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Texas | Columns | "Cannonball's Tales"

The Devil's Own Lodging House

By W. T. Block, Jr.

Stories about the old Goodnight and Chisholm Trails have so dominated the writings of Western Americana that even Texans have forgotten that their first great cattle drives ended up at New Orleans rather than Abilene or Dodge City, Kansas.

When the Spanish viceroy lifted a trade ban between Texas and Spanish Louisiana in 1778, a New Orleans-bound cattle drive of 2,000 steers, driven by Francisco Garcia, left San Antonio in 1779, the first drive of record along the unsung Opelousas Trail. By the mid-1850s, more than 40,000 Texas Longhorns were being driven annually across Louisiana, and no one welcomed the cattle drovers more enthusiastically than did Thomas Denman Yocum, Esq., of Pine Island settlement in Southeast Texas.

The first Anglo rancher along the Opelousas Trail was James Taylor White, who by 1840 owned a herd of 10,000. In 1818 he settled at Turtle Bayou, near Anahuac in Spanish Texas, and he was a contemporary of Jean Lafitte, whose pirate stronghold was on neighboring Galveston Island. By 1840, White had driven many large herds over the lonely trail, and a decade later, had more than $150,000 in gold banked in New Orleans, the proceeds of his cattle sales.

By 1824 there were others from Stephen F. Austin's colony, between the Brazos and Colorado Rivers, who joined White in the long trail drives, and a favorite stopover was Yocum's Inn, where the welcome mat was always out and the grub was always tasty and hot.

Thomas Yocum settled on a Mexican land grant on Pine Island Bayou, the south boundary of the Big Thicket of Southeast Texas, around 1830. It was then a virgin, sparsely-settled region of prairies, pine barrens, and thickets, and any settler living within ten miles was considered a neighbor. The deep, navigable stream, 100 feet wide and 75 miles long, was a tributary of the Neches River and had already attracted ten or more pioneers who also held land grants from the Mexican government. Often they heard the pound of hoofs and bellowing of thirsty herds, bound for the cattle crossing over the Neches at Beaumont. There were more than thirty streams which intersected the trail and which had to be forded or swum in the course of travel. And always Yocum rode out at the first sound of the herds and invited the drovers to quench their thirst and satisfy their hunger at the Inn.

Some people who stopped at the Inn were headed west. Sometimes they were new immigrants driving small herds into Texas. Some, like Arsene LeBleu, one of Jean Lafitte's former ship captains, were Louisiana cattle buyers carrying money belts filled with gold coins, and were en route to White's Ranch or elsewhere to buy cattle. The popularity of Yocum's Inn spread far and wide. Its genial host soon became the postmaster of Pine Island settlement under the old Texas Republic, supervised the local elections, served on juries, and was widely respected by his neighbors and travelers alike.

Yocum acquired much land and many slaves, and by 1839 his herd of l500 heads of cattle was the fourth largest in Jefferson County. While other settlers rode the wiry Creole, or mustang-size, ponies of a type common to Southwest Louisiana, Yocum's stable of thirty horses were stock of the finest American breeds, and his family drove about in an elegant carriage.

A gentleman's life, however, held no attraction for Squire Yocum, a man who literally was nursed almost from the cradle on murder and rapine, and for many years Yocum's Inn was actually a den of robbers and killers. What is the most startling is the fact that Yocum was able to camouflage his activities for more than a decade, maintaining an aura of respectability while simultaneously committing the worst of villainies, with a murderous band of cutthroats unequaled in the history of East Texas.

How Yocum could accomplish this since he used no alias, is unexplainable, for he, his brothers, his father, and his sons were known from Texas to Mississippi as killers, slave-stealers, and robbers. If any neighbor suspected that something at Yocum's Inn was amiss, he either feared for his life or was a member of the gang.

One account, written by Philip Paxton in 1853, observed that Yocum, "knowing the advantages of a good character at home, soon by his liberality, apparent good humor, and obliging disposition, succeeded in ingratiating himself with the few settlers."

Squire Yocum was born in Kentucky around 1796. As a fourteen-year-old, he cut his criminal eyeteeth with his father and brothers in the infamous John A. Murrell gang who robbed travelers along the Natchez Trace in western Mississippi. At first Murrell was reputed to be an Abolitionist who liberated slaves and channeled them along an "underground railroad" to freedom in the North. Actually, his gang kidnapped slaves, later selling them to the sugar cane planters of Louisiana.

Murrell soon graduated to pillage and murder, but slave-stealing remained a favorite activity of the Yocum brothers, and on one occasion two of them, while returning to Louisiana with stolen horses and slaves, were caught and hanged in East Texas.

When law enforcement in western Mississippi threatened to encircle them, the Yocums fled first to Bayou Plaquemine Brule, near Churchpoint, Louisiana, then in 1815 to the Neutral Strip of Louisiana, located between the Sabine and Calcasieu Rivers. Until 1821 the Strip knew no law enforcement and military occupation, and hence became a notorious robbers' roost for the outcasts of both Spanish Texas and the State of Louisiana.

