A Diverse Heritage
Like many families living on the American frontier, the Welch and Hess families’ lineage and history is somewhat shrouded by the passage of time. Record keeping for frequently migrating individuals over 100 years ago is often scant. But thanks to the Dawes Rolls (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dawes_Rolls), the Native American portion of the family heritage has been well preserved and is easily traceable.
Some background from WikiPedia: “The Dawes Commission went to the individual tribes to obtain the membership lists, but it took a series of attempts to gain anything near to an accurate count. In 1898, Congress passed the Curtis Act, which provided that a new roll would be taken and supersede all previous rolls. Difficulties in enumerating the population included the forced migrations of the period as well as the American Civil War. Additionally, non-Native census takers introduced the idea of Blood Quantum, a concept previously foreign to the tribal communities. Those recording this percentage of ancestry wrote down an estimation, based on physical appearance and personal opinion if the individual was present.”
Because of the Dawes Roll, Cherokee ancestry through the Welch family line is well documented and traced through several generations. Although current generations possess only a minute blood quantum of Cherokee ancestry, all are direct descendants of several historically prominent Cherokee citizens and may also choose to claim tribal membership for themselves as a result.
Thanks to modern DNA testing, it has been definitely shown that the the Welch-Hess clan descends primarily from English, Scottish, Welsh and Norwegian people groups. However, it is the Cherokee ancestry which has proven to be a blessing in many instances but problematic in others.
Maude Welch Hess
One story told to me by my mother concerns, Maude Welch Hess, who as an adult once attempted to join a new church congregation near their home in rural Adair County, Okla.
By blood quantum, my maternal grandmother was reported to be 1/16th Cherokee ancestry. She attended a Cherokee girl’s school as a young woman but in virtually all other respects, she lived, worked, dressed, and spoke like the predominant white culture she inhabited. The Cherokee, much like the other tribes that were forcibly brought to Oklahoma by the Indian Removal Act of 1830, learned to live with one foot in white European culture while keeping another foot firmly grounded in their ancient native culture.
Religious association appears to be where separation of these two cultures was most often strictly enforced. Whites had their own churches, Indians had theirs.
The story goes that my grandmother went forward at the close of a church service to seek membership in a local congregation. As was the custom in many Baptist churches then and now, the congregation was asked to accept prospective members into fellowship by vocal affirmation or vote. Typically, the church pastor would ask for a collective “Amen” or “Aye” from the membership, and barring any scandalous accusation or serious objection that might rarely arise, that person or family was collegially accepted into membership of the church.
On this particular occasion, as Maude Hess stood in front of the church facing members of the congregation, the minister asked for an affirming “Amen.” None was given. Not a single voice was raised in affirmation. Nothing but awkward, painful silence. My grandmother was left standing at the front of the church humiliated.
On this particular occasion, as Maude Hess stood in front of the church facing members of the congregation, the minister asked for an affirming “Amen.” None was given. Not a single voice was raised in affirmation. Nothing but awkward, painful silence.
There may have been other reasons that were left unspoken. Maude’s husband of many years, James Hugh Hess (my maternal grandfather) — known as “Hughey” by friends and colleagues — was a well-known, if not universally well-liked, lawman in the area who was certain to have made enemies over the years. But perhaps, first and foremost, Hughey rarely, if ever, darkened the doorway of a house of worship. So, there was Maude, left all alone to face the sting of a cruel and silent rebuke from those whom she had sought friendship and community.
More about Hughey a bit later, but Maude’s personal life story is one filled with both joy, but also more than its share of heartache and tragedy. Through it all, she maintained an unwavering belief in a better life in the hereafter, thanks to her unshakeable Christian faith. It is why this physically tiny woman, mother of 11 children, grandmother to numerous grandchildren and great grandchildren, cast such an enormous shadow as the beloved matriarch of this large and diverse Oklahoma family.
Maude Gertrude Welch was born Sept. 19, 1887 in the Ballard Community, Going Snake District of the Cherokee Nation. The area, located in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains bordering Arkansas, would become part of Adair County in the newly formed state of Oklahoma in 1907.
