Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Story of Thomas "Moses" McElroy - A Arkansas Tale of Civility in the Civil War

Cover Image of the book Moses McElroy, by Emilee Mason
Book cover shown with permission of the author.

Recently a book was sent to me by a good friend who lives in Virginia.  She had purchased the book several  years earlier and thought I would enjoy reading it, because it was about the Civil War era in Arkansas, one of the states that I research.  While clearning out old papers, recently, she found the book and mailed it to me.

It was a children's book,  called Moses McElroy, a  short story written for children in 1997, by author Emilee D. Mason, of Virginia. It was based on an incident that was said to have happened, and before I tell my part of the story, I can summarize it here.

The book tells a heart warming story of a child who almost died during the heat of battle in central Arkansas, in the Civil War. It begins with two young boys, who lived in Grant County Arkansas, who had strayed away from the family farm, and away from their usual chores to go and wander into the woods.  Unknowingly, they had wandered into an area near the Saline River, and they did not realize how far away they were. Their wanderings took them to an area near the Saline River, where they came upon to a major skirmish in the Western theatre of the Civil War----the Battle of Jenkins Ferry.

While exploring the woods, one of the boys remarked that he had heard cannons, and they climbed up over a ridge overlooking the Saline River, and realized that the cannon sounds were coming from a battle unfolding, and the battle was at Jenkins Ferry.  As the cannons got louder they realized that were too close and needed to leave, fast!  They crept carefully back down the ridge, praying that no stray bullets would come towards them.  Walking quickly through the brush, they heard a noise---that sounded like a wounded animal. Was it a cat, or another small creature? They heard it again---and then realized---it was a baby! A baby was crying close by.

Seeing nothing, but hearing the cry of an infant they started towards the sound, and came upon an old hollowed out log in the brush, and looked inside---and there it was---an infant! A baby, lightly wrapped and inside the hollowed out log.  And there he was, a small crying little black baby, just a toddler. They were quite surprised at their discovery of the little black child.

Images drawn by Patrice Mason, daughter of the author, 
and  used with author's permission.

Oh yes I forgot to mention----in this particular incident, the two boys Will and George were white.

Both were quite shocked to see a small infant in the fallen oak tree, they picked up the child and found their way back to the trail to lead them home.

They wondered---was this a child of runaway slaves?
Where were his parents?
Did they get caught by slave catchers, or bushwhacked by soldiers?
Were the baby's parents nearby?

Still in danger, the boys quickly worked their way through the woods and back towards their farm.
Their mother, Charity, was furious that the boys had been gone most of the day, but she was suddenly shocked into silence when they placed the infant in her arms. Essie, a black woman working in the McElroy household, was called, and immediately embraced the child and was as astonished as Charity, and they both wondered how and where the boys had found this black infant.

Essie immediately took to the child, preparing to bathe him, and the boys' mother found cloth to use for diapers. And both of  the boys, were relieved to discover that they were not going to be punished for their wanderings so close to danger. Essie nurtured and coddled the baby, while the boys were also intrigued by the discovery of the child, hoping that their parents would let them "keep" the child. It would be reported in town when it was safe to go in to town, and it was decided right then, that if nobody was looking for the child, then Essie, who was immediately attached to the baby, could take care of this baby.

Illustration from "Mose McElroy" by Patrice Mason
Image used with permission of author.

Essie, remembering her father, a slave long gone, asked if the baby could be named Thomas. Will and George thought that since he was found near the river like Moses in the Bible, then that, Moses, should be his name. Though Thomas McElroy would become his official name, the boys would call always call him Moses.

That child remained in the McElroy household for several years. Being a black child reared in a white household brought it stresses though, as this was Arkansas. Though the war brought freedom for the slaves, and Thomas would not be raised in bondage, his relationship with neighbors black and white would not be without its challenges. In addition, there were no schools for the child Thomas to attend, as there were no schools for former slave children in that area.

