Last updated on August 25, 2006
John William Tolleson is not my ancestor. If my great-great-grandmother’s life had turned out a bit differently, however, I wouldn’t be here. She was once engaged to John William Tolleson.
In my great-great-grandmother’s diary (PDF download), she only mentions him six times:
- December 2, 1893: “Wrote to J.W.T. and Mary Hutton.”
- December 12, 1893: “Got a letter from J.W.T.”
- December 16, 1893: “Helped clean up and wrote a letter to J.W.T.”
- January 5, 1894: “Uncle Jeff came for me late and had two letters for me from Mr. Custis telling of the marriage of J.W. Tolleson & Minnie Mathis and the other from Mary.”
- January 14, 1894: “Cleaned out my trunk and hunted up J.W.T.’s letters which were in No. [she left off the count].”
- February 4, 1894: “After my usual prayer, I retired. Mr. A- and I burned my letters from J.W.T. 44 in No.
Even in her diary, Stella rarely vents her personal, private thoughts, but reading between the lines, it looks as if the engagement was already over or going sour by the time she began the diary. I did find it interesting that a little more than a week after she heard of his marriage, she pulled out J.W. Tolleson’s letters to her and re-read them. In a symbolic act to sever ties to the past, she and her fiancé Amos Cunningham burned some letters from J.W. Tolleson. However, I understand that some of these letters survived the purge.
I am not sure how long the engagement lasted or whether Stella and J.W. Tolleson kept in touch. On a lark, I decided to see if I could discover what happened to him. I was armed with a fair amount of information from Stella’s diary.
- I knew his initials and last name.
- He had married a woman named Minnie Mathis.
- Stella seemed to know Minnie.
- He was probably about the same age as Stella.
I searched Ancestry.com and found him on the 1910 and 1920 censuses with his wife Minnie (click thumnails for larger images).
Based on information from these census records, I was able to learn his first name was John, and that he was born in about 1865, which made him about two years older than Stella. I also learned that he moved to Oklahoma. On the 1910 census, his occupation is “Superintendent” at the “City School” in Byars, McClain County, Oklahoma. In 1920, his occupation is listed as “Teacher.” Stella Bowling also taught school before she married my great-great-grandfather Amos, and I speculated that she may have met J.W. Tolleson when they were in school together.
My grandfather’s cousin recently sent me a photo of Stella at the Parker Institute in Whitt, Parker County, Texas in 1891 or 1892 (Click for larger version):
Stella is in the middle row, far left side. She has a dress with buttons that form a “V” across her chest. I decided to see what I could learn about this school. This is what I discovered (via Handbook of Texas Online):
Parker Institute, the first school to offer college-level classes in Parker County, was established by a Mr. and Mrs. Bales in 1881 at Whitt in northwestern Parker County. In 1884 the Northwest Texas Methodist Conference selected the institute to be its flagship college in North Texas. The conference appointed Amos Bennett, a graduate of DePauw University, to be director of the school. For nine years he served as the institute’s administrator and only full-time faculty member. Assisted by instructors who had been his students in Kentucky and Texas, Bennett developed a curriculum that stressed traditional classical subjects, including Greek and Latin. Parker Institute graduated three or four students during its twelve years of existence. The first was Beulah Sprueill, who became a member of Parker’s faculty for some time. Two later had distinguished careers in the field of education. Jefferson Davis Sandefer, who graduated in 1892, served as president of Hardin-Simmons University for thirty years (1909-40), and Charles Shirley Potts, who graduated in 1893, served as dean of the Southern Methodist University law school for twenty years. Parker Institute was not able to compete with the growing number of colleges that appeared in North Texas in the early 1890s. It surrendered its charter in 1893 and became a public school.
The first graduate mentioned, Beulah Sprueill, was a friend of Stella’s. She mentions writing letters to her or receiving letters from her several times in her diary.
At Ancestry.com, I found a family tree that included John William Tolleson and Minnie Susan Mathis, so working on the hunch that the information about his middle name was correct, did a Google search for John William Tolleson. I found a post at the Tolleson Family Genealogy Forum (Genealogy.com) written by Nancy Lewis who was looking for information about the Tolleson family. I replied to her post, and we have been conversing over e-mail today.
Nancy pointed me to her Family Tree Maker Genealogy Site. While perusing her site, I discovered the following photo of John William Tolleson and wife Minnie Mathis Tolleson with their children (click for a larger version):
After studying this photo and the school photo, I think J.W. Tolleson is in the Parker Institute photo. It is hard to tell with 100% certainty, given the differences in light and the age difference in the two photos, but I believe that he could be the tall man with a mustache in the top row. It is even harder to determine whether or not Minnie Mathis is in the photo, but she resembles the woman on the far right, front row.
I was very interested to connect with relatives of Stella’s former beau, and I invite any other Tolleson researchers to connect as well. I also want to thank Nancy for sharing her family with us. To me, one of the great things about genealogy is being able to make connections like these.