The Freeman Family

by Donald D. Erwin


During medieval times, freedom, as we know it today, was for aristocrats only. It was not for the lowly peasants, and since most of the people in England were peasants the masses had virtually no voice in their government. But by the beginning of the thirteenth century there was an undercurrent of discontent growing. They were no longer willing to be obedient, toiling serfs as they had been in the past. They wanted better conditions and a greater share of the good things in life. The movement started slow, but here and there there were incidents where individuals questioned their plight. These individuals began demanding rights and privileges that most had never dreamed of before. Many could sense that times were changing and that there was a possibility for freedom and liberty, even for the lowly peasants.

Strange to say, this new spirit was strengthened by a dreadful calamity. In the year 1348 a terrible plague, known the Black Death, swept over Europe, causing the death of thousands and thousands of people. The poor peasants suffered most because they lived in such unsanitary conditio­ns and had the least care. In many areas whole villages of peasants were wiped out.

When the scourge was over about half of the workers on the large estates of the nobles in England had disappeared. With just as many fields to be cared for and half as many peasants there was a great scarcity of labor, and many of the lords no longer had serfs enough to do their work. Their crops were neglected, the herds and flocks strayed over the fields with no one to look after them, and the nobles saw their lands going to ruin. They made desperate efforts to get workers, and many of them offered the peasants wages for their work instead of demanding their customary feudal services. The peasants, seeing that their labor was now of more value, demanded higher wages, and if these demands were rebuffed they frequently deserted their lords and hired themselves out to others who would pay higher wages.

Then the lords began making laws fixing the rate of wages and ordering punishment for those who demanded more. These laws stirred up bitter discontent among the peasant population, and they sparked the beginning of a long struggle which ended in several revolts of the peasants.

A leader of one of these revolts was John Ball, a poor priest. He went about the country preaching that all men were equal and that every man had rights, no matter how humble he might be. His view was that everyone was equal under God, and that they should not accept being in bondage to the landowning aristocracy. John Ball thus accumulated a large following, but the Archbishop of Canterbury had him thrown in prison for preaching such rebellious nonsense.

Nevertheless, the unrest grew, and 1381 is the year most historians mark as being the start of the rebellion of the peasants. At one point about 60,000 peasants gathered in London to protest their unequal treatment. The king – in order to placate the crowd – promised that he would institute changes. Trusting the king’s promise, the peasants dispersed and went back to their homes. King Richard, on the other hand, gathered an army and hanged John Ball and the other leaders of the peasant revolt. The revolt was put down, but the discontent did not go away. Over time concessions were made to the serfs and peasants, and by 1450 AD serfdom had passed away in England and Scotland, and by the end of the Middle Ages, in most of Western Europe as well.

The serfs and peasants were now “free men,” and although the use of surnames among the aristocracy had been in general use for about four hundred years, it was not so with the peasants. They suddenly found themselves free, and began to take a surname for themselves. Many chose a name describing their vocation, such as Butcher, Farmer, Hunter, etc, but many proclaimed,

“I am a free man,” and the name stuck as Freeman.  


John W. Freeman, my great-grandfather, was born December 11, 1831 in Culpeper County, Virginia. In 1842 he moved with his family to Edgar County, Illinois. It was there, on August 12, 1849, that he married Sarah Ann Houston Patrick. She was a widow with a young daughter (name unknown). Sarah was born about 1820 in Kentucky, the daughter of Joseph Houston and Delilah Weldon.  John and Sarah had seven children:


1.        Levi A. Freeman, b. 1850, Edgar Co., IL; d. 1922, Longton, Elk Co., KS

2.        Thomas Freeman, b. 1852, Edgar Co., IL; d. 1876, Edgar Co., IL

3.        William Freeman, b. 1856, Edgar Co., IL; d. 1880

4.        Vachel Robert Freeman, b. 1858, Edgar Co., IL; d. 1934, Longton, Elk Co., KS

5.        Son Freeman, b. about 1860

6.        Son Freeman, b. about  1861

7.        Charles A. Freeman, b. August 17, 1863, Edgar Co., IL; d. December 29, 1936, Ottawa, Franklin Co., KS

Sarah Ann Houston died in 1867.


