Still Polking Around—Journal of a Genealogy Trip

by Dae Powell, 9 November 1992


John Edwin Polk

John Edwin Polk is buried alone in Kilgore, Texas. His namesake infant grandson was buried there only weeks before he himself died. Although there is room for his wife and family at his grave site, he remains alone.

I revisited Kilgore and asked around if anyone remembered him or his family. He worked for the Tide Water Associated Oil Company. Someone named James "Buster" Butts was still alive who might remember him, but I didn't get to talk with him.

His obituary mentioned his daughter, Esther Barrick of St., Louis. It took a little more research, but I learned that she was not from Missouri, but Oklahoma. In Pottawatomie county. I learned this from the Social Security Death Index of which the Family History Centers have on CD-ROM storage. Both Esther Barrick and her mother, Minnie E. Polk died in St. Louis.

Last August [1991] I took a trip into Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska and back again, looking for family. I visited Goff, KS; walked and picknicked in DuBois, NE; researched in Fairbury, NE and Vinita, OK; and researched in both Cawker City, KS and Oklahoma City, OK. Finally, I visited St. Louis, OK. These other places are full of other stories with other beginnings and endings. This one continues in St. Louis, OK.

St. Louis is about two and a half hours from Oklahoma City. I was on the tail end of a glorious research trip. The computer held up well in each place I visited. The old Sentra did, too. I, however, was near exhaustion.

I drove through endless back roads, up and down hills, and filled every crevice in my tires with the gravel roads of Oklahoma. When I arrived in St. Louis I found a general store, a church, a cattle ranch and an elementary school. No cemeteries, no newspaper and no library. Without these, I had to resort to direct contact with the local populace at the general store. (This was no time for inertia or shyness.)

I learned that St. Louis used to be an oil town. So was Kilgore, TX. That fit with John Polk's profession. "Now the town's deserted . . . has been for years. Polks just moved away after the oil companies left. But there's a couple of cemeteries if you wish to drive over to them. They're not on the main road, mind you, but they're easy enough to find."

Find them, I did. I traipsed all over each one of them, just as I'd done in Alvarado, Kilgore, Jacksboro and Glen Elder. This time persistence was insufficient to drag out a result. The sun was setting as I slumped my tired body into the Sentra and silently drove away. I hadn't found John Polk's wife or daughter.

On 7-Nov-1992, a librarian in Texas persuaded me to return to Oklahoma City and visit a library there. I was disinclined to go, but she insisted that another genealogist highly recommended the place as an excellent resource for Oklahoma.

Well, off I went. The library was in an African-American neighborhood. Indeed, I was the only Caucasian in the library. The staff and patrons "noticed" me, but were friendly, or at the worst, aloof. I looked for material on the Polks, Pottawatomie county or any kind of lead I could get. None. I asked if there were an Oklahoma Death Index on microfilm. None. I read through some of the state literature, but it consisted mainly of famous Oklahomans, African-Americans and Native Americans. Disappointment set in swiftly.

I decided to return to the Oklahoma Historical Society. I'd been there the first week in September, but I'd found nothing on Midred Maybelle Polk, James Knox Polk (her grandfather), or anyone else the I needed. They have newspapers for all of Oklahoma on microfilm back to the turn of the century. I had hoped for a few obituaries and more clues then.

The attendant there remembered me from my last visit. (Impressive on his part, since my appearance isn't.) He had me wait in the library nearby until a microfilm reader became available. While in the library, I learned that Pollan was named for the first postmaster there. Pollan was where James Knox Polk died. There was a reference to an Oklahoma history where more could be learned, so I went "Polking" around. I asked another patron, who politely positioned me in the stacks. I never did find the reference book, but I did find a couple of hand bound pieces on the cemeteries of Pottawatomie county.

Sure enough, in Maud, Cummings cemetery, were buried Minnie E., Esther, Monroe and Lester R. Polk. I was so excited! And just the minute I managed to write it down, the attendant from the periodicals came in to tell me that a film reader was available. How lucky can I get?

I could not find the obituaries for Minnie Edna Polk nor for James Monroe Polk. I did find them for Lester Ray Polk, Esther and Parley Barrick (her husband), however. I could cite these obituaries here, but I won't. Suffice it to say that from them I learned many more clues leading to a more complete picture of John Edwin Polk's family.

Later that month . . .

I was sitting in the LDS Family History Center one evening going through all the people in my files who had died between 1959 and 1983. That's when the majority of the deaths included in the Social Security Death Index on CD-ROM occurred at that time. I'd found the wrong Lester R. Polk (although I did not know it then), and the right Esther Barrick and Minnie E. Polk. A gentleman who had been watching asked why I was writing this information down for all those distant relatives. I thought that perhaps he just wanted me to finish so he could use the computer sooner.

"You get to know your family better when you learn who they were and what they did," I answered. He was concerned only with tracing his immediate ancestors. I told him that families often drift apart, but that each member carried some part of the others with them. Often the only remaining clue to the others is found with that distant relative who kept records. I was fortunate that I've had several record keepers before me and that my family has been relatively easy to trace. Pun intended.

