Oakwood Cemetery: Gleaning snippets of history from headstones

At the urging of President Mirabeau B. Lamar*, the Congress of the Republic of Texas selected a site on the Colorado River to serve as the country’s capital. In October of 1839, the government was loaded into oxcarts and moved to a site bounded by Shoal Creek and Waller Creek and newly named in honor of Stephen F. Austin.

William H. Sandusky’s 1840 map of the new capital, Austin, indicates a square plot of land dedicated for use as a cemetery. Texas General Land Office collection.

By January 1840, the population swelled to 839, and the need for a cemetery was obvious. The original core of what would later become known as Oakwood Cemetery is marked on the right of the map above.

As the city grew, so did its first major cemetery. A chapel, designed by architect Charles Henry Page (1876-1957), was added to the grounds in 1914. Page was the son of an English-born stonemason who moved to Austin to work on the Texas State Capitol.

There are now more than 23,000 occupants “sleeping” peacefully in Oakwood Cemetery, entered at 1601 Navasota Street. The shapshots in this post were selected haphazardly during our wanderings on a sizzling summer day but should nevertheless serve as a suitable introduction to a small sampling of Austin’s earlier residents.

Mary Wade Henderson Chalmers (1809-1851) and John Gordon Chalmers (1803-1847)

Alas, poor Dr. John Chalmers became an early plot-holder when he “was snatched from his family” at age 46, according to an 1847 edition of The Austin New Era. Born in Virginia and educated at the University of North Carolina and the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, the doctor moved to Texas in 1840. Chalmers had served as Secretary of the Treasury under President Lamar and was just taking charge of the editorial department of the New Era. On his way home, he encountered Joshua Holden in the middle of the street with major signs of intoxication. The doctor attempted to escort Holden to his residence, when the drunk turned belligerent and struck his would-be savior in the temple with his Bowie knife. The blow proved fatal.

Thomas Green (1814-1864)

Virginia-born Tom Green arrived in Texas in time to help man the “twin sisters” cannon during the Battle of San Jacinto. He married one of Mary and John Chalmers’ daughters, Mary Wallace Chalmers (1828-1866), and was clerk of the Texas Supreme Court prior to the outbreak of the Civil War. His leadership skills led to his promotion to Brigadier General in command of Texas Confederate forces toward the end of the war. The Red River was low and narrow at Blair’s Landing in Louisiana in April 1864, making the Union’s ironclad gunboats appear vulnerable. But Federal sharpshooters were hidden and poised to fire on the opposite bank when General Green led the charge. Gunboat cannon fired, and bullets rained down on the Confederates. Union forces lost seven men; Confederates lost 200, General Green among them.

A native of Kentucky, George Washington Glasscock (1810-1868) was a First Lieutenant in the Black Hawk War, with Abraham Lincoln under his command. In 1832, the pair formed a partnership for flatboating freight on the Sangamon River. Restless though, Glasscock headed for Texas in 1835 in time to join in the Texas Revolution. He married Cynthia C. Knight in 1837 and began wheat farming. To accommodate his crop and others, he built a grist mill. Glasscock became one of the ten wealthiest men in Texas, donating 172 spare acres of his property to found Georgetown. A county bears his name.

But of particular interest is the keystone in the arch of their shared headstone. The clasped hands indicate their marital bonds and the couple’s reunification in heaven. But the mysterious initials – H T W S S T K S? According to author Tui Snider, they represent an acronym associated with Royal Arch Masons: “Hiram, Tyrian, Widow’s Son, Sent to King Solomon.” According to Wikipedia (sorry), Hiram Abiff is the central character of an allegory presented to all third-degree Masons. “The chief architect of King Solomon’s Temple is murdered inside this temple by three ruffians, after they failed to obtain from him the Master Masons’ secret passwords. The themes of the allegory are the importance of fidelity and the certainty of death.”

Will Henry Cushney (1850-1875)

“A light from our household is gone. A voice we love is stilled. A place is vacant in our heart that never can be filled.” Those words express a young widow’s mourning for Will Cushney, the son of a printer and founder of Local 28 Typographers Union. He survived a several month stint as a Texas Ranger in 1870, but somehow death overcame him while on a trip to Covington, Louisiana. The pointing finger clearly indicates his arrival in heaven. The letters F L T linked together in a chain stand for friendship, love and truth – a motto of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows.

College Hill on the top left of the map above is surrounded by property owned by Louis Horst. Born in Germany, he and his wife Margarette first landed in New Orleans in the 1830s. The butcher settled in Austin, and most of his former plantation is now home to the University of Texas.

Alexander Bulfinch Coggeshall (1843-1881)

Born in Massachusetts, Captain A.B. Coggeshall commanded the 14th Regiment of the United States Colored Infantry during the Civil War. These federal qualifications left him prime for governmental appointments upon his arrival in Texas, serving as the agent of the Freedman’s Bureau in Hempstead. He was postmaster in Austin and then in Hempstead, until he was declared a defaulter on a debt and relieved of duty. In 1879 he operated a warehouse and storage facility in Fort Worth that made advances on cotton, wool hides and grain. At the time of his death, he was the traveling agent/reporter for the Houston Post.