Her father, Thomas Jefferson Welch, descended from a Cherokee chief, had prospered in Indian Territory and had built a fine two-story home on Ballard Creek. He was well-respected in the community and elected to the Territorial Legislature. He was said to have ridden to-and-from the territorial capital, Guthrie, roughly 180 miles away, on horseback.Thomas was born just prior to the outbreak of the Civil War in Cherokee County, Georgia and migrated to Indian Territory. He married Fannie Ann Mitchell, also of Cherokee descent, in 1886.
The couple had several children together with Maude being the eldest. As was typical of large families in those days, accidents and/or illness often claimed the life of a child. This was true for the Welch family as Maude’s youngest sister Kathleen “Little Kate” Welch died of a fever at age nine in 1917 and twin baby sisters Ethel and Effie who died within a month of each other in 1904. Unfortunately, it would not be the last personal tragedy that Maude would endure.
The Welch family was fairly prosperous by turn-of-the-century standards in Indian Territory. Maude initially attended Ballard School then later boarding school at the Cherokee Female Academy in Tahlequah (now Northeastern State University) where, by all indications, she received an excellent education and a deeper commitment to her Christian faith.
From an article published in History of Adair County, 1991, my Aunt Betty Hess Smith wrote the following: “Among the stories Maude Welch Hess used to relate was one about the many times when, as a youth, she rode sidesaddle on her horse, Steeldust, carrying 12 dozen eggs several miles through the woods from her father’s home to Baptist Mission.”
James Hugh Hess
Meanwhile, Maude Welch’s future husband, James Hugh Hess, was born on Oct. 12, 1877 in Siloam Springs, Arkansas, to John Franklin Hess and Isadora “Dora” Carson. His mother, who claimed kinship with famous (infamous?) American frontiersman Kit Carson, died in 1880. Hughey, age four, and his older sister Florentina, age five, were left motherless.
The story of Hughey’s childhood and adolescence is murky but a few significant facts are known. His father would remarry just a year later in 1881. Not longer afterward, a decision was made to relocate the family to the new state of Colorado. At this point, there are two different versions of what happened next.
As told by my mother and a few of my aunts and uncles, young Hughey, now age 8, apparently had all he could stand of his stepmother and ran away from the family while still enroute to Colorado. Another version has the family having a change of heart and returning to Oklahoma, at which point, Hughey leaves the family. In either event, what is agreed upon is that he took up residence with a friend and was essentially raised from then on by a full-blood Cherokee family.
It is here, ironically, that James Hugh Hess, of primarily English-Scottish descent, and no known Indian ancestry, learned the customs and ways of the Cherokee people, and most importantly, learned to speak the Cherokee language fluently.
It is here, ironically, that James Hugh Hess, of primarily English-Scottish descent, and no known Indian ancestry, learned the customs and ways of the Cherokee people, and most importantly, learned to speak the Cherokee language fluently. This cross-cultural upbringing would serve him well as he embarked on a career in law enforcement in the region.
James Hugh Hess, age 29, and Maude Gertrude Welch, age 19, were married on June 19, 1907 in the town of Ballard, Indian Territory, just before Oklahoma statehood would become a reality in September of that same year. They lived in Ballard for a time before ultimately settling on a small farm in northern Adair County and starting a family. There was heartbreak almost immediately as they lost their first child at just three days old.
Those who knew Hughey best, in his role as a father or lawman, often expressed a grudging respect and/or fear of the man. He was known for a quick and fiery temper and no-nonsense approach. He could be harsh, quick to criticize and loathe to compliment or express affection to his children, particularly his sons. This would play out with tragic consequences at a later date.
He was, however, respected as a lawman who kept the peace in early day Oklahoma and dealt fairly with both the white and Cherokees citizens within his jurisdiction.
Initially deputized in Washington County, Arkansas, Hess served as a deputy sheriff, a guard at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, and later as town marshal of Watts, Okla. for more than 30 years. He had also operated a store and post office at Ballard before moving the family to nearby Watts.
She recalled the many rifles left leaning on the front porch and gun belts slung over door knobs and chair backs while her mother dutifully catered to the hungry men.
Maude was a typical homemaker of the era, responsible for feeding the family, sewing their clothes, and with the help of her growing children, tending the family garden and livestock on their small farm. My mother recalled hearing my grandmother always being the first to arise each morning and lighting the wood stove to warm up the house and begin preparing breakfast for the large family.
