Tombstone Tuesday: Oscar Garnett Compton, A Case Study in Historical and Ancestral Research

TombstoneTuesday    Today’s Tombstone Tuesday article is a bit different since I’m presenting it as a case study.  Specifically, what search techniques can you use when you hit the so-called “brick wall”?

I was chatting with a friend before church on Sunday and talking about my efforts to start a business specializing in historical and ancestral research.  She shared a bit of what she knew about her husband’s birth father (he and his brother were adopted by an aunt and uncle).  She mentioned they knew his name (Howard Clyde Compton) and where he was buried (San Antonio, Texas) but nothing else.  My curiosity was immediate piqued!  After locating Howard’s page on Find-A-Grave and verifying that was the correct person, I was off and running on a quest to unravel a mystery.  NOTE:  Be sure and click on the images below to get a better view.

First, of course, I found out everything I could about Howard and, surprisingly, found his death certificate.  Death certificates usually contain a wealth of information about a person, including their birth date, occupation and parentage (not always, though, as you’ll see a bit later).  From his death certificate I found the names of his parents:  Oscar G. Compton and Civil Grant.  Howard was born on January 4, 1910 and died on May 31, 1973 at the age of sixty-three and was employed as a baker in San Antonio, Bexar County, Texas.  Another clue to his identity and that of his parents: he and his mother Civil Grant share a grave stone:

HowardClydeComptonAndCivilGrant_GraveStoneI believe that Civil and Oscar had divorced at some point, but haven’t found any records yet.  One of the first records I located for Oscar was his obituary published in the San Antonio Express on January 25, 1932.

OscarGarnettCompton_Obit(SanAntonioExpress_25Jan1932There was no mention of Civil, leading me to conclude they were no longer married.  The obituary, however, mentions his brothers and his still-living children.  Some good information, but not quite enough because I still did not know who Oscar’s parents were.  His death certificate proved to be a “brick wall” (temporarily at least).

OscarGarnettComptonSr_DeathCert_smAccording to his obituary he had been living in McAllen, Texas and was in San Antonio, possibly visiting his children, at the time of his death.  The obituary did mention his living children:  Bonnie Louise, Howard, and Cecil Inez.  There was another child, however, whose story I need to tell before returning to the mystery of Oscar’s parentage.

I knew that there had been another child born in 1911 because I found his death certificate as well.  He was Oscar Garnett Compton, Jr. and across his death record was a startling notation: “Killed by Mexican Bandits”!

OscarGarnettComptonJr_DeathCert_smI wanted to know more, of course, so I searched for “May 5, 1916″ and found the story of a raid by some of Pancho Villa’s gang in tiny Glenn Springs, Texas in Brewster County on that day.  Although the story had mis-identified Oscar, Sr. as “C.G. Compton”, I knew I had the right persons because of the death certificate.  On that day, Oscar Garnett Compton, Jr. was murdered by the bandits.  Oscar, Sr. had apparently taken his daughter to a neighbor’s house and left his two sons alone.  Upon returning, he found Oscar, Jr. had been killed and his other son, a deaf mute, was unharmed.

I began to wonder if the deaf mute was Howard Clyde (although an article I found referred to him as “Tommy” – not sure why but perhaps some sort of a nickname?).  Let me backtrack a bit before I relate how I made the assumption that perhaps Howard Clyde was the deaf mute.  I knew the birth mother was Neta May Leavitt, and knew that, according to her obituary, she had attended the Texas School for the Deaf.  After seeing the bandit story and knowing Neta May’s background, I made the connection (and later verified that indeed Howard was deaf – he and Neta May were classmates at the deaf school).  Thus, I believe that my friend’s birth father witnessed his brother’s murder at the Glenn Springs raid.

Now, back to Oscar, Sr. and his “parent-less” death certificate.  Since that document did not yield the information I was searching for, I turned back to his obituary, and specifically the list of his siblings.  His World War I draft registration card had recorded his birth date as February 23, 1882 and a family researcher had recorded on their tree that he was born in Williamson County, Texas, so I started there.

