Mrs. Mary E. Billingsley: Pioneer Mother - By Maude Wallis Traylor
[From J. Marvin Hunter’s Frontier Times Magazine, March, 1939]
There are only too few pioneers living today, who have actually seen Texas history in the making; and especially one with a memory so clear and accurate she can recite enough Texas history and tradition off-handed, in one hour, as to keep a reputable genealogist and an amateur historian very busy two whole years, tracing, connecting, proving, and recording same.
Mrs. Billingsley, or "Cousin Mary", as one is affectionately known to a large connection of relatives, can show a pioneer lineage that might make a few of us just a little envious, and has documentary proof of three of her father's Mayflower ancestors, Captain Myles Standish, Edward Doty, and James Rogers. She also has proof of her direct descent from Humphrey Turner, who came from England and settled in Plymouth in 1628. He prospered, as did his descendants, and in time they intermarried with the descendants of many other old Plymouth families, such as Kenelm Winslow, Plymouth, 1628; Robert Coronet Stetson, Plymouth, 1631; John Hudson; and Rev. John Miller, all settling in Plymouth by or before 1635, all of which just goes to show how so many of the early Texas pioneers came of good old American stock. Therefore, a history of "Cousin Mary's" various relatives, in the early days of Texas, sounds like a regular Texas history lesson, and a review at that.
They came to Texas in two large wagon trains, one in 1827, settling in Stephen Austin's Colony on the Colorado River, and the other in December, 1829, settling in Green DeWitt's Colony; and there were so many of them their land grants spread out all the way through Travis, Bastrop, Gonzales, Guadalupe, Lavaca, Jackson, and Victoria counties.
"Cousin Mary" was born near the present town Somer (?), Texas, March 12, 1856, the only child of Edwin Turner by his wife Mariah (O'Neal) Turner. Her parents moved to old Bastrop when she was a few months old, and she was reared in this old town, rich in an environment of history and tradition, dear to the hearts of many Texas pioneers, and of particular interest to all historians.
Her great-grandfather, the first Winslow Turner of Pembroke, Plymouth county, Massachusetts, was a sailor on the frigate "Deane," commanded by Capt. Samuel Nicholson in the American Revolution and another great grandfather, William Standish, the great-grandson of Captain Myles Standish and Edward Doty, was a private in Captain John Turner's company, of Col. Cotton's Regiment, doing duty in Rhode Island in the American Revolution.
The above Winslow Turner married Molly Standish, the daughter of William Standish, in Pembroke, 1785, and they had four children: Winslow, Jr. Deborah, Sally, and Adam. These are the "four children" referred to by Myles Standish in his "The Standishes in America", page 16, (Pub., 1895). They left Pembroke, the year of 1800 for one of the only two small settlements west of the Mississippi, and north of the Missouri rivers. Molly, the young wife, died on the way, but Winslow and his four children reached that far away small fort and trading post, later called Fort Wood, near the present town of Troy in Lincoln county, Missouri.
Winslow Turner received a Spanish grant of land near Fort Wood, established a home and reared his four children, in spite of extreme hardships, and continuous Indian wars. Like the majority of those early pioneers, his children married young. His oldest son, Winslow, Jr. married a young widow, Mrs. Elizabeth Williams, with two small children, Malkijah and Teresa, and he reared these two along with his and Elizabeth's eight in Lincoln county, Missouri. He was a veteran of the British War of 1812, having been in Capt. Isaac Van Bibber's company of Infantry, Louisiana Militia.
His daughter, Deborah, married Ahijah M. Highsmith, one of Col. Daniel Boone's noted scouts of "The Missouri Mounted Rangers," War of 1812, and they had five children when they came to Texas in 1827, one of whom was Ben, whose life as an early Texas pioneer and Indian scout was so ably written by A. J. Sowell in his "Texas Indian Fighter's", sometime in the nineties. Sally, the other daughter of Winslow Turner and Molly Standish, married Stephen Cottle, of a family so numerous in St. Charles county, Missouri, a town was called "Cottleville" for them. Adam Turner married in Missouri before he came to Texas. His wife's name is unknown, also the names of his children, except Elizabeth, who married her first cousin, Ben Highsmith, and in the U. S. Census of 1850, of Bastrop county, Texas, she gave Missouri as the place of her birth.
