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John Tarleton

By Chris Guthrie

The story of John Tarleton , founder of Tarleton State University, is so riddled with myths and contradictions that it is difficult to accurately locate and confirm many of the fundamental events of his life. There are a number of reasons for this situation but one of the most important is that Tarleton himself was vague and often confusing regarding the details of his life. An enlightening illustration of this intentional ambiguity involves the simple question of where and when he was born. Earlier biographers have variously claimed his birthplace as 1807, 1808, and 1811. Tarleton’s funeral card states that he was eighty-one years old when he died in 1895, giving us another birth date of 1814. Vermont and New Hampshire have both been put forward as his home state. Tarleton further confused this issue through his own inconsistent responses about his origins. In the 1850 census for the city of Knoxville, Tennessee (Tarleton’s residence at the time), he stated that he was twenty-seven years old and that he had been born in Connecticut. This age would have placed his birth date in 1823. In the 1870 census from the same city, Tarleton claimed that he had been born in Massachusetts forty years earlier, thereby moving his birth date up to 1828. Tarleton had move to Waco, Texas by the time of the 1880 census and listed his age as fifty-six (which would have made 1924 his birth date). Tarleton was still alive at the time of the 1890 census and lived on a ranch bordering Palo Pinto and Erath counties in Texas. Unfortunately, a fire destroyed the county census reports before the information could be tabulated and thereby deprived Tarleton of one last opportunity to reinvent his age and birthplace. He died five years later, on September 10, 1895, but his obituary in the Waco Morning News mentioned neither his age nor place of birth.

Historians therefore have the years 1807, 1808, 1811, 1814, 1823, 1824, and 1828 to choose from regarding John Tarleton’s’ birth date and the states of Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Massachusetts are all possible locations for his birth. One can easily eliminate Vermont and Connecticut as his birthplace, since the name Tarleton does not appear in the 1810 or 1820 census from either of those states. However, the name “John Tarleton” does appear in both the 1810 and 1830 census in New Hampshire. Since this census data also corresponds to what Tarleton allegedly told his lawyer, J.C. George, New Hampshire is by far the most probable candidate for his birthplace. As far as his birthday is concerned, all that anyone can say with any certainty is that he was born during the first quarter of the 19th century.

Tarleton was orphaned early in life, with both parents dying within three years of each other before he was ten years old. He was sent to live with an aunt in Virginia while another brother (whose name is unknown) went to live with relatives in Virginia. Tarleton would later claim that his aunt had promised to provide him with and education but, for reasons that are unclear, she reneged on this promise, never sent him to school, and instead had him work full-time for her. Tarleton was obviously dissatisfied with this situation and left his aunt’s home while still a teenager.

Stories vary as to what happened next. The most likely is that he then went to North Carolina, where he worked as a woodcutter and field hand, and, after a period of probably no more than a year, move to Knoxville, Tennessee. Depending on which birth date you accept, Tarleton could have arrived in Knoxville anywhere between 1822 and 1843. According to his earlier biographers, he entered school shortly after his arrival in the city (although where he obtained his education has never been mentioned). He ultimately earned a teaching certificate and taught school for an unspecified period of time at a salary of $30.00 a month. He then changed occupations and took a position as a clerk for the dry goods store of Cowan and Dickinson for $25.00 a month.

Tarleton worked for the Cowan and Dickinson dry goods for an extended period of time, perhaps for as long as forty years. He lived in the Lamar House Hotel, one of the best boarding houses in Knoxville, for most of this time. It was during his tenure at Cowan and Dickinson that Tarleton began to acquire the property that would serve as the foundation for his future fortune. His property transactions can be divided into two categories. The first category included a number of real estate purchases within the city of Knoxville. His first purchase occurred in 1854, when he bought two lots near the downtown area. Twelve years later, in 1867, he expanded his holdings with the acquisition of four additional tracts of real estate: several lots in downtown Knoxville and a half acre containing two houses near the downtown area. His final Knoxville real estate transactions took place n the early 1870s when he purchased a total of 63 acres of unimproved land form the estate of Mr. Henry C.A. Crawford. The total value of Tarleton’s Knoxville real estate holdings was estimated at $80,000 in 1870 (before he purchased the 63 acres from the Crawford family).