I thought that probably at least one of the brothers listed was older than Oscar.  Sure enough, I found “R.J. Compton” listed on the 1880 census in Williamson County.  His father was G.F. Compton and his mother was listed as Atla Compton.  That helped, but what did “G.F.” stand for (hate those lazy census takers who used only initials!).  Luckily though, another record had popped up on the same page as the census record with a link to a death record for Golding Freeman Compton – bingo!

After a quick search at Find-A-Grave, I was able to locate the entries for Oscar’s parents, although on the grave stone the names are “Golden Freeman” and “Altala A.”.  I believe “Golding” was his actual first name (as it turns out, that was his father’s middle name), but was either mis-spelled on the stone or perhaps that might have been a nickname.  Following a little more research, I discovered that Oscar’s mother was named Altala Augusta Robinson (at least that’s the surname on their marriage record, although her first name was spelled “Amala” – close enough).

GoldingFreemanComptonAndAltala_Gravestone_smAnother record linked on the Find-A-Grave entries for Golding and Altala was for a son named “Lewis Freeman Compton” – the other brother listed in Oscar’s obituary: “L.F. Compton”.  I also found a copy of Golding’s death certificate and the contact was his son “R.E. Compton” – the other brother!

So, don’t ever give up even if you find a record like an obituary or death certificate that doesn’t appear to have the information you’re looking for – keep digging and take the “back way” if you have to!

Everyone have a great day — someday it will be history!

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© Sharon Hall (History Depot), 2014.
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Mothers of Invention: Patsy O’Connell Sherman

PatsySherman  Today’s “mother of invention” article features another “parent-friendly” product (last week it was disposable diapers).  As you will see, she could also be characterized as a “feisty female”.

Patsy O’Connell Sherman was born on September 15, 1930 in Minneapolis, Minnesota to parents James and Edna O’Connell.  During her high school years, Patsy took an aptitude test which showed her best career choice would that of housewife.  In that day, how many young women do you think received that same recommendation?  Patsy, however, refused to accept that result and demanded to take the boy’s aptitude test.

According to the Minnesota Science and Technology Hall of Fame, she wanted to attend college but certainly didn’t want to spend all that time and money educating herself only to become a housewife.  The aptitude test for boys revealed a much different career path – she would be well-suited to be either a dentist or a scientist.

In 1952 Patsy graduated from Gustavus Adolphus College with a Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry and mathematics – and the first female attending the school to do so.  As an example of how things have drastically changed, after graduating Patsy took a “temp job” at Minnesota-based 3M Corporation.  She was contracted to assist in developing a new type of fuel line for jet aircraft through the use of fluorochemicals.  The reason her job was considered temporary?  At that time women hired to work in laboratories were considered temporary employees, assuming they would leave to get married and have a family.

In 1953 while working on the fuel line project, a lab assistant spilled some of the chemicals she had been experimenting with on her white canvas shoes.  Attempts to clean off the spilled drops were unsuccessful, but she noticed that later the area where the chemicals had spilled were clean while other parts of her shoes where dirty.

She and fellow scientist Samuel Smith worked together and on April 13, 1971 received approval for United States Patent 3574791 for “invention of block and graft copolymers containing water-solvatable polar groups and fluoroaliphatic groups.”  The fluorochemical polymer that Patsy and Samuel developed was marketed by 3M under the trademark name of Scotchgard™.  Development of their invention presented another challenge for Patsy, however – at that time women weren’t allowed to be inside the textile mill where performance tests were conducted.

3M continued to develop the Scotchgard™ line of products and Patsy received sixteen other patents, sharing thirteen of them with Samuel Smith.  Patsy was the first person to develop an “optical brightener” – something that gave detergent manufacturers the right to boast that clothes washed in their product would be “whiter than white.”

Patsy O’Connell married Hubert Sherman and had children, but she defied the “norm” and remained at 3M her entire career.  By the time she retired in 1992, she had advanced through the ranks and was manager of technical development.  She received several prestigious honors throughout her career and beyond, including induction into 3M’s Carlton Society (1974) which honors the company’s best scientists, the Minnesota Inventors Hall of Fame (1989) and the National Inventors Hall of Fame (2001).

Her husband died in 1996 and Patsy died on February 11, 2008.  She apparently passed on her love of science to her two daughters – one is a chemist at 3M and the other a biologist.  Patsy Sherman, the “accidental inventor” once remarked:

You can encourage and teach young people to observe, to ask questions when unexpected things happen. You can teach yourself not to ignore the unanticipated. Just think of all the great inventions that have come through serendipity, such as Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin, and just noticing something no one conceived of before.

