They Passed This Way

Home by Don Erwin

Prior to the early 1790s the western border of North Carolina extended all the way to the Mississippi River, but there were few white pioneers on the western fringes of the state. Tennessee was carved out of the western portion and become a separate state in 1796, but a large part was set aside as Indian Lands. There were settlements along the Watauga River, in what would be the eastern part of Tennessee, as early as 1769, but it was not until 1779 that General James Robertson and others pushed westward and established Nashboro on the Cumberland River.

The first surveyors came in 1783 to seek out and mark the thirty-five degrees north latitude which was North Carolina’s southern boundary. Even though Tennessee became a state in 1796, it was not until about 1811 that treaties with the Cherokees and Chickasaws opened up the central part of the state to settlement.

No Revolutionary War battles were fought in the area that became Tennessee, but the British had incited their Indian allies to wage terrible warfare on these western outposts. At the end of the War North Carolina was bankrupt, and decided to pay her soldiers with land warrants. Land offices were set up in Hillsborough and Nashboro as the veterans – many with their families – crossed the mountains to stake out their lands. Others had purchased land for as little as six cents an acre. A large number of the pioneers found, however, that the land they had been granted or had purchased was within an area designated as Indian Lands. They could not take possession until the Indian treaties were finalized in 1805, 1806, 1811 and 1816. Settlers who drifted into the protected Indian territory prior to 1812 were systematically driven out by Federal soldiers from Fort Hampton in Alabama.

In 1783, while still part of North Carolina, the Cumberland settlements were organized into Davidson County, including in its territory all of Middle Tennessee north of the Duck River. As the population increased, new counties were established: Williamson, including all territory south to the thirty-five degrees north parallel in 1799, and Maury from Williamson in 1807.

Giles County was created in 1810 by an act of the General Assembly, dated November 14, 1809. It has an area of 600 square miles, and was formed out of Maury County. It is bounded on the north by the counties of Maury and Marshall, east by the counties of Marshall and Lincoln, south by the State of Alabama and west by Lawrence County. The new county was named for Governor William Branch Giles of Virginia, who, as a Congressman, had manipulated Tennessee’s admission into the union in 1796.

Pioneers entered Giles County by two routes. Some traveled by water by coming down the Tennessee River and up the Elk River to Richland Creek, while others came by land through the Cumberland Gap and Kentucky. The settlements of Elkton and Prospect both claim the distinction of being settled first. Lynn Creek, Campbellsville, Pulaski, Bodenham, Cross Water, Aspen Hill, and Blooming Grove were settled soon afterwards.

It is believed that Lewis Kirk, Alexander Black and his brother Robert Black, were the first people to settle in Pulaski, and arrived in the fall of 1807. Lewis Kirk was the first tavern keeper in 1810, Richard Scott is believed to be the first merchant, opening a small store near Kirk’s house in 1809. He sold this store to John G. Talbott, and William Ball opened a grocery store in the same vicinity. Records show these were the only houses in the town at that time. Lots were sold in 1811 and businesses moved into the Town Square. The city of Pulaski was designated the county seat, and was named for Count Casimir Pulaski.

Joseph Erwin was born February 4, 1769 in Salisbury, Rowan County, North Carolina, and married Catherine Nancy Cowan there on May 17, 1792. She was born October 14, 1774 in Salisbury, Rowan County, North Carolina, and was the oldest child of Captain Thomas Cowan and Mary Barkley.

It is probable that around 1812 Joseph Erwin, the last born child of Joseph and Agnes Erwin, and my ancestor, moved his wife and children to the south-central frontier of the new state of Tennessee. They may have stayed for a time in Maury County before moving on down into Giles County. The 1820 Giles County census shows Joseph Erwin, Sr., living in Giles County, Tennessee with his wife and ten children. Joseph Erwin, Jr. is shown living next door with his wife and two small children. Since the census, at that time, listed the names of head-of-households only we cannot identify which of the family members were still in Joseph Sr.’s  household, but presumably the four eldest had left the nest.

From other sources we know that Joseph and Catherine had the following named children:

1.      Thomas Barkley Erwin, b. September 16, 1793

2.      Joseph Erwin, Jr., b. February 3, 1794

3.      James Polk Erwin, b. March 7, 1796

4.      Agnes W. (Nancy) Erwin, b. January 25, 1798

5.      Eli G. Erwin, b. November 4, 1799

6.      John Johnston Erwin, b. September 11, 1801

7.      Squire Cowan Erwin, b. February 8, 1803

8.      Katherine L. Erwin, b. April 17, 1805

9.      Mary B. Erwin, b. January 3, 1807

10.      William B. Erwin, b. January 25, 1809

11.   Hezekiah Franklin Erwin, b. February 12, 1811

12.   Margaret Clementine Erwin, b. August 8, 1813

13.   Abel Alexander Erwin, b. October 10, 1815

14.   Michael Lincoln Erwin, b. May 21, 1819

The first twelve children were probably born in or near Salisbury in Rowan County, North Carolina. Abel Alexander and Michael Lincoln Erwin were, most likely, born in or near Giles County, Tennessee.

