THE LITTLE COLLEGE IN THE RURAL HILLS OF ITAWAMBA
In the Spring, 2016 issue of Itawamba Settlers: The Quarterly Journal of Itawamba County, Mississippi History & Genealogy, a six-page article appeared describing the establishment and history of the Oakland Normal Institute, effectively the first modern-day junior college in the State of Mississippi.
This school, founded by my great grandfather Joseph Thomas Elijah Holley and his brother General Andrew Holley, served to educate thousands of students during its seventeen-year existence at the turn of the 20th century.
I wrote the following article, published in the Summer 2016 issue of Itawamba Settlers, as a response to their Spring 2016 feature article, to summarize my struggle to find the roots of my Holley family and to explain how I believe this unusual school may be the key to solving a genealogical mystery which lingers in Itawamba to this day.
I am indebted to the Itawamba Historical Society, Inc. (www.itawambahistory.org), publishers of Itawamba Settlers, for assisting my family in discovering its origins. Over the years, I have found the Society to be one of the best sources of high-quality information I have encountered in the many states where I have done research. Family-history buffs in northeast Mississippi and environs would do well to look into becoming a Society member and receiving its quarterly publication.
To The Editors Itawamba Settlers:
I read with great interest your feature story on the “Little College in the Rural Hills of Itawamba” in the Spring 2016 issue of Settlers. One of the founders of the “Little College” (the Oakland Normal Institute) was my great-grandfather Joseph Thomas Elijah Holley, also known as J.T. or Lige Holley. I have always found the establishment of this school to be quite extraordinary and intriguing. How and why would two very rural farm boys just up and decide to get educated and be able to establish such a prominent school? Recent research indicates that the particular origins and history of their family may have had a lot to do with the founding of the school. Conversely, had we more definitive information on how and why the school was formed, we might better understand their family origins and history.
I started looking for the origins of my Holley family in 2001 right around the time of the 9/11 tragedy, and I continue with that endeavor today. I have 55+ years in computers, so navigating the Internet is a “natural.” I was quite surprised in 2001-2 looking at on-line genealogical forums, etc. that there was already so much Holley-related information compiled. Initially, I supplemented that with documents, the oral outline of a family tree and other information my paternal grandmother had given me, and also a few items that I found in my father’s files when he died in 1977— things that I had just stored away for 25 years. I also took out subscriptions to some of the primary genealogical data services, which gave me access to all U.S. census records and a plethora of other information.
I was able to trace the maternal side of my Holley family rather quickly—the Senters and Priddys of northeast Mississippi are well documented back into the eighteenth century; my great grandfather Joseph Thomas Elijah (J.T.) Holley married Itawamba’s Martha Mackie Senter in 1889. Some of my Mississippi Holleys were also well known in the last two decades of the 19th century for their work in founding and teaching at the Oakland School– nominally the first normal school (junior college) in the state of Mississippi. In its seventeen years of existence, it educated thousands of students, some who eventually became prominent citizens of that part of the state. In August 1952, a history of my family was published in booklet form (which is the subject text of your Settlers feature story) by the alumni of the Oakland Normal Institute to commemorate a reunion and the unveiling of a monument dedicated to the memory of the founding Holley brothers.
In reading that booklet, though, I quickly began to run into trouble with my Holley family’s history— trouble that has persisted until today. Comparing the booklet names with research previously put on-line by my ggg-grandfather Jackson’s family, I found notable discrepancies and confusion in what had been written for the Oakland School commemoration. Early in the commemoration address, the parentage of my great-great uncle G. A. Holley, born 1859, and my great–grandfather J.T Holley, born 1862, is attributed to a Richard Holley and a Sarah Jackson Holley. Later, the booklet states, “Sarah died, and in about the year of 1883 the father and children moved to Itawamba County…”
The parents of those school-founding Holley brothers were actually a Richard Holley and Emaline Jane Jackson Holley. Emaline died unexpectedly in about 1875, and the family relocated from the Tuscumbia, AL area to Gum Creek, Itawamba Co., in about 1878. The family is found in the 1880 Itawamba, MS, Beat 1 census under the name R. C. Hollie., blacksmith.
