The Lawsons of the American Southern Hill Country

The search for the self can take many paths. I especially like the path of the past. Past lives open up so many avenues for exploration of self. I love to engage in a dialogue with past individuals: the way we communicate is by means of existing records and my historical imagination. In particular, I believe each one of us is comprised in part by our ancestors. Ancient peoples knew this, and venerated their ancestors. I might not go that far, but I do believe that the personalities and experiences of my ancestors are in me, are a part of me, in ways that I cannot know scientifically, rather intuitively. I can sense the presence of the past in me. This is what draws me to investigate and to try to recreate the lives of my ancestors. For example, the Lawsons.

The Lawsons of America derive from the MacClaren Clan of Scotland. In the 1600s one branch of the many Lawsons who came to America was a family who lived along the Falling River in central Virginia. These are called by genealogists the Falling River Lawsons. One family was that of William and Isabella (Kennedy) Lawson. William was born about 1680 in Henrico County, Virginia. He was possibly the son of Joshua and Ann (Smith) Lawson. When William was a young man he moved along with his family to the Falling River region, what came to be called Lunenburg County. Here he lived and farmed until his death around 1754. Lunenburg County is in south central Virginia north of the North Carolina border, west of Norfolk, southwest of Richmond, southeast of Lynchburg. It was a forested, fertile region with a warm southern climate good for growing grains, tobacco, and eventually cotton.

William and Isabella had at least three sons, John, Jonas, and Bartholomew. Bartholomew was born sometime in the 1720s in Lunenburg County. In the 1750s he married Susanna Simpkins, born around 1731, daughter of John and Elizabeth Simpkins of Lunenburg County. John Simpkins purchased land at Falling River in 1746 making him a neighbor of William Lawson. It is unknown when the Bartholomew and Susanna married. They made their home in Lunenburg County like their respective parents. In local records, Bartholomew is often called Bartly, Barclay, Bart, and Bartlett. Bartholomew and Susanna moved south to North Carolina in the early 1760s. Some genealogists report that Bartholomew died in 1765. However, in a court record from 1848 a very old Randolph Lawson, Bartholomew’s son, reported that his father served under the same Captain Gholston as he did around 1780 in the Revolutionary War. It is likely, therefore, that Bartholomew died shortly thereafter, in 1782. Susanna died about five years later. The number of their children is uncertain, but possibly included two girls and six boys, including Randolph Lawson.

Randolph was born probably in November 1752 in Cumberland, North Carolina. According to a court record in 1835, Randolph informed the court that he was 82, having been “born in Cumberland Co, NC in the fall or winter of 1752.”

When the War for Independence broke out, many of the Lawsons participated on the Patriot side. These included Randolph’s brothers John, Morman, and William and their sister’s husband Moses Carrick. Randolph’s father Bartholomew most likely also fought during the war. Randolph served in 1780 and 1781 in battles in North Carolina and South Carolina. In court testimony fifty-five years later, Randolph recalled that he enlisted as a militia soldier in July 1780 under a Captain Coke (or Cox) under the command of a Colonel Knowles. The exact nature of his service is unclear. His papers were burnt in the early 1800s, and his memory was not precise when he tried to get a veteran’s pension in the 1830s and 1840s. The records indicate that he served to protect the baggage train during battles and also briefly served as a scout.

Randolph married Susannah Cross on 13 June 1791 in Patrick County, Virginia. Born in 1765, she was the daughter of William and Sarah Elizabeth Cross. Over the course of their marriage Randolph and Susannah had eleven sons and thirteen daughters. One of those sons was Maxwell Lawson, a farmer of Tennessee and Arkansas. The young couple after their marriage moved to Montgomery County, Virginia, living there until 1797. They relocated to Hawkins County, in eastern Tennessee after the turn of the century. They bought one hundred acres in the Puncheon Camp Valley on Clinch River. Puncheon Camp is in northeast Tennessee about forty miles south of the Cumberland Gap. At Puncheon Camp their son Maxwell was born, on May 5, 1802. It was around this time, according to Randolph’s 1838 court testimony, while living in Hawkins County, that “his house was burned and all papers destroyed.” This tragic event must have precipitated the move to Campbell County, perhaps in 1803. The family stayed in Campbell County for thirty years. They lived near the present town of Huntsville in the hilly, forested part of northeast Tennessee. They lived on land near the mouth of Paint Rock Creek where it flows into New River.