At some point between the time of the 1820 census and the 1830 census, and probably about 1827, Joseph moved his family again, this time to Henry County, Tennessee. The Joseph Erwin, Sr. family, as well as the Joseph Erwin, Jr. family, are listed on the 1830 Henry County, Tennessee census.

Caroline Nancy Cowan Erwin died July 6, 1839 in Henry County, Tennessee. She is buried in the Palestine Church Cemetery just outside of Paris in Henry County, Tennessee. After her death Joseph must have left Henry County almost immediately, because although sons Joseph Erwin, Jr. and John Johnston Erwin are listed on the 1840 Henry County census, he is not. It seems likely that Joseph Erwin, Sr., with Abel and Michael—his two youngest childrenmoved to West Point, Troup County, Georgia. Michael Lincoln Erwin, the youngest child of Joseph and Catherine, died there February 8, 1840. Abel Alexander Erwin, the next youngest married Elizabeth F. Ashford in Troup County in 1850, and died there in 1898.

Old letters indicate that Joseph Erwin, Sr. was living with or near sons James Polk Erwin and Squire Cowan Erwin in the vicinity of Starkville, Oktibbeha County, Mississippi in the middle 1840s. Family tradition has it that Joseph Erwin died about 1848 in Mayhew, Lowndes County, Mississippi, the county just to the east, and adjoining, Oktibbeha County. Over the years several descendants have tried to locate his gravesite, but without success.

Thomas Barkley Erwin was born September 16, 1792 in Rowan County, North Carolina. He was the first-born child of Joseph Erwin, Sr. and Catherine Nancy Cowan, and the next older brother of Joseph Erwin, Jr., my great-great-grandfather. His middle given name came by way of his grandmother, Mary Barkley, who was an ancestor of Alben William Barkley, a member of Congress and vice president (1949-1953) under Harry S. Truman.

At the age of twenty Thomas B. Erwin served in the War of 1812. After he was released from military service he returned to North Carolina for a time, but eventually settled in Lafayette, Chambers County, Alabama. He is reputed to have built the first log house in Lafayette, and it is said that he constructed it out of hickory logs in honor of Andrew Jackson, known by many as “Old Hickory.”

He married (1) Agnes McLarty March 2, 1822 in Cabarrus County, North Carolina. She was born August 11, 1799, probably in North Carolina, and died about 1827. Thomas and Agnes had five children. Thomas married (2) Elizabeth S. (Betsy) Owens September 4, 1827 in Jasper County, Georgia. She was born July 15, 1810 in Georgia. Thomas and Betsy had ten children. The first two were born in Georgia and the next four in Alabama. The seventh, eighth and ninth of their children were born in Georgia, and the last in 1853 in Smith County, Texas.

Thomas served in the  Alabama militia, eventually attaining the rank of Colonel. He served in that capacity until he moved to Texas. For the rest of his life, however, he was referred to as “Colonel Tom Erwin.”

Late in 1850 Thomas sold all of his property and moved his family to Texas. He settled near Tyler in Smith County. An early biography, written by Sid S. Johnson, states: “...He and Col. L. B. Snoddy (his son-in-law) blazed the first road to Garden Valley.” It was near there that Thomas eventually built up a large plantation along Rabbit Creek.

Joseph Erwin, Jr. was born February 3, 1794 in Rowan County, North Carolina. It is likely that he arrived in Giles County early in 1812 with his parents and siblings in the south-central frontier of the new state of Tennessee.

On December 10, 1812, in Rutherford County, Tennessee, at the age of eighteen, he enlisted for a term of two years in Captain Josiah Renshaw’s Company. It was a unit of the Second Regiment of Tennessee Militia Volunteers commanded by Colonel Thomas H. Benton. This was during the hostilities with Great Britain known as the War of 1812. He was on active duty from December 10, 1812 to April 12, 1813 when he was released in Columbia, Maury County, Tennessee to inactive status. He was called back to active duty on September 26, 1813 and served until December 24, 1813. He was honorably discharged in Fayetteville, Lincoln County, Tennessee, with the rank of Orderly Sergeant.

Joseph married Nancy Rebecca Davis January 22, 1818 in Giles County, Tennessee. They ultimately had eleven children. They were:

1.      Franklin Bainbridge Porter Erwin, b. October 30, 1818 in  Giles Co., TN

2.      Elizabeth Catherine Erwin, b. November 1820 in Giles Co., TN

3.      Thomas Johnston Erwin, b. November 15, 1822 in Giles Co., TN

4.      Joseph Lafayette Erwin, b. November 18, 1825 in TN

5.      Harriett Adalade Erwin, b. April 22, 1828 in Henry Co., TN

6.      Rebecca Anastasia Erwin, b. August 6, 1830 in Henry Co., TN

7.      John D. Erwin, b. February 1, 1833 in Henry Co., TN

8.      Nancy Abigail Erwin, b. April 10, 1835 in Henry Co., TN

9.      Mary Helen Paralee Erwin, b. December 2, 1837 in Henry Co., TN

10.      Michael Pike Erwin, b. December 2, 1837 in Henry Co., TN

11.   Henrietta Tennessee Erwin, b. December 15, 1842 in Henry Co., TN 

No record has been found, at this point, of what ultimately happened to Franklin Bainbridge Porter Erwin. It is possible, of course, that he died as an infant or as a young child before the family left Giles County sometime between 1820 and 1830. No listing has been found on any of the cemetery lists in Giles or Henry Counties, but this is not conclusive, as many pioneer cemeteries and their records have been lost to the ravages of time and neglect. It was 1850 before the Federal Census Bureau started listing the names of all family members. By then Franklin would have been thirty-two years old, and if still alive almost surely out of his parents home.