 But the McElroy boys Will and George who did attend school committed themselves to teaching Thomas Moses,  how to count and how to read, themselves. Local black children were not comfortable around the black boy being raised by white folks and the local white population did not accept him as a suitable companion for their children. So for many years, Will and George were his world.  And there, he lived, in the McElroy household, until he was old enough to go out into the world and make his own way.

A few years later in 1880 a stranger came to town.  He was on his way to Jenkins Ferry, to visit the battle site.  He appeared at the McElroy home, looking for lodging.  No hotel or inn was close by, but the McElroys invited this distinguished man to stay in their extra room.  He mentioned that he had been there during the Jenkins Ferry battle, and shared with them a unique story. His name was John Wakefield.

Image from "Moses McElroy". Illustration by Patrice Mason
and used with permission of the author

His name was John Wakefield, and he was from an army regiment in the midwest, that had joined forces with Gen. Steele's Amry.  As he told the story, that while there, that  there was a contingent of black soldiers who were also at Jenkins Ferry. In addition to the soldiers, there were also some refugee slaves that had followed some of the troops when they came into the area.  The battle was fierce and one of the first black soldiers killed, was a black soldier who left behind a wife and small baby boy.

Wakefield, and his friend Wesley Brooks tried to assist her, the mother, but by morning on the day after the battle they found her dead, with the baby still alive, alongside of her body.  They took the baby and knew that they could not carry an infant to the battlefield, and decided to hide the child. They found a hollowed out log, and placed the child there. They had planned to come back---but they never got a chance to return.  The old soldier Wakefield, had himself been wounded and his companion Wesley Brooks had been killed that day.  He rubbed his own leg continually, as he told the story, but his saddest lament was that the little colored baby they had found  that had probably died alone on that hill.

Will, one of the McElory boys listened and then called Moses from his chores, over to the conversation at hand. To the gentleman he softly said,  "I want to introduce you to Thomas Moses McElroy."

Illustration of a young Thomas "Moses" McElroy
Illustration by Patrice Mason, and used with permission of the author.

This was the same child, the child that they had left in the log, and there they met face to face---Thomas met the very man who had saved his life.

I am sharing this story for two reasons:

1) The story is a true story that took place in my home state.
2) I have an ancestor who died in the Battle of Jenkins Ferry. My ancestor John Talkington (aka Tuckington) served in the black unit (the 83rd US Colored Infantry) that fought in that battle. John Talkington was severely wounded in that battle on the same battlefield described in the story. He died from those wounds.

For me, this story put a human face on a painful day in history when so many lost their lives.
Now, the storybook ended as Thomas meets the soldier who placed him in the hollow log.

But for me---it opened more questions.

A small notation was made at the end of the book, that in the 1870 census, there was a McElroy family found in Grant County Arkansas, and living in that household was a young boy, a black child, in the white family--whose name was Thomas McElroy. It was said that for many years, throughout Grant County in Central Arkansas many in the black community would often speak about "Old Tom" who told the story of his life and how he was found in a hollow log after the battle of Jenkins Ferry.

I studied this small book that took only a few minutes to read---and the genealogist inside of me came alive!

So if this was a true story---what could I learn myself?

Could I find Thomas the child in census records, and could I possibly follow him into his adult years?

I would love to speak to the author.  Could I find the author as well?

Well, it took me several hours, but after locating the publisher, and making several phone calls, I did located the author living in Virginia! This was near the city where Selma, my friend who sent me the book, lives!

I had a wonderful conversation with Emilee Mason, who shared with me how she first learned of the McElroy story. She had a good friend and neighbor who used to live nearby. The neighbor shared with her an old story that she had often heard as a child in Arkansas--about the black child found in the hollow log. Ms. Mason the author was enthralled by the story and later spoke with her friend's mother and elderly aunt who also told her the same story of Thomas Moses McElroy. They referred to him, as Old Tom.

While writing the story down, the author spoke to the director of the Grant County Museum where this story took place.  He assisted her in verifying more about the battle of Jenkins Ferry, and also confirmed from local resources that there had been a McElroy family that lived near the old Jenkins Ferry battlefield.  He confirmed also that census records did reflect that family and that there was a black child enumerated in that same household with the white McElroy family.