He wanted to know how I could possibly benefit from the Death Index when it usually only gave the month and year of death and not even the location. I noted that the residences of the person or persons notifying the Social Security Administration of the death were often clues. "With this information, I can go to the old newspapers to unearth an obituary," I added. He wanted to know what use the obituary was other than to confirm what I'd learned in the Death Index. I get the EXACT date of death, primarily. But often the survivors are listed and their relationships to the deceased. Sometimes a birth date or marriage date is given, too. The number of grandchildren can tell me if I've missed someone, when the number exceeds mine. If the number is less than mine, possibly an earlier death has reduced the number or I've a grandchild listed who was born after the death of the grandparent.

It was through the record left by Florida Ellen (Polk) Lucky that I learned of John Edwin Polk, her brother. She recorded the year and month of his death in Kilgore, TX. I visited Kilgore and located his obituary which revealed the names of his children, but not his wife. The funeral record at the Rader Funeral Home listed the name of his wife. The "other" John Edwin Polk turned out to be his grandson and from that funeral record I learned the name of Lester Polk's wife. The Social Security Death Index gave me the month, year and location of Esther Barrick and her mother's deaths. The obituaries from the Shawnee newspaper filled in more details about Parley and Esther Barrick and their daughter Evelyn (Barrick) Keeter. And Lester Ray Polk, the watchmaker, had twin daughters!

It's been interesting. Since Evelyn Keeter was in Dallas 11 years ago, was she still here? Who are Mr. Keeter and their two children? When did Marvin Polk of Concord, CA pass away? Where are Lester's twins? It seems once a question is answered, more take its place. Don't you just LOVE genealogical research?

Rev. John Powell and the Old West

Earlier, I'd mentioned forays into Alvarado and Jacksboro, Texas, in search of my great-great granduncle, John Powell. In researching this man, I've uncovered many stories told by him and printed by others about him. With some sensitive editing, I'd like to present an inspiring account from his life.

From the Life of John Powell, Methodist Minister in Alvarado

John Powell was a man of principle and conviction. He didn't back down to bullies and he fully supported his friends, family and followers. One bully was more than that. He was Benjamin Bickerstaff from the "Cullen M. Baker School of Bad Men," formerly of Titus county, whose name became familiar from one end of Texas to the other, as a desperado, Negro and federal slayer, and who produced terror wherever he went.

Some time in the fall of 1868, Bickerstaff made his appearance in Johnson county a stranger, and while camped near Alvarado, changed his name to Thomas. He represented himself as a refugee, unjustly persecuted by the military somewhere. It was not until January or February of 1869, that it leaked out that he was Benjamin Bickerstaff. The people stood in terror of the name and character such that little was said of him openly and publicly. Bickerstaff came and went, but all his movements were involved in mystery. Sometimes he appeared in company with Joe Thompson, and always went heavily armed. He never mingled in a crowd, and rarely approached one unless he recognized friends therein, when he might come within a few paces with his hands and pistols, and his eyes constantly on the alert in different directions. Meanwhile his intimacy with Thompson seemed to ripen, and various depredations began to be committed; plantations were visited in the absence of the owners; Negroes assaulted, threatened, and robbed of provisions and clothing, the women ravished, which so frightened them that they fled from their homes in terror and dismay, rendering them entirely useless as laborers. The people were well convinced as to the leading authors of these troubles, but as yet forebore any demonstration.

Joe Thompson had been a resident of Alvarado and vicinity for some two years or more and at one time ran a saddle and harness shop in Alvarado on what is now the west side of the square. Thompson had opened a whiskey doggery in Alvarado, in violation of the law and swore he would sell whiskey, law or no law, and those opposing it had better lie damned low, or he would send them to hell where he had sent many a man before. Reverend Powell and the citizens had stopped Thompson's operations. Being overpowered, he desisted from selling, but still determined on his revenge; and about one week before his death, he said in presence of several of our best citizens: "that Alvarado had made him succumb, but Alvarado should yield to him; and by God, he would burn the town to ashes and every man in it to hell." Before selling liquor, he was considered to be a good, reliable citizen.

Bickerstaff and Thompson had repeatedly threatened to burn Alvarado, and to take the lives of several of their best citizens, including Reverend Powell. Again and again they were threatened by these desperate men, until no one either in country or town, felt safe in the prosecution of legitimate business. In truth, they were the greatest terror these people had ever known. They even went to houses of quiet citizens by night, and attempting to call them to the door for the purpose of shooting them unaware. Bickerstaff was still addressed as Thomas, and continued to be until the hour of his death. No one ventured to address him publicly by his true name, though it was well understood. Thus affairs grew worse and worse.