Elizabeth Catherine Erwin, the second-born child of Joseph and Rebecca Erwin, married (1) Joseph Wiseman before 1840. She married (2) Joseph M.W. Alderson January 1, 1841 in Henry County, TN. He was born April 6, 1818 and died December 20, 1858. Elizabeth Catherine died February 23, 1892 in Calloway County, Kentucky.

The children Elizabeth and Joseph Alderson were:

1.         William C. Alderson, b. about 1841 in Tennessee

2.         Margaret Alderson, b. about 1843 in Tennessee

3.         Jane Alderson, b. about 1844 in Tennessee

4.         Anne Eliza Alderson, b. October 16, 1846 in Tennessee

5.         Joseph (Joe) Alderson, b. May 23, 1848 in Tennessee

6.         Lavinia V. (Lucy) Alderson, b. November 13, 1850 in Henry Co., Tennessee

7.         Jonathon M. Alderson, b. October 10, 1856 in Henry Co., Tennessee

8.         Elizabeth J. Alderson, b. March 1, 1858 in Kentucky

Joseph and Elizabeth were married in Henry County, Tennessee and lived there until about 1857. They then moved to Calloway County, Kentucky, which adjoins Henry County, Tennessee on the north. They lived the rest of their lives in Kentucky, probably in or near Murray in Calloway, County. Both are buried in the South Pleasant Grove Cemetery in Calloway County.

Joseph Lafayette (Fate) Erwin, the fourth child of Joseph & Rebecca Erwin, was born November 18, 1825 in Giles County, Tennessee. He married Mariah (Maria) Anastasia Erwin, a first cousin, in 1849 in Tennessee, probably in Paris, the county seat of Henry County. She was born August 18, 1829 in Tennessee, probably Henry County.

Their children were:

1.         Augusta A. Erwin, b. 1850

2.         Sarah Rebecca Erwin, b. 1851

3.         Charles F. Erwin, b. 1853

4.         Joseph Johnson Erwin, b. 1854

5.         Oscar Lafayatt Erwin, b. 1856

6.         Catherine Elouise Erwin, b. 1859

7.         Thomas Washington Erwin, b. 1860

8.         William Simpson Erwin, b. 1862

9.         Robert Lee Erwin, b.1863

10.         Harriett Malvina (Hattie) Erwin, b. 1865

11.      James Franklin Erwin, b. 1867

12.      Hubert Eugene Erwin, b. 1869

13.      Mary Gurtrud Erwin, b. 1873

Augusta, the first child of Fate and Maria Erwin, was born in Tennessee…all of the rest were born in Kentucky, probably near Hazel in Calloway County.

For the next several generations—in contrast to my direct line—most of the Calloway County Erwins remained there. The South Pleasant Grove Cemetery is the resting place of scores of Erwins and their extended families.

Thomas and Nancy Erwin arrived in Carroll County, Arkansas in 1848 and, as near as can determined, were the first of my line to do so. The majority of the inhabitants of the area at that time were of Scots-Irish descent. They were much like the newcomers, a self-sufficient and hardy group engaged primarily in subsistence farming. There would have been a few professional men, and preachers, but they were all poor and living under the same primitive conditions.

Carroll County was created November 1, 1833 by the Arkansas Territorial Legislature. As originally mapped it was much larger than it is today, and included the present-day counties of Boone, Marion, as well as parts of Madison and Newton. Although there is some question as to the source of the name, it is generally believed that the county was named in honor of Charles Carroll. Carroll was one of the signers of the American Declaration of Independence, and he had died November 14, 1832, the last surviving signor of the historic document.

Today’s Carroll County is about thirty-five miles wide east to west, and extends about thirty miles south to north, less a big chunk out of the southwest corner. It is in the northwest corner of Arkansas, bordering on the Missouri line, and is the second county east from Oklahoma. Benton County is between Carroll County and Oklahoma. Bentonville, a small town in Benton County, is the unlikely location of the corporate headquarters of Walmart, the largest retailer in the world.

Carrollton was the county seat, but it was raided numerous times by bushwhackers during the Civil War – from both sides – and the government buildings, including the court house, as well as most of the business establishments, were burned to the ground. In antebellum times Carrollton was one of the three or four major towns in the northern part of the state, but it did not recover from the bushwhacker raids, and after the War the seat of county government was moved to Berryville.

Thomas and Nancy lived first in Carrollton, but later homesteaded on Dry Creek near the small thriving community of Denver. They lived for a time in Eureka Springs but in later years returned to their farm. They lived the rest of their lives in Carroll County, and had six more children. Thomas and Nancy Erwin, as well as many of their descendants, are buried in the Denver Cemetery.


