Hester Jane Ervin (at left) in Missouri circa the early 1890s
My mother was not content in Missouri, and she spent most of the year of 1894 in Muskogee, in the old Indian Territory. An older sister had married a cowman who lived there, and my mother stayed with them. The Indian Territory was still beyond the frontier, the haunt of outlaws and desperadoes—the Doolins, the Daltons, and others. It was, in truth, the last stand of the wild bunch. Muskogee was in the Creek Nation; the Federal Court had but recently been established there. Her stay in the Territory established more firmly than ever her dislike for Indians of any kind. —Robert E. Howard, “The Wandering Years”
While preparing text for an upcoming REH Foundation volume, I read the above and it got me thinking: what do we know about Hester’s time in Oklahoma? I don’t know why this set me off, I never really do, but I had to look into it. I pulled out de Camp’s Dark Valley Destiny and found this, um, paraphrase:
In 1894 Hester Jane was living in Muskogee, in the Indian Territory of Oklahoma, with an older sister who was married to a cattleman. This was a desolate place beyond the frontier, without community or law, peopled by scattered householders, Indian bands, and fleeing outlaws. Many of the Indians were the remnants of tribes who, because the whites coveted their reservation lands, had been arbitrarily swept up by the U.S. Army after the Civil War and dumped into the Territory to root, hog, or die. If Hester Jane’s experience in Lampasas had not persuaded her, her sojourn in this wild region consolidated her dislike of Indians.
And de Camp added the following:
It is unclear what brought Hester Jane Ervin to Oklahoma, whether she herself was ill, or whether it was her sister who had active tuberculosis and needed Hester Jane to care for her. Perhaps she was merely restless, being at this point almost twenty-five and unmarried.
Finding nothing more in the other biographies, I started looking on the internet. Newspaper Archive is a wonderful thing. Its search function and the quality of the images aren’t always the best, but if you’ve got some time to burn, it usually yields results. Of course, looking for all the variations in spelling (Ervin, Erwin, Erving, Irving, Irwin, Irvin, etc.) can be a tad daunting.
The first Ervin I found in the Muskogee papers may or may not be Hester’s older brother, William Vinson Ervin:
Wm. Ervin, a brother of Mrs. Dr. Thomas, came to Fishertown last week to read medicine under Dr. Thomas. He took a run down to Caddo Saturday and will return in a few days, when he will settle down to his work. [Indian Journal – February 28, 1884]
This same Ervin shows up again in the April 10, 1884 issue:
Col. Phillips, of Dallas, came up to Fishertown last week to see his son Wm. Erwin and his daughter, Mrs. Dr. Thomas. He returned Thursday.
There are a few things that make these mentions suspect, but there are also several coincidences. First of all, William’s and Hester’s father’s name was George W. Ervin, not Phillips, but he was called a Colonel, at least in his obituary. News reports published in the Galveston Daily News in 1883 mention George a few times in their “Dallas County Real Estate Transfers” column. Then there’s the Ervin / Erwin problem, though it seems strange that a man named Phillips would have a son named “Erwin.”
Another problem is the “Mrs. Dr. Thomas.” One of George W.’s daughters, Christina Ervin, did in fact marry a man with the last name of Thomas, but while Christina appears in the Muskogee papers as “Mrs. C. C. Thomas” in connection with her milliner and dressmaker business, the only doctor with that last name I have been able to find had the first name Lou. Lots of coincidences, but too many problems for any degree of certainty.
But whether or not William spent time in the Indian Territory, we know that Christina Ervin Thomas was living there at least as early as October 1, 1887, when the first of her milliner ads appears in another local paper, Our Brother in Red:
Throughout 1888 and into 1889, ads and notices regarding her business appear. On May 26, 1888 she “moved into her new store, and invites the public generally to call and see her large and well selected stock of new milliner goods” (Our Brother in Red). On July 26, 1888, we learn that her “millinery stock has been removed to the first door north of Turner & Byrne’s, where she will be pleased to meet all her old customers and new ones too” (Muskogee Phoenix). The June 8, 1889 edition of Our Brother in Red has news of a sister, Marilda Ervin, now Mrs. Mitchell:
The child of Rev. D. R. Mitchell, Forestburg, Texas, was badly hurt not long ago in a hurricane which passed through that town. Mrs. Mitchell is a sister of Mrs. C. C. Thomas of our town.
All of this was interesting, but where was Hester? Possibly in this December 24, 1891 mention from the “Purely Personal” column in the Muskogee Phoenix:
A year later, December 22, 1892, there’s another mention: “Miss Ervin of Mo., sister to Mrs. C. C. Thomas, is spending some time with her sister who has been quite sick with la grippe, but is convalescent.” [Note: The date on this paper could be wrong: the front page is damaged and someone has handwritten 1892 near the top. By 1892 Christina Thomas had remarried and become Mrs. J. O. Cobb (thanks to Patrice Louinet for that nugget), so it makes more sense if this mention was also from 1891. Cobb, by the way, was a cattleman, but he also ran a livery stable, a drugstore, and invested in an orchard.] The “Irwin” spelling in the first notice not withstanding, there might be another problem—another sister—but we’ll talk about that in a minute.
We finally hit paydirt (thanks again, Patrice) with the February 16, 1893 edition of the Muskogee Phoenix:
So, if Hester was, in fact, the sister who was tending to Christina, perhaps she caught the bug from her; of course, it’s possible, as de Camp said, that Hester went to Oklahoma because of an illness. I guess we’ll never know. And there is another possibility for the mystery Ervin/Irwin sister.
At some point prior to March 12, 1896, yet another Ervin sister was living in Muskogee: Georgia Alice. The Muskogee Phoenix for that day reported the following:
The friends of Miss Alice Ervin, formerly a resident of Muskogee, and a sister of Mrs. J. O. Cobb, will be interested in learning that Miss Ervin was married on Wednesday of last week to Rev. J. Frank Comer, of St. Louis, Mo., at the home of the bride’s parents at Commerce, Mo. The many friends of Miss Ervin in Muskogee join the friends at her home in wishing the wedded couple all the peace, joy and contentment that life affords.
The widowed mother of Earl Lee Comer before 1910, Alice and her boy moved to Big Spring, Texas, probably to be close to her big brother, the aforementioned William Vinson Ervin, father to Robert Howard’s other cousins Maxine and Lesta. Alice died in 1915 and her son went to live with relatives in the little town of Cross Cut, just over the county line from Cross Plains. But I digress . . .