|Ghostly Remains at Brown Springs
|A very historic place at the South Bend of the Red River.
|I pondered to myself and to readers of my FB page if the areas I circled were what I had surmised.
I verified with a field trip before the June storms hit, and did not leave disappointed.
A research journey
In June 2019, I was contacted by a TV crew about the town of Thackerville in Love County, Oklahoma. Doing my due diligence, I made sure
to research the surrounding areas, and began a more in-depth take on Brown Springs. Located in a deep southward bend of the Red
River, aptly called South Bend, due north of Gainesville, Texas, I used the Oklahoma Historical Society and the Indian Pioneer Papers at
the University of Oklahoma to discover the right 'feel' of this place. While the TV thing didn't pan out, my research did - I learned quite a bit
more about this fantastic place.
Brown Springs is a natural spring about 200 yards or so from the Red River, and it maintains a continous and copious flow. This would
have proved to be an ideal place for settlement if it weren't for the more-than-occasional floods and the rather yucky river bottom
environment. This part of the Red River is very hilly, so whatever homes and businesses were built stood at higher elevations. Still,
Brown Springs became a crossing and stopping point rather than a bona-fide town. Lillie Sprowls lived at Brown Springs for a while as a
child before her family, which came to Indian Territory from Texas in 1875, left to farm along the Washita Bend. She remembered that
The ferry was "run by two men. It was a flat boat pulled across by cables and it had a drum on each end and a water wheel
beneath. The cable ran from one end of the boat tot he other and around the drums. The drums had cranks on them and
the men would load on whatever was to be crossed and start winding the cable and the boat would start going. Some times
when the river would be up one of the men would use some long oars and the other would pull the ferry boat across."
Another group that made use of the springs were Texans who traveled north into Indian Territory after the Civil War to stake farm land in
the area designated as the Chickasaw Nation. While the Chickasaw government disallowed purchases of land by non-Chickasaws, a
steady stream of Texans continued to arrive. The law required them to purchase permits, pay fees, and enter into leases. Most of the
Texans paid these. However, several did not - L. B. Haney explained that
under governor Benjamin Franklin Overton, "the Chickasaw militia put people across Red River when they refused to pay
the permit. The militia often passed our house driving people into Texas. As soon as the millitia had departed the people
whom they had driven out turned around and drove back."
Lillie Sprowls' recollection of the Texan opposition to the permits was similar to Haney's:
|The trail to the cemetery at Brown Springs is an ancient halloway - generations of people have
trekked up the hillside in sandy loess, creating a deep and lasting impression on the landscape.
Marshes of Brown Springs
The Red River itself is spring-fed, and thousands of natural springs still dot the Red River Valley. Unfortunately, many of these springs
have been capped or diverted because of towns, water systems, and lake building. Luckily, Brown Springs still manages to bubble up
and inundate the landscape. Excited to be able to view the site of an historic spring in its natural state (or as close to natural as
development has allowed it), I took a field trip to the springs on a hot June afternoon, with storms threatening on the horizon.
The springs are conveniently located along Brown Springs Road southeast of Thackerville, inside a wildlife management area that hugs
the Red River. I had to pass the big casinos to find the road, but it's clearly marked and well maintained, and quite clean. The cemetery is
not marked, however. It's easy enough to tell when you come to it, as it sits up a hill on the north side of the road, across from a
dirt-round-about, behind which are the marshes of Brown Springs.
The Brown Springs Cemetery
While the springs acted as a way-marker for those traveling to and from Indian Territory, whatever settlements had been established are
now long gone. The only physical reminder that people lived along the river bottoms in the South Bend Region is a long-forgotten
cemetery, often mis-labled as an "Indian cemetery" or even as an "Indian Burial Ground." Several Chickasaw citizens are buried there,
but so are a number of non-Chickasaws, and the burial practices are decidedly Christian - there's no need to pretend this lovely place is
some kind of portal for a Poltergeist. The neglect shown to the cemetery, however, does provide the context for the place being viewed
as other-worldly, and even haunted. When I visited, I didn't see any ghosts nor did I find it particularly creepy. I didn't care for the poison
ivy, mosquitoes and ticks, but they were a small price to pay!
The cemetery is located at the top of a steep hill along a halloway - a path that has been rutted by the footsteps of countless people
making their trek north and south. The cemetery is located inside a barbed wire fence to the left on the hilltop. The first few
gravestones are the most intact ones. Further down the cemetery path are several markers that have been either kicked over or are
partially obscured by overgrowth. Names are hard to make out, but here's a list of the people known to have been buried at Brown
|The springs and their verdant surroundings can be seen across Brown Springs Road from the cemetery hill.
|In every cemetery I've come across, young women make up a disproportionate amount of the inhabitants.