At this time, Paint Rock Creek in Campbell County was a complete frontier with few inhabitants or towns. Jehu Phillips, son of Elizabeth Lawson “Millie” Phillips and grandson of Randolph Lawson, when he was a very old man early in the twentieth century recalled that “in those days one could see deer by the gangs, and there were plenty of bears, wolves, wild cats, foxes and turkeys and a few panthers.” The land had to be cleared with the ax before the seed planted. Once a harvest provided for steady food, split rail fences went up to designate one’s land holding. The families wore home spun made of linsey (linen clothes made of flax fibers) and moccasins. The boys wore coonskin caps. There were no churches, though sometimes an itinerant Baptist preacher held a service. There were no schools, stores, etc. Salt had to be imported. Phillips recalled that “lead was brought from Virginia to Jacksboro and the people here had to go to Jacksboro to get lead. At that time lead was worth about 25 cents per pound. . . . the people used to make powder by hand. . . . Everybody had flint lock guns.” He recalled also the “plenty of fish in the streams in this county. Father had a trap in New river just below the mouth of Bull Creek and we got all the fish we wanted.” The inhabitants entertained themselves with “log rollings, house raisings and corn shuckings,” which “would always be followed at night by a frolic and I tell you the people used to have some good old times in those days. At the frolics there was always one or more fiddles. The fiddles were home made but I tell you they were good ones.”

Jehu Phillips was in error (or there was a typo in the printed recollection) when he recalled a Reynold Lawson as one of the few inhabitants of Paint Rock Creek. This was undoubtedly Randolph Lawson, who according to Phillips “built the first water grist mill in the county.” Earlier in his document he had reported that his mother Millie lived where there was a “water grist mill near the mouth of Paint Rock,” that is, on her father Randolph Lawson’s land. A grist mill was for grinding grain into flour. Inhabitants from the region would bring their harvested grains to the mill and for a fee in cash or kind grind the grain. If it is indeed the case that Randolph Lawson built the first grist mill, this would have been quite an accomplishment requiring a lot of skill. In fact, a grist mill was the ultimate expression of technology in such a frontier environment. It required a craftsman to create an exact waterwheel that the falling water of a spring would turn. The waterwheel would connect by a piston to gears within the structure of the mill. These gears in turn drove a large flat stone in rotation against another flat stone, which would grind the grain. To contrive such a machine required the skills of a blacksmith and wheelwright.

Downstream from Randolph and Susannah Lawson their daughter Lakey Kattie Lawson and her husband Thomas Chambers lived at the mouth of Buffalo Creek. Next door to Randolph and Susannah lived their son Thomas Andrew Lawson, who married one of the daughters of an early settler, William Jeffers; her name was Nancy. She and Thomas married in 1822. Next to them lived one of her brothers or uncles, Jacob Jeffers.

Jehu Phillips recalled that there were no roads in Campbell County at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Inhabitants moved about on foot or horse. Crops were brought to the mill via sled. People grew corn and potatoes and raised hogs. People drank water, though some fermented drinks from stills were common. Generally the inhabitants “were all very healthful and there was very little sickness.”

The farmers were poor and the land not the type to sponsor slave labor, hence there were very few slaves in Campbell County, and indeed the people of northeastern Tennessee were against secession from the Union in 1861.

In the 1830 federal census for Campbell County, the Randolph Lawson family had five people living with them. Next door was their son Thomas. Two doors down was Robert Lawson, two people living there, and next door to Robert was Blackburn and Lucretia Lawson Thompson, with ten people in their family. Down the way was Samuel Lawson, two people in his family. Thirty lots away was Maxwell and Anna Lawson, with seven people in their family. There was also Randolph’s son Elisha Lawson nearby.

Trying to determine the exact line of descent of one’s ancestors is dependent on historical sources. The Lawsons of Campbell County were widespread, so much so that even today there are landmarks named for the family. There is a Lawson Mountain and a Lawson Cemetery. Several different families of Lawsons from Virginia and North Carolina inhabited the region. Many shared similar given names, such as Robert and Randolph.

Some Lawson genealogists believe that Maxwell Lawson was the son not of Randolph and Susanna but Robert “Robin” Lawson and Anne Goad Lawson, he being the son of William Lawson of Scotland, she being the daughter of Abraham Goad and Anne Ayers Goad. Circumstantial evidence for this claim, besides tradition, includes the following: Robert and Anne lived in Campbell County, and he lived near other Lawsons, such as Randolph, Maxwell, Samuel, and Thomas. There is a record that he fought in the American Revolution. Indeed, the Montgomery, Virginia court records list that in 1778 joining Capt. Jonathan Isom’s militia company was Abraham Goad, James Goad Sr., James Goad Jr., Randolph Lawson, Robert Lawson Sr., and Robert Lawson Jr. One might assume that one of the Robert Lawsons so mentioned ended up living in Campbell County, Tennessee. And it is possible that this Robert Lawson was the father of Maxwell Lawson. But I think that tradition and evidence lean more toward Randolph Lawson.

Land Purchase Record for Randolph Lawson

In the late 1830s Randolph and Susanna relocated to Illinois, then moved to Clinton County, Kentucky, where they would die, she in 1844, he in 1848.

Although all of these states in which Randolph and Susanna lived—Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky—practiced slavery, Randolph and his descendants appear not to have owned slaves.

Randolph and Susanna, like many of the Lawsons of the southern Appalachian hill country, had many children. Their first child, Elizabeth “Millie”, was born June 10, 1786, in Montgomery County, Virginia, living there until 1797. She moved with her parents when an infant southwest to the Cumberland Plateau, in northeast Tennessee. Here she lived until her death in 1838. She married Joseph Phillips and would die in Scott County, Tennessee in 1838.

