| Features | People
by Caroll Osburn
Wizard Wells, Texas
One Hundred-Year-Old Secret Revealed
February 1901 and the hills of Virginia are cold this time of year.
Martha, who just turned twenty-one the month before, gives birth to
her first child - a girl she names Eva Vaun Osburn. Martha is poor,
sick and married less than 10 months. She's completely overwhelmed
with life. Her younger sister Alice is there to help - but life soon
deals her another cruel blow.
Something terrible has happened. Harvey Alder, father of Martha and
Alice gets his gun to kill his son-in-law, John Davis Osburn. This
is family business. John and Martha were second and third cousins
and that's how things were done at the turn of the century. John was
from Blackwater, Lee County, Virginia and Martha from Sneedville,
Hancock County Tennessee, just a stone's throw over the state line.
These are classic Melungeon people. Their culture, and history go
back several generations to the hills of Virginia and Tennessee, moonshine,
Indian and mulatto customs, and even possible links to Portuguese
sailors stranded in America, long before Columbus. Their history is
as fascinating as it is tragic, since Melungeons were systematically
deprived of their rights. The cruelty that society heaped upon them
(Click photo for larger image)
John and Martha Osburn Eva, Mary Ann "Polly" and James ("Jim") held
courtesy Caroll Osburn Zerkle
decision to leave Blackwater to go to Texas was soon made. They headed
out at the first opportunity and it took six long, hard, dangerous
weeks in a wagon. Two of the very few things that went with them was
a family album and a Colt .45 with six notches cut in the handle.
This had come to the family from Nicholas P. Alder who went by the
name Nicholas P. Baldwin born 1825 died 1868 and was sheriff of Hancock
County, Tennessee from 1850 -1860. Nicholas had two sisters, Anne
Alder who married Enoch Osborne and Mary "Polly" Alder was the unwed
mother of Harvey Alder.
By 1902 John and Martha were in Pilot
Point, Denton County,
Texas, and here their second daughter Mary Ann was born. She was
always called "Polly." By 1912 four sons were born, James in 1905,
Arthur in 1907 both born in Ponder,
Denton County, Texas,
and John Davis Jr. born 1910, my dad. He never used the name Davis
or Jr. Mother hated that name and changed it to David, naming their
first child John David Osburn Jr. You could do that way back then.
The last child was Victor born 1912. The last 2 boys were born in
March of 1917 finds Martha seeking medical help in Bridgeport,
Texas. She dies of blood posioning and when you read between the
lines she has either died from a miscarriage, or a botched abortion.
The death certificate does not read "died in childbirth." Blood posioning
is what the children are told and life goes on for six motherless
children, the oldest being only sixteen.
Martha is laid to rest in Wizard
Wells, Texas. In 1920 - of the 200 people then living in Wizard
Wells - this family made up three percent of them. I have found
deeds for land John bought and learned he ran a grocery store, and
records where he served on the school board.
In 1920 cars were all the rage, but the horse and buggy were still
the norm, electricity had not come to many rural areas, and penicillin
was not on the market. Times were tough and were about to get tougher
for this little family.
John got blood poisoning from a fish hook injury and goes to Mineral
Wells to seek a cure in the mineral baths. He dies and the children
have to bring him home. He is laid to rest beside Martha. He had no
headstone for many years, until a son of Eva, got the family together
in the 1970s. They locate their resting place and the family pitches
in for a beautiful headstone.
Eva turned 19 two weeks before he father died and took on the responsibility
of the care and feeding of her five siblings. She was a school teacher,
single and having been a "Mother person" for over 3 years, she was
up to the task. She taught school in Vera,
Texas and after sister Polly marries, she struggles on alone raising
the four boys.
