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Prairie Gothic

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Prairie Gothic is rich in Texas history. It is the story of Erickson's family, ordinary people who, through strength of character, found dignity in the challenges presented by nature and human nature. It is also the story of the place instrumental in shaping their lives the flatland prairie of northwestern Texas that has gone by various names (High Plains, South Plains, Staked Plains, and Llano Estacado), as well as the rugged country on its eastern boundary, often referred to as the caprock canyonlands. One branch of Erickson's family arrived in Texas in 1858, settling in Parker County, west of Weatherford. Another helped establish the first community on the South Plains, the Quaker colony of Estacado. They crossed paths with numerous prominent people in Texas history: Sam Houston, Sul Ross, Charles Goodnight, Cynthia Ann and Quanah Parker, Jim Loving, and a famous outlaw, Tom Ross. Erickson's research took him into the homes of well-known Texas authors, such as J. Evetts Haley and John Graves. Graves had written about the death of Erickson s great-great grandmother, Martha Sherman. The theme that runs throughout the book is that of family, of four generations' efforts to nurture the values of civilized people: reverence of the written word, honesty, godliness, thrift, and personal relationship. It is the story of pioneer women and their struggles to keep their families together; it is the story of cowboys, outlaws, and Indian raids, told against the background of a harsh environment of droughts, blizzards, and rattlesnakes; and it is universal. Erickson has created a fascinating blend of family and regional history.

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Chapter One: Anna Beth

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Chapter One: Anna Beth

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t was my great fortune to have been raised by a woman who loved language, told wonderful stories, and believed that passing those stories along to me was more important than doing other things for herself. That was my mother, Anna Beth Curry Erickson. I was the last of three children and by the time I came along and reached the age of

five, Mother had time to spend with me. We went everywhere together and became the best of friends. I spent many hours sitting on a stool in the kitchen, watching her wash the dishes and prepare meals, and in the afternoons we snuggled up in her bed for Bible stories and a nap.

We raised ducks, rabbits, and chickens in the back yard, and from her

I learned to wring a chicken’s neck and pluck the feathers after dipping the bird into boiling water, skills she had learned from her mother and grandmother. We raised a garden, collected horned toads, and hung out the weekly wash on the clothesline.

Wherever we were, she told me stories about her family in West

 

Chapter Two: The Visit

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Chapter Two: The Visit

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uring the summer of 1966 I was in Austin, finishing up a few courses at the University of Texas so that I could graduate in

August, and my thoughts had turned eastward. I had been accepted as a student at Harvard Divinity School and soon I would be moving to Cambridge, leaving Texas behind, perhaps forever. The thought of spending some time in Cambridge excited me. During the Kennedy administration, we had heard a great deal about Harvard University.

President Kennedy, his brother Bobby, Defense Secretary McNamara, and other members of the administration had studied there. Could a kid from Perryton compete with the luminous beings who occupied such a place? I wasn’t sure, but I had a ticket for finding out.

So why, in the midst of such heady speculations, did I write my grandmother in Seminole and ask if I could spend a weekend with her?

Apparently four years of university education had failed to do what I had hoped it would do, erase all memory of my background in rural West

 

Chapter Three: The Quakers

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Chapter Three: The Quakers

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ohn Graves has observed that “most of West Texas accords ill with the

Saxon nostalgia for cool, green, dew-wet landscapes” (John Graves

1960: 5), and any journey that begins in Austin and ends in Seminole or

Lubbock provokes the question, “Why did people ever come here?” Why did they pass through the softer, greener counties in central Texas and keep following the sun until, two hundred miles west of Fort Worth, they climbed the caprock escarpment and looked out on that vast expanse of featureless prairie known as the Llano Estacado, or Staked Plains?

Even the Comanches didn’t spend much time on the Llano, but used it as a temporary refuge from the U.S. military. When the soldiers followed them out into the dry wastes of the Llano, it usually turned out badly for the boys in blue. The Comanches survived because they knew the location of every spring and hole of water. In dry years, they cut small slits into the jugular veins of their horses and drank the blood.

