Murder on the Mountain
The John Estes Mystery
By RON NELSON
HEROD, Ill. (August 1997) There are many true untold mysteries yet hidden in the Shawnee hills, that ridge of blue mountains extending from Shawneetown southwest merging into the Missouri Ozarks. These forested hills were chosen early as land to be desired and developed by pioneer settlers. Every imaginable type of wildlife roamed through these hills and hollows. The frontiersman striking out on his daily adventures was certain to encounter several poisonous snakes, wolves, wildcats, panthers, bears, wild boar, and a myriad host of other native wildlife as he made his forays into this vast wilderness area. The earliest roads, if they can be called roads, made their winding ways along this ridge connecting the small communities that sprang up here and there.
One of these early settlers, Chism Estes (b. 3 Apr 1774 Halifax Co., Va.), my great, great, great, great grandfather, and the father of John Estes, brought his family into Illinois in 1806. He settled on Big Creek in what is now Hardin County and entered 320 acres. He filed for pre-emption rights on this land but his application was denied in 1807. A pre-emption right was one which early settlers claimed and petitioned from Congress to own the land on which they had settled. Some of these pioneers had been here since Illinois was a county of Virginia. The United States government awarded limited land grants to these early documented settlers.
The Estes family were Baptist, but it is not known to which church if any Chism Estes belonged. Some of his relatives were charter members of the old Big Creek Baptist Church organized on July 19, 1806, in what is now Hardin County, IL. It seems unlikely the Estes family did not have a church affiliation between 1806-1844 (when we find them in the Big Saline Friends to Humanity [Anti-slavery] Baptist Church). The records of the Big Creek Baptist Church are believed to be lost except for the first page, which contains the charter membership and the presbytery, which organized the church. Therefore, it is impossible without further documentation to know if Chism and his family kept their membership there during these years.
Chism applied for land in Gallatin Co., Illinois, (now Saline) in 1815. Gallatin County was formed in 1812 and in 1814, a government land office was established it Shawneetown. Land was sold in quarter sections, first at public auction, or when no bidders were found, later on or at a minimum price of $2.00 per acre, payable in installments over a three-year period. Chism bought his land and built his family home near the picturesque Womble Mountain. The pioneer settlers grouped together in settlements on the high hills due to two main causes: first, for the protection of their families against the Indians, and second to avoid high water. Much of this country was very damp and swampy at that time. As late as 1852, John Blanchard, a Baptist minister, recounts the conditions of the Saline Valley lowlands in his autobiography, The Roar of God's Thunder:
A great portion of the land was covered with water. It was called the Ponds. The place was where the town of Harrisburg now is. There was not a house in the place. There was an old field where part of the town now stands, but the people understood how to walk logs across the sloshes.
Chism Estes became an important citizen of the community, as demonstrated by the following entries. At the May, 1813, term of the court of Randolph County, a number of the inhabitants of Rock and Cave Township petitioned for the establishment of a road from Barker's ferry at Cave-in-Rock to "intersect the road from Kaskaskia to the United States Saline Springs at Francis Jourdan's," and that "Francis Jourdan, Joseph Jourdan and Chishem Estes were appointed viewers on the route from the ferry to Francis Jourdan's." This route later became Route 34, and transversed Chism's farm. Remnants of this old road are still clearly visible twisting in and out and along new Route 34. Francis and Joseph Jordan were Chism's wife Mary's brothers, and Joseph Jordan married Chism's sister, Elizabeth.
On April 19, 1819, Gallatin County was divided into five election districts or townships: Rock and Cave Township, Shawanoe Township, Cane Creek Township, Saline Township, and Monroe Township. The History of Gallatin. Saline, Hamilton, Franklin and Williamson Counties, Illinois, states that the election judges appointed to Monroe Township were Hankerson Rude, Hugh Robinson and Chism Estes. We also find that Chism Estes was commissioned Justice of the Peace for Gallatin County on February 29, 1819 (Executive Record 1818-1832, Vol., 1, p. 3). In 1826, he signed a petition for the removal of the county seat from Shawneetown to a geographical center of Gallatin County (Legislative Papers, 1826). This attempt failed.
