TAMAHA TALES–RESEARCH IN STRANGE PLACES

Hi everyone!  I have kind of an odd  topic today about “strange things happening for a reason.”   Okay, maybe I should have saved this for closer to Halloween, but it’s a story that happened in the summer, and summer is coming to an end, so I wanted to tell you all about it now.

Because everything I write takes place in Oklahoma or Texas, and because I was born and raised in Oklahoma, most of my research tools are right at my fingertips.  Talking to older people in the area, going to the actual places where my stories are set, and visiting museums and landmarks are all part of my research practices for just about all my novels. 

Louis L’Amour said that if he wrote about a creek or a particular landmark, it was authentic; that it was actually where he said it was, and looked the way he described it.  I don’t quite go that far, but I try to keep the setting and every other component of my writing as true to life as possible.  In order to do that, sometimes you just have to “be there.”
 
Tamaha, Oklahoma, was an unlikely candidate to be included in my story, FIRE EYES, until I visited there.  But how its inclusion came about is a story in itself—and proves that sometimes our research, as that other saying goes, “happens.”
 
Though there’s very little to say about the actual town of Tamaha as it exists today, I couldn’t help but use it in my story, FIRE EYES, released last year.  In those long ago days of more than a century past when my story takes place, it was a thriving community.
 
There’s an odd thing that happened that made me include Tamaha in my book.  I’d been working on it, and had come to the part where the villain and his gang needed to reference a landmark.  But which one? And what was the significance? As I said, I try to stay as historically accurate in my writing as possible, and this story takes place in the eastern part of the state, toward the Arkansas/Oklahoma border.  I must admit, I’m not as familiar with that part of the state as I am with the central part, since that’s where I was born and raised.  A lot of these smaller towns don’t even dot the map, and I had never heard of Tamaha, until one day in May, 2005.
 
I’d just spoken with a lifelong friend, DaNel Jennings, who now lives in a town in that eastern area of the state.  In the course of the conversation, she mentioned that she and her husband, Jeff, were doing some genealogical research and she had learned she had some relatives buried in a small cemetery in Tamaha.  Now, the intriguing part of this was that her relatives bore the same last name as my maiden name, “Moss.” 
 
“Wouldn’t it be funny if we really were related?” she asked.  We’d always secretly hoped we were, and pretended that we were, when we were kids.
 
“Yes,” I responded with a laugh, “but where in the heck is Tamaha?” (As if I would know.)  She began trying to tell me where it was, and I said, “Never mind.  It’s a good thing Jeff knows where he’s going.  Let me know what you find.”
 
I hung up, wistfully wishing that I could go with her—but that was a three-hour drive and they were leaving the next day.  No way I could take off and drive down there on the spur of the moment, with family obligations.
 
A couple of hours later, my sister Karen called.  “Cheryl, I need you to come down this weekend,” she said.  I was really intrigued, because she is my “much older” sister—10 years older—and never much “needed” me for anything before.
 
“What’s going on?”
 
“I promised Mr. Borin I would take him to visit the graves of his parents and siblings for Memorial Day, and two of his brothers are buried in a cemetery in Tamaha—”
 
I never heard the rest of her sentence.  I was sure I had misunderstood.  “Where?”
 
“Tamaha.  And the others—”
 
Stunned, I interrupted her. “Wait, I have to tell you something.”  I couldn’t believe it.  I’d never heard of this place before, and now, within the space of 2 hours, two people who were very close to me had told me they were going to be going to the cemetery there! 
  
This was no mere “coincidence.” 

I promised her I would be there—no matter what—Friday afternoon.  We would be going on Saturday morning.
 
I would never have found the place on my own.  I doubt that Mapquest even has it on their site.  But Mr. Borin, an older gentleman my sister had befriended in years past, knew exactly where to go.  Once we got there, I stepped out and found the headstones for the “Moss” family.  It was amazing to think that my best friend, DaNel, whom I had not seen in over a year, had been standing where I was just a few days earlier—a place neither of us had been before. Again, I wondered what our research through family ancestry would yield. Were we related, as we’d always hoped?  There was an incredible sense of connection, for me, not only for what we were doing that day for Mr. Borin and his long dead relatives, but for what DaNel and I might discover about our own. (BTW, cemeteries are also one of my passions–great for research, just by reading the headstones and figuring out what happened.)
 
