Civil War widow arrives in TX by covered wagon
A Cajun boy’s Irish roots. My family helped settle the state. They left their mark on Texas and me.
My great-grandfather, Stephen James Dunn, was killed during a battle with the Union troops in South Texas. He left behind a young wife and an 8-year-old son. The year was 1865. The Civil War was coming to an end when the young widow and her son and younger sister set out for Texas from Searcy, Ark., in a loaded down covered wagon.
Meat was salted down in a wooden barrel; plenty of flour and meal was stored. Laying hens crated and a milk cow was secured on the rear of the wagon.
It would be a long, difficult journey. Texas was still a new frontier. Comanche Indian Chief Quanah Parker, who took his white mother’s maiden name, was still raiding in North Texas. He didn’t surrender until 1875.
Cattle drives and gunfights were commonplace. Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid and the Hole-In-The-Wall gang roamed the area and hung out in Fort Worth. Cowtown became a shipping and supply depot for millions of cattle from all points of southern Texas, traveling the renowned Chisholm Trail. Meanwhile, cattle were being moved down the famous Goodnight Trail to Abilene.
The young widow packed her husband’s army issue Walker Colt on her hip and a rifle in the buckboard. Young Allen, my grandfather, rode a horse alongside the wagon, watching for potential danger. He would also fish and snare rabbits for food.
Cowboys on cattle drives assisted them several times along the way. Once the wagon axle broke crossing the Red River. They waited quite a few days for a drive to come along. The days were long and slow going. Rain and the weather in general hampered their travel.
North of Fort Worth near present day Denton, the three travelers came up on a place that my grandfather, Allen, would remember for the rest of his life. The land was covered with a stand of beautiful grazing grass that was so long it reached over the saddle of his mount. Artesian wells flowed into a running spring. My grandmother decided they would winter at this spot. It had fresh water and plenty of game. Allen fell in love with the place. At the first sight of spring, his mom said they would have to move on. He hated to leave.
They were due to join up with his uncle, his mom and aunt’s brother at Copperas’s Creek. The place was later renamed Rising Star. It sits 46 miles south of Abilene.
Fourteen month after leaving Arkansas, they met up with Allen’s uncle, who had waited for them several months.
The Dunns moved a few miles to western Comanche County. They were among the first settlers in 1870 to arrive on a site, which in 1873 was named Sipe Springs (pronounced Seep) for the springs that “seeped” out of the rock formations.
Allen came up in the same county with John Wesley Hardin, who was a couple of years older. Hardin is known as Texas’ most notorious outlaw killing 27 men before he was 21 years of age. The territory was still very wild.
For 20 cents an acre, Allen bought a land granted earlier to Stephen F. Austin and Samuel May Williams. He grazed longhorns and farmed the land.
In 1883 at the age of 26, Allen married 14-year-old Laura Dunn. She was from the Desdemona-DeLeon area, the oldest settlement west of the Brazos. Her maiden name was Dunn. Allen’s mom was also a Dunn. They claimed to be two types of Irish, the dark skin, brown-eyed and the blue-eyed, fair skinned. Laura was fair and Allen was dark.
Her mother was the daughter of C.C. Blair. A raiding Indian party had kidnapped her. They often took children, trading them back for goods. Blair donated the land for a fort. He and his son, James, and other settlers built Fort Blair in Desdemona in 1857. The fort held the women and children and protected them from the Indians while the men were away.
Allen found he could do pretty well as a traveling merchant. He would load up goods in a horse-drawn wagon and trade them for merchandise in Galveston that he would resell in Rising Star. The trip would take three months or more, depending on the rise and fall of the Brazos and the other rivers. Once while returning, his load fell into the Brazos. He had waited two weeks for the river to recede from the flood up north. He became impatient and attempted to cross before the water was low enough and it turned over.
Dad used to tell that his mother got pregnant every time his father got back from the trip. They had eight children, two girls and six boys. Pearl, the first, was born in 1884, and they had a child every year or two after that.
Just before his 15th birthday, my father, Clay, left home on a donkey and rode to Comanche, the county seat. “Old Cora” is the oldest courthouse in Texas and stands on the town square today. Clay got a job with the telephone company stringing wire and post to Houston and eventually Port Arthur. The rest of the boys stayed home and helped run the farm. The girls became schoolteachers.
The oil boom hit the area in 1918. Clay had already gone off to war in France during the First World War. Sipe Springs became a tent city. It grew from 500 citizens to over 8,000. A drug store, café, cotton gin, theater and dance hall sprang up overnight.
By 1921, both banks had failed. In 1922, a fire destroyed most of the buildings in the town. The oil boom was short-lived and today less than 50 people live in the area.
From the oil boom and those at Rising Star, Desdemona and Ranger, the Dunn brothers learned a trade. They first started hauling oil in barrels with horse-drawn wagons. Son Robert never did venture very far and stayed on in the farming and dairy business. The other boys followed the oil trade and built Dunn Brothers, the largest pipeline stringing company in the nation at the time.
Even though they came from a large family, they only had six children between them. Out of the six, I’m the only survivor. The pipeline brothers married second wives, who all inherited their wealth and passed it on to their nieces and nephews.
Grandmother Laura died in 1941 at the age of 72. Grandfather Allen lived another 10 years. He left Sipe Springs and moved in with his son Hobby in Dallas. Carl bought the old homestead, built an airstrip and a home. The boys restored the little two-room house they were raised in. On my last trip, I was unable to locate it but I know it’s still there. That’s what is bad about being the last survivor; there is no one else to ask.
After moving in with Uncle Hobby, my grandfather told him about the wonderful pasture and flowing wells on the place they had wintered when he was a boy. Hobby and his dad, after several tries, found the exact place the covered wagon had camped. The village of Stoney had been built on it. Hobby bought it all, the church, station, ice house and hotel on the hill, which he made into his home. He added 7,000 acres to the spread. He and his wife, Clara and grandfather Allen moved on the place Allen had admired as an 8-year-old.
For the last eight years of his life it became his home. Hobby rode him around the ranch everyday. On March 6, 1951, at age 96, Allen died on the place. Thirty-five years ago, on the exact day, March 6, Hobby died at age 80. I find it ironic that other Texas pioneers and heroes, Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie, William Travis and 200 others, also died on the same date when the Alamo fell on March 6.
Uncle Hobby and I had become close. The last time I had been to the old cemetery was when we made the long trip from the Stoney Ranch to bury him in Sipe Springs. His wife Clara died a few years ago and the ranch fell into other hands. The only Dunn’s not buried at the family plot are Carl, buried in Fort Worth; Earnest, who is buried in Dallas; and Ellis buried in Irving. All are entombed with their second wives. All of their first wives, hometown girls, are buried at Sipe Springs.
My great-grandmother started it all by coming to Texas in a covered wagon. The Dunns did their part and that’s how I got this Irish name. I’m one of the few people alive whose grandfather was around during the civil War that ended 147 years ago.