Works of Man and Nature

A few days ago I headed out to explore a road I’d never been down before. It’s less than fifteen minutes from where I live and in my current work-in-progress on the history of the West Fork valley, the road is mentioned often. I thought I should see it.

I was not prepared for what I found there.

Winn Creek Road. Named after the creek and Zadock Winn, a man who drowned there back in the early days of settlement. Other Winns established homesteads up that valley, too, and maybe the road took that name before Zadock drowned back in 1852. The road veers off southwest from Woolsey Road south of West Fork amid wide flat pastures framed on either side by steep, thickly-wooded hillsides.

You know you’re getting to the good part when you see the “Pavement Ends” sign. The road narrows. You slow down as tires hit the gravel and a cloud of dust rises behind you. The valley attenuates to its essential elements and tree canopy encloses the roadway in welcome shade.

To the right, the hillside rises sharply, its massive rock outcroppings mostly hidden in dense undergrowth and hardwood forest. I imagine how it must have looked to the first man to blaze this path, hacking his way through brambles and vines. I imagine how he eagerly awaited the next curve of the creek as it curled through the 30-foot deep ravine to the left, perhaps thirsty, perhaps eager to splash water on his sweaty neck.

Creeks were the roads before roads, paths cleared by regular torrents where in times of low water, man or beast could walk without fear of ambush by tick or cougar. Infinite generations of rocks large and small line the creek bottom. Pale brown, gray, occasionally black where the roaring water has undercut shale, limestone and sandstone claim the greater share of the lithic congregation. I pass a few houses, some buried on deeply wooded hillsides with “No Trespassing” signs at the driveway, others laid out alongside barns and white graveled drives.

The valley and its waterway curl under the dominating rise of these northern slopes of the Boston Mountains. Here and there ancient landslides or silted bends form little meadows suitable for a house, a garden, even pasture. I drive along watching the land slowly rise as I pass further south. I think of pioneers who claimed these places as their own, the long process of clearing fields to plant their wheat, corn, oats, cotton, and tobacco. I think of their log cabins, the children they raised, perhaps descendants living here still.

I’m immersed in the past when travel through places that required heavy wagons pulled by mules or a faithful horse to pick its way across the rugged land. I think of the millennia before white men, when Natives crept through the underbrush watching buffalo herds graze. I think of the millions of years it has taken this tiny place on our planet to form, primeval seas that covered the land then receded, the rush of glacial melt carving its way through countless layers of primordial continent with its fossils of all that came before.

Finally the road and creek bed approach the same level. I could stop, walk past a broken down fence line, and wade. I could sit and watch the water sparkle in sunlight as it rushes along its path.

I round a last curve and stop mid-breath. My heart leaps into my throat.

A surreal scene spreads across the narrow valley. My mouth falls open in shock. I’m instantly transported to a science fiction world. It’s almost more than I can take in.

There, straddling the stream and rising so high I must lean forward to see the top, are massive square steel pillars that hold up Interstate 49. The juxtaposition of the interstate and its structural supports against the backdrop of this venerable wild landscape is almost too much to absorb.

I stop, take pictures, try to come to terms with this bizarre reality. I examine the way the highway engineers planned to use the upper canyon wall as a launching pad for the roadway to fly across this valley. I study the exposed layers of earth and stone cut over countless eons by this now-trivial stream, laid bare as if pages of a book waiting to be read.

Not so trivial, even now, it seems. Evidence of raging flood mark the edge of the roadway, grass twisted and brown with silt, knots of weed tangled in fences. I think of Zadock Winn who believed he could cross even though the water foamed and seethed in its torrent. I thought of how, in all things, Nature will always win.

She will win here, too. For now, traffic clatters and roars far above my head, the steady drumming of tires, the regular lub-dub lub-dub as one after another vehicle crosses each section. Some bracing rattles more loudly than others, perhaps already loosening from its original moorings. There is no peace in this valley.

I drive on. Another quarter mile up the road, the creek takes a ninety-degree bend, providing me the fullest view of its intrinsic beauty.

I peer down from the road where it hugs the hillside forty feet above the water. This is the widest point of its course, ornamented in sparkling ridges as layer upon layer of rock gradually step down through the curve. I can almost hear children laughing as they splash and play in the shallow cool water.

Ahead, if I ventured another three miles or so, I’d arrive at Highway 74 where a left turn would take me to Winslow or a right turn would drop me into the wonderland of Devil’s Den State Park. I turn around and go back the way I came.

I drive home slowly, jarred from my normal frame of mind. The experience of that creek and its valley remains an arresting memory I won’t soon forget. It compares with the best stories I’ve seen or read where astonishing realities intersect with the commonplace. The interstate and its undergirding simply do not belong in that landscape.

