Category Archives: Local History

My Dad

Family of Floyd Pitts at the family home, Cane Hill, Arkansas: Standing back row, left to right: Older brother Harvey, his wife Ina, youngest sister Verna, younger sister Opal, Floyd, oldest brother Noah with wife Nellie holding Betty with Laverne standing. Front row, children of Harvey and Ina, Bobby Ray and Joy Lee. Seated: William “Bill” Pitts and his wife Nora West Pitts.

My dad, Floyd D. Pitts, didn’t fit a traditional male identification, not that he wasn’t fully male. His talent for music set him up for ridicule and bullying by his two older brothers. He hated the fields of cotton where, as a child, he was once flogged with a cotton stalk by his mom for sleeping at the end of a long row with his bag only partly filled. He was eight years old. It was a lesson in working to survive, and he never forgot it.

His high school diploma from Morrow, Arkansas, hardly counted when he entered college on a music scholarship. He’d already been part of a popular men’s quartet with classmates from high school performing regularly on Fayetteville’s KUOA, Voice of the Ozarks radio station. He played piano and fiddle, and also taught singing school. A makeshift piano tuning hammer had been fashioned from a tie-rod end by his blacksmith father because invariably when Floyd showed up at some rural church house to teach shape-note singing, the piano needed tuning.

Band Director, Rogers Arkansas circa 1940

Time in the U. S. Navy during World War II gave him the opportunity to later obtain a master’s degree as well as hours toward a doctorate. After the war, he returned to Rogers (Arkansas) to again teach choir and band. Another forty years would pass in this career, at Fort Smith in the 1950s, then Miami, Oklahoma until 1967, then part time at Westville, Oklahoma and Lincoln, Arkansas, until he retired from teaching.

From the early 1960s on, however, he advanced his moonlighting career of piano tuning and repair, which he took up full time once he left Lincoln schools. And while I had been his student in the Miami schools band, my first opportunity to work at his side came with the piano business. And it was here that we stepped outside the normal father-daughter roles.

He didn’t treat me like a girl. I remember that even as a youngster, when he was trying to remodel an old house we lived in at Fort Smith, he’d show me how to drive a nail or spread mud on a sheetrock seam. When I began ‘helping’ him in the piano business, he didn’t pay attention to whether my nails would get broken or if my feet were cold. He’d say “Come hold this clamp, sis,” or “Get that Phillips and come over here.”

I learned so much this way, not only how to repair and rebuild these complex instruments called pianos, but how to refinish wood whether solid or veneered, how to mix stains to get rid of red tones, how to smooth off delicate veneer edges with 220 grit sandpaper. If I had a shop today, there’s no end to the kinds and numbers of projects I could pursue and conclude with pleasing results.

Most women don’t get that kind of education.

Carmyn Gem Morrow and Floyd Denver Pitts, Benton County Fair circa 1945

Maybe he realized he wasn’t a “traditional” male in the sense of muscles and macho. Maybe he realized I wasn’t a traditional female in the sense of lace and flirting and whatever else defines that sort. Maybe he didn’t realize any of that but rather just moved forward through time with the work his hands could do well and the concept of work as an honorable and necessary pursuit.

I learned more from my dad’s view of the world than from my mom’s. Oh, I washed dishes and hung clothes on the line and changed my little brothers’ diapers. I sewed most of my own clothes through high school. Gardening, milking goats, keeping chickens—those were also part of my education through mom. But none of that really meant much in the greater world of the late 20th century when a woman might need her own income.

Whereas my mom’s social circles didn’t reach much past her extended family, my dad had to learn how to interact with the greater community despite his rural background. He’d have a social drink, laugh at jokes, and recruit band parents and faculty to help sell snow cones to raise money for new band uniforms. It was his charmingly open approach to people that showed me how to build a social network that became an essential part of a thriving thirty-year career as a piano tuner/technician.

If he thought I could lift one end of a 1910 upright piano, who was to say I couldn’t? If he could dig mouse nests out from under piano keys or drill through the cast iron plate to insert lag bolts in restoring a pin block to its correct position, then so could I. I was stronger than I knew, more mechanically minded, my hands—like his—able to tug strings made of cold drawn steel into the right position on a tuning pin.

Me and my dad, mid-1990s at the piano shop, Pitts Piano Service, Fayetteville

I admit to occasional worries that I had lost all chance of being a ‘real’ woman. What woman crawled under a grand piano to refasten the pedal lyre? In 1982 when I passed my Piano Technician Guild exams for registered tuner/technician status, there were less than two dozen women in the field. Plenty of customers would open their door at the appointed time and express shock at seeing a female tech. My hands weren’t delicate with slim fingers and manicured nails, but rather slightly rough tools used to create a well-tuned musical instrument.