In 1930 Arthur is a 22-year old soldier stationed at Fort Warren,
Wyoming. James is 24 and listed as a boarder with the Robert S. Wilson
family in Yoakum
Eva, now 27, John, aged 19, and Victor, 17, are living out west in
County. Eva meets and marries fellow school teacher Frank Young
Martin in 1932, and they have 3 sons. She's a great mother since she's
had years of experience. John meets and marries a local girl named
Dixie, and they have five children, although one only lives a single
John and Dixie's children are all up in years now, all over 62. We're
parents, grandparents and great grandparents.
James "Jim" and Victor "Vic" joined the Army when the Second World
War broke out. Arthur "Mose" was already in. We have never known how
he got that nickname. With a wife and four children, my Dad didn't
have to go.
Uncle Jim died in 1954 in Seattle, Washington he was single and a
restaurant cook and lived at 509 3rd Ave, Room 143. He is buried in
the Greenwood cemetery in Renton, Washington. It has been a wish to
visit his grave and see if he has a proper military headstone.
Uncle Mose died at his sister Eva Martin's home in Lamesa,
Texas in Aug 1961 and is buried in San
Antonio with a military headstone. There are several Osburn's
listed in the phone book, but don't know if they are kinfolk. My Dad
died in December 1961 and is buried in Las Vegas, Nevada where he
was living. Uncle Vic, Victor Lance Osburn, was living in San
Antonio when he died Jan 27, 1967 and was shipped to a unknown
city in Oregon. Why, we have yet to discover, but what we have discovered
was Uncle Vic had a son, born to a German woman (in Germany) during
the last year of WWII.
Uncle Vic's Service Number was 39215467, I have been trying to get
his Army records for some time now to see where he was stationed.
Now, the 100 year-old secret is about Alice Alder, my grandmother's
sister. She became pregnant and had a baby girl born in 1903. She
named her Honor Alder and she lived with her Grandparent's Harvey
and Elizabeth "Lizzie" Layman Alder for many years. The father of
Honor was none other than John Davis Osburn Sr., my grandfather. I
learned about Honor about the year 2000 and through the magic of the
Internet I have been able to find Honor's descendants. Piecing together
the family history has been a great adventure, it has helped me get
to know the grandparents I never knew, uncles I remember seeing only
a very few times in the 1950's and two wonderful aunts and their children,
I want to relate one more incredible story. In 2002 I went to Wizard
Wells, Texas to find my grandparents graves and it was a wonderful
experience. I took pictures (which have since been lost off the computer)
but it was a great day. I was traveling in a motor home and after
my visit I drove many miles down the road heading east. After several
hours I needed to stop and eat so I found a parking lot in the middle
of nowhere. I love antiques and when I pulled over I noticied several
antique shops. As I was welcomed into the first store by the owner,
she said " hello" and asked "what do you collect?" In conversation
I mentioned I had just come from Wizard
Wells where I had found my grandparents graves. She looked surprised
and said her parents and grandparents were buried in the same little
cemetery in Wizard
Wells and every Memorial Day weekend as a child and throughout
her life, she and her family would spend the weekend cleaning up all
I'm still amazed at this chance meeting of two gals in their 60's
(in the middle of nowhere) who both had grandparents buried one row
apart in the most off-the-road place possible - Wizard
Many books about Melungeons have been written and are available. "Daughter
of the Legend" could have been written about my grandparents John
All the family is gone now and it has been left to me to find an Aunt
and cousin in Germany who may not even speak English. There will be
a P. S. on this story when some stranger from some remote part of
the world reads this and finds they are kin to the Osborne's of Blackwater,
Lee County, Virginia or the Alder's of Sneedville, Hancock, County
Tennessee, because I am related to almost everyone around there.
As Paul Harvey would say: "stay tuned for the rest of the story."
© Caroll Osburn Zerkle, Pahrump, Nevada
Shoe Horses, Don't They?
September 4, 2005 Guest Column
Melungeon Heritage: A Story of Life on Newman's Ridge
Yesterday and Today
Melungeons: The Resurrection of a Proud People