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Born on the Brazos - Ellen Neal Part 1

Eleanor Josephine Jackson, known as “Ellen,” was born August 7, 1864, along the Brazos River in Johnson County, Texas,. She was the first child born to Cornelius Rufus “Neely” Jackson and Parmelia Jane Pitts Jackson.

Ellen had three sisters: “Annie” Francis Jackson, born August 17, 1865 in Llano County, Texas, “Laura” Emma Jackson born January 13, 1870 near the Pecos River in West Texas, and Martha “Lula” Jackson, born August 28, 1876 in Llano County, Texas. She also had a brother, Henry Clay Jackson, born in 1878, who died as a baby.

The Jackson children grew up in the wilds of West Texas, not having any opportunity for formal education. Since Neely Jackson didn’t have any sons to help with the outside work, much of it fell to Ellen and her sister, Annie. They could shoot, rope, tan hides, run trap lines, or whatever their dad needed. Their mother was not healthy, so much of the indoor work, such as cooking and cleaning, fell to these girls. They had a very busy life, not much time for having fun.

In 1873, a band of Comanche Indians attacked their home near the Pecos River, in West Texas. Ellen was nine at the time and could recall the attack well, even in later years. Three men happened to be visiting their dad at the time, which meant extra guns, or the Indians might have killed all of them. The Comanches burned down their barn, killed their milk cow, and stole their horses. Seeing the Indians wearing war paint and hearing them yell as they attacked, terrified Ellen and she would never forget it. It terrified her mother, too, and soon the family moved to a less remote area in Llano County.

When Ellen was 16 and Annie, 15, they went to their first dance. The girls really enjoyed the dance, in fact, they eloped with Amos and Joe Prather!

Ellen thought she was in love with Amos Prather . . . he was the first thrill of her life, but he never provided a home for her. The two couples lived in camps along the Rio Grande. Ellen hoped he would change when she told him she was expecting a child, but he didn’t. When it was time for the child to be born, the Prather brothers rode off into Mexico and were never heard of again. Ellen was devastated. Nonetheless, she gave birth to a healthy baby boy, Arthur Lee, on October 22, 1881, near Laredo, Texas. The girls asked the sheriff at Laredo if he could get word to their dad to come and get them. Four months later, Neely Jackson arrived in Laredo looking for his daughters. He was surprised, but happy to find he had a grandson and he was thankful to see his daughters again.

Neely had bad news for the girls. While they were gone their little brother had died of complications due to the measles, and a few days later on May 16, 1881, their mother had also died. He told them that Laura, 11, and Lula, 5, had cried and cried for their mother and for their older sisters. The girls felt terrible and were anxious to comfort their little sisters, so they immediately headed for home.

Ellen became “little mother” to the family. She cooked, cleaned, and mended, but she had help from her sisters. Neely was so happy to have his girls home, but he was a nervous wreck every time they went to a dance.

One night at a dance in Barksdale, Ellen met William Riley “Will” Neal, who was a Texas Ranger. To repeat history, Annie met his younger brother Daniel Edward “Dan” Neal, who was also a Texas Ranger. The Neal family was among the first families in Texas. Will and Dan’s grandfather, Colonel James Clinton Neill/Neal, had moved to Texas with Austin’s third colony and had served in the army with Sam Houston and Jim Bowie.

Will and Ellen were married on July 3, 1883 in Barksdale, Texas. Dan and Annie were married about the same time. Neely Jackson gave them his blessing. Will accepted Arthur as his own and he was known as Arthur Neal throughout his life.

Soon, the Neals decided to move to Arizona Territory. They were looking for good water and tall grass for cattle and had heard that Arizona had both. Before they left, Ellen delivered another son, Curtis Neal, on May 22, 1884. Then Will and Dan’s sister, Jane Neal Bohme, arrived with her year-old son, Willy. She had married a German by the name of Louis Bohme in 1876, but he had gone to Mexico and never came back. Jane filed divorce papers then set out to find her brothers.

A short time later, Will and Dan’s other sister, Lou Neal Colson arrived with two starving little children, Robert and Mary Arizona Colson. Lou had a strange marriage to an old trapper named Nic Colson/Coalson. He had held her captive and had treated very badly. One day she escaped from him, and some cowboys found her walking barefoot with two little children. They took her and the children to Will and Dan’s place.

