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Jesse Mumford Gilstrap – Millwright, Inventor, and Union Officer

This article won awards from both the Washington County Historical Society and the Arkansas Historical Association competitions in 2018 and 2019.

 

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 family was among the second wave of settlers to arrive in Washington County. His father Isaac Gilstrap, a native of North Carolina, was the fifth generation of Gilstraps in America, descended from Thomas Gilstrap of Nottinghamshire, England who immigrated to the colonies around 1695. The Gilstraps moved west as the frontier opened, first to North Carolina, then Tennessee where Isaac married Lockey Davis in 1822. After their family grew to include Jesse and several additional children, the Gilstraps homesteaded at Neosho, Missouri, between 1836 and 1844.

At age 21 in 1845, Jesse married Mary Ann Davidson at Carthage, Missouri. He and Mary Ann gained their first child Elizabeth in 1848 during a brief period when the couple first lived in Washington County. But news of gold in California caused Jesse to return his wife and daughter back to her Missouri family for safekeeping while he struck out to seek his fortune. At the time of the January 1850 census for Neosho, Missouri, Mary Ann age 19 and the couple’s one-year-old daughter Elizabeth lived at the Davidson family home while Jesse, age 26, labored in the gold fields of Greenwood Valley, El Dorado County, California.

The eight census pages which tally the Greenwood Valley includes a total of 336 people, among which are three black men, two women, and 331 white men. They came from every state in the nation as well as Canada, Scotland, England, Ireland, Germany, Denmark, and Holland. Occupations included baker, attorney, four merchants, a saloon keeper, a hotelier, physician, and butcher. Like most of the men enumerated, Jesse named his occupation as miner.

At the start of the gold rush, Greenwood didn’t exist. The area was known as Long Valley, a remote area of northeast California in the Sierra Foothills. The location sits over the northwest portion of the so-called Mother Lode where early arrivals found nuggets literally lying in plain view. The place quickly gained a torrent of hopeful newcomers.[1]  By the spring of 1850, John Greenwood had established a trading post soon followed by a butcher shop and a general store. By 1851, Greenwood hosted two theatres, a number of restaurants, fourteen stores, a brewery, several hotels, and blacksmiths. After dark and in bad weather, miners lived in canvas tents or rough cabins. But in every hour of daylight, they pursued their hopes of finding free gold or rich quartz veins on their claims. The men were tight-lipped with the census taker about the value of their claim. Gilstrap admitted to an average daily value of his mining efforts of four dollars, an amount typical of miner income which ranged from two dollars up to a rare nine or eleven dollars per day.[2]

On December 1, 1851, Jesse M. Gilstrap returned home. He disembarked from the brig Morning Star at New Orleans, having traveled from San Juan Del Norte, Nicaragua along with 175 other passengers, presumably most of them men returning from California. This cut-across route avoided the long journey around the tip of South American or its alternative, the grinding cross-country trek over mountains and desert. The cut-through followed a new path across Central America, a journey starting at San Carlos, Nicaragua said to take about three weeks by use of mules, a steamboat ride across a lake to the mouth of the San Juan River, and then by ship north across the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico to New Orleans. In the ship manifest, Jesse named his occupation as cabinet maker.[3]

Gilstrap gained sufficient funds during his stay in California not only to book passage for the swiftest route home, which cost between $200 and $400, but also to invest—within six weeks of his return—in an ongoing milling operation in south Washington County established by William H.H. Nott by 1838 and sold to Eleazar Pelphrey in 1845.[4] Jesse brought his immediate family to live here along with the rest of the extended Isaac Gilstrap family. Washington County, Arkansas, tax records show the first payment of real estate taxes by both Isaac and his son Jesse occurred in 1852.

On January 12, 1852, Gilstrap paid Pelphrey for a half interest in the operating grist and sawmill, “one half interest…in a certain tract…formerly owned by Wm. H. H. Nott in the SE SW 23-14-30…including mill.”[5] This location on the West Fork of White River was about five miles south of modern-day West Fork.

He didn’t choose an easy livelihood. Milling operations in those times involved the construction of a large wooden mill wheel and the assembly of multiple moving parts and gears to rotate the grindstones as well as sawblades and other devices needed in the milling of grain and lumber. The West Fork of White River suffers the random violence of a river swollen by heavy rain. In a narrow valley with steep hills on either side, the river reaches flood stage relatively quickly. In some years far worse than others, downpours rush down the tributary streams and across the valley to overrun the river banks. In times of heavy rain, torrents of brown water sweep along adjacent pastures and woodland, tearing trees from the banks and sending them downstream like battering rams. Perched along the streambed where the river flow could turn its wooden wheel, mill wheels could be wrecked in the onslaught.

But Jesse Gilstrap weathered such storms. His mill provided meal and flour for farmers bringing their harvests and sawed rough timber into usable boards. He saw to the welfare of his family as well as participating in community affairs. Evidently an ambitious and outgoing young man, Gilstrap was elected justice of the peace to represent West Fork Township in 1855. On June 28, 1856, he gained full ownership of the southeast quarter of the southwest quarter of Section 23, Township 14, Range 30 North, deeded from Pelphrey to Gilstrap for the amount of $250 and described specifically as the “sawmill on the West Fork of White River…formerly owned by Wm. H. H. Nott.”[6] The location under Nott had served as the first post office for the West Fork Township. Subsequently, the post office became known as Gilstrap’s Mill.

Approaching his mill enterprise with a background in carpentry, and with his brother Thomas nearby who continued to earn his livelihood as a cabinet man, Jesse Gilstrap sought ways to improve saw mill operations. Boards from his mill supplied carpenters Oren and Henry Rieff for building projects in Fayetteville and the surrounding region including the pre-Civil War educational facilities Ozark Institute and Arkansas College.

But Gilstrap wasn’t resting on his laurels in operating the mill. In August 1857, Gilstrap patented a machine for whetting plane bits with the U. S. Patent Office.[7] Smoothly finished boards would have been a high priority for the growing region and planing rough-cut hardwood would have presented a regular challenge in maintaining sharp bits. Gilstrap’s patent application included a detailed description of the machine and its parts.

No. 17,965. – Jesse M. Gilstrap, of Washington county, Ark.—Improved Machine for Whetting Plane Bits.—Patent dated August 11, 1857.—The bit to be whetted is inserted within the bit holder H, and a reciprocating motion being given to pitman I, the bit holder is operated within the ways H, and the edge of bit T is whetted on the stone M, while the spring rod I exerts an even pressure upon the friction roller K and bit holder H.

The next year, in 1858, Gilstrap purchased an additional seventy acres adjacent to his mill property. Increasingly, however, matters of national politics drew his attention. Despite the fact that his father Isaac was a Confederate sympathizer, Jesse spoke publicly on behalf of the Union. As animosity intensified between opposing sides, he and other Union supporters increasingly came under attack. Whether for political reasons or due to competition from Nott’s new mill at Woolsey, by the time of the 1860 census, Jesse had moved his family to the “Narrows” in Crawford County, a location just east of modern Mountainburg and about twenty miles south of his mill site in Washington County. He built a mill at the Narrows as well—the census names his occupation as millwright with property valued at $1,500.  His brother Thomas Gilstrap and family lived next door where Thomas worked as a cabinet maker. On the other side of Jesse’s residence, his sister Nancy and her husband Reuben Burrows resided with their children.

