“Do whut?” I replied. “Do you mean I have been cleaning up a stranger’s grave all this time?”
I was sitting across the table from Mike Cochran, a renowned local historian who has preserved amazing information about Denton, Texas on his website. As we chatted about local history, our discussion turned to the grave that is on our courthouse lawn — supposedly the grave of our town namesake. Mike has unearthed major historical documents about John Denton in his years of research, and he has compelling reasons to back his argument that John Denton’s bones are not interred there.
His arguments rocked my world a little bit.
They didn’t correspond to what the Old Settler’s Association believed when they planted John B. Denton on the southeast corner of the square back in 1901. Those folks were certain they had the remains of that pioneer hero in the coffin.
The motley crew above were the early pioneers of Denton. In August of 1900, at the annual meeting of their association, they decided to find the bones of John Denton. They believed that there was “strong traditional evidence that the remains of Captain Denton lay buried somewhere in Denton County.” They decided to do something to honor this man who was a Texas hero … and they began a quest to find him and bring him to the town that bears his name. In 1905, William Allen put together a book detailing that search, John Denton’s life, and his re-interment in Denton.
Are you wondering, “Who the heck was John Denton?” I could talk about him for hours, but I’ll try to keep it brief — at least as brief as a storyteller is able to be.
At this point, I would love to show you a picture of John Denton, so you could imagine the man, but unfortunately a likeness of him was never made in his lifetime. Still, we have a pretty good idea of what he looked like, based on the information that Allen compiled:
“John B. Denton was five feet ten inches high, very erect; had black, slightly curly hair, a broad, high forehead; weighed one hundred and sixty pounds, of impressive mien, and bore himself in a way that denoted great energy … added to his symmetrical form, broad forehead, steady blue eyes, and large compass of his oratorical voice, he stood before his audience the picture of a commander.”
This is an illustration of him as he rode in his final battle (the original sketch is in James T. DeShields, Border Wars of Texas, opposite p. 321). It floats around the internet pretty frequently, but I’ll share it here anyway because I like it.
John Bunyan Denton was a Methodist preacher, a lawyer, and a member of the Texas militia. Is that an oxymoron for you? Indeed, but consider the times in which he lived. Born in 1807 in Tennessee, he came to Clarksville, Texas in 1836 (just months after Texas had become an independent nation). William Allen claimed, “he came to preach peace, and when necessary, to beat back to foes of civilization.” The foes? Those would be the Native People, who were rightfully angry that white settlers were pushing them out of their ancestral lands. John Denton, like most men on the frontier, felt it his duty to join the militia to protect his community.
Those “foes” attacked a family living south of Clarksville in April of 1841, killing all of them. Sixty-nine militia men, under Captain James Bourland, rode east to find the attacking party. Along a creek they found a village of Keechi Indians (that spot is now the community called “Village Creek” in Fort Worth). The Keechi probably weren’t even the same bunch that killed the Rippley family, but the militia proceeded to attack anyway. However, this backfired when they got surrounded by more than 1,000 men who had been on a buffalo hunt when the shooting started.
On May 22nd, 1841, the 34-year-old John B. Denton was the only militiaman killed. They threw his body on the back of a horse and rode like Thunder to get away. The legend says that he was buried by a creek near what would later become the town of Bolivar in Denton County.
That’s where Mike Cochran starts having a problem with the story.
As he pointed out, Bolivar is heading west from Village Creek … and smart men would have been retreating east towards home and safety. Not only that, but it was eighteen years before anyone even went back to look for him. By then, with new settlers coming into the area, the countryside had changed so much that even Captain Bourland couldn’t find the grave.
During the interim, Texas became a state (1845); Fannin County got carved up, and a new county was formed and named for John B. Denton; and a town was formed (1857) that was named for him. His body lay mouldering in an unmarked grave, but John Denton wasn’t forgotten.
Interestingly, some bones were found on the ranch of John Chisum near Bolivar in 1856. His father, Clabe Chisum, had ridden in the Village Creek Battle with John Denton and had told his son the stories. John Chisum believed that he had found John Denton’s bones (some of them), and he dug them up. He wrote the family that he had them, but no one came to get them.
Mike Cochran thinks that the family didn’t get them because they didn’t believe the bones belonged to John Denton! After all, many early pioneers got buried in unmarked graves. Unfortunately, without forensic evidence, it’s difficult to prove that those bones belonged to John B. Denton. Bless his heart, I don’t think that poor man needs to be dug up again!
Chisum buried those bones a second time in a plot next to his house. It wasn’t until May 22, 1901 (sixty years to the day after his death) that The Old Settler’s Association gathered them up and placed John Denton in his third (and hopefully final) resting place with a fancy funeral service, a party, and the whole shebang on the town square.
People came from all over Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana to see John Denton laid to rest, and to honor a man that they considered a true Texas hero. They absolutely filled the town square.
So, does John Denton’s body lie mouldering in that grave? Not according to Mike Cochran. While I have to admit that Mike makes some good points, I am siding with the Old Settler’s Association on this one.
I HAVE to!
If that isn’t John Denton, it ruins a perfectly good ghost story! Come down to the square one weekend and join me on a Ghosts of Denton tour — I’ll tell you that story then.
- Unidentified Members of the Old Settlers’ Association, Photograph, n.d.; digital image, (http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth12317/ : accessed July 15, 2013), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, http://texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Denton Public Library, Denton, Texas.
- Allen, William. Captain John B. Denton, preacher, lawyer and soldier. His life and times in Tennessee, Arkansas and Texas by Wm. Allen., Book, 1905; digital images, (http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth6992/ : accessed July 15, 2013), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, http://texashistory.unt.edu; crediting UNT Libraries, Denton, Texas.
- Broome Studio. John Bunyan Denton, Photograph, 1907; digital image, (http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth12410/ : accessed July 15, 2013), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, http://texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Denton Public Library, Denton, Texas.
- [John B. Denton Funeral Notice], Text, November 21, 1901; digital image, (http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth24892/ : accessed July 15, 2013), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, http://texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Denton Public Library, Denton, Texas.
- Burial of John B. Denton, Photograph, November 21, 1901; digital image, (http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth12603/ : accessed July 15, 2013), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, http://texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Denton Public Library, Denton, Texas.