How could a clerk in a dry goods store, who had never made more than $25 a month, finance the creation of such a formidable urban real estate empire? Perhaps he received help, at least in the beginning, from his employee, Mr. Perez Dickinson, who also engaged in banking. Tarleton also appears to have been quite astute in timing his acquisitions. His property purchases in 1854, for example, coincided with the outbreak of a cholera epidemic in Knoxville. Flight was a common response by urban residents to such catastrophes and Tarleton could have very well taken advantage of the “bargain basement” real estate prices provoked by the epidemic.

Tarleton also bought unsettled land in the west through the creative use of “bounty warrants” that had been issued to veterans of the War of 1812. The warrants gave the holder permission to settle on unsurveyed public domain land located mainly in states west of the Mississippi River. Since many Knoxville warrant holders believed this land to be “extremely remote” and “prairie desert,” they had no interest in ever using their certificates. However, Tarleton recognized the value of these warrants and used them to acquire large holdings of land throughout the western states. He would take the warrants (which were transferable when properly endorsed) as payment in the dry goods store, pay for the items purchased out of his own pocket, and thereby receive legal ownership of the certificates. From time to time he would take a leave of absence from Cowan and Dickinson, travel to such locations as Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, or Kansas, pay for the survey of a section of unappropriated land that he liked (usually about $15.00), and, after the formal exchange of his bounty warrants, receive official title to the land in question. Tarleton later claimed that he bought thousands of acres of “very fine lands” in this manner.

One important piece of property that Tarleton acquired during this period was a block of 10,240 acres of ranch land in central Texas near the border of Erath and Palo Pinto counties, which he purchased for 12 ½ cents per acre ($1280) Tarleton does not appear to have used bounty warrants to obtain this particular piece of property but, instead, bought it for cash from a “well dressed man” who had appeared at the Cowan and Dickinson store and told the clerk that he had land in Texas that he wanted to sell “dirt cheap”. The exact date of this transaction is unclear, although King Argues that it took place thirty years before Tarleton left Knoxville.

The date that Tarleton left Knoxville for Texas is in dispute. The most likely scenario is that he left Tennessee early in the 1870’s and, after briefly visiting his land along the Erath/Palo Pinto county line (where he allegedly found Indians living), he moved to Waco. Shortly after his arrival, Tarleton bought an interest in the dry goods store of T.N. McMullen and Company. He live in the McClelland Hotel, located in the same building as McMullen and Company at 45 Austin Street. Even when McMullen and Company moved to South Third Street in the late 1870’s, Tarleton kept his residence at the hotel. The McClelland Hotel was the foremost hotel in Waco, described in a city directory as the largest in Texas with 103 rooms. Another resident of the hotel was J.C. Green, a part owner of the establishment. Tarleton and green became close friends and were known as “Uncle John” and “Uncle Jake” to their acquaintances in Waco.

One of the most notable events to occur during Tarleton’s stay in Waco was his marriage to Mary Louise Johnson. She was the widow of Telephus Johnson, one of the richest and, by most accounts, eccentric mean in Waco at the time of his death at age fifty-two. According to legend, Tarleton was first attracted to Johnson’s widow when she walked by his store wearing a red dress and a scarlet feather in her hat. He allegedly commented that he “wanted that feather.”

If obtaining that feather was indeed his wish, he would live to regret it. The couple was married in June of 1876, but in less than three years, Mary Louisa had moved to St. Louis (where she evidently had family connections) and shortly thereafter filed for divorce. The reasons for the divorce seem to have centered on their dramatic differences in lifestyle. On the day of their marriage, Tarleton and his bride-to-be had signed a prenuptial agreement in which they agreed to keep their property and estates separate after their wedding. At the time, however, Mary Louisa believed that Tarleton’s only property was his interest in McMullen and Company. After learning that her new husband owned thousands of acres of land in Texas and elsewhere, she asked that she receive some of it so that their respective holdings would be equal. Tarleton refused. If true, this story is illustrative of Tarleton’s rather cold and businesslike attitude towards his new wife. Several historians have also reported that when the couple took their honeymoon to the International Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, Tarleton “charged his wife with half the expenses of the wedding trip, insisting that it was in keeping with the contract that they had signed.” Moreover, Mary Louisa seems to have been a lively and outgoing woman who liked to entertain in an elaborate fashion. Tarleton appears to have been completely uninterested in such activities and, on one occasion, embarrassed her by walking through the room where she was entertaining several refined friends carrying a box of firewood and kindling.

