Chester Martin Remembers The Enoch Willett Massacre

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Folks, did you ever hear of "St. Jo, Texas"? Or did you ever hear the name, "Head-of-Elm", OR “Illinois  Bend”, in the same state? Neither did I! At least not until very recently. But when I read about it after discovering a connection to my family's own history (Mom's side), I felt compelled to look into the matter. The Enoch Willett of today’s story was a “Jr.” – son of my great-great-grandfather, of Roane County (Kingston), TN. So the Enoch of this story would have been my great uncle, and a brother of the Fletcher Willett, depicted above.

Turns out that St. Jo, and “Head-of-Elm” are one and the same place - just that the name "St. Jo" superseded the older name, "Head-of-Elm". Can't say that I see much difference in the two names - at least in importance, or that one name is more descriptive or better than the other. All that matters to me is that at least two relatives of my mom's - plus some others - were massacred by "indians" out there, 'way back in the 1860's. And that is the message given on the historical marker. (Pictured).

This event, however insignificant in U.S. or Texas history, merited the placing of a state highway marker beside the site where the party of settlers was buried, and seemingly in what was once part of a much larger cemetery. Line 5 of the historical marker shows the name of that great-great uncle, Enoch Willett from Roane County, Tennessee. Old county records there indicate that he sold off all his property and belongings to "go west" and "trade with the Indians". I am discussing those Willetts in another story about the "Twists and Turns" of my mother's family history, but today's story is just focusing on some of those sidebar twists (or are they turns?)

I am printing it here just because it has some human interest qualities, and ties in with the western expansion of our country. As a kid, "Indian" massacres only happened in movies and comic books, and until recently I never knew about this one. If my great-grandmother (Elizabeth Sarah Willett Smith) knew of it, she never transmitted it to either my grandmother or my mom. When Great Uncle Enoch Willett went west, taking his wife and daughter, he was simply never heard from again. I do not know when the word trickled back to Roane County regarding this massacre, but think it probably took years, as northeast Texas (Montague County) would have been very far away at that time, and most likely had no reliable communications with the east or south.

I am fully aware of the urge to "go west" in those days (1860's), just as today. I even had two other Willett kinsmen who did the same, although one got to Missouri and liked it so well that he stayed, to become a gentleman farmer, and became very wealthy. My mother remained in contact with his family as a young woman. Another great-great uncle, and brother of Enoch, Jr. - Fletcher Willett - had also gone to the California Gold Rush of 1849 and actually found enough gold to have cuff-links made for all the men in his family and gold brooches for the ladies. But gold mining was rough, so he ultimately set up shop in Sonoma Valley as one of the early winegrowers in that region. We have a stack of letters from him that reference some "good years", and tell a bit about his life there. (Fletcher Willett is depicted above with a long beard and a face indicating a high degree of optimism and self-sufficiency – at least in my (prejudiced) opinion. He married a highly educated English lady who did most of the corresponding.

As for St. Jo/Head-of-Elm, Texas, I can't imagine why (or how) anyone could wind up in so desolate a place! I have looked at the area on Google Earth and found few redeeming factors about it! Yet I am sure that the good people who choose to live there see it quite differently. Even with today's slightly more modern buildings you can still plainly see the old "wild West" town that it was - maybe until as late as 1950 or '60. A really attractive modern sign indicates that it was once famous for being "where the Old Chisholm Trail met the California Road", and two smaller signs indicate the proximity of both a United Methodist Church and an Assembly of God congregation.

This great uncle, Enoch Willett, not only got his name inscribed on that roadside plaque, but got him (and his fellow settlers) a short write-up in a book describing the massacre. That published article adds some color to the story, and I quote it here in its entirety:


“It was a bitter cold winter night in March of 1863 or 1864 that an estimated band of 150 to 300 Indians led by white renegades attacked the little settlement of Illinois Bend. The story of this attack was described in T.R. Stump’s book, History of the Early Settlers in Montague County, Texas.

“The John [Enoch] Willett family, an Anderson family and a young man named Harris had established a small stockade located about a mile and a half southeast of the present day Illinois Bend. They had moved there from the stockade at Head-of-Elm (now St. Jo). Stump noted they were “tired of being cooped up”. They assumed they were safe from the threat of Indians.

“The families were huddled around a roaring fire in the great fireplace when Anderson became aware that there were no sounds of hooting owls outside. He went out to investigate and never returned. When he failed to return, Harris went out only to discover the entire settlement was surrounded by a large band of Indians. He rushed back inside giving the alarm to the others.

“Willett instructed all to flee for their lives. Mrs. Anderson was in bed with a two day old baby and was unable to leave so John Willett remained behind to protect her. His 18 year old daughter, Anne, stayed with her father. Mrs. Willett, her daughter Cynthia, the 12 year old Anderson boy, and young Harris managed to escape into the darkness. Cynthia, the Anderson boy and Harris followed the Red River downstream. The boy was caught by the Indians but later escaped.

“After two days, Cynthia and Harris found safety in Gainesville. The Anderson boy was found later by settlers who had to catch him as he was still in great fear of his life. John [Enoch] Willett, his daughter, and Mrs. Anderson were killed and scalped at their new home. Mrs. Willett remarkably was able to make it to Head-of-Elm, but was half frozen. She walked there in her night clothes and with bare feet, in the dark the some fifteen miles to tell of the massacre. She told of running off a bunch of wild hogs and warming herself in their bedding.

“Upon arriving at the Head-of-Elm stockade, the settlers sent runners to warn other settlers of the threat of a large band of marauding Indians. Capt. Rowland responded with his troops from the Confederate outpost at Red River Station. His rangers pursued the Indians for three days. They caught up with them in Cooke County. There he decided to hold his position and not attack as his troops numbered only 115 men. Rowland reported the Indians were a superior force. The Indians moved back across the Red River unchallenged, leaving a path of bloodshed and horror behind them.

“This story is but one incident which reflects the hardships and courage of the people who first settled Montague County.”

The above story is taken from a document on the Internet titled, “Montague County History”, published November 28, 2010. It needs no further explanation than to point out that the name “John” Willett was most likely a nickname for Enoch Willett, whose correct name appears on the roadside historical marker.

I apologize for the poor quality of the images, but thought you should see them to better appreciate the gist of the story. And the picture of my great-great uncle, Fletcher Willett – he of the 1849 California Gold Rush, and early Sonoma winegrower – simply had to be included. I also hope you also enjoyed those three brand new names (to me) which I have taught you today: “St. Jo”, “Head-of-Elm”, and “Illinois Bend”, all in Texas. If the names “Ooltewah”, “Wauhatchie”, and “Soddy-Daisy” sound funny or  foreign to some people, then you now have three new names to ponder!

Disclaimer: Your author generally uses the term “Native Americans” to describe the indigenous people of the U.S. I have used the more objectionable term, “Indians” in this article, however, so as to avoid any conflict between my “Native Americans”, and the quoted story’s “Indians”. I defer to that author’s usage in this rare instance.

(Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at )

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