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 Texas : Features : Columns : "Texas Tales"

John Roan Mystery

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

On Dec. 13, 1879, the Atlanta Constitution published a brief story that should have been big news in Texas, but somehow no editor in the Lone Star state picked up on the Georgia daily’s report.

The story dealt with the purported solution of a 29-year-old mystery in Central Texas, the disappearance of one John Roan.

In November 1879, the Constitution told its readers, someone exploring a cave near “Point Rock” in Lampasas County discovered a human skeleton inside. But there was more to the tale than that:

“Near the skeleton was a rusty blade of a bowie knife, with the handle rotten with age. On a smooth limestone rock was carved in capital letters the following: ‘I fell in here four days ago when the Indians were running me. I am starving. If Bill don’t find me tomorrow I will run this knife through my heart. I can’t stand to starve to death. John Roan.”

The date of the inscription was Nov. 1, 1850.

The only other snippet of information the article included was this:

“The cavern walls cannot be scaled without the aid of a rope twenty-five feet in length, and the aperture is exceedingly small. Roan’s own efforts to save his own life would have been unavailing.”

Like many interesting things I’ve run across over the years, I found this long-forgotten newspaper story by accident while looking online for something else. Immediately, I set about—pardon the expression—trying to flesh out the details of this skeleton tale.

Alas, so far my efforts have proven fruitless.

For starters, a subscription Web site with thousands of old U.S. newspapers available for digital search reveals only one other contemporary news story about the discovery of the skeleton. That was in the Vernon Clipper, a newspaper published in Lamar County, Ala. And that story, printed six days after the appearance of the first report, clearly is only a rewrite of the Atlanta article. I’ve found no mention of Roan’s bones in any Texas newspaper.

On top of that, I can’t find any community or landmark in Lampasas County called Point Rock.

Over in East Texas there is a community in Grimes County called Roan’s Prairie, which was named for one Willis I. Roan, an early settler from—interestingly enough— Alabama. He settled in the area that would bear his name in 1841. Judging from assorted genealogical Web sites, the Roan family flourished in Texas and John is certainly a common given name.

But nowhere online or in any of various books on Lampasas County is there any mention of such a compelling story as a skeleton of a long-missing person being found in a cave. Nor do online listings of those lying in various Lampasas County cemeteries record a grave occupied by anyone named John Roan. (The county’s Oak Hill Cemetery does have the final resting place of one Eddie Roan, who died at 12 in 1948, but no other Roans are shown in any other cemetery in the county.)

Of course, it should be noted that in 1850, when Roan supposedly fell into a cave while being chased by Indians, Lampasas County did not yet exist as a political subdivision. In fact, the first settler did not put up a cabin in the vicinity of what would become Lampasas until 1853—three years after Roan supposedly met his fate. And it was three years after that before Lampasas County was organized.

But there were plenty of Indians in that part of Texas in 1850 and it’s conceivable that Roan could have been in the area on a wild horse gathering expedition. Or maybe he had left the settlements to hunt buffalo or deer, which also were plentiful at the time. The Bill referred to in Roan’s allegedly self-composed epitaph could have been the person hunting with him, perhaps having become separated from him when the Indians confronted them.

Lampasas County does have some limestone caves, particularly in Colorado Bend State Park, but one would think a cave with a carving such as described by the Atlanta Constitution story would be well known.

So, in 1879 did some bored journalist make up the story of John Roan’s lonely suicide and the discovery of his remains nearly three decades later, or did it really happen?

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales"
November 5 , 2009 column

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