The Setting – The region known as the Ozarks is a roughly two-hundred-mile-square area in southern Missouri and northern Arkansas. It is bounded by the Missouri River on the north, the Arkansas River on the south, the Mississippi River on the east, and the Great Plains on the west. Geologically it differs from the flat surrounding lands, being an ancient upraised plateau which has eroded for over fifty million years to form the present landscape of hills and valleys, with some grassland that is resistant to erosion.

In Indian times, before 1800, the area was heavily forested with oak and hickory and some pine. The forest cover, on top of limestone and dolomite rock formations, created abundant springs which fed many small rocky-bottomed creeks and rivers. Bass, perch, catfish, carp, and other fish filled the streams, while deer, bear, panther, turkey, quail, coon, possum, muskrat, and other fur-bearing animals lived in the wooded hills along the streams. Though much of the forest is gone, the Ozarks is still a beautiful region of wooded hills, open prairies, and rich bottomland.

Chronologically, the story of Ozark settlement by whites began with the French. They first came to the Ozarks from Canada, where they had been settled for some time along the St. Lawrence River. By the early 1700s the French were well established on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River opposite the Ozarks. Some French hunters, fur traders and miners from the Illinois settlements were actively exploiting resources in the Ozarks. The resource that made the Ozarks most important to the French was the mining of lead (the Missouri Ozarks still lead the world in lead production).

Control of Louisiana, including Missouri, passed from the French to the Spanish in 1762, and Missouri remained under Spanish control until 1802. However, the Spanish Crown sent very few Spaniards to Louisiana during this period. Those who came to Missouri during the period of Spanish control were, for the most part, French, Americans, and even a few Germans. The Spanish contribution to the culture of the Ozarks is confined to Spanish land grants, a few place names, and myths of hidden treasure. As a result of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 the Ozark region became part of the United States, and the area was immediately opened to white settlement. The few tribes of Osage Indians, who had hunted the region for many generations, were moved to Oklahoma by treaty before the white settlers began arriving.

The settlers arriving in Arkansas and Missouri after 1803 were mostly native-born Americans. In the early years they had come from states adjacent to Missouri on the east. Colonel Morgan's colony from Kentucky, which settled New Madrid, Missouri in 1788, was the first distinctly American settlement. Another early arrival was Daniel Boone. He had been born in Rowan County, North Carolina, but as a young man had moved to Kentucky. In 1797 he settled his family along the Missouri River. Boone's son Nathan later settled in Greene County, Missouri, where his decaying cabin still stands.

Generally speaking, the early-arriving Americans came from western Tennessee and Kentucky, as well as southern Illinois. As time passed and the frontier pushed west, settlers began coming from the Appalachians proper as well as from areas to the north and east. Some went west from Philadelphia and followed the Ohio Valley to Missouri. Others turned south at Philadelphia and followed the Great Valley Road down through Virginia to the Carolinas, and eventually west. In western Virginia settlers could pass through one of the few gaps in the Appalachians, known as the Cumberland Gap. Once through the Gap they could follow either the Cumberland or the Tennessee River on their journey west. Both are tributary to the Ohio, and thus these settlers connected with those coming down the Ohio from Pittsburgh.

The settlement of northwest Arkansas began in earnest during the early 1830s. The first group of settlers was comprised largely of veterans of the War of 1812. They came with government land warrants, given to them for war service.  Others sought free homesteading land, or to re-establish family ties with relatives who had preceded them. Regardless of their individual reasons, they all came to settle, to tame the wilderness, and to establish a style of living that was better than what they had experienced previously. It took a special type of person to tackle the frontier, and most who came tended to be experienced and resourceful frontiersmen who knew how to cope with frontier dangers and inconveniences.



Thomas Johnston Erwin, my great grandfather, was the third child of Joseph & Rebecca Erwin. He was born November 15, 1822 in Tennessee, probably near Pulaski in Giles County. He married Nancy Caroline Mathis February 5, 1845 in Henry County, Tennessee, probably in Paris, the county seat. She was the daughter of James Mathis and Sally Jones, and was born in 1828 in Tennessee. In 1848 Thomas, with wife Nancy and children Elizabeth Rebecca who was two, and James who was an infant, moved westward to Carroll County, in the Ozarks region of Arkansas.

Their children were:

1.         Elizabeth Rebecca Erwin, b. November 24, 1846 in Henry Co., TN

2.         James Erwin, born in 1847 in Tennessee.

3.         Margaret Mary Erwin, b. November 1849 in Carroll Co., AR

4.         Laura Alice Erwin, b. March 12, 1856 in Green Forest, Carroll Co., AR

5.         Joseph Johnson Erwin, b. July 29, 1858 in Green Forest, Carroll Co., AR

6.         Harriett Avarilla (Hattie) Erwin, b. January 30, 1860 in Denver, Carroll Co., AR

7.         William Coleman (Cole) Erwin, b. February 12, 1862 in Green Forest, Carroll Co., AR

8.         Michael Ransallaer (Mike) Erwin, b. August 4, 1867 in Carrolton, Carroll Co., AR

It is believed that it was about 1853 that Joseph Erwin, Jr. and Nancy Rebecca Davis Erwin, with several of their children, followed Thomas and Nancy Erwin to Carroll County. The 1850 census lists them near Paris in Henry County, Tennessee. The 1960 census has them in Carroll County, Arkansas.

