be about Jayhawkers.
What are Jayhawkers? Most people, particularly basketball fans, have heard of the University of Kansas Jayhawks, but according to Merriam-Webster, a Jayhawker is “a member of a band of antislavery guerrillas in Kansas and Missouri before and during the American Civil War.”
Alternatively, the online dictionary says it is “a native or resident of Kansas.”
Of course, there’s more to it than that. Other online sources say the term originated in the 1840s, and was a mash-up of two aggressive, native birds, the blue jay the sparrow hawk. The word also was used to describe people who passed through the Kansas Territory on their way to California in the late 1840s. Depending on who’s talking, being called a “Jayhawker” could be a compliment or an insult.
From 1854 to 1861, the term was used for Kansans involved in the “Bleeding Kansas” conflict, which was over whether or not Kansas would be a slave or free state.
According to a summary on the National Parks Service website, during the Bleeding Kansas era, “murder, mayhem, destruction and psychological warfare became a code of conduct in Eastern Kansas and Western Missouri. A well-known examples of this violence was the massacre in May 1856 at Pottawatomie Creek where John Brown and his sons killed five pro-slavery advocates.”
Texas Cavalryman Columbus Williamson “C.W.” Holbrook was familiar with Jayhawkers. In his diary, he even writes about being shot by one.
Near Neosho, Missouri, on September 3, 1861, Holbrook makes the following entry:
It came my lot to stand guard to night. I was standing in the corner of a cornfield between the hours of one and two oclock when a cowardly Jayhawker slip[p]ed up on me within fifteen steps.
I halted him but before I had the word farly out of my mouth he fired at me, hit me in the right arm just above the elbow. I fired at him with my six shooter don’t know wheather I hit him or not. He ran through the stalks lilk a wild buck and disappeard.
There is no other mention of the injury in the diary, so it must not have been that serious.
On Sept. 20, there was another mention of Jayhawkers, but this story ends quite differently:
This morning we arose as before stated at day break, considerably refreshed by the short nap and started on. We crossed spring river traveled two or three miles from camp. Stoped at an old Dutchman’s who said there were about forty Jayhawkers there the morning before and robed them of almost every thing they had.
We were ordered by our Captain to feed our horses and eat our breakfast. We had fed our horses and unsaddled them and were all hovered over the several little fires we had kindled to boil our meat talking and laughing in fancied security from Jayhawkers and as [illegible] Taylor said, the ballance of mankind, when one of our advance guard came runing in at full spead with his hat in his hand slaping his horse at every jump said there were about sixty Jayhawkers just over the hill.
Every man to his horse cries the Captain, saddle up! My sadelle was on the fence and my bridle tangled up generaly speaking but I managed to get it on and saddle my horse in all possiable dispatch. By this time we could see them coming over the hill.
We mounted our horses and fell into line but was supprised to see the reported sixty make a column a half a mile long they come they come and still they come their colums stretched out across the prairie in magestic and war like display Captain Russel sent one man to learn their number and to know wheather they were friends or foes, and to our great delight they turned out to be the ballance of our regiment with Col Greer at their head who had left camp at twelve oclock to reinforce us if necessary, and had crossed the river above us and were coming down.
I dont know how the boys felt but I know I felt better about this time than I have since I left home, and from the smiles that that were playing upon the countinence of the boys one would guess they were enjoying the same pleasant sensations.
I would imagine so!
Until next week when, hopefully, I’ll be ready to tell you more about the Mt. Vernon Grays.