Mary Louisa claimed half of Tarleton’s property in her divorce suit. She also claimed that Tarleton had cursed and abused her, made violent threats against her person, and had put her in “fear of her life by striking and assaulting her and threatening to whip her.” Legend has it that Tarleton, upon learning of Mary Louisa’s claims, sped to St. Louis in a panic. However, evidence from the divorce proceedings indicate that he first obtained avadavats from a number of notable Waco citizens (including the mayor of the city,E.A. Sturgis; Presbyterian minister A. King; Dr. R.W. White; and bank president R.W. McClelland) attesting to his “peaceful, quiet, inoffensive” character. His lawyer also drew up a detailed motion to drop the charges of violence, arguing, among other things, that they were greatly exaggerated and had occurred during an argument in which both parties had said and done tings that were out of character and which they both regretted. Tarleton also obtained a copy of the prenuptial agreement. In short, Tarleton appears to have had plenty of time to mount a defense of his interests and good name before he left for St. Louis.

Legend also claims that Tarleton arrived in St. Louis in the nick of time to prevent Mary Louisa from grabbing up half of his property. According to this traditional story, he arrived in St. Louis right before the case went to court. He produced the prenuptial agreement and, after examining the contract, her lawyers dropped the demand for a property division and the court granted Mary Louisa her divorce that same day. However, an examination of court records indicates that the divorce proceedings dragged on for a while. Mary Louisa originally filed for a divorce in June 1879 and Tarleton learned of her action shortly thereafter. The divorce decree itself was dated December 1 1879. However, legal negotiations continued after the divorce and it was only on February 13, 1880 that Tarleton’s lawyer managed to remove all disabilities against his client from the decree. Rather than being the product of a last second drama, the final divorce agreement resulted from over a year of tedious negotiations and mountains of legal paperwork. In the end, Mary Louisa did drop her charges of violence and her claim on half of Tarleton’s property.

Tarleton’s brief experience with marriage seems to have soured him on Waco. Another episode occurred shortly after his divorced to reinforce this feeling. A clerk in his store decided that he needed Tarleton out of the way in order to hunt for the place where he believed his employer hid all his money. Accordingly, he had his younger sister offer Tarleton a bowl of poisoned berries and cream. Tarleton ate the tainted berries and fell deathly ll. But he recovered before the clerk could find and make off with his money. Tarleton fired the culprit, he did not file criminal charges against him. This unfortunate episode, combined with his divorce, appears to have convinced Tarleton to leave Waco and start a new life on his Erath/Palo Pinto land. The fact that Mary Louisa had returned to Waco probably aided him in this decision.

Tarleton sold his interest in the McMullen store and left Waco in 1880. He first went to Santo, where he boarded with the family of Thomas White while he had his land surveyed and arranged to buy out several squatters who had settled on his property since he had purchased it. The Indians whom he had encountered on his land when he first came to Texas had evidently moved on.

Once this preliminary business was settled he moved to his property, fenced off most of it with barbed wire, and entered the cattle business. Although Tarleton possessed a large herd under his “TRTN” brand (he frequently shipped 400 steers to market at one time), the cattle market, then as now, was quite volatile and he was often forced to sell his livestock at less than it cost to raise them. He subsidized his losses in this enterprise by disposing of much of the land he had purchased in other states with bounty warrants, sometimes selling land that was valued at hundreds of dollars an acre for “two, three, or five dollars and acre.” J.C. George later asserted that Tarleton’s foray into the cattle business was the “only business mistake he ever made” and that it “cost him the better part of the accumulations of a lifetime.” George estimated that these cattle-induced land sales reduced the potential value of Tarleton’s estate from “anywhere from one and a half million to three million dollars” to an amount “not…more than two hundred thousand dollars” by the time of his death.