Chism next moved his family into the Somerset area (a few miles southwest of Equality, Ill.) sometime before he died in 1829 at the age of 55. He was buried in his own back yard, in what is now known as the Coffee Cemetery. This property, with its beautiful vista of the blue hills and green valleys, later would be the site of the first log cabin meeting house of the Big Saline Friends to Humanity Baptist Church. His wife, Mary Jordan Estes. died 30 years later, on August 3, 1859. The Mortality Census of 1860 states that she was sick 17 days, and that she died of heart dropsy and cancer of the nose. She was laid to rest beside her husband.
An article, which appeared in the "Pageant of Progress Edition" of The Daily Register in Harrisburg, Illinois, in 1925, gives us a glimpse of what life was like in the pioneer days. Mr. Anthony A. Travelstead, who gave this interview to the newspaper, was born in 1839 in Kentucky, and in 1842, his father brought his family, along with 17 other families, to Illinois.
The colony of Kentuckians made their way to the Ohio river and crossed at Shawneetown on an old-fashioned ferry boat. Then the start through Illinois was made. It was nothing but a wilderness everywhere one looked, especially down in this section. But there was a trail or road leading from Shawneetown up toward Equality and over to this section. There was no post office in Harrisburg at that time. In fact there wasn't any town here, not even a settlement, and as the Kentucky colony got on top of the hill, which is now court square in Harrisburg, there was but one house within four miles of this immediate locality, and that was a double log house owned and occupied by Mathias Gaskins, possibly the first man to enter this community. This house was located near what is O'Gara No. 3 mine now. What is now court square was a field about half cleared of the timber and Mr. Gaskins had a small crop of corn planted therein.
The Travelstead family lived in this locality seven years and moved to Elizabethtown in 1848 ... Later, the family moved up near Rudement, in Mountain Township, where he lived for fifty-five years, raising a family of fourteen children. [The Travelsteads and Esteses were neighbors. Chism's great grandson. Joseph Estes, married Margaret Travelstead ]. Two and three acres of land were all that was ever cultivated by any one family, and that was done just to raise enough corn for meal. No hogs were even owned or fattened. When people wanted a hog killed, they went into the woods and shot a wild hog, and the woods were filled with these wild hogs.
The only post offices in this section in the early days were located at Vienna, Equality, and Shawneetown, and the government had the mail carried by man and horse. Mr. Travelstead recalled the time when John D. Cummins had charge of government horses at Equality, where the mail rider would change horses as he passed through. There were no postage stamps at that time and no envelopes. People writing letters would fold them up and seal them with red sealing wax, giving the mailman a coin valued at 6 1/4 cents. If the letter told of a death, it would be sealed with black sealing wax.
One of the most interesting incidents Mr. Travelstead told us about was the manner in which people would go from one settlement to another without becoming lost.... If the few people in Brushy desired to go over to a settlement in Galatia or that part, or go to one south of Brushy, they had to pass through a wilderness that was practically a dense thicket. A trail was blazed by cutting three notches on a tree, each side, and if any man was caught putting more than three notches on a tree, he was immediately run out of the country. As long as you could see three notches on a tree, you were not lost.
Chism and Mary "Polly" (Jordan) Estes had 11 children:
Elizabeth Estes Ewell married Hardy Ewell
Phoebe Estes Colbert married Henry Colbert
John Estes married 1st Mary Turner, 2nd Elizabeth Gibbons
Julia Estes Rose, husband unknown
Lucinda Estes Garrett married 1st John Yewell, 2nd William Garrett
William Henry Harrison Estes married 1st America Smith, 2nd Sarah Mattingly
Susan Estes Hutton married 1st William Horton, 2nd Elder William C. Bickers
Melinda Estes Meow married Joab Moore Jr.