Their second child, Lakey Kattie, was born in 1792; she married Thomas Chambers and died in 1838 in Scott, Tennessee. Lakey’s twin sister Lucretia “Lucy” married Blackburn Thompson and moved to Wesley Arkansas along with her sibling Maxwell. Other children: Elisha was born in 1793 and died in 1870; Sophia was born in 1794 and died in 1880; Mary Louis was born in 1797 and died in 1870. When Randolph and Susannah relocated to Hawkins County, in eastern Tennessee, they bought one hundred acres in the Puncheon Camp Valley, on Clinch River. Here, south of the Cumberland Gap near Hawkins and Campbell counties, Tennessee, daughter Maggie was born in 1800. She would die young in 1812 in Campbell County. Also at Puncheon Camp their son Maxwell was born, on May 5, 1802. It was around this time, according to Randolph’s 1838 court testimony, while living in Hawkins County, that “his house was burned and all papers destroyed.”

This tragic event must have precipitated the move to Campbell County, perhaps in 1803. The family stayed in Campbell County for thirty years. Here, their son Thomas Andrew was born in 1803. He lived in Campbell County but eventually moved to Erath County Texas, where he died in Feb. 1891. He was married to Nancy Jeffers. Also in Campbell County their daughter Clary (Clarissa) was born in 1812. She married William Jeffries, and died in 1897 in Barry County, Missouri. Son Madison Addison was born in 1814 and would die in 1870. Their last child Milton was born in 1820.

Meanwhile, Randolph and Susanna’s son Maxwell married Anna Gray in 1820; he was 18, she was 13. After several years the couple began to have multiple children. Their first born was a boy, Calvin, born in 1825 followed by Nancy in 1826, Mary in 1827, Sarah in 1829, and Elizabeth in 1830. Maxwell and Anna lived just downstream from Randolph and Susanna, who lived at the confluence of Paint Rock Creek and New River; Maxwell lived near the mouth of Buffalo Creek and its confluence with New River. Nearby on Buffalo Creek his cousin Absolom (Abe) Cross lived, married to Mary Queener. Abe was three years older than Maxwell. Maxwell’s brothers Elisha, Thomas, Samuel, and sister Lucretia lived comparably nearby as well, up New River from Buffalo Creek. It was a hard land to negotiate, to make a living from, to farm. Hills and dales made travel difficult and families isolated. Nevertheless there was much land speculation, as with work the land promised much. For example in 1836 Maxwell and Anna purchased 24 acres “adjoining to land he now owns on Montgomery’s fork of New River.” The land lay in the shadow of various ridges and mountains, as Montgomery Fork of New River divided Gray Mountain, Roach Ridge, and Horse Gap Ridge from Anderson Mountain, McCoy Ridge, and Horsebone Ridge. Probably Maxwell, Anna, and family did not live at Montgomery Fork, because soon after purchasing the land they moved from Tennessee to Arkansas. By this time Randolph and Susanna had moved north to Illinois. Maxwell and Anna and children appear to have moved from eastern Tennessee to western Arkansas around 1836 or 1837. The date of the departure is not clear because the Arkansas censuses for 1850, 1860, and 1870 are contradictory regarding the birth places of Maxwell and Anna’s children.

Why did Maxwell and Anna relocate to Arkansas? Arkansas became a new state in 1836; the mountainous, forested Ozarks of northwestern Arkansas were similar to the lands of the Cumberland Plateau of northeastern Tennessee. They were sparsely settled and awaiting the hardy pioneer. Around the same time Jacob and Mary Gray, Anna’s parents, moved from Campbell County Tennessee to Madison County Arkansas; perhaps the two families relocated in unison. Randolph and Susanna had already departed Campbell County. In 1838 court testimony Randolph claimed that he left Campbell County “in the fall of 1832. Two men had been talking to him about securing a pension, but having sold out and was preparing the move to Illinois, with his children he knew anything of the matter and had no chance to stay and attend to the business, he decided to move on have his business attended to where he settled. Accordingly, moved to Johnson Co., IL.”

Land Purchase Records for Maxwell Lawson

After Maxwell and Anna Lawson moved to western Arkansas, other Lawsons followed. Blackburn and Lucretia Lawson Thompson (Maxwell’s sister) moved in 1856 to western Arkansas. Blackburn and Lucretia (1792-1880) were married in 1832. He was from Virginia, living from 1792-1861. The couple lived in Campbell County Tennessee next door to Lucretia’s brother Thomas; Thomas had married Nancy Jeffers, and some of her family lived close by. Blackburn reputedly fought under Andrew Jackson in the War of 1812. In Arkansas, he and Lucretia lived in Richland Township, named for the creek of the same name. Preceding Blackburn and Lucretia’s move to Richland Township was Maxwell and Anna’s second child, Nancy, married to Exekiel Templeton; they moved to Arkansas by 1846. Exekiel was born in Tennessee, as was Nancy; it is not known whether or not they met in Tennessee and migrated to Arkansas, or met and married in Arkansas. Their children included Thomas, Cynthia, Rhoda, John, William M., and James C. Nancy died in 1859 possibly because of complications in childbirth.