Nancy Abigail Erwin, the eighth child of Joseph & Rebecca Erwin, was about eighteen years old and unmarried when she traveled with her parents and younger brothers and sisters to Carroll County, Arkansas. Nancy married John I. Worthington, a native of Pennsylvania, in Carroll County on August 27, 1854.  Soon afterward the couple moved to Neosho, in Greene County, Missouri where John engaged in the practice of law.

When the Civil War broke out John Worthington was commissioned a captain in the Union Army and served in the Sixth Kansas Cavalry. He later served in the First Arkansas Cavalry where he was promoted to major. He saw some action in Carroll County, and was later mortally wounded during an ambush by Confederates at Kings River on March 12, 1865.  His last words were: “Go on boys, and whip them! They have killed me.”

His widow and children then returned to Carroll County, where they lived for a time with her parents, Joseph and Rebecca Erwin. Later, after her father passed away, she and her children lived with Josephus and Elizabeth Epley, her brother-in-law and older sister.

The children of John and Nancy Worthington were:

1.         Joseph D. Worthington, b. August 13, 1855, probably in Carroll Co., Arkansas

2.         John I. Worthington, Jr., b. March 28, 1857 in Missouri

3.         Eliza R. Worthington, b. March 5, 1859 in Missouri

4.         Nancy Worthington, b. February 21, 1862 in Missouri

Little is known about Rebecca Anastasia Erwin, Harriett Adelade Erwin, John D. Erwin, Mary Helen Paralee Erwin, Michael Pike Erwin and Henrietta Tennessee Erwin. Rebecca Anastasia Erwin, the sixth child of Joseph & Rebecca Erwin, was listed on the 1850 census for Henry County, Tennessee, but not on the 1860 census. There is no record of her accompanying her family when they moved west to Arkansas circa 1853. She would have been twenty-three or so at the time and most likely married, but no record has been found of her marriage, or of what ultimately became of her.

The 1860 census for Carroll County, Arkansas listed Harriett Adalade Erwin (32), Michael P. Erwin (22), Mary H. Erwin (22), and Henrietta T. Erwin (16) in the household of Joseph and Rebecca Erwin. The 1870 census shows Harriett A. Erwin (42) still in the household of her parents, as well as Mary H. P. Erwin (32). Mary has a notation of “insane.” Nancy Erwin Worthington and her four children are also in the household of Joseph and Rebecca Erwin.

The 1880 census shows Rebecca Erwin (82), Nancy Erwin Worthington (52), and Mary Erwin (42) living in the household of Joseph Epley and Elizabeth Erwin Epley.

The 1890 census is not available to researchers, but the 1900 census for Carroll County does list the Joseph and Elizabeth Epley family, but Mary H.P. Erwin (who would have been 62) is not shown as being in their household…presumably because she passed away in the interim. Nancy Erwin Worthington died in December 1884, and her mother, Nancy Rebecca Davis Erwin, died after 1882.

Elizabeth Rebecca Erwin married Josephus C. (Joe) Epley on September 11, 1864. Joe’s oldest known ancestor was Joes Petrus Appel, born about 1678 in Baden, Germany. Joe Epley served in the Union Army during the Civil War, and he married Elizabeth while home on leave.

Joe and Elizabeth had the following children:

1.         Arlonia Alice (Leona) Epley, b. August 25, 1866 in Springfield, Greene Co., MO

2.         John Thomas Epley, b. May 5, 1868 in Denver, Carroll Co., AR

3.         Joseph Lafayette (Fate) Epley, b. July 12, 1871 in Denver Carroll Co., AR

4.         Nancy Caroline (Nan) Epley, b. March 20, 1874 in Denver, Carroll Co., AR

5.         William Franklin (Will) Epley, b. May 22, 1876 in Denver, Carroll Co., AR

6.         Susan Mahala (Sue) Eplay, b. October 17, 1878 in Denver, Carroll Co., AR

7.         James Mikel Epley, b. April 23, 1881in Denver, Carroll Co., AR

8.         Hattie Symantha Epley, b. April 21, 1883

9.         Steven Sephus (Seph) Epley, b. January 9, 1888, Green Forest, Carroll Co., AR; d. July 30, 1962, Harrison, Boone Co., AR

Carroll County, during the Civil War, had the misfortune to be in an area of split allegiance. Many families had members in both armies, and could conceivably face each other in a skirmish or battle. During the latter part of the war many inhabitants of Carroll County, who were Union sympathizers, moved north to the Springfield, Missouri area to sit out the war. Such was the case of Joe and Elizabeth. They were married in Carroll County, Arkansas, but their first child was born in Springfield, Missouri. They did not immediately return to Carroll County after the Civil War was over, but they had returned by 1868. Their second child, John Thomas Epley, was born in Denver, Carroll County, Arkansas.