Originally from Amsterdam, Louis Eilers married Caroline Johnson from New York and opened a store in Bastrop in 1853. When his business was destroyed by a fire in the midst of the Civil war, he tried restocking in Matamoras, Mexico, only to have all of his goods confiscated.

John Lawrence Buaas, a sea captain from Norway, sold his ship upon arrival in Galveston. He made his way to New Braunfels and married Helena Bastian. They moved to Austin in 1839. Buaas met with enough success to erect a handsome, two-story, cut-limestone, Italianate structure to house his mercantile business. The 1875 building still stands on East Sixth.

The horse of Colorado Fire Company No. 2 was draped with emblems of mourning after its president unexpectedly died, possibly in the line of duty, in May 1884. Among those gathered at the home of William Edgar Parker on Bois d’Arc and East Avenue were all 130 members of the fire department, 20 Knights of Honor and 25 members of the Milam Lodge of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, according to the Austin Statesman. Their symbols adorn his headstone, with a heart in hand representing his charitable nature. But this heart is placed upside down. Perhaps that symbolizes his sudden unexpected departure?

James H. Bell was born in Austin’s Colony before the Texas Revolution at Bell’s Landing, now Columbia. He once served as Secretary of State and was an associate justice of the Texas Supreme Court.

Annie Webb Blanton was a breaker of the proverbial glass ceiling. In 1916 she became the first woman elected president of the Texas State Teachers Association, but, even more impressively, in 1918 she became the first woman elected to a public office in the State of Texas – State Superintendent of Public Instruction. She was a founder of the Delta Kappa Gamma Society, which is dedicated to the professional and personal growth of women educators and excellence in education. In 1933, she advanced to the role of Professor of Rural Education at the University of Texas.

Former Governor James Stephen Hogg (1851-1906) and daughter, Ima Hogg (1882-1975)

When elected in 1881, James Stephen Hogg became the first native-born Texas to become governor. The wealthy man was on a business trip traveling between Anchor in Brazoria to Houston. His train car was stopped to allow switching of tracks when a heavily loaded freight car slammed against the passenger car. A $100,000 lawsuit Hogg filed against the International and Great Northern Railway claimed his neck was wrenched and twisted so severely that he was attacked by a violent chill and near convulsions. All his tissues and organs became “saturated with an unnatural collection of water.” His failure to recover from the injuries led to his 1906 death.

Upon Hogg’s death in 1906, the Austin Statesman reported the former governor said he did not want: “any cold marble placed at the head of the grave. I want a soft-shelled Texas pecan tree placed there, and at the foot a regular walnut, and when they bear fruit I want the nuts sent out to the farmers of Texas that they may plant, and they will do it.”

Whoever commissioned his obelisk failed to take note of that request, and the closest tree appears to be a live oak. Instead of a walnut tree at his foot, the daughter cursed with a name that always sent schoolchildren snickering yet blessed with a major inheritance – Ima Hogg – rests there. Ima proved a major Texas philanthropist. Among her credits are the establishment of the Houston Museum of Fine Arts and the gift to the state of the Varner-Hogg Plantation. Still globe-trotting in her nineties, she died from injuries suffered during a traffic accident in London.

George Washington Littlefield (1842-1920)

Not sure George Washington Littlefield ended up with his chosen gravesite exactly as he planned either. The marker is prominently placed on the northern side of the cemetery, an address on 11th street which led westward toward the university he cherished. The former major of the Confederacy fretted his entire life about preserving the southern way of life and the system of values he felt it contained. After amassing a fortune from cattle ranching, Littlefield donated more to the University of Texas than any other individual during its first 50 years of existence. Several of his contributions had strings attached, such as his insistence the university remain across the street from his home instead of moving to land donated by San Antonian George Brackenridge. In order to ensure students did not fall under the influence of professors educated in the north, Littlefield established a major fund to support and promote Southern History portrayed in the fashion he deemed accurate. His spirit might not rest as comfortably now that the address of his gravesite was changed to Martin Luther King Drive.

Andrew Jackson Zilker (1858-1934)

On the other hand, Andrew Jackson Zilker, whose background is related in an earlier post, probably remains satisfied with the location of his family plot. It faces the Main Street of the cemetery, a street providing a splendid protected view of the dome of the Texas State Capitol, where the flags flew at half-mast when he died.

The blogger leaves you to make your own acquaintance with the cemetery’s thousands of other residents and recommends doing so on a cool fall day.

*Mirabeau Buonaparte Lamar (1798-1859) is the Mister’s fourth great uncle.

Note added on June 23, 2021: A Man Absolutely Sure of Himself: Texan George Littlefield by David B. Gracy, II, explains the positioning of Littlefield’s monument in the cemetery: “After Austin’s original burying ground was enlarged, the Major in his prime of life in 1899 took the occasion to acquire half of the summit of Oakwood Cemetery’s highest hill. As his time on earth grew short, he earmarked an astounding $40,000 and sketches drawn for the monument to distinguish the plot and the markers for the graves in it. So great was George Littlefield’s grandest monument… that delivering the 30,000-pound outsized base slab from the railroad… required a special four-axle wagon pulled by four teams…. Rather than use Texas pink, the Major obtained (Confederate) gray granite from Vermont. And most significant of all, he specified that, different from almost all the others in the memorial park sited in the traditional east-west orientation, the graves on his plot were laid out north-south, feet to the north.” (Zilker elected the same orientation.)

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