But then, even as a child, I never felt feminine. The mysterious talent by which a female might lure a male into courtship totally escaped me. My body didn’t cooperate with the idea of feminine wiles, but rather expressed itself in somewhat androgynous terms—tallish, fairly flat-chested, angular. Interestingly, my dad too seemed somewhat of an anomaly in his family, handsome, lithe rather than muscled. Did he recognize, at least subconsciously, that we both didn’t quite fit the mold?

Nevertheless, I enjoyed my share of love and marriage, cherish my three children, and never turn down a romance novel–unless it’s poorly written.

As his oldest, I gained my dad’s attention first and perhaps it was only the bond of fatherhood that propelled his urge to teach me what he knew. In his heart, he was a teacher more than anything else. He was also an artist—a bass vocalist who could track any part in a four-part harmony, a clarinetist,  and a pianist who loved to pound out the keyboard version of jump music like “Bugle Call Rag” or marches like “Under the Double Eagle.” He cherished his role as both a composer and a conductor who pushed his students to produce excellent music whether Sousa marches or Copland’s Appalachian Spring. It was natural for him to insist I learn piano, clarinet and oboe and how to sing alto, and to teach me how to shim a cracked soundboard and identify the difference between real ivory and early celluloid keytops.

All five of us kids learned music. Both my brothers earned master’s degrees in that field. Sadly, I was the only one privileged to work with him in the piano trade and see the broader side of him than as just a parent.

Whether by conscious intent or as the consequence of his personality, my father allowed me to be me. He encouraged me in skills that were beyond anything considered traditional for a female. His open-mindedness about the life choices of his oldest daughter freed me from any sense of duty to the stereotypes that so often limit women.

Today, fifteen years after his death, I appreciate him more than I was ever able to express while he lived. Thanks, Dad.

Advertisements

Ma Drake

Excerpt from Glimpses of Fayetteville’s Past, “History of Fayette Junction.”

By 1936, the canning business was the dominant regional industry. At Fayette Junction in south Fayetteville, a new facility sprang up right across the tracks from Sligo Wagon Wood Company and began its own railcar shipments of canned goods. The 1936 Sanborn maps document this enterprise as “Thomas and Drake Canning Company Warehouse,” remarking that stated building dimensions had been taken “from plans.” It was a state of the art facility: plans specified iron posts, concrete block pilaster, and gypsum board roof on steel joists. The Rev. Jake Drake and his son Ezra Drake joined with Rylan C. Thomas in this enterprise.

According to the 1939 city directory, “Drake and Hargis Cannery” was located at 605 W. Dickson. Crates of canned tomatoes, greens, and other produce from this cannery would have been warehoused at Fayette Junction. In 1947, the business was called “Thomas and Drake Canning” and had offices at 19 East Center. Several Drakes may have been involved as a venture of the extended Drake family of Drake’s Creek area, Madison County. It is not clear whether the Fayette Junction property built by Drake ever served as more than a storage facility.

Drake’s brother Bill and sister-in-law Vida (Ma Drake) operated a favored local café known first as “Bill Drake’s Place,” no doubt taking advantage of his brother’s access to inexpensive local canned goods.  At some point before 1951, Drake and Thomas was taken over by Hargis. Among the litter later found on the old Sligo mill’s vast dark floor were cancelled checks of Drake Canning Company and Thomas and Drake Canning Company with dates in the 1950s.

Hargis and Drake canneries rode a wave of profitable commerce as Arkansas fruits and vegetables, especially tomatoes, captured a significant market share nationally. But by 1950, production and sales of tomato and strawberry crops comprised a mere one-fourth the volume it had in 1930. Disease, economic forces, and stringent new sanitation regulations began to crush the local canning market.

Vida Drake continued the business after Bill’s death. Frequent winner of awards for Best Plate Lunch, “Ma Drake’s” continued her café even after suffering a heart attack in the early 1990s. Her lunches included a meat, mashed potatoes with gravy, three vegetables, salad, and a roll for $3.75. Homemade pies rounded off the menu, usually available in apple, cherry, lemon, chocolate, coconut, and pecan. The café was first located at the northeast corner of Sixth and S. College, but later moved to 504 E. 15th Street. Drake’s closed after her death in 1997.

