Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Working Title: The Almighty Branners

John Branner (Above)
Subtitled: Cemetery Walk No. 6
First Installment of Several

The Branners lightly fictionalized could model for it if they made movies like that any more --- family sagas that stretched from the old South to the frontier, span the Civil War, plunge into the 20th Century.

There would be a husband and father strangely estranged from his family who leaves wife and children behind in Tennessee and comes north and west to found a fortune, then dies dissolute and in despair. And two sons who fight for the Confederacy, one of whom dies while the other survives, returns to the North and prospers; and a daughter of the South who despite her brothers’ sacrifice marries a Union general. Finally, a determined widow who moves her family to the North after the war to claim the fortune her estranged husband founded and stages in the end a family reunion of sorts around her grave in the Chariton Cemetery where the bones and ashes of all save the patriarch and the son lost to war are buried.

Heading the cast would be John Branner, and his wife, Jane (Cowan) Branner. Two of their children would be featured --- Napoleon Bonaparte Branner and Victoria Josephine (Branner) Dewey, both with names that say a good deal about the parents who named them. And in supporting roles, daughters Virginia M. (Branner) Palmer/Branner and Annis E. (Branner) Hoskins, and the lost son, Thomas W. Branner.

Bit parts might be played by Edwin Clenendin Rankin, George W. Alexander, John Faith and many more.


John Branner, East Tennessean and something of a tortured soul, most likely also was the first Lucas Countyan who could have been described as rich. He was among the largest purchasers of Iowa’s public lands during the 1850s and 1860s, acquiring something in the neighborhood of 10,000 acres across a wide swath of the south central and southwest parts of the state. That land base allowed his small family to be counted among Chariton’s most affluent and influential residents for roughly a century although the Branners and the Deweys have been by now largely forgotten.

The oddest thing about the Branner lot in the Chariton Cemetery is that John isn’t buried on it, although he died in Chariton at about this time of year 139 years ago, during March of 1871. He is buried in Chicago, something that may have occurred more by accident than design.


It’s quite a story and as good a place as any to begin is a remarkable obituary of the patriarch, published in The Chariton Democrat of March 16, 1871. They don’t write obituaries like this any more for weekly newspapers, rummaging into the private lives of the deceased, assigning blame for their falls, and perhaps it’s just as well.

But as you read it, consider the author --- John Faith --- standing amid drawers of type with a composing stick in hand, making it up as he goes along, hand-setting copy for The Democrat’s next edition.

Faith, highly talented and an accomplished writer but lacking a sense of proportion, had founded The Democrat in 1867. He was, as the nameplate of his newspaper suggests, a Democrat, rabidly partisan, dangerously outspoken and never a candidate for objectivity or fairness awards. He was on shaky ground during March of 1871, having made many enemies, and within months had fled to Osceola, taking The Democrat with him. He soon sold it, however, and John Branner’s son, Napoleon Bonaparte (known as “Bone” or “N.B.”) and others resurrected it as “The Chariton Leader.” Here’s the obituary:

Died, In Chariton, Iowa, on Friday, March 10th, 1871, after a protracted illness, John Branner, in the 56th year of his age.

John Branner was born in the State of Tennessee, where he was married, and in which state his family has since lived. He came to Iowa in 1853, locating at Chariton, and here he invested his means and lived until the time of his death. Before leaving Tennessee, his scholarly attainments, general intelligence and fitness to occupy distinguished positions, brought him into public notice, and he was for several terms, we believe, elected to preside over one of the courts. He came to Iowa at the time when everything was prosperous and when money would realize large profits from investment, and his means and good business qualifications soon brought him into prominence in a financial respect. He invested largely in real estate, and was at one time engaged in the banking business here, the firm being known as Branner & Braden.

The unfortunate circumstance of separation from his family, however, had its effect, both upon his social standing and moral character. Freed from the restraints of his family and perhaps disappointed with life, he formed relations which were destined to speedily throw about him their tolls and eventually undermine his better nature. He was made to suffer the consequences of the villainny of others who still live in our midst, and the persecutions and perjury which did much to discourage and distract him, were probably the main causes that brought upon him the habits which hastened his death. He was involved, from time to time, in litigation, the object of which seemed to be the possession of his money, and the prejudice of juries, and the love of money upon the part of his persecutors did more to make a moral wreck of John Branner than can be charged to the weakness of his nature. He became sordid, misanthropic, and in no small degree, lost confidence in his fellow man. He was a man who regarded his word as binding, and an assault upon his honor, in this particular, was more painful to him than anything else.