In the Land Office Register of 1824, T. D. Yocum, his father, and two brothers were listed as claiming land grants in the Neutral Strip; and during the 1820s, according to the Colorado "Gazette and Advertiser" of Oct. 31, 1841, Yocum's father was tried several times for murder at Natchitoches, La., and bought acquittal on every occasion with hired witnesses and perjured testimony.

By 1824, Squire Yocum, once again feeling the pinch of civilization, had moved on to the Mexican District of Atascosita in Texas. He lived for awhile in the vicinity of Liberty on the Trinity River. Writing about him in 1830, Matthew White, the Liberty alcalde, notified Stephen F. Austin that Yocum was one of two men who allegedly had killed a male slave and kidnapped his family, and as a result "were driven across the Sabine and their houses burned." But Yocum was not about to remain so close to the hangman's noose and the fingertips of sheriffs and U. S. marshals. And he soon took his family and slaves to the Pine Island Bayou region where he built his infamous Inn. Having acquired some wealth and affluence by 1835, the old killer and slave stealer could become more selective with his victims.

Among the many travelers along the dusty Opelousas Trail, the eastbound cattleman often stayed at Yocum's Inn and left praising the owner's hospitality. And of course the genial proprietor always invited him to stop over on his return journey. It was the westbound Louisiana cattle buyer and the Texas rancher who had already delivered his herd in New Orleans whose lives were in danger. Usually drovers paid off and dismissed their hands in New Orleans. Texas cattlemen often traveled alone on the return trip, and if any of them lodged at Yocum's Inn, a bulging waist line, which usually denoted a fat money belt of gold coins, virtually signaled his demise. The drover's bones were left to bleach in the Big Thicket, at the bottom of the innkeeper's well, or in the alligator slough.

In East Texas, Squire Yocum's crimes spawned more legends, many of them about his buried loot, than any other man except Jean Lafitte. And every legend tells the story differently. One relates that a Texas rancher was backtracking a missing brother, who was overdue from a New Orleans cattle drive, and stopped at Yocum's Inn to make inquiries. A Yocum cohort informed the rancher that no one had seen the missing brother on his return trip; then suddenly the missing brother's dog rounded a corner of the Inn. Glancing elsewhere about the premises, the rancher recognized his brother's expensive saddle resting on a nearby fence. When the conversation became heated, Yocum's partner grabbed for a shotgun, but the rancher fired first and killed him. As told in the legend, Yocum overheard the conversation and accusations from a distance, and quickly fled into the Big Thicket.

Another legend tells of a foreigner who was carrying a grind organ and a monkey with him when he rode his big gray stallion to Yocum's Inn in search of a night's lodging. Earlier the stranger had played the hand organ for some children who lived nearby and who had given him directions to reach the Inn. The story adds that Yocum traded horses with the foreigner during his stay. When the children later found a battered hand organ abandoned beside the trail, there was little doubt about the foreigner's fate.

There are many early records, written at the time of Yocum's demise, which chronicle the innkeeper's death, but they sometimes conflict. The longest of them was written by Philip Paxton in 1853, and his account of how Yocum's misdeeds were exposed appears to be the most plausible. {{Indeed, his account is deadly accurate. See sources at end}} Paxton claimed that a man named (Seth) Carey, who owned a farm on Cedar Bayou near Houston, had killed a neighbor during a quarrel over a dog and fled to Yocum for asylum. It was agreed that Yocum would receive power of attorney to sell Carey's land grant and that Yocum would forward the proceeds of the sale to Carey in Louisiana. A gang member, however, told Carey that he had no chance of escaping to Lousiana. Yocum planned to pocket the proceeds of the sale and, besides, Carey had wandered upon some skeletons in a Pine Island thicket and thus had learned "too many and too dangerous secrets" about the murder ring at Yocum's Inn.

The earliest published account, which appeared in the San Augustine "Redlander" of Sept. 30, 1841, stated that Yocum was killed by the "Regulators of Jefferson County who were determined to expel from their county all persons of suspicious or bad character." The newspaper chided the vigilantes for killing Yocum and not allowing him the due process of law and a speedy trial. But the editor conceded that Yocum had a notorious record in Louisiana "as a Negro and horse stealer, repeatedly arrested for those crimes."

Three other accounts, however, two in the Houston papers of that era and another in the "Colorado Gazette and Advertiser," published at Matagorda, Texas, alleged that "Thomas Yocum, a notorious villain and murderer, who resided at the Pine Islands near the Neches River, has been killed by the citizens of Jasper and Liberty Counties . . . ."

"Yocum has lived in Texas twenty years and has committed as many murders to rob his victims. The people could bear him no longer so 150 citizens gathered and burned his premises and shot him. They have cleared his gang out of the neighborhood," thus putting an end to the Pine Island postmaster, his gang, and his Inn. Of course, only Yocum could reveal the true number of murder notches on his gun, which may have reached as many as fifty.

