Vol. V, No. 4, Spring 1992


The Coker Clan

by Lynn Morrow



Lynn Morrow is Supervisor of the Local Records Program for the Missouri State Archives, and Editor of the White River Valley Historical Quarterly. This article, in somewhat longer form, appeared in the Spring, 1990, Quarterly.

The work of collector Silas C. Turnbo (1844-1925) produced the single largest manuscript holdings of l9th century Ozark reminiscences and genealogy, partially published in the early twentieth century by Turnbo in two volumes as the Fireside Stories of the Early Days in the Ozarks.

One way to enjoy the content of Turnbo' s collection is to focus upon families. Occasionally, Turnbo' s stories may be compared and augmented by the writings of other collectors. Such is the case with the Cokers. A.C. Jeffery took note of them in his Historical and Biographical Sketches of the Early Settlement of the Valley of White River, 1877, as did William Monks in his History of Southern Missouri and Northern Arkansas, 1907.

y 1810 pioneers had settled intermittently along the upper White River. Trading depots at this early period developed at the mouth of Big North Fork River (Baxter County, Arkansas,), mouth of Rocky Bayou (near Guion, Izard County, Arkansas), and Poke Bayou (Batesville, Arkansas). Traders ascended the river on keel boats to sell salt, powder, whiskey, lead, and more for the exchange of buffalo hides, bear skins, and pelts. Travel above the North Fork was considered hazardous and few families lived in that area until the 1830s and beyond. Well known throughout the region in this group of hunter-stockmen were the Cokers.

Coker people left County Cork in the south of Ireland and settled near James River, Virginia, Surry County by 1635. Apparently, they eventually prospered, acquired some slaves, and later exported tobacco to England. By the early 1770s Cokers moved southward into the Carolinas and Georgia. By the following generation Cokers had migrated to Mississippi Territory and settled in what would become Montgomery County, Alabama, by 1810.

William "Buck" Coker and his large entourage of relatives exemplified a common type of immigration in the southern uplands. From 1811 to 1815 family members moved from northern Alabama to the upper White River. By 1816 newly arrived Paton Keesee reported that the families of Buck Coker, his son Joe and his sons-in-law, William Trimble and Girard Leiper Brown, were the only white settlers on White River in modern northern Boone and Marion Counties in Arkansas.

These "first families" gave several place-names to the land. Patriarch Buck Coker settled in a wide bottom, the Jake Nave Bend-- ultimately named for a granddaughter's husband. Daughter Katie (G.L. Brown's wife) gave her name to Katie's Prairie in Taney County, Missouri, and granddaughter Becca (Katie's child) is thc source for Becca's Branch, Marion County. Poor Joe Bald in Taney County is a remembrance of son Joe Coker's narrow escape from angry Cherokees, and Trimble Creek in Marion County echoes son-in-law William Trimble. Buck Coker's wife became the first interment in Coker cemetery in Boone County's Jake Nave Bend. A listing of Buck Coker's large family and their intermarriages reads like a White River Directory of First Families: Anderson, Boatright, Brown, Friend, Hogan, Holt, Keesee, Magness, Manley, Nave, Trimble, Wood, Yocum, and Cherokee women. Many of the Coker descendants became later pioneers in Oklahoma and Texas.

Their pine pole houses sometimes offered little protection against the indigenous bears. Katie Coker married G.L. Brown in Alabama and in fall 1816 they settled at the mouth of Bear Creek (modern northeast Boone County). The next summer Katie and her two children, fearing a nearby bear, retreated inside their pole house and hid in the small cellar beneath the puncheon floor. The bear pushed through the"door shutter" and invaded the house while the family screamed in terror beneath the floor. Fortunately, a young calf penned in the back yard soon got the attention of Bruin. While the bear was killing and eating the calf, Katie's husband returned home and shot the bear.

The Coker clan were affluent by standards of the day--they brought slaves with them from Alabama. It appears that a more liberal form of slavery existed under the Cokers -- as was common in the southern uplands-- as opposed to a harsher slave existence in the row crop and plantation culture of the Deep South.