Many families with whom the Lawson’s would intermarry, such as the Thompson’s and Templeton’s, included early pioneers to Arkansas. George Washington Counts was an early immigrant to western Arkansas, coming at least by 1830, the year his son Martin was born. GW and Matilda Johnson Counts married in Tennessee in 1826 and lived next to Nicholas Counts and Pleasant Johnson. Nearby in 1830 lived David Wilson Williams (1794-1869), father to William A., husband to Matilda Lawson, and Andrew Jackson Williams, husband to Caroline Lawson, both of whom were daughters of Maxwell and Anna. Moreover, Green Gipson, father of Talitha, wife of William Riley Lawson, arrived at Madison County also in the 1830s. He settled township 16, range 27 in 1839. He moved from Tennessee.

Another pioneer who arrived in western Arkansas in the 1830s was Jacob Gray, born in 1779, and Mary Shreeves “Polly” Gray, born in 1789, parents of Anna Lawson, Maxwell’s wife. Jacob and Mary lived in Tennessee when they were married in June, 1806. The moved from Campbell County to Arkansas during the 1830s around the same time as Maxwell and Anna. Land was granted to Jacob Gray on Aug 20, 1838, at Fayetteville land office, 5th Meridian PM, township 16-N Range 28 W, section 27. Besides Anna, the Gray’s children included Phebe, who married Andrew J. Thompson, John, James, Calvin, and Martha. The 1850 federal census for Madison Arkansas listed John, age 30, as head of family, implying that Jacob had died by this time. Mary was still alive, not dying until 1865.

The Lawson, Gray, Counts, Fritts, Williams, Johnson, Gibson, Henson, Lucas, McElhaney, Thompson, and Templeton families of western Arkansas, living mostly in Madison and Washington counties, formed a network of kinship relations that enabled these pioneers to withstand the hardships of living in such a frontier environment. Of the children of Maxwell and Anna, their first born Calvin, third born Sarah, and twelfth born Samuel married Fritts’ children: Calvin married Jane Ann, Sarah married Claiborne, and Samuel married Kesiah. Maxwell and Anna’s fourth child Elizabeth married Martin Counts and seventh child David married Bashaby Counts. Their seventh child Caroline and thirteenth child Matilda married brothers A. J. and William Williams.

These relationships were sorely tested during the decade of the 1860s, on the eve, during, and after the Civil War from 1861 to 1865. Arkansas during these years was a divided state over the issues of slavery and secession from the United States. Arkansans of the southeastern part of the state, where cotton was profitable, supported slavery and secession. Arkansans in the hilly northwestern part of the state, where there were few slaves and few cash crops supporting slavery, were divided on the issue of secession. Some Arkansans wanted to stay with the Union, unlike many others of the more fertile parts of the state. However, once Arkansas voted for secession, state government was forceful in requiring young men to fight for the Confederacy. Most young Arkansans did, though some fought for the Union.

Maxwell and Anna Lawson had the experience of many parents during the Civil War, watching their sons and sons-in-law march off to war; some did not return. There were family divisions as well, as one son refused to fight, unlike his brothers, for the Confederacy, rather for Union. It turned out to be a fatal decision. War is disruptive of loyalties, families, the regional economy, and order and security. During and after the war Arkansas, including the hilly northwest, was subject to frequent lawless gangs of desperadoes and bushwhackers who ignored the law and raped and pillaged at will. The extended Lawson family experienced tragedy as a result.

In 1860, Maxwell and Anna Lawson and their children lived in the Richland Township region of Madison County Arkansas. This was place of hills with names like Roundtop and Boyd cut by numerous springs such as Cherry Creek, Pigeon Creek, Drakes Creek, Hock Creek, Lollars Creek, and Richland Creek, some of them named for local farmers, all flowing into White River. Maxwell Lawson was 58 years old and Anna was 55. The value of their farm was rated at $1200; their personal estate was $1000. Living with them was 20-year-old Samuel, 16-year-old John Calhoun, 13-year-old Calloway, 12-year-old Freeman, and 5-year-old Louisa. Could Maxwell and Anna in 1860 peer into the next five years of war, they would find happiness and sorrow. Son Samuel would soon leave home to marry Kesiah Fritts. Samuel and Kesiah had two daughters, Sarah Ann, born in 1862, and Mary, born in 1864, named for her mother (Mary Kesiah Fritts). Samuel served in the 17th Cavalry Battalion of the Arkansas Confederate forces. He survived the fighting of the war, but coming home crossing the Mississippi River on May 10, 1865, he was killed by bushwhackers. Kesiah eventually remarried and died in 1944 in Wesley. John Calhoun also eventually served in the Arkansas Cavalry (Company E. Washington Ark regiment). Unlike his brother Samuel he survived, married Macy Burks in 1873, and lived until 1926. Teenager Calloway also served in the war, as a private in the Confederate 16th Regiment Arkansas Infantry Co 1. Calloway returned from the war, became a farmer, and married, July 31 1872, Elizabeth Jane McElhaney, whose grandfather James B. McElhaney had come from Tennessee to Arkansas in the 1830s. Elizabeth’s father John died young in 1859, which perhaps explains why Elizabeth and two of her siblings were cast upon the chance of fortune in the chaos during and after the Civil War. Zac Templeton and Nancy Jane Templeton Lawson’s marriage terminated in 1859 with her death. Zac remarried, so that in the 1870 census his wife was Lucinda. Besides his children with Nancy and Lucinda, also living with the Templeton’s in 1870 were Jane McThaney, 14, Jemiah or Jeremiah McThaney 12, and John McThaney, 10. This was the same Elizabeth Jane McElhaney who married Calloway Lawson in 1872. Twelve-year-old Freeman was apparently too young to fight during the war. He lived at home with Maxwell and Anna during the 1860s into the 1870s, when he married a neighbor from Madison County, Nancy Davis. They moved south to Sebastian County. Fiv- year-old Louisa died at some point during 1860 for an unknown, tragic reason.