Everyone have a great day — someday it will be history!

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© Sharon Hall (History Depot), 2014.
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Preacher’s Wife: Elizabeth Whitefield

PWLogoGeorge Whitefield was indeed a great and passionate minister of the Gospel (see previous articles here and here), but unlike some of his contemporaries, he had not married.  He wrote a friend in 1740 expressing his belief that it was God’s will for him to marry, but with some reservations: “I pray God that I may not have a wife till I can live as though I had none.”  As one historian observed, that ambivalence was later reflected in what might be termed a less than fulfilling marriage by the standards of that day.

Before he sailed for America the first time in 1739, George had met twenty-five year old Elizabeth Delamotte, but struggled with his feelings at the time.  Frustrated, he set out for America determined to put her out of his mind – except that by the time he arrived in Georgia a letter from Miss Delamotte was waiting for him.  He wrote her back saying, “What room can there be for God when a rival hath taken possession of the heart?  I could almost drop a tear, and wish myself, for a moment or two, in England.  But hush, nature.”

Clearly, Whitefield was conflicted but decided to propose to Elizabeth by letter anyway.  It might be characterized as the worst marriage proposal ever though, as he began listing all the suffering and trials she would have to endure as his wife.  He pointedly asked her, “Can you, when you have a husband, be as though you had none, and willingly part with him, even for a long season, when his Lord and Master shall call him forth to preach the Gospel?”

One more statement perhaps ended any chance he had of winning Elizabeth Delamotte’s hand in marriage: “I write not from any other principles but the love of God . . . . The passionate expressions which carnal courtiers use . . . . ought to be avoided by those that would marry in the Lord.”  His proposal was rejected by Elizabeth Delamotte, yet George still felt he was to have a wife.

George confided his thoughts to fellow evangelist Howell Harris.  Harris had fallen in love with Elizabeth James, a Welsh widow.  Their love for one another was strong, but Howell struggled with the same feelings as his friend George – wanting “no creature between my soul and God.”  Howell had tried repeatedly to end his relationship with Elizabeth but had failed several times.

When George mentioned his dilemma, Howell must have thought perhaps he could solve his own dilemma by introducing Elizabeth James to his friend.  George was impressed by her devotion to God, and then teamed up with Howell in writing to Elizabeth to propose the “swap”.  Put yourself in Elizabeth’s shoes – she was angry that Howell would propose such a thing behind her back: “If you were my own father you had no right of disposing me against my will.”

George and Elizabeth corresponded for a time, and while George became convinced he had found the right person, Elizabeth “objected much.”  She was still in love with Howell Harris, and he admitted as much: “her regards to me and that she could not help it still.”  However, Elizabeth finally acquiesced and married George on November 11, 1741 – and Howell Harris gave her away.

George had already vowed in his heart that marriage would not change his busy schedule.  He “would not preach one sermon less in a married than in a single state.”  During their “honeymoon” George preached twice a day, and through the years of their marriage she more often than not remained in London while he traveled far and wide.

Even though he had vowed to keep his relentless preaching schedule, George lamented a mere two months following his wedding: “O for that blessed time when we shall neither marry nor be given in marriage, but be as the angels of God.”  George’s struggles with marriage and an earthly love life continued.

One historian notes that Elizabeth’s letters showed it took her quite a while to put Howell Harris out of her mind.  She struggled with childbearing, suffering four miscarriages.  Their only child, a son, died at the aged of four months – George preached three times before his son’s funeral.

Elizabeth had become a Christian just three years before marrying George Whitefield, yet she had a passion for God that was perhaps the only “glue” that held their marriage together.  Once, in a letter to a friend, George had written about Elizabeth: “neither rich in fortune, nor beautiful as to her person, but, I believe, a true child of GOD, and would not, I think, attempt to hinder me in his work for the world.”  Ultimately, George had wanted a “helpmeet” and found that in Elizabeth despite his frequent absences.

Elizabeth died on August 9, 1768 and while their lives were so often spent apart, George wrote of her death: “I feel the loss of my right hand daily.”

