History, Ancestry & Story

I’m Jane Porter and new here, but not a new author. I’ve written 50 stories since I sold my first book to Harlequin Presents in January 2000, including 10 women’s fiction titles and 40 romances.

With that first sale, I launched my career writing about alpha heroes and glamorous, international settings, but long before that, I wrote cowboys. Lots of cowboys. None of them sold, even though I did win a Golden Heart from Romance Writers of America for Best Long Contemporary with my western romance, ALL-AROUND COWBOY, so I shelved my cowboys when a London editor encouraged me to write a story for her. I did, and I built a career writing sexy Greeks, Sheikhs and Italians, but I began to miss what I knew best: small towns, ranches, and independent, rugged men who love the land.

1df6eb37-fac9-47a5-b2b8-3170c96116f4You see, I’m a small town girl myself, growing up in Central California with miles of farmland stretching in every direction, spending vacations on my late grandfather’s cattle ranch near tiny Parkfield, California. My grandfather Lyles was from Texas, just like his grandfather was from Texas, having moved there as a young boy from Mississippi following the end of the Civil War.

According to those that knew him, that great-great-great grandfather, William Durham Lyles, was big and physically tough. He stood 6’4”, had dark hair, dark-eyes and an intimidating stare. He also had a reputation for being able to work as hard, if not harder, than any professional cowhand.

According to an article on the front page of the New York Times in May 1889, he was a desperado.

NYT May 4 1889 article WD Lyles murderBy definition a desperado is someone who is a “desperate or reckless person, especially a criminal.” (Synonyms: bandit, criminal, outlaw, lawbreaker, villain, renegade.)

That sounds bad. And there are plenty of newspaper articles claiming that he was a cattle rustler, stealing cattle and horses in Texas and crossing state line to sell the stock in Louisiana.

There is no proof he did it. We, his descendants do know he settled in Vernon, Louisiana because he fell in love with my great-great-great grandmother, married her, moving to her hometown to raise a family. My great-great-great grandmother came from a wealthy family. William Durham Lyles wasn’t wealthy. Just big, and powerful, as well as fast with a bullwhip and gun.

Not everyone liked him. In fact, the wealthy establishment really disliked him. He was so disliked, that he was murdered at the age of 37, when a group of concerned citizens (vigilantes?) fired 18 rounds of buckshot, peppering his body, leaving him to die on a bridge six miles from his home.

His death would have been just one of many in the still wild west, if his murder hadn’t created tremendous controversy, with his close friends and family vehemently protesting Lyles’ innocence, while the media reported that he was “inclined to murderous aggressiveness”. True, he nearly always carried a gun, a rifle or a pistol (or both), and famous for his adroit use of the bullwhip, but he was a farmer, a rancher, and the border of Louisiana and Texas was still little more than a frontier.

IMG_2899William’s younger brothers rode over from Navarro, Texas to investigate the death, and things got pretty tense in Vernon, Louisiana. It didn’t help that one of William Durham’s friends was an editor at a small newspaper called People’s Friend, and the editor, Sorrell demanded justice for William Durham Lyles. “The editor of the People’s Friend, attacked State Senator E.E. Smart, a prosperous and influential citizen, demanding punishment. The Vernon News defended the Senator. The parish speedily divided into factions, the old element supporting the News and the border ruffians the Friend. Sorrell, the editor of the latter, has made himself very conspicuous and its feared he will be killed.” (NYT May 4, 1889)

WD Lyles grave marker Vernon Parish, LouisianaThe media loved this story. The New York Times was just one of a dozen papers to report on the “Texas Border Town on the Eve of Bloodshed”.

The newspapers focused on Lyles’ aggressive personality, repeatedly sharing colorful gossipy tidbits like, “He was said to have struck several parties with his rifle and deliberately stepped upon the toes of men while entering stores.” But family and friends claimed Lyles was definitely tough, but also fair. I can’t help wondering if part of the problem might have been that he wasn’t local, and he wasn’t born into money. And yet his gravestone in the Vernon cemetery is impressive. Someone must have loved him.