Yet I’m twenty plus years past any of this being new. Surely the people who lived here during construction grew familiar with the mind-boggling scale of the interstate’s design. Surely the workers laboring day after day through the pouring of concrete and operation of massive cranes to erect these towers saw their labor as being rooted in the ground. It is rooted in the ground. No doubt the foundations for these support towers are driven deep into the strata far below the creek bed.

I wonder how long it will stand, this high-flying roadway built to accommodate a life lived too fast for contemplation of creek bottoms and tumbled rocks. How many decades will these pillars remain? I imagine a future time when only the towers still stand, the path for vehicles long since rusted and crumbled by the forces of weather, traffic, and time. How much of the concrete will fall to this scenic valley? What will it look like here in a hundred years, a mere blink in geologic time?

I’m disappointed in my words and even the photographs to adequately describe my visceral experience of this location. It’s worth the drive to put yourself there, to stand staring up at the work of man while surrounded by the work of Nature. Questions of time, space, and existence arise spontaneously. Of our place in the continuum, of what the future might hold.

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The Shannon-Fisher Feud

Old Washington County Courthouse with the jail in the basement. None of the murderers in the Shannon-Fisher feud ever made it to the jail.

[Special shout-out to Legends of the Old West for their tireless work in collecting and preserving information about our past.]

On Saturday December 19, 1868, young Maurice K. Shannon joined a card game at one of Evansville’s taverns. The bustling town in the extreme southwest corner of Washington County sat nearly astride the border between Arkansas and Indian Territory and suffered a rough traffic of traders, cattle rustlers, whiskey smugglers, and other desperadoes who came and went alongside established local farmers and hopeful merchants who enjoyed a thriving commercial trade of everything from guns to gingham. Maurice grew up here, the eighth of twelve children in a thriving pioneer family. Like most young men, he was itching to prove himself.

Around the table betting alongside the eager eighteen-year-old were men experienced in games of chance including one known as Major Fisher.[1] As might have been predicted by any worldly-wise onlooker, Maurice suffered a distinct disadvantage in this company and soon exhausted his betting purse. Eager to redeem himself and undoubtedly encouraged by Fisher and company to further his embarrassment, Shannon wagered his horse and its saddle on the next hand.

He lost.

Shamefaced, the boy returned home to suffer the wrath of his father Granville Shannon whose fine personal mount and prized saddle had been the property so casually lost to a game of cards. History fails to describe what punishment might have befallen young Maurice. His father had endured hardship for all of his nearly seventy years and didn’t suffer fools lightly.

Soon after his son’s ignominious blunder, Granville rode into Evansville to settle the value of his loss. He demanded Fisher pay him thirty dollars. Bemused, Fisher paid up then put out the word that he wanted full reimbursement from Maurice.

Maurice met with Fisher about a week later on December 26th and tried to make his case. He flat didn’t have thirty dollars, an equivalent of $500 in the present day. Exactly what he said to Fisher, whether he offered terms for settlement or accused Fisher of cheating, is not known. Maurice stood at the bar debating his options of which he had few. The older man had no intention of letting him off the hook.

Finis[2] Shannon, seven years older than Maurice and concerned about his younger brother’s welfare among these hardened tinhorns, had trailed him into town. Now standing in the tavern doorway, he sized up Fisher where he stood some distance from Maurice. Fisher turned and Finis thought he saw the man draw a gun. Quick to defend his brother, Finis fired and shot Fisher through the head, killing him instantly.

Finis Shannon made no effort to escape as people reacted to the shooting.  He stood judgment in a hastily called court session before the township’s justice of the peace. After hearing multiple witnesses give evidence for and against and taking into consideration the history of the conflict, the justice found Shannon’s act to be justifiable and he was set free.[3] Thus began a drawn-out affair that would span more than a year of bloody retribution.

~~~

The infamous John King Fisher of Texas. Is this the man leading the Fisher Gang in Arkansas?

According to the story passed down since the time, John K. Fisher, brother of Major Fisher, had been away at the time of the shooting. He and a friend, Calvin Carter, had been ‘south’ to attend some horse races. On his return, John learned of his brother’s death and became outraged that Finis Shannon had gone free. Demanding a higher court of justice, John K. Fisher quickly saw to Shannon’s re-arrest and had him brought to Fayetteville. There, contrary to John’s expectations, the higher court also found Shannon’s act to be justified and set him free.

John Fisher vowed revenge.

~~~

Much of the lore surrounding the Shannon-Fisher feud had to do with the so-called Fisher Gang led by John King Fisher. His right hand men in this gang were Calvin H. Carter, James “Jim” Reed, Charlie Bush, and James Black. In particular, Jim Reed’s involvement has spilled a gallon of printer’s ink due to the fact that he was married to Belle Starr, a woman whose notoriety far exceeded the reality.

