Rebecca Estes, The First Child Born in Lost Camp - 1861
Tue, 11/14/2023 - 3:47pm admin
I live between two of the oldest communities in Howell County, and less than two miles from the location of events and people in this story. The north end of our county developed later than the areas where land was better for farming. It took a hardy set of people who came and farmed the dry table lands and small valleys of north Howell County. I recently wrote about a well dug by hand along Route U, between Hutton Valley and Lost Camp. The events recalled here happened on this farm.
The late Ella Horak provides much of the detail, and she should have known, as she was a niece of Rebecca Palestine Estes and personally interviewed her aunt in 1940 at the age of seventy-nine, seven months before she died.
Rebecca's parents moved to Howell County in the Spring of 1857. Like many of the new arrivals, they came originally from Tennessee. Her uncle, Newton C. Epps, wrote about visiting the Estes family at Lost Camp:
"About the first of October 1857, in company with my sister, Melvina, we started from our home in Greene County to visit our brother-in-law, Thomas J. Estes, and other relatives and old acquaintances in Howell County. On the next Sunday afternoon, we reached Lost Camp Valley, where we found Estes living in a tent. He had made a crop that summer two miles west on the same valley."
Epps remained with the Estes and helped build a small log cabin to get them out of the cold for winter. He also helped construct a log church house in Hutton Valley. The Mount Pisgah Church predates the Civil War.
Thomas J. Estes and his wife Mary Ann (nicknamed Polly) already had four children, three boys, and a girl, ages ten through two. In the early years of their marriage, the Estes' had lost two infant children to disease. Rebecca was born June 15, 1861, and was noted as the first white child born in the Lost Camp community. Polly wrote this letter to her parents, still living in Greene County, Missouri, letting them know not only of the birth of another child but the hardships she had been enduring:
Howell Co. Mo. July 17. 1861
Dear father and mother brothers & sisters. I seat my self to let you know how we are a-getting along. We are all well. I have got so I can set up the most of my time & I hope when you get this it may find you all well & doing well. I will just say to you that I have a fine girl. It was born the 15 of June. I call her Rebecca Palestine. I was as smart as I could be until Wednesday. After I was taken with the milk fever with a hard ague & the fever lasted me thirteen days.
I hardly know what to write for times is so that I don't know what to do or say. Some has been wanting to leave here, but I have never felt like I wanted to leave home yet. So I hope the Lord will protect me and the children. I think the time close at hand when all true Americans will have to go. There is a few neighbors gone with McBride's Regiment & I fear some has gone before considerin' the matter. We received your letter last week which gave us great satisfaction to hear from you all. I would be glad to see you all but I don't feel like that I will ever see you all in this life but I hope we will meet in heaven where parting will be no more. That is all the consolation that I have, for I think that we are all done seeing pleasure on earth.
We have a fine crop of wheat & our corn looks well. Times very hard, but we will have plenty such as we can raise at home if it ain't destroyed by the intruders & if so, the Lord only knows what will become of me & the children. We want to see you & I would be glad to be up there to eat peaches, but we can't come. I want you to write me as soon as you get this so no more at present, but I remain your affectionate daughter until death,
Mary A. Estes to one & all
The Civil War clouds were gathering, and Polly Estes' words were prophetic. When Zach Alsup, son of Ben Alsup, told Tom the country was full of rebel soldiers hunting Union men, Tom Estes knew he had to leave. Polly did see her parents and family members again, as we shall see.
"In 1940, Ella Horak, quoting Rebecca from an interview for the Willow Springs News, wrote, "It was in this mood that grandfather made off a-foot on the perilous journey to Rolla where he enlisted in the first six months call to service. (Phelp's Regiment November 1861) Grandmother Polly heard from him one time during the six months. She stayed on the homestead with her five children, hoping for the best to come. One day, just as the darkness came on, the back door of the cabin opened, and grandfather (Tom Estes) stepped inside. His first words were, "Have you got anything to eat?" He was not thinking of himself but his family - had they had anything to eat? Crops were already being taken-stolen by soldiers or local enemies.
Ella continues, "He stayed at home only a few days, long enough to make arrangements for his family to go to Rolla. His old friend, Dan Lovan, warned him that danger lurked in the hills. Grandfather stole away under cover of darkness once more on his way to Rolla. He had not been gone many hours when four men who had been neighbors came to the door and asked to see him. Grandmother told the men that grandfather was not there. The intruders did not believe her and insisted that they would not harm him. When they failed to find Grandfather, the marauders went on their way. Grandfather reached Rolla in safety. He went into the army where he served until the close of the war, a strife that divided families and made enemies of friends."
"Grandmother Estes went with her children to Rolla, where she spent the winter of 1862-1863. Union soldiers were encamped near Rolla, and Grandfather (Tom Estes) was cook. Many times that winter, Grandmother would make a dishpan full of doughnuts and take them to camp for the soldiers. Again, she would go with a big pan of fried pies. Indeed, she became a favorite visitor in that cold winter army camp. About spring, grandfather knew that the camp was going to move out, to where he did not know. He did not want Grandmother to stay at Rolla. Her father, Ely Epps, came down to Rolla and took his daughter and children to Greene County, where they lived in a small house at the rear of the Epps home until after the war."
Tom made an impressive soldier and was involved in combat in the South, to the degree that he was worn down and was placed in an invalid corps. At the end of the war, he served as a guard at the hanging of the Lincoln assassination conspirators.