William Murray LylesWas he a cattle rustler? A criminal? A desperado? Or was he a fierce, independent Texan who rubbed the wealthy and influential the wrong way?

I won’t ever know what really did happen, but I do know this. William Durham’s first born, my great grandfather William Murray Lyles, attended LSU where he ran track and played football, and earned a law degree.

My great-grandfather “Pap” was a brilliant, athletic, kind man. I don’t know how he could have turned out quite so wonderful if his father had been such a ruthless, terrifying desperado.

TakeMeCowboy_JanePorter_thumbnailI love history, ancestry, and stories. Especially stories with tough heroes and the strong women who love them.

What do you like to read? I’d love to know. And I’d also love to hear if you have any juicy stories in your family. I can’t be the only one with a desperado in the family tree!

I’m giving away three digital copies of Take Me, Cowboy so leave a comment, share your thoughts and you could be a winner!





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36 thoughts on “History, Ancestry & Story”

  1. What an interesting family history, Jane! I wish it were easier to find the truth behind the legend, don’t you? For the families, I’m sure it doesn’t matter. No one really wants to believe they have a vicious ancestor in the family tree. Sometimes the legend is more intriguing than the truth.

    Welcome to the fillies! We’re happy to have you in the corral. 🙂

  2. Hi Jane! It’s so good to see you here. I enjoyed hearing more about your family history. I wish I knew more about my family. My mother doesn’t know much about her side either and I only met my biological father twice before he passed away. My ex’s brother did a lot of research on his family and they traced his grandmother’s side back to an ancestor who was part of Jesse James’ gang. He used to travel to different places to get info and even found a picture of that family member.

  3. Welcome to Wildflower Junction! What a fascinating past in your family! In both the family pictures you posted the men are quite dashing.

    Although I don’t do genealogy myself, I really enjoy the treasure of stories my mother has discovered of my family’s past. Although it’s not “western” I have a great-great-??? grandfather from the 1600s that was instrumental in establishing the town of Salem MA and lived there during the infamous witch trials. Roger Conant. There is a statue of him in the town that still stands today–in a black cape and tricorn hat.

    You asked what I like to read…all sorts of things depending on my mood. I like things that end happily and in an up-lifting or satisfying way. No horror! (I don’t get the appeal of it.)

  4. So glad to have you with us, Jane! And with a family history like that … well, you were obviously born to be a filly. 🙂

    What a fabulous story! It reads just like a western romance novel. Wealthy socialite tames wild frontiersman with the power of love. Only, the hero is never supposed to die that young. His legacy certainly lived on, though. Through your family as well as the conflicting newspaper reports that add spice to the legend.

    You’re gonna fit in just fine around here, Miss Jane. 🙂

  5. Hi Jane! So happy to have you on board with us. I look forward to getting to know more about my filly sister. And oh man! You really started with a bang. You have very colorful ancestors and the articles to prove it. You should be on that show Who Do You Think You Are on TLC. I love what the genealogists uncover about people’s past. They could find out the real story. It sounds like Durham Lyles just made some bad enemies who wanted him dead by any means necessary. Really fascinating stuff right out of the gate. I’ve tried to dig into my family history but with names like Smith, Jones and Clark what can you expect? *sigh*

    Great cover for Take Me, Cowboy! I love it. Very romantic.

  6. Welcome Jane! Well, your first blog is an eye-opener! I loved hearing about your ancestors and the history behind it all. My father-in-law is from Navarro County and we’ve visited the area many times. I often writer Texas stories too, as I know the terrain so well. Loved seeing your photo above mine on the Filly wall!!

  7. Wow, Jane! What a fascinating character you have in your family! He’s like the archetype of the old West self-made man. Also, having been a Yankee, myself, who moved to the small-town south for a while, (years ago) I can tell you that it was hard to fit in, so it wouldn’t surprise me if there was some of that going on with him. Especially since he married into a money and especially if he was a Union sympathizer. How fun to uncover such a mysterious history. Even better if someday, you make up your own explanation for it all in a book!