Mary Ann Estes Horton married Elder John Horton
Chism Jordan Estes married 1st Sarah Thornton, 2nd Mary J. Keith
John Estes, the subject of this sketch, remained a mystery for many years. We do not know when or where he was born and he seemed to disappear from the records after 1840. His marriage to Mary Turner on April 12, 1832, was recorded in the Pope County courthouse. Evidently, Mary died before October 28, 1837, because she is not listed among the signatures on a deed between John's mother and three of her children (including John). The spouses of the other two children are included, but John is listed alone. John evidently could not write because instead of his signature, he made his mark on the deed. John was left to care for a small son, James Hosea Estes, age 4. On December 15, 1838, John married Elizabeth Gibbons (Gallatin County Marriages, Book I, p. 134).
The Land Entry Book for Gallatin/Saline County shows John entered the following tract of land on March 6, 1837: T10S, R7E, Sec. 8, SE 1/4, SW 1/4. This property was just north of Somerset and south of the Big Saline School and church, very near his mother's (Mary "Polly" Jordan Estes) property. John mortgaged his farm for $90 to the State Bank of Illinois at Shawneetown on January 4, 1839. This note was co-signed by Benjamin White and Hugh Lambert, with a stipulation that if the bank note had to be renewed, the deed could be declared void. Then suddenly, in April of 1841, there was a judgment against the "widow and heirs of John Estes" for this same property at a Sheriff's sale:
This Indenture made and entered into between John R. Smoot, Sheriff of Gallatin County, State of Illinois, of the first part, and Benjamin White and Hugh Lambert of the same County and State of the second part, witnesseth, whereas Benjamin White and Hugh Lambert, did at the September term of the Circuit Court for the County of Gallatin recover a judgment against the widow and heirs of John Estes for the sum of sixty three dollars and 21/100 and costs of suit upon which judgment and execution was issued dated on the 12th day of April AD 1841. Directed to the Sheriff of said County to execute, and by virtue of said execution the said Sheriff levied upon the lands hereafter described, and the same was struck off and sold to Benjamin White & Hugh Lambert, they being the highest and best bidders therefore and the time and place of the sale having been duly advertised according to law; now therefore know all by this deed that I, John R. Smoot, Sheriff of said County of Gallatin, in consideration of the premises have granted, bargained, and sold and do hereby convey to the said Benjamin White & Hugh Lambert, their heirs and assigns the following described tract of land, the southeast fourth of the southwest quarter, Sect. 8, Town. 10S of R7E, to have and to hold said described premises with all the appurtenances thereto belonging to the said Benjamin White & Hugh Lambert their heirs and assigns forever.
Witnessing hand and seal this 19th day of January one thousand eight hundred and forty six.
John R. Smoot (Seal)
Exactly what happened to John during those last months of his life is what we must next consider. For years, his life was much like that of a phantom ghost. Beyond his name, they knew practically nothing about him. In 1982, Doris Nelson researched the Estes family and published her findings in the book Following the Chism Estes Trail, a Genealogy of Chism Estes and His Descendants 1736-1982. This was the most that had been known about this family until that date. Then a couple of weeks ago, Gary DeNeal called, stating he had found a short biography written by Dr. Clint Estes which mentioned "Doc" Estes' great grandfather, John Estes. The article stated that Dr. Estes "represents one of the old and honored families of Southern Illinois. His great-grandfather, John Estes, came out of Maryland [John's father, Chism Estes was actually born in Halifax County, Virginia. It is unknown at present where John was born---Editor.] and settled in what was then Gallatin County, now Saline County, during the early 30s. On a tract of government land near what is now Equality he made a farm and spent the rest of his years [It was actually Somerset-Editor.]. He was killed in a "hold-up" for the purpose of robbing him as he returned home from town. His slayers were never apprehended" (George Washington Smith's History of Illinois, Vol. 6, p. 213).
With this new information, I called the Illinois State Archives concerning the death of John Estes. A couple days later, Cody Wright, a state archivist specialist, returned my call with the exciting news that he had found a record of John Estes' inquest. "2 March 1841, The County treasurer pay John T. Cook $5.75 for holding inquest over the dead body of John Estes" (File #954.006, Transcript of Gallatin County Board Minutes, 1802-1941).
