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

Worlds Collide in One Man’s Heritage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jim Reed and Belle at their marriage 1866

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This was the murder not included in my book.

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

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

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

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

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

Major John Ridge

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

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

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

~~~

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

[2] Cherokee Advocate, June 19, 1848.

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

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.

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

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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