                                                                          Sarah Ellen Foncannon & John W. Freeman



John W. Freeman then married Sarah Ellen Foncannon about 1868. She was the daughter of John Foncannon and Mariah Fisher, and was born February 20, 1848 in Indiana.

John and Sarah had four daughters: 

1.        Indiana May Freeman, b. May 4, 1868, Girard, Crawford Co., KS; d. December 3, 1918, Eagle City, Blaine Co., OK

2.        Minnie Olive Freeman, b. December 14, 1870, Girard, Crawford Co., KS; d. November 9, 1960, Severy, Greenwood Co., KS

3.        Cora Sarah Freeman, b. June 7, 1872, Kansas; d. April19, 1957, Wichita, Sedgwick Co., KS

4.        Mamie V. Freeman, b. July 23, 1882, Kansas

 Some time in early 1868 John and Sarah moved to Fort Scott in Bourbon County, Kansas. It is believed that all of Sarah’s stepchildren moved with them, including Levi, who would have been about eighteen at the time. Sarah was herself only about nineteen. She had seven stepchildren to care for – one only a year or so younger than herself – and her first child was on the way. This must have been a tremendous responsibility and burden for her.

The family did not stay in Fort Scott long, however, for Indiana May Freeman was born in Girard, Crawford County, Kansas on May 4, 1868, but they were not there for the 1870 census. At this point we do not know where they were between the latter part of 1868 and 1873 when John W. Freeman moved his family, now with three daughters, to Longton in Elk County. Cora Freeman was born in 1872, but we do not know her birthplace.

The 1880 census for Jasper County, Missouri lists our Freeman family as living on East 8th Street in Carthage. Mamie Freeman was born in 1882, presumably in Carthage, but this is only a guess.

The following is an excerpt from The Grass is Always Greener, Down The Road Apiece, by Helen Erwin Campbell:

Grandma Erwin had a very quick temper and a very sharp tongue. All of her grandchildren in turn must have learned to stay out of her way most of the time, just as I did. Grandpa, in contrast, was soft-spoken with a gentle, good-natured way about him. When he was sitting in his rocking chair he had a lap that was always welcome to a grandchild in need of cuddling or comforting. When Grandma started on one of her temper tirades, Grandpa just let it roll over him and went about his business.

Often Grandma liked to talk of her own childhood. She was born in 1870 in Girard, Kansas as Minnie Olive Freeman. The United States Census of 1880 placed John R. Freeman, with his wife and three daughters, in Carthage, Missouri.

My oldest brother Clifford remembered the stories Grandma told about Jessie and Frank James. Grandma’s father was a friend to the outlaw brothers and often offered them a safe haven when they were running from the law. She recalled a time when she was a small girl when the James boys rode in one evening and tied their horses to the wagon in the corral. The horses were given hay to feed on, and a bale of hay was placed behind each mount, with the saddles placed on the bales.

Grandma played around the bales and was told sternly by her father, “Don’t play with the saddles!” She continued to play near them, and her father finally told her, “Don’t even touch those saddles.”

Frank and Jessie had the saddles laid out just right so that if they had to leave in a hurry they could throw the saddles on their horses, pull up the belly cinch straps, and be gone in just a few seconds.

The James boys had supper with the Freeman family that night, and Jessie told a story about riding down to the river, with the law in hot pursuit. There was a high bank, about as high as a house. He jumped his horse into the river and he and the horse swam to the other side. When he got out of range of the law officer’s guns he claimed he turned and thumbed his nose at the posse as they stood watching him on the high bank on the opposite side of the river. Clifford later told the story to Dad.

His reaction was, “Aw…, I don’t think that ever happened. She just made that up.”

Years later, however, Clifford discovered that there was a tourist attraction on Highway 71 in Missouri that had a plaque to mark a spot where, it claimed, Jessie James had jumped his horse into the river while running from the law. Clifford had heard the story from Grandma thirty years before.