The Coker clan was not immune to violent passions. In 1854 Joe Coker's son George rode his horse into the house of his brother-in-law Jake Nave (whose wife Sally Coker had recently died), intending to kill him, but Nave was quicker and shot George Coker dead. For a time, Nave lived in the bluff at the mouth of Shoal Creek and in a bluff on Little North Fork where brothers John and Abe Nave, and others, protected him.

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On another occasion, two of Joe Coker's other sons resorted to lethal violence. John Coker killed his brother-in-law Jim Churchman and when Marion County sheriff Billy Brown intervened, Randolph Coker killed Brown. The two Coker boys were chained together in the Yellville jail, but someone entered the cell, cut the chain, and the Cokers made their escape.

The Cokers also participated in a kind of informal community justice. In 1858 Ben Jacobs, a wealthy South Carolinian, his wife, small infant, and slaves, moved to Shoal Creek. One of the slaves, however, revealed that Jacobs had run away and left several small children in South Carolina. River Bill Coker made a written inquiry and received word of the truth of the story. A neighborhood committee confronted Jacobs and read the written response from South Carolina. Jacobs admitted his part and River Bill Coker and the committee suggested that the Jacobs people leave Marion County, which they did.

River Bill Coker, James C. Turnbo (Silas' father), and others hired men to teach subscription schools. Students included Silas Turnbo and George W. Coker, River Bill's son. George W. Coker founded a mercantile in Harrison and later became a leading merchant in Lead Hill. George hired teamsters that followed the historic north-south wagon trade between Springfield and White River traders.

Buck Coker's eldest son Joe (1787-1862), remembered for his two Cherokee wives and cohabitation with other women, is a famous character in White River lore, and something of an entrepreneur in Turnbo's reminiscences. He was the "first citizen" of what became Lead Hill as he owned a large block of the Sugar Loaf Prairie. He built a small corn mill there and operated a corn whiskey still, and like all the early Cokers, owned herds of stock that fed on cane in the White River bottoms. Joe donated ground for a combined school and church and adjacent cemetery; in 1849 he had logs hauled from the prairies for the building. At his death in 1862 only a lone slave woman attended his bedside. He was buried in an unmarked grave at Lead Hill.

Some of the Cokers and their neighbors Turnbo referred to as "rustlers in the occupation of hunting and [they] killed all the game they wanted." Their kill was for local consumption, but also for the trade in pelts and skins. Besides marketing stock downriver and northward, the easiest money lies in market hunting. Bryant's Lick, a famous hunting ground several miles south of Carrollton, Arkansas, attracted Coker men. In the Territorial years of Arkansas buffalo and elk made a trail there to taste the saline dirt. Buck Coker's grandson Len and Great-grandson Joe frequented the lick and Turnbo reported a deer kill of 40 each in one fortuitous day. These skins would have paid for taxes, land, stock, or manufactured goods at regional mercantiles.

Joe Coker was the "Mr. Coker" whom Henry Rowe Schoolcraft (1793-1864) mentioned several times in his Journal of a Tour into the Interior of Missouri and Arkansas in 1818 and 1819.

In July, 1861, volunteers for the Confederate army were called to Yellville. A company of men raised in Marion and southern Taney County responded. Captain William C. Mitchell, long-time successful politician in Carroll County, commanded the group which later formed part of the 14th regiment of Arkansas Infantry. The soldiers marched through the streets of Yellville accompanied by the violin music of Dan and "Yellville Bill" Coker. But by war's end the grim toll in lives and property had stunned all. Ned and River Bill Cokers' houses were burned, Ned was tortured with fire and hanging. Both father and son died in Missouri. In spring, 1865, Bushwhackers shot and killed "Dud" Coker while he planted his spring corn. Fortunately, patriarch Buck Coker, who died in 1855 nearing 90 years of age, did not see the years of Civil War. Like numerous slaveholding southerners, the War destroyed their property and they lost lives and futures in the Great Conflict.

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