Everyone have a great day — someday it will be history!

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© Sharon Hall (History Depot), 2014.
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Surname Saturday: Tinker

TinkerCrest      Most sources agree that today’s surname is of occupational origins, perhaps referring to someone who was a mender of pots and pans (“tinner”).  The earliest individuals bearing a particular surname, especially an occupational one, were usually employed in that profession.  The occupational name passed to succeeding generations even if the occupational tradition was not, especially after The Middle Ages.

The Internet Surname Database disagrees with the type of occupation, believing that the name did not necessarily refer to someone who mended pots and pans, but perhaps one who sold them – a peddler.  Their premise is that the name derived from the Middle English word “tink(l)er” because “they made their approach known by tinking, by either ringing or making a tinkling noise.”  Another reason for their theory is that during King Edward VI’s reign a law was passed basically outlawing peddling: “No person or persons commonly called Pedler, Tynker, or Pety Chapman, shall wander or go from one towne to another . . . and sell pynnes, poyntes laces, gloves, knyves, glasses, tapes, or any suche kynde of wares whatsoever or gather connye skynnes.”

A person bearing this surname was recorded in 1244 in “The History Of St. Bartholomew’s Hospital”, but one of the first instances may have been recorded in 1243, during King Henry III’s reign, in County Somerset for Robert le Tinker.  The name may also have appeared as “Tinkler” at times – Edward Tinkler was listed in the Yorkshire Poll Tax of 1379.

Thomas Tinker

Thomas Tinker, thought to have been the first Tinker to come to America, was a passenger on the Mayflower and made the journey because of religious persecution.  Before their arrival in the New World, forty-three Pilgrims signed their names on November 11, 1620 to a document called the “Mayflower Compact” which would govern the settlers.  His name is also inscribed on the Plymouth Rock Monument.

The Compact had been signed while still on board the ship and the original intent was to disembark in the colony of Virginia, but storms forced them to take refuge in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, later named Plymouth after the port city in County Devonshire.

Thomas, his wife and son were likely English separatists who had resided in Leiden, Holland for a time to escape persecution.  Thomas Tinker was a wood sawyer by trade.  The names of his wife and son were not noted, recorded by William Bradford as “Thomas Tinker, and his wife and a sone.”

The journey was not an easy one and two deaths occurred before landing in Massachusetts.  Sickness had already been rampant and upon arrival the Pilgrims were faced with even more challenges.  Sadly, Thomas Tinker and his family all perished – “all dyed in the first sicknes” according to William Bradford.  That would have occurred sometime between December 1620 and January 1621, but no specific date was recorded for the Tinker family’s death.  They were likely buried in unmarked graves in an area referred to today s “Cole’s Hill”.

John Tinker

John Tinker was born in England around 1614 perhaps and his name began to appear in Boston records around 1635.  It’s possible that John’s parents also immigrated around the same time.  In 1639, while away in England, John wrote a letter to John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and enclosed a letter for his mother.

It appears that John Tinker was a well-educated man who had obtained a social position worthy of being addressed as either “Mr. Tinker” or “Master Tinker”.  Records show that he was a merchant or trader as well as an attorney.  John married Mrs. Sarah Barnes, a divorceé with two daughters (her husband had deserted his family), but it’s unclear when their marriage occurred.

Curiously, her divorce from William Barnes was not recorded until 1649 – and Sarah died in 1648.  Following her death, the care of her daughter Mary was entrusted to Richard Cooke, a tailor in Boston and Alice was cared for by John Tinker.  Some speculate that perhaps Cooke was Mary’s uncle, his wife being Sarah’s sister.

Sometime prior to December 9, 1649 John married his second wife Alice Smith (Alice signed her name “Alice Tinker” as witness to a land transaction on that date).  In 1654 John was made a freeman and in 1655 was offered a sizable piece of property in Lancaster, Massachusetts in exchange for his governmental service as the town’s clerk.   In 1659 he and his family removed to Pequot in the Connecticut Colony.

JohnTinkerSigIn Pequot John was again active in governmental as well as church affairs.  Not long after his arrival the minister of the First Congregational Church in New London departed and John filled in until a new pastor arrived.