Next door to Maxwell and Anna lived Andrew Jackson Williams, husband of their daughter Caroline; his brother William and Caroline’s sister Matilda lived in the same house, though both men owned real estate and personal estates. A. J., or Bud, and Caroline were expecting their first of seven children, Nathaniel. The 1860 census listed Caroline, but not Matilda, as illiterate. Bud Williams would serve in the First Regiment of Arkansas Infantry Volunteers as a corporal during the Civil War. He survived the war to live until he died at age 85 in Oklahoma. His brother William, however, did not survive the war. William served the Confederacy in First Battalion, Arkansas Confederate Cavalry. He was made a Yankee prisoner in May, 1863, and was imprisoned at Point Lookout Prison, a prison on a peninsula jutting into Chesapeake Bay. Like most such prisons, the conditions were crowded and unsanitary, and many prisoners died. William contracted dysentery, and was released in January, 1864, shortly before his death. William and Matilda had no children; she was a widow for fifty years; when she died in 1914 she was buried next to William in Evergreen Cemetery, Fayetteville. Five farms away lived Maxwell and Anna’s daughter Elizabeth and her husband Martin Counts. Martin served the Confederacy as a private in the 27th Regiment of the Arkansas Infantry; he survived the war to live until 1908, outliving Elizabeth by twelve years. They had eight children. Martin and Elizabeth in 1860 lived next door to his father and mother George and Matilda Counts and eight of their children. About six lots away lived A. J. Thompson and Phebe Gray Thompson, Anna’s sister.

The war divided the Lawson’s, as the experience of Maxwell and Anna’s seventh child, David, reveals. David was the only son or son-in-law of Maxwell and Anna who fought for the Union during the Civil War. Surviving records of the time scarcely reveal the subtle tugs at conscience, the apparent loyalty to the United States, or any other possible motives that forced David to make what would appear to be an unpopular decision. It’s possible that the fate of war was so forceful upon Arkansas families that despair and tragedy was focused on the war itself and that sons must go off to fight and perhaps die—and not so much which side they chose. If David’s decision caused angst to his mother and father, siblings, their wives and husbands and relatives, it is unknown. It was a fateful decision, however.

David and Bathsheba Counts married in April, 1852. She was fourteen and he was seventeen. She was the daughter of James Madison and Dorothy Johnson Counts. David and Bathsheba had three children together: James Maxfield, 1853, Miles Milford, 1857, and Dorothy Ann, 1860. David and Bathsheba owned land in Richland Township, Madison County; in 1860 his real estate was valued at $600 and his personal estate at $600. David was twenty-six or twenty-seven years old when he enlisted in July 1862 as a private in Company C of the First Regiment of Arkansas Volunteer Cavalry. He died probably two months later, September 21, when his cavalry troop, a small detachment of men led by a Captain Gilstrap, attacked Confederate troops holding the town of Cassville, in southwest Missouri. The Union cavalry drove out the Confederates temporarily. One Union soldier died, possibly David Lawson. Bathsheba filed for a pension from the Union government on May 15, 1863. Bathsheba remarried William Bailey.

Living close by Zac Templeton in 1860 was William Riley, Maxwell and Anna’s eleventh child. Age 21, he was a farmer living with his older sister, Mary Gertrude Lawson Johnson, the (apparent) widow of James Johnson. She had five young children living with her on a farm worth $1700; William Riley, who owned a personal estate of $700, lived with the family and helped, doing some of the farming. But not for long. Soon he would join the Confederate forces as a private in Company I of the Sixteenth Arkansas Infantry. In 1862 he was made First Lieutenant, and then in 1863, he raised his own cavalry company, serving as Captain. He participated in a variety of battles: at Pea Ridge, which occurred in northwestern Arkansas at Elk Horn Tavern, March 1862, a Union victory; at the Battle of Iuka in Mississippi in September 1862, a Union victory; at the Battle of Corinth in Mississippi in October 1862, a Union victory; at the Battle of Port Hudson in Louisiana, July 1863, a Union victory; at the Battle of Farmington, Tennessee in October 1863, a Union victory; at the Battle of Marks Mill in Arkansas, April 1864, a Confederate victory; at the Battle at Jerkins’ Ferry in Arkansas, April 1864, a Union victory, and the Battle of Prairie D’Ane in Arkansas in April 1864, a Union victory. He was wounded once and made a prisoner twice. He was among Confederate forces that surrendered to Union forces at Jacksonport, Arkansas, June 1865.