Although a personal financial disaster for Tarleton, his involvement in the cattle business did have an indirect and beneficial impact on the future of Tarleton State University. In the early 1890s some of Tarleton’s cattle had grazed too close to a farmer’s property in Morgan Mill. The farmer filed charges against Tarleton, claiming he had violated the “Anti-herd Law,” which prohibited the driving of herds of cattle within a certain distance of a private residence. It was actually a minor legal infraction and the penalties involved were almost negligible. Tarleton nonetheless became very upset by the prosecution, “since he over-estimated the importance of the suit and looked upon it as a very serious matter, while in fact it was trivial.” Since the case would be tried in Erath County, Tarleton’s ranch foreman, G.S. Williams, convinced him to employ the services of J.C. George, a law partner in the firm of Martin and George in Stephenville. George represented Tarleton at the initial trial at Morgan Mill, where the rancher was convicted of violating the “Anti-herd Law” (which George had told Tarleton to expect). The lawyer then appealed the decision and succeeded in reversing in a higher court.

Even though Tarleton had already paid George for his services before the Morgan Mill trial, he was so overjoyed by the final decision that he offered to pay his lawyer an additional fee. George refused to take the money, stating that he had already charged him the standard fee and that any additional payment would be improper. George’s rectitude impressed Tarleton, who commented that George and his partner “were very strange lawyers” and then transferred all his legal business from his former attorney in Weatherford to their office.

One such piece of his business was his will. At the time, Tarleton already had a will, which left the bulk of his estate to the Methodist Church in Knoxville. But, according to George , “ he [Tarleton] had disagreed with the Methodist people, and, after years of reflection, he had decided that he did not desire to use his money to support any other sectarian institution.” He did, however, want to leave his money to a school. At first, he suggested that his legacy be used to found a school in Palo Pinto but George dissuaded him of this idea arguing that Palo Pinto “was a small town off the railroad and in a country that was mountainous and adapted to ranches largely, and would probably, therefore, never be a thickly settled country from an agricultural standpoint.” Tarleton then suggested Weatherford as a possible location for his generosity. George once again pointed out the drawbacks of this plan, emphasizing that Weatherford already “supplied with splendid schools” and that a new school “would not be successful in competition with the organizations…already established.”

Frustrated, Tarleton asked George if he had any ideas. The lawyer suggested Stephenville. At first, Tarleton objected, perhaps because his contacts with the town were limited. He purchased his ranch supplies in Santo and did his banking in Weatherford (where he had also conducted all his legal business prior to the retention of George). He did pass through Stephenville on his trips to and from Waco, but he seldom even stopped there for a meal. Moreover, Tarleton also claimed that the Erath County Tax Collector, who was located in Stephenville, had cheated him in some tax matter and that he simply “did not like the people down there.”

George argued that it was not fair to judge an entire community on the basis of the actions of a single elected official. He went on to describe Stephenville as a community of small farmers “and that as he desired to aid the families of small farmers, Stephenville, as the location of the school for the class of people designated in his will, would be an ideal one.” Further discussions followed, some involving Tarleton’s ranch foreman and his wife (whose opinions he highly valued). The end result of all these discussions is well known to everyone connected to this university. Tarleton named Stephenville as the location of a school funded with a portion of his estate.

Many of the explanations as to exactly why Tarleton wanted to found a school with his estate are unsatisfactory, since they are generally based on romanticized assessments of his character. In her biography, Lillian Edwards paints a picture of a kindly, although slightly eccentric, old man who loved children and desired to found a school so that poor youngsters could obtain the opportunity for an education that he never had. Her portrait is not entirely inaccurate. After all, Tarleton could be affectionate, in his own way, to those who had treated him kindly. In another provision in his will, for example, he left approximately 1400 acres of ranch land to Mrs. Alice Williams, the wife of his foreman, in gratitude for taking care of him during his last years. But other descriptions of his character provided by Edwards simply do not fit with other, better documented, accounts of his behavior. She claims that he “trusted his fellowman “ and that everyone who had dealings with him said “To know John Tarleton is to love him.” On the other hand, his lawyer J.C. George, who knew Tarleton firsthand, found him to be a very litigious individual who “ was more or less suspicious of people generally” and who rather mistrusted people until he knew them long enough.” The only documented story available of Tarleton’s dealing with children is the time he accused the young sister of his clerk in his Waco store of trying to poison him with a bowl of tainted berries and cream. He appears to have held grudges, as illustrated by his proclaimed dislike for the people of Stephenville because of the behavior of a single tax official and his decision to cut out the Methodist University of Knoxville from his will because of a disagreement he had with local Methodists. Moreover, Tarleton’s miserly behavior during his short marriage to Mary Louisa Johnson reveals a man who simply did not know how to interact with people in an intimate manner. The picture that thus emerges from this critical examination of Tarleton’s life is that of a rather cold and stiff man who generally had difficulty getting along with other people.

