“And welcome to my web,” say I. I shall revisit the Old Spider
in another writeup as I’ve made this first contribution to the Stone
County Web Site too lengthy and can’t afford the space. For the time
being, just know that The Old Spider was a unique teacher, and allow me
to quote myself from the February 10 edition of The Crane Chronicle :
“It seems to me teachers need to be honored more than most, and this is
my own small gesture to that end.” And so it is that I christen my writings
for this web site The Old Spiderweb.
Valentine’s Day 2000 arrives gently this week. Pause and listen to Cupid’s wings aflutter while stepping back in time to hear of a very old romance. Its characters experienced tenderness, caring and passion just as other famous historic lovers. But hardly anyone knows of this old couple.
As I sit in front of my computer, I am ensconced in imagining the time and elements of a long-ago love story whose ending unfolded near the riverfork of the James and Finley Rivers of Stone County, Missouri. Please awaken your own sense of romance and keep an open mind. This is a Valentine’s Day possibility, a wondering of the true meaning of “till death do us part.” A wondering of how two old slaves shared their lives and their love for not just each other, but also for their white master and his family. They have become immortalized as “Uncle Ben and Aunt Belle.” We must keep in mind too that “till death do us part” was not typically spoken when slaves were united. First, they were not usually married in religious ceremonies; second, the “till death do us part” was usually omitted even if they were blessed by a member of the clergy. The reason is obvious: slaves and their offspring were often parted.
I first encountered Ben and Belle Yoachum while snooping through the Ozark County Library in Ozark, Missouri, where I came across an expertly executed term paper from 1965 entitled “Slavery In Christian County” by Marceline McLean. Ms. McLean cast a new light on the existence of slavery in Stone and Christian Counties, drawing on interviews with then-oldtimers whose recollections were alive with detail and drama. For example, she spoke of a slave owner who...”worked his slaves from early morning to late at night without a dinner break at noon. So the slaves would mix up a batter and when dinner time came, they heated their hoes and poured the batter on them to cook. This is where the name ‘hoecake’ originated. As they finished hoeing one row of corn, they would stop and eat a hoecake and drink water.” Though brief, “Slavery In Christian County” is a little treasure chest. (Marceline McLean is today Mrs. Ron Middleton of Nixa, Missouri.)
At the time of discovering Ms. McLean’s term paper, my local history research hobby was in its infancy and, oftentimes, facts and anecdotes did not completely register simply because I had not yet built a frame of reference. Even so, when reading about the “Yoackums” on page 7, my hair stood on end. Ms. McLean wrote this after interviewing Gene Horn of Nixa, now deceased: “Many masters were so good to their slaves that they would stay with them even after they were freed. Negro slave Ben Yoackum and his wife Belle lived with their master, Jake Yoackum, after they were set free. Not until Ben’s wife died and was buried in the Yoackum cemetery did he leave the Yoackum family...”
It seemed that the Old Wall Cemetery in Jamesville now had at least one identifiable slave’s grave thanks to a college term paper that hadn’t really focused on Stone County. I said as much at every opportunity. And I was probably wrong. The cemetery where Belle is buried is undoubtedly the “other” Jamesville Yoachum cemetery, the one across the James River on land owned by Jake Yoachum, son of old George who, with his first wife Alcey, rests in the Old Wall Cemetery. You see, Jake had a cemetery too. Some folks referred to it as “The Old Yoachum Cemetery” and others called it “The Galloway Cemetery”. The Old Yoachum Cemetery is also the likely burial area of a slave mother and babe who died the very day of their sale to Jake in the 1858 slave auction at the riverfork. The auction is where Ben and possibly Belle, whose real name was Isabelle, were sold and perhaps came to know each other for the first time. Perhaps that is where their love story begins. That slave auction gives a glimpse of the loyal Yoachum friend who eventually became Uncle Ben, but for a time was known as “Nigger Ben Yoachum.”