Just as surely as a man’s good acts die with him just so truly are his bad deeds remembered after he has gone hence. There are those who will speak of Judge Branner as an exacting and unmerciful creditor yet there are few that were his debtors who can truthfully say that he oppressed them them, so long as they showed a disposition to deal honestly and take no advantage of him. In many instances, he was even more generous than those who were under obligations to him than they had any right to expect. He did much to relieve the poor and needy from embarrassments and as the laborer is worthy of his hire, so, also, is a man’s money worth a fair return. He acted upon this principle, and the large amount of unsettled obligations remaining in his hands at the time of his death, which have been due for years, and upon many of which he did not receive even so much as the lawful interest, affords evidence that he was not an oppressor of the poor man. His life, since he came to Chariton was of an unhappy nature, yet he had a few warm friends who knew the better qualities that lay buried within him, and he appreciated their friendship, all the time protesting his unworthiness. The evil nature of man, however, had attained such control over him that he was seldom able to assert his better principles, yet those who knew him best knew that his own senses revolted at his condition. And now that he is dead, and gone, let us hope that the grave will shield him from the malignity of those who persecuted him while living.

The family of Judge Branner consists of a wife, three daughters and a son, all of whom, except the latter, live in Tennessee. Those whose acquaintance with his family enables them to speak knowingly always speak of them as occupying a position in the best society and commanding the respect of all those around them, rendering his prolonged separation from them all the more unaccountable and unhappy. It is painful to refer to these things in speaking of the subject of this sketch yet, it is necessary to do so, in order than things before stated may be made more plain.

On the day following his death, his remains were taken in charge by his friend, E.C. Rankin, Esq., and his son, N.B. Branner, who, have probably gone to his old home with him.


The obituary introduces another player in the Branner story, E.C. Rankin, a fellow Tennessean and like John Branner, a Dandridge native although some five years younger.

According to a transcription found online at the Jefferson County, Tennessee, U.S. GenWeb site of records from the family Bible of Thomas Jr. and Caroline M.T. (Franklin) Rankin, who lived two and a half miles east of Dandridge, Edwin Clindinan (or Clendenin) Rankin was their eldest son, born Jan. 25, 1825. The Bible record gives his marriage date as March 31, 1853, but does not name the bride, identified as Elizabeth in census records. That marriage apparently occurred in Iowa.

Lucas County’s 1881 history identifies E.C. Rankin and another Tennessean, Adam S. Yoakley, as among the first settlers in 1850 of Jackson Township, and both families were indeed there in 1856, when a special Iowa census was taken on the 10th anniversary of Iowa statehood. That record shows, however, that Rankin and Yoakley had arrived only four years earlier, placing their permanent settlement ca. 1852.

Perhaps Rankin, Yoakley and John Branner came to Lucas County together in 1850, cited as the year of Branner’s first visit, scouting the land and entering claims. Branner returned to settle permanently in 1853, but Yoakley and Rankin seem to have come a year earlier.

Rankin was proprietor --- farmer, storekeeper, justice of the peace and postmaster --- at Tallahoma, located perhaps two miles northeast of present-day Lucas on hills rising to the west of White Breast Creek. This was from July of 1853 until the coming of the Burlington and Missouri River Railroad after the Civil War the most westerly stop in Lucas County of the Western Stage Co. Tallahoma also is misspelled “Tallyhoma” sometimes and perhaps was intended to be “Tullahoma,” the name of a town in middle Tennessee. The Tallahoma post office also was established in 1853 and continued to be the place where most residents of that area came to get their mail until the late 1860s.

Tallahoma was on the decline by 1871, when John Branner died and E.C. Rankin was identified as his friend. The railroad had passed through Lucas to the south, the stage company had disbanded in 1870 and although the post office would continue until 1875, its volume had declined substantially. The Rankins and the Yoakleys would move west soon thereafter. But at the time of Branner’s death, Rankin remained an affluent and influential Lucas Countyan.


John Faith thought, as he composed John Branner’s obituary, that Rankin and Bone Branner were headed home to Dandridge, Tennessee, with the body. And that may have been the case.

They did not make it there, however, and instead buried Branner in Chicago’s relatively new Rosehill Cemetery, where he still reposes. There’s no logical reason for Chicago as a final resting place. John Branner had never lived there, had no family or other connections there.

The most logical explanation is simply that Rankin and Bone, accompanying a body on moderating days when embalming still was a novelty, were invited to remove it from a freight car in Chicago, the switching point for rail transport southeast, and bury it as quickly as possible.

To be continued ...

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