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  • Writer's pictureDonna Hechler Porter

A Panther Clawed Under the Door . . . Emily Chaney Whitehead in the Wilderness

A continuing series drawn largely from Laura Powers Marbut and Sarah Powers Thielbar's book David M. Chaney, 1809-1859, Allied Families and Descendants. The book has long been out of print, having been published in 1971 by Heritage Papers of Danielsville, Georgia.


. . . One night she [Emily] was alone with the children (Aunt Lizzie and J.S.W's two children by a previous marriage), a panther clawed under the door and she chopped his paw off with an axe. Em was a typical pioneer woman. She had grown up in luxury and lived in a Texas wilderness . . . (Marbut and Thielbar, pg 5)

As related in my previous post, John and Emily: Of Legends and Crepe Myrtles, John and Emily, after their marriage in January of 1857 in East Feliciana Parish, Louisiana, moved to Texas to his holdings along Caney Creek in today's Polk County, Texas.

Caney Creek rises three miles north of Onalasaka in the western part of that same county. At the time John and Emily settled alongside it, the creek ran southwest for five miles over steep terrain, badlands, and prairies to its mouth at the Trinity River. The sandy loam supported pine and hardwood forests, as well as mesquite and grasses. The creation of Lake Livingston in 1968 shortened Caney Creek by half.

John, either before or after leaving Texas for a visit to Louisiana about 1856, commissioned a builder to build him a log house along this creek. By all accounts, the log house was not built when he came to Texas with Emily in the spring of 1857, because Emily, by her own accounts, related they lived in a cabin with a dirt floor while waiting for the house to be built.

According to Mattie Jean Crow, a granddaughter of John and Emily, John was a schoolteacher at the time he commissioned Mr. Slatter to build the log house. John was said to have moved onto the property alongside Caney Creek after a sort of oral agreement to buy pending on consummation of the right of title or headright to several hundred acres of vacant land.

This pre-emption request was still pending in February of 1858, a year after John and Emily's marriage, and that month John made a bond or written agreement with Mr. Franklin Castillian. It was not until ten years later, however, on 7th March 1868, that a deed signed by Castillian's widow, Lucy Castillian, fully transferred 606 1/2 acres of land to John S. Whitehead.

John was an important man in the community. According to Crow, he was a friend of both Andrew Jackson and Sam Houston. He oftentimes took trips away from home on business, and on one such trip, not long after he and Emily married and moved to his holdings on Caney Creek, she was left at home alone in the log cabin with the dirt floor with John's two sons from his first marriage, Walter aged 10 and Joseph aged 8, and her daughter, Sarah Elizabeth, two years old, from her first marriage.

That night, a panther assaulted the cabin. While few details exist, it is almost certain the scream, like that of a baby, terrified Emily and the children. The beast would have prowled around outside the cabin. It would likley have jumped at the windows and clawed at the sills. It may well have jumped onto the roof and clawed at the chimney.

Eventually, we do know, according to accounts passed down in the family, it approached to the door and clawed its paw beneath and into the cabin.

Emily, it is said, took an axe and chopped off the panther's paw.

Before 1880, black panthers, which are really black leopards, roamed in large numbers between the piney forests of East Texas to Georgia's Okefenokee Swamp and the Florida Everglades. Texas has had, at various times, three species of big cats. While tawny cats roamed the Pecos region, and there were rare reports of a spotted "Mexican lion," a smaller species of a spotted jaguar, seen roaming along the Rio Grande River, black panthers seemed to have prowled and confined themselves to the eastern parts of Texas, particularly along the Neches and Sabine Rivers.

The only enemies of panthers that did not carry a rifle were bears or huge alligators. While panthers preferred sheep, goats, and pigs, there are graphic accounts of people engaging in fierce fights with panthers, or even being eaten by them. Adult male panthers can reach a length of five feet, not including their three-foot tails, and they can reach a maximum weight of 250 pounds. While the 1845 report in Brazoria County of a 450 pound panther killed by Mr. Whitehurst was probably an exaggeration, no doubt, like all living things, panthers were certainly larger in the 19th century than they are today.

No doubt, Emily had every reason to fear for her life that night. No doubt, John was more than a little shaken when he arrived home.

What she did with a decapitated paw is anyone's guess. That she looked forward to moving into the more sound and safe log house is an obvious certainty.

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