It would be unfair to judge Tarleton too harshly, since his upbringing and subsequent life hardly were conducive to the creation of a kindly and caring man. But the question nonetheless remains: if humanitarian impulses only played a tangential role in Tarleton’s decision to establish a school in Stephenville. Why then did he do it? The key to this question, I believe, can be found in a number of letters written by Tarleton’s ex-wife to him during the 1880s. In their divorce, Mary Louisa had been forced to adhere to the terms of the couple’s prenuptial agreement. Even though his holdings greatly diminished in the years that followed as he tried to keep his cattle business afloat, Mary Louisa did not relent in her efforts to obtain what remained of his wealth. Her letters to Tarleton during the 1880s indicate that she wanted to re-establish a friendly relation with him. She inquired after his health, chided him to take better care of himself, and tried to arrange several meetings between the two. Tarleton seems to have been typically unresponsive since she, on several occasions, scolded him for avoiding her when he visited Waco and for refusing to send her a picture of himself. But her correspondence also indicates that Tarleton had good reason to be wary of her overtones. In a letter dated April” 9,1885, she dropped a not-too-subtle hint as to her real motives:” …I was very much surprised to hear that you own all of your land yet. I have often wondered who would be the fortunate heir to all your property.”

Tarleton’s reaction to Mary Louisa’s inquiries has not been preserved. However, it is unlikely that a man who fought for over a year to prevent his wife from claiming half his property at their divorce trial, would later change his mind and make her his heir. But he did not have any heirs; he had no children, no nephews or nieces, and no other living relatives. His best friend, “Uncle Jake” of Waco died before he did. Given this situation, Mary Louisa might have been able to make some sort of claim on his property at his death if Tarleton did not specify exactly who would receive it. So he did.

Tarleton could have found any number of ways to tie up his estate so that Mary Louisa would have no chance to claim it. The fact that he chose to endow a school, out of all the other options open to him, indicates that at least one additional factor influenced his decision. Tarleton, although operating on a much smaller scale than great philanthropists of his age, appears to have been influenced by the same general motive, the desire to earn immortality by endowing such institutions as universities, libraries, and hospitals that would serve the public good. This can be seen, for example, in his specific instructions that both the school in Stephenville and the one in Knoxville (see below) bear his name. Tarleton’s decision to dedicate most of his estate to the founding of a school in Stephenville therefore served the dual purpose of providing a way to avoid having his property fall into the hands of his ex-wife and of fulfilling his desire to leave a mark on the world that would last long after he left it.

In addition to providing for the establishment of a school in his will, Tarleton left all of his property in Knoxville for the founding of a school in that city. Specifically, he requested his holdings in Knoxville be sold in order to “erect, endow, and maintain” a school, called the ‘John Tarleton Institute” for “children between the ages of six and eighteen, of good moral character and unable to educate themselves” on a remaining unsold section of his property. At the time that Tarleton and George were writing his will, the Tennessee state legislature passed a bill “to Establish and Provide For A System of Reformatory Institutions For Youthful Persons,” which resulted in the establishment of the Knox County Reformatory in July 1895. Tarleton died a few months later and when the trustees of the new Reformatory learned of the provisions of his will, they asked their attorneys if they could apply his legacy to their new institution. The lawyers responded that Tarleton’s bequest could not be applied toward the maintenance of the Knox County Reformatory without violating the provisions of his will. Thirty-eight years of litigation followed, paralyzing the realization of Tarleton’s endowment. Finally on July 10, 1933, the case was settled. The Knox County Court dissolved the Reformatory, which had changed its name to the Knox County Industrial School when it officially opened its doors in 1897, and established a new institution, named the John Tarleton Institute, which would be governed by rules in accordance to the provision in Tarleton’s will. The new school enrolled children from poor family environments and provided them a solid elementary education, and after graduation, helped them to secure employment or enter college.