It’s a bit of a puzzle how the authors of the commemoration booklet managed to scramble the facts, but the naming in Itawamba Holley families and their intertwined relationships and origins remain an enigma. In trying to understand the booklet discrepancies, first of all, I found that in the period 1878-1900 there were two contemporary men in Itawamba County named Richard C. Holley. Both had been Confederate soldiers and both had large families. One of these was my great-great grandfather Richard Cotton? Holley (1836-1903), who in 1855 had been married to a Tirey Jackson’s daughter, Emaline Jane. We are not sure of my Richard’s middle name, “Cotton,” or of its origin. We have also seen it spelled “Cottam,” “Cotham,” and supposedly on his grave it is spelled “Colton.” The other Richard C. Holley (1847-1928) was from a Holly/Holley family that first made its presence known in Itawamba by about 1844. That Richard C. was son of a John Holly (1823-1857). We don’t have any idea what the “C” stood for in his name.
After a month or so surfing the Internet, I found two of John Holly’s descendants— Hollis and Polly– who gave me excellent detailed information about their people. Studying their family trees, I was stunned (as they had been) by the similarities in given names in the two Itawamba Holley families— e.g., in our family: Richard C., Emaline Jane, Joseph Thomas Elijah, and Francis Marion. In their family: Richard C., Sarah Emmaline, Elijah Thomas, and Francis Marion. We also discovered that my gg-grandmother Emaline Jane Jackson’s nephew Richard Andrew Jackson (1866-1940) had married Richard C. Holley’s (b. 1847) daughter Sarah Emmaline (1868-1954). From 1878 on into the 1890s, both of the Holley families resided within a mile of each other on Itawamba’s Gum Creek. They both held properties that involved milling and cotton ginning. The name similarities and family intertwining seem to have caused great confusion for a long time— not only in Itawamba but for all of those who have tried to relate to, document and decipher these families. We found out in 2008, for example, to reduce confusion, in Itawamba legal/social parlance my gg-grandfather was evidently referred to as “R.C.” or “Richard” and the other Richard as “R.,” “Rich, “ or “Richard the Elder” (he was an Elder in the Primitive Baptist Church).
Going back many decades, it has been rumored that the two families were “connected,” but no one seems to have ever defined exactly how. There is some evidence that the families may not have gotten along too well and were actually once plaintiff/defendant in a lawsuit over property. Were the families cousins? If so, how many times removed? And, adding to the general mystery, Hollis and Polly and some of their kin, like all of my own Holleys who have searched, had hit a big “brick wall.” Just like with my great-great grandfather Richard Holley (b. 1836), they had been unable to find any father for their great-grandfather John Holly (b. 1823). Both families have evidence that their missing relative was born in Tennessee. Pretty early on, Hollis Holley and I began to think that his missing relative could well be exactly the same person as mine.
In 2008, we decided to do a Y-chromosome DNA test to see how/if we were related. The result—just a one marker discrepancy at the 67 marker level— was very exciting. Yes, the two families are closely related, but, statistically at least, not quite as much as we had hoped. Subsequent DNA testing has also revealed that both our families seem closely tied to groups of Holleys found in Yalobusha/Grenada Co., and in Tippah Co., MS The Yalobusha folks, headed by a James Holley, arrived in Mississippi by about 1840, having been located in Pickens Co., AL in 1830. Sion Holley, arrived in Tippah Co., MS between 1840-1845. Apparent brothers James (b. ca. 1790) and Sion (b. ca. 1785) can be traced back to a family of Holleys (including a David and a John Holley) that were in Lincoln Co., TN in 1820. And, that Lincoln Co. family appears to be one of those (supposedly) Tory Holley clans that were persecuted by Patriots and run out of the Carolinas after the Revolution.