She also recalled that her father, or “Papa” as she called him, once led a mounted posse to capture a local fugitive. Her mother was expected to prepare a meal for all of the armed men before they departed on their search. She recalled the many rifles left leaning on the front porch and gun belts slung over door knobs and chair backs while her mother dutifully catered to the hungry men.
Both my mother and grandmother held lifelong contempt and fear of guns and the violence they wrought. And yet, my grandfather’s vocation required that he carry a firearm every day which he placed on the bedroom dresser each night.
But Hughey did occasionally show a lighter side. My mother recalled that when Her father found something humorous he would laugh in a high-pitch chuckle. One frequent saying she often overheard him repeat close to bedtime was, “Gotta go to bed, gotta get up, gotta go to work!”
Although an effective lawman, Hughey was by all accounts could be a difficult man to please at home and could be especially harsh to his own sons. This would play out in a particularly tragic way on Independence Day, 1928, a year before my mother was born.
According to stories retold years later by my mother and her older siblings, Hughey and Maude’s eldest son, Clarence Hugh Hess, then age 19, had recently moved away from the family farm to work for the railroad in Kansas City. He and a friend decided to return to Oklahoma to celebrate the July Fourth holiday with the family. They hopped a train and arrived at the Hess family farm in time for the holiday festivities.
At some point during the day, Hughey engaged in a loud argument with his eldest son resulting in Clarence angrily leaving the family gathering prematurely. He decided to catch the next train leaving from nearby Siloam Springs, Ark. a few miles away. My grandmother was greatly grieved by this occurrence.
A short time later, news reached the family that there had been a terrible accident and to come immediately. Apparently, Clarence had missed the whistle stop and the departing train was already in motion when he ran alongside it and attempted to jump onto a moving railcar. He had boarded a train in this way countless times before. But this time was different.
He lost his grip, fell onto the tracks and was run over by the train’s massive steel wheels. It would have been a bloody and horrific scene. An emergency telegram was quickly relayed to the family and my grandmother made her way by horse and buggy to the scene just in time to hold her dying son in her arms and tearfully watch as his young life ebbed away.
The cruel truth is that timely modern emergency medical attention would have likely saved his life. But in 1928 rural Oklahoma, Clarence Hugh Hess, became another young man to die in tragic circumstances.
If Maude and Hughey’s marriage was strained then, it reached a breaking point some years later on a sunny Sunday afternoon.
We can only imagine the anguish Maude Hess endured that day and for many days, weeks, months, and years to come. We don’t know if she ever forgave her husband for the harsh words he had leveled at her eldest son which prompted him to abruptly leave in the first place. But surely we can safely assume that it placed a tremendous strain on their relationship going forward.
A year and half later my mother Geneva Ruth Hess was born as the eleventh and youngest child of the family. She would never know her oldest brother, only stories of his life and untimely death.
As for the July Fourth holiday, the Hess family would never celebrate it again. The pomp and parades and loud firework displays likely served as a cruel annual reminder to Maude Hess of what she had lost on that terrible day.
If Maude and Hughey’s marriage was strained then, it reached a breaking point some years later on a sunny Sunday afternoon. My mother tells the story:
Maude and all the children had decided to walk to and from church one beautiful Sunday morning. When they arrived late back to the family farm, Hughey was waiting on the porch for them and he was not happy.
He followed the family into the house and angrily inquired why Sunday dinner was not already prepared and waiting. Unsatisfied by Maude’s answer he struck her in the face so hard that it knocked off her eyeglasses and broke them. At this, the older boys all took hold of their father to restrain him. It likely crossed their minds to take this opportunity to vent their own frustrations at the old man who had so often belittled and harangued them.
But after my grandmother gathered herself, she called for calm among her boys and pleaded for no more violence. However, she was done with Hughey. She ordered him out of the house and not to return. Although divorce was out of the question in this time and place, they would remain separated for the rest of their lives.
Other forces were also beginning to pull the family in multiple directions. The depth of the Great Depression saw sons go off to join the Civilian Conservation Corps to earn money for the family, or join the military when World War II erupted in 1941. Daughters would graduate from high school, marry and move away to places of greater economic opportunity like Tulsa with its robust petroleum and aviation industries.
It was a time of major upheaval and transition for America and for the Hess family.