After completing his will, Tarleton’s health began to decline. According to Edwards and King, Tarleton made a trip to Galveston in 1895 on the advice of his doctor to improve his deteriorating health. He was accompanied by his foreman, G.S. Williams. Once, when Williams left the hotel where the two men were staying, several robbers drugged and kidnapped Tarleton. After stealing approximately eight hundred dollars from him, they took him to a second-class hotel near the city limits and abandoned him there. Williams did not find him until the next day. Even though the old man still showed signs of his traumatic experience, Williams, for unfathomable reasons, convinced him to sit for a photograph later that same day. This tin-type portrait of a stunned John Tarleton is the only likeness we have of him today.

Tarleton appears to have never completely recovered from this episode. After returning to his ranch, he fell ill and died on September 10, 1895. He was buried in Patillo Cemetery in the southern part of Palo Pinto county. J.C. George began a campaign in 1896 to raise money to move Tarleton’s remains to Stephenville and erect a monument to him to the John Tarleton College Campus. This goal was met in 1898, when the lawyer hired Joe Lockhart, Ben Compton, and two African-American men (Frank Lewis and Tom Ross) to transfer Tarleton’s body into an iron-lined box and re-inter it on the campus of the fledgling college (the location was in an area now known as Heritage Park, between the E.J. Howell Building and McIlhaney Street). A fifteen foot tall granite obelisk, with the simple inscription “John Tarleton” marked the gravesite. It is not clear exactly when the obelisk was erected, but a 1908 photograph of the old Administration Building of John Tarleton College shows that it was in place by that date. In 1928, Tarleton’s body had to be moved again to make room for the construction of the old auditorium building. The removal was performed at night to avoid attracting a crowd and required the presence of a public health officer. This time, Tarleton and the granite monument were moved to a small triangle of land owned by the college at the southeastern quarter of the intersection of Washington and Lillian streets. He has remained there ever since. Due to the efforts of the Tarleton Planning Committee for the Texas Sesquicentennial, chaired by Dr. Patricia Zelman, this location received an official Texas historical landmark plaque in 1987.

Two interesting, but slightly divergent, accounts of the transfer of Tarleton’s body to it’s current resting place exist. According to Dr. Richard Thompson, whose father participated in the exhumation, the bottom of Tarleton’s coffin cracked open as it was raised from the earth, spilling his remains to the ground. Unable to obtain another coffin in the middle of the night, one of the men present went to his garage and brought back a small wooden container (only slightly larger than a shoebox). The workmen then scooped Tarleton’s scattered bones into the box and moved it to the Washington and Lillian site. A slightly different version of this story has been provided by Mr. Barkley Thompson, Dr. Thompson’s younger brother and an eight-year old witness to the event. According to him, Tarleton’s coffin did not fall apart as it was raised from the ground. Rather, once they had dug down to his casket, the workmen discovered that the top of the wooden structure had rotted away (exposing Tarleton’s remains) and realized that it could not be moved without completely falling apart. One of the men then retrieved the small wooden box from his garage and the participants shoveled what was left of Tarleton’s body into it so that it could be moved to its new location. In either case, a large portion of Tarleton’s original casket (and probably a little bit of John Tarleton himself) still lies beneath the ground of Heritage Park.

One of the most beloved legends about John Tarleton still needs to be addressed. Nothing in the historical record exists to indicate that he ever owned a duck named “Oscar P.” In fact, there is no evidence whatsoever to lead one to believe that he ever owned a pet of any kind, certainly not one who followed him wherever he went. When Tarleton students of today kneel down, pound on the ground, and call out “Hey, Oscar P.” they are participating in a tradition that is founded on pure myth.

Guthrie, Christopher. John Tarleton and his Legacy: The History of Tarleton State University, 1899-1999. Acton, MA: Tapestry Press, 1999. pp. 1-13.