It is interesting to note that a Zadock Woods and his brother-in-law, Joseph Cottle, received two of the oldest Spanish grants in Missouri, later Lincoln county. These grants joined, and the men were Winslow Turner's neighbors. His daughter, Sally, married Joseph Cottle's son, Stephen.
Old Fort Wood was established on Zadock Wood's land, later used by Lt. Zachary Taylor, who was later General Taylor, and President of the United States. This same Zadock Woods came to Texas at an early date, and built another Fort Wood on his land in Fayette county. His son, Leander, was killed in the battle of Velasco; and later, this white-haired eighty-year-old Zadock was murdered with Dawson's men; his son, Gonzalvo, escaping, while his son Norman, was taken prisoner in the same battle of Salado, and carried down into Mexico, where he died in the terrible old Perote prison, in 1842.
When peace came following the British War of 1812, Missouri Territory experienced a regular boom, and grew unbelievably fast. The national changes of ownership passed almost unnoticed by the inhabitants, and the counties, St. Charles, Howard, Montgomery, and Lincoln were created by the year of 1820, the year Missouri became a state. It was about this time that the colonization project of Moses Austin in Texas caused a great excitement in Missouri, where the Austins lived and were well known. The Turner and Highsmith families were well-to-do farmers, and they planned to sell their homes and come to Texas. A tradition in the Turner family is that young Winslow Turner, then a married man with six to eight children had an agreement or a contract with Moses Austin, to bring a wagon train of colonists to Texas from Missouri. The sudden death of Moses Austin, followed almost immediately by the death of the older Winslow Turner, changed all plans for immigration to Texas. But after some two years of delay, young Winslow, now Winslow Turner Sr., entered into an agreement with Moses Austin's son, Stephen, and worked for him in his colonization plan in far away Texas.
"Cousin Mary" Billingsley says she has heard the story repeated many times in her youth that her grandfather, Winslow Turner Sr., brought the Zadock Woods family to Texas and several others, whose names appear in Stephen Austin's Old Three Hundred. When Ben Highsmith recited the story of his life to A. J. Sowell, in the early nineties for publication, he mentioned how the Indians forced his parents to abandon their first home on the Colorado river, some two miles above LaGrange, and how these "outside settlers" were forced to come back to the settlements below for protection, and he also mentioned this was where the Zadock Woods and Stephen Cottle families lived, and it was called "Rabb's Mill", and that just six families were gathered here in a crude little fort hastily thrown up. Ben said these six families were forced almost immediately, to flee this place also, because the Indians sent out word they would murder all of them ''come next moon", and Ben said, "The Cottles stopped at Jesse Burnham's and the Highsmiths at Elliot C. Buckner's. This was in 1829." The above mentioned Stephen Cottle, was the one that married Sally Turner, the sister of the Winslow Turner, who came to Texas with his large family. Stephen Cottle was one of the colonists Winslow brought to Texas. There are many coincidences in the history of the lives and associations, also the family relationships of all six or seven of these families that would indicate they all came to Texas together.
And since I am indebted to my cousin, Mrs. Mary E. Billingsley, for the main part of all the foregoing statements, which I have actually proved, I now turn my story over to "Cousin Mary:"
"My grandfather, Winslow Turner,Sr., is said to have brought in a wagon-train of Missouri settlers for Austin's Colony on the Colorado, including his sister's family, the Ahijah M. Highsmith's, in the year of 1827, as shown by records of Requests for land in that year, to be found in the archives of our State Land Office. These records of 1827 show my grandfather, Winslow Turner, Sr., applied for a vacant tract of land on the Colorado river, stating it joined Joseph Duty on the one side, and Ahijah M. Highsmith on the other, but there are no records to show whether grandfather ever lived on this land. The records shows Grandfather Turner brought in another wagon train of Missouri people, including his own family, in December of 1829. I have heard my father, Edwin Turner, tell how this wagon train of Missouri people, all relatives, crossed the Sabine river on a raft of logs the day before Christmas, as they entered Texas.
"They had expected to receive lands in Stephen Austin's second colony on the Colorado river, but there was not land and room for all of them, so the Cottles and Highsmiths received lands in the Austin Colony and Grandfather Turner and several others came on to the DeWitt Colony.
"The Empresario, Green DeWitt's land offing was at Gonzales, and that is where Grandfather Turner received a grant of more than four thousand acres, lying north of Gonzales. His young son, Winslow, Jr., received a single man's grant at the same time, and those two grants are today the two Winslow Turner Surveys of Gonzales county. His young step-son, Malkijah Williams, received a grant in Jackson county the same year, that is the Malkijah Williams Survey, as did his young son-in-law, Sam Highsmith, being the Samuel Highsmith Survey of Jackson county.