Grandma was a tall, gaunt woman who never seemed to have an extra ounce on her. She was also slightly crippled, one leg being bowed inward from the ankle up. The story she told inquisitive grandchildren was that when she was driving a buckboard when she was sixteen – and shortly after she was married – a front wheel of the buckboard hit a pothole and the jolt threw her off the seat. She fell in front of the wheel, which then ran over her ankle. Her broken ankle was never properly set, thus her deformity. It didn’t seem to be much of a handicap for her though. She was an excellent cook and always “set a good table.” She usually had a large garden, which she tended herself. One of my most vivid memories is of a dishpan full of fresh-picked strawberries from her own patch, which ended up that evening as part of a delicious strawberry shortcake.

And that bad leg never kept Grandma Erwin from moving fast enough to swat a disobedient or rambunctious grandchild if the need arose…and for the older ones that ever-present crutch proved to be a very effective persuader. I vividly recall one incident in 1949 when I was sixteen. Being a typical teenager, I had reluctantly accompanied my folks to Severy for a Sunday dinner. Apparently I said something that Grandma thought was inappropriate, and she swung that crutch around and rapped in on the ear. It really smarted, and to the best of my knowledge I don’t believe I ever saw her again before I enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1950. Grandma Erwin was certainly one of a kind, and if she isn’t always remembered with and fond memories she is certainly remembered with awe.                                        

A Double Marriage: In Berryville, Carroll County, Arkansas, on December 16, 1886, India May Freeman married William “Cole” Erwin and Minnie Olive Freeman married Michael R. “Mike” Erwin. There has never been any real proof that the John W. Freeman family actually lived in Arkansas…even though there were a number of Freemans there. In 1878 there was a J. W. Freeman in Carroll County, Arkansas who paid a poll tax of $2.78, but there is no proof that this was our J. W. Freeman. So…the mystery is…how did the Erwin brothers meet and find time to court the Freeman sisters?  A recent clue, contributed by Jimmy Erwin who lived with Grandpa Mike and Grandma Minnie as a child, indicates that the Freeman family may have lived just across the road from the Erwins in Carroll County. This would certainly explain how the Erwin boys had the opportunity to spark the Freeman girls. India was eighteen, but Minnie was only sixteen when they married.

John W. Freeman died November 7, 1919 in Canton, Blaine County, Oklahoma. Sarah Ellen Foncannon Freeman died March 24, 1929, in Eagle City, Blaine County, Oklahoma. Both are buried in the Munice Cemetery in Dewey County, Oklahoma, about twelve miles west of Canton.

Levi Freeman married Sarah J. Skidmore in 1871. He and his family lived on a farm southwest of Longton, Kansas in Elk County where they raised seven children. Levi was president of Longton State Bank for seventeen years, and owned, or was a partner in, several other local business ventures. He also served two terms as county commissioner for Elk County. He and Sarah were mentioned often in the Longton Times.

Levi died March 22, 1922 and Sarah died June 16, 1920. They are both buried in the Longton Cemetery.


                                                                                                   Levi & Sarah Freeman


Vachel R. Freeman married Alice A. Conover of Fort Scott, Kansas. She was born in 1859 and passed away in 1939 in Longton.

They had two children: Lena A. Freeman and George Levi Freeman.

Vachel Freeman was a successful farmer and stockman. He served on the Longton Council for twenty years, and was a member of the Masonic Lodge.

Vachel "Vache" Freeman died in 1934 and Alice died in 1939. Both are buried in the Longton Cemetery in Elk County, Kansas.

Charles A. Freeman married Mary M. McElhinny of Fredonia, Kansas in 1901. After they were married they lived on a farm southwest of Longton. In 1903 they moved to Ottawa, in Franklin County, Kansas, where they lived the rest of their lives. They had no children, and both are buried in Fredonia, Wilson County, Kansas.

Thomas, Michael, William and Robert Freeman remained in Edgar County, Illinois.