M.D. Wilson (1865-1885) was already a wife and a mother when she died a mere 20 days after her baby expired.
|Moss covers the base of this missing tombstone.
|I believe this stone is part of a series of steps along the cemetery's path, now immortalized with the initials RLW and WMM.
|A long lost bridge at Brown Springs
By 1902, travelers could choose between two ferries to cross to the opposite side of the river: either the Browns or the Sacras ferry. In
1917, U.S. Congress granted permission to the Gainesville Red River Bridge Company to build a bridge at the Sacras Ferry site. This
bridge may have been a suspension bridge, not unlike the ones further upstream between Wilson and Nocona, and downstream at
Telephone. From Gainesville, the road to the bridge site is now part of the Stark Ranch and is no longer accessible. However, parts of the
bridge's structure are still visible on the Oklahoma side - just two side lanes east of the cemetery. The approach is very much overgrown
but is still clearly visible as it rises towards the former suspended road bed. By the 1930s, a free bridge opened to carry travelers on US
highway 77, and the toll bridge closed shop.
A primeval place
Brown Springs still exists, thank goodness. The springs still flow, and some of its physical remains can be visited. Lots of spooky stories
abound about the place, too - the dumped bodies of people killed in the Dallas area; sightings of a bog monster; bloody knives left in tree
stumps; the faces of dead children appearing in photographs of the gravestones... You can read all about them on oklahomahistory.net
and Paranormal Blogspot.
When I visited, I didn't feel anything but a bit of sadness from the neglect of the cemetery; and then, the thrill of discovery. So if you go to
Brown Springs and its cemetery, go there with a sense of adventure and with a deep respect for the people for whom this is their final
resting place. Brown Springs - the cemetery, the marsh, and the bridge - are primordial historic sites, and deserve to be preserved for
generations to come.
"We had to pay five dollars permit for a year at first then they raised it to $25 and some people would not pay it and the
militia would come over and put the people who would not pay on the Texas side... [after doing this to a large number of
Texans] the Texans began to shoot in the air above the heads of the militia and this....gave them such a scare that they
did not bother the settlers any more...abolished the law."
By the turn of the 20th century, such a large number of Texans had moved into Chickasaw Territory that they outnumbered the citizens
of the Chickasaw Nation. This occurred in the Choctaw and Cherokee Nations, too. The many non-Indians who lived in Indian Territory
by this time prompted an observer to exclaim, "Why are all the Indians so white?" This ethnic reversal may explain the Dawes Rolls of
"There was a little trading post nearby called the Henderson Store. While living at Brown's Ferry we dug up all kinds of
dishes and some human bones. We thought there had been Indians buried there at some time in the past."
Prior to American settlement, native tribes camped around the springs. This continued when the Chickasaws entered Indian Territory
from Arkansas in the 1840s as some of the last southeastern native Americans to be removed from their original homelands. J.C. Brown
or Samuel Brown (sources differ on the first name; the site of the ferry was on an original land grant deeded to S. Brown) established a
ferry between Gainesville and the springs. Thus, Brown Springs became a destination for travelers, pioneers, and merchants. James
Henry Holland described how the ferry operated at the turn of the 20th century:
|The Browns Ferry site is now the Stark Ranch; the Sacras Ferry site was turned into a toll bridge around 1917.
(1902 Topographical Map, UT Arlington).
|Congress gave permission for the Gainesville Red River Bridge Company to "construct, maintain,
and operate a bridge... at Sacras Ferry" in 1917. (US Congressional Acts publication, 1919.
|Remnants of the bridge just downriver from Browns Springs.
|The concrete that formed the bridge is slowly becoming an ivy-covered relic.
This spot is also a place for partiers - they left more than a few beer cans behind.
|Brown Springs Road is east from Exit 1 on Interstate 35 at the very southern end of Love
County, Oklahoma. The road is well marked. It enters a wildlife management area, so be
cautious - hunters may be out and about. You'll also need hiking shoes and strong calf
muscles because there is NO WAY you can take a vehicle up the halloway to the cemetery.
Watch for poison ivy and annoying bugs, and make sure the people in your group (if you go in
a group) do not disturb the springs or the cemetery markers.
Take only pictures and leave only footsteps!