One account claims that the only reason Reed came into the picture was that his brother William Scott Reed had been killed in one of the original shootouts with the Shannons, and Reed wanted revenge. Scott Reed did die in the upcoming Evansville gun battle, but that’s beside the point.

This excuse, promoted by Glenn Shirley who was a kinsman of Belle and a Western writer of the mid-20th century, may have been part of his effort to show Jim Reed as a man brought into the fight against his will.[1] But months before the shoot-out over a card game, Jim Reed, John K. Fisher, Calvin Carter, and Charlie Bush were indicted on a federal charge of selling liquor in the Indian Nations. One of the witnesses was Finis Shannon.[2],[3]

After his failed attempt to put Finis Shannon behind bars for the death of Jarrett Fisher, John K. Fisher made it known around Evansville that he planned to kill Finis. His threat hung in the air as he and his friends lay low. Meanwhile, those close to the Shannon family had risen to Finis’ defense in court as well as in the community and made no effort to hide their disgust with the vigilante justice promised by Fisher.

In particular, Finis Shannon’s father-in-law, Dr. J. C. McKinney, had taken it upon himself to advocate for Finis, no doubt in an effort to ease the mind of his distraught daughter who lived in daily fear of Fisher’s promised retribution. The couple’s daughters Laura Alice and Sophie were only three years and one year old.

A month after Finis shot Major Fisher, on January 21, 1869, Dr. McKinney made his way along Evansville’s main street to George W. McClure’s store for a few purchases. John K. Fisher spotted him outside, followed him into the store, and after exchanging a few words, shot McKinney through the heart. He walked out as McKinney lay dying in the shopkeeper’s arms.

~~~

Do you have any information about this feud or the Shannons and Fishers? Please let me know–this is still an active investigation.

These pieces of the story are excerpted from Chapter 17, Murder in the County: Fifty True Stories of the Old West, by Denele Campbell. The Shannon-Fisher Feud winds on for over a year leaving dead bodies in its wake. For the full account and the collection of all the 19th century murders in Washington County Arkansas, obtain your copy of the book at Nightbird Books in Fayetteville or order from Amazon.com 

~~~

[1] One court record names him as Major Jarrett Fisher.

[2] A corruption of Phineas, ‘Finis’ is but one of several spellings found in historical records for this man. Also found is Fins, Finas, Finias, Finius, Finies, and Fines.

[3] Goodspeed 192-194

[1] Shirley, Glenn. Belle Starr and Her Times: The Literature, the Facts, and the Legends. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1982. Pages 86-93

[2] Jacket 68, pp 570-578 and p 241. Defendant Jacket Files for U. S. District Court Western Division of Arkansas, Fort Smith Division, 1866-1900. Records of District Courts of the United States 1685-2004, ARC ID: 201532. Record Group Number 21. The National Archives at Fort Worth, Fort Worth, Texas, U.S.A.

[3] Glenn Shirley’s account states that “On February 12, 1869, Finnis M. Shannon swore a writ against Fisher, Carter, Bush, and Black for introducing spirituous liquors into the Indian country, a crime for which Shannon had been arrested many times by Fort Smith federal marshals. In response to this capias, Deputy Marshal B. F. Little ‘proceeded to the Indian Nation’ with a posse of four men and ‘was gone in constant and active search for thirty-six days’ without finding his quarry.” Shirley has it wrong. Up until this time, Shannon had never been arrested.

Evansville in lower left corner of the county. Map circa 1909. Oklahoma to the left of the state line.

***History of Evansville from the 1889 Goodspeed History of Washington County, Arkansas:

This village was named in honor of Capt. Lewis Evans, who opened a store there about 1830. He was succeeded by Charles McClellan, and about 1838 a flood of merchants came in, bringing large stocks of goods to sell to the immigrant Cherokees, to whom large sums of money were due from the Government. As payment was delayed for fifteen years, many of these merchants failed, and the business interests of the town were seriously impaired. Soon after the town was laid off, Leonard Schuler established a tan-yard, the most extensive ever in the county. A horse-mill was built by Evans soon after he opened his store, and for a short time it supplied nearly the whole county with meal. There are now in the town two steam saw and grist mills, with cotton gins attached. The first was erected by C. E. Rose, in 1870, and the other by Littlejohn & McCormick, about five years ago.

The first schools in Evansville were taught by Allen M. Scott, who was succeeded by Mrs. Dr. Bartlett. For four years, from about 1874 to 1878, a graded school was maintained, but it has since been abandoned.

The business interests of the town are now represented by the following firms: J. A. Bacon, Basham & Goodrich, J. M. Chandler, J. R. Flinn, F. N. & N. B. Littlejohn and G. W. McClure, general stores; L. W. Rosser, cabinet maker; W. L. Childress, cabinet and wagon maker, and J. C. Ferguson, wagon maker. About one mile north of Evansville is a little village known as Greersburg, containing a store, a blacksmith shop, carpenter shop, a Masonic lodge and a school-house.

