The year was 1826—190 years ago. John Quincy Adams was president. Old Glory had only twenty-four stars. The U.S. population was about eleven million, 90 percent of that population living in rural areas. Among that 90 percent was the infant Sam Woody, who was born that year in the mountains of Tennessee.
Fast-forward to 1848. In that year, Sam Woody, age twenty-two, married Mary Emaline Breazeale, age fourteen, in Roane County. By 1850 the couple, like many others in Tennessee, had GTT (gone to Texas). Sam and Mary traveled down the Tennessee River in a flatboat that Woody built to the Ohio River and then to the Mississippi River, where they boarded a steamer to travel west up the Red River to Shreveport, and then on westward, traveling overland by wagon.
Imagine that road trip. A road trip without a road. Just wagon ruts. No roadside parks. No Motel 6s. No GPS. No DVD. No AC. No Stuckey’s, no Buc-ee’s.
Reaching Tarrant County the couple camped on the bluff overlooking the Trinity River near the Army’s new Fort Worth, the latest fort in a “line of defense” established along the western frontier to protect white settlers. (Map from University of Texas Libraries.)
Woody and his family would stay on the bluff four years. Woody would come to know and admire fort commandant Major Ripley Arnold.
Woody also found work with the fort. He broke horses for the fort’s soldiers, he would recall in 1901, and, like John White, he worked as a freighter for the fort, driving an ox-drawn wagon to Houston, Shreveport, and Galveston to pick up supplies. George Preston Farmer, husband of Woody’s sister Jane, was the fort’s sutler.
But Sam Woody eventually grew restless. He later would say, “The prettiest sight I ever saw is a new country, where man has never been and which is just as the great God of Heaven left it.” In 1854 Woody left Fort Worth, which had evolved from a fort into a town, and headed for “a new country.”
Woody headed north but not far: He and his family became the first permanent white residents of Wise County. He built a cabin on Deep Creek and established a ranch.
In 1860 Sam Woody was listed in the census as a farmer.
In that cabin on Deep Creek Sam’s son John J. was born on February 27, 1862. By the 1870 census son John was eight years old.
Fast-forward to 1938. At age seventy-six, John J. Woody was living on Harrison Street in Fort Worth when he was interviewed by the Federal Writers’ Project, which recorded oral histories in the late 1930s.
Here, in his own words, are John J. Woody’s memories of growing up on the frontier in Wise County:
“The Indians really cut a figure in those days. . . . [sixteen-year-old] Sallie Bette Bowman’s father had a good many horses, and the Indians were awful bad about stealing them. In fact, oxen almost replaced horses for awhile there. Well, [in 1868] Sallie Bette was up Deep Creek, watching the horse herd, when a band of Indians showed up. She knew her life was in danger, so she tried to get away from them. Since she was riding an awfully good horse, she almost made it. Those Indians chased her for three miles, then when she was right near a neighbor’s house, they opened fire and killed her. The woman of the house happened to be looking, and she saw them scalp her after she fell from her horse. They couldn’t catch the horse, though, and it went on to the ranch house. When her father saw the horse come into the yard without her, he and several men started out to see what was wrong. They found the girl all right, but the Indians had gotten away with the horse herd.”
Clip is from the March 26, 1868 Dallas Weekly Herald.
Sallie, daughter of C. F. and Mary Bowman, is buried in Wise County’s Deep Creek Cemetery.
This detail of an 1895 General Land Office map shows the C. F. Bowman survey east of Deep Creek in southeastern Wise County.
John J. Woody continued his story: “Those were hard times for the early settlers. . . . Many’s the night we’d all gone to bed with our parents saying they’d leave the next morning. Things would be different, though, the next morning. We’d wake up, the sun’d be shining, not an Indian would be in sight, and if we left, we’d be leaving everything we had in this world, so they’d just change their minds and stay.
“The early settlers were so anxious to have neighbors that they’d give a man 160 acres off their places just to have him settle and be a neighbor. Besides just being a neighbor, Dad wanted someone to talk to. You know, there were no telephones, newspapers, mail, or anything for the settlers then. The president could be dead for months and the settlers not even know it. . . . In those days, there were what they called ‘circuit riders,’ who were really traveling preachers for the different denominations. Dad was always glad to see one of them ride up, and before he’d even speak to the preacher, he’d tell us kids to grab a horse and light out to all the neighbors and tell them to come to our house for a meeting.
“We’d make a thirty-miles circle, tell them all, and they’d just about everyone be there that night. Preachers in those days didn’t preach like they do today. They’d preach almost all night. I can remember many a time when after making a few remarks, the preacher’d reach up on the mantle, take down the bottle, take a couple of drinks, snort once or twice, then be off. That whiskey just seemed to warm them up and prime them for a night. We kids’d lay down on the floor and go off to sleep, him still a-preaching.
“Back in Tennessee, the Woodys were all foot-washing hard-shell Baptists. . . . Dad was baptized but wouldn’t join any church because he wanted those circuit riders to keep coming, and he was afraid if he joined any certain church, the others would stop coming, and they were his source of news with the outside. His greatest delight was when two of them from different denominations came in at the same time. They’d argue Scripture then, and Dad learned a whole lot that way. He couldn’t read or write, but he heard so much Bible that he knew as much as some of the preachers.”
(Clip is from an 1847 issue of Texas Presbyterian.)