As the three of us, Karen, Mr. Borin, and I stood in the quiet peacefulness of the old cemetery, a man made his way toward us.  “Can I help you?” he asked, introducing himself.  We explained why we were there. “Let me show you the historical side of Tamaha while you’re here,” he said cheerfully.  He had lived there all his life, and there was no detail about the once-thriving community and surrounding area that he didn’t know.  He was glad to share his knowledge, and believe me, I was writing in my little notebook as fast as I could while he talked.
 
The cemetery is on a bluff overlooking the Arkansas River.  “Right down there is where the J.R. Williams was sunk.  She was a Confederate ship, but the Union seized her and changed the name to the J.R. Williams.  But Stand Watie and his men seized her back.”(June 15, 1864)  Our guide chuckled at the thought. 
 
NOTE:  (Stand Watie was one of only two Native American brigadier generals in the War Between the States.  He was the last Confederate officer to lay down his arms, and was also Chief of the Cherokee Nation at the time.) 
 
“Come on, I’ll show you the largest black oak tree in Oklahoma—and the oldest.”  Sure enough, it stood towering over one of the first buildings of the settlement of Tamaha, dating back to the 1800’s. 
 
Next, we visited the town jail, the oldest jail in Oklahoma, built in 1886.  We were able to walk right into it and take pictures.  “We’re trying to get money up to preserve it,” he said.  It stood in the middle of an overgrown field.  “Watch out for snakes, hon,” he told me. Yep, he didn’t have to tell me twice.  My eyes were peeled.
 
When we left, I knew I had my landmarks that I needed for my book.  I had seen it, and my imagination took over.  It was the “jog” I needed to get on with the writing, but I will never believe for one minute that it was coincidence. 
 
I use many research resources, but because of the nature of what I love to write—western romance—and because I have been so blessed to actually grow up in the area that I’m writing about, I feel like the most invaluable resource available to me are the people and places I meet and visit.  It’s all around me.
 
One of the best “hands on” research places I’ve ever been is The National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum.  I worked there for two years, and I loved every minute of it. The best advantage of working there was the fact that every morning when the doors opened, there was a whole new crowd of people to visit with, and yes, I carried a piece of paper and a pen in my pocket at all times. As for research books, I swallowed very hard and bought the complete set of Time/Life books about the West.  I use it constantly.  Another set of books that I have that really have been a great research tool have been Shelby Foote’s three-book series on the War Between the States.  Very easy to read and full of rich detail that you wouldn’t find in a “regular history book.”
 
But my day of research at Tamaha is one that I will never forget, and that I’m so glad to have been able to take part in.  Have any of you ever experienced anything like this?  Some kind of remarkable occurrence that has affected your writing  in some way?  Do you classify that as “research”?  Share it, if you have—I know I can’t be the only one!
 
Below is an excerpt from FIRE EYES. I hope you enjoy it! 
  
    
 
THE SET UP:  A stranger has shown up at Jessica’s door in the evening.  She is reluctant to let him inside, even though good manners would dictate that she find him a meal and a place to bed down.  There is something about him she doesn’t like—and with good reason, as we find out.
 
 
“Evenin’, ma’am.”

The stranger looked down the business end of Jessica’s Henry repeater. It was cocked and ready for action.

She drew a deep breath, trying to calm her nerves. She stood just inside the cabin door, the muzzle of the rifle gleaming in the lamplight that spilled around her from the interior.

He raised his hands and gave her a sheepish grin. “Don’t mean to startle you. Just hopin’ for a meal. Settlers are few and far between in these here parts.”

“Where’s your horse?” She didn’t lower the gun.

“Well, funny thing. I kinda hate to admit it.” He rubbed the back of his neck and looked away. “I, uh, lost him. Playin’ poker.”

“Where?”

“Over to Tamaha.”

“You’re quite a ways from Tamaha,” she said. “Even farther from where I expect you call home.”

He gave a slow, white grin. “More recently, I hail from the Republic of Texas.”

Jessica raised her chin a notch. It was almost as if this man invited dissension. She disliked the cool, unperturbed way he said it. The Republic of Texas. “Texas is a state, Mister. Has been for over twenty years.”

“Well, now,” he said, placing his booted foot on the bottom porch step. “I guess that all depends on who you’re talkin’ to.”