Where Trump voters come from

Arkansas continues its dereliction of duty in educating its young people with the May 22 announcement by Gov. Asa Hutchinson that he will promote current Education Commissioner Johnny Key to the governor’s new cabinet position of Education Secretary. With this promotion, Key will add another $3,450 per year to his already ridiculous salary of $239,540 and gain ever greater leverage over the hapless citizenry of our state.

Readers may remember the insidious maneuvering required to cram Key into the commissioner position in the first place. Back in 2015, Key’s work history and educational achievements did not qualify him for the job. The law required a master’s degree and ten years teaching experience. When Gov. Hutchinson seized on the idea of putting Key in the post, a bill rushed through the legislature allowed the commissioner to evade these requirements if the deputy commission held those credentials.  Not that the commissioner would be required to obtain the advice or consent of the deputy in any given matter.

Key graduated from Gurdon (Arkansas) High School then received a Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering in 1991 from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. He never taught a day in his life. That is, unless you count his and his wife’s operation of two pre-schools in Mountain Home, Noah’s Ark Preschool and Open Arms Living Center, operations that for years applied for and received tax-funded grants while flagrantly teaching religion. Another state legislator, Justin Harris (West Fork) also operated illegally with such dollars for his Growing God’s Kingdom preschool. All three schools received funding from the state under the Arkansas Better Choice (ABC) program administered by the Department of Human Service (DHS). After complaints were filed by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the state had no choice but to amend its grant guidelines.

AU Staff Attorney Ian Smith told Church & State. “The administrators of the Arkansas Better Choice (ABC) program violated the Constitution by funding [these] religious activities.”

According to a 2011 Arkansas Times report, “Sen. Johnny Key gets almost $200,000 in public money a year in support of his Noah’s Ark Preschool in Mountain Home, which also provides Bible lessons and daily prayers. Nearly 300 agencies — many of them with religious roots — receive $100 million a year in public Arkansas Better Chance funding to provide preschool for poor children.”[1]

The stated mission of the Harris preschool was to “share the love of Jesus” with students, and the school operated with a Christian curriculum that included a “Bible time” for verses, stories and prayer. The school’s handbook also assured parents that staff members will “strive to ensure that your child feels the love of Jesus Christ while preparing them for Kindergarten.” The preschoolers, it continues, would be taught “the word of God” so that they can “spread the word of God to others.” They also prayed over students with disciplinary problems and laid on hands to “cast out demons.”

~~~

Key began his career in public service in 1997 when he was elected to serve as a justice of the peace on the Baxter County Quorum Court. He was elected to three two-year terms in the House of Representatives, followed by a tenure in the Senate that began in 2008. Term limited out of the legislature, Key served as associate vice president for university relations at the University of Arkansas system, a position he began in August 2014, a half-year before his friend the governor found him a cozy role at the helm of the state’s education system.

Yet even while in the legislature, Key demonstrated his dedication to the extremist religious agenda in education:

He was active in education issues, including responsibility for exploding the number of seats that receive state dollars to essentially finance home-schooling, by qualifying millions in spending on “virtual charter schools” that provide assistance to students who don’t attend conventional brick-and-mortar schools. His special language, never debated on the floor, lifted the cap on such payments from 500 to 5,000 students.[2]

Simultaneously, the state excused itself from any oversight of home-schooled students. There are no tests, no monitoring, no method by which to ensure thousands of Arkansas home-schooled kids are actually learning anything,

Key has also been a champion of public charter schools in the model promoted by the Walton heirs. While first lauded as a path for parents dissatisfied with their children’s education, charter schools have come under increasing scrutiny for siphoning money away from public schools with less than excellent results. Even worse, soon after taking over as education commissioner, Key became the default school board for Little Rock’s troubled schools. The district struggles with low-income, high minority populations where schools routinely earn “D” and “F” ratings in student outcomes. Key’s answer? Charters.

Much ink has been spilled over the Little Rock situation including Key’s desire to terminate the state’s Teacher Fair Dismissal Act and the Public School Employee Fair Hearing Act in the 22 traditional schools in Little Rock. As noted by one observer, “In the absence of democratic governance and oversight, Arkansas schools are hiring unqualified teachers without a public disclosure requirement, undermining labor standards for teachers, contributing to school re-segregation, and defrauding the public.”[3]

Tracking the details of the Little Rock fiasco, the Arkansas Times reported that the previous superintendent, Baker Kurrus, who was fired by Key before his takeover, thought charter schools “probably unconstitutional when operated as parallel, inefficient and not particularly innovative or successful ventures in Little Rock. He mentioned then that the loss of 120 students for this latest expansion potentially meant a loss of approaching another $1 million in annual state support to the Little Rock District for lost students.”[4]

~~~

No effort was made by the state to require Key or Harris to refund the millions in tax dollars they had appropriated over a period of years to operate their religious schools. And of course they didn’t honorably offer to do so. The ABC program only marginally amended its procedures for granting funding. The guidelines now require that no religious instruction occur during the “ABC day,” a set number of hours of purely secular instruction. Whether religious instruction occurs before the ABC day commences or after it ends is not the state’s concern. Since children are often picked up by school vans or dropped off by parents before the parents’ work hours and held until the end of the work day, anywhere from two to four hours of religious instruction is usually possible.

