Daily Progress, Jacksonville, TX

October 7, 2013

Saturday marked 175th massacre anniversary

Jo Anne Embleton
Jacksonville Daily Progress

JACKSONVILLE — The massacre of a group of settlers 175 years ago near the Old Larissa community, northwest of Jacksonville, has had a far-reaching effect on the history of both Cherokee County and Texas itself.

“Everybody here knows about the monument (erected in memory of the Killough Massacre of 1838), and I'd heard about it all my life,” said Shelley Cleaver, a former Cherokee County employee who used to help maintain the site. He also is related – by marriage – through his mother's family to a descendent of a massacre survivor.

“That was one of the things that happened here, and everybody knew about it, and where it took place,” the local historian said.

While the cause of what is known as “the Killough Massacre” isn't exactly known – some blame Native Americans settled in the area while others point to a group of disgruntled Mexicans and Indians in the region who wanted Mexico to reclaim Texas – then a republic – the facts are these:

The 18 victims of the massacre included members of the extended family of Isaac Killough Sr., who had immigrated the year before from Talladega County, Ala., according to the Texas State Historical Association Handbook Online.

In December 1837, they settled “on what is  now known as Killough Creek, seven miles northwest of Jacksonville,” on property that formerly was held by the Cherokee tribe under a treaty signed by Sam Houston and John Forbes, the website said.  

Killough, his four sons, his two daughters and their husbands, and two single men, Elbert and Barakias Williams, were among those who built houses, cleared the land and planted crops, but by the following August, “when the corn was ready to harvest, they received news of a growing insurrection of disgruntled Mexicans and Indians in the region led by Vicente Córdova, the former alcalde of Nacogdoches,” the site states, adding, however, that the “Córdova Rebellion” never materialized and thanks to a hastily organized militia organized by Texas Army Gen. Thomas J. Rusk, the insurrection was quickly repressed.

Approximately 30 settlers – among them Killough's family – fled to safety in Nacogdoches, but were believed to have returned in early fall to Cherokee County because they had hoped to harvest their crops.

Instead, they were attacked, and 18 of the settlers – including Isaac Sr. – were killed or carried off: his wife, Ursey Killough, was among the survivors who gradually made their way to Fort Lacy, some 40 miles to the south, according to TSHA.

As word of the massacre spread,  a militia led by Rusk set out to find the perpetrators … when they received word of the band camped at an old Kickapoo Village outside Frankston, the militia attacked the following day, the TSHA site said.

“I've always heard that there was a friendly Indian that helped the survivors – I think he led them (to safety at Fort Lacy), and they moved mostly at night so they wouldn't get caught,” Cleaver said. “It's hard to imagine after seeing something like that happen and then you get away, but you know they're looking for you – you're tense wondering what going's to happen next.”

Not only did the event shatter the lives of the families immediately involved, it impacted the welfare of the Cherokees living in the area.

At that time, strife was growing between East Texas settlers and native tribes, whom Texas President Mirabeau B. Lamar wanted out of the region. Barely a year after the massacre – which he used as a reason to expel them – Lamar ordered them removed to Arkansas Territory, according to the TSHA site.

The Killough Massacre also may have been what helped launched the founding of Jacksonville, Cleaver mused.

“General Rusk send a scout (to Old Larissa) to find the people who were responsible for the massacre, and the scout (Jackson Smith) came along Gum Creek, and said, 'I'm gonna come back here and make a town'” because he was that taken with the view, Cleaver said.

“Years later, he came back and laid out a town. He was the first post master at Gum Creek, and the first doctor was a Dr. Jackson, so they changed the name to 'Jacksonville' – but,” he laughed, “that's just my opinion of what I've read and heard.”

Today, a stone obelisk erected by the Work Projects Administration in the late 1930s, along with a state historical marker and a graveyard are located on the site of the massacre.

Descendants of the Killough family hold a reunion every other year, visiting the site, where they lay a wreath in memories of those who died.

While the property is tucked away in a quiet area off a county road in Cherokee County Pct. 3, it receives a lot of traffic, mostly from vandals.

Last year, the Cherokee County Commissioner Katherine Pinotti petitioned the commissioners court to address the problem, describing scenes from video footage that captured vandals in the act, including performance of arcane acts.

Cleaver confirmed unusual activity goes on there, adding that the site is generally considered to be haunted.

“When I was working for the county, we once found a bunch of horsed that had been killed overnight,” he recalled.  

Before the county gained permission to place an easement through property that led to the site, gaining access to the monument was difficult.

“Used to be, you had to crawl through a barb wire fence and go through a field just to get there,” he said. After the road was built, a gated entrance opened onto the site, which was surrounded by a hurricane fence.

“But somebody got the fence,” he said.

Vandals have repeatedly strewn trash about the site and knocked over the granite historical marker erected by the state in 1965, but more distressingly, have desecrated the cemetery and the parking lot.

“It's sad that people do that, because to me, that's a sacred place. You need to respect the dead,” Cleaver said. “We have several of the family members buried out there, and you'll see newer graves (among those who) died out there during the massacre.”