The Yalobusha/Grenada Holley group has been of great interest to my family since the 1950s when my great uncle Lyle searched for his roots in the Library of Congress. It has been passed down to us, according to a now lost Holley family bible, that our Richard was born near the border of Yalobusha (and now) Grenada Cos., MS on February 12, 1836. Indeed, a thirteen year old Richard Holley appears in the 1850 Yalobusha Co. census in the household of James Holley. There has been a great deal of controversy, however, about whether this census Richard was really ours. The foremost argument put forth by the doubters is that the next time we for certain see our Richard (1860) he is found about 140 miles to the east near Tuscumbia, AL. Adding to the doubts, James Holley’s whole large household seems to absolutely vanish from Mississippi after 1850. In the 1850’s, families did not often move east, and, in any event, none of the many members in James’ 1850 family (save possibly Richard) show up later in Alabama. So, if the 1850 Yalobusha Richard was ours, how did a young teenager get transported all the way from Grenada, MS to be in a non-Holley family in Tuscumbia, AL? The answer—the thread that weaves everything together– now appears to be given by the heavy involvement of our Holley family with Indians!
John Holly’s descendant, Polly, told me early on that she was pretty certain that some of her people had Indian roots, and she asked me if I had any old pictures of my male Holleys she could look at. I was astonished. Given a war feather, at 21, my great uncle Lyle could have passed for a brave. I looked over quite a few pictures of my grandfather, Chester. Most of these were taken when he was older, but very prominent cheekbones were there— as they also were in photos of my 50-60 year-old father. In a picture I later found of Chester at about age 25, the sleek dark hair, cheeks, and Indian aspect is even more prominent— and it’s there to some degree in pictures of him even at 5 and 15 years of age. I don’t have that many early pictures of my great grandfather J.T. so I can’t really see that much Indian in him when he was fortyish. Pictures of him and his brother G.A. taken in their seventies or eighties, however, do look Indian-like. In the one photo we eventually found, purportedly to be that of our Richard Holley (b. 1836), we might be looking a Sitting Bull.
Early in 2004, I found out for certain why my Holleys looked like Indians. I was contacted by Charles Jackson of Decatur, AL, who had over some years researched and carefully documented his Jackson family back to about 1800. He had not been able to find out that much about my great-great grandmother Emaline Jane Jackson’s line and wondered if I could help fill in with my history. I had been aware via the Internet that my ggg-grandparents, the parents of Emaline Jane Jackson, were likely a Tirey Jackson (1808-1849) and Susannah Dawes (1813- aft.1897), but until Charles sent me a copy of the beautiful 265-page genealogy that he had compiled, I had no real notion of the life of Tirey and Susannah. That life was a HUGE surprise, but it fit other facts like a glove. According to their oral tradition, Tirey enticed Susannah (Su ki) Dawes away from her tribe when she was about 15. She was full-blood Cherokee. They married in Hall Co., Georgia in 1829. So, tracking that back, I was certain, just all of a sudden, that I was 1/32 Cherokee … and I cherished that!
Now, a decade later, we have come to feel that Tirey Jackson and Su ki Dawes were key players in the history of the Itawamba Holley families, and that legacy may have indeed led to the founding of the Oakland Normal Institute. Starting in the mid to late 1830s, Tirey, possibly with the assistance of Su ki as a guide/interpreter, was heavily involved in the removal of various Indian tribes from western Alabama and northern Mississippi. He was an ardent admirer of General/President Andrew Jackson, who was instrumental in Indian removal. Tirey named his second son (1840-1902) General Andrew. Tirey’s grandson, Prof. G.A. Holley (1859-1947), was also named General Andrew. So ends years of speculation that any of our families were directly blood-related to President Jackson.
In 2010, Charles Jackson published a historical novel based on the life of his Cherokee gg-grandmother Su ki Dawes. Entitled Su ki and the Settler: The Life of a Cherokee Indian Maiden and Her Descendants, the book has Tirey and Su ki arriving in Alabama by about 1837 and initially living near Tuscumbia. That was where my gg-grandmother Emaline Jane Jackson was born in June 1838. At some time in 1839, Tirey bought about 200 acres of land south of Tuscumbia but temporarily moved his family to a Stand (small settlement) on the Natchez Trace just east of Boonville, MS. (probably in Tishomingo Co.). Early in 1841, a Tyre Jackson also bought land in far southwest Franklin County, AL just across the border from central Itawamba, MS. In 1844, because of Indian troubles on the Trace, Tirey relocated his family back to the land he had purchased near Tuscumbia. So, over a dozen years, Tirey and his Jacksons were around both Itawamba Co., MS and Tuscumbia, AL.