That is all I needed----I had something to go on, and the search was on! I wanted to find Thomas Moses McElory, or "Old Tom" in the census.

The Search to Find Thomas McElroy

Well, in 1870---I was able to find the McElroy family. The father Chapley & wife Charity  were there with their children:  Thomas, Virginia, William (Will), George W, (George), Lafayette, Alva, and one black male child, Thomas McElroy, also living with them.

McElroy Household, 1870, Grant County, Davis Township, Arkansas

Ten years later, in 1880, as a  young man, Thomas worked on the farm of a farmer Logan Holbert.  He was a farm hand and was now earning his own way. The farmer was an African American, and Thomas was now working for them.
Thomas McElroy was enumerated with the Holbert familiy in 1880, in the same
community where he had been raised with the McElroys.

While looking at resources on Ancestry.com, I noticed that in 1881, a Thomas McElroy married a young woman Paralee Cobb, in Grant Count Arkansas. If this was my Thomas, he had now taken  a wife.

From Ancestry.com, info on the 1881 marriage of Thomas
McElroy to Paralee Cobb, in Grant County Arkansas.

Was this the same Thomas?  I would have to see if I could find him married, hopefully to the same person in 1900. So, since there was no 1890 census to use, jumping ahead  20 years later in 1900, there he was----Thomas McElroy was there, and yes still married, and still living in Grant County, with his wife Parlee and their children.

Thomas McElroy in 1900 census is shown living 
now with his wife Parlee, and their children, in Grant County, Arkansas

By 1910, Thomas McElroy and wife Parlee were living alone in their own household. Their children were now adults, and on their own.  They still resided in Grant county and were enumerated in Fenter Township.

Thomas and Paralee McElroy in 1910,in Grant County Arkansas

Thomas McElroy no longer appeared in the census after that time.  In 1920, his widow Parilee McElroy was found, living in Benton township, in Saline County Arkansas. So quietly, Thomas McElroy had died, as quietly as he lived, between 1910 and 1920.  She was enumerated as having been a widow, and her 15 year old granddaughter Stella Hawkins (Hankins) was living with her.

Parlee McElroy, Thomas's widow was listed with her granddaughter 
Stella Hankins (Hawkins) in Saline County, Benton township, in 1920

In 1930, Paralee McElroy was still living, and she was still in Saline County, in the township of Benton, Arkansas.  This time she lived with a great granddaughter Desma J. McElroy.

Parlee McElory, Thomas McElroy's widow was living with gr. granddaughter Desma in 1930.

 Not much was known about their lives beyond these few documents and the story of Thomas McElroy's infancy, and how he was found.

As an adult, he made his living as a farmer, but he was not an illiterate farmer. It was noted in the same 1900 census, that he was a literate man and could read and write, a skill taught to him, by the McElroy boys.

Occupation shown for Thomas McElory in 1900.
Also the 3 yes notations indicated that he could read, write & speak English

The story, however, is one of civility shown during a time of war. This black child could have been ignored by the white family that eventually took him in.  This was a time in which the lines in society were clearly drawn by race---yet, this family defied those odds and saw the humanity in a hungry abandoned parentless child, regardless of color.

Though there were no schools for the child Thomas, Will and George took it upon themselves to show the young Thomas how to read and write, and early census records do indicate that Thomas was a literate man.
Thankfully he lived to adulthood, found a young woman, took her as a wife, and he was able to raise his children, and his name did live on, into the 20th century.

My hope is that, the story of Thomas, a baby boy found in a hollow log, will be told.  

He was born during a time of hostility and could have become a casualty of war---but a family that could have looked away, did not,  and they showed him some civility, and compassion, and the result was that this young black boy, who had the odds stacked against him, in a hostile south, was given a chance at life.  
He thrived, and lived to tell his story.  

Those who grew  up in the same community around him, also told the story. And the story made it to a woman in Virginia, to Emilee Mason, who heard it, and wrote it down, and now the story of Thomas McElroy lives on.