An entrepreneur, after the war William Riley farmed and raised stock and engaged in mercantile activities in Madison County. He married Talitha Gibson, daughter of Green Berry and Rhoda Hawk Gibson of Madison County. From 1867 to 1869 he built a house in Wesley for his family to live in. Still standing, it is a beautiful two story southern style home with twin chimneys and a large porch built on a hill looking out upon Richland Creek. William also served as a local postmaster. Their children were Charles Mortimer, born in 1867, Oscar S., born in 1870 (who became a physician), Green M., born in 1877, Lelia Myrtle, born in 1873, and Beulah Gertrude, born in 1880.

William Riley Lawson’s House, Wesley Arkansas

Also living in Richland Township, farming the land, was David Wesley Lucas, who had married Maxwell and Anna’s tenth child, Martha, born in 1837. David Lucas, born in Mississippi in 1834, had moved to Arkansas in the 1850s, where he met Martha. David purchased forty acres of land at Fayetteville, February 1860. The couple had two children, Nancy and Viola, in 1860; they also had a domestic servant living with them, perhaps because Martha was ill; indeed she died in 1860. David remarried; there is no evidence that he participated in the Civil War. Perhaps this is because David, at least in the 1880 federal census, listed himself as a minister of the Gospel.

Living in Prairie Township, Madison County, in 1860, was Maxwell and Anna’s third child, Sarah, born in 1829. Eighteen-year-old Sarah Lawson married twenty-two-year-old blacksmith Claiborne Fritts, son of Henry Fritts, in 1847. Sarah, illiterate, and Claiborne, literate, moved about quite a bit, partly because of war. They were living and farming in Madison County, Arkansas, in 1861 when the war broke out; Claiborne enlisted as a First Lieutenant in the 17th Arkansas Infantry, Confederate States of America, in November, 1861. A few months later, he became ill or wounded, and returned home, from which the family abruptly moved west to Texas. There is a record of Claiborne enlisting in Parker County Texas, where he served sporadically; in 1864 he enlisted as a private in the CSA. In 1867 the family returned to Arkansas, living again at Prairie Township, eventually a part of Hindsville. Claiborne was a Mason and helped to organize a lodge in Hindsville in 1868; his brother-in-law William Riley Lawson was also an organizer. Claiborne was also known for his Baptist, missionary activities; he helped organize the Spring Valley Church in Hindsville in 1877. For some reason, the family moved again to Texas in the late 1870s, so that by the 1880 census they resided in Comanche County Texas. Here, Sarah and Claiborne would live and die, she in 1897, he in 1916.

Claiborne and Sarah Lawson Fritts

Six lots away from Maxwell and Anna lived their oldest son Calvin and his wife Jane Ann Fritts. Jane Ann and Claiborne were siblings. Indeed Calvin and Jane Ann were surrounded by members of the Fritts family, mainly her cousins; ten years before in 1850 Calvin and Jane had lived next to her father Henry. From 1850 to 1860 this had changed, however. Henry had moved. He purchased 120 acres in February 1860. Calvin likewise purchased land at the same time, 37.31 acres, and at the same land office at Fayetteville. Jane Ann was mysteriously called “Eden” in the 1860 census. She was born in January, 1835, in Monroe, Indiana to Henry and Lucinda Jane “Lucy” Fritts. Her mother died in 1840 when she was five years old. She married Calvin in 1850 when she was fifteen years old. They were married for 52 years.

Calvin served in the Civil War, in Company K of Stirman’s Arkansas Cavalry Battalion, Confederate States of America. Precisely when and where he saw action is unclear. Possibilities include the period from 1863 to 1865 participating at the Battle of Vicksburg during the spring and summer of 1863; Vicksburg was a strategic key to control of the Mississippi; the battle was a Union victory. Calvin could have also experienced the conflict over control of southwest Arkansas (the Camden Expedition) in the spring of 1864, a Confederate victory; also, the raid of Confederate troops into Missouri (Price’s Raid) in August 1864, a Confederate loss; and perhaps attacks on Union steamboat shipping along the Arkansas River at the Dardanelle, January 1865, a Confederate victory. Along with other veterans, he received small cash benefits for his service until he died.

