Donna Hechler Porter
John and Emily: Of Legends and Crepe Myrtles
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.
I remember Em saying Aunt Lizzie [Sarah Elizabeth Watson] was eighteen months of age when she and J. S. Whitehead, my grandfather, were married . . . Em wore a money belt with about fifteen hundred gold dollars around her waist on the wagon train through no man's land, between Texas and Louisiana. She and an old slave named Daddy Lou chased the robbers away with boiling hot water. She also brought gold brick flat in a wagon bed, and her shrubs, crepe myrtle, tea roses, etc., with her. The crepe myrtles are still growing and blooming in the old yard. Also, while the house was being built, they lived in a cabin with a dirt floor. (Marbut and Thielbar, pg 5)
Not more than a few legends surround the crepe myrtle tree. Most of those legends, which hail from China where the tree originated, involve a crepe myrtle fairy named Ziwei. It is said that anyone who walks hand in hand under the crepe myrtle tree with their love can see heaven in each other's palms and the perfect destination of their life.
Whether John and Emily ever walked beneath crepe myrtles after they met or reconnected upon his return to East Feliciana Parish in the fall of 1856 is not known, but Emily must have loved the tree, as well as her roses, for after their marriage, and upon her move to Texas, she made sure to have the trees dug up, somehow wrapped for save keeping, and brought to Texas on the wagon train from Louisiana. Once here, they were planted on the Whitehead property.
And the crepe myrtles were important enough to Emily to relay the above story to her grandchildren a number of times, and as the crepe myrtles sank their roots into the Texas soil, Emily and John's marriage grew as did their family and the life they built in Texas.
One of those gifts they have given their children, grandchildren, Polk County, and the world, is the house John had built along Caney Creek. It still stands today, as does the Texas State Historical marker in front of it.
No one questions the house was built by the Whiteheads, but the exact timeframe of its building has been questioned by me. I do not believe the spring 1856 date is as secure as the Texas State Historical marker, and other documents, suggest.
It is said in other documentation (which I will relate in a future post) that John moved onto the land along Caney Creek and after making an oral agreement with a Mr, Frank Castillian for right to the land. As such, there are no documents with dates attesting to the exact year John moved onto the property. According to sources, he moved onto the land in 1856 and commissioned for the house to be built in the spring of 1856. He may well have done so, but I think it was not until the next year that the house was actually built.
It is known that he returned to East Feliciana Parish probably in the fall of 1856. While there he met or reconnected with Emily. Emily, it will be remembered, did not return to East Feliciana Parish until January of 1856 after the death of her husband during a slave uprising in Mississippi in the fall of 1855.
The reason I believe the house may have been built in 1857, is because of the last statement above by Mrs. Mattie Jean Crow of Marion, Texas, who was a granddaughter of John and Emily. She remembered her grandmother Emily stating that upon her arrival in Texas, she and John lived in a cabin with a dirt floor while the house was being built. The date of their marriage is fixed in January of 1857 as per the marriage certificate in the Clinton courthouse in East Feliciana Parish, Louisiana.
When John moved back to Texas in the early spring of 1857, he came with a wife he had not likely expected to bring into his life, as well as her young daughter, Sarah, eighteen months old. He also had his own two sons by his first marriage - William, now ten years old, and Celsus J., seven years old. Along the way, while on the wagon train, they were beset by robbers, and Emily, for her part, along with Daddy Lou, chased them away with boiling water. The money around her belt as well as the gold bars in the bed of the wagon, which may have been a combination of her new husband's resources as well as her own from her family, remained intact. Likely, some of that money was used to pay to build the house along Caney Creek. In the meantime, the family lived in a small cabin on the property that boasted, at least, a dirt floor.
Emily would never live anywhere else after coming to Texas. She and John built a family and a life alongside Caney Creek, a life that was all but taken away from them after the Civil War a few years later.
The crepe myrtles?
If memory serves me correct, they were planted along the right of the long drive to the house. They were still growing hale and hearty when I was on the property several decades ago. I hope they are still growing in all their wildness, full of heart and adventure, just the sort that filled Emily's heart.
And I hope, not more than once, she and John walked hand-in-hand beneath them even as the life they intended to build was taken from them.