Her eyes narrowed, and she stepped back to shut the door. “I think you better—”

“Ma’am, I’m awful hungry. I’d be glad for any crumb you could spare.”

“What did you say your name was?” Her voice shook, and she cleared her throat to cover her nervousness. Most people had better manners than to show up right at dark.

“I didn’t. But, it’s Freeman. Andy Freeman.”

“Are you related to Dave Freeman?”

“He’s my brother.” He gave her a sincere look. “Look, ma’am, I’d sure feel a heap better talkin’ to you if I wasn’t lookin’ at you through that repeater. I been lookin’ for Dave.” There was an excited hopefulness in his tone. “You seen him? Ma, she sent me up here after him. She’s just a-hankerin’ for news of him. He ain’t real good about letter-writin’.”

Jessica sighed and lowered the rifle. “Come on in, Mr. Freeman. I’ll see what I can find for you to eat, and give you what news I have of your brother.”

“Thank you, Ma’am. I sure do appreciate your hospitality.”

FIRE EYES  is available at www.thewildrosepress.com

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A native Oklahoman, I've been influenced by the west all my life. I love to write short stories and novels in the historical western and western romance genres, as well as contemporary romantic suspense! Check my Amazon author page to see my work: http://www.amazon.com/author/cherylpierson
I live in Oklahoma City with my husband of 40 years. I love to hear from readers and other authors--you can contact me here: fabkat_edit@yahoo.com
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31 thoughts on “TAMAHA TALES–RESEARCH IN STRANGE PLACES”

  1. Cheryl, that’s truly amazing. I’ve had the same thing happen to me several times. It made me wonder if I lived in another lifetime and actually tred the ground I was researching. I knew way more than I should’ve about the places.

    I wish you had pictures of that cemetery. (By the way, cemeteries are my favorite places to hang out.) I can actually “feel” the stories that got buried with the people. Did you discover if you’re related to your friend? That would be so cool.

  2. Cheryl, incredible story! I hope they find funds to maintain that old jail.

    Yes, I will often see things “come to pass” that are eerily similar to what I’ve written, in a specific way, or things will fall into place to work with my story as though I’d planned it. Of course I believe there is a purpose behind things so maybe we’re just more likely to see what others won’t?

  3. Cheryl,

    What a fascinating story.

    I love to frequent cemeteries, too. The El Campo Santo Cemetery in Old Town San Diego, they have researched who has been buried there and have their story at each grave. Also in Tombstone, the Boothill Cemetery, they have a small booklet with who is buried where and with information about the person’s life.

    I’ve notice some cemeteries have the person’s picture, but wouldn’t it be grand if all cemeteries included a blurb about the person?

    Yes, I’ve had similar events “fall into place” when I’ve written. It’s like having a whisper of time sweep through to help the story along.

    Great post!
    Karen

  4. hi Linda,

    Have you ever read The Widow of the South by Robert Hicks? It is based on a true story of a woman that maintained a Civil War cemetery on her property, near Franklin TN, and it’s still there today. At the time the book was written a few years ago, it was one of the only remaining privately owned war-time cemeteries, and Hicks wrote the book to help fund the maintenance of it and the old plantation house and grounds where the museum is housed. The woman the story is written about had a slave what was her companion and friend, that was able to look into the ground above the graves and tell about the people who were buried there. The Widow of the South was the main character, can’t remember her name right now, but anyhow, she maintained a book of the names of the dead and would write down the details that her companion would give her about them. This is a fascinating book–on my keeper shelf for sure. I think you would really enjoy it. I’ve had times like that myself, knowing more than I should and so on. Feeling the “spirits” sometimes in places I’ve been.

    I do have some pictures, but don’t have them on my computer. Cemeteries are my favorite places to hang out, too! Always have been. Growing up, there was a park a couple of blocks from my house, and a cemetery beside it. Oftentimes, we’d say we were going to the park, but then would climb the chain link fence into the cemetery. I’ve always been fascinated by them.

    DaNel and I have been friends since 1st grade–been through a LOT together. We have not yet been able to prove our “blood” relationship, but I think we have both always felt it was there, and maybe that’s why we have always been such fast friends. I need about a month long vacation from everything to just be able to sit down and work on genealogy! LOL

    Thanks so much for commenting, and you might pick up Widow of the South–it’s not a romance, but it is one of those books that stay with you.

