(This piece was published June 21, 2020, in Blount and Beyond, a free online magazine which can be found at https://www.paperturn-view.com/us/blount-and-beyond/blount-and-beyond-may-17-pdf?pid=OTE91139 )
During the 19th Century, thousands of emigrants left eastern Tennessee, Blount County in particular, to find their fortunes or perhaps just their peace in the western regions of the continent. I don’t know all their stories, but I do know some, and I propose to share one here, using the sparse details I have.
When I married into the McClanahan family in West Texas, I knew nothing about their origins. I was of English/German extraction, and my ancestors, so far as I knew at the time, all came out of Missouri into north central Oklahoma. I wound up in Big Spring, Texas, when I was in junior high because my dad’s work in the oil field was not steady enough to support his family. I went to high school and junior college with David McClanahan, and eventually we married. Long story short, I became a stay-at-home mom with a college degree. Doing a little home schooling didn’t meet my intellectual needs (That may not be very flattering, but it is what it is.), so I turned to a subject I had been mildly interested in since I was a child—genealogy.
I started with my side of the family, but eventually, of course, I turned to the McClanahan side—and hit a brick wall. Following good inquiry procedures, I decided to ask my father-in-law what he knew about his family. He definitely was not excited to talk about it, but he indulged me for a while. But when he’d had enough, he declared with more vigor than I was expecting, “What do you want to know about all them folks for? They was just a bunch of cattle rustlers and horse thieves!” That, of course, shut down the conversation but definitely not my determination to get to the bottom of that statement. It took many years of work to piece together the story and many pieces are still missing, but it is a truly fascinating saga. So here’s what I learned, in as brief a fashion as I can write it.
John McClanahan was either the oldest or second oldest child of David McClanahan who settled with his wife Elizabeth in the Tuckaleechee area of Blount County. David had come from Jefferson County along with other McClanahan kin in the opening years of the first decade of the 19th century. John was ultimately raised along with his brother Samuel and his sister Martha Jane by a stepmother, Polly Ingrum, who added several additional siblings to the family. John grew up in Tuckaleechee and married Mary “Polly” Snider, the daughter of neighbor Peter Snider, in 1832. John established his own farm, and very soon he and Polly welcomed the first child into what became a typically large family.
In 1841 David McClanahan died in possession of a considerable tract of land, which was apparently divided among John, his brothers and sisters, and the widow. Over the next fifteen or so years, the land records of Blount County show that John steadily bought back essentially all of his father’s land from his siblings. Then in 1860, for reasons only to be guessed at, John sold the entire holdings to J. W. H. Tipton and moved lock, stock, and barrel to Texas. The land that John sold is believed to be in the area where Laurel Lake existed until recently.
By the time John hit the trail to Texas, several of his children were grown, married, and having children of their own. Evidence suggests that John and his entire family may have made the move at the same time or close to the same time, perhaps in a traditional sort of wagon train. One of John’s great grandsons with whom I had the opportunity to visit shared the story his grandmother Phoebe, John’s youngest daughter, had told him. She said she remembered the trip to Texas and that she felt very safe riding in the saddle with her father. I just have to marvel at the picture of tenderness that evokes in my mind that John must have felt for his little girl.
My theory has always been that John and his children perhaps thought they could escape the conflict that was raging in East Tennessee and across the nation at that time. My reading of the history of East Tennessee tells me that most mountain farmers weren’t particularly interested in the Southern cause. Their roots were in the Battle of King’s Mountain in which many of their fathers and grandfathers had fought to free the country from the British, and they weren’t interested in ripping it apart. And when McClanahans did fight, for the most part they opted for the Union cause. John’s brothers David and James as well as John’s son Henry (who didn’t get to Texas until after the war) are known to have traveled to Kentucky to enlist in the Union army.
Whatever the reason, by 1861 we find John, probably Polly, and all of his children, with the possible exception of daughter Mary Elizabeth and her husband John Allen Sparks, in what has come to be called the Corners area of North Texas. It was called that because four counties—Grayson, Fannin, Hunt, and Collin—joined at a single point. Land records attest to John’s purchase of 195 acres in Collin County that year. There is some reason to believe that the Sparks family actually may have gone to Freestone County, further south in Texas.
One of John’s closest neighbors was Dan Lee who lived across the line in Fannin County at what was called Lee Station. Dan was about John’s age and had a large family himself. Dan was a cattleman, but not everyone in the region approved of Dan’s methods. There were rumors that he appropriated unbranded cattle that may have belonged to others, branding them as his own.
John and his sons—William, Pete, John, and even the youngest, Samuel—established a farming operation while events of national importance swirled around them. Texas was a slave state, and although slavery was not a major factor in the economy of all of Texas, it did figure prominently in south and east Texas, where most of the state’s leadership was from. Although Collin County had voted against secession, it was in the minority, and shortly after the arrival of the McClanahans, Texas seceded from the Union. Blount County native Sam Houston was removed as governor in the wake of secession because he would not take an oath to the Confederacy.
Although Texas passed a conscription law, no record has been found that William or John ever served in the military for the Confederacy. Pete, however, applied for and received a pension for Confederate service. He reported in his application that he was on “special duty” as a teamster who hauled ammunition from El Paso to the Confederate facility at Bonham. It is not evident that he ever left the state as a part of his service. Given that his brother Henry was serving with a Union unit that he had joined in Kentucky with his uncles, this was yet another case of brothers serving on opposite sides in this horrific war. In addition, two of John’s sons-in-law, Rebecca’s husband John Henry and Lizzie’s husband John Sparks, do appear to have served for the Confederacy probably in Arkansas.