Granddaughter Halene Epley Marriott relates: “When Joseph was discharged from the Union Army at the end of the Civil War he was given a horse that had been used in combat. He used the horse on the farm, but it was afraid of storms, and when there was lightening and thunder my grandfather would have to put it in the barn. The family ate mostly corn and wild onions until grandfather and the horse got the first crop of cotton in after the war. With the horse Grandfather transported the cotton to the gin in Denver on a sled. Cotton was his money crop.”

Judging by the birthplaces of their children, Joe and Elizabeth must have stayed pretty much in and around Carroll County, Arkansas for the next few years. It is known, though, that at some point Elizabeth became a lay preacher in the Nazarene Church. A recollection of granddaughter Mary A. Power – a retired Austin, Texas school teacher – has Joe and Elizabeth down in Texas around 1900. According to Mary, Elizabeth was preaching in traveling tent revival meetings. She would have been in her mid-fifties at the time. By 1911, however, they were back in Carroll County. Elizabeth passed away on March 13 of that year, and was buried in the Denver Cemetery.

Joe Epley lived until 1929. In the interim he married four more times, but when he died he was buried next to Elizabeth.

James Erwin – Little is known about the second-born child of Thomas and Nancy Caroline Erwin. It is thought that he "died young,” which was common among pioneer families. James was listed on the 1850 census for Carroll County, Arkansas, but he was not listed on the 1860 count. He would have been only thirteen years old in 1860, so it is unlikely that he had merely left home.

Late in the 1800s three of the four daughters of Thomas Johnston Erwin, with their husbands and many members of their extended families, started moving west from Carroll County, Arkansas to an area in the Cherokee Nation that would eventually be designated Cherokee County in the State of Oklahoma.


Beginning in the 1820s, the Federal Government relocated all Indians from the southeastern United States to the Oklahoma Territory, an area which had been part of the Louisiana Purchase. Five of the largest tribes of these Indians had come to be known as the Five Civilized Tribes because of their advanced systems of government, education and law enforcement.  They were the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, Creek and Seminole. 

The most peaceful removal among the Five Civilized Tribes was the Choctaw in 1820. The other four tribes followed, with removals becoming increasingly bloody from internal skirmishes and bouts with white men. The Seminoles were the last to make the westward journey in 1842. Although a relatively peaceful move, the most tragic Indian removal to Oklahoma was that of the Cherokee. A portion of the tribe had already moved to Arkansas in the late 18th century. The rest were forced to move after the Removal Act of 1830. The route traveled by the Cherokees across the Missouri and Arkansas wilderness during harsh winter months became known in history as the "Trail of Tears," because many members of the tribe died and were buried along the way.

By 1856, each of the Five Civilized Tribes had established territorial boundaries in the frontier.  These were all national domains, not reservations. The Five Civilized Tribes also formed their own individual constitutional governments, and established advanced public school systems as well. The nations had powerful judicial systems and strong economies. Some tribes even brought black slaves and freedmen with them from the East and built plantations, villages, and towns in the new "Oklahoma Indian Territory." To protect the five nations from angry Plains Indians who were upset at having to share their lands with the newcomers, the U.S. Army built several forts. These included Fort Washita near Durant, and Fort Gibson near Muskogee.

The Oklahoma Indian Territory did not  escape the destruction of the Civil War entirely, but it did rebound quickly, and soon became a part of the booming cattle industry, ushering in the era of the cowboy. Western expansion reached the territory in the late 1800s, sparking a controversy over the fate of the land. Treaties enacted after the Civil War by the Federal Government forced the tribes to give up their communal lands and accept individual property allotments in order to make way for expansion. There was talk at the time of using parts of the Indian Territory for settlement by African Americans emancipated from slavery. There were strong feelings against it, however, and the government relented to the pressure, much of it coming from a group known as "Boomers," who wanted the rich lands opened to non-Indian settlement.

In the end the government decided to open the western parts of the territory to settlers by holding a total of six land runs between 1889 and 1895.  Settlers came from across the nation and many European countries to stake their claims. Charles Ellis Hayworth, my maternal grandfather, participated in the second run in 1893. Many African Americans, some of whom were former slaves of Indians, took part in the runs, or accepted their allotments as tribal members.  In the years that followed, black pioneers founded and settled entire communities.


Margaret Mary Erwin, the third child of Thomas Johnston Erwin and Nancy Caroline Mathis, first married an unknown member of the Carroll County, Arkansas Epley family, probably about 1867. Evel Epley is the only known child to be born of this union. Sometime before 1876 Margaret married (2) William Lonner Capps, who was born February 22, 1850 in Alabama. The only known child of Margaret’s second marriage was Gorretty Capps. He was born April 26, 1876 in Carroll County and presumably lived there his entire life. He is buried in the Leathers Cemetery in Carroll County. The exact date that Margaret and her husband moved west is not known, but it was probably in 1898 or 1899. Census records indicate that—starting about 1905—many members of the large Capps family also moved westward into the Oklahoma Indian Territory as well.

