Laying to Rest Some Myths - Or Not
Bonham Daily Favorite, January 1, 1995
Myth: The Oxford Companion to the English Language defines myth as " a culturally significant story or explanation of how things came to be. As such, myth is opposed to history in that it is usually fabulous in content even when loosely based on historical events."
I once had a professor of literature who spent the first two weeks of his course requiring the class to immerse themselves in the mythology of many people. His contention was that to understand a people, their history, their literature, their ethos, one must know and understand their mythology. All cultures abound with mythical tales and the culture of Fannin County from its nineteenth century founding has often repeated myths. Some of these are better known than others but all have the same characteristic; they exist with little or no documented support.
Today's column will look at some of these Fannin County myths. A closer examination will perhaps help to understand why some of these tales have lasted and are perpetuated by each generation and why some have surfaced, been examined, and then discarded or rewritten for a particular time and piace.
Sometimes there are circumstances or happenings that one can easily see becoming a part of the folklore and retelling of a favored story. Frequently these occurrences mesh neatly into the elements of a story and as such become stated as fact. Most Fannin County myths are historic in nature although in more modern times we come across economic myths, stories of why a community lost out on the construction of a railroad, or why a particular business/industry was kept out of the town. Today we shall deal with those historic myths.
Myth No. 1: John Wesley Hardin. Actually we have three separate myths to deal with when discussing the life and times of notorious Texas gunslinger, Hardin. The first of these myths is possibly attributable to Hardin himself.
"I was born in Bonham, Fannin County, Texas on the 26th of May, 1853. My father, J.G. Hardin, was a Methodist preacher and circuit rider." John Wesley Hardin's purported autobiography opens with these two statements. I use the phrase "purported autobiography" to deal with the contention by many writers on the gunfighter era that Hardin could not have written this account of his life.
The major argument against Hardin's authorship is his lack of an extensive education. True, Hardin had completed a limited education by the time he was fifteen and the account of his life seems much too polished for someone of this background. What the disagreers fail to take into consideration is that Hardin continued to study while he was imprisoned and spent many hours devoted to reading law, with the result that after his release from prison he was able to pass the Texas bar exam. How difficult such an exam was in the latter years of the nineteenth century I have no idea but his accomplishment must be considered.
The exact location of his birthplace, however, does not stand up to the available evidence. Hardin, probably like many another celebrity, took liberty with the facts and recognizing that a rural birthplace was less than exciting, chose the nearest town for the site of his entry into the world. The facts are that Hardin was most likely born near where the town of Randolph now stands.
On November 1, 1852, the Rev. J.G. Hardin purchased a tract of land consisting of 100 acres from Joseph Hoffman. The tract was part of a 300 acre site from the Thomas Lindsey survey previously bought by Hoffman. Further description of the Hardin purchase indicates the site to be located on a branch of Bois d'Arc Creek known as the Blair Springs Branch. Six months later John Wesley Hardin was born .
Records of the Methodist Church show that the Rev. J.G. Hardin served churches in the western section of Fannin County during the 1850's. Tax records of Fannin County show that this 100 acre plot was the only land ever owned by Hardin during his stay in Fannin County. In 1859 when the Rev. Hardin moved his family, including 6 year old John Wesley, south to Polk County, he sold his homestead southeast of Bonham to H.R. Pinnell, excluding "the 1/2 acre of land deeded to the Methodist Episcopal Church."
The evidence then seems to suggest that barring an accident of birth, John Wesley Hardin was born on a little 100 acre farm near the present day town of Randolph (which didn't exist in 1853) where his father had probably constructed a small rural Methodist church as the center for his circuit riding activities.
The second myth surrounding John Wesley Hardin concerns his involvement in a shoot-out on the town square of Bonham. I have heard several persons, Fannin County natives, swear that this story is true and without exception the story teller can vouch for the veracity of the claim because a relative actually witnessed the event and later related it to the story teller.
The gist of the story is that John Wesley Hardin, as a young man, was so indoctrinated with anti-Union feelings and rabid support for the Confederate cause that he hunted down two suspected Union sympathizers and shot them dead on the streets of Bonham.
There is no proof that Hardin ever returned to Fannin County after the family moved to Polk County in 1859. Hardin did have relatives in the area, particularly the Dixons who were related on his mother's side. Hardin never mentions returning to the scenes of his childhood nor have other writers and researchers ever been able to place him here except for a couple of Hollywood types who were not above bending history a little.
The street shoot-out attributed to Hardin actually did happened but Hardin was not a participant. He was not quite twelve years old when Louis L. Harris and his son Cap were killed on the courthouse square of Bonham in the Spring of 1865. The accused killer was a man named Dan Byers who along with a certain elements of the town had long suspected the Harrises of Union sympathies and in a confrontation on the north side of the courthouse the animosities surfaced in a bloody scene leaving the elder Harris dead and his son fatally wounded.
How John Wesley Hardin's name has ever gotten mixed in with this story is a mystery. This is probably the result of a tale being passed from generation to generation with failing memories unable to retain the true facts and instead substituting better known personalities and occurences for the truth.
Next week a look at one other minor Hardin legend along with some other twice told tales of Fannin County.
Fannin County Museum of History
One Main Street, Bonham, Texas