The story was remembered by the Lybrand family of Central Arkansas. One of their descendants who had moved to Virginia, told that same story to a friend, who saw the value of writing it down.

There are more parts to the story to follow and I shall continue the quest in the future:
1) Find some descendants of Thomas and Parlee McElroy today.
2) Find some descendants of Chapley and Charity McElroy  the family who took in the child, and of Will and/or George who found the child.
3) Identify the soldier Wakefield, who with his companion Wesley Brooks, saved the infant whose mother had died by placing him in the log.

I don't know why I am so captivated by this story--- but perhaps because Thomas Moses's father died in the battle where my own ancestor died, is part of the story.  My ancestor John Talkington probably  knew the father of this child, and they died around the same time.

This story at least puts a human face on the suffering in time of war, on those refugee slaves, running for freedom, and it reflects some of the confusion that they had probably felt in their own dash for freedom that rested in their bosom---that basic desire to be free!

This story for me, illustrates that nothing---no matter how insignificant a gesture---is without meaning nor not without consequence.  In this case---a child's life was saved, and the lineage continued. The story was repeated---and made it's way to Virginia to a lady who wrote it down ---Emilee D. Mason.  And it has now found its way back home.

I hope some day to meet the descendants of that child.

And perhaps this story reminds me of why I was inspired (by fellow genealogists no less) to start to blog and to tell the story.

There is an African proverb that says---"an ancestor never dies till there is no one left to call their name."  If this is so, then that small boy crying in that hollowed out log lives!!  And we can continue to tell the story of Thomas McElroy, for he has not died!

By doing so, I, like others can also call my ancestor's name.


Greta Koehl said...

What an amazing story! I look forward to reading what you find as you continue your Thomas McElroy quest.

Amy Bertsch said...

Incredible story, incredible history! Made me cry. Thank you so much sharing it and your excellent documentation.

Angela Y. Walton-Raji said...

Hello Amy,
I appreciate your reading the blog and for your remarks. The story moved me so much that I had to share it on the blog, for it is one of those stories that was local in content, yet universal in its sentiment. Thank you for your kind words.

Angela Y. Walton-Raji said...

Hello Greta,

So glad that you enjoyed the story. I hope that the McElroy descendants will continue to tell the story of Thomas, and of the family that reached out and who gave the child a home. There are lessons for all of us in that remarkable story. Thank you for your comments.


Pam Beveridge said...

Great story - good luck in your quest!

FranE said...

Wonderful story and awesome research. Thanks for sharing.

Kristin said...

Very good story and really enjoyed reading your documentation too.

Susan Clark said...

This is gripping on so many levels. You're absolutely right that there are universal elements in the story - elements so hopeful and powerful that they have kept Thomas McElroy's story alive for almost 150 years. I'm so glad you are continuing the effort.

Alice Keesey Mecoy said...

Amazing Story. I have bookmarked your blog to continue reading. Continue to call your ancestor's names loud and clear!
Alice Keesey Mecoy
Great great great granddaughter of John Brown the abolitionist

Lisa Wallen Logsdon said...

Truly fascinating! Just think how many stories like this are lost and will never be known. And how cool to preserve this one story so it maintains it's place in our history!

Sheri Fenley said...

Angela - Astounding! You could almost write your own book about your search to verify and find living descendants. The story of a genealogist's lifetime!

CHC said...

I must share this blog with all of my friends at AAHGS-AR Chapter in Little Rock, AR. Look what you have done by giving life to this book and hopefully us all locating a decendant in Benton, AR.

Anonymous said...

What a phenomenal story! THANK YOU for sharing and preserving it, as well as continuing the research! I stumbled across your post as I was researching my Af-Am Lybrand family in Jefferson County, AR. This will be a wonderful addition to my records!

Angela Y. Walton-Raji said...

You mentioned the name Lybrand!! Well----that was one of the surnames of the family that kept the story of Thomas McElroy alive! Are you related to that line? WOW!

Renate Yarborough Sanders said...

This is "so what" taken to the Nth degree! Great work, detective!