After Arkansas declared its allegiance with the Confederacy in May 1861, Jesse Gilstrap and other Union supporters suffered increasing belligerence. Confederate commanders were ordered to hunt down Union sympathizers. Many men of similar circumstance ended up spending the winter of 1861-62 in the caves of south Washington County. By June 1862 and after arrest and confinement under Confederate watch at Fort Smith, Gilstrap “took with him seventeen recruits to the federal army at Cassville, Missouri. When Colonel Larue Harrison obtained leave to organize an Arkansas regiment, Jesse Gilstrap raised the first field company. He was made a captain in Company D and his brother Thomas John was made first lieutenant in Company A. Their brothers Benjamin and Wesley also joined along with their brother-in-law Reuben Burrows.”[8]

Gilstrap gained prominent mention in the 1863 publication of Lieutenant Colonel Albert Webb Bishop, provost marshal of Fayetteville, entitled Loyalty on the Frontier: Sketches of Union men in the South-west.[9] Bishop provides personal and official accounts of early war action in south Missouri and northwest Arkansas. Gilstrap’s activities are often described in the company of his fellow officer Thomas Wilhite, also of south Washington County. Bishop’s narrative illustrates the hazards of the times.

Recruiting in Arkansas for the Union Army was at that time a perilous undertaking. Loyal men avowed their principles at the hazard of life, and the greatest difficulty to be overcome was in getting recruits to the rendezvous of the regiment for which enlistments were being made.

By arrangement, [Thomas] Wilhite and Gilstrap, having for recruiting purposes gone into different neighborhoods, were to meet at the house of one Spencer Bullard, on Fall Creek, in Washington county, and there concert measures for the removal, or getting northward rather, of their recruits. For some reason or other, Gilstrap had departed on Wilhite’s arrival, and the latter having with him twenty-eight men, determined to retire into the White River hills and Boston Mountains, and collection from the adjoining settlements still other men who were anxious to get away, bide his time for departure.

Gilstrap and Wilhite enlisted on the same day, suggesting they had made the risky journey together to Union lines in southern Missouri. Their regiment would later become known as the “Mountain Feds” for their regular patrols in seeking out Confederate guerillas preying on families known to be Union sympathizers. The regiment would earn a reputation for their ability to negotiate the rough Ozark country.

However, the trauma of frontline warfare plunges its horror deep into a man’s soul. If not in battle, Gilstrap’s first war terror may have occurred as he learned of the death of his brother Lieutenant Thomas John Gilstrap. Family records state that Thomas died while recruiting on November 3, 1862. One family account states that he approached what he thought was a Loyalist home, asked for a drink, and was given poisoned buttermilk. He fell dead in the front yard.[10] Another account states that he died of pneumonia at Cross Hollow.[11]

A month later, the First Arkansas Cavalry and in particular Company D experienced its first full-scale battle at Prairie Grove. But the first test of the troops came in an incident the day before the battle when the company came under unexpected attack. In the early hours of the morning on December 7, 1862, the day of the Battle of Prairie Grove, the 7th Missouri as well as the 6th Missouri, under command of Major Eliphalet Bredett, camped south of Prairie Grove at the junction of the Cane Hill, Cove Creek, and Fayetteville roads after an exhausting forced march south from Missouri. They had been ordered south to reinforce Union General James G. Blunt in his campaign to seize control of Northwest Arkansas.

While feeding and resting their horses, the Missourians were unaware that Col. Emmett MacDonald’s Confederate cavalry brigade had spotted them. […] Before the Confederates could strike, a company of the 8th Missouri, also en route to reinforce Blunt, passed through the resting Missouri and Arkansas cavalrymen and swept on down the road. They were almost through the heavily wooded lane when MacDonald’s Confederates fired upon them.

The volley from an unseen foe created panic. The remnant of the company stampeded back through Bredett’s startled horsemen. Ordering his men to mount and form a line of battle, the major had hardly completed his task when the Confederates thundered down on them. Desperately fighting, Bredett rallied his men and formed line again before he went down under the charging horsemen. The retreat was sounded, and it was every man for himself.[12]

… A considerable number of the Arkansas 1st Cavalry came rushing by at the top of the speed of their horses some without hats or coats in fact they were perfectly panic stricken and rushed in pell mell haste past us. … [The foe] had made a sudden dash upon the Arkansas Cavalry who were ignorant of the close proximity of the enemy [and] were taken completely by surprise and their entire [baggage] train captured …

… Troops of the First Arkansas Cavalry (U.S.) and Seventh Missouri Cavalry (U.S.) fled in disorder after an initial confrontation with Confederate horsemen between Fayetteville and Prairie Grove. Herron stopped the rout by shooting a Union cavalryman out of his saddle. [William L. Shea, Fields of Blood: The Prairie Grove Campaign (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009) 137-43.][13]

Brigadier General Francis J. Herron shared joint command of Union forces with Brigadier General Blunt in the Battle of Prairie Grove, leading approximately 9,200 men against about 11,000 Confederate forces under Major General Thomas C. Hindman. Technically a stalemate, the battle resulted in Confederate withdrawal due to lack of supplies, leaving Union forces to seize control in the region.[14] It is not known if Captain Jesse Gilstrap or Company D were among those caught off guard by McDonald’s attack.

The winter of 1862-63 was one of the coldest on record. The Arkansas River at Fort Smith froze with ice thick enough for troops and supply wagons to pass over. Men suffered illness from exposure to the cold, many of them dying in camp.[15] Furthering Jesse’s ordeal, in January 1863, he suffered the loss of his brother Benjamin, serving as a corporal in Company D. Benjamin went home to West Fork to die of pneumonia.

Throughout the coming months after federal forces gained control of Northwest Arkansas following the Battle of Prairie Grove, various companies of the Arkansas 1st Cavalry rode east into Carroll and Madison counties and south into Crawford, Franklin, and Johnson counties in pursuit of guerrilla Confederates. Under constant psychological stress, men involved in these encounters engaged in hand-to-hand fighting, sometimes forced to patrol on foot.

During this time, the regiment escorted wagon trains, conducted patrols, and skirmished with guerrillas on an almost daily basis. These activities took a tremendous toll on the regiment. Horses were especially vulnerable and were disabled at an alarming rate in the rough terrain of the Ozarks. In its first eighteen months of service, the First Arkansas received 2,600 horses. In July 1864, there were only 104 horses available for the 538 men present for duty. This chronic shortage of horses frequently forced the First Arkansas to conduct scouting and patrol duty on foot, a situation that placed the regiment at a considerable disadvantage when combating well-mounted guerrillas.[16]

Jesse Gilstrap’s military files provide the following service record:

  • July 1862, Present
  • December 1862, Present Fayetteville Ark. In command of Co D as Provost Guard[17] at Fayetteville
  • Jan 1863 to Mar 1863. Present for duty Fayetteville, Ark.
  • April 1863. Present. Flat Creek, Barry Co., Mo.
  • May 1863. Present Cassville Mo on special duty. Prov Marshal
  • June 1863 to July 1863. Present Cassville, Mo.
  • Aug 1863. Present Cassville, Mo. Detached service comd’g post, Cassville
  • Sept 1863 to Oct 1863, Present, Fayetteville Ark
  • Nov 1863 Present Fayetteville, Ark. In arrest[18]

In what must have come as a shock to Jesse, in October 1863, he received notice of his dismissal from active duty on charges outlined in a letter to the Head Quarters Department of the Missouri, St. Louis Mo. December 21st, 1863:

Special Order No 348:

Capt. Jesse M. Gilstrap of the 1st Ark Cavalry is upon the representation of his immediate commanding officer … is ordered mustered out of the service of the United States for the following reasons

1st Failing to make proper company returns since his appointment

2nd Lax discipline permitting his men to be disrespectful to him

3rd Sleeping out of his quarters without leave

4th Uncleanliness of person to a degree totally unbecoming his position

He will receive no final payments until he has satisfied the pay department that he is not indebted to the government.

By command of Maj. Gen Schofield

P D. Green, Assistant Adjutant General

This observation of aberrant behavior and a photograph of Jesse during this time period suggest that he suffered an acute case of post-traumatic stress disorder.