According to the book, during the 1840s, accompanied sometimes by federal agents and an assistant named Holley, Tirey was doing Indian removal work, ranging down the Natchez Trace, which threads its way southwestward from Nashville, TN, through SW Tennessee, NW Alabama, and central Mississippi on its way to Natchez. The Trace cuts through the northwestern part of what was is now Colbert Co., AL, and also passes through Tishomingo, (far NW) Itawamba, and Lee Counties, MS.
Tirey must have made lots of enemies in these endeavors. In the summer of 1849, some renegade Indians caught up with him on the Mississippi side of the border and cut his tongue out; he died shortly afterward. After Tirey’s death, Su ki Jackson remained on Jackson land near Underwood Mountain south of Tuscumbia. For some reason she is not enumerated in the 1860 census, but her married daughter Emaline Jane and son-in-law Richard Holley are found there in the Colbert Co. (then Franklin Co.), Eastern Subdivision, AL census next door to an elderly Susanna Jackson, who is believed to be Tirey’s mother. In 1870, Su ki is enumerated in the Colbert Co., (Tuscumbia P.O.) census living close by the Holleys.
Su ki’s direct influence on my Holley family was quite significant. Emaline Jane died suddenly about 1875, and my Richard was left alone to raise seven children— the eldest only 18. According to Charles Jackson’s research, Su ki Jackson pitched in and was the children’s surrogate mother at least until they moved to Mississippi about three years later. Because Su ki was full blood Cherokee, Emaline was half Cherokee, and I now suspect that my gg-grandfather Richard could have been half Choctaw, the Holley children were quite likely raised in the Indian tradition.
So how does all this fit together? A lot of it is certainly speculation, but I think that the Holley– Tirey’s removal assistant– noted in Charles Jackson’s book was one of the Holleys enumerated in the 1850 Yalobusha Co. census, or someone closely related to them. Yalobusha/Grenada Cos. are only 40 miles west of the Natchez Trace, and, according to oral tradition, Tirey may have ranged west of the Trace all the way to Arkansas. The assistant could have been, for example, James Holley (b. 1790) or nearby William Holley (b. 1814). There could have even been multiple Holley assistants. Tracking back through the 1820-1840 censuses, James Holley appears to have had as many as ten sons, so plenty of help might have been available. Itawamba’s John Holly (b. 1823), for example, would have been old enough to be helping Tirey by the mid-1840s. And, intriguingly, John Holly’s third son was named Isaac Jackson Holley (1850-ca. 1908).
In 2006, I was finally able, to locate the 1950s-vintage family research notes of my great uncle Lyle. A very meticulous educator, he did research in the Library of Congress focusing on the Yalobusha Holley group and concluded that my Richard’s father was a William Holley, overseer for Choctaw Chief Greenwood Leflore. We are unsure of exactly what led Lyle to this conclusion. It is evident that Lyle then knew nothing of Tirey Jackson, but in the context of the latter’s removal work, it is a quite notable finding. Chief Greenwood Leflore was only one-quarter Indian, and himself was purportedly heavily involved in Indian removal activities for his own aggrandizement. His base was in an area of Carroll Co., and now Leflore Co., just a few miles west of Yalobusha. Could Tirey have been involved with him?
It is not at all clear what relationship the 1850 Yalobusha Richard Holley had to James, the head of household. He could have been a son, a grandson, or even some other relative. It is also not clear what relationship that nearby William Holley (b. 1814) had to James or young Richard. By 1837, this William was married to a Milly Smith, and Richard is not ever listed as one of his children. Is it possible that Richard could have been this William’s son by a previous consort– say an Indian? And, that in 1850 Richard was with James because he was not welcomed by William Holley’s married spouse? I raise this possibility because of Lyle Holley’s research on Choctaw Greenwood Leflore, and also later relationships our family members had with Choctaws.