    Cheryl

  5. What an intriguing story, Cheryl. Clearly you were meant to go to Tamaha. LOL! Glad to learn a little more about the story behind the story. Fire Eyes is one of my favorite books.

    Keena

  6. Hi Loraine,

    Yes, that old jail was something. I went into it just briefly–just to say I’d done it. LOL But it was full of spiders and God only knows what else, so I didn’t tarry. LOL

    I think that’s really true about “seeing” what others don’t at times. I think that everyone has that ability, but some more than others, and you have to be open to all the possibilities in order to recognize when they come your way. Thanks for popping over! I know you are BUSY!

    Cheryl

  7. Hi Beth! So good to see you here! Congrats on your latest news–I’ve been following! LOL I bought Through the Fire and will be reading it shortly. Love the cover! Thanks for coming by and commenting. Glad you enjoyed the post.

    Cheryl

  8. KAREN!

    I’m so glad to see you here! Thanks so much for coming by–I know you are busy with your recent release ELI: WARRIORS FOR THE LIGHT. This looks fantastic, btw!

    I love this description you gave: It’s like having a whisper of time sweep through to help the story along.

    That is sooooo true, isn’t it?

    Thanks again for coming by!
    Cheryl

  9. KEENA!

    That is so very nice of you to say! I appreciate that soooo much. Yep, it was “meant to be” for me to go to Tamaha, for sure! That was a very memorable day–Mr. Borin was in his mid eighties at the time, and had been raised in that area. When he was a young boy, Pretty Boy Floyd and his gang came to his house one night in the middle of the night. His mom fixed them a big meal and they stayed there until daylight. He said he remember his dad telling him, “Don’t ever speak of this to anyone.” He was about 7 or 8 at the time. I do love history! LOL

    Thanks for coming by–I know you are busy–you just signed a new contract with The Wild Rose Press for their “reunion” series, didn’t you? That’s GREAT! Congratulations!

    Hugs,
    Cheryl

  10. Cheryl, what a fascinating story. Yes, I have had a similar experience. After decades of searching, my brother, daughter, and I found the cemetery in which our ancestor was buried. The markers were mostly wooden, so we weren’t able to locate the exact grave, but at least we found the cemetery. There are so many “coincidences” connected to our discovering it, that it make one wonder.

    Sometimes things are “meant to be” as you said.

  11. Hi Caroline!

    My aunt and uncle traced back our relatives to the Allreds of TX–think he was a governor there many many years ago. My aunt took pics of all the tombstones, etc., but didn’t put how we are related to them on there! So now the work begins once again.

    There’s an old cemetery in Albany, OK, where my parents were both raised–it’s almost a ghost town now. Anyhow, when I used to go back there with Mom, we’d go to the cemetery there, and she knew so many of the stories about the people who were buried there–just fascinating. There was one family who had several kids, 5 or 6, who had been caught out in a rainstorm when they went to pick berries one day. They took shelter under a big oak tree, and the tree was struck by lightning. It killed them all except for one of the older boys, who crawled to the nearest farmhouse for help. I actually remember meeting the father of those kids one day when we were down there–I was really young, only about 8 or so. Now, so many of those graves have no stone or any kind of marker, and the ones who remember are gone, too.

    Cheryl

  12. What a strange story. I am glad you went to Tamaha. Your setting is so realistic. I always like to set my stories in places I visited to make the reader feels it with me.

  13. wow cheryl!
    that is really an amazing story
    i love that you shared it with us–it will make reading about tahoma in Fire Eyes so much for meaningful…like sharing a special secret 🙂

    loved the excerpt you shared as well–thank you–makes me even more anxious to get your book read!

    ps–i’m not sure about all you girls and cemetaries…they make me nervous, lol

  14. I loved reading about your experiences. I agree these things happen for a reason. It’s trying to suss out what the reason is, that can be so frustrating.
    A school friend and I often spent time going round the graveyard. We found it both soothing and fascinating. Many of the headstones had weathered beyond reading so together we made up stories about the people.
    Thanks for sharing.