And who would know if these schools violate the ABC day with a little prayer at lunch or a few minutes of casting out demons?

The ABC program, as it stands, does not require any kind of viability test where a school would have to prove that its religious instruction could stand on its own two feet without the use of tax dollars. In fact, if tax dollars didn’t support the rent, utilities, insurance, and salaries for general operations, these schools would cease to exist. Repeated questioning of DHS / ABC money managers has yielded zero interest in developing or implementing such a test.

Neither Harris nor Key were censured for their illegal use of public funds for their religious schools. And while Harris quietly served out his remaining term in office before retreating to private life, Key has been awarded one of the highest paid positions in state government. If Key didn’t know he was breaking the law in accepting ABC grants, he’s incredibly stupid. Surely somewhere in his years of college he must have brushed up against the idea of separation of church and state and the hard line between tax dollars and religion. If he did know, he deliberately violated the U. S. Constitution, aided and abetted by the state’s willfully ignorant wink and nod.

Now Key reigns supreme over the state’s educational systems, welcomed with open arms by a governor whose own dedication to religion is no secret. After all, Asa Hutchinson is a proud graduate of none other than Bob Jones University, a private, non-denominational evangelical university in Greenville, South Carolina, known for its conservative cultural and religious stance. Refusing to admit African-American students until 1975, the school lost federal funding and ended up in court for not allowing interracial dating or marriage within its student body. BJU hit the news again in 2014 after a report revealed that administrators had discouraged students from reporting sexual abuse. [See the New York Times report.]

Apparently Johnny Key’s religious beliefs and willingness to breach the Constitution’s bright line between church and state are the primary criterion by which he has been judged the perfect man to be in charge of Arkansas education. It’s past time to assume ignorance as the underlying problem in Key’s malfeasance. The fact is that Hutchinson, Key, and every other complicit authority over our state’s educational systems knowingly evade the Constitutional separation of church and state in order to pursue their “higher calling” to religion.

~~~

See also this recent Forbes article on the failure of charter schools.

~~~

[1] https://arktimes.com/columns/max-brantley/2011/11/09/state-paid-bible-school

[2] https://arktimes.com/arkansas-blog/2015/02/10/whats-afoot-on-bill-to-change-qualifications-for-state-education-commissioner

[3] https://medium.com/orchestrating-change/272-broken-promises-the-lawless-aftermath-of-arkansas-act-1240-a8e26ce751e8

[4] https://arktimes.com/arkansas-blog/2016/05/07/johnny-key-fast-tracks-lr-charter-school-expansion-in-walton-helped-enterprise

Fayetteville Legends

Ronnie Hawkins, 1959. From his official website, http://www.ronniehawkins.com Toronto, Ontario Ron Scribner Agency, courtesy of Toronto Hawk Records

“I remember running the red light there,” Hawkins said, referring to Leverett at the top of Garland hill. “I had the daughter of one of the biggest lawyers in Arkansas with me, underage of course. We ran that red light. She did.”

Robert Cochran, interviewing Ronnie Hawkins: “I think I’ve heard that story. That’s where you switch places with her, so you’d take the hit.”

“Yes, I’d take the hit,” Hawkins said. “Pearl Watts was the sheriff. He smoked those old rolled Bull Durham tobaccos. He always had one a fraction of an inch long in the corner of his mouth, [smoke] going right up into his eye while he was interrogating you. Judge Packet said I was a menace to the highway, and I’d better straighten up… They were sitting right behind Leverett school. When we were going over that hill, we were in a hurry to get out to the university farm. That’s where everybody parked.”[1]

Hawkins was indeed in the company of an underage girl, none other than Marcia Perkins, daughter of Rex Perkins. Even though technically too young to hold a driver’s license, she drove a brand new 1956 red-and -white Chevy Bel-Air, courtesy of Rex’s close professional relationships with Fayetteville car dealers.

