Sunday, June 03, 2012

The Almighty Branners: Part 2

The confusing thing about this post is that in order to make much sense of it, you're going to have to go back to The Almighty Branners: Part 1, which is here, in order to make much sense of it. I started to tell the story of one of Lucas County's most influential and interesting early families during March of 2010 --- then for some reason never got around to finishing it.

Someone asked last Sunday, while we were serving as attendants at the Chariton Cemetery shelter house, about the Branner tomb (above), located not far away --- and that reminded me of unfinished business in regard to this family whose influence in Chariton lasted a full century, from 1853 into the 1950s.

The tomb contains the remains (or marks the final resting place) of Jane Cowan Branner, matriarch of the family, who died in 1911. Her estranged husband, family patriarch John Branner, died in Chariton in 1871 but was buried under unusual circumstances in Chicago. In death, Jane death gathered surviving members of her family around her in Chariton. Although the remains of all save Jane were cremated, most are commemorated on the top of the tomb --- daughters Annis E. Hoskins, Virginia M. Branner and Victoria J. Dewey; a niece, Penelope Hamilton Dick, raised as a daughter by Jane; and Jane's grandson, Walter H. Dewey, and his wife, Ruth. The large tombstone west of the tomb marks the graves of Jane's son, Napoleon Bonaparte "Bone" Branner and the wife he married late in life, Cidna Hawk. Also buried on the Branner lot are family friend George W. Alexander, his grave marked by a Confederate stone, and Alexander's wife, in an unmarked grave.

It will take a few more installments to finish ths story, but eventually I'll pull them together into one post, hopefully adding a little coherence to the project. Here's Part 2:


John Branner was born June 19, 1815, on a farm near Dandridge, the seat of Jefferson County in far east central Tennessee, not far from the North Carolina line. His parents were Michael and Edith (Leith) Branner and John was the eldest of their three children.

We know a good deal about John’s first 35 years because of the meticulous research of his cousin, John Casper Branner, who produced one of the flagship genealogies of the early 20th century, “Casper Branner of Virginia and His Descendants,” privately published at Stanford University in 1913. John Casper, some 35 years younger than his cousin John, was a renowned geologist who joined the Stanford University staff as professor of geology in 1891 and was appointed the university’s second president in 1913, a post he held until retirement in 1915.

According to John Casper, his cousin as a boy “had great natural ability, was unusually bright and energetic, early manifesting a remarkable aptitude for business.”

He was very fond of hunting, however, and his “love of this sport was the cause of a great misfortune to him. By the bursting of a gun, he was entirely deprived of the sight of one eye, at about the time he had entered his sixteenth year. The loss of this eye, and the consequent weakness and pain of his other entailed inexpressible suffering through many years.”

Another result of that accident, so long as John remained in Tennessee at least, was that he was known as “one-eyed John,” in part John Casper speculates to differentiate him from yet another cousin named John Branner, this one a son of George Branner.

John was educated at the Maury Academy in Dandridge, then one of the leading schools in east Tennessee, and then trained as an attorney under the apprenticeship system with practicing attorneys that then prevailed.

He was elected Jefferson County clerk of courts in 1838, when he was 23, then master of the chancery court finally judge of the county court, a position he held until 1851. Most of his later neighbors in Lucas County knew John as Judge Branner because of his career in Tennesssee.

On May 3, 1842, at Dandridge, John married Jane Cowan, daughter of Joel and Annis (Inman) Cowan, with whom he reportedly had been acquainted since childhood.

The Branners became the parents of five children during the next 10 years while living on several farms in the Dandridge area and in Dandridge itself. They were Napoleon Bonaparte Branner, born Jan. 15, 1843; Thomas Williams Branner, born July 4, 1845; Annis Edith Branner, born Sept. 5, 1847; Victoria Josephine Branner, born April 15, 1850; and Virginia M. Branner, born Dec. 5, 1852.

When the 1850 federal census of Jefferson County was taken, John (age 35) and Jane (age 29) headed a household of seven in the Dandridge neighborhood. His occupation was given as lawyer. In addition to the four children already born, the household included a 13-year-old boy, Calvin Stafford.

In addition to his work in the Jefferson County courts, John also farmed and, according to various sources, engaged in mercantile business, which implies that he owned a store.

It may have been as a storekeeper --- or perhaps merely as an entrepreneur seizing opportunity --- that after 1848 John began to purchase military land warrants from returning veterans of the Mexican-American War.

Each U.S. veteran of that war upon discharge was entitled to claim a bounty land warrant entitling him to 160 acres anywhere in the United States where public land was being offered for sale. In 1848 and the years shortly thereafter, much of Iowa was public land and up for grabs.

Each land warrant had a base value of $200 if calculated at the going rate for an acre of government land at that time --- $1.25. But many veterans had no interest in relocating, so sold their warrants to people like John at discounted rates.

In addition, predatory speculators --- and there is no indication that John was one of those --- also preyed on veterans who had no idea how much their warrants were worth, setting up outside discharge centers in New Orleans, for example, and paying as little as $50 per warrant.

However John managed it, he accumulated enough warrants to make a move to Iowa more than worthwhile --- even mandatory perhaps since he would have had a small fortune tied up in pieces of paper by the time he was done.

According to his family, John made a scouting trip to Iowa first in 1850, then moved during 1853 to Chariton, a logical headquarters since the U.S. land office also had moved there that year from Fairfield.

Although it’s not clear exactly how much land John acquired using his warrants and the cash generated by sale of the land they purchased, 10,000 acres probably would be a good guess. These acquisitions were scattered all over south central and southwest Iowa from Monroe and Appanoose counties on the east, where small tracts remained unclaimed in the 1850s, to Taylor County on the west.

John was accompanied to Chariton in 1853 by his son, Napoleon B., then 10. Jane and the four other children, including Virginia M., then only a year old, remained in Dandridge and would continue to live there until after the Civil War.

A family story holds that John constructed a cabin in Chariton during 1853 that was the third home built in the city. “Third” is unlikely, but it is possible that the cabin John did build was located somewhere on the east half of the south side of the square which the Branners continued to hold as a block well into the 20th century.

Although John most likely returned to east Tennessee to visit after 1853 and N.B., known as “Bone,” returned there for part of his education and to enlist for Civil War service, there is no indication that Jane and John ever maintained a joint household again after his move to Iowa.

It was not until after the Civil War when, perhaps because of post-war conditions in the South she brought her daughters north to live with their father, that Jane visited Iowa. She did not move permanently to Chariton until years after her husband’s death, however.

John Faith, in his Democrat obituary of 1871, was hard on John Branner, although sympathetic and a staunch defender of his honor. In order to appreciate the oddity of that obituary, you'll have to go back to the first post about this family and read it.

An excerpt from John Casper Branner’s work, however, gives a contrasting idea of what John may have been like when he arrived in Chariton during 1853 in his late 30s, before whatever it was that bedeviled him tightened its grip.

“He was a man of splendid natural gifts and literary tastes,” John Casper wrote. “His travels and knowledge of men gave him easy and elegant manners, and in personal appearance he was a handsome and impressive man.”

To be continued.

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