"It is said that Grandfather Turner built a little home on this land in 1829 and tried to farm, but the Indians burned his home and stole all of his stock, and this was the year the Indians ran all those settlers off their lands, murdering many of them before the others would give up to seek protection with other settlers. The Indians now gave so much trouble the settlers could not farm to raise corn to make their bread, nor could they venture far from home to hunt game that was so plentiful, and they suffered the actual pangs of hunger. I have seen the little steel hand-mills the first settlers used to grind their corn to make bread. In the archives of University of Texas may be found the following bill of sale: `One steel mill, price twelve dollars, to the Volunteer Army of Texas, by Winslow Turner, Sr., at Gonzales, October 14, 1835.'
"Grandfather now bought some lots in the town of Gonzales, built another little log house and with his wife and eight children, made this their home.
"Great-Uncle Ahijah and Aunt Deborah Highsmith had been forced by the Indians to abandon their home on the Colorado this year of 1829, and first stopped at the home of Great-Uncle Stephen and Aunt Sally Cottle, but almost immediately they were all forced to leave this locality, too, for combined strength of protection against Indians.
"My father's oldest sister, Louisa, married Joseph Duty, one of Austin's Old Three Hundred, about 1830,and Uncle Winslow married Sarah Sowell of Gonzales, in 1831. She was a sister of the gunsmith; John Sowell who made the cannon balls for the famous little Gonzales cannon. She did not live many years, and I never heard of any children from this marriage.
In the fall of 1835, Grandfather Turner was confined to his bed with consumption, when the call for volunteers was made to defend the town of Gonzales, until runners could bring help from nearby settlements. But his sons Winsolw, Jr., Edwin, 15, Hirum, 13, and Stephen, 11, shouldered their guns and defended their home town and little cannon against Mexican invasion.
"There are today, only two so called accredited lists of the brave defenders of Gonzales, one by Valentine Bennet, and the other by Charles Mason. It would be well for historians to remember that both those lists were made up, purely from memory, many years after the battle of Gonzales, October 2, 1835, and the names of Edwin and Hirum Turner were omitted purely through failure to remember them, as were a few other brave men.
"Following the battle of Gonzales, a number of Grandfather's neighbors and relatives went on to San Antonio, participating in the battle of Concepcion and Fall of Bexar. Then came the epochal year of 1836, and Grandfather was so low that all of his family were gathered at his bedside in Gonzales, expecting him to pass away at any time. The report of General Santa Anna's approach to San Antonio, followed by the rumor that Colonel Travis and his little band was barricaded in the Alamo caused great alarm throughout Texas. Later came confirmed news that the Alamo had fallen and every man in it had been put to death, including thirty-three brave men from Gonzales, who had responded to Colonel Travis' eloquent appeal for help. Many of the Gonzales men were Grandfather Turner's friends and neighbors. His nephew, Ben Highsmith, had entered the Alamo with Colonel Travis, and escaped death by having been sent by Colonel Travis to Colonel Fannin with an appeal to destroy the fort in Goliad and came to his aid.
"Cousin Ben said there were both Mexican and Indian scouts on his trail and the whole country a sea of mud and water, and it took him five days to reach Goliad and return. Upon nearing San Antonio, he stopped on a high hill overlooking the city, to reconnoiter, and saw the Mexican army had arrived and surrounded the Alamo during his absence. Realizing his brave commander and all of his brave comrades were doomed, he wheeled his horse and fled toward Gonzales, pursued by a body of Mexican cavalry for several miles.
"When he reached the Cibolo river, he paused to rest his winded horse, and heard the distant boom of cannon telling him the siege of the Alamo had begun. He then hurried on to Gonzales to report to General Houston, who was greatly distressed to learn this tragic fact. There was already much strife and confusion, in fact open rebellion, among those of the volunteer army who disliked General Houston. They did not consider him a military man, and felt that there were other men present who were more fit to command and lead them.
"History records how General Houston sent young Ben Highsmith on the second fruitless mission to Colonel Fannin at Goliad, this time accompanied by young David Kent, whose father was in the Alamo. When the boys returned to Gonzales to report to General Houston, they found that Mrs. Dickinson had just been brought in to confirm the news of the fall of the Alamo. My father and other relatives always said that no tongue or pen could ever describe the panic of terror that followed the news of the fall of the Alamo, and amid all this the screams of the wives, mothers, and children of the Gonzales men who had fallen in the Alamo could be heard.
