Cleburne Times-Review, Cleburne, TX

Cleburne

February 9, 2010

Seeking respect

American Indian genealogist concerned about burials at Guinn

LaCata Starr Brown wants the residents of Johnson County to right a wrong, and it has nothing to do with her maternal ancestral line, which includes Belle Starr, erstwhile bandit queen of the late 19th century.

Belle was briefly married to Sam Starr, who joined with his bride in rampant horse thievery that landed each in the penitentiary.

Sam was the son of Thomas Starr, who wore a necklace made of earlobes.

Where he obtained the earlobes, you can probably imagine because he was a gun-toting Cherokee who fought for the right to pillage unsuspecting settlers on the Texas-Oklahoma border.

Belle and Sam were wed in the Cherokee Nation on June 5, 1880. They were two peas in a pod.

Both were charged with horse stealing, a federal offense, and Belle received two six-month terms at the House of Correction in Detroit, Mich. In 1886 she was again charged with horse theft.

In 1889, Belle was shot to death at the age of 40. Sam preceded her to the hereafter by three years.

LaCata Starr Brown has turned that historical page.

“My grandfather William Starr changed the spelling of his last name [to Stairs, Staires, or Stair] because he didn’t want the family to have anything to do with Sam Starr and Belle Starr,” said Brown, a Cleburne resident.

Her platform instead involves American Indians and the respect she believes they’ve failed to receive.

According to mostly unsubstantiated folklore, the paved parking lot behind the Guinn Justice Center covers what was once Cleburne’s original burial ground.

Hood County historian Vircy Macatee provided substantiation in the Times-Review on Dec. 21 when discussing the Styron branch of her family.

“William Wallace [Styron] and his family came to Cleburne shortly after the end of the Civil War,” she said. “He operated a meat market on the southwest corner of West Henderson and South Main Street on the courthouse square. They lived on West Chambers Street.

“The family information is that in 1870 — so this would have been before Aug. 2, 1870, when the U.S. census was taken — their 7-year-old son Jordan [Styron, 1863-70] drowned in McAnear Creek on the south side of Cleburne when the creek was up after a heavy rain. He was buried in the Old Cleburne Cemetery [behind the present Guinn building]. In the 1880s the Styron family moved to Glen Rose and then in 1886 they moved to the George’s Creek Community.”

Macatee knew the folklore about Indians and Caucasian settlers being buried together and that the families of the Caucasians supposedly demanded the bodies be reinterred in a new cemetery.

Jordon Styron’s grave was never disturbed, Macatee said.

“So somewhere under those concrete slabs lies a little white boy,” she said. “He was not moved.”

He may or may not be buried with American Indians. Regardless who’s buried there, Brown said, a parking lot should not have been constructed over them.

“It’s desecration,” Brown said. “You wouldn’t want a building on top of your grandmother. I wouldn’t want a building on top of me. This is an ongoing problem we’ve fought for a long time in the Indian community.

“Even if it’s Caucasians or Hispanics buried there, it’s still wrong. People are parking their vehicles on top of bodies.”

County Judge Roger Harmon said officials researched the location of the old cemetery before pouring the cement.

“We graded off that area,” he said. “Lots of times, when you scoop off a top layer of soil, you can see indentations of where graves might have been. We found none. We constructed that little cemetery that honors the people who were buried there. We certainly meant no disrespect to anyone. We went through all the steps we knew to determine whether there were graves still there.”

“George Martin [of Martin’s Funeral Home] told me when I was working on the Mitchell Bend Cemetery to get a welder to take two brazing rods and bend them at a 90-degree angle about six inches from one end,” Macatee said. “Hold the rods, one in each hand, on those six-inch ends about six inches apart. Walk slowly over an area. When you come to an area that has been disturbed [a grave], they will cross. When you cross over the area, they will return to their position of being six inches apart.

“I found several graves that had been lost and was able to identify them on a plat which I included in getting the historical marker. enealogy researchers use this method quite often because the two rods are easy to carry. When I use them they cross in front of me. I understand that with some people, even though the rods are held in front, they will go completely around and cross in the back.

“A person needs to check on a known grave, whether they cross or separate, to determine whether it is the grave of a male or female. Then they can check an unknown grave and know whether a male or female is buried there. Walk across the grave two or three times to be sure that you are getting a good reading. Then walk the length of the grave and you can tell whether it is an adult, a child or an infant.”

Brown, who will give a talk on American Indian genealogy at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Cleburne Public Library, said she’s not questioning anyone’s intentions.

“I tell people, ‘Don’t be offended by what I bring to your attention. I’m not calling you ignorant.’ I’m saying, ‘Let’s re-educate the educators.’ That’s what this is all about.”

Part Cherokee and part Chickasaw, she said she’s not speaking simply for herself.

“I’m speaking for all people, all tribes,” Brown said. “There needs to be some kind of protection. These people need their dignity back.”

Johnson County would not be alone in building atop long-forgotten cemeteries, according to Brown.

“I’m sure there are buildings in Fort Worth on top of graves,” she said. “My grandfather came down from Oklahoma during the cattle rush. He’s buried somewhere along I-35. We don’t know where.”

There are at least two sides to every story, naturally.

“My job for the last 20 years has been to help people understand both sides,” Brown said. “I understand both sides.”

American Indians and Caucasian settlers were not necessarily friends 140 years ago like they are today.

“But aren’t we spending our lifetimes righting the wrongs of the past?” Brown asked. “Indians are still not treated right. Go to a reservation or boarding school and look. All we ask for is some dignity. There are government officials still trying to get our tribes to dissolve. They don’t want us to have our own tribal government.

“The Cherokees have their own country within a country. The Lakota have their own country. Government officials say, ‘Enough is enough. Let’s throw you all in the same melting pot.’ If you put us all into urbanization, then you lose the traditions. It’s all gone.”

Brown said she’s not rushing to judgment.

“I want to research the issue more with the genealogical society. I want to bring it before our Indian community and talk more about it. But wouldn’t [removing the parking lot] make Johnson County and Cleburne look a little bit better, that they’ve honored the first nation that was here?”

Harmon said commissioners have heard the story of the original cemetery from historian Jack Carlton and probably don’t need to hear it again.

“I don’t know what good it would do,” he said. “The parking lot is there. I don’t think we’ll be digging it up. But I will be glad to visit with the lady.”

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