When the family left Barksdale, Texas in 1884, Ellen was 19, Annie, 18, Laura, 14, Lula, 8, Jane, 25, and Lou, 22. Deciding what was absolutely necessary for the trip was important, because there was little space in the wagons. They took a few dishes, skillets, blankets, pillows, clothing, and lots of clean flour sacks to diaper the babies. They also took staples such as beans, ground corn, molasses, lard, dried fruit, flour, baking powder, salt, nutmeg, and coffee.

Ellen drove a four-horse team that pulled the wagon that transported the women, children, food, water, and other necessities. She wore a high-crowned cowboy hat to shade her face from the hot sun, not a sunbonnet as many women wore at the time. A cage of chickens was tied to the side of the wagon and two milk cows were tied on behind. This slender, petite young woman was a wife, mother, head cook, nurse, and had the responsibility of driving a wagon all day while nursing a child - no easy task. Ellen’s strength and ability “to do what she had to do” was driven by the hope of a permanent home at the end of the journey.

Almost every woman that came west wanted to bring “something from home” to established their new homes. Ellen chose a few cuttings from a wild yellow rosebush, a wild pink rosebush, and Will’s fiddle. The fiddle was considered part of the family. Every night the sweet strains from it put the children to sleep.

Since Ellen had two sons, Arthur, 3 years, and Curtis, 2 months, and Annie had a 3-month-old son, Dell, they needed the help of their younger sisters, Laura and Lula, to make the trip. Jane’s son, Willy Bohme, was a year old. Lou’s son, Robert, was 3, and her daughter, Mary Arizona, was 2. This traveling nursery required several hands. Since there were three nursing mothers, Ellen, Annie, and Jane, they would be able to help each other.

Ellen’s father, Neely Jackson, decided to move with them. What would he do in Texas by himself? He drove another wagon that carried wooden barrels of water, food, bedding, and wash tubs. Neely’s younger brother, Robert Jackson, also made the trip.

They left Texas with 400 head of cattle, 20 head of horses, about a dozen chickens, several dogs, a few hogs, and two covered wagons. Moving this large herd took all of the cowboys Will could rustle up. His sisters, Lou and Jane, were good “cowboys” and he needed them, so they didn’t travel in the wagon. They rode horseback everyday and helped drive the cattle and horses. They carried their children with them part of the time and left them in the wagon with the other mothers the remaining time. If Jane was far from the wagon and her baby needed dinner, either Annie or Ellen would nurse him.

Ellen would tell later generations how excited she was the day they started for Arizona Territory. “I wasn’t afraid. I was looking forward to a new life, to open range for the cattle, and schools for the children. The work was hard and the days were long, but Will promised me a permanent home and I was willing to drive a wagon to Arizona for it.”

The families started each day with a big breakfast of fried meat, sour dough biscuits, gravy, and coffee. Ellen said this was a perfect breakfast because “it was good makin’s for lunch, too.” A hearty breakfast was needed because they traveled for about six hours before stopping for lunch. A lunch break gave the animals time to rest and there was time to build a fire to make a big pot of coffee and the women could tend to their babies. The women made sandwiches by placing left-over breakfast meat inside cold, sliced biscuits. Dried fruit was usually part of lunch, too. Ellen always carried a flour sack of dried fruit for the children.

After another five or six hours of travel, they stopped for the night. The chickens were turned out of their cage to eat greens, then penned again. Camp was made near water as often as possible so they could take baths and wash diapers. They had four big wooden barrels of water - one tied to each side of each wagon - to use when no water was nearby. When they found good water, the barrels had to be filled.

In the evenings, the women cooked the biggest meal of the day. The first thing they made was a big pot of coffee- Neal family tradition. Then they fried deer, rabbit, or quail, and gathered any kind of greens or berries they could find nearby. They always made some kind of bread - biscuits, corn bread, or fried bread. Quite often, Ellen made cobblers from her sack of dried fruit. She also made sugar cookies, using only grated nutmeg for flavoring. Six generations later, her delicious cookies are still cherished by her family.

This column by Jayne Peace is about her great-grandmother who settled in Gisela, Arizona in 1891. This is the first of four parts.

For more Gila County history visit

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