The three graves of John B. Denton

Posted: August 21, 2011 in Denton History, Haunted Happenings

No actual photographs or illustrations exist of John B. Denton. This artist’s representation first appears in _Border Wars of Texas_, James T. DeShields, Herald Publishing, Tioga, page 357, 1912.

Denton County and its county seat, the city of Denton, were named for John B. Denton, a Methodist circuit preacher and frontier lawyer who was killed in an Indian battle at Village Creek in 1841. Few verified accounts of John B. Denton exist, and even those are often highly romanticized. All agree that he was an eloquent speaker and beloved community leader who left an indelible mark on North Texas.

As more settlers migrated to the frontier, the Republic of Texas relied primarily on volunteer militias to patrol the populated areas spread out across open range. In 1839, Denton answered the call and was commissioned captain of a company in Brig. Gen. Edward H. Tarrant’s Fourth Brigade, Texas Militia. In 1840, Denton lost a bid for Texas Congress but he was made famous in his campaign, beloved by children, respected by elders, and admired by acquaintances. In April 1841 the Ripley family south of his Clarksville homestead was attacked and killed by a horse-rustling party of Indians, so the volunteer Texas militia was tasked with finding the raiders. Denton rallied his Texas Rangers.

By May, Tarrant’s 4th Brigade of Texas rangers led by company commander Capt. James Bourland left Fannin County to find the Indian villages and recover the livestock. Capt. Denton served as an aide to Gen. Tarrant, commanding a detachment of scouts with Henry Stout. On May 24, 1841, the men located a group of Cherokee and Caddo Indian villages along Keechi Village Creek (not far from present-day boundaries between Arlington and Ft. Worth). The scouts reconnoitered the first two villages with little effort, but were met with gunfire at the third. Denton and Stout had split into separate units to scout out the area, each surveying a different route. When their paths converged, Stout stopped but the fiery-tempered Denton charged ahead to boldly engage the encampment.  A fire-fight ensued, wounding Stout but killing Captain Denton almost immediately.  The unit quickly withdrew with the injured Stout but a group later returned to recover Denton’s body. Learning that the Keechi villages contained over a thousand men, now alerted to their presence, Tarrant called the retreat. The fleeing brigade buried Denton’s body under a tree beside the creek as they hastily crossed into what would become Denton County, later so named in honor of the fallen hero.

Yet the story of John B. Denton does not end with the Battle of Village Creek. When a grave was discovered by some boys along Oliver Creek in Denton County in 1856, Denton County rancher John Chisum (who would become a legendary cattleman and one namesake of the famed “Chisholm Trail“) recalled the stories of Denton’s death and burial told to him by his father Clabe, also a member of Denton’s Texas militia company. Chisum investigated with some survivors of the raid, who identified the bones by the blanket they were wrapped in, an old broken arm, and some gold teeth. Chisum took the remains back to his home and kept it in a box hoping a family member would claim it but meanwhile buried Denton’s bones in a corner of the yard near his house. When Chisum sold his property to J.M. Waide years later, he left a written account authenticating the grave with his friend J. W. Gober.

By 1900, the Old Settler’s Association of Denton County wanted to bury John B. Denton in the town that proudly bears his name. They placed an advertisement in the paper which John Gober answered, producing the letter written by Chisum authenticating the remains. The body of Captain Denton was exhumed once again and buried during a large ceremony on the southeast corner of the Denton County Courthouse lawn on November 21, 1901. Over the years, there have been numerous accounts of a rifle-brandishing shadowy figure with a cowboy hat and pioneer-era garb wandering about the Square or peering down from the upper floors of the courthouse. Does the restless spirit of John B. Denton still wander the streets of his namesake community, doomed to forever roam between his three graves?

Burial of John B. Denton, Photograph, November 21, 1901; Denton Public Library, Denton, Texas.

  1. Doc says:

    By Edmond Franklin Bates
    Secretary Old Settlers and Veterans Association of Denton County
    (Denton, TX: McNitzky Printing Company, 1918)

    The Elm Flats Valley was the first sight of immigrant settlers arriving to Denton County, where “great herds of buffalo could be seen grazing upon grass, often knee-high and glittering in the sunlight as it was lashed into waves like the rolling waves of the sea. Deer in bunches were visible as far as the eye could reach; turkeys and prairie chickens everywhere. The turkeys at night would almost cover the timber on the creeks and the wild chickens could be seen flying in droves a mile long, and would have to be minded off of sown wheat until it could be plowed in. Small creeks had large holes of water filled with fish. (The holes are all filled with mud now.) Bee trees could be found filled with wild honey. Wild grapevines covered the trees and brush in the brakes all up and down the ridge with various kinds, from the mustang grape down to the little fox grape which ripened about frost and was very sweet. Persimmon orchards were filled with the finest fruits, from which we had ‘persimmon bread’ and ‘persimmon beer.’ Plum thickets abounded with the finest red Chickasaw and yellow Chickasaw plum, which would cover three or four acres at a place. Just north of Cottonwood branch, one-half mile north of present town of Frisco, there were over one hundred acres covered almost solidly with a wild plum orchard. This was a great attraction to the immigrant, as the fruit served as food to man, fowl, and animal. There were in good supply pecans, hickory nuts, walnuts, and several varieties of acorns, and the red and black haws. Above all, there was here the finest soil in the Republic of Texas, including many varieties, a fact now demonstrated, but then only partially known by wild growths.

    This was the attraction that the Great Jehovah spread out before the immigrant like a feast of fat things to induce him to come and to welcome his coming. The Indian called it his ‘happy hunting ground’ and stubbornly refused to give it up. The immigrant regarded it as the promised land, flowing with milk and honey – promised to him by the Republic of Texas through the agency of the Peters Colony in blocks of 640 acres to the family, free. This constituted the inducement to settle.

    …Here, then, he was outside the pale of civilization, beyond the power of the government to adequately protect him and his family, liable at any time to be killed and scalped by the wild Indian. But here the most fearless and hardy immigrant settled… Many hardships awaited him, too numerous for the present citizen to conceive of; But these hardships entered into and constituted the real life of the pioneer of Denton County…” (pp. 10-11)

  2. Gerri Mathes says:

    Wow! Thank you! I always wanted to write on my website something like that. Can I implement a fragment of your post to my blog?

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