Fay Barnett wrote a captivating article for the Stone County Newspapers’ Centennial Edition in May of 1951 in which she shares memories supplied to her by her grandfather, “Mr. Bader”. The article is entitled “Stone County’s First and Only Slave Auction Was Held at Robertson’s Mill in Early 50s”. Ms. Barnett, now deceased, gives a rare account of her grandfather’s interaction with Ben Yoachum. Ben, named “Sam” before the slave sale, and his brother Bill, who became Nigger Bill Cheer, were both to be sold at the auction posted in the Robertsons’ Mill post office in the Spring of 1858. ( Incidentally, this auction is also referred to in James Bayard Inmon’s must-read family saga and Ozark (fictionalized) history which includes Orphans of the Ozarks and A Pioneer From The Ozarks.) The slave auctioneer was named Cheer, from Tennessee. Mr. Cheer decided to tarry a while in our beautiful riverland, more beautiful then, and set up temporary housekeeping along with the troupe of slaves. During this relaxed period of time, the negro boy Bill witnessed a panther attacking a hunter who had dropped his gun as the big cat pounced. Little Bill picked the gun up, shot the panther and saved the man’s life. Mr. Cheer could not bear to sell the young hero and so it was that Bill traveled with Mr. Cheer to Belleville, Illinois, where he was freed, educated, and raised children who became school teachers. Bill was yet to have an emotional reunion with the brother who had been sold on the auction block. ..
Brother Ben became a Yoachum slave, with fortunes brighter than most, for the Yoachums were kindhearted masters. Decades rolled by. The Civil War came and went. Presumably Ben and Belle married and had a family of their own. Those records are as elusive as the headstones once stationed in the Old Yoachum Cemetery, now scattered and buried themselves.
Otto Sims is a well-known gentleman around this part of the county whose great-grandfather was none other than Jake Yoachum, Ben’s master. Otto recalls how his own father talked about a log cabin shared by Ben and Belle. He says his father remembers seeing Ben but couldn’t remember much about his appearance. To Otto’s father and grandfather, Ben and Belle were a beloved Uncle and Aunt.
Mava Yoachum Faulkner, now living in Oklahoma City, likewise knows very little about Ben and Belle, but speculates that they were less slaves to her ancestors and more so family members. It is a wistful experience to conjure up the image of Belle’s funeral in the old cemetery, with the sound of the James River flowing nearby, just as it does today. What a romantic name she had, “Isabelle”. Had she and Ben held hands and laughed with hearts full of hope once upon a time? Had they embraced one last time before her passing? Next to nothing is known of Belle, only that when she died, Ben moved from the only home he apparently had ever known. Ray Faulkner, Mava’s husband, is certain that he has an article clipping which mentions a Ben Yoachum working as a janitor in the Ozark, Missouri, courthouse; but, Ray couldn’t put his hands on that clipping in time for this writeup.
According to some accounts Ben is buried in Ozark, Missouri. Mabel Phillips is the best resource the Ozark County Library has going and suggested that Ben might be buried in the cemetery behind the Baptist Church on 14 Highway which runs through Ozark. (I’m like Ray Faulkner now and can’t put my hands on the name of that cemetery, but this story must go on...) Mabel says there’s a fence that separates the black cemetery from the parking lot so churchgoers won’t unwittingly traipse over the graves of forgotten souls. I’ve not had time to visit that great place of history, but have seen the fence when driving through town. Perhaps Ben rests there.
The reunion of Ben and his brother Bill will hopefully bring a smile in ending this Valentine for an old slave couple. Back to Mr. Bader and Belleville, Illinois... Folks from Belleville visited relatives in Jamesville sometime around the turn of the century. We don’t know which relatives, only that they did. Mr. Bader then had occasion to visit Belleville where he heard the same legend of a negro boy killing a panther that had become famous in Robertsons’ Mill which later became Jamesville. Upon returning to Jamesville, he repeated the story to Uncle Ben Yoachum who exclaimed, “Well praise de Lawd! Dat am me brudder I ain’t seed fer 50 years!” Ben traveled to Illinois that Fall and returned home in the Spring. He died shortly afterwards.
If you are a reader who has, per chance, done Yoachum research, your mind may now be tracking to another old slave named Ben Yoachum. That Ben is mentioned in The Turnbo Manuscripts by Silas Turnbo in a story entitled “The Last Hours of Mike Yocum”. That Ben had an ear bitten off by an Indian when he and Mike had been held captives by the Indians. However, the geography, time and Yoachum family branch don’t add up to that Ben Yoachum being Uncle Ben of Robertsons’ Mill. That Ben Yoachum is another story...
Researching a story as old as this one is a little like trying to catch sunbeams. Hence the abundance of “probably’s”, “apparently’s”, “most likely’s” and “perhap’s”. If you possess any information to further this story along, please share. Meanwhile, think fondly on Ben and Belle, for their spirits and love live on. Happy Valentine’s Day, Ben and Belle!