In March 1863, a three-page letter written by Gilstrap and addressed to Major General Rosencranz at Fayetteville argues his case. Sometimes speaking of himself in the third person, Gilstrap states that:

He is known to be one of the few here who stood firm and true to the Federal Union in 1861. Made the last public Union speech known in the state and notwithstanding the withering storm of secession constantly strove to keep up the Union sentiment in the circle of his acquaintance. Among the first victims, he with 8 others were for several weeks imprisoned in Fort Smith Ark.

Early in May 1862 he left his family home and all that was dear only the cause of our country and took with him 17 recruits to the federal army at Cassville, Mo., they being about the first from N. W. Ark. And when Col. M. LaRue Harrison obtained leave to organize an Arkansas Redgt your petitioner raised the first full company for that the 1st Ark Redgt and he feels that no one did more than himself to fill up said Redgt. And before the Redgt was fully organized he was placed in command of a detachment 26 miles southwest of Springfield Mo. While the rebels were holding Cassville, Mo. there remained over two months until reinforced by Capt. Galiway of said Redgt when he with said reinforcement took Cassville with the loss of only one man killed and capturing over thirty rebels and driving the rest completely out of town thus gaining the first victory gained by part of the 1st Ark Cav.

During the 19 months the undersigned remained in the army service he has with the exception of a short time been on the extreme outposts and there served with all the vidulance [vigilance] and firmness in his power and in 3 or 6 engagements with the enemy in battle he feels that his conduct was creditable among those who know the facts.

Gilstrap goes on to deny the veracity of the charges leveled against him. He claimed only two nights out of quarters, and that due to his family being in town. He struck through the following line:

…while some other officers especially Lt. Maringer who now (illegible) your petitioner in the regiment has rarely been known to sleep in his quarters.

The 4th charge is frivolous and made only to render me contemptable at Head Quarters Not for any superior claims to ability but as and evidence of the confidence the union men of this county have in the undersigned. He was recently elected State Senator for four years by a vote nearly double that of both his competitors, one of whom was an old citizen (man years ago a rep) the other a captain now in the Federal Army serving here. He does not allude to this to boast of a triumph over those honorable gentlemen but a fact tending to show that Ark soldiers and other voters feel that he has done his duty and been true to our country…

As to permitting my men to disrespect me, there is not a man in the company that was or is disposed to treat me with disrespect.

Sixteen attesting signatures including rank and company appear below Gilstrap’s signature.

In a letter dated April 9, 1864, Gilstrap received a response to his plea. The letter briefly states the matter:

Jesse M. Gilstrap, 1st Ark. Cavalry, is hereby so modified as to leave him honorable out of service as by resignation from the date of his dismissal.[19]

~~~

Removed from military service and perhaps somewhat recovered from the worst of his PTSD, Gilstrap was invited to run for office by the Union Republicans now in control of state government. He won the election and traveled to Little Rock for a special session of the legislature that convened in January 1864. He served as senator representing Washington County. This marked the renewal of Union allegiance for Arkansas state government.

Senate records contain 93 mentions of Gilstrap citing resolutions he put forth or acts he brought forward for a vote on issues such as authorizing collection of school and internal improvement funds, the organization of a home and court guard, and establishing payment to the keeper of the Washington County poor house. He promoted a measure to provide relief to soldiers’ families. The 1864 Journal of the Senate of Arkansas shows that Gilstrap was nominated to fill an Arkansas seat in the U. S. Senate but after multiple ballots, the position went to another man. He was also nominated for the second U. S. Senate position, again losing the federal position to another man.[20]

Gilstrap was selected to chair a select committee on the state militia, producing Senate Bills 12 and 14 which set out recommendations for the establishment of a militia. He put forth a resolution to prohibit the appearance of certain rebel leaders to the Senate chambers, lobby, or gallery. He also introduced an amendment to emphasize that nothing about the rights of freed blacks allowed for marriage between a white person and a Negro or mulatto.

That same month, February 1864, Jesse’s comrade-in-arms and neighbor Thomas Wilhite was honorably discharged from his military service. Three months later, on April 10, 1864, according to Thomas’ mother’s first-hand account, Confederate “raiders” swept onto the Wilhite farmstead at Strickler and seized Thomas and his father. The two men were shot then hung, a slightly less barbaric form of the old ‘drawn and quartered’ executions of medieval times.

Surely knowledgeable of his friend’s revenge killing, Gilstrap skipped out on senate business for the rest of that year. In late June 1864, a substitute for Gilstrap was appointed, but no reason for his absence was given. At the time the Senate reconvened on November 24, 1864, a request was made of the doorkeeper to send word to Gilstrap, among others, that his presence was required. Gilstrap failed to appear for any further meetings of that session which remained convened through the end of the year.

In April 1865, Jesse Gilstrap resumed his elected duties and, among other things, served as chair of the Senate committee charged with making suitable arrangements for the presentation of the battle flag of the First Arkansas Cavalry. Upon Governor Isaac Murphy’s reading of a proclamation honoring the event, Colonel Bishop came forward to read a patriotic letter from Col. M. LaRue Harrison who was deemed a “credit to himself and the noble regiment whose displays of valor on sundry battle-fields he beautifully portrayed.” After an eloquent address by the Hon. James Butler who received the flag for the state, three cheers were given to the old flag. The Spring 1865 session of the Arkansas legislature adjourned immediately afterwards, April 22, 1865.[21]

Less than a month later, on May 10, 1865, Jesse’s wife Mary Ann died at the age of 35. At this point, Jesse and Mary had six children ranging in age from three to seventeen years. Records designate Mary Ann’s place of death as Arkansas, but no information has been found naming the cause of death or her place of burial. Some family accounts claim she died and was buried in Missouri where the family and children relocated for safety during the war. Perhaps she died of natural causes, but partisan depredations continued to wreak havoc in the countryside.

On March 17, 1866, less than a year after the death of his wife, Jesse Gilstrap died. Family history says that he lost his life accidentally while working on a new mill. Such deaths weren’t uncommon. As noted in a 1956 article about early mills in America,

“Killed in his mill” was a frequent epitaph of two hundred years ago. The careless miller’s life was a short one, and whether he was lifted aloft and thrown from a windmill, whacked in the head by a spar or caught by his hand or clothing in the gigantic gears and ground up, his everyday work had to be as exacting and careful as that of an airplane pilot.[22]

But it’s also quite possible Jesse suffered the same vigilantism that killed his friend Thomas Wilhite. It wouldn’t have been difficult for revengeful Confederate sympathizers to sabotage Jesse’s operation or assist in an ‘accident.’ The extent of his injuries is not known. He’s buried in the Woolsey Cemetery alongside his brother Benjamin. No other Gilstrap graves have been identified at this location. Jesse’s brother Thomas and brother-in-law Reuben Burrows are buried at the National Cemetery in Fayetteville.

On July 2, 1866, the only surviving son of Isaac and Lockey Gilstrap, Wesley H. Gilstrap, was appointed administrator of Jesse’s estate with Jacob Yoes and Redding R. Putman as his securities. On November 5, 1867, an estate balance of $810.20 was confirmed, apparently the result of the sale of Jesse’s lands. No record of that sale has been found. The estate was fully settled and vacated July 11, 1873.

Throughout the Civil War years and its aftermath, tragedies decimated the greater Gilstrap family. In addition to the war-time deaths of Jesse’s brothers Thomas and Benjamin, Jesse’s brother-in-law Reuben Burrows was killed in the Battle of Prairie Grove. Of the Gilstrap sons, only Wesley, the youngest Gilstrap brother, survived.[23] Jesse’s widowed sister Nancy died in 1867 and his sister Martha, joined in marriage in 1871 to James Yoes, died in 1872 a few weeks after giving birth to a daughter, Minnie.

Jesse’s mother Lockey sided with her four sons in their allegiance to the Union and, at the start of hostilities, left her husband Isaac, a former slaveholder determined to embrace the Confederate cause. She resided briefly with her widowed daughter Nancy then with daughters-in-law and her surviving son Wesley until her death in 1873. The 1870 census finds Jesse’s father Isaac Gilstrap residing in a household headed by thirty-five year old Eliza Fellows and her four children at Vine Prairie Township, Crawford County, Arkansas. He died in 1877.

The children of Jesse and Mary Ann Gilstrap were Elizabeth Jane born 1848 in Arkansas, possibly died as a child; Martha A. born October 1850 in Missouri while Jesse was in the gold fields; Isaac 1853-1929; Elizabeth Elera (Elisa) 1855; Joshua David 1857-1897; and Thomas C. 1860, the last four born in Arkansas. With the death of both parents as well as their maternal grandparents in previous years, the children petitioned Washington County probate court for legal rights. Isaac, age eighteen, and Elizabeth age fifteen, argued as follows:

[They seek] an order of this court removing their disabilities as minors and [to] allow them to transact business in the same manner and to the same extent as if they were of full age.

The court granted their petition in the January term 1871. It is not known who provided care for the children during the five years between their father’s death in 1866 and the grant of this petition. The 1870 census finds them scattered in various households at West Fork, Elizabeth Elera age 14 with the family of Searing Stelle and Martha age 19 at the home of William Graham. It’s possible the younger children Isaac age 17, Joshua age 13, and Thomas age 10 were taken under the guardianship of Jesse’s mother Lockey, who died in 1873, or Jesse’s brother Wesley. Exactly how many children remained alive this point is debatable. The lack of any information other than a birth date for the youngest, Thomas, suggests he may have died young.

At age nineteen in 1872, Jesse’s son Isaac Gilstrap was married in Washington County to sixteen-year-old Lourinda Caghman [Caughman] by Conrad Yoes. At the time of the 1880 census, Isaac and wife and two young children resided in Mountain Township, Washington County next door to his uncle Wesley H. Gilstrap and his family, both men farming for a living. Descendants of the Gilstrap families continue to live in Washington and Crawford counties to the present day.

Jesse Gilstrap followed ancient traditions of tradesmen who practiced and advanced their craft to the betterment of their communities. He may have struggled in his military duty, but in his role as captain, he did his best to honor his responsibilities and see to the welfare of his men. Likewise in his elected office of state senator, he served the State of Arkansas by doing what he could to encourage civil government. He invested in a stronger future by starting over—again—in rebuilding his mill. The loss of his wife, brothers and parents surely caused him considerable grief, but he wasn’t a man to stop trying. His role in early Washington County history deserves recognition.

