Monday, August 13, 2012

John Lafayette Vaughan & Belle Starr

So for years in my family, it was a rumor that my great great grandfather, John Lafayette Vaughan, had some personal connections to and/or was a friend/associate of the infamous outlaw Belle Starr and her family. This bit of family lore was shared with me at a young age, and after asking my great aunt and one of her first cousins, I ended up with solid proof of this friendship/association, and after that, came into even more information.

Recently, I met a 2nd cousin once removed who had heard similar stories about John Vaughan being associated with Belle Starr, stories which were relayed by his grandmother, John Vaughan's daughter Lou Ona Vaughan White. But he was under the impression that certain factions of his large extended family (Lou had many children, and subsequently many grandchildren) did not believe this family legend, and thought Lou was just making it up. So I thought I would begin sharing the information I have in hopes that anyone else descended from John Lafayette Vaughan wondering about his connection to Belle Starr could find this and enjoy it as much as I have.

Here is what I have:

1. A newspaper article published in the McAlester News-Capital [Oklahoma] titled "Death of Belle Starr Recalled", a piece by Baird Martin which was a revision of an article written by Charles H. Cowles 35 years prior to the revision. Cowles had actually interview John Lafayette Vaughan about Belle Starr and her death. Unfortunately, all I have is a photocopy of this revision, and the photocopy did not include source information as to the date it was published, but I am looking into finding that out. I also plan on tracking down the original article by Cowles as well. In the mean time, I will transcribe the version I have.

2. I have an original typed manuscript written by the aforementioned Lou Ona Vaughan White where she discusses many of her memories of the Vaughan family as she learned growing up, including details about her father's association with the Starr's.

3. Excerpts from one of the more well-known published works concerning Belle Starr titled "Belle Starr & Her Times: The Literature, The Facts, and the Legends" by Glenn Shirley (1990) which mention John, who is referred to as "Fayette Vaughan", a shortening of John's middle name, "Lafayette". (I've also heard of his middle name being shortened simply to "Fate".)

4. Six individual photographs of Vaughan, as well as several group pictures in which he is included.

5. The most distinct memory Vaughan's grandchildren have of him is that he always carried a Colt .45 pistol in a holster on his side. I was finally able to track down said pistol, in possession of one of the grandson's of Lou Ona Vaughan White, and he sent me a great picture of the weapon, which is still in pristine condition. Additionally, this cousin of mine who has the gun says he has an original portrait of John Lafayette Vaughan standing with Sam Starr, husband of Belle Starr. I am anxiously awaiting a copy of this picture, which I will share online everywhere once I have it.

Collectively all of this information paints an interesting picture of John Lafayette Vaughan, and convincingly proves his connection to the Starr family. The picture of him with Sam Starr will be the final piece of irrefutable proof that he had at least some sort of relationship with the family. The complete extent of the relationship will likely never be known; was he just an acquaintance, or was he close with them? Did he ever take part in any of Belle's infamous escapades, or was he simply a friendly neighbor and pal? The information we have leaves room for much speculation, and it's hard not to let your imagination have fun with theorizing about how close he was to the Starr's, and what his life among them was like.

"Death of Belle Starr Recalled" by BAIRD MARTIN [McAlester News-Capital]

This story has come down to us from the wildest days of the wild Indian Territory from the lips of one man through the writing of another, skipping generations like a thrown rock across a pond. But it is a story that will be forever reviewed, for it deals with names both famous and infamous, with emphasis on the startling career and abrupt death of Belle Starr.

Likewise, there's a report from out of the ages that concerns Belle's father-in-law, one Tom Starr, which the originator of this tale describes--or described--as the worst desperado that ever roamed the wilds of Oklahoma.

The original story of these two appeared in the News-Capital some 35 years ago, written by Charles H. Cowles, then a reporter here. His news source was John L. Vaughan, born in 1866 and a resident of Briartown, Scipio, and Indianola areas in later life. When interviewed by Cowles, he was a resident of the now almost dead community of Ulan. Vaughan died in [1944].

So this is the story of Belle as related by Vaughan who, among other associations with Indians of that day, saw the woman's body laid out and cleaned after she died of gunshot wounds Feb. 3, [1889]. 

According to Cowles' interview with Vaughan, the latter explained that Belle's death came about through the fact that her son got mixed up with horse stealing. She learned that the gang's leader was one Edgar Watson, a fast man one the draw and an eager man to employ these talents. It was his boast, the story goes, that he had killed seven men. He soon was to kill a woman--or so it was reported.

"Belle announced without trepidation that she was going to prosecute Watson for getting her son mixed up in a horse stealing affair. Watson, upon hearing this, vowed he'd get her."