When Calvin returned from war in 1865 his wife Jane and children William, 11, Lucy, 9, Mary, 7, and James R., 4, and a newborn, John Calvin, welcomed the father home. Calvin must have had at least one furlough during his term of service. John Calvin would have been conceived in the fall of 1863—perhaps after the Confederate surrender at Vicksburg. Two years later Milton was born. By this time Calvin and Jane contemplated a move west to Texas. In the 1870 federal census, they lived at Fannin Texas between Goliad and Victoria near the Gulf of Mexico. He was listed as a farmer, with a personal estate of $75 and no real estate; perhaps he was a sharecropper. Even with such poverty, Calvin and Jane had two more children: Parris in 1872 and Samuel in 1875. Five-year old Milton died in 1872. We can speculate that poverty as well as the death of Maxwell in 1872 (and perhaps Milton as well) brought the family back to Arkansas, where Calvin was again farming in Richland Township, Washington County, in 1880. Widowed Anna Lawson at this time lived with daughter Matilda, also a widow, and grandson Samuel Williams. She lived next door to David Lucas, now remarried, and not far from her son William Riley.

Calvin and Jane Lawson

In 1880, Calvin and Jane Ann had a large family: Lucy A. (Paralee), 24, Mary E, 20, James R. 18, John C. 14, Parris Lee, 8, Samuel, 4, and Malinda Fritts, 20, Jane’s niece. Jane, James, and John Calvin were listed in the 1880 census as illiterate. As the children of Calvin and Jane grew and married, most lived in the same region of the northwest Arkansas hill country.

John Calvin, for example, lived in northwest Arkansas for a time after he married Josephine Robbins in 1886. He was 22 and she was 18, daughter of James and Esther Robbins of Richland Township, Arkansas. James and Esther were both native Arkansans; he was born in 1840, she in 1843. Josephine was born to a large family on March 4, 1868.

The Robbins family was from Kentucky, from which they emigrated to Arkansas Territory in the 1820s. Richard Robbins died in 1844, leaving behind his widow Nancy (born in Alabama) to farm and raise the family. In 1850, for example, Nancy was in charge of a farm on White River in Washington County, caring for her 84-year-old mother Nancy, assisted by her three sons Richard, George, and James. James married Esther Vian Brewer, whose family hailed from Tennessee, in the 1850s. After James died in 1887, Esther ran the farm in Durham, Washington County, southwest of Wesley on the White River. This is also where Calvin and Jane had moved at some point after 1880. Indeed the Lawson’s and Robbins’ were practically next door neighbors, which would explain how John Calvin and Josephine met, courted, and married.

John Calvin and Josephine Lawson

At some point in the 1890s, about 1895, John Calvin, Josephine, and their young family—James H., born in 1888, Denver J. born in 1891, and Samuel Clint, born in 1894, moved west to Township 22, Cherokee Nation, in Indian Territory, which is present Delaware County in Oklahoma, northwest of Siloam Springs. After living there about a year daughter Allie May was born in 1896. The family rented a farm. John and Josephine moved back to Arkansas some time during the summer of 1900 as their fifth child, William Leverett, was born November 5 in Weddington, Arkansas. The family lived and farmed in Weddington, situated between Siloam Springs and Fayetteville in western Arkansas. In 1910, their eldest son James Henry married Anna Etta Hess; they farmed nearby in Rhea, Arkansas. Eventually they relocated to Fayetteville where he worked as a custodian for the University of Arkansas. Four years later John Calvin and Josephine’s son Clint married Flossie Randolph; they also lived in Rhea. The same year daughter Allie May married Marvin Roberson in Adair County, Oklahoma. At the time nineteen-year-old Allie was living in Westville, Oklahoma. They moved to Siloam Springs Arkansas, where their first-born Ferris was born in 1922. Meanwhile Denver (called Jack) departed for service in World War I; he sailed on the ship Amphion as a private from Base Hospital No. 81, departing St. Nazaire, France on June 3, 1919. Immediately upon his return Jack married Gladys Durnal in 1919; they quickly moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma. Tulsa in 1920 was a growing city in northeast Oklahoma, in what had been Creek Territory, now since 1907 the State of Oklahoma. Already living in Tulsa were Clint and Flossie. Soon Marvin and Allie moved to the city as well; their second son Eugene was born in April, 1924 in Tulsa. In 1925 Allie and Marvin lived in Tulsa at 814 E. 5th St. He was a car washer at Tulsa Auto Washing Co. In time they moved west to California, where he became involved in the used car business. In 1920 Clint, Flossie, and son Dayton and daughter Doris lived next door to Jack and Gladys on South Main Street in Tulsa. Jack was a truck driver for an iron works company; they rented their place, as did Clint and Flossie. Jack eventually moved to 226 Seminole St; in 1940 he worked in the stock room of a steel company. Clint was an oil worker at a Tulsa oil refinery. In 1930 Clint and Gladys lived at 2313 S. Phoenix Ave. Then, he was a truck driver for an oil company. In 1940 they lived at 1114 Quaker Ave. He was at that time a wench truck driver for an oil refinery. The youngest of John Calvin and Josephine’s sons, John Calvin Jr., moved to Tulsa as well in the 1920s or 1930s, but migrated west in the late 1930s to work in a federal job in Los Angeles. He worked as a mechanic of street maintenance equipment. His wife Nelva and her father Clarence Virgin also lived in their home, purchased by John. He stayed in California, living in Monrovia, east of LA, working as a supervisor.