From Rex Perkins – A Biography:

“By the time Marcia was fourteen in 1955, she had developed a secretive months-long relationship with twenty-one-year-old Ronnie Hawkins, a fledgling star in the music world. Older sister Carole had started college, but Marcia had her own ideas about her future. One night, Marcia attended a slumber party and ended up on the phone with Hawkins. Whether the slumber party had been a strategic maneuver to give her a means to meet him is unknown. But the upshot was that she slipped out of the slumber party to join Hawkins at the golf course where he and other members of his popular group “Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks” were hanging out and jamming in what turned out to be an all-nighter.

“One version of this story claims that Roy Orbison was in town for this jam session, which wasn’t completely unusual. The early form of rock and roll (later named ‘rockabilly’) blossomed around Huntsville-native Hawkins and his friend Levon Helm, along with other members of this group. Other music notables who came to Fayetteville to jam with Hawkins and/or to play at a favorite nightspot, the Rockwood Club, included Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Conway Twitty.

“An acquaintance of Hawkins remembered those early years. ‘Ronnie was a natural athlete and a ‘Greek god’ of a life guard at the Wilson Park swimming pool. He understandably received lots of attention from a wide range of women.’[1]

“It was assumed that Marcia and Hawkins were sleeping together, although whether they were intimate during the night in question is not known. One of her slumber party friends confessed the story of Marcia slipping out to her mother, Jane McDonald. Jane told Georgia, Georgia told Rex, and the proverbial mess hit the fan. Marcia was Rex’s baby, Daddy’s little girl, and like most fathers in similar circumstances, Rex wasn’t prepared for another man in Marcia’s young life.

Rex Perkins

“As the story goes, even though fourteen was the legal age of consent at that time in Arkansas, a fired-up Rex gave the young man a choice: leave town or suffer my wrath. The result was that Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks made a hasty departure from the region. The official version of Hawkins’ life story states he began touring Canada (date unspecified) and later made it his home (1958), and that he ventured there on advice from Conway Twitty.[2]

“Contacted regarding this biography, Hawkins confirmed that Rex made certain threats. ‘Rex was the biggest lawyer ever in Fayetteville at that time,’ Hawkins stated. ‘I would have married her but I was afraid somebody was gonna kill me.’”[3]

If Marcia’s girlfriend hadn’t spilled the beans, Rex would have found out anyway. Pearl Watts knew Marcia’s car and would have made sure Rex knew that his daughter had been found in the company of that rock-and-roller Hawkins, flying through that stoplight.

~~~

[1] “Long on Nerve: An Interview with Ronnie Hawkins,” Robert Cochran and Ronnie Hawkins. The Arkansas Historical Quarterly Vol 65, No. 2 (Summer 2006) pp. 99-115.

[1] Scott Lunsford interview, by email June 26, 2014. Author’s notes.

[2] From there, the story of Hawkins’ group is well known to music buffs. After 1964, fellow-Arkansan Helm and other band members regrouped to form ‘The Band,” toured with Bob Dylan in 1965-66, and went on to fame and fortune. Hawkins continued his musical career to become a mentor to other musicians as well as an award-winning performer.

[3] Scott Lunsford interview, his email relating phone conversation with Ronnie Hawkins August 15, 2014. Author’s notes.

~~~

Rex Perkins: A Biography, by Denele Campbell. Available in ebook or paperback,

Worlds Collide in One Man’s Heritage

One wonderful result of writing books is hearing from people who read them. Recently I heard from Jim Terry who was reading my collection of stories about 19th century murders in Washington County, Arkansas – Murder in the County. He wanted to know why a murder involving one of his ancestors wasn’t in the book. Once he gave me more information, it became clear that the murder involved members of the Cherokee tribe. That’s why it wasn’t in my book.

During those early years of Washington County, a steady traffic of bad actors flowed back and forth across the Arkansas-Indian Territory border. Cherokee lawmen attempting to make arrests in Indian Territory had no jurisdiction if the outlaw stood on the Arkansas side of the line. Similarly, federal marshals authorized out of Fort Smith were the only whites who had any jurisdiction in Indian Territory. Local lawmen like the Washington County sheriff couldn’t arrest anyone on Indian land. This made Evansville, Cane Hill, and other Washington County border towns hot spots for outlaw activity.

Jim’s ancestry includes a Cherokee outlaw named Isaac Gann, brother to a woman in Jim’s direct lineage. Not only that, Jim is directly descended from Susannah Harnage, an adopted child of the Harnage family, one of Washington County’s earliest settlers who was subsequently murdered. There’s an irony here and an interesting little story.