Here's the description of the deed as Cowles reported Vaughan as reciting:

"Belle's horse was hitched at the fence of a family named Roe. Roe's folks saw Watson ride up close enough to recognize the horse and then ride off. Everybody in that country heard the report of the gun. They said it was the most alarming gun ever heard in that bottom.

"There was a small brush beside a walnut tree inside the fence. That is where Watson hid. He let her pass and then fired on her. I could see the place where she was shot and where the horse stove his hooves into the ground. Three buckshot ranged from her shoulder to her heart. She stuck to the horse 30 or 40 feet. She fell on her right shoulder and arm. There were tracks where he ran up and shot her in the side of the face with a load of fine shot."

That shooting took place at 2 o'clock in the afternoon.

Vaughan said he didn't hear the shooting. He was at Brooken, eight miles away. But he did go to Belle Starr's house.

"I saw the body washed and laid out. She had as beautiful a smile as I ever saw her wear when she was alive," he added. "We sat up with the body that night. Belle's husband, visiting in Fort Smith, was notified, and he rode 78 miles between dawn and 2 p.m. He rode a little brown horse. He had a bottle of whiskey and vowed vengeance."

Watson attended Belle's funeral and had the nerve to throw dirt on the coffin, the story continues, although he later was arrested and charged with the murder.

According to Vaughan, Tom Starr, Belle's father-in-law, was a giant, seven feet and three inches in height and weighing 270 pounds--big as he was dangerous.

"I lived on the place of Martin Crowder, 40 miles northeast of McAlester on the Canadian river," Vaughan says, "five miles from where Tom Starr lived." Crowder told Vaughan many stories about Starr, who lived around what is now Briartown. 

Crowder told Vaughan (note the chain from which the original story reaches reader) that Tom Starr had killed many Choctaws, Creeks, and Seminoles. He was half white and half Cherokee. He got away with his crimes because he moved fast. He'd kill at one place and be 75 miles away when the murder was discovered.

Finally, when Tom Starr's turn came to die, his boys gathered about him. He covered his face and said he did not want them to see him die--that he did not want them to think that a man as brave as he was had to die.

Vaughan concluded his remarks to Cowles: "I am satisfied that he was the greatest killer Oklahoma ever ever had."

So ends another review of episodes in the early and sometimes bloody history of Indian Territory.

The one-page manuscript written by Lou One Vaughan White is interesting, but contains a great deal of mixed up and incorrect information. For example, she lists her mother's father as John Waller, says he and his wife Frank [shot for Francis] had 4 children die during the Civil War, and that he fought in the Civil War for the North because he "thought it was right". Well, her maternal grandfather's name was actually James Waller, and he did not marry Frank until 1866, a year after the Civil War, so he most certainly did not lose 4 children during the war. And although no service record for him has been found, he almost certainly served for the South, as he was a resident of Mississippi and would have been about 20 years old at the time when the Confederate government passed the Conscript Act, and three of his older brothers and his one younger brother all have been proven to have fought for the Confederacy.

So based on the fact that I can prove her information is less than reliable at times, Lou's testimony should be taken with a slight grain of salt. However, since some of her information has turned out to be correct (for example, that her paternal grandfather, Stephen, was wounded in the Civil War as a Union soldier, and he had a brother named Reuben in the War), it's possible that what she says is true, or at least has some elements of truth. She writes:

"John Lafayett Vaughan [Note the different spelling--most of the family spells it with an 'e' at the end; however, John's mother actually spells it with only one 't', Lafayete, in her family bible record] rode a horse into Oklahoma when he was 14 years old1, he weighed 85 lbs. He lived with and around the Indians for 9 years, then he rad around with some outlaws2. He rode with Belle Starr, he was sweet on her daughter, Pearl3.

...This is what I, Lou Vaughan White was told by John Lafayett and Leona and I think it is true. It is good that I remembered, I am 66 years old and I leave this for my people." April 22, 1970

1He appears in the 1880 Census with his parents in Conway County, Arkansas, but his father died in July of 1880, so he likely set off for Oklahoma around that time.

2While the general consensus within the family is that yes, he was at least acquainted with, if not friends with, various outlaw gangs, supposedly including the Dalton gang, no one is sure exactly what the extent of his relationship with these groups was. Some are adamant that he never participated in illegal activities, while others are sure that he did. There are several John Vaughan's who are arrested and tried (and some sent to jail) in Fort Smith, Arkansas from 1880 to 1900 for various illegal activities in Indian Territory and northwestern Arkansas, but it has not been confirmed whether any of these John Vaughan's were "our" John Vaughan or not.

