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Women Pioneers of Our County

By Jane Purtle

In 1987 Congress declared the month of March National Women’s History Month.

This recognition signaled an interest in the study of women’s contributions to all aspects of national life. We know of no extensive study of the role women played in the history of Cherokee County. However, local historian Bernard Mayfield outlined for us in a 2001 interview some of his knowledge of prominent women in the county in earlier years.

Helen Kimball Dill, wife of James Dill, came to Nacogdoches around 1800 with her husband from Pennsylvania and Baltimore. In 1802 he applied for a large land grant of four leagues or 20,000 acres. This land lay west of the Angelina River, which would be in the present Cherokee County. When he died in 1824, Helen Dill continued with the request for the land grant. The Mexican government granted the four leagues to her on July 26, 1828. However, she did not develop the land but left it to her three daughters: Delilah, Mary and Helena. Delilah married Joseph Durst, for whom Durst Crossing on the Angelina River was named. Mary Severe inherited the northeast league, and Helena Berryman inherited the southwest league.

These women were not professionals; they were well educated in all the skills of maintaining a home and supporting their husbands in society. They were supposed to know the proper etiquette and have the proper connections socially with other prominent families. Another such woman was Madam John Durst (a brother to Joseph). John owned a great deal of land in Cherokee County and was a trader and industrialist.

A different kind of fame belongs to Narcissus (Mrs. Samuel) Killough, who survived the famous Killough Massacre. With her baby Billy, she and two other women walked all the way from Larissa down the old Salinas Road to Lacy’s Fort near Alto. They were aided by a Cherokee Indian named Little Bean. Mary McKee, who became Mrs. S.R. Erwin, came to Cherokee County with her family in the 1840s and settled at Larissa. The settlers around Larissa came from Lebanon, Tennessee – Cumberland Presbyterians – with good educations. They saw a need for their children to be educated, and Miss McKee agreed to teach a subscription school if they would build her a cabin where she could hold classes.

Later, with the help of her brother, Newton McKee, who was a Cumberland Presbyterian minister and also a teacher, they formed Larissa College. It continued to operate until after the Civil War. Estelle Loring also had a subscription school in old Jacksonville after the Civil War. After her first husband’s death, she married P.G. Rhome, a prominent merchant.

Another woman during the Civil War performed a feat worth remembering. Amanda Spears, wife of Cicero Spears, learned that her husband was very sick at Arkansas Post. She left Cherokee County and rode to Little Rock with one of her children. She nursed her husband for three months, then brought him back in good health. Malvina Chessher was an early Cherokee County businesswoman. She and her husband operated a hotel, the Chessher House, in Jacksonville in the late 1850s. When her husband died, she took full responsibility of operating the business for about 15 years.

Women began to enter politics in the 20th century. In 1916, Miss Lettie L. Baker became the first female county treasurer in Cherokee County. Mrs. Edna Bobbitt was elected to that post in 1920 and was followed by Bernice Williams who served for fifteen years or so and then by Cora Dickey. Mrs. John A. (DeLouis M) Beall served as Jacksonville Postmaster from October 1, 1939 to January 16, 1946. She also took an active part in the political caucus in Cherokee County during this period.

We welcome comments, additions or corrections to this account of women’s roles in early Cherokee County history. Contact us the Cherokee County Historical Commission office, 903-586-4057.

Jane Purtle writes and volunteers for the Cherokee County Historical Commission.

Article from the Jacksonville Daily Press, March 18, 2007