The earliest days of our county were fraught with the crisis of the Cherokee people, a powerful detached tribe of the Iroquoian family, formerly holding the whole mountain region of the south Alleghenies, in southwest Virginia, western North Carolina and South Carolina, north Georgia, east Tennessee, and northeast Alabama, and claiming even to the Ohio River. By the turn of the 19th century, increasing pressure by white settlers led to efforts by the federal government to force their move. Despite winning a case in the U. S. Supreme Court confirming they held an inalienable right to their lands, the Cherokee were forced to leave by President Andrew Jackson.

Previous to their removal, Cherokee had adopted much of the cultural amenities of the whites and intermarried with European settlers. This was the case of Ambrose Harnage, later a Washington County resident in the area near Cane Hill. Harnage, an ambitious, educated Englishman with clear leadership skills, married a Cherokee woman and built a large dwelling that served as a residence, public inn, and tavern. Located on the north Georgia federal road, the inn was built around 1805 and was designated a federal post office in 1819, earning the location its name of Harnageville.

After the Indian Removal Act of 1830, Harnage and others faced increasing pressure to abandon their property. He and other white men who had intermarried with Cherokee women negotiated for the best possible terms and made the move to new land in what is now Oklahoma. Upon their departure, Georgia passed a law to establish Cherokee County where Harnage’s tavern was chosen as a meeting place to conduct the business of court and county government.

In 1815, another white man, William H. Hendricks, had built his homestead near the Harnage home and married a full-blood Cherokee woman named Sokinny. She and her brother Youngdeer were orphaned at an early age and Sokinny was later adopted by the Harnage family where she was given the name Susannah Harnage. Whether this is the same Harnage family as Ambrose is not proven.

In 1832, William and Susannah/Sokinny Hendricks and the Ambrose Harnage family moved west, part of the first wave of Cherokee accepting the government’s offer to relocate in exchange for logistical and financial assistance for the move. Typically, extended families and neighbors moved to new territories as a group suggesting a close connection between the Ambrose Harnage family and Susannah/Sokinny.  After 1836, the Cherokee who had initially refused the removal order (Indian Removal Act of 1830) were forced west on the so-called Trail of Tears.

Also among Jim Terry’s ancestors was a woman named Ruth Gambold Gann, sister to Isaac Gann and two other siblings. Thanks to Jim’s research into his heritage, the rest of this odd irony comes to light.

In June 1847, twenty-year-old Isaac Ferguson Gann mustered in as private to Captain Enyart’s Company, Arkansas Mounted Infantry, at Fort Smith.  Military service provided a small monthly stipend as well as regular meals, and was the fallback option for many young men without other opportunities. His military records include one from January 12, 1848, that states “deserted from camp near Mier, Mexico, taking holsters and pistols belonging to the government.” Also, the muster roll for June 23, 1848, at Camargo, Mexico, lists him as “deserted.”

Thereafter, Isaac became an outlaw, partnering with a man named Ellis “Creek” Starr. They were active in the Cherokee Nation and Washington County, Arkansas.

Creek was among several members of the Starr clan, a Cherokee family notorious for whiskey, cattle, and horse thievery in the Indian Territory. If the “Starr” name sounds familiar, it’s because by the late 1800s, the family name had become famous for its association with Belle Starr, originally Maybelle Shirley.

In 1880 [after the death of her first husband Jim Reed], she [married] a Cherokee man named Sam Starr and settled with the Starr family in the Indian Territory. There, she learned ways of organizing, planning and fencing for the rustlers, horse thieves and bootleggers, as well as harboring them from the law. Belle’s illegal enterprises proved lucrative enough for her to employ bribery to free her cohorts from the law whenever they were caught.

In 1883, Belle and Sam were arrested by Bass Reeves, charged with horse theft and tried before “The Hanging Judge” Isaac Parker’s Federal District Court in Fort Smith, Arkansas; the prosecutor was United States Attorney W. H. H. Clayton. She was found guilty and served nine months at the Detroit House of Corrections in Detroit, Michigan. Belle proved to be a model prisoner and during her time in jail she won the respect of the prison matron, while Sam was more incorrigible and was assigned to hard labor.

In 1886, she escaped conviction on another theft charge, but on December 17, Sam Starr was involved in a gunfight with Officer Frank West. Both men were killed, while Belle’s life as an outlaw queen—and what had been the happiest relationship of her life—abruptly ended with her husband’s death.[1]

Jim Reed and Belle at their marriage 1866

Belle’s first husband Jim Reed was killed in Texas in the aftermath of the Civil War. Reed was friends with the Starrs which was how Belle became acquainted with them. After Belle’s murder in 1889, her daughter Rosie “Pearl” Reed-Starr built a tidy little home at Winslow where she sojourned in between stints at operating her houses of ill repute in Van Buren and Fort Smith.