According to Paxton, the Regulators found the bones of victims in Yocum's well, in the neighboring thickets, in the "alligator slough," and even out on the prairie. They then burned Yocum's Inn, the stables and furniture, but allowed his wife, children, and slaves a few days to leave the county. The posse trailed the killers into the Big Thicket and eventually caught up with Yocum on Spring Creek in Montgomery County. No longer willing to trust a Yocum's fate to the whims of any jury, the vigilantes gave the old murderer thirty minutes to square his misdeeds with his Maker, and then they "shot him through the heart" five times.

Paxton also reported that "not one of Yocum's family had met with a natural death." Little is known of the fate of Yocum's sons other than Christopher, who in 1836 who had been mustered into Captain Franklin Hardin's company at Liberty, and who had served honorably and with distinction for one year in the Texas Army. Chris, whom many believed to be "the best of the Yocums," may not have been implicated in the murder ring at all, but he fled, leaving his young wife behind, perhaps because of the stigma that his surname carried and the public anger that was then rampant.

Believing that the public clamor for revenge had died down after a span of four months, Chris Yocum returned to Beaumont, Texas, one night in January 1842. Sheriff West, although he had no specific crimes to charge him with, was aware that a thirst for retribution still lingered and he arrested young Yocum for his own protection. Jefferson County's "Criminal Docket Book, 1839-1851" reveals that Chris was lodged in the county's log house jail on the afternoon of Jan. 15, 1842. What the book does not reveal is the fact that young Yocum faced Judge Lynch and an unsummoned jury of Regulators on the same night. The following morning West found him swinging from a limb of an oak tree on the courthouse lawn, with a ten-penny nail driven into the base of his skull.

During the second administration of Sam Houston as president of the Texas Republic, there were many excesses and assassinations, principally in Shelby County in East Texas, attributed to vigilante bands, who called themselves "Regulators." On Jan. 31, 1842, he issued a proclamation, ordering all district attorneys to prosecute the Regulators stringently for any offense committed by them. The proclamation began as follows: "Whereas . . . . certain individuals . . . have murdered one Thomas D. Yocum, burned his late residence and appurtenances, and driven his widow and children from their homes . . . ."

Whether or not President Houston's paper might have been worded somewhat differently if the chief executive had been forced to witness the bleached bones in Yocum's well or to bury some of the skeletons out on the prairie is, of course, another question.

Almost from the date of T. D. Yocum's death, legends began to circulate concerning the murderer's hoard of stolen treasure, because the vigilantes knew that neither the old robber nor any member of his family had had time to excavate it before they were driven from the county. Some of them thought that only Yocum and one of his slaves actually knew where the loot was hidden. Others claimed that Chris Yocum knew where the treasure site was, and that one of the reasons for his returning to Beaumont was to dig up the gold so that he and his young wife could start life anew somewhere under an assumed name. For years treasure hunters dug holes along the banks of Cotton and Byrd Creeks, and decades later sinks and mounds in the Pine Island vicinity were said to be the remains of those excavations.

Time passed, the Civil War was fought, and the Yocum episode became only a dim memory in the minds of the early settlers. Finally it was an elderly black woman in Beaumont who triggered the second search for Yocum's gold. She told her grandchildren that about 1840 she was a young slave girl who belonged to the owner of a plantation in the vicinity of Yocum's Inn. One day whe was picking blackberries when she heard voices nearby. She moved ahead along the banks of a creek until she finally spotted Yocum and one of his young slaves at a low spot or crevice in the creek bank. Both of them were busy backfilling a hole in the ground.

As a result of the old lady's story, another network of pot holes were dug up and down the banks of Byrd and Cotton Creeks. And once or twice a stranger appeared who claimed to have a map drawn by someone who said he was formerly Yocum's slave. But if anyone ever found the treasure, that fact was never made public, and one writer claims it is still there awaiting the shovel that strikes it first. Maybe so, but gold hunters usually don't print their findings in newspapers. And they, like buccaneers, ain't especially noted for their wagging tongues either.

W. T. Block, Jr.
"Cannonball's Tales" April 5, 2006 column

Reprinted from FRONTIER TIMES, January, 1978, p. 10ff; also note all sources in footnotes of Block, HISTORY OF JEFFERSON COUNTY, TEXAS, etc. p. 78. The best source is Seth Carey's memoirs, "Tale of a Texas Veteran," Galveston DAILY NEWS, Sept. 21, 1879, as reprinted in Block, EMERALD OF THE NECHES, pp. 158-163, at Lamar University and Tyrrell Libraries. Many other writings of recent vintage are pure fiction.

See also:
Seth Carey's Escape from the Murderous Yocum Gang by W. T. Block

"Just another fly caught up in Yocum's web of murder and intrigue, Carey not only survived his slated assassination and dismemberment in Yocum's alligator slough, but he lived instead to finger the gang and account for its destruction."

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