A week earlier the District Court met in Johnson county. Thompson and Bickerstaff were charged with the robbery of Major E. M. Heath, the deputy tax assessor and collector of Johnson County; of robbing and torturing Negroes by roasting their feet; of threatening the lives of some of Alvarado's best citizens, such as Major Heath, Major Purdom, Colonel Hoyl and Rev. "Parson" Powell, of and in the vicinity of Alvarado, for opposing his course and remonstrating with him. The Court and jury were soon made to feel the presence of these desperate men by whom they were surrounded. The law could not be administered or executed. The officers were cowed, the grand jury intimidated and went home with their work unfinished. It was said that Judge Norton, afraid of his life, adjourned court and slipped away privately. The citizens of Alvarado and vicinity then resolved to stand this state of thing no longer. Their lives and property were exposed, immigration would cease, and the entire county would languish while such me were tolerated in their midst. The citizens of the county determined they would not submit in this state of affairs, and determined upon the plan of procuring from the Judge a bench warrant, and apprehending him, but this the Judge was afraid to grant. They resolved on extreme measures, and armed themselves accordingly, determined to rid themselves of these their terrible enemies.

Note from DAE: Does any of this sound familiar to our present situation? What good has appeasement of evil ever done?

It was learned that the outlaws were coming to town on Monday to get a barrel of flour from the store of Robert Moore. The streets were crowded with citizens who had their guns ready, loaded, and hidden; so on Monday April 5, 1869 the fray took place.

About half an hour before sundown on Monday April 5, 1869, Bickerstaff and Thompson were seen approaching the town. They rode up on the square, Thompson 8 or 10 feet in advance, riding a small gray horse, and Bickerstaff riding a mule, raised their hats a made a signal to each other, and rode on slowly in the direction of the Millican house, looking cautiously to the right and left. As they rode up on the southwest corner of the square, they saw all the men running into the stores and shutting the doors. The desperadoes attributed this to fear on the part of the people, but in reality the men had run for the their guns. As they neared the hitching post, Bickerstaff was heard to exclaim in a loud voice, "Rats to your holes, damn you."

When they got opposite Rodger's shoe shop and started to dismount, of a sudden the firing opened from the doors and windows of Millican's and Powell's store houses, which was followed by a discharge from every business house in town. At the first discharge, both outlaws fell, mortally wounded. Only a few hit Thompson, but he was shot through the heart with two buck shot and died almost instantly, without even getting his gun out of the scabbard. It seems that the citizens were as anxious, if not more, to kill Thompson than Bickerstaff because he had once been a resident and businessman in the city and had turned against his friends and acquaintances.

During the fray Bickerstaff's right hand was disabled. After falling off his mule, and after lying on his back for a few minutes, he changed hands with his gun, raised himself on his elbow, and fired three or four times at the Rev. John "Parson" Powell, Bickerstaff's bitterest enemy. Rev. Powell was standing in his store house—gun in hand. One of the bullets went into the muzzle of Rev. John "Parson" Powell's gun, knocking the gun from his hand.

With the cry, "finish him," several more shots were fired until Bickerstaff fell on his back, apparently lifeless. The crowd then approached him, but saw that he still exhibited signs of life, whereupon they disarmed him, taking from him three six-shooters and two derringers, which where observed to be the same pistols that had been taken from Major Heath and Major Cathy, when they were robbed of $2800 of Johnson County tax money on January 20, 1869, near Hillsboro. Bickerstaff was questioned in regard to Cathy's complicity, but refused to give any answer whenever Cathy's name was mentioned.

Bickerstaff lay weltering in his spilt blood. He survived an hour and a half to two hours. He was duly and closely attended from the time of the shooting until he died. He became sufficiently revived to talk a little, called for his friend Robert Moore, and for water, morphine, and whiskey, were given to him. He asked Moore to take off his belt, spurs, gloves, a Remington 6-shooter, $45 he had in his pockets, and carry them to his store and keep them until his wife called for them. He asked the people not to abuse her, stating that she was a good woman, and he desired her to go back to her people. The wives of Bickerstaff and Thompson were camped together on the Brazos River at the time of the killing. He conversed freely with the crowed, cursed Thompson for dying so easily, for not putting up more of a fight.

He was suffering intensely. On being asked if he had any confession to make he replied none, that they had killed a brave man, and one that was true to the South, — what he regretted was they gave him no chance, but he came near getting one of the damned rascals anyhow. (My great-great granduncle.) His voice grew fainter, and in a few minutes he expired. He was literally covered with wounds. He had several in the legs, and in different parts of the body, back and front, in the eye, in the arms and hands, in short was riddle with shot and ball, receiving not less than 26 wounds, some said 42. The bodies were left on the public square until the next day.

Photographs were made of the men, an inquest was held, and the jury returned a verdict in substance that the deceased came to their death from the hands of the citizens in defense of their lives and property. Both bodies were buried in the northwestern corner of the Alvarado cemetery. There in silence sleep the outlaws, without a tombstone, date, or name. The following is part of a poem written by Ben Bickerstaff, and found in his pockets just before he was buried.

"I caught the rheumatism camping in the snow;
"But I killed a bunch of Yankees,
"And I'd like to kill some more."

Reverend John Powell was no Yankee, having a few slaves given him by his father-in-law. However, he treated them fairly and there were heartfelt tears between them and him when they parted. He loved them and they loved him. They were considered family as much as his own natural kin. He had many nephews from Ohio who filled the Union ranks, but that is material for another day.

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