Long before the heyday of Belle or Pearl Starr, Ellis “Creek” Starr alongside Isaac Gann pursued their own outlaw ways. An 1848 write-up in the Cherokee Advocate, Tahlequah, provides more insight into the efforts of the Cherokee Nation to address such criminal gangs:

We learn that a meeting composed of the persons engaged in the recent killing in Flint District, and a numbers of others, was held at the Court House of said district, some days since, for the purpose of adopting certain measures in relation to that affair.

A series of resolutions, commendatory of what has already been done, and urging the importance of freeing the country of the following persons, to wit: — Thos. Starr, Jas. Starr, Creek Starr, Wm. Starr, Ezekiel Rider, Shadrach Cordery, Isaac Gann, and Tre-gi-ske and Ult-tees-kee, were passed.

Writs have been taken out for the above-named persons. Several companies were organized to cooperate with the whites. These companies are actively engaged in scouting the country. We learn that a deputation was sent down, on last Tuesday, to advise the Executive upon the late proceedings, also with a reply to his protest. A second meeting has been held since this interview with the Executive, and we learn that the whole matter will soon be laid before the public.

From the evidence before us, we are under the necessity of disapproving, heartily, a part of the proceedings of our fellow citizens. Ellis Starr, Wash Starr, and John Rider, it is true, were once engaged openly in the most fiendish deeds that ever characterized any set of men, but by the treaty of 1846, though out-laws, they were pardoned—and by that act were again placed upon an equality with other citizens. And if they have since been guilty of misdemeanor, the law should be pushed against them, — and if, after the most ample opportunity has been afforded to test its efficacy, it should prove inadequate, then, though extremely humiliating to a regularly organized Government, the people may take upon themselves the management of affairs.

We learn that one of the companies above named surprised Creek Starr and Isaac Gann, the supposed murderers of the woman who was killed near Evansville [Washington County, Arkansas] on the 27th ult., at a dance in Washington Cove [probably a misprint of Washington County], Ark., some days since. Gann was killed in the attempt to arrest him. Creek Starr was made prisoner. On the return of the party with him, to the Nation, he made his escape—was fired upon, but supposed, only slightly wounded.[2]

Another source, the Van Buren newspaper Arkansas Intelligencer, reports on this murder in their June 12, 1848, edition.

Foul Murder – Creek Starr and Isaac Gann, half-blood Cherokees, killed a Cherokee woman near Evansville, on the 27th. Gann is a deserter from Capt. Enyart’s company of volunteers, now in Mexico.

This was the murder not included in my book.

This is where the murder of Ambrose Harnage joins the story.  Evidently with a history of seeing himself as a liaison between the Cherokee nation and whites, Harnage gave incriminating evidence against men accused of participating in the notorious 1839 Wright family murders at Cane Hill where a nighttime assault killed the father and several children and burned the family cabin to the ground. Initially, these murders were blamed on Indians. But Harnage overheard conversations between white neighbors that he reported to a committee investigating the murders. Several white men some believed innocent were subsequently hanged.

Whether Harnage’s report led to his murder is not known. No one saw his murder and all “evidence” was based on supposition leading to the accusation of a Cherokee named John Work for the crime. Many loose ends about Work’s supposed guilt for Harnage’s murder remain unresolved.

Harnage was also a close friend to Major John Ridge, a Cherokee leader who had signed the federal agreement to remove to new lands in Indian Territory, thereby earning the enmity of those in the tribe who didn’t agree with the removal act. In June 1839, Ridge spent the night at Harnage’s home before traveling south along the Line Road. En route, Ridge was assassinated.

Harnage’s friendship and influence on Ridge may have earned him a death warrant among the Cherokee. In the investigation of Harnage’s murder, which occurred in 1841, one line of inquiry yielded possible evidence of Gann’s involvement.

[John] Work wished to kill Dr. F. and John [George Ambrose] Harnage and leave the country. In watching the movements of Dr. F., he learned that he fed a lot of hogs near a thicket once every day about the same hour. He told Jake to steal the doctor’s fine mare and a bridle and saddle and to bring them to him a certain night, that he would kill the Dr. the next day and leave the country, leaving Harnage to Mat Feating or Isaac Gann.[3]

Major John Ridge

Whether it was Gann or the man ultimately arrested for the offense, John Work, who killed Harnage, the point is the peculiar heritage of Jim Terry. In his person, he juxtaposes the lineages of Gann and the adopted daughter of Harnage.