~~~

[1] “California Gold Rush Camps,” Claudine Chalmers. http://www.paulrich.net/students/readings/california_gold_rush/california_gold_11.html Accessed Feb 26, 2018

[2] “Mining El Dorado—The Greenwood Mining District,” Anthony M. Belli. County of El Dorado website. https://www.edcgov.us/landing/Living/Stories/pages/greenwood_mining_district.aspx Accessed Feb 26, 2018

[3] From “The California Gold Fields in the 1850s: Letters from Ephraim Thompson, Daviess County, Indiana.” Edited by Philip L. Cantelon. Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 65, Issue 3, pp 157-172. Online at https://scholarworks.iu.edu/journals/index.php/imh/article/view/9442/12597. Accessed February 15, 2018

[4] Deed Record E-130, Washington County Archives, Fayetteville, Arkansas.

[5] Deed Record H-19

[6] Deed Record K-279, Washington County Archives

[7] Annual Report of the Commissioner of Patents, Part 2. United States. Patent  Office. U.S. Government Printing Office, 1858. 270

[8] Gilstrap family records. Also Historical Data Systems, comp. U.S., Civil War Soldier Records and Profiles, 1861-1865 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2009, and National Park Service. U.S. Civil War Soldiers, 1861-1865 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2007.

[9] Loyalty on the Frontier: Or, Sketches of Union Men of the South-west. Albert Webb Bishop. R. P. Studley and Company, printers, 1863 – Arkansas. Pages 53, 82, 93, 98, 187, 202. Available online at https://books.google.com/books?printsec=frontcover&dq=%22loyalty+on+the+frontier%22+bishop&sig=W2VS76pLcniZwVqiwbzRWYP4Yg&ei=QOHGTLT2NcWAlAe8vrzrAQ&ct=result&pg=PA83&id=QiGnmcFdtyAC&ots=CJyTD_wk8P#v=onepage&q=gilstrap&f=false Butler served as provost marshal of Fayetteville during the war.

[10] Personal correspondence with Gilstrap descendant Jim Dye, December 30, 2017. In author’s possession. The reported speed of death after ingestion is outside the norms for poisons available at that time.

[11] “The Gilstrap Family,” Marguerite Gilstrap. Self published family record. February 1978. Washington, D.C. 21-22

[12] I Do Wish This Cruel War Was Over: First Person Accounts of Civil War Arkansas from the Arkansas Historical Quarterly, edited by Mark K. Christ and Patrick G. Williams. (Fayetteville: The University of Arkansas Press, 2014):  57. This passage from Footnote 87.

[13] Ibid

[14] Ibid 27-28

[15] Flashback April 1953. 25

[16] “First Arkansas Union Cavalry,” Michael L. Price. Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture. Online at http://www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net/encyclopedia/entry-detail.aspx?entryID=1168. Accessed Dec 12, 2017

[17] “The provost marshals were the Union’s military police. They hunted and arrested deserters, spies, and civilians suspected of disloyalty; confined prisoners; maintained records of paroles and oaths of allegiance; controlled the passage of civilians in military zones and those using Government transportation; and investigated the theft of Government property.” From Tennessee Secretary of State website: http://www.tnsos.net/TSLA/provost/index.php  Accessed March 5, 2018

[18] National Archives and Records Administration (NARA); Washington, D.C.; Returns from U.S. Military Posts, 1800-1916; Microfilm Serial: M617; Microfilm Roll: 362

[19] Gilstrap family records

[20] Journal of the Senate of Arkansas, Sessions of 1864, 1864-65, and 1865. Price & Barton, State Printers. 1870. Multiple pages. Available online at goo.gl/FWZCD1

[21] Ibid 43

[22] “The Mills of Early America,” Eric Sloane. American Heritage, Vol. 6 Issue 6, 1955. Online at http://www.americanheritage.com/content/mills-early-america Accessed March 31, 2018.

[23] Information regarding Isaac Gilstrap and his descendants available at http://www.genealogy.com/ftm/s/c/o/F-morton-Scott-OK/WEBSITE-0001/UHP-0021.html

 

Photographs of Gilstrap provided by Jim Dye, a Gilstrap descendant and historian

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Is American Destiny Manifest?

American Progress, (1872) by John Gast, is an allegorical representation of the modernization of the new west. Columbia, a personification of the United States, is shown leading civilization westward with the American settlers. She is shown bringing light from the East into the West, stringing telegraph wire, holding a school textbook that will instill knowledge, and highlights different stages of economic activity and evolving forms of transportation. Wikipedia

Oddly enough, I had reached the same conclusion as Robert Kaplan in the process of writing my book on the West Fork valley. It was the West Fork of White River, tumbling northward along our long valley that carved the land where I live and thus the livelihoods and experiences of the people who live here. This is Kaplan’s thesis in his book, Earning the Rockies: How Geography Shapes American’s Role in the World.

