Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Uncle Frank Part 2 by Jane Wilkerson


Throughout my experience with genealogy, I have learned that no matter how hard one tries, it is almost impossible to uncover the entire story, at least with a single attempt. It takes many documents just to get some sense of who our ancestors really were, as I realized while trying to piece together the story of my third great grandmother, the mysterious, much-married Millie Miller. The story of my uncle Robert Franklin “Frank” Browning story was no different. It would come to light through newspapers, court, and census records, to reveal a complicated life, one that remains in large part a mystery.

As readers may recall, in the first installment, I established that Uncle Frank did time in the Arkansas penitentiary on a manslaughter conviction. Researching into the 1905 shooting of the victim, T.W. Midkiff, in the newspapers of the day was only the beginning. It led me to the realization this was not Browning’s first incident with the law, and that these troubles were not the only surprises his past held. So, I resolved to keep going.

The starting point needed to be with what I knew. Several years previously, I had located and identified my family on the 1900 Census for White River township, Independence County, Arkansas. At the time, Frank Browning was living with his siblings and was employed as the town marshal of Sulphur Rock. If he had been a lawman, I wondered, what happened? My main goal became to search newspapers between 1900 and 1905 to see when he went from being “the law” to an outlaw. Unfortunately, information from the local paper was limited: the Batesville Guard was spotty, issues were missing[1], but I had a nearby backstop: the Newport Daily Independent. The papers published a daily edition so, give or take, I would be looking through as many as 365 days of newspapers per year, ones averaging six pages per issue. Papers promised to take a good while, but there was a bonus: I might be able to pick up information on other relatives while looking for “Uncle Frank.”

Happily, at least for me, it did not take long for Frank Browning to make his appearance in the Newport Daily Independent. On March 25, 1900, during the period in which he served as Sulphur Rock’s town marshal, he was accused of murder in Newport. Apparently, while Browning (as reported by the newspaper) visited a honkytonk in Newport’s thriving tenderloin district, he shot and killed Fred Stievater, a freight brakeman on the St. Louis & Iron Mountain railway. As would be the case in the 1905 incident, whiskey seems to have been involved. Browning quickly pled guilty but claimed that he had acted in self-defense; he was sentenced to one hour in the Arkansas State Penitentiary.

Over the next couple of years Browning appears to have stayed out of trouble, but by 1903 he again found himself on the wrong side of the law. In July, Browning was charged with assault against one V.G. Richards. Both men were charged and Browning pled guilty but stated that Richards was the aggressor. The next incident for Browning came in October. He got into a drunken brawl at Batesville, which resulted in Bragg Kimbrough’s face being slashed several times with a knife. By now I had gathered enough information to tell me that Frank Browning’s actions were not out of the ordinary for him, especially when alcohol was involved.

Since I was having such success with the newspapers, it seemed wise to continue, not just looking for Uncle Frank, but also for other relatives. I switched my focus to the Batesville Daily Guard and continued until 1920. Keep in mind that this searching was done before digitized papers were made available online. I spent many of my Saturdays off at the Archives, trolling through page after microfilmed page. These fishing expeditions paid off; the information was rewarding. During this period both of my great grandfathers, George Washington “Wash” Browning (Frank’s brother) and Charles F. Cole ran for state and county offices, so I learned about their campaigns. It also gave me an opportunity to spot and jot down mentions of relatives who appeared in the society section or the community news. These mentions, brief though they were, gave me insight in their everyday lives. But best of all, I uncovered leads as to Frank Browning’s life after he was pardoned by Acting Governor X.O. Pindall in April 1908.

Frank or the family were not mentioned in the papers anymore that year after the pardon, so I began to wonder if he had returned to or remained in the area. The Batesville Daily Guard did not yield anything at the beginning of 1909, so I thought about giving up, until I scanned the April 10 issue. “Wash Browning…who has been employed in Louisiana for several months, returned to his home.…” Wow: I had never known that my great grandfather was in Louisiana. This tidbit encouraged me to continue and it paid off. The April 28 issue reported that “Wash Browning…was in the city Tuesday and subscribed for the Guard, to send to his brother, Frank Browning, who is now in New Mexico.” With this, I picked up the trail again. Without this news item a brief bit in the local news column, my search would have ended, but now I had a new place to look for my troubled uncle. I could follow up with the 1910 United States Census for New Mexico and see what he was up to!  Therefore, I did. In the hamlet of Otto, Santa Fe County, New Mexico, I found Frank Browning listed as a general farmer. But—he was no ex-Arkansas bachelor farmer: he had a family. Listed in the household with him were his wife Sally and stepdaughters Mandy and Verdie Montgomery. Who were these people?  As I mentioned in the first article, Lilly Owens had been his only wife, or so I was told. Had I opened a can of worms? 