Ella continues, "It was in July 1865 that Tom Estes returned to his family that found that his children had produced corn and other supplies to do them until another crop could be made. In February 1866, he moved with his family back to his homestead on Lost Camp Valley. The buildings were destroyed, and all of the fencing had been burned. Aunt Rebecca says, "We lived in one small cabin that summer. The cabin had not a shutter to the door. A heavy drape hung over the door to keep out what might walk into the room. Father put out the crop, and while it was coming up, he and my three brothers built a fence to keep stock out of their fields. That fall, my father got lumber and built a house in which we lived for several years. He then went to a saw mill out in the 'pinery' and bought lumber to build a six-room house with a cellar under the main part of the building."
"For many years after we moved back to Howell County, the big black wolves would come at night and kill our sheep and calves. We would see the wolves on our way to school. Almost every day, father would kill a big rattlesnake, and wild animals roamed the woods and hills. The deer and turkey were seen by the hundreds. The farmer had to fight them to be able to make a crop. The valley was covered with hazel brush, and we picked hazelnuts by the sack full. We would have two or three bushels of shelled hazelnuts for winter. When the cold winter evenings came, we sat by the big fire and ate nuts. What a happy time we children had. No cares, no worries then. We used to dry all our fruit. We would have fourteen bushels of dried fruit. Of course, we sold some and used the rest at home. At that time, wild strawberries covered the valley. We picked them by the baskets full."
"It was several years after the war before schools and churches were established in this locality. The Moffett School west of Hutton Valley was probably the first school established. Another school was later built just east of Hutton Valley Cemetery. A log building was raised by the settlers. Grandfather Estes and P.N. Gulley of Hutton Valley being the leaders. Aunt Rebecca walked three miles to this school when she was twelve years of age. "It was through the woods all the way. Was I scared? Yes, but there was no other way for me to go. Mary and Martha Gulley were my chums when we attended the Hutton Valley School."
"The wheat was harvested with the one-man cradle. I have seen father have six cradlers cutting grain at one time. It was often a rush to get cutting done before a rain came and spoiled the grain. The binders followed the cradlers and tied the wheat into bundles. It was then shocked and later stacked for threshing. We had grain to make our flour for a whole year. We didn't go to the store every day for bread."
"My father made a trip to Rolla every fall to get supplies for a year. He bought shoes for both winter and summer to do us a year. He brought home a supply of sugar and coffee and salt by the barrel in order to have salt for the stock. Rolla was then the nearest railroad station. I remember when the railroad was built through Howell County. The road was a great help to the farmers and fruit growers. They could ship their fruit out of old Missouri where they grow the finest flavored fruit in the world."
"I used to go to the spring to do the washing. I carried my big iron wash kettle and clothes out by the spring and did the washing under the shade of a tree. I gathered sticks and wood to build a fire, washed the clothes, and spread them on the bushes to dry. I had to watch the cattle to keep them from chewing the clothes. When I had finished my washing, I went home to lunch and returned later in the day to gather in the clothes."
"Rebecca recalls that she has seen her father start fire by striking a flint rock with his pocket knife and catching the spark with cotton until a flame was started. She knew how to keep fire by bedding the hot coals, and she has even had to borrow fire a few times in her young years."
"When we first began to use matches, we thought a box of matches was to last a year. We used the old grease lamps with the round twisted wick. Then Mother learned to make candles. We had a mold to make a dozen candles at a time. Mother would make a year's supply of tallow candles and hang them in the cellar. When we had company, we always burned more candles for we wanted good lights when visitors came. The first kerosene lamp I ever saw was a little brass lamp that held about a teacup of oil, yet we were afraid to touch it. Father brought it home, and it was a real wonder to us."
"When Aunt Rebecca was sixteen years of age, she united with the Mount Pisgah Church at Hutton Valley, the church her father helped to build and organize many years ago. 'When I was baptized, we drove nine miles to Pine Creek, where twelve candidates were immersed by our pastor, Reverend Rice. It snowed all day. We never thought anything about that, for we were following our Lord's command.'"
"We did not have a post office to get our mail without going five or ten miles. Neighbors were far apart. There were only three houses between our home and West Plains. In 1875, a stagecoach was started from Rolla to West Plains to carry the mail. Stations were established along the way where the driver changed horses. One station was at my father's home. My brother Charley took care of the horses. He would get up at midnight and go out in the snow and cold to harness the horses to have them ready when the stage arrived. No time could be lost at these stations. Just how long the stage ran, I do not know. There was not enough mail to pay to keep it up, and the stage line was discontinued."
Rebecca, being the last child born to Tom and Polly Estes, remained at home until she was twenty-two. For five years, she had been caring for her mother, Polly, who died of cancer in 1883. Tom sold out and divided his property among his children. Unburdened from caretaking responsibilities, Rebecca soon married Thomas J. Wilbanks, a Howell County native. In 1892, the couple moved to Liberty, Missouri, so he could study at William Jewell College in answer to a call to the ministry. The couple served in several churches in North Missouri and Texas. Wilbanks also was a railroad evangelist. They had eight children, six of whom lived to adulthood. In 1920, Rebecca and Tom were divorced. Rebecca moved to California, remarried, and spent the rest of her life there. She died in Inglewood, California, on November 16, 1940, at age seventy-nine.
It was a long journey in life for Rebecca. From oxen and oxcarts for transportation, she lived to see the automobile and passenger air service. From living in a howling wilderness to a home near Los Angeles, Rebecca always described her time spent in Lost Camp, Howell County, Missouri, fondly.