Reading Kaplan took longer than I had expected. His prose forms dense thought clusters embroidered by quotes and references to a wide array of thinkers. But I was motivated soon after starting the book by his storyline which follows his journey from the east coast to the Pacific. And by the fact that from as far back as I can remember, I’ve loved geography.

Oh, not exactly the study of geography—although I’ve learned to appreciate that as well—but rather the experience of it. The varying shades of dirt and sand, the rise of hills and mountains, the sudden drop of arroyos and canyons carved by quick floods and persistent rivers. Rivers, desert, plains – all if it thrills me each with its own particular mood and energy. If I had been able to travel the world in my younger more flexible years, it wouldn’t have been to visit cities or museums, but rather to see the lay of the land.

But I digress. It’s not from that perspective that Kaplan examines geography’s role in the course of American history. Rather, he argues that by the unique circumstance of our nation’s particular framing by the world’s two largest oceans as well as our unique pioneer spirit, we are fated to serve as world leader. I’d have to read this book again—and his other books including The Revenge of Geography—in order to be convinced that I don’t agree with his conclusions, but as of this moment, I really don’t.

A U.S. soldier stands guard duty near a burning oil well in the Rumaila oil field, Iraq, April 2003 Wikipedia

Kaplan describes the conflict between America’s urge toward isolationism and the stake (and responsibility) we have in a global community. His narrative journey from east to west parallels (intentionally) the path of the pioneers, providing him the storyline needed to talk about how the experiences of pioneers created the unique American personality. In developing this view, Kaplan cites Bernard DeVoto and his student Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. in stating that “…the geography of the American West freighted the United States with a precise and unprecedented international destiny. DeVoto saw dynamic, westering America, in Schlesinger’s words, as ‘the redeemer, spreading its free institutions to less fortunate peoples.’”[1]

…The American character of today is still to some extent a frontier character born of those solitudes [the Rockies]. Our rapacious form of capitalism, as well as the natural, unspoken national consensus to deploy the navy and air force, and sometimes even the coast guard, to the four corners of the earth, are signs of it.[2]

Kaplan’s view of the American story – and the view of many others he cites – is based on the idea of Manifest Destiny:

In the 19th century, manifest destiny was a widely held belief in the United States that its settlers were destined to expand across North America. There are three basic themes to manifest destiny:

–The special virtues of the American people and their institutions

–The mission of the United States to redeem and remake the west in the image of agrarian America

–An irresistible destiny to accomplish this essential duty

Historian Frederick Merk says this concept was born out of “a sense of mission to redeem the Old World by high example … generated by the potentialities of a new earth for building a new heaven.”[3]

American westward expansion is idealized in Emanuel Leutze’s famous painting Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way (1861). The title of the painting, from a 1726 poem by Bishop Berkeley, was a phrase often quoted in the era of manifest destiny, expressing a widely held belief that civilization had steadily moved westward throughout history. Wikipedia

In this view, pioneers pushed west in order to escape the exhausted moral fiber of their European ancestors and to carve a new, more honest way of life. Pioneers faced unimaginable hardships that stiffened their spines and led to a national character found today in fighter pilots and bold inventors. Kaplan superimposes this foundation on the world of the 21st century and questions the proper role of our nation in the global community.

He concludes that we as a nation are fated by our geography to be the leader in a “post-imperial world.” Delving into brief analyses of other regions in an attempt to understand the possibilities for U.S. interaction and intervention, Kaplan posits a leadership role of post imperialism for the U.S. but refuses to acknowledge any self-serving intention for such a role. Rather, by our unique position with oceans on both sides and the determined character of our people, we have pursued globally what needed to be done with the same vision as we pursued the western frontier.

Although the book has stimulated intense thought, I could not escape arguments that popped into my mind against his conclusions. With random brief nods to our rampant capitalism, never in these nearly two hundred pages did Kaplan talk about the role of corporations or profit seeking-entrepreneurs in motivating modern U.S. foreign policy or the pioneers. Free land, or the exploitation of virgin forests and wildlife, or the unearthing of precious minerals were what motivated the pioneers as much as seeking freedom to live outside the dictates of European kings and classism. That same motivation for wealth is what governs our foreign policy today, whether it’s the protection of corporate interests in developing nascent oil fields (Middle East, Southeast Asia, South America) or in more obscure resources like the rare earth deposits in Afghanistan. We might appease our consciences about trampling indigenous tribes to build oil pipelines by the idea we’re bringing them the wonders of modern civilization, but it remains to be seen whether modern civilization is superior to millennia-old sustainable traditions.

My limited scholarship on these topics can’t stand against the background of an author and scholar of the stature of Robert D. Kaplan. I’d have to read all seventeen books plus the works of other knowledgeable scholars to even begin to claim any authority. But I’m discouraged by his failure to discuss even for one paragraph the role of wealth-seeking so intrinsic to the American experience or the influence of corporations in our imperialism. His assertion that our worldwide deployment of warships and air power is basically a function of our benign responsibility and exceptionalism strikes me as outrageously self-serving.

Manifest destiny excused the genocide of Native Americans. Kaplan tries to sidestep that reality in quoting Wallace Stegner’s Beyond the Hundredth Meridian (1954):

What destroyed the Indian was not primarily political greed, land hunger, or military power, not the white man’s germs or the white man’s rum. What destroyed him was the manufactured products of a culture, iron and steel, guns, needles, woolen cloth, things that once possessed could not be done without.[4]

I call bullshit.

Caricature showing Uncle Sam lecturing four children labelled Philippines, Hawaii, Puerto Rico and Cuba, in front of children holding books labelled with various U.S. states. A black boy is washing windows, a Native American sits separate from the class, and a Chinese boy is outside the door. The caption reads: “School Begins. Uncle Sam (to his new class in Civilization): Now, children, you’ve got to learn these lessons whether you want to or not! But just take a look at the class ahead of you, and remember that, in a little while, you will feel as glad to be here as they are!”

But Kaplan’s work also forces me to reassess what I’ve been taught throughout my lifetime about our role as a nation. I equivocate on whether to accept that our system of governance is the most enlightened in the world, but I can’t call to mind one that seems superior. I also can’t deny that we enjoy the highest standard of living and that our wealth, indisputably ill-gotten in many ways, has still been a life-saving resource to endangered, starving or sick people around the world. I can’t ignore the accomplishments of our technology in creating a global culture joined through the Internet, telephones, and television which in many ways may serve as the ultimate means of moral arbitration.

I’m bemused by Kaplan’s assertion that our national character and world role stems from our unique continental configuration in having an ocean both to our east and our west. But so does Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Canada, South Africa, Great Britain, Italy, France, India, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and more. Could it be that the wealth-building resources of these other nations had long since been exhausted either internally or by other empires before the modern age?  Why doesn’t Kaplan acknowledge that the American colonists stumbled onto a continent virtually untouched by human exploitation and it is from that harvest of Nature’s bounty that our wealth was captured?

Why doesn’t he talk about what might happen when our soil, rivers, and forests are as decimated as those that used to undergird the wealth of Europe or India?