To figure out the situation, I returned to the basic principle of genealogy: start with what you know and work backwards! From the census schedule, I learned that that Sally and her daughter were all born in Missouri. This pointed me to the 1900 Census for Missouri. Were they there? They were indeed. I found Amanda “Mandy” and Verdie Montgomery with their grandmother Nancy Donison in Castor, Stoddard County, Missouri. The relationship was sealed when on the 1880 Census they were reported as together, with Sally, and living in the same place. The only difference was that Sally gave the enumerator her formal name, Sarah.

At this point there were two questions going through my mind: Where was Sally in 1900[2] and why was this marital detour important to the story of my uncle Frank? The thing that sparked the next move was recognizing that Dexter, the town from which Frank Browning sent the infamous telegram (see the previous instalment of this column for details) is also in Stoddard County, Missouri. Was he contacting Sally Montgomery at the time?  Where they already married? A little more digging in the 1900 United State Census led me to Sally Montgomery living in a boarding house at 113 Plum Street in Newport, Jackson County, Arkansas. She was listed as a widow and working as a cook. Later, when going back through the Newport Daily Independent, I found in the February 3, 1904 issue a marriage notice for Sallie Montgomery, listing Dexter, Missouri as her place of residence. Now the pieces started to come together: Chances were good that Sally and Frank met in or around Jackson County, Arkansas.

From here my search went back to the Batesville Daily Guard and I picked up my reading again, starting with May 1909. Up until 1917, news on Frank Browning was missing (although this disappointment was mitigated by finding reports of other family members’ activities and shenanigans).  That year, however, he reappeared in a local brief in March, which reported that his nephew Jeff Browning was going out to New Mexico for a visit. Later in the year, the paper reported, Frank returned to Batesville for good. He came home alone, though; what had happened to his wife and stepdaughters? There was no mention in the paper of what happened to them and of course, my family was as far as I knew ignorant of this episode in Frank’s life. Had they died, or simply moved on? That would haunt me, until thanks to Chronicling America’s online, searchable newspapers,[3] I got a hint of what happened to one of his stepdaughters.

In the August 11, 1918 Tombstone Epitaph, Tombstone, Arizona Frank Browning was mentioned as the stepfather of Amanda Courtesy Montgomery, 25, formerly of Dexter, Missouri. She had been a witness in a United States District Court trial against one Frank Whitt. Whitt was charged with “white slavery” under the Mann Act, for transporting Montgomery from Arizona to New Mexico. After her testimony, which apparently had exonerated Whitt, Montgomery was charged with perjury. To escape charges, she attempted suicide by taking 24 mercury tablets. Browning was notified that Montgomery was in critical condition and not expected to live. The newspaper article revealed that Browning offered to pay $100 of her medical bills if she lived, but nothing toward her funeral were she to die. She ultimately did pass, so presumably my Uncle Frank was not “out” the $100. This story, appearing far from where I would have expected Frank’s name to surface, demonstrates the potential of patiently “trolling” for family history treasures: it illuminates Frank Browning’s western life and suggests a certain hardness in his character. It also raises the question of when he moved home to Arkansas: in the story, he is described as being “of New Mexico” in the fall of 1918, a year after the Batesville paper reported him returning to Arkansas. Hmm!  The story also leaves questions unanswered: Was Amanda’s mother Sally deceased at the time, since it was the sister, rather than mother Sally, who was contacted by the authorities? And, the Epitaph story notes that “the circumstances of her marriage to Montgomery are not known,” suggesting that Amanda was thought to be a married woman.

Through this and other research I truly learned to appreciate the value of trolling—or, perhaps, “strolling”-- through local newspapers. Most of the time, genealogists focus on spotting marriage announcements or obituaries, but there is so much more, buried in the local columns. Without each news blurb and occasional articles, I would not have been able to fill in even a little of a 20-year period of Frank Browning’s life. Combing through newspapers also allowed me to find out about other family members. Traditionally, many of the Archives’ patrons have been family historians, patiently reading microfilm, but I’ll be the first to admit that things have gotten a little easier, particularly if one is researching late 19th-century or early 20th-century ancestors; the next time you want to read an Arkansas (or another state’s) newspapers, looking for ancestors, visit Chronicling America from the comfort of your home. The site is free to the public and brought to you by the Arkansas State Archives through a grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities and Library of Congress. Or, visit our research room to browse the largest collection of Arkansas newspapers in the State and talk with our experienced staff about other resources to explore. Who knows what you may discover? 

[1] Many of the early issues for the Batesville Guard did not survive for the Arkansas State Archives to microfilm. The Independence County Historical Society most graciously let the archives borrow them in the early 2000s for a second filming. Newspapers are acidic and breaks down quickly, so it is difficult to put them in permanent storage. A side note: when organizing the papers for filming this writer discovered many of the early issues came from the home of my great grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. Charles F. Cole.

[2] One might ask, what about Sally’s whereabouts in 1890?  The answer, or lack of it, has to do with the destruction of almost all of the U.S. Census schedules for 1890 in a 1921 fire at the Commerce Department building in Washington D.C. A few counties’ records survived the blaze but none with a bearing on this story.