Why, for example, did our notably successful Holleys suddenly leave Itawamba at the turn of the century and head out for Indian Territory? Strange to me! Where did they go? They went to Stigler in the heart of Choctaw Nation. What is the first thing my g-grandfather J.T. did when he reached Indian Territory? He went to teach in the Indian school in Garland, Choctaw Nation. What was my Richard doing along with his youngest son Marion in 1898 pawing around in Choctaw Nation? Before returning to Mississippi in 1901, it appears that they may well have been looking for Oklahoma land— which might have been readily available to them had they been Choctaw. Why does the man in the one picture we have of our Richard Holley look like so much an Indian?
We found our married Richard Holley in the 1860 Franklin Co., AL census, but we are told from data published in the missing family bible that his marriage took place on January 30, 1855. Since Emaline Jane Jackson would have then been only 16, it seems sensible to think that the marriage took place near Tuscumbia. Our theory is that, however, the other Yalobusha Holleys may have managed to disappear after 1850, (perhaps in an epidemic or some other bad fortune), our Richard was known to Su Ki Jackson, and/or possibly to an older Holley who had assisted Tirey, such as Itawamba’s John (b. 1823), and they managed to make certain during the years 1850-1854 that Richard would have a place in the Jackson family further east.
Following up on my great-uncle Lyle’s research, I began to look for Holleys—particularly William Holleys– in territory that may have been influenced by Chief Greenwood Leflore. In Carroll Co. (which abuts Grenada to the southwest), I found one in the 1840-50 census. This William E. Holley was a Presbyterian reverend/teacher and quite possibly helped a neighbor, Richard Small, to establish and operate a quite famous educational academy at Middleton/Irwin MS near Winona in now Montgomery Co. The most astounding thing is that this William E. Holley was also an associate of the Reverend Stephen Foreman, a quite prominent Cherokee/Scotch missionary and teacher in Indian schools! According to The Chronicles of Oklahoma, Foreman “devoted himself principally to the ministry but established Cherokee schools, taught in them, trained native teachers for them, and spent some time in translating tracts and hymns into the Cherokee language. He continued this work up to the time of the Cherokee removal in 1838.” Stephen accompanied and assisted his people in their unfortunate removal to Oklahoma.
The Cherokees were a very civilized group of people and throughout their history have placed great emphasis on education. There were a large number of sophisticated Indian schools established in their sphere of influence particularly during the nineteenth century. It is notable that Choctaw Chief Greenwood Leflore was also a great proponent of Indian schools.
For now, it is hard to place William E. Holley in Yalobusha or make him related to James Holley, where our suspect Richard was in 1850, but I am having quite a bit of trouble believing that this William E. Holley is completely unrelated to my gg-grandfather. If he is unrelated, then all this school founding business in a nearby county, and a relationship to a notable Cherokee educator, who was also involved in Indian removal, is truly an eye-catching set of coincidences. The website at http://www.vaiden.net/middleton_events.html shows that the academy affair (for a time known as “The Athens of Mississippi.”) sounds quite hauntingly like the description of the Oakland Normal Institute.
It is simply too much to believe that this pair of very poor farm boys (my great grandfather and my gg-uncle) just suddenly about 1880 got their own bright idea to get very educated, become teachers and open a community college in a very rural county. Was it by accident that the site of the Oakland Normal Institute was deliberately, daringly named Yale— after the famous Yale University, much like the earlier Middleton academy was known as “The Athens of Mississippi ?” I think the Holley boys, raised by devout Cherokees, and possibly Choctaws, got a profound inspiration from some place…and I have a hunch it somehow came from William E. Holley, Richard Small, Stephen Foreman, or like kind.
I do hope that you have been able to comprehend my explanation of where I think the Itawamba Holleys came from. It is for certain a very involved trail to try to follow. And, I hope that the reader will forgive the speculations contained therein; many facts remain to be discovered, and the Holley hunt goes on. We have discussed these matters privately amongst ourselves for many years, though, and (except for the Jacksons) no one has yet endeavored to write down a summary of what we now know, and what we think we know, about people who played such a significant part in the history of Itawamba. We are all getting older every moment that goes by, and our labors should not be lost! I hope that this letter will spark some interest in parties we have not yet talked to during our research. If you have comment or information, please do not hesitate to contact me.
Robert M. Holley, Jr.
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