  15. Everything happens for a reason, but sometimes it is almost scary how things sort of fall in place. There have been times when we are traveling that things will fall into place in a similar fashion while talking with someone. We’ll mention a place or an interest and they’ll know someone or someplace they are sure we would like and that usually opens up a whole new side trip we hadn’t planned.

    As for cemeteries, I love them. The well know historical ones are always interesting and there is always information about them. It is the little ones in small towns or sometimes out in the middle of nowhere that can be really interesting. They can tell you much about the population: families, infant deaths, clusters of deaths to indicate a possible medical problem, military service. When we were traveling in Quebec, Canada, we found a lot of interesting things. At one church, the markers were all lined up close together in rows only 2 or 3 feet or so apart. There wasn’t enough room for bodies. The stones dated back to the early 1800’s. It was a small town we just happened to be driving through. We finally found someone to solve the mystery. I would have to find my journal from years ago, but I think the story was they needed the space where the cemetery was located for something else. They either moved all the bodies into one large grave and places the markers neatly over them or just moved the markers and built over the graves. Either way, I’ve never heard of that being done. Also, i found it interesting how they noted women’s names on their gravestones. I don’t know if they still do it today, but in the 1800’s they listed the woman by her maiden name as the wife of whoever her husband was. For example:
    Marie Laport
    Born
    January 3, 1808
    Died
    August 25, 1860
    Wife of
    Oliver Gagne
    It is the only area where I have seen it done that way. I don’t know if that would make it easier or harder to search for family ancestors.

    Thanks for an interesting post and the excerpt.

  16. Hi Cheryl! You’ve told me this story before, but it is just as fascinating to hear it again. Isn’t it great when things like that happen? They truly give meaning to our writing. And by the way, you know I love all your work, but Fire Eyes is my absolute favorite :).

  17. Hi Cheryl,

    Great story, but I still have a question: Did you
    and DaNel ever get an answer to the relationship
    question? Are you related?
    I look forward to reading Fire Eyes.

    Pat Cochran

  18. Hi Mona,

    Thanks for those kind words! I am so glad I got to go, too. That was one of those “meant to be” trips that really broke the story of Fire Eyes wide open as I was writing it. I had seen it all and it was fresh in my mind. Congratulations on your recent 5 star review! You go, girl!

    Cheryl

  19. hi Tabitha,

    I think I got that love of cemeteries from my mom. LOL She always had a tendency to live in the past and told me so many stories about the people she knew growing up that I feel like I could write a book about that! LOL Cemeteries don’t make me nervous…in the daylight.

    I hope you enjoy Fire Eyes when you do get to read it. It is truly a labor of love for me.

    Cheryl

  20. Hi Sherry,

    Yes, that’s how it was when I was growing up, too. My friend DaNel and I lived across the street from the third grade on until I moved my sr. year in high school. So we spent many an hour in the graveyard nearby. We’d marvel at the dates and the family clusters, and try to figure out what might have happened.

    I’m glad you enjoyed the post!

    Cheryl

  21. Hi Catslady!

    If I ever have the time to sit down with all my genealogy stuff and try to piece it together I would love to know that, too. DaNel and I were always really close–she’s 3 months older than I am and was the oldest in her family, while I was the youngest. So she always felt “older” to me. LOL She’s the person I’ve known the longest other than my family, and just precious to me.

    Cheryl

  22. Hi Patricia,

    Now that is very interesting about the way they engrave the headstones in Canada. It seems that that would be most helpful in finding one’s ancestors and tracing back. I’m part Indian, and it has proven to be a fruitless search, even just a few generations back. That’s one part of my genealogy that I’m going to need to devote a lot of time and energy (and probably some money as well!) to in order to find anything.

    Glad you enjoyed the post and the excerpt, and thanks so much for your interesting comment!

    Cheryl

  23. Hi Pat,

    No, we have never been able to prove it yet, but in my heart I think it’s true. Moss is an unusual name. I am thinking that maybe “one of these days” we will be able to sit down with all of our genealogy records and compare them side by side and solve this mystery. LOL

    I hope you enjoy FIRE EYES.

    Cheryl

  24. Glad that you got to visit out little town of Tamaha, Oklahoma! Next time that you are in the area make sure that it is on a Thursday. That building where the big oak tree is is the old school and now the community center. Senior Citizens has a very good meal there at noon on Thursday for only $4.00. Just don’t bring a busload because I want to get something to eat!

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