No matter my arguments at various points in his work, I’m glad I read it. I will read it again. Kaplan’s previous positions as national security chair at the U.S. Naval Academy, as a member of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board, and a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security means I need to know more about what he knows and how he thinks if I hope to consider myself informed on our nation’s foreign policy. This no doubt has been the rationale for his many readers/reviewers including James Mattis, David Petraeus, Henry Kissinger, and many other prominent Americans not to mention review boards and other authors.

~~~

[1] Kaplan, Robert. Earning the Rockies. New York: Random House. 19

[2] 24

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manifest_destiny

[4] Kaplan 27

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.

Last Minute Gift? Visit your local bookstore

Great gifts abound at your local bookstore. In Fayetteville, Arkansas, that means Nightbird Books on Dickson Street where you’ll find all my books on local history.

Check out Murder in the County: 50 True Stories of the Old West, a collection of murder stories from the 1800s here in this county.

Less expensive but just as intriguing, The Violent End of the Gilliland Boys chronicles the amazing journey of one pioneer family, also a local story.

Don’t live in Northwest Arkansas? Simple — check out all my books at Amazon.com

Best Gift Ever

All around us, every day, the people and events of the past still echo. What is better than to meet those memories and share them with your loved ones?

From 1835 to the present day, the City of Fayetteville in Washington County, Arkansas, has enjoyed a vibrant and colorful history. Its reputation as a regional center for arts, culture, and education began early in its history. Frequently named one of the nation’s Top 10 cities, Fayetteville hosts the University of Arkansas and its famous Razorback athletic teams.

In Glimpses of Fayetteville’s Past, history comes alive in stories of the town’s origins and development. The five articles contained in Glimpses of Fayetteville’s Past focus on under-reported aspects of that history. Published initially by the county’s historical society, these intensively-researched works have been revised and expanded with illustrations, photographs, and maps.

“The History of Fayette Junction and Washington County’s Timber Boom” now include not only an in-depth review of Fayetteville’s first major industry but also three appendices which examine wagon production in Fayetteville, the name and tradition of Sligo, and the Fulbright mill.

“Quicktown” delves into the story behind this quirky short-lived suburb in south Fayetteville.

“546 West Center” tracks the development of a landmark Fayetteville property from its earliest use as a site for an ice factory in the 1880s.

“The Rise and Fall of Alcohol Prohibition” documents the use, production, and regulation of alcoholic drink in Washington County from before statehood through the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, and features indictment and other crime data.

“175 Years of Groceries” follows the transition from country store to supermarkets to big box stores and includes newspaper advertisements showing price changes over those decades.

Whether a reader is interested in learning more about the history of Fayetteville or simply enjoys the peculiar details of how time changes all things, Glimpses of Fayetteville’s Past will inform and entertain.

Amazon buy link

 

New Release: Murder Stories!

Murder in the County: 50 True Stories of the Old West

Contrary to popular notion, Arkansas was part of the Old West along with Texas and the rest of those more familiar dusty southwestern places. Its western border joined up with the Indian Nations where many a weary marshal rode out with his bedroll and pistol carrying writs from the U. S. District Court at Fort Smith in a search for a steady stream of men rustling livestock, stealing horses, selling whiskey, or running from the law.

From its earliest days, Washington County, Arkansas, experienced some of the worst the Old West had to offer. At unexpected moments, county settlers faced their fellow man in acts of fatal violence. These murderous events not only ended hopeful lives but also forever changed those who survived them. Not to say that the murders in the county all stemmed from conflict along its western border—plenty of blood spilled within its communities and homesteads.

The fifty chapters of this collection each focus on one violent incident. Through family histories, legal records, and newspaper accounts, the long-dead actors tell their shocking stories of rage, grief, retaliation, and despair.

Available now at Amazon.com

19th Century History of West Fork, Arkansas

 

Two hundred years ago, in 1819, the first white man known to explore this area, Frank Pierce, traveled up the White River from the Mississippi and across the northern part of the state before arriving at the west fork of the river and stumbling into this valley. Frank had long since run through his supplies and on this day had worked up a powerful hunger. Thinking of fresh meat over an open fire, he had a buffalo in his gun sights when he noticed a band of Natives also stalking the herd. Although the Osage and Quapaw had historically occupied these lands, right after the Louisiana Purchase, the U. S. government had begun moving Cherokee and other eastern tribes into the region. The Natives ole Frank saw that day were probably Cherokee. He gently released the hammer of his gun and slipped back into the dense undergrowth to spend the night hungry in the shelter of a large tree.

But he lived to tell the tale.

Nine years later in 1828, Frank was among the first settlers to arrive with the official opening of Arkansas Territory. Whether receiving bounty land for service in the Indians Wars or the War of 1812, settlers rushing to stake their claim on a forty acre parcel found springs and lush vegetation in these flat hilltops and river valleys. Wildlife including buffalo, cougar, elk, bear and wolf all roamed this valley. Alongside the forest with trees as big as four feet in diameter, there were wide stretches of tall prairie grass in a thriving ecosystem.

Throughout the first fifty years of county history, ‘West Fork’ wasn’t West Fork the town as we know it. The term ‘west fork’ referred to the west fork of White River and West Fork Township. Persons living along this long river valley from Winslow to Greenland were said to be from ‘West Fork,’ so this confuses some of the history. Any records before 1885 that refer to West Fork are not about the current town of West Fork.

As early as 1831, settlers organized a church in the valley, considered to be the oldest organization of a Christian church in Washington County. Church records from 1837 describe meeting under and elm tree with charter members Stephen Strickland and wife, Richard “Dick” Dye, Eli Bloyed and wife, C. G. Gilbreath and wife, Greene W. Sherry and wife, and fifteen more couples. By 1855, followers of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church were meeting at Dye School House on land owned by Richard Dye. Local residents are probably familiar with his name because of the creek named after him—it crosses Highway 71 beside Dye Creek Road.[1]

Mills served a critical function for early residents who needed their corn and wheat ground into meal and flour and their logs sawn for lumber. Census records suggest a mill serving the south county was first located just north of Brentwood on the properties of William “Billie” Knott and Eleazer Pelphrey, the two men occupied as of the 1850 census as millwright and miller, respectively. Their properties at the SE ¼ of the SW ¼ of Section 23, Township 14, Range 30 West (Knott) and the West ½ of the SE ¼ of the same section (Pelphrey) span a small creek where it feeds into the west fork of White River. This location is four miles south of present-day West Fork, fitting a historical description of the township’s first mill.

Flour mill at West Fork, circa 1885. Looking south.

Another operation known as Gilstrap’s Mill is named in historical records as located at the place later known as Woolsey. One account states this was established in 1838 run by a large water wheel.

In the dry season when the water was too low to turn the wheel, a tramp wheel was put into operation to furnish power. Oxen were unhitched from the wagon bringing the corn or timber and placed on a slat-bottomed structure which moved under them continuously, making it necessary for the oxen to walk in order to stay on their feet. Thus they furnished the power for grinding corn or sawing logs.[2]

 

The first ‘West Fork’ post office operated from the home of William “Billie” Knott in 1838, a logical location since their mill served as one of the only public places in the area. The post office changed location in 1848 to Gilstrap’s Mill at the place later known as Woolsey, named after William Woolsey who bought the property from Gilstrap in the late 1850s. After 1848, this was known as the West Fork post office. By 1860, Woolsey operated a general store alongside the mill.

The 1840 census for West Fork Township counted 68 households with 394 residents and two slaves. Ten years later, the 1850 census counted 96 households with 605 whites and no slaves. Trades listed in 1850 included blacksmith, teacher, clergy, miller, tanner, and wagon maker. By 1860, population had grown to 262 households with 707 whites and fifteen slaves. Tradesmen included a shoemaker, five blacksmiths, two wagon makers, a saddler, a trader, and a carpenter. William Woolsey named his occupation as merchant.