While serving as the Chief Magistrate of New London’s Court, John refused to prosecute someone who had spoken out against the King of England.  Three of his fellow citizens took exception and charged him with treason, after which John charged them with defamation.

The suit went to the General Court at Hartford, but before it could be settled John Tinker died in October of 1682.  The Court, however, regarded those charges as attempts to malign Tinker’s character and levied fines against his accusers.  Out of respect for his reputation, the expenses of John Tinker’s illness and funeral were borne by the Colony of Connecticut.

One more Tinker story.  In 1663, too long after John’s death, his wife Alice was found to be “with child.”  Of course, this type of thing was not tolerated in the Puritan community and Alice had to appear before the General Court.  Before the Court she shockingly admitted that the father of her child was Jeremiah Blinman, son of a former minister.  Apparently, Alice only paid a fine – otherwise she could have been subjected to more stringent and obvious forms of punishment (think “scarlet letter”).  Jeremiah also paid a fine in 1663.

As it turns out though, Jeremiah was not the father, but a married man by the name of Samuel Smith, a New London commissioner.  Samuel deserted his wife and moved to Virginia before Alice’s baby was born – records and depositions seem to indicate that he admitted responsibility after his wife Rebecca filed for divorce on the grounds of desertion.  The divorce was finalized in 1667.

Meanwhile, Alice Tinker had married another man, an attorney by the name of William Measure, in 1664.  Alice, her five children by John Tinker and William Measure moved to Lyme, Connecticut soon after their marriage and remained there until their deaths.

What happened to the illegitimate child?  Sarah Tinker was born in Lyme in 1664 (whether before or after Alice’s wedding to Measure is unclear).  A record exists in the land records of Lyme listing Sarah as the “daughter of John Tinker”, entitling her to an allowance of land equal to that of any heir of the land’s original owner.


Descendants of James Stanclift of Middletown, Connecticut and Allied Families, by Robert C. and Sherry [Smith] Stancliff

The Ancestors of Silas Tinker in America from 1637, by A.B. Tinker (1889)

Everyone have a great day — someday it will be history!

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© Sharon Hall (History Depot), 2014.
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Far-Out Friday: The Maggie Murphy Potato Hoax

FarOutFridayThe so-called Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century was a period of rapid industrialization and economic expansion in the United States.  A by-product of that time, especially in the 1890’s and into the early twentieth century, was a phenomenon known as “yellow journalism”.  While today’s article isn’t specifically about that topic (but watch for a series in the future), newspapers tried just about everything they could dream up to sell newspapers – including s-t-r-e-t-c-h-i-n-g the truth, especially with sensational headlines and little or no legitimate research to back up a story.

Joseph B. Swan was a potato farmer from Loveland, Colorado and according to the Museum of Hoaxes web site, once grew twenty-six thousand pounds of potatoes in one year on one acre of land.  Swan had also claimed to have grown a giant potato weighing over thirteen pounds.

The story goes that sometime in 1894 the editor of the local newspaper (Loveland Reporter), W.L. Thorndyke, decided to help Swan promote his prodigious potato-growing skills by taking a picture of one of the potatoes.  But this picture wouldn’t depict just a normal every-day potato.  Instead the two men came up with the idea to take the photograph and enlarge it.

The services of photographer Adam H. Talbot were engaged and he took the photograph and enlarged it to a ridiculously large size.  The next step was to attach the photograph to a wooden board of the same size and shape.  To complete the illusion, Swan posed for another picture with this “giant potato” on his shoulder with a sign reporting its weight to be 86 pounds and 10 ounces.  This would serve as a sort of “tongue-in-cheek” way for Joseph Swan to promote his product at a local street fair.  Some people have jokingly refer to this as the world’s first “Photoshop®” job.

After the photograph was seen and passed around the local community, it came to the attention of an editor in a neighboring town.  He thought it humorous, tacked it up on a bulletin board and soon people seeing it would ask for their own copy.

Amazingly, sometime in the spring of 1895 the “mammoth potato” story began circulating in newspapers throughout the country.  The photograph came to the attention of Dumont Clarke of New York.  Clarke thought his “discovery” to be a worthy news item and passed it on to the editors of the prestigious Scientific American magazine.    Clarke was president of the American Exchange National Bank and no doubt a man whose word was trusted – so trusted perhaps that the magazine didn’t bother to check the facts.