No known images of 19th century Evansville exist.

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

 

The Violent End of the Gilliland Boys

 

On Friday, Christmas Day 1874, and after more than two years of near-death tension, Bud Gilliland joined an energetic crowd at the Lewis Mills, a thriving Northwest Arkansas community along the Middle Fork of White River. In celebration of the season, proud horse owners lined up their snorting high-tempered steeds to compete in a favored recreation of those times, horse racing. The dusty race track stretched down the long valley. More than few friendly bets changed hands among the crowd as people craned their necks to see the red flag at the far end flapping in the stiff breeze.

Bud walked among the gathered horses, greeting people he’d known all his growing up years. He kept looking around, anxious to spot a particular face. If he saw Newton Jones, he knew what he’d do. He clapped his hand against the Colts pistol holstered at his hip. Hidden under his overcoat, the weapon wouldn’t provoke any outcry. At the right time, he’d put it to good use.

As it happened, this wasn’t a great place for someone feuding with a Jones.[1] The valley was the heart of Jones family lands. All the more reason for Bud to attend—he was sure to encounter Newton here. He paced a distance from the crowd, squinting under the overcast sky as he searched, finally satisfied the younger man wasn’t here yet. Bud squared his shoulders and lifted his chin. He’d waited long enough for this lily liver.

Newton had already saddled up when he got wind of Bud’s presence at the races. He’d been lying low, afraid of what Bud might do next. But as the season of holiday gathering approached, he’d decided he had to confront Bud, knowing the likelihood of his appearance at the races and infuriated over the near miss he’d suffered in Bud’s sights two years earlier. Bud’s brief time in jail hadn’t subdued him any. Those damn Gillilands thought they could get away with anything. And they damn near had.

Newton knew what it would take. He had a wife now and a baby on the way. The time for dangerous tomfoolery had ended.

A cold breeze ripped through the crowd as a man on a horse galloped in from the roadway. Bystanders had no time to react as Newton pulled up in a cloud of dust, whipped his Spencer rifle from its saddle scabbard, and quickly centered Bud in his sights. He took a deep breath and squeezed the trigger.

In a mere second, the leaden ball found its target. Shocked, Bud looked up into the eyes of his foe. A few men shouted amid the collective gasp as the gunshot echoed up the hillside.

The event would set off a chain reaction that would forever resonate through the region and the Gilliland and Jones families. Not only Bud but his two brothers Jeff and Fine would face other men at the point of a gun, and the killing didn’t stop there.

~~~

 

[1] On Arkansas Highway 74 between Arnett and Sulphur City, sometimes marked as Hicks, Arkansas

~~~

In the completion of my recent book, Murder in the County: 50 True Stories of the Old West, it became apparent that three of the fifty murders profiled there were committed by members of the same family! Intrigued, I researched more about these folks and the result is now published under the title The Violent End of the Gilliland Boys. Fascinating and shocking, this story features more twists and turns than an Ozarks dirt road.

The death of Bud surely grieved his father. But before the curtains closed on these descendants of J. C. and Rebecca Gilliland in 1890, two other sons and a grandson would die a violent death while yet another grandson serves hard time for murder.

What was it about the Gillilands?

This recounting of the family tracks their ancestry, their pioneer years on untamed land, and the hard work that made them one of the wealthiest families in Washington County, Arkansas. A fascinating tale of brash ego, brave gallantry, and bad luck.

Available in paperback at Amazon

The Old West

In the completion of my recent book, Murder in the County: 50 True Stories of the Old West, I discovered that three of the fifty murders profiled there were committed by members of the same family! Intrigued, I researched more about these folks and the result is now published under the title The Violent End of the Gilliland Boys. Fascinating and shocking, this story features more twists and turns than an Ozarks dirt road.

Christmas Day horse races 1872, Middle Fork Valley.  Young Bud Gilliland waits, eager for another chance at his neighbor Newton Jones. Only this time, after two years of sparring, Newton gallops up in a cloud of dust, aims his Spencer rifle, and sends Bud to a well-earned grave.

The death of Bud surely grieved his father. But before the curtains closed on these descendants of J. C. and Rebecca Gilliland in 1891, two other sons and a grandson would die a violent death while yet another grandson served hard time for murder.

What was it about the Gillilands?

This recounting of the family tracks their ancestry, their pioneer years on untamed land, and the hard work that made them one of the wealthiest families in Washington County, Arkansas. A fascinating tale of brash ego, brave gallantry, and plain old bad luck.

Paperback now available for only $9.95 at. Don’t miss it!

 

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