With tensions mounting prior to the Civil War, a convention assembled at West Fork on April 25, 1861. The men in attendance agreed that they were opposed to secession. They called for a statewide vote of the people to decide, stating their wish to cooperate with other border states. The choice was made within weeks by the Arkansas state convention who voted to secede once the attack on Fort Sumter occurred.

Northwest Arkansas saw military action early in the war with the conflict at Pea Ridge and then Prairie Grove. Musket and cannon fire from the battle at Prairie Grove could be heard down here—someone remarked that it sounded like corn popping. Military forces moved along the Old Wire Road which ran down Cato Springs Road to Strickler before the nightmare of crossing the Boston Mountains.

With the success of Union forces in overtaking Northwest Arkansas, the rough terrain of south county became a perfect setting for guerilla warfare. Troops skirmished throughout this area during those years and commandeered livestock, grain, and anything else they could find. People had to hide their food and valuables in caves or holes in the ground. Salt became impossible to find and folks had to boil the soil from their smokehouses to gather what salt could be retrieved.

The flavor of those days is captured in this excerpt of the Karnes history:

A number of Union soldiers stationed at Fayetteville came out to West Fork one night to attend a dance at the Dick Dye home. All were having a gay time swinging their partners right and left and calling “Balance All” when a Southern captain, Jim Ferguson, thrust his head in at the door and yelled “Surrender All!”

The Union officer gave the command “Fight ‘em, boys!” but soon changed to “Everybody on his own!” when he saw the number of Southern soldiers. Mr. Rutherford said he was sitting on a plank across from the fireplace when suddenly he began to choke with soot, but not until all was over did he know that Lieutenant Huttenour had gone up the chimney.

Some sought shelter in the kitchen, others in the cellar and under the floor. The Southern regiment had been informed of the dance as they were passing through Woolsey and had sent thirty men ahead to investigate. The Union men had been warned to put out a picket but they felt secure without it.[3]

Whether men died or were taken prisoner during this dance-gone-wrong is never stated in Ms. Karnes’ account. But both military and civilian killings occurred frequently during those years. With the normal systems of government shut down and county courthouse records hidden in a cave, few of such cases appear fully documented in official records.

Crossing the river meant riding horseback or wading through the water, but for the hardier sort, there was the swinging bridge. No handrail, folks. This is the site of the modern day two-lane bridge between Highway 71 and ‘downtown’ West Fork.

The first murder involving a West Fork area resident occurred nine years after the end of the war in 1874. This is a complicated story that involved two families, the Jones who lived near Carter’s Store (approximately at Hicks, south of Sulphur City on State Highway 74) and the Gilliland family who lived near Owl Hollow Road at the north end of modern day West Fork.

A feud developed between two members of these families, William Newton Jones and Bud Gilliland. Things came to a violent point on Christmas Day 1874. At a popular horse racing track near Carter’s Store, 23-year-old Jones rode up, pulled a Spencer rifle from his saddle scabbard and before any of the surrounding crowd could stop him, he shot 28-year-old Bud Gilliland through the chest, killing him instantly.

It was later said that most everyone present knew Jones would try to kill Gilliland but no one could move fast enough to stop him. Jones didn’t wait around to be arrested. With his target dead on the ground, he took wheeled his horse around and took off at a gallop. He then became the subject of a manhunt that lasted until the next murder in this feud nearly two years later.

Speculation suggest the conflict may have had something to do with Bud’s dad’s marriage in 1863 to the much younger Mary Amanda Jones, first cousin to Newton. Or it may have had something to do with the rough nature of the Gilliland boys.

For example, Bud’s older brother, Jeff Gilliland, served as a county deputy and court clerk. He owned several lots on the Fayetteville square and operated a dram shop there—otherwise known as a bar. Evidently Jeff wasn’t exactly careful about his official county duties. An 1871 newspaper report stated that he was required to turn over the county tax books “to which the late difficulties in that county are attributable.”

Along the same lines, an 1872 newspaper account about Bud stated that:

On memorial day, ‘Bud’ Gilliland who has at times acted as deputy marshal, procured the keys of the jail from the jailor and deliberately locked himself in the jail, where he remained until 9 o’clock when he came out, ordered the guard who had been placed there to arrest him when he came out to stand aside, which he did, and Bud walked off. While he was locked in the jail with the doors securely locked, two prisoners who were out on bail for a few hours returned at the expiration of their time and failing to be admitted, made their escape. Gilliland was at the time under charge of the constable in default of bail for shooting at a man. He left town but will probably return soon as he is one of those men who are permitted to do pretty much as they please, whether it be shooting within the town limits for the sake of noise, or shooting at a man with intent to kill.

Did this “shooting at a man with intent to kill” involve Newton Jones? We don’t know, but that would certainly explain the hell-bent manner of Jones as he arrived at the horse races.

Later records state that the reason Newton Jones fled after shooting Bud wasn’t that he meant to escape justice but rather that he knew Bud’s older brother Jeff Gilliland would try to kill him.

As it turned out, he was exactly right.

Newton had a lovely young wife and an extended family that needed him. He dodged in and out of the area for nearly two years before his whereabouts could be anticipated and a posse went out to find him. Bud’s big brother Jeff Gilliland wrangled his way into the posse in his role as deputy despite concerns he would carry out his personal vendetta.

The posse waited in ambush for the Jones boys for several hours. Finally, the party approached. Newton’s nephew David Jones had been the wagon driver and gave his testimony in court about what happened:

We started from Lewis & Johnson’s Mill … and we got about a half mile from Johnson’s mill on the road toward Carter’s Store. I was driving the wagon and Matilda was riding in the wagon. The others were riding behind. Newton and [David’s brother] William were riding side by side. [Newton’s brother] Enoch was riding behind them.

The first thing I heard was the report of a gun or pistol. Immediately after several guns were fired, my mules ran off, ran about seventy-five yards. After my mules stopped, I raised up in the wagon and heard someone say “Halt! Halt! Shoot them boys, the last damned son of a bitch of them.” I could see a glimpse of men running up the hill in the woods. I heard horses running on the other side of the road.

I unhitched my mules and went back and found my brother [William] dead, lying close by the side of the road, rather under his horse which was down. Two shots in the head, and in the temple, several in [his] side and leg. Deceased was armed, had his revolver under him, not drawn…

Enoch was wounded in the side of the head and a shot glanced his neck. The voice I heard I thought was Jeff Gilliland’s. Heard but one voice; ‘Halt,’ was given but one time that I heard. If it had been given before, I would have heard it.

Then the shoe was on the other foot. The entire posse was indicted for murder of the innocent young William Jones, and things got even more complicated after that.

James Gilliland headstone, one of thirteen graves in the Gilliland family cemetery. James was the father of Cal and Jeff.

Three years later, in 1880, Jeff Gilliland remained at large at his home near West Fork. In 1882, a U. S. marshal out of Fort Smith brought a posse to arrest him. He fired on them, wounding two. Over the next two years, Gilliland evidently carried out a war of revenge against the posse members, who reported being shot at on random occasions. He never served time for the William Jones killing, nor did Newton Jones stand trial for killing Bud Gilliland.[4]

This has been one of the more fascinating stories I’ve uncovered in my research for a book I’ve been working on, Murder in the County. It contains 50 murder stories from the 1800s in Washington County. I won’t tell you what happens next to Newton Jones or Jeff Gilliland except to say the story takes a couple more intriguing twists and turns.

During these early years, as I mentioned earlier, West Fork the town did not exist where it’s now located. But the area was known as a peaceful and fruitful location. Local farms produced everything from apples to wheat. A main road south passed through the valley and stagecoaches traveled through Campbell Community north of West Fork and stopped at the home of John Karnes and later his son Daniel Karnes where travelers could have a meal, stay in overnight lodging, and fresh horses or mules teams could be hitched.

However, for particular travelers, another stop a few miles down at the Woolsey store offered a jot of whiskey. As noted by local historian Robert Winn,