The soldiers—those who didn’t perish from thirst—wandered their way back to civilization, having gained a hard education about the Llano

 

Chapter Four: Martha Sherman

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Chapter Four: Martha Sherman

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other told me stories about Joe Sherman, but he always seemed a man who occupied the shadows. He died when Mother was a small child and, for reasons that remained obscure to me until many years later, his death was shrouded in mystery. When Mother spoke of that event, her voice dropped into a hushed tone that caused me to lean forward and listen to every word. She was four years old at the time, which would have placed the event in 1916 or 1917. She heard an odd sound coming from her mother’s bedroom. Alarmed, Anna Beth broke one of Mrs. Curry’s iron rules and entered the room without knocking.

Inside, she saw her mother sitting in front of her dressing table, her face buried in her hands. She was crying.

Anna Beth went to her and said, “Mother, what’s wrong?” Startled,

Mable turned on the child and screamed, “Get out! Get out!”

Mother ran out of the room, terrified and certain that something dreadful had come over the house. Later, she learned that her grandfather, Joe Sherman, had died from a gunshot wound. It was an event that brought such disgrace to the Shermans and Currys that no one in my family ever discussed it. Fifty years after it happened,

 

Chapter Five: Cynthia Ann

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Chapter Five: Cynthia Ann

“T

he squaw was in terrible grief,” Goodnight told his biographer, the young J. Evetts Haley:

“I thought I would try to console her and make her understand that she would not be hurt. When I got near her I noticed that she had blue eyes and light hair, which had been cut short. It was a little difficult to distinguish her blond features, as her face and hands were extremely dirty. . . ” (Haley 1936: 57)

Astonished, Goodnight realized that he was looking into the eyes of an Anglo woman who had been kidnapped by the Comanches and had adopted their ways; and she was holding a bronze-faced baby that had been sired by Chief Peta Nocona himself. She was, of course, Cynthia

Ann Parker, and her story is one of the best known in all of Texas history.

Cynthia Ann had lived with her family at Fort Parker, on the headwaters of the Navasota River near present-day Groesbeck, and in

May of 1836 tensions ran high between the settlers and the Indians, a mixture of northern Comanches and their Kiowa allies. Agents of the

 

Chapter Six: Loose Ends

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Chapter Six: Loose Ends

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n the summer of 1969 I drove down to Weatherford to see if I could locate Martha Sherman’s grave. Grandmother Curry had told me that

Sam Sherman, her nephew (the son of Forrest and Mary D Sherman), had located the grave several years before in a Weatherford cemetery. It had been unmarked, so he bought a gravestone and had it installed.

In Parker County, if you wanted to know about local history, you went to see Fred Cotten, the dean of Parker County historians. I found him in his place of business on Oak Street, across from the old stone courthouse. In this big limestone building, Mr. Cotten ran both a furniture store and a funeral home. An open door between the two establishments enabled him to wait on customers on both sides, although there weren’t many customers the day I arrived. He was sitting in one of his display chairs in the furniture store, beneath a ceiling fan that stirred the humid air. He was up in years, probably in his seventies, and had a shock of fine white hair. He wore a wrinkled white shirt and baggy dress pants held up with suspenders, and a token necktie hung loose at his neck. I joined him under the fan and we talked about local history.

 

Chapter Seven: J. Evetts Haley

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Chapter Seven: J. Evetts Haley

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n the fall of 1961 the Perryton Ranger football team played the

Quanah Indians for the district championship. I was a proud member of that Ranger team, yet so ignorant of my region’s history that I didn’t notice the irony of this contest. My Rangers had taken their name from the legendary Texas Rangers and the town of Quanah had been named in honor of Quanah Parker. Our clash on the football

field, in other words, became a symbolic reenactment of the Battle of

Pease River, only with different results. In 1961 the Rangers lost and the Indians won.