Laura Alice Erwin, the fourth-born child of Thomas and Nancy Caroline, married (1) Stephen Parker Dickens in 1872 in Carroll County. He was born March 26, 1848 in Springfield, Missouri and died July 5, 1897 in Green Forest, Arkansas. Laura next married (2) James McClure Leathers about 1898 in Carroll County. It is believed that Laura and James moved to the Indian Territory near Tahlequah shortly after their marriage. It is known that they lived for a time in or near Dwight Mission in Sequoyah County, Oklahoma, for it is there that James died and was buried in 1928. Laura died April 23, 1929 in Tahlequah, and is buried in Tahlequah City Cemetery.

Laura & Stephen Dickens had the following children:

1.         William Lillard Dickens, b. March 12, 1876, Green Forest, Carroll Co., AR; d. January 7, 1959 in Oklahoma

2.         Ozenia Olive Dickens, b. April 17, 1876, Green Forest, Carroll Co., AR; d. April 14, 1947, Tahlequah, Cherokee Co., OK.

3.         Gladys V. Dickens, b. April 25, 1892; d. January 17, 1920

Harriett Avarilla (Hattie) Erwin was the sixth-born child of Thomas and Nancy Caroline Erwin. She married John Rains Hargis November 18, 1884 in Green Forest, Arkansas. He was born in 1861 in Missouri, the son of James Hargis and Letitia Rains. It is thought that the family moved to the Oklahoma Indian Territory shortly after their fourth, and last, child was born in 1898. John Hargis was a shoemaker and operated a shoe shop in Tahlequah. In later years Roy Yeager, a son-in-law, joined him in the shop. Family and friends knew Hattie as “Aunt Hattie” or, in some cases, “Granny Hargis.”

 The children of John and Hattie were:

1.          Flossie Lutisha Hargis, b. September 11, 1885

2.         Carroll Finis Hargis, b. March 29, 1888

3.         Vachel Arnold Hargis, b. 1891

4.         Clell Hargis, b. October 9, 1898

All were born in Carroll County, and all died in Oklahoma.

Joseph Johnson (Joe) Erwin, the fifth child of Thomas and Nancy Erwin, married Malissa Caroline (Lizz) Purselley July 28, 1878 in Carroll County, Arkansas. She was the daughter of James Purselley and Martha Osborne. “Joe and Lizz,” as they were affectionately known, lived on a farm on Long Creek near the little town of Denver. Joe was a farmer all of his life, but at one point, early in the 1900s, Joseph J. Erwin was also the president of the First National Bank of Green Forest, Arkansas. The bank was founded in 1901 and closed its doors in 1915.

Joe and Lizz had nine children, all born in Carroll County, Arkansas. They were:

1.         James T. Erwin, b. 1879, d. 1880

2.         Charles Erwin, b. June 20, 1881

3.         J. Edward Erwin, b. August 18, 1884

4.         Myrtle K. Erwin, b. October 6, 1886

5.         Essie Erwin, b. November 14, 1887

6.         Virgie E. Erwin, b. November 1889

7.         Velara Erwin, b. March 31, 1891

8.         Willie Olga Erwin, b. April 14, 1893

9.         Adry Ralph Erwin, b. October 14, 1896

Joe Erwin was the only one of the eight children of Thomas Johnston Erwin and Nancy Caroline Mathis to remain permanently in Carroll County, although Elizabeth Erwin Epley, their oldest daughter, did live most of her life there. Joe died July 6, 1936, and Lizz passed on February 9, 1943. They are buried side-by-side in the Denver Cemetery near Green Forest, Arkansas.

William Coleman “Cole” Erwin was the seventh child of Thomas and Nancy Erwin. He married Indiana (India) May Freeman in Berryville, Carroll County, Arkansas on December 16, 1886. They had eight children:

1.         Noble Olin Erwin, b. July 13, 1888 in Green Forest, Carroll Co., AR

2.         Thomas Ernest (Tom) Erwin, b. February 1890 in Carroll Co., AR

3.         Michael Earle Erwin, b. April 1892 in Green Forest, Carroll Co., AR

4.         Gertrude Minnie Erwin, b. June 7, 1893 in Green Forest, Carroll Co., AR

5.         Joseph William Erwin, b. February 5, 1896 in Green Forest, Carroll Co., AR

6.         Sarah Caroline (Carrie) Erwin, b. July 14, 1898 in Carroll Co., AR

7.         Johnnie Thomas Erwin (dau.), b. July 1, 1900 in Carroll Co., AR

8.         Marshall Freeman Erwin, b. January 9, 1910 in Munice, Dewey Co., OK

Cole and India were strikingly different in appearance. Cole was six feet two inches tall, which was tall for his generation.  India, on the other hand, was only about five feet and weighed around one hundred pounds. Cole’s descendants report that he was forever looking for the gold at the end of the rainbow. He tried several things to “strike it rich” but never found the big one, although he always provided for his family. India is said to have been a loving and dutiful wife, always waiting patiently at home while Cole was away on one of his “quests.”

One can obviously assume that the permanent address of Cole and India May Erwin was in Carroll County, Arkansas, until at least the latter part of 1900. Their seventh child was born there, and the 1900 census, recorded on June 20, 1900, has them in Long Creek Township. Marshall Freeman Erwin was born in Munice, Dewey County, Oklahoma, in January 1910, but the 1910 census shows the family in Blaine County, Oklahoma, and Marshall is listed as being three months old.