Clint Lawson

William Leverett Lawson, born November 5, 1900, did not serve in World War I, as he was exempt from service as a farmer. On December 15, 1920 he married Martha Susan Sorrels. He farmed in Weddington until in the early 1920s when he and Martha moved to Tulsa.

Martha Susan was the daughter of Van Wesley and Martha Euphronius Tully Sorrels. Van was born in 1875, Martha in 1874. The Sorrels family hailed from the southeast. Van’s father Ephraim was born in North Carolina in 1847. His father Thomas fought and died for the Confederacy when Ephraim was a teenager. When he was a boy, the family moved from North Carolina to northwestern Arkansas living in the town of Mountain Home on the White River. Ephraim was a woodcutter, a profession his son Van took up. After marriage Van and Martha (whose family was from Texas), moved to far western Arkansas, living in various locations. He was a woodsman not a farmer, and made his living chopping wood, fashioning railroad ties, fence posts, and so on. He was also a musician who made his own instruments. He and Martha formed a family band with their children that featured guitar, mandolin, and fiddle. They had six children. Martha Susan was their fourth child.

Van Sorrels Family

Will (as he was called) and Martha Susan (Susie) had a child, Chloe Elnora, in 1922; they soon after moved to Tulsa to live by his brothers and sister and work. In 1928 they had a son, Oliver Roy.

In the 1930 census, Will and Susie owned a radio, rented a house at 1520 N. Victor, and Will worked as a mechanic at an electrical shop. Soon after, the family moved to 1545 N. Birmingham Pl., where Oliver began kindergarten at Springdale Elementary, 2510 Pine St. They lived there for several years, then around 1936/37 relocated to West Tulsa, living in a house they owned at 16 S. Santa Fe. This bungalow style home was long and narrow, atop a rising hill. The front steps went up a brief steep incline. There was a large porch and a porch swing. There was an alley next to the house that Will took to park his auto in the unattached garage at the back of the lot. The house had a deep basement.

Lawson Family in the 1920s

In the 1940 census, Will was listed as an auto mechanic, working 48 hours per week, at Adams Motor Co, 5th and Detroit in Tulsa. He later worked as a mechanic at a Ford dealership, and retired in 1966 from Fred Jones Ford, 12th and Boston, in Tulsa. He drove a black 1950 Ford, then later invested in a white Mercury Comet.

Will’s elderly parents John Calvin and Josephine followed their children to Tulsa, where they lived out their lives and were buried. Susie’s elderly parents likewise moved to Tulsa, where they lived out their lives; they were buried in Arkansas.

The Lawson’s of the Southern Hill Country, then, moved from the American colonial south to the west, first to the Appalachian West, then further west to Arkansas, then Oklahoma. The records that tell us about these people are few, just land and census records mostly, and a few photographs. They do not reveal much of the inner personality. There seems to have been a reticence in their behavior, a suspicion, a willingness to wait—upon chance, or God. Movement was often forced upon them by circumstances of need and the urge for survival. They were not an emotional people. They were unsure how to express feelings. How does one express love toward another when one is unsure, and reticence is the typical response to everything in life? How can one feel excitement, feel love, feel wonder, feel happiness, in an uncertain world where inaction, waiting, watching, seems the most comfortable approach to life? The Southern hill country personality is outwardly pious, but inwardly barren. Outwardly such people belong to a church, believe in God, say the proper grace at meals, sing the proper hymns, but without emotion, without feeling, because religion is something not to express emotion over; to express love for God is just as uncomfortable as to express love for another, a child, a relative, a parent. Besides the church, associations and institutions are generally treated with some suspicion, befitting a rural people. the fears and trepidations of life are often dealt with not by masking them in formalities, rather by submerging them in the informalities of a more community existence: plain speaking, suspicion of others outside of one’s typical familiarity, a rough appearance to the world to show “ain’t scared,” even if one is.

Maxwell and Anna Lawson typified these mannerisms. Maxwell was a big, burly man, very serious, virile, living until age 70. He had a full head of hair and was generally handsome. His photographic portrait shows a stern, dignified country man. He does not appear sad, just more a serious gaze into the hardship of life. A survivor.

His wife Anna was likewise big, burly, serious, and virile, bearing 19 children and living until she was 70. She was born five years after Maxwell and outlived him by five years. She appears to have been a beautiful woman with nice features. But there is a sense of sadness and hardship in her photographic portrait.

But then again, Maxwell and Anna had a reason for such an approach to life. The Civil War cut through their existence, destroying what was normal, destroying lives of those they bore and bred. And the post war period was just as harsh, living in an unforgiving environment of northwest Arkansas where achieving a good life was a challenge, where the remnants of war were everywhere. No wonder that their descendants departed west, some as far as California, others to Oklahoma and an urban existence, which was not dependent on the soil, the fickle weather, the price of crops, and the struggle to survive as a small southern farmer.

Maxwell Lawson
Anna Lawson

About theamericanplutarch

Writer, thinker, historian.
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