ScientificAmerican_PotatoStoryA high-quality engraving of the photograph was produced and published in the September 18, 1895 issue.  Not long afterwards, however, the editors discovered the photograph was a fake and quickly issued a terse retraction:

The photo picture of the mammoth potato we published on page 199 proves to be a gross fraud, being a contrivance of the photographer who imposed upon us as well as others. An artist who lends himself to such methods of deception may be ranked as a thoroughbred knave, to be shunned by everybody.

As we would say today, Scientific American got “punked” — embarrassingly  so.  However, the story continued to be published and even made note of the Scientific American’s original statement of gratitude: “We are indebted to Dumont Clarke, Esq., says the Scientific American, of New York, for the photograph from which our engraving was made, showing the monstrous size of a potato grown by Mr. J.B. Swan, of Loveland, Col.” (Junction City Union (Kansas) 23 Nov 1895)

Even after the publication’s retraction, Swan still had to explain that the photograph wasn’t real.  Farmers were contacting him for either seeds or a piece of his giant potato to grow some of their own.  With all the hoopla over something originally meant to be a humorous way of advertising his farm products, Swan grew weary of the attention and simply said the potato had been stolen.

His friend Thorndyke, however, was apparently pleased with the hoax he had helped to perpetrate, for he boasted, “Newspapermen are reported to be the greatest liars on earth.”  Given the age of “yellow journalism”, this isn’t a surprising statement.


Despite Scientific American’s sternly-worded retraction in 1895 the hoax continued to be circulated.  The story was again published with the same photograph by The Strand Magazine in July of 1897.  The magazine featured a mixture of both fictional and factual stories, but published the mammoth potato story as a factual one.  Like the Scientific American, they too issued a retraction.

In 2012 a play, written by playwright Rick Padden and entitled “The Great Loveland Potato Hoax”, premiered in Loveland.

Everyone have a great day — someday it will be history!

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© Sharon Hall (History Depot), 2014.
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Book Review Thursday: America: Imagine A World Without Her

AmericaI wholeheartedly agree with one book review at “This book should be required reading for every high school and college student.”  In his latest book, Dinesh D’Souza defends America and its way of life, capitalism, free markets and all.  This despite the fact that every single day the progressive left seeks to denigrate and tear down these aspects that make coming to America so attractive to both immigrants and the native born.  His defense of America could be summed up in this quote: “In America your destiny isn’t given to you; it is constructed by you.”

Chapter by chapter, using documented facts, D’Souza diffuses the progressive argument against America, and all the while the theme “what would the world be like without America” is running in the back of the reader’s mind.  D’Souza, himself an immigrant from India, is proud to be an American.  Perhaps these days someone who was not native born can offer a more vigorous defense of America and its exceptionalism.  This book certainly makes it seem so.

If you’re paying attention, it’s obvious that America is in decline at this time with the steam-rolling progressive policies of both the left and right.  Yet D’Souza argues that need not be our final epitaph as a country.  He closes out the book by arguing that “decline is a choice.”  Here are a few excerpts in summation:

I pray this does not happen to America, sapping the optimism that built this country, and that I still saw a generation ago.  And it need not happen: the crisis we face is also an opportunity.  But we cannot delay – to delay is to convert a crisis into an irreversible situation.  Then we will have not only failed ourselves, we will also have failed our children.  We will have failed America when we were in a position to save her. . . .

This is a rare time when America’s future hangs in the balance, and when Americans can do something about it.  This occurred in 1776, when Americans had to figure out whether to create a new country or live under British domination.  This was the crisis of the creation of America.  It occurred again in 1860, when Americans had to decide whether to preserve the union or let it dissolve.  This was the crisis for the preservation of America.  And now we have to choose whether to protect the American era or to let the naysayers, at home and abroad, take us down.  This is the crisis of the restoration of America. . .

Decline is a choice, but so is liberty.  Let us resolve as Americans to make liberty our choice.