The three Freeman brothers were very active in the Elk County area. They were mentioned often in the Longton News:

  • Jan 4, 1889: L A Freeman, D W Jackson and J Malone have formed a partnership and organized a company and call themselves “The Longton Real Estate and Collecting Agency.”  They occupy the room 1st door south of the post office for an office.

  • Jan 25, 1889: Mr L A Freeman shipped a car load of fat cattle on Sunday.

  • Feb 15, 1889: Mr and Mrs Geo. Toms were in the Valley this week, the guest of L A Freeman.

  • April 2, 1889: Whereas, I, L A Freeman, have purchased the stock of merchandise of C W Canoose together with his book accounts, all parties owing accounts on said book are notified to call and settle same as once.                          L A FREEMAN    

  • February 3, 1899: V.R. Freeman is busy hauling the bridge material for the bridge across the river river at Morris’ Ford.

  • July 21, 1899: Mr. And Mrs. L. A. Freeman returned home from Missouri, where they have been visiting their daughter, Mrs. S. S. Gordon.

  • July 22, 1899: Ora Freeman has been quite sick for the past few days with tonsillitis and is no better at this writing.

  • September 8, 1899: V.R. Freeman entertained some of his friends last Tuesday evening. A pleasant time was reported.

  • September 21, 1900: Mrs. L.A. Freeman and sons , Ora and Forest, started for Indiana last Monday, where they will visit with relatives and friends.

  • December 21, 1900: L.A. and V.R. Freeman left Tuesday morning for Oklahoma to select homes.

  • March 8, 1900: Bert and Ora Freeman and S.S. Gordon started to Oklahoma Tuesday.

  • June 23, 1901: O. A. and B. A. Freeman returned from Woodward County, Oklahoma Tuesday night.

  • February 7, 1902: Mrs. Charley Freeman had the misfortune to break one of her ankles and Charley brought her home from the Indian Territory the first of this week.

  • L. A. Freeman and wife; V. R. Freeman and wife, and George Freeman attended a birthday celebration for Mrs. A.J. Toms who was 76.

  • A letter from Ora Freeman to his father, L. A. Freeman, says that he and his brother Bert have deeded their claims and that each of them has been sold. The boys expect to be in Longton in a few days. 

In June 2001 I visited the Munice Cemetery in Dewey County, Oklahoma. It is located about fifteen miles west of Canton – which is in Blaine County – on State Highway 51. It is “out in the middle of nowhere,” and one has to wonder if there might have been a town of Munice at one time, or at least a church by that name. The cemetery was well kept though, and there had been recent interments.

 I stopped at Munice Cemetery in my search for Erwins, and although I did find several, I was surprised at how many several members of the Freeman family that were there also. They were:


§         John W. Freeman; December 31, 1831-November 7, 1919

§         Sarah E. Foncannon Freeman (wife of John W. Freeman); 1846-1926

§         India May Freeman Erwin (wife of William C. Erwin); May 4, 1869-December 3, 1918

§         John Clarence Freeman; 1930-1930

§         Earl Dean Freeman; 1936-1938

§         Allen Ray Freeman; June 4, 1938 (no other date)

§         Ricky Lynn Freeman; September 27, 1957-June 10, 1959

§         Tommie Lee Freeman; October 27, 1934-February 23, 1990

§         F.R. (Fuzzy) Freeman (Husband); June 26, 1903- August 12, 1973

§         Hermie G. Freeman (Wife); May 15, 1907-January 12, 1990

§         Janice Irene Freeman; May 3, 1961-December 29, 1962

§         Bernard Young Freeman; T/Sgt. U.S. Air Force, June 10, 1932-October 4, 1983

§         Jessie Freeman Carroll; 1928-1964

§         Darla Jean Freeman Manning; October 25, 1958-April 20, 1982


It seems likely that the Freemans still living in the area are descendants of John and Sarah Freeman.                                                                                             



The Vachel R. Freeman home near Longton, Elk County, Kansas, c. 1910 - Vachel is on the mule.

                          A family gathering at the Levi A. Freeman farm in 1886.