After this document was located, I began talking with relatives, who were reminded of someone saying at an Estes reunion many years ago that John Estes had been murdered somewhere near the Horseshoe Gap. An interesting statement was also found in the scrapbook of Millicent Guard, great, great, granddaughter of John Estes, which was given to this author after her death. "He was murdered in the Horse Shoe area near Equality ... paid $400 in gold for horses and cattle, killed with a dagger and robbed of gold near the Jim Estes farm." If this was true, John Estes was murdered very near the site of the Eagle Creek Emancipation Baptist Church meeting house. This log church house stood just across the proverbial fence from John Crenshaw's Eagle Creek farm. This church property is known today as Jones Cemetery.
John Estes lived in a turbulent and dangerous time. He, as many other settlers, had to make his pilgrimage to Equality to buy salt and provisions or to record land sales or numerous other legal businesses with the court. (Equality was the county seat from 1829 to 1851.) Equality was the center of business activity due chiefly to the salt works industry. Many fortunes were made and lost with its rise and demise. The Old Slave House, or John Crenshaw's Hickory Hill Mansion, is but one example of the affluence of that era.
It is interesting to note that one of the purchasers of John Estes' farm in 1841 was Benjamin White. He and Timothy Guard both had leases on the Half-Moon Lick salt works. Timothy Guard was one of the largest slaveholders in Illinois (Illinois Census Returns 1818-1830). Before this time, 1829-1834, Benjamin White had bought an additional 801 acres of Saline Reservation land. White also operated a water-powered gristmill and several businesses at his town named Whitesville, located just a short distance north of John Estes' farm. An interesting comparison can be made between Benjamin White and John Crenshaw. Both Crenshaw and White used slaves to operate their salt works. As John Crenshaw had his Cypressville (near the village of Junction, Gallatin County), so Benjamin White had his Whitesville. Whitesville became a shipping center for flatboating goods down the Saline River to the Ohio River and points beyond. Today little is left of either of these once thriving centers of commerce.
Since the Estes's were Emancipationists, could this have had something to do with the reason John was murdered? At the time when John was murdered, there was great unrest in southern Illinois. The agitation was over the issue of slavery in all its forms, the criminal acts of kidnapping free blacks in a so-called "free state," and selling them into perpetual slavery. One such case was John Crenshaw's infamous kidnapping of Maria Adams and her family (See June 1997 issue of Springhouse). Many "fine citizens" of Illinois had decided that if they could not have slaves, they did not want free blacks either. Whether this had anything to do with John Estes' murder may never be known. It could have been a highway robbery or it could have been much, much more.
Whatever the reason for John's demise, a young mother, with John's young son James Hosea playing nearby, waited at her cabin door, expectantly anticipating the return of her husband with the good news that he had sold the horses and the cattle and now had the money to pay off the mortgage. Instead of seeing her husband coming up the path, she received the messenger with the news that all their dreams for a better life were dashed. The messenger was a messenger of death. John had been cruelly murdered and robbed just over the ridge from his home. An inquest was held, an investigation ensued, but John's widow never learned the murderers name. John's widow, now alone and destitute, was sued by Benjamin White and Hugh Lambert for the unpaid mortgage of $63. She not only lost the case and the farm at a Sheriffs sale, but also had to pay court costs as well. When the auctioneer cried, "Sold!" Benjamin White and Hugh Lambert had bought it.
We do not know what happened to John's widow after being evicted, but the 1850 census shows James Hosea living with his grandmother, Mary "Polly" Estes. James Hosea like his father did not live a long life for he was cut down by Confederate fire at the age of 29 in the Battle of Fort Donelson, Tennessee, leaving behind a widow and four small children. As in a Greek drama, life on the frontier often ended in tragedy. Somewhere on that blue ridge of mountains in southeastern Saline County is the unmarked grave of John Estes, murdered, my great-great-great-grandfather.
The above article originally appeared in Springhouse Magazine in the August 1997 issue (Volume 14, Issue 4). Springhouse is published six times a year by Gary DeNeal someplace between William's Hill and Womble Mountain near Herod, Illinois. For more information on the magazine or for subscription information contact Gary at Springhouse, P.O. Box 8, Herod IL 62947, or call (618) 252-3341. Article reprinted with author's permission.