The rich history of Delaware Bend

The year that Texas declared its independence, there still were Indian villages in the area of what now is North Texas. That was 176 years ago in 1836.

Shawneetown was north of Denison and 28 miles north of Whitesboro, was a band of Indians known as the Delaware tribe. Their village was at a bend in Red River known as Delaware Bend.

In later years Delaware Bend became one of the three most notorious spots in the United States, sharing the “honor” with Leadville, Colo., and Tombstone, Ariz.

When Fannin County was created Delaware Bend became a part of it. In 1846 when Grayson County was created and two years later when Cooke County was formed, both counties still were populated with Indians.

Many of the Indians were restless and resentful of the advance of the white people, but in spite of the dangers, settlers began arriving and setting up trading posts. Military roads were built and many men led expeditions to control Indian depredations on the settlers.

John Neely Bryan, who later claimed a headright of 640 acres of land and laid out the streets of Dallas, had been traveling up and down the Red River into Texas and became associated with Holland Coffee at his trading post on the Red River where Glen Eden eventually was built.

In 1986 Edith Wilkirson, the former Edith Jewell Dick of Denison who grew up in the Delaware Bend area, loved the area very much and wrote about it many times. One piece she shared with this writer tells much about life at Delaware Bend. She had done a lot of research on the area.

Edith, who now is deceased, said that in 1842 a treaty was drawn up between Indian tribes and commissioners that would exclude Indians from all the land east of the Cross Timbers, located a few miles west of Preston. That treaty made Delaware Bend a haven for the Indians. The Delawares were peaceful and friendly, but soon were replaced by lawless and roving tribes.

Cross Timbers is where a peculiar forest growth from five to 30 miles wide extended from the Arkansas River 400 miles southwest to the Brazos bottoms. At that time the timber seemed to divide the rich agricultural area on the east from the more barren lands on the west, according to an article about Capt. Randolph B. Marcy’s exploration into the territory before the Civil War.

Like Shawneetown not much is known about the Delaware Village before the first settlers arrived there in the 1860s.Those settlers were immigrants from Europe, chiefly from Moravia, then a part of Austria, and from Germany. Many spoke no English.

Descendants of Col. W.D. Young were among the first settlers at Delaware Bend. He became a large landowner in Grayson County, where in 1851 he bought land that included Shawneetown. He turned Shawneetown into a landing for cotton barges. A ferry also existed there.

Col. Young, who served as United States Marshal for one term, is best known in Texas history as a confederate hero who was ambushed Oct. 16, 1862, in events that led to “The Great Hanging” in Gainesville.

Col. James Bourland, military commander for the Confederacy, helped Col. Young lead expeditions to control Indian attacks on the settlers.

Family stories have been passed down through the years adding insight to the already colorful past of the small village at the bend of the river.

In 1873 Benjamin and Nancy Dick, Edith’s great-grandparents, came to Texas from Kentucky and settled near the banks of Red River. Edith’s grandfather was about five years old and his sister, Arittie, known as Aunt Rhett, was about eight. Aunt Rhett married Millard Fillmore Ragsdale and they lived in the Bend for almost 80 years until their property was bought by the government along with land owned by about 40 other families to make way for the waters of Lake Texoma.

In an interview by a reporter from the Sherman Democrat many years ago, she said that when her family first arrived in Delaware Bend they got their mail every two weeks and had to go to Dexter, a small place about 10 miles away, to get it.

She said that many Indians passed their door. Some were from the Indian Territory and came to a saloon on the Texas side. She remembered that there were six stores, a gin and later a post office and saloon in Delaware Bend. On some days several men might be killed, she told the reporter.

Edith’s father was 10 when one of the colorful characters of the community, W.H. (Uncle Billy) Bourland died. He had chosen the spot in the woods on his property where he wanted to be buried. He had planned his funeral and even bought his own casket, just to be prepared.

Edith said the casket was kept at his home until a hen laid an egg on it. One story is that Uncle Billy then took an axe and chopped the casket up and bought another one. Another story is that rats got into the second casket and a third one was bought before Uncle Billy needed it.

Edith’s grandfather attended Uncle Billy’s funeral in the woods and told the story that as the old man was laid to rest, the sun went into eclipse and he always complained about spots before his eyes that he said were caused by watching the sun that day. It’s not known if Uncle Billy was related to Col. James Bourland, but it could be possible.

Edith said that John Malena related a story about five men from nearby Dexter who had a grudge against a blacksmith in the Bend. They appointed themselves a posse to get the smithy. They let it be known that they had ordered a coffin for him.

He heard the news but said nothing. However, he kept a .38 caliber Winchester across his anvil. One day the five men came for him. He killed three of them, one as he ran away. The other two were said to have run their horses to death getting away. The blacksmith spent two years in prison for shooting the man in the back.

Edith said that since Delaware Bend was just across Red River from Oklahoma, it became headquarters for lawless men who could escape to the Oklahoma side if Texas Rangers got hot behind them. By then the Indians were gone and Delaware Bend had settled down. Life was not so hard and the area was beginning to grow with new families moving in.

John Shwadlenak liked to tell the story that the notorious James brothers at one time had a hideout in the Bend and would give boys living there 50 cents to watch out for posses.

Charles Quantrill, the guerilla chieftain of the south, was a familiar sight around Delaware Bend, according to stories told Edith. The James brothers, Quantrill and Bonnie and Clyde (not involved in Delaware Bend) seemed to get around pretty good in Grayson County.

What’s left of Delaware Bend now belongs to land owners. Most of the best farming area of Delaware Bend now is under Lake Texoma.

Donna Hunt is former editor of The Denison Herald. She lives in Denison and can be contacted at