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Melungeons in
Wizard Wells, Texas

One Hundred-Year-Old Secret Revealed

by Caroll Osburn Zerkle

It's 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 was unspeakable.

Melungeon family
The Osburn Family
(Click photo for larger image)

John and Martha Osburn Eva, Mary Ann "Polly" and James ("Jim") held by father

Photo courtesy Caroll Osburn Zerkle

A 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 Decatur, Wise County.

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 (Lavaca County).

Eva, now 27, John, aged 19, and Victor, 17, are living out west in Lamesa, Dawson 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 day.

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, my cousins.

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 the graves.

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 Wells, Texas.

Many books about Melungeons have been written and are available. "Daughter of the Legend" could have been written about my grandparents John and Martha.

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
They Shoe Horses, Don't They? September 4, 2005 Guest Column

See Melungeon-Texans

Recommended Books
My Melungeon Heritage: A Story of Life on Newman's Ridge
Melungeons: Yesterday and Today
The Melungeons: The Resurrection of a Proud People

Related Topics:
Texas History

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