A copy of a warranty deed dated November 14, 1892, provided by Glenna Combs, a great-granddaughter of Joseph Johnson Erwin, indicates that when Thomas Johnston Erwin  passed away in 1892 he willed his farm to his children, share and share alike. Cole Erwin bought the shares of his brothers and sisters and gained sole ownership of the family homestead. An attachment indicates, however, that the deed was not properly recorded, and that the problem was not corrected until October 25, 1917. It is assumed that it was at that time that his brother, Joe Erwin, assumed ownership of the farm. Today it is a part of the three hundred-acre home farm of Glenna and Gene Combs.

Indiana May Freeman Erwin died December 3, 1918 in Eagle City, Blaine County, Oklahoma. It is reported that Cole took her death unusually hard. Marshall, his youngest child, was only eight when his mother died, and Cole left the boy with his older son Joe. Cole followed the oilfield booms in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas, working when he could, often staying with older children between jobs. According to the Longton Gleaner, a weekly newspaper in Longton, Kansas, he visited his younger brother Michael and sister-in-law Minnie in Longton several times in the 1920s.

William Coleman Erwin died December 16, 1928 in McCamey, Upton County, Texas. He and India are both buried in the Munice Cemetery in Dewey County, Oklahoma.

Michael Ransallaer “Mike” Erwin, my grandfather, was the last-born of Thomas and Nancy. On December 16, 1886 he married Minnie Olive Freeman in Carroll County, Arkansas. It was, in fact, a double wedding. Mike’s next oldest brother, William Coleman Cole Erwin, married Indiana May India Freeman during the same ceremony. Both young ladies were daughters of John W. Freeman and Sarah Ellen Foncannon.   

Mike & Minnie on their

wedding day


Mike and Minnie were parents of the following children:

1.         Odes Herman Erwin, b. April 30, 1888 in Green Forest, Carroll Co., AR

2.         Dale H. Erwin, b. October 18, 1890 in Carroll Co., AR

3.         Thomas Jay Erwin, b. November 23, 1892 in Denver, Carroll Co., AR

4.         Russell Vachel Bill Erwin, b. June 30, 1899 in Longton, Elk Co., KS

5.         Michael Roy Jack Erwin, b. 1905 in Longton, Elk. Co., KS

6.         Baby Boy Erwin, b. 1907 in Longton, Elk Co., KS…died same day

7.         Jessie Carl Jim Erwin, b. July 7, 1909 in Longton, Elk Co., KS

8.         Evelyn Joyce Joy Erwin, b. April 6, 1913 in Washita, Caddo Co., OK

In 1898 Mike and Minnie Erwin, with ten-year-old Odes, Dale who was eight, and Thomas, born in 1892, moved by covered wagon from Carroll County, Arkansas to Elk County, Kansas where Minnie’s older half-brothers Levi and Vachel Freeman lived. The trip had been in the planning stage for several weeks before they left. Details are sketchy, but it is believed another Erwin family, probably that of Cole and India Erwin, made the trip as well. The joint family-group traveled west from Green Forest, Arkansas into the Oklahoma Territory, crossed the Grand River about where Grand Lake is now (also called Lake of the Cherokee), and on west and north into Kansas. According to my father’s (Odes) recollection the trip took nineteen days. Bits and pieces of family lore indicate that the other family completed the trip to Elk County, but did not stay. After only a short time, it seems, they moved down into Oklahoma. This vaguely fits with the family tradition concerning Cole  Erwin.

As my father told the story to Clifford many years later, there were two covered wagons, a number of mounted family members, and ninety-nine head of cattle in the caravan. My father, being the oldest son, helped drive the family cattle. He had a two-year-old colt to ride, and his Dad had bought him a new saddle. When the wagon train reached the Grand River the spring rains were over, at least temporarily, but the water was still high. The two families decided that it was prudent to wait for the water to go down enough to make the river crossing less hazardous. The women were eager, by that point in the journey, to stop for a day or two.

They took advantage of the delay, and the warm weather, to wash clothes and air bedding. The men looked after the cattle and horses and checked the harnesses and wagons for wear. The children had to help also, but there was still plenty of time for play. In the evenings, around the campfire, there was singing and storytelling. After two days of rest, all the while watching the water recede, it was decided that it was safe to ford the river and proceed. Near Longton, in Elk County, Kansas, Mike and Minnie settled on a rented farm.


Elk County was the destination of Mike and Minnie Erwin, but it is not the end of the story. Each of their children, as well as their grandchildren, represents a chapter of They Passed This Way.

But let’s not forget the many Erwins who migrated in the 1800s to Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Texas. Later generations of Erwins and their extended families chose to live in Alaska, California, Oregon and Washington. Each represents a story that needs to be told.

And bear in mind that everyone did not inherit a serious case of the Erwin “itchy-foot syndrome.Many of our cousins chose to remain in close proximity to their birthplaces in Arkansas, Kentucky and Tennessee. The Erwins of Calloway County, Kentucky are a prime example of deep-seated family connections to a geographical area. Many of their family histories are documented, and we will try to bring some of them to you in future issues of The Bagpiper.