When I was growing up in Perryton, J. Evetts Haley was one of the very few authors the Texas Panhandle had ever produced. In high school we were never exposed to his books on Fort Concho, the XIT ranch, George Littlefield, and Charles Goodnight, all first-rate works of scholarship about the very region we were occupying, the northwest

Texas High Plains. When I graduated from high school in 1962, I’m not sure I would have even recognized Haley’s name. Looking back, I see this as a sad omission, and it is no wonder that I marched off to college thinking that I had grown up in a cultural wasteland and that all writers lived in New York and Boston. In fact, the Panhandle had produced a small handful of authors in addition to Mr. Haley: Laura V. Hamner,

 

Chapter Eight: John Graves

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Chapter Eight: John Graves

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remember sitting on an airplane and watching the man across the aisle from me. He had oriental features and was reading a newspaper covered with Chinese characters that had no more meaning to me than chicken tracks. Yet those marks on the page caused him to smile and frown, and held his attention during a flight that lasted two hours. This left me thinking about the wonder of written language and the miracle that occurs when the human mind transforms those lines of type into mental pictures. Printed words can cause us to laugh, cry, think, remember, and shake with anger.

They can alter our blood pressure, dilate the pupils of our eyes, raise the hair on the back of our necks, and cause our breath to quicken.

Books have started wars, brought down tyrants, altered history, and caused people to fall in love.

Words have a power that is almost mystical, and our ability to transform scribbles on the page into feelings and actions is one of the spiritual qualities that sets us apart from our dogs and cats, and defines us as humans. Sometimes the direction of a person’s life can be changed by what he reads in a book. I can point to several books that have had a profound effect on me. Stories from the Old Testament gave me the heroes of my boyhood. When Mrs. Smith, my fourth grade teacher, read

 

Chapter Nine: Joe Sherman

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Chapter Nine: Joe Sherman

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istory has cast a bright light on Cynthia Ann Parker and Martha

Sherman, but has had very little to say about the two-year old boy who stood in the rain that horrible day in November 1860, watching as his father tied a rag around the scalped head of his dying mother.

Joe Sherman seems to have been a shadowy figure from the very beginning, a man who moved through life like a coyote, casting backward glances to see if he was being followed. Though he qualified as a genuine Texas frontiersman and pioneer, he made no effort to record his adventures and seemed content to take his past with him to the grave, leaving it to others to write the history books and figure out who he was, if that’s what they wanted to do. If he ever bothered to write a memoir, my branch of the family never saw evidence of such. It has taken me forty years to assemble a hazy pattern of where he was and what he did—family stories, bits of stories, county records, newspaper

files, and a reference here and there in a book. And I’m sure that’s the way he wanted it. My cousin Mike Harter, a historian by training, helped

 

Chapter Ten: Max Coleman Remembers

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Chapter Ten: Max Coleman Remembers

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n 1890 the Sherman family, which now included two children, Mable and Forrest, pulled up stakes and moved thirty miles west of Estacado to a ranch in Lubbock County. Mike Harter notes that “the Sherman ranch was located on Yellow House Draw where the town of Shallowater is currently situated. Grandmother Curry could remember that water

flowed in Yellow House Draw. Today it is a sandy bed that has been plowed in many places.” (Harter letter, July 13, 2004)

W. C. Holden says that until the 1920s there was a lake in Yellow

House Canyon that covered about ten acres and was fed by springs on the west side. “The overflow from the lake was sufficient to cause Yellow

House Canyon to run a stream of clear, cold water a dozen feet wide and a foot deep all the way down its course.” (W. C. Holden, in Lawrence L.

Graves 1962: 18)

The Shermans moved a house they had built in Estacado to the

Lubbock County ranch, hauling it on the back of wagons. It was a simple frame house without insulation, and Grandmother Curry, a child at that time, remembered it as very cold in the winter. When Joe had to be gone on roundups and cattle drives, Lina stayed alone with the children. She had to stake out the milk cow and horse during the day, then bring them back in the evening and milk the cow. There were no close neighbors, so

 

Chapter Eleven: The Sherman Family

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Chapter Eleven: The Sherman Family

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y mother’s first-cousin, Roger Joe Sherman, described his grandfather as:

“…strong, exceedingly masculine, and over six feet in height.