3This is an incredibly intriguing tidbit, one that has led to much speculation in the family. In 1887, Belle sent her daughter Pearl away to have an illegitimate child she had been impregnated with, a girl named Flossie who was born in April of 1887. ( John would have been about 21 years old and still unmarried at this time, and as he was a friend of the Starr family and according to this statement by Lou, "sweet on" Pearl, some, including myself, have wondered aloud if it's possible John was the father of this child. Obviously, there's no evidence to substantiate this theory, but like a lot of these stories involving John and the Starr family, it has been hard not to let our imaginations wander into that realm of thought.

In 1990, Glenn Shirley wrote "Belle Starr & Her Times: The Literature, The Facts, and the Legends", published by the University of Oklahoma Press. Much of her information concerning Belle Starr's death stemmed from testimony of various neighbors of Starr, and residents of the surrounding area where she was murdered. Three of these testimonies mentioned John by name, who as previously mentioned is referred to as "Fayette". (

p. 237:
"Alice (Mrs. Joseph) Tate, who lived a mile from the ambush scene and a half mile from Edgar Watson, heard two guns [shots] in the evening about half an hour by sun. My husband & Billy England were standing out back of house talking when guns fired. Ben Statham came to our house about dark & told us, & me & my husband & Fayette Vaughn & Billy England went down from our house."

p. 237-238:
"Ray England, who lived two miles from the White place and a half a mile from Watson, was well acquainted with Belle but he not seen her for a month until I seen her dead at Alf White's. Fayette Vaughn on the 3rd day of February 1889 at after dark came to my house to let me know she had been killed and wanted the neighbors to go & take care of her. ..."

p. 239:
"Turner England also received news of the killing Monday morning: Fayette Vaughn brought me word...I went over there...seen blood in road, seen tracks of man I thought done shooting..."

Obviously these short excerpts don't give a lot of information as to the extent of Vaughan's relationship to Starr, but they still help flesh out his involvement in the scenes after her death and corroborate the statements in his interview to an extent, though it should be noted that these neighbors claim the shooting occurred in the early evening, while Vaughan said it took place at 2:00 in the afternoon.

As previously stated, I'll gladly share the picture of John Lafayette Vaughan and Sam Starr whenever I receive it, but until then, here are several pictures of John that span his lifetime.

This is John in his early-to-mid teens. This was probably taken about the time he arrived in Oklahoma. Courtesy of his granddaughter, Colleen Vaughan Allen.

John in his early-to-mid 20's. This is likely what he looked like at the time of Belle Starr's death. Courtesy of Colleen Vaughan Allen.

John in his late-20's-to-early-30's. Courtesy of Colleen Vaughan Allen.

John and his family, circa 1909. John is in the middle next to his wife, Leona Aden Waller. In the back are his children from his first marriage, Mattie Mae and William Riley "Bill" Vaughan. To his right are his sons Sampson Lafayette and John Dodson Vaughan. To his left is his daughter Lou Ona Vaughan, and on Leona's lap is his son Charles Teddy Vaughan.

John Lafayette Vaughan circa 1920 with a jar of moonshine.

John Lafayette Vaughan circa 1930. Note his earrings and the pistol strapped to his side, for which he well-known among his grandchildren.

John Lafayette Vaughan in the late-1930's-to-early-1940's.

This is a picture of John Lafayette Vaughan's son, John Dodson Vaughan. This picture is noteworthy because the 30/30 Winchester rifle John is holding belonged to his father, as did the 1897 Model Winchester Shotgun leaning up against the house to the left of the dog. When John Lafayette died in 1944, his pistol was passed down to his grandson J.L. White, the 30/30 to his son-in-law Tony White, and his shotgun to his son Sampson Vaughan. The pistol and 30/30 and now in possession of 2 sons of J.L. White, and the shotgun is now in possession of your's truly, a great grandson of Sampson Vaughan.

This is the Colt .45 pistol that belonged to John Lafayette Vaughan. He kept it at his side always, though none knew why with certainty. Most believe he was worried someone might come for him one day either because of something he knew or something he'd done, and he would have had to take care of them.

Biography of John Lafayette Vaughan by Nathan Vaughan Marks

John Lafayette Vaughan was born July 19th, 1866 in Pope County, Arkansas. He was the son of Stephen Clinton Vaughan and Amanda Smith Napier. His father contracted chronic diarrhea during the Civil War, and it ailed him so badly that he was hardly able to work, and thus his family lived at near poverty-level. His grandfather, Archibald Hubbard Napier, was a well-known doctor in the area and cared for Stephen until his death, at which time Stephen was cared for by a slew of other doctors, most notably a Henry Jones.