It was not unusual for the stage to stop long enough [at Woolsey] that travelers imbibed enough to become tipsy and occasional excitement resulted in the form of fisticuffs or gun play.[5]

Fifty years after the first white people arrived in the west fork valley, the modern day location of West Fork began to formalize. In 1875 or ’76, the old water-mill plant at the head of the creek at Woolsey was moved north to what would become the town of West Fork. The new steam mill at West Fork provided reliable power for grinding grain, sawing lumber, and even operating a carding-machine which straightened and cleaned fibers for weaving into cloth. A spoke factory opened and the place attracted other industries including blacksmith shops.

Looking southeast. The Hardin Hotel was built upon the arrival of the railroad at West Fork. The three-story structure included a large dining room where lodgers were fed family style on a huge round table. William Dunbar, who lived at the hotel as a child in the 1920s and 30s remembers an enormous cookstove in the adjacent kitchen. There was a carriage house and the carriage was dispatched to the train depot with each arrival, bringing visitors to the hotel. Robert Winn, in his book “Railroads of Northwest Arkansas,” said that “When drummers arrived at the West Fork station, they registered for lodging–50¢ to $1 per night, meals 25¢ …” There was no indoor plumbing, but according to Dunbar, the outhouse was somewhat luxurious with nice gabled roof, finished interior, and three ‘holes’ for mixed gender usage. But no heat. “You could freeze your bottom off in winter.” Dunbar stated the hotel was taken down in the 30s and the lumber used to build the house currently located on that corner (southeast corner of Main and Maple). The aged oak beams were so hard that when they were repurposed for the house, the carpenters had to use blocks of paraffin to ease the nails through the wood. The existing sidewalk along the property’s north side may date to hotel days.

In 1882, the St. Louis-San Francisco Railroad punched through this area headed south. A flood of newcomers followed, eager to make money off the harvest of virgin forest. This hard work involved teams of mules, men on either end of big crosscut saws, and plenty of hacking by ax to clear limbs off the main trunk. Then there was the matter of getting the logs down to the train depot. Many of those logging roads became the roads we drive today.

Things in the south county changed a lot then. Entrepreneurs of all stripes rushed into the area to make money. One example was a man named Erastus Pitkin. He bought out much of Woolsey’s land and with the formalizing of West Fork at its current location in 1885, the place at Woolsey became known as Pitkin. Pitkin partnered with another man to open a hardwood lumber operation at West Fork. They ordered ‘log wagons’ from the Springfield Wagon Company. These wagons were essential for moving cut logs down to the railroad and featured a specialized heavy-duty construction with independent axles.

From 1906 Plat Book for Washington County. A few businesses have been identified and labeled.

In May 1885, another early settler named Thomas McKnight finalized plans to  incorporate the modern day town of West Fork. Since before the railroad’s completion, McKnight had been buying up land in the area that would become the town of West Fork. He platted town lots and sold to men eager to open for business. Within four years, the town included not only the thriving mill, but two general stores, a drug store, a grocery, a meat market, a hardware store, furniture store, the Hardin Hotel, and a food production company that employed 37 workers in canning tomatoes and drying local apples produced on farms up and down the valley.

Karnes Store

An amusing note – Robert Winn reported that the West Fork canning factory had an interesting side effect on the local population.

“Juice from the apples ran in shallow trenches from the building out into the warm sunshine. Peelings were also dumped near the factory; these also fermented. All livestock ran on open range and wandered about the factory. Cows, pigs, poultry, and any other livestock drank the juice and ate the peelings. Soon after the factory opened each fall, every cow, pig, and chicken that was permitted on the open range staggered home at night in a drunken condition.”[6]

During this boom period another local feud came to a boil. A man named Jim Graham brought up on charges of arson. Among those testifying against him at trial was Calvin Rutherford. Once Graham had served his two year sentence, he came back to West Fork with a serious grudge against Rutherford. In February 1892, the lid blew off.

Here’s the account published in the Fayetteville paper:

On Friday evening last, [Rutherford and Graham] got into a fight in Yoes’ store and when the smoke cleared away, Graham was found to be mortally wounded by a pistol ball that entered his body near the hip and ranged upward coming out on the opposite side near the collar bone.

Cal Rutherford and his brother Bob were both cut in several places, the latter not seriously. It is hard to get the exact facts in the case but we learn that the Rutherford boys were drinking and that Cal was taking in the town. Before the fight occurred, he rode into a store and smashed the store window and was pretty badly cut by the glass. He then rode his mule into Yoes’ store and as he was coming out, Jim Graham and a stranger whose name we did not learn went into the store.

When Rutherford saw Graham, he is said to have made some remark about whipping him and went back into the store when the fight commenced. Graham cut Cal four times and while he was doing so, Bob Rutherford came in. Graham then started to run upstairs and was shot by Bob. The latter was also cut but whether by Graham or someone else we have not learned.

Graham died Saturday afternoon and a warrant was sworn out before Squire Lusk of this city for the arrest of the Rutherfords charging them with murder. Constable Burkitt took charge of and was guarding them but on Sunday while he was at dinner, Bob Rutherford escaped and has not yet been apprehended.

Jacob Yoes Hardware store, scene of the Graham murder. Presently, this century-old building houses the West Fork Oprey.

A bit more info is found in the Little Rock paper’s article on the matter:

News has reached here of a bloody affray between the Rutherfords and Grahams, of West Fork, two families who have made themselves notorious as desperadoes … Cal Rutherford, Deputy United States Marshal of this District, was drunk and was running the town, and after riding his horse through two or three stores, and shooting at everything in sight, rode in the store owned by Jacob Yoes, United States Marshal Western District of Arkansas, and there found Jim Graham. He began cursing and abusing him and threatened to kill him. He then jumped from his horse and rushed at Graham, who drew his knife and stabbed Rutherford five times in the breast and bowels when Bob Rutherford intervened and Graham stabbed him twice. Bob Rutherford rushed for a pistol, securing one in the store, with which he did lively work, shooting Graham several times, only one shot taking effect which will prove fatal. A bystander, Mack Matthews, made an effort to quell the row and Bob Rutherford crushed his skull with a pistol. Cal Rutherford will probably die from the wounds and Bob may recover. The Sheriff and Constable took charge of the parties and have them under heavy guard.

Yee haw, boys!

So what happened to West Fork? Obviously, times changed. The big tree harvest and easy money from the crowds of timbermen came to an end. Once the tree is cut, it’s gone. Fruit crops and local canneries suffered from growing competition and new food purity laws. Farmers discovered that the soil was easily depleted and crops didn’t flourish. Also, south county water supplies couldn’t meet the growing demand.

West Fork prospered fairly well until 1919 when an entire block of downtown burned to the ground. The bank lasted until 1929 and closed with the stock market crash. As roads improved and more people made use of motor vehicles, travel became much easier and people began commuting to Fayetteville for jobs, taking even more money away from local businesses. It’s the story of thousands of small rural communities in our country.

(Adapted from a talk I gave May 6, 2017, sponsored by the Friends of West Fork Library and the Washington County Historical Society. Additional photographs will uploaded soon.)

Earliest known photograph of West Fork school, circa 1894. Far left is teacher and his assistant.

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[1] After notice of my talk came out, I was contacted by a man who descended from Richard Dye. We chatted about the location of the school and church. He thought it was on the east side of the highway and a little south, roughly in the area where McKnight’s wrecker service is at this time, perhaps upslope south of the creek bottom. Another source confirms that “Dye’s Shed” was located just south of the business location. (We Call It Home by Harold G. Hutcheson and Bernice Karnes. Observer Press circa 1985.)

[2] “Early Days at West Fork,” Bernice Karnes. Flashback November 1956. 13-18. Fayetteville: Washington County Historical Society.

[3] Karnes p 17

[4] As far as court records show, there was no further followup on the warrant against Newton Jones.

[5] “Origins of the community of Woolsey,” by Robert G. Winn. Observer, no date. Fayetteville Library. Genealogy section.

[6] History of Washington County. Springdale: Shiloh Museum 1989.