Was Ambrose Harnage’s murder a result of his close involvement with the Cherokee chief John Ridge or revenge for the Wright family murder hangings? Was Gann his killer?

Because Gann and Starr’s murder of the Cherokee woman fell under tribal jurisdiction, the records never appear in Washington County archives. No one can say how many other similar murders there might have been. This is just one of many stories whose tangled details have forever vanished with the passage of time. My thanks to Jim Terry for bringing this particular episode to light.

~~~

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Belle_Starr

[2] Cherokee Advocate, June 19, 1848.

[3] “A Man Named John Work,” Murder in the County. Denele Campbell 2017. 77

Award Winning Article!

I am pleased to announce that I have been awarded the 2018 Walter J. Lemke prize by the Washington County Historical Society for my article on Jesse Gilstrap. The article will appear in the Fall edition of Flashback, the Society’s quarterly journal.

In 1852, Jesse Mumford Gilstrap settled in Washington County, Arkansas, with his wife and three children. He had ventured to the county earlier; his first child was born here in 1848. An adventurous and passionate young man, in 1850 Gilstrap had trekked westward to join the gold rush while his wife awaited him at her family home near Carthage, Missouri. Back from his adventure and a few dollars richer, he returned to Washington County where he immediately invested some of his earnings in a partnership in one of the county’s earliest mills. In 1856, took full ownership. Then as the winds of war heightened, Jesse spoke out on behalf the Union cause. In 1862, he gathered a company of fellow patriots to form the first company of the 1st Arkansas Cavalry. Jesse went on to serve in the state senate before his untimely death in 1869.

Jesse’s story tumbled out of my research for my new release, The West Fork Valley: Environs and Settlement Before 1900. As I studied early settlers, then the first mills, then the Civil War, Jesse’s name kept popping up. It was a pleasure to connect with a descendant who provided photographs and more details about this man and his family.

I consider Jesse the real winner of this award. I am only the messenger.

West Fork Valley — New Release!

Riverside Park, West Fork. Perfect display of how the river has shaped the land, creating high bluffs and rich bottom land.

I moved into the West Fork Valley in 1973. I had no previous experience here except, as a child, one train ride from Fort Smith to Fayetteville circa 1952 and then passing back and forth from Fort Smith to Fayetteville during the 1950s in our 1949 Chevy (and later our 1954 Chevy). Driving Highway 71 in those days provoked high tension whether we had to pull over to wait out a driving rainstorm or creep along due to impenetrable fog or shudder as big trucks zoomed past.

Mount Gayler provoked an outcry from me and my younger sister—could we stop and have pie at Burns Gables? Could we ride the train? Only one time that I remember did the journey involve stopping for a train ride, a thrilling dash along the tracks circling the pond, wind in my hair, grinning as the high-pitched whistle blew. Another time we sat around a table at Burns Gables to savor a slab of delicious pecan pie.

The landscape of high mountains and sheer cliffs made its mark in my memory. For years my amateur drawings portrayed hills of the same height marching off into the distance in ever faded color. I never understood why it seemed mountains should look that way until, as an adult, I took another look at the profile of the Boston Mountains framing the West Fork valley.

Passing through West Fork on our way north marked the last hurdle before finally reaching Fayetteville, but the only thing that lodged in my memory about the place was the rock “tourist court” along the highway. Then the green-and-white rotating light flashed through the sky at the Fayetteville airport, a magical sight in fog or rain. In those days on that two-lane narrow highway, the trip took nearly three hours.

Imagine my surprise when, in middle age, I discovered that I had ancestors buried at Brentwood and Woolsey! After the Civil War, my dad’s grandfather, Charles McDonald Pitts, moved from Johnson County, Arkansas, to the Brentwood area along with his mother Elizabeth and several brothers and their families. Charles’ mother and his first wife Easter (Parker) and newborn daughter Tennessee are buried at Brentwood as well as a young niece Eliza. Two brothers and some of their children are buried at Woolsey. Charles would remarry there, a local girl named Linnie Mae Rose who became my great-grandmother. The Pitts family moved away by 1900 to take up residence in the western part of the county.

Now, after nearly fifty years of living here, I can almost claim to be an old timer. But fifty years is nothing compared to the two hundred years of family heritage a few of the valley’s residents can claim. I wanted to know who came here first, who built these towns, what it was like to carve out a living in this rugged land. So I started digging.

The West Fork Valley, my new release, is what I found, a history of the watershed of the West Fork of White River, its natural wonders, its past, its people through 1900. It’s my great pleasure to announce this book to the world!

Visit the book page on this site for more information and purchase link.