His face was spare, sharp-cornered, and intently serious and it matched his disposition. Although he usually walked stiffly and with short steps, he possessed a certain agility and could, when necessary, be quick and cat-like.” (Roger Joe Sherman 1985:

16)

Grandmother Curry remembered that in the early years of their marriage, Joe and Lina enjoyed each other’s company and seemed very compatible. There was laughter in the house and Joe tried to lighten his wife’s load of housework. In the mornings, he would rise early, build a

fire, grind the coffee, and start breakfast. When the babies arrived, he was kind and attentive. In the fall of the year, he would ride the train with his cattle to the Kansas City market, and while there, he enjoyed shopping for Lina and the children. For Lina, he bought leather gloves, pretty hats, warm slippers, and bolts of cloth. Grandmother Curry remembered him bringing her an amethyst ring and a little cup and saucer. But as the babies grew into teenagers, discord crept into the home. In her later life, Grandmother Curry admitted that she was stubborn and willful,

 

Chapter Twelve: Rachel and George Singer

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Chapter Twelve: Rachel and George Singer

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he most famous of our kinsmen was a man named George Singer, who married Lina Sherman’s sister Rachel Underhill and was thus

Grandmother Curry’s uncle. “Famous” is a relative term, of course, and nobody in Los Angeles or New York has ever heard of him, nor have they in Dallas or Houston. But around Lubbock and the South Plains, George

Singer is still remembered as a man of considerable importance. His credits include: first merchant in Crosby County (1881), first merchant in Lubbock County (1881), and one of the original founders of the city of Lubbock (1891). Today, a stone marker in Lubbock honors him. It says that he established his trading post in 1877 and local lore tells that he traded with Comanches and buffalo hunters. Max Coleman, who knew the Singers well, claimed that George had come to the region as early as 1870 (Coleman 1952: 59), but the usually reliable Max got his dates wrong. Nobody but the Comanches occupied the Llano in 1870.

J. Evetts Haley had Singer located at the crossing of two military trails near Yellow House Canyon in 1879 (Haley 1967: 47), but that date also appears to be incorrect.

 

Chapter Thirteen: The End of the Quaker Dream

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Chapter Thirteen: The End of the Quaker Dream

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here was some good steel in those Quakers. I am sorry that I have never had the pleasure of meeting any of the Singers or Underhills, other than Perlina Sherman. As far as we know, they all left the High

Plains sometime around 1892 when their dream of Eden on the Prairie had faded to dust, both poetically and literally. Bad crop years played a major role in the demise of Estacado, as the harsh reality of life on the Llano crushed Paris Cox’s vision of orchards and vineyards. He had been correct in saying that the soil was deep and rich, but he had underestimated the power of those endless southwest winds to pull the moisture out of every living thing. Coronado and Marcy and the

Comanches could have told him, but Paris Cox’s dreams didn’t allow him to hear it.

Also, the Quakers failed in their attempts to keep the Gentiles at bay.

“Soon the cowboys on the nearby ranches learned of the settlement with its beautiful daughters. They came courting and won some of the hearts of the fair Quaker damsels, which was one of the disheartening factors that caused the Quakers to disintegrate.” (Spikes and Ellis 1952: 259)

 

Chapter Fourteen: Gaines County

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Chapter Fourteen: Gaines County

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oe Sherman stayed on the Lubbock County ranch for fifteen years. By the mid-1890s the Texas legislature, which had allowed big ranchers like Colonel C.C. Slaughter and his sons, and smaller operators like Joe

Sherman, to graze cattle on vast expanses of state-owned land, had begun passing laws that were friendly to farmers. In 1895 the legislature passed the Four-Section Act “which struck a devastating blow at Slaughter and other big Texas ranchers.” That same year, the IOA ranch in Lubbock

County began selling land to farmers and by 1898 “farmers were steadily advancing by the hundreds onto the eastern South Plains.” (Murrah

1981: 84, 87, 103) Joe Sherman was ready to move on.

The antipathy between farmers and stockmen ran hot and deep on the Texas frontier, and Joe Sherman never had any use for a man who would kill good native grass with a plow. Max Coleman also says that Sherman had been losing cattle to rustlers. (Coleman 1952:

139)

A letter from Joe’s Aunt Sarrah Clinesmith, who lived near Sayre,

 

Chapter Fifteen: Mable

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Chapter Fifteen: Mable

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n the Sherman ranch in Gaines County, Joe struggled to find a balance between being a good provider and a good pater familias. I see him as an old warrior whose battles were over, an aging frontiersman who was trying to adjust to a sedentary existence and to the unexpected results of peacetime: more barbed wire fences, more settlers, more native sod plowed under, family duties, and church attendance, all coming as he presided over the decline of his physical body and felt the cold breath of age upon his neck.