John was born at a time of great strife in Pope County, Arkansas. A year prior to his birth, his uncle Captain Archibald Dodson Napier was named sheriff at the end of the Civil War, and was subsequently murdered as the first victim of what became known as the Pope County Militia War, which essentially was a local guerrilla war fought between local Union loyalists and Southern sympathizers. The violence in the area became so intense that many families felt compelled to leave the area, including the Vaughan's, who settled in Conway County, where his father died of his ailment in 1880. His mother Amanda then became involved with and eventually married one of his father's previous doctor's, Henry Jones, and John left home for the Oklahoma Territory, where he lived with Indians and ran around with outlaws.

He married Sarah Ann "Eva" McCarty on July 9th, 1892 near Scipio; she bore him two children, Mattie Mae in 1892 and William Riley in  1895. When Eva went into labor with their third child, John left to get help, and returned to find her and the newborn dead. By this time, most of his family had moved to Oklahoma as well; his brother Stephen died in Haskell County in 1885 and his mother Amanda in Pittsburg County in 1891, and his brother Archibald settled nearby him in the Scipio area while his brother Thomas settled in McIntosh County. It was while visiting his brother Thomas that he met his brother's sister-in-law, Leona Waller. "[John] and Leona met and fell in love over the breakfast table the first day Leona was in [Oklahoma]. Leona was engaged to a boy named Wells in Arkansas. [John] and Leona ran away to get married, they swam the Canadian River on horseback, they were married at Hullowe, near Scipio [Note: There was a town named Hullowe in Pittsburg County, but they were actually married in Indianola, but the minister who married them was named Hugh Low, which is probably what led to the confusion]." (Source: Family History by Lou Vaughan White) They were married on February 23rd, 1898.

John and Leona became parents of seven children, six of whom lived to adulthood. Their first, Early Coatner Vaughan, died in 1907 at the age of 8, and was buried next to John's first wife Eva, their newborn baby, and John's brother Archibald in Choate Prairie Cemetery near Ulan. The others were, in order: Sampson Lafayette, Lou Ona, John Dodson, Charles Teddy, Nicey Jewell, and Dewey Miles. After giving birth to Nicey in 1909, Leona became very ill; it took her years to recover. When she finally had, she became pregnant with Dewey. Giving birth to Dewey nearly killed her; she apparently actually died momentarily after his birth before being resuscitated.

Leona was never the same after that. She was able to nurse Dewey, but was unable to hold him during, so Lou would. She was able to cook for the family, but unable to do any lifting or major housework. In 1919, she was diagnosed with Pellagra, a devastating disease most common in 3rd world countries, typically caused by a vitamin deficiency; it can lead to a plethora of serious side effects, including but not limited to skin lesions, insomnia, weakness, sensitivity to sunlight, mental confusion, and eventually dementia. (Source: The doctors decided to try and cure her by cleansing her system with vials of rattlesnake venom. Her screams of agony proving too much to bear, John left the house mid-treatment to go down to the Scipio Creek to pray. When he returned, he found she had died on the second-to-last vial of venom with Lou by her side.

Always looked to by his family, John persevered and led them through these hardships. He re-married to Florence Bell Lytle, and continued to work on the farm, which he purchased with pension money he received for his father's Civil War service. He drew that pension from the time he was 14 until he was 21, and used the money to purchase his home near Ulan, Oklahoma; a small portion of the oil rights that land garnered remains in the Vaughan family to this day. He spent much time with his grandchildren, who all viewed him with awe and admiration.

In 1937, his son John Dodson came down with pneumonia, and died at his home, leaving behind a widow and three children. His death proved too much to bear for John. He was always the prototypical male role-model: strong and invincible, feared and admired; devout, stern, fair, and kind. He was not a man easily shaken. But after having buried two wives and two children on top of all the other losses he had suffered throughout his lifetime, the loss of his beloved son John Dodson Vaughan finally broke him. He had to be carried out of the funeral.

After his son died, John saw to it that his fatherless grandchildren were well-taken care of. They would often walk to his farm to hear him to tell his stories for hours, some of which were so scary that Dewey would have to walk them home afterword. He was a soft-spoken man, but one whose presence filled any room he was in, and a man who was immeasurably cherished by his family. He died September 20th, 1944 and was buried next to Leona in Ulan Cemetery.

Left to right: Charles Teddy Vaughan, Nicey Jewell Vaughan, John Lafayette Vaughan, Dewey Miles Vaughan, Lou Ona Vaughan, and Sampson Lafayette Vaughan. Taken circa 1940.