"Not only did the settlers fear the cruel and fiendish Mexican officers and soldiers, but they knew they had the Indians to fear also, because the Mexicans had incited them to a general uprising against the whites. Women and children and old people were hastily loaded into ox wagons, mounted on horses or mules, or forced to walk, but all fled for their very lives.
"Grandfather Turner's oldest son, Winslow, Jr., was already in the volunteer army, leaving my father, the next oldest, a boy of 16, to get his dying father and the rest of the family into an ox wagon as best he could and join that band of fleeing, terrified refugees in the great "Stampede," or "Runaway Scrape," as the pioneers themselves always called it. I well remember hearing my father tell how he walked the entire distance from Gonzales to the battlefield of San Jacinto; of how Grandfather Turner died somewhere along that terrible flight; that his family had to stop at old Harrisburg to bury him; and how the Mexicans entered Harrisburg as Grandmother and her children fled for their lives, the Mexicans burning the town to the ground.
"Father said he and his family overtook General Houston's army, and he joined the army, while Grandmother, his three sisters, and three brothers remained with the band of refugees, insight and hearing of the battle fought soon after they arrived there. My uncles, Winslow Turner, Jr., Sam Highsmith, and cousin, Ben Highsmith, fought in this battle, with my father, and it is believed his twelve-year-old brother, Stephen Turner, shouldered a gun and fought also.
"Following the battle of San Jacinto, Grandmother and her children had no home to return to because Gen. Houston had burned the town of Gonzales when he marched out of it, so they found refuge with relatives in old Texana. The league of land Grandfather Turner had received in 1829, north of Gonzales, was completely abandoned, and finally lost to the family. It is today one of Texas' richest oil fields.
"Grandmother Turner and my father each received a headright of land in Jackson county, but the family lived in Texana, and it was there that father's three young sisters married. Aunt Mary married Samuel P. Middleton, and they settled on his grant of land and reared a large family in Victoria county. Aunt Sarah married Abraham Clare, said to be the first sheriff of Jackson county. He was a wealthy man, owning much of old Texans, besides a league of land that is named for him. Aunt Betty married Edward Mills, and they lived in Jackson county. Uncle Winslow had married in 1831. Father's half-sister, Teresa Williams, had married Sam Highsmith back in Missouri sometime before they came to Texas, and the survey of land in Jackson county is named for this Samuel Highsmith. Malkijah Williams, father's half-brother, married Cynthia Burns, and they reared a large family in Jackson county.
"I have heard my father describe the battle of Plum Creek in 1842 many times and how he and Cousin Ben Highsmith rescued a white woman from the Indians during this battle. My father was also in the battle of Salado, as were several of his brothers. His brother, Stephen, received a wound in the shoulder in this battle that he suffered from the rest of his life.
"My mother was Maria Kenney, born in Ireland, August 15, 1831, and was the daughter of Michael and Mary Kenney. She married John O'Neal in Ireland, and they immediately sailed for America. John O'Neal carried a large sum of money in a belt around his waist and in some way this fact became known. During the voyage he was suddenly missing, and his wife knew he had been murdered for his money and thrown overboard, but she was too young and helpless to do anything about it. She landed at New Orleans, a stranger in a new land, without funds, but knowing how to do fine sewing and make exquisite laces, she soon found employment and made friends. Later she came to Texas, where she met and married my father, Edwin Turner, December 27, 1854. Father died during the first year of the Civil War. Mother was married for the third time, in 1865, to Mr. Wade Hampton Dixon, and they lived in Bastrop, rearing a family there.
"Among the very old settlers in Bastrop whom I knew so well, was my Grandfather Turner's sister, Deborah, who was Mrs. Ahijah Highsmith, and known to us as `Aunt Debby.' She lived to be very old, as did my father's oldest sister, `Aunt Louisa;' who married Joseph Duty, one of Austin's Old Three Hundred. They lived at Old Webberville, east of Austin, where Uncle Joseph died in 1855, from the bite of a rattlesnake. Aunt Louisa was rich in land and negroes, and I well remember how she used to visit Bastrop in her fine carriage, and always with a negro slave as driver, and another as nurse. The Civil War wiped out most of her wealth. She and her husband and several of their children are buried in an iron-enclosed plot in front of what was formerly the First Methodist church of Webberville. It is now a negro school.