Eventually the war was over; the soldiers came home. No serious battles had been fought on Texas soil, but the place the soldiers came back to would not quite be the same again. The fact that black slaves had been freed made everything different, even for those who had never owned slaves. A group of white supporters of the freed slaves who called themselves the Union League had organized across the state to support the freedmen in their transition out of bondage. One of the leaders of this group in the Corners was another neighbor of the McClanahans, Lewis Peacock, a big blond farmer and blacksmith. Needless to say, Lewis Peacock became an anathema to many citizens of the Corners, many of whose sons had fought and/or died to preserve the institution of slavery. One of the leaders among that group was Bob Lee, son of neighbor Dan Lee. In many respects the McClanahans were literally caught in the middle.
The violence that broke out between these two factions is known in Texas history as the Lee-Peacock Feud. However, it was not a traditional feud; it was in fact a race war in which white supporters of the old Confederacy attempted to intimidate and harass freed slaves and anyone who supported them. One well-researched book on the feud is named Murder and Mayhem: The War of Reconstruction in Texas*, and the reality this title implies is valid. Some say upwards of 150 men were killed in the violence, and that refers only to white men. Atrocities were committed on both sides, but the myths that developed around Bob Lee turned him into a Robin Hood figure fighting on behalf of loyal white Texans against the carpetbaggers and Redlegs out of Kansas, an erroneous perception that persists to this day in the Corners.
Bob was in fact a deserter from the Confederate army, arriving home at little too soon, who gathered around him a collection of men with unsavory reputations known as the Lee Gang. It included a number of individuals who were at odds with law enforcement in the region. Some of these men were Confederate veterans who resented not only blacks but the whites who had avoided conscription during the war by hiding out in the thickets. The thickets were a feature of the landscape in North Texas that were so large and thick with brush and trees that a man could get lost in them. These “Brush Men” were a thorn in the side of Confederate recruiters throughout the war. In June of 1869, Bob Lee was killed by a group of federal soldiers who were guided to his home by Lewis Peacock. In 1871, Lewis Peacock was murdered on his front porch by Lee avengers. But the enmity and violence continued for years.
So, how did our McClanahans fare during this Lee-Peacock Feud? Somewhere in the middle of all this, Pete McClanahan fell in love with and married Bob Lee’s half-sister Mary. Pete and Mary, along with other McClanahans, are listed in 1866 as founding members of the Pilgrim, later Pike, Baptist Church, east of Blue Ridge in Collin County. Also in that year, his sister, Martha Jane, nicknamed Mollie, became the fourth wife of a prominent former slaveholder, George Martin Smith, who lived further north in Fannin County and whose family may not have been on good terms with the Lees. Sometime before 1870, perhaps to get away from the violence, Pete and Mary moved to Freestone County, where Pete’s sister Lizzie Sparks and her family were living. Samuel, Pete’s youngest brother apparently went with them, but Pete, Mary, and the single Samuel were back in the Corners by the time their only child Veola is born in 1879.
Pete’s brother Henry, the Union veteran, brought his family to North Texas sometime after the war ended, settling near Lamasco in Fannin County. However, records show that once people learned of his Union service, he began to fear for his life; he moved his family to Jack County for several years before eventually returning to Lamasco.
Patriarch John died in January of 1868; we do not know his cause of death nor the place of his burial. We do have a copy of his probate records that includes an inventory of his possessions that were sold to satisfy his debts. Although the land records are not fully clear, the oldest son William seems to have ended up in possession of the 195 acres. In 1872 a Collin County court record reveals that William was found guilty of a disturbance of some sort for which he was fined one penny; I suppose the judge was in sympathy with whatever he had done. Shortly thereafter, however, William also died of unknown causes. At the time of William’s death, there appears to have been a mortgage on the land, and the holder of the mortgage, a merchant in McKinney, filed to become the executor of his estate. The widow fought off that attempt, but at some point, she appears to have lost the land entirely.
In 1877, old Dan Lee got into some kind of an altercation ostensibly over who had the right to cut some hay. Exactly what happened depends on whose version you read, but things escalated to the point that Dan’s adversary shot him in the stomach. Dan was carried home, where he lingered for a week before succumbing to his wound. Who shot Dan Lee? It was Mollie McClanahan Smith’s stepson, Will Smith.
Samuel, John’s youngest son and my husband’s great grandfather, married in Hunt County in 1880 to a widow, Virginia Green Peacock Miller. Almost unbelievably, Ginny, as she was known, was no relation to Lewis Peacock, leader of the Union League. Her first husband, Robert Miller, whom she had married about five years earlier, was reported to have been hanged. I have diligently searched for more details on his death without success. I have no idea whether he met his end at the hands of the law in a legal fashion, or at the hands of one of the gangs of vigilantes who roamed the counties of the Corners with impunity.
The violence and crime visited on the Corners during the Lee-Peacock Feud lasted for at least ten years. This was the sad tale of Reconstruction in Texas. Although some of John’s children and grandchildren stayed in North Texas at least for a while, many seem to have moved further west to more peaceful regions of Texas or even Indian Territory. The railroads began traversing westward through the region in the 1870s and that may also explain the tendency to move west. Some eventually found their way as far as California. But the memories of the feud were rarely shared with subsequent generations. It’s almost as if there was an unspoken agreement that some things were not to be spoken of. My father-in-law knew only that there was a great deal of unpleasantness in his family history that he felt uncomfortable sharing. As I learned more about the family and the unique and barely tenable position they found themselves in during the Civil War and Reconstruction in Texas, I have come to a greater appreciation for the fact that they survived it at all.
*Smallwood, J. M., Crouch, B. A., & Peacock, L. (2003). Murder and Mayhem: The War of Reconstruction in Texas. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press.