  8. Welcome to Wildflower Junction, Miss Jane. We’re so happy to have you. What a great story!! Loved it! My D/H’s family has a colorful past but the story I don’t know is on my mother’s side. And now there’s nobody who knows who is still with us. So, I’ll make up my own story when the time comes. My grandmother was a Womack from Louisiana and her family had a plantation. The town of Womack is still on the maps. I don’t think there’s much to the town now, if anything. She was a true Southern Bell, true Christian, and I never saw her take a drop of liquor. I was very close to her. She married my grandfather, working to build the railroad. His grandmother was a Blackfoot Indian and most of the family loved “happy juice”. My first uncle and first aunt, plus my mother, were born in a railroad car in Louisiana. The last son was born here in the Texas Panhandle. Now, my imagination has to kick in. How did a beautiful southern belle and a railroad worker get together? I guess that’s my story to imagine and write a book about one of these days. Jane, I’m so happy to welcome you as a sister filly. Hugs from Texas, Phyliss
    PS: I have to say my oldest daughter and family live in Lompoc (Santa Barbara County). Is that near your ranch when you were growing up? And, of course being a Texan, where in Texas did your family settle? Inquisitive me.

  9. love the story from your past. also love that you have newspaper clippings and photos to go along with it! love to read a little of everything, but usually end up with some form of romance or chick literature.

  10. Jane!
    This is absolutely fascinating and such amazing insight to history! I love this new direction you are taking your talents.
    xo, Mary Kay

  11. Wow Jane!! What an interesting story!! It’s so nice that you have access to this family history. I love to read romance, period! I love your books, as you know. Thank you for sharing this.

  12. My great grandmother sat on her hope chest to keep the confederate soldiers from taking her valuables. We have the chest. We also own 1000 acres in west Texas that was one of the last battles with the Comanches. We’ve found pottery dates back to 1876 and a lot of arrow heads. History absolutely fascinates me. Also my Mom passed away when I was 19-she was 44. There have been several times whenive felt like someone has sat on my bed–especially when I’m especially stressed or upset. It’s very comforting. We have great historians on both sides of the family and a lot of fascinating stories.

  13. The one desperado I am certain of in our family was my grandfather on my mother’s side. His family lived on the Canadian border in northern NY state. During prohibition, he was one of many rum runners who transported illegal liquor from the north down to New York City. The family home sat right across the Canadian/American border. They would bring legal liquor into the house through the kitchen which was in Canada. At night they would bring the boxes out the front door which was in the US and smuggle the now illegal cargo south. It is said he left on loaded car in the lake as he ditched it while outrunning the police.

    Family, history, ancestry all make for interesting factories in a story. On their own, they can drive a story. .

  14. What a fascinating post. So interesting to find out all these details about our families. My great-grandmother was rumored through the family to have had 2 of her husbands committed rather than divorce them, and my father was quite the mystery man. Another entire family came out of the woodwork when he passed away. We are all quite boring now, I think.

  15. Hi, Jane: Such a delight to see that you have joined the Fabulous Fillies!!! Your terrific storytelling abilities, world travels, and great heart are perfect additions to this wonderful group of writers. Your post is fascinating–truth inspires fiction. Real-life characters and their capers are often the basis for fantastic fiction. I have been an avid reader since childhood. When I was a kid, in the sixties, there was a fabulous array of sci-fi, super-spy, and private eye books, TV shows, and films that really appealed to me! I was half girly-girl and half tomboy, so as an adult (sort of), I still love the variety of genres. When I hit the preteen years, and they hit back, I started reading the great gothic mystery romances and soon became immersed in historical romance. Oh, and by the way, I come from a western-loving family, and I am a prairie woman at heart. I love the Old West, and I also read a variety of western-themed reads, both fiction and nonfiction. I look forward to your future posts!

  16. I dabble a bit in many reading genres, but after years of reading non-fiction books (ie. raising kids) and history books for home-schooling, I have spent the last year reading, almost exclusively, fiction. I enjoy YA, contemporary romance, and historical romance. In fact, I read your book, It’s You, this summer. Loved it!

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