"Another very old settler I remember was Cousin Ben Highsmith. He lived in Bastrop many years and following the Civil War he drove big freight wagons for my step-father. He was a kind, gentle old man, and I can remember how he used to wave a great `blacksnake' whip over the backs of six to eight oxen in one team, popping it to sound like a gun, but was never known to strike one of the animals. Like my great Aunt Debby and Aunt Louisa Duty, he lived to be very old, and also like them he loved to talk of those early days in Texas. He has told me so many times the same stories my father told me of the various battles they fought in, and the Indian troubles.
"There was also my husband's uncle, Captain Jesse Billingsley, who Iived at McDade, and who used to visit and sit with us often. He relived and talked of the days of 1835 and 1836 many times and always remembered where and under whom all my relatives had fought, in all battles and Indian raids of early Texas. Captain Billingsley, or `Uncle Jesse,' as he was known to us, hated General Houston violently, and used to get wildly excited as he relived early campaigns and battles, never failing to cuss General Houston if his name was mentioned. He blamed him bitterly for the senseless burning of Gonzales, and all those settlers' homes and ferries as he retreated toward the Sabine river and safety. He also blamed General Houston for not engaging Santa Anna in a battle, either at Gonzales or long before they reached San Jacinto. This opinion was shared by every relative, pioneer, or descendant of same, that I have ever known or heard of, in all the more than eighty years of my life as a pioneer Texian.
"Captain Jesse Billingsley, commanding Company C of the First Regiment of Texas Volunteers, said when they reached the famous San Jacinto, General Houston was still in favor of further retreat, while his officers and men were so bitterly opposed there was threatened rebellion and selection of another leader. Captain Billingsley said the famous battle cry `Remember the Alamo,' and `Remember Goliad,' was born out of this very fact and bitterness of discussion, and he himself used that very expression to some of his own men just before the battle, and it was his own company that first raised that famous battle-cry of `Remember the Alamo,' and `Remember Goliad,' that swept over the Texian battlefield like a flame.
"Another thing old Texians and veterans of the Revolution blamed General Houston for was his negligent attitude toward having all the men who fought under him at San Jacinto recognized and rewarded for same. Many of them were not in any military company, having merely grabbed a gun and fallen in with the army somewhere along that line of retreat, while many others joined the army after it reached San Jacinto, and all those men had families among the refugees, homeless and destitute on that prairie of mud and water, exposed to a cold rain. Naturally, they rushed off to find them immediately after the battle and to return to their hastily abandoned homes, if their homes had not been burned by order of General Houston.
"The whole world knows of General Huston's treatment of the men of the unfortunate Mier Expedition in 1842, for which Texas veterans called him names that do not look well in print.
"And so, in conclusion of my memoirs covering the early days of Texas, some of it more than a hundred years old, much of it more than seventy years ago, and the rest more than half a century, I want to say: I have been greatly surprised at some of the history set forth in textbooks, of so-called Texas history, and taught to my grandchildren. Many characters and actual facts in these textbooks have been wrapped in such a haze of romantic slush as to completely obliterate the actual truth and cause it to be lost sight of entirely."
And now I will take up my story where Cousin Mary left off:
Bear in mind, Mrs. Billingsley did not learn any of the foregoing, or any history from a book. She learned the story of the American Revolution from her father's aged aunt, Mrs. Deborah (Turner) Highsmith, who had heard it from her own father, the first Winslow Turner, who was a sailor boy on the Continental Frigate Deane. The early history of Texas was taught her by her father and other relatives who lived and helped to make that history. The Civil War overshadowed four years of her childhood, followed by the terrible years of Yankee Carpet Baggers and so-called "Reconstruction" days. And Mrs. Billingsley has a clear memory of all the various political parties and campaigns, of cholera and yellow-fever epidemics, panics and financial depressions, droughts, floods, fires, and earthquakes, Spanish-American and World Wars, and can recite the history of the killing of Sam Bass, and the famous Sutton and Taylor feud.
Since the death of her husband, Samuel W. Billingsley, some two years ago, at the age of eighty-six, she has made her home with her daughter, Mrs. R.B. Morris, of San Antonio. Her other daughter, Mrs. Bob Sapp, lives at Bastrop. One son, Turner Billingsley, lives at Conroe, and the other son, Kenneth Billingsley, lives in McAllen, where he has been the express agent for some years.