If you are looking for a full-throated, reasoned defense of America in the face of progressive policies, both in our government and in our schools and other institutions, then you will find this book compelling.  If you’ve ever read any of D’Souza’s other books, heard him lecture or debate progressives (including the likes of Bill Ayers and Noam Chomsky), you know that he will present a positive and even-handed approach to whatever subject he is addressing.  Even if you’ve seen the movie, go pick up a copy of the book – it’s well worth your time to read.

Rating:  ★★★★★

Everyone have a great day — someday it will be history!

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© Sharon Hall (History Depot), 2014.
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Ghost Town Wednesday: Navajoe, Oklahoma

BuckskinJoeSome historians credit Joseph S. “Buckskin Joe” Works, a Texas land promoter, with the founding of today’s ghost town around 1887.  Another historian, Dr. Edward Everett Dale who was a research professor of history at the University of Oklahoma, wrote in 1946 that the town had its origins in 1886 when two brothers-in-law, W.H. Acers and H.P. Dale, built a general store in hopes of trading with the Indians and garnering business from cattle herders heading north to Kansas.  At the time the men came to the area, it was actually part of Greer County, Texas.

Acers and Dale applied for the establishment of a post office under the name of “Navajo”, presumably named after the nearby Navajo Mountains.  They got their post office which opened for business on September 1, 1887 under the name “Navajoe” – the extra “e” would differentiate it from the post office in Navajo, Arizona (this long before the days of postal zip codes).

A general store and a post office doesn’t necessarily a town make, but after Buckskin Joe arrived on July 4, 1887 he immediately launched efforts to formally lay out an eighty-acre town site.  In return for his agreement to promote the town he was granted half of the lots.  For those efforts, even though Acers and Dale had been there first, Works was considered the town’s “father”.  Before the year was over a Baptist Church, the first Protestant church to be established in what would eventually become Oklahoma Indian Territory, was established.  The following year the Navajoe School was opened.

On February 8, 1860, Governor Sam Houston had established Greer County, carved out of a portion of Young County, and named after John Alexander Greer, a veteran of the Texas War for Independence.  The Civil War interrupted the formal establishment proceedings, however, but by July of 1886 the county had been organized with a government in place – this despite the fact that for years the United States government and the State of Texas had been embroiled in a dispute over boundaries.

A brief was submitted to the United States Supreme Court and on March 16, 1896 the Court ruled in favor of the United States government, concluding:

The territory east of the 100th meridian of longitude, west and south of the north fork of Red river, and north of a line following westward, as prescribed by the treaty of 1819 between the United States and Spain, along the south bank both of Red river and of the Prairie Down Town fork or south fork of Red river until such line meets the 100th meridian of longitude, which territory is sometimes called Greer county, constitutes no part of Texas, but is subject to the exclusive jurisdiction of the United States.

Translation: the border dispute was over whether the south fork or the north fork of the Red River was the natural boundary.  Navajoe lay within the area bounded by the two forks.

BuckskinJoeHouseBuckskin Joe had big plans for Navajoe.  Upon arrival he built a home for his family, a half-dugout type which he claimed cost only thirty-five dollars to build.  His next venture was a hotel for those coming to the territory in search of land.  He also established a publication called “The Emigrant’s Guide” to circulate throughout Texas to attract settlers to “his” town.  Despite his obvious enthusiasm in settling the area, Works remained there for only a year or two.  By 1891 he was promoting the town of Comanche near Chickasaw territory.

NavajoeHotelStill, his efforts continued to pay off and others benefited from it.  Acers and Dale prospered with their general store and settlers came despite the border dispute. The establishment of a post office had helped as well since before that time mail service came sporadically from Vernon, Texas.  Afterwards the mail carrier rode down to the Red River and met the carrier from Vernon.  The post office was located in a corner of the general store and was the meeting place every evening as the men gathered to await the posting of that day’s mail around eight o’clock.  Dr. Edward Dale described the nightly ritual:

Here they sat on the counter, smoked cigarettes, chewed tobacco, and told yarns or indulged in practical jokes while waiting for “the mail to be put up”.  Once this was accomplished and the window opened each and every one walked up to it and solemnly inquired: “Anything for me?”  Few of them ever got any mail; most of them would have been utterly astonished if they ever had got any mail but asking for it was a part of a regular ritual and missing the experience was a near tragedy.