Up in the Panhandle, Billy Dixon was dealing with the same issues.

“Many of us believed and hoped that the wilderness would remain forever. Life there was to our liking. Its freedom, its dangers, its tax upon strength and courage, gave a zest to living . . . unapproached by anything to be found in civilized communities.” (Dixon 1914: v)

Fifty miles southwest of Dixon’s place, Charles Goodnight sat in a rocking chair on his galleried front porch. Too old to work, he listened to the wind tearing at the trees and growled answers to the stream of reporters who came calling to hear his stories. He had decided that being a famous frontiersman was a nuisance.

 

Chapter Sixteen: Joe Sherman’s Death

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Chapter Sixteen: Joe Sherman’s Death

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t is hard to fathom that the American frontier period extended into the twentieth century, but it did. When Buck and Mable moved into their first home in 1911, Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr were working out the calculations that would dethrone Newtonian physics and raise profound questions about the nature of time, space, and reality itself, but the citizens of Gaines County knew nothing of such matters. They still heated their homes with wood or coal, read at night by kerosene lamps, milked cows, and traveled horseback or in buggies. Law and order had come to Gaines County, but as we will see, it retained a ragged frontier edge until the 1930s, when my mother was a grown woman. It may not have been the Wild West of Deadwood and Dodge City, but I suspect that Einstein and Bohr would have found it uncomfortable.

Mable was never fond of babies and didn’t want to have a big brood of them, but Anna Beth, my mother, was born in 1912, and before Mable was done with childbearing, she would have five daughters: Anna Beth,

 

Chapter Seventeen: The Currys

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Chapter Seventeen: The Currys

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hen I was young, it never occurred to me that my grandparents had anything less than an ideal marriage. Marriage problems, if they ever occurred (and we know they did) were not considered a subject that children or grandchildren needed to hear about. But one night in 1970, when I was twenty-six years old and had a family of my own, Mother and I stayed up late, talking in the living room, and she told me some stories about Buck and Mable that I had never heard before. She said that they were not an ideal match. Like her father, Mable was fastidious, while Buck tended to be sloppy in his habits. Both were strong-willed and neither showed much talent for compromising.

Mable wanted to postpone having children, but Anna Beth came soon and was a breech baby (turned backwards in the womb). Local midwives did all they could and finally sent for a doctor in Midland, more than a hundred miles away. He came in a horse-drawn carriage and said that both mother and child would surely die. Grandmother suffered terribly. Finally exhausted, she fell asleep and her body relaxed enough so that Anna Beth made her entrance into the world. Mable took a long time recovering from her ordeal—a “fallen womb,” Mother called it—and wasn’t anxious to go through it again. But she became pregnant with my Aunt Mary, and the atmosphere inside the Curry house turned frosty. Buck and Mable argued long and loud, and one night in a fit of anger, Mable told Buck she wished she’d never married him. This hurt

 

Chapter Eighteen: Tom Ross

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Chapter Eighteen: Tom Ross

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uck Curry had his problems with rustlers, but he was fortunate that he never had to deal with Tom Ross, who had died three years before Buck took over the Jones outfit. Growing up, I heard many stories about Tom Ross from my mother, grandmother, and great-uncles, but until I reached the age of twenty-eight, I was never sure that he was a real person, that he actually lived and did the things my kinfolks told me about. Then in 1971 Uncle Roy Sherman sent me a recent issue of

The Cattleman magazine and suggested that I read an article by Mary

Whatley Clarke, called “Bad Man . . . Good Man?” It was about Tom

Ross, and it supported the family stories down to the smallest details.

In 1972 I nagged my mother into writing down some of her memories of Tom Ross. She wrote:

“There never was a time when I was not aware of the name

TOM ROSS. He was short and heavily built, his head sitting right on top of his wide shoulders. He had at one time been a professional wrestler. There were whispers that he was hiding out from the law when he moved to Gaines County.” (Anna

 

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