Other business establishments followed, including another general store just north of Acers and Dale’s store – not nearly as successful as theirs, however.  Ed Clark opened a saloon down the street with a room for poker, seven-up and dominoes.  It was, of course, a popular place for cowboys and “the town’s loafers” as Dr. Dale called them.  However, the church-going folks objected (their house of worship was across the street) and eventually voted the town dry, with the exception of certain patent medicines.

W.H.H. Cranford was the town “druggist” who sold those patent medicines especially to the local Indians because under federal laws they were not to be sold liquor (so-called patent medicines were notoriously constituted of significant amounts of alcohol).  Other stores were built, some busy and some not.  Most had a porch where the men could sit around and “shoot the breeze”.   The town’s doctor, H.C. Redding, had his office across the street from Cranford’s establishment.  Redding disliked Cranford intensely since his “medicine” often deprived the doctor of patients and a fee.

Some cattle ranchers leased Indian lands to graze their cattle and had money to pay their hands fairly well, but most settlers in the area were very poor.  The occasional odd job and perhaps a small crop of wheat yielded very little income.  Some would spend their winters poisoning and skinning wolves or killing prairie chickens and quail.

The general population of the area may have been impoverished but that didn’t prevent them from enjoying what life they had – “characterized by abundant leisure” as Dr. Dale put it.  Merchants were seldom too busy to gossip and “chew the fat” with their customers or whoever wandered into their stores.  The town had its share of colorful characters as well.

One such character was Uncle Billy Warren, described by Dr. Dale as “a small, dried up old fellow who had been a scout for the United States Army in earlier days.”  Warren received a pension of thirty dollars a month, which likely made him one of the most “wealthy” men in town.  A gambler known as “eat ‘em up Jake” got his nickname allegedly following a hand of cards containing five aces.  His opponent, of course, had something to say about that, but Jake crumpled the fifth card and ate it to avoid a confrontation.

Interestingly, another man by the last name of Harlan lived at the hotel.  He appeared to be an educated man and when he had been drinking would use legal terms and refer to himself as “Judge”.  As it turns out, he was the brother of Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan who would deliver the Court’s opinion regarding the border dispute.  A letter from Justice Harlan had arrived addressed to the postmaster inquiring about his brother’s welfare.  The postmaster promptly replied that his brother “as highly respected when sober and well cared for when drunk so it was not necessary to feel any uneasiness about him.”

Despite its relaxed atmosphere the town had its share of excitement in the way of gunfights and a nearby battle with Kiowa Indians in 1891.  Acers and Dale eventually sold out and left the area.  The post office was moved to Cranford’s store and he increased his inventory, adding dry goods, clothing, notions – and a stock of coffins in an attic above the store.

Following the Court’s decision in 1896 the town went through a series of changes as people moved on and others came into the area then known as Oklahoma Territory.  Some of the more “colorful” characters may have departed, but after new settlers came to farm the area acquired a little more sophistication, according to Dr. Dale.  In the late 1890’s a brief mining boom occurred – for years it had been speculated that the Navajo Mountains held treasures of gold.

The boom turned out to be more of a bust but another wave of settlers would come in 1901 following the opening of Kiowa-Comanche lands to white settlement.  One would think that would have improved the long-term viability of the town of Navajoe.  However, it effected just the opposite.  Many citizens of Navajoe secured some of that land and left the town.  The new settlement areas would have railroad access.

As was the case many times over during that era, towns without a nearby railroad slowly died away.  Navajoe was never a big town but had plenty of character as evidenced by its array of colorful and interesting citizens.  As Dr. Dale phrased it, “[I]n the full vigor of youth it simply vanished from the earth.”

NavajoeCemeteryThe area is now situated in Jackson County, Oklahoma.  The Navajoe Cemetery remains, and according to Find-A-Grave has over seven hundred interments, some very recent.  Dr. Dale lived in Navajoe for a time and remembered it this way (in reference to the cemetery):

Here lies the bodies of more than one may who died with his boots on before the blazing six gun of an opponent and others who died peacefully in bed.  Here also lie all that is mortal of little children, and of the tired pioneer women who came west with their husbands seeking a home on the prairie only to find in its bosom that rest which they had so seldom known in life.

Everyone have a great day — someday it will be history!

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© Sharon Hall (History Depot), 2014.
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