Where was the White House?
23rd May 2017
M.C. Toyer is one of the finest historians ever to have studied
the Pioneer period of
In year 2008 M.C. Toyer asked me if I would like to join him on a research
expedition looking for a site related to a significant family of early
The more we researched the deeper into trouble our research got.
I’m assuming that readers already know who Alexander and Sarah Cockrell were. Their story is more interesting than my story about research. Alexander Cockrell (1820-1858), famous founding father of Dallas County, came to Texas in 1845 and married neighbor Sarah Horton (1819-1892) on the 9th of September 1847. In 1852, Cockrell bought-out John Neely Bryan’s unsold town-lots and the two families then exchanged homes -- the Cockrells moved into tiny Dallas while the Bryans moved (temporarily at least) out west to the White House. Alex owned much of the town of Dallas, but in 1858 he was shot dead by the town’s first marshal. Sarah lived on to become a major builder of the fast growing new city. Unlike many pioneer families of whom we now know little, the Cockrell family preserved written records and there is a fairly large volume of historical literature about their fascinating exploits. Monroe F. Cockrell, a grandson of Alex and Sarah, became an amateur historian and carefully documented his family’s genealogy and life stories. My personal favorite book about Alex and Sarah Cockrell is Shirley Seifert’s Destiny in Dallas (1958), which is technically a fictional western but is actually a highly accurate account of the details of the Cockrells’ lives (according to Monroe F. Cockrell, who had provided Seifert with background information for her cowboy adventure novel).
So, back to the search that M.C. Toyer and I had undertaken -- to find the grave of baby Cockrell.
In 1986 Rita
Barnes had drawn up a cemetery map showing all the burial places in
At that point I also remembered elderly Tom Jones (1922-2014). Jones was a direct descendant of William Myers. We had had long conversations about his genealogical and historical research of Oak Cliff. He had once mentioned that his Aunt Lois (his family’s ‘historian’ of a prior generation) had saved a photograph she labeled as Alex Cockrell’s White House. I went out to Tom’s house and explained what M.C. and I were doing, and Tom let me borrow his photographs to scan copies for myself. Tom confessed that he had disbelieved his Aunt Lois’s label -- Aunt Lois’ stories often turned out to be unreliable.
Tom Jones’ photograph #1: (Note 1.)
“Alex Cockrell’s ranch
house (White House Ranch) on Old Five Mile Rd. (
Lonnie and Perd lived here when 1st married in 1894. Hubert Gordon + Lois were born here.
Lonnie Ledbetter (batched) lived there before they married.”
Tom Jones’ photograph #2: “The same House”
Tom Jones’ photograph #3: “The same House”
During his spare time M.C. went out to the Dallas Historical Society and started searching through the Dealey Library collection, while I went to the Dallas County Records building and started pulling up old deeds and probate documents. Sometimes, though rarely, a real estate survey drawing in a court document or the legal description in a deed will include a building location. I also hoped to find the exact spot where Alexander Cockrell had built his first bridge, across Mountain Creek.
What I found that was most interesting was an 1895 survey map of the entire White House Ranch, drawn for the Probate Court as the land was being subdivided among the various heirs of the deceased Sarah Cockrell. Alex and Sarah had been buying and selling land in that district since the mid-1840s, and at the time of her death in 1892 Sarah Cockrell’s White House Ranch covered seven and half square miles.
A few days later, M.C. found a photocopy of that same map with handwritten notes added onto it by Monroe F. Cockrell, showing a cluster of buildings --the “Dwelling”, a couple of “Barns”, and “Cisterns” – the headquarters of the White House Ranch.
Source: M.C. Toyer via Dealey Library of the Dallas Historical Society
[As best I can recall nine years later] -- Upper portion of Page 354, Vol. 189 of the Dallas County, Texas deed records, showing the surveyed inheritance partitioning of the White House Ranch, recorded on 29th May 1895, with handwritten annotations by Monroe F. Cockrell (according to M.C. Toyer’s research) in its lower right region … annotations labeled “Dwelling” , a couple of “Barns”, “Cisterns”, etc. A bridge is also apparently indicated along the Section –line wagon road, in the lower left corner, where old Five Mile Road (modern Kiest Boulevard - Pioneer Parkway - Highway 303) crossed Mountain Creek. The eastern one-half square mile of Alex Cockrell’s original two-parcel headright claim is partitioned into four equal rectangles.
So, there it was -- the site of the Cockrell house on White House Ranch. Everything had been demolished long ago; in 2008 the location was nothing more than a smooth black asphalt parking lot in front of Potter’s House Church. Monroe F. Cockrell (1884-1972) wrote about visiting the site when nothing was left but a few “brickbats” scattered about.
It seemed like our search for the precise location of the White House had been solved – but it wasn’t -- there were serious problems.
The first problem is readily apparently from looking at Tom Jones’ old photographs – this house doesn’t look anything like a 1840s cabin. It is a larger house built in a common style of the late 19th century. But M.C. Toyer quickly pointed out, it was possible that the original log cabin had been surrounded with newer construction -- he had seen old log houses completed embedded inside newer work. We had no way to know.
The second problem was insurmountable – Alex Cockrell never owned this site. The dates on the deeds recording when the Cockrell family acquired this site are long after the 1858 date when Alex Cockrell had been shot dead. According to the rules of Texas land grants, new White Settlers were required to build a house and reside on their claim for at least three years. Locating their cabin off their site would have invalidated the legality of their claim to be rightfully granted ownership title by the State of Texas. The site of the house cited by Tom Jones’ aunt, and Alex and Sarah Cockrell’s grandson, was a site that Sarah Cockrell had purchased long after her husband’s death. Regarding the remote possibility that the Cockrells had built their cabin on an “adverse” claim, the deed records show that the Cockrell family had taken a parcel west of the little drainage-way by “right of adverse-possession”, but had never claimed this portion of the Marden survey, which they later bought and on which their ranch house stood at the time of the settlement of Sarah’s estate.
There are endless “maybe’s”; but neither M.C. Toyer nor I believed that the house Monroe F. Cockrell diagramed for the Dallas Historical Society was the White House cabin that Alex Cockrell built for his new bride Sarah in the 1840s. This indeed was a house owned by an Alex Cockrell, but it is a different Alex Cockrell. It was Alexander Cockrell, Junior (1856-1919), the son of Alex and Sarah. He had bought-out the other heirs and taken over ownership of the White House Ranch after his mother’s death. Alex Jr. and his family lived in town, in an elaborate mansion just south of downtown Dallas. The house in Tom Jones’ photograph was indeed his country house on White House Ranch. As a boy, Alex Cockrell Jr.’s young son, Monroe F. Cockrell, would have visited that ranch house. With the ownership history of land title so clearly dated and Cockrell family ownership of the site starting so long after Alex Sr.’s death, it seemed highly unlikely, M.C. and I believed, that there is any reasonable possibly that this had been the site of the original White House cabin (or the site of the grave of the infant Cockrell).
M.C. and I had then run out of research time. We never answered his history questions.
There remains a large volume of unexamined documents which M.C. and I simply did not have time to study. And we didn’t know exactly where to look next. There are numerous Cockrell deed records, tax records, probate cases, civil litigation court case files, published histories, family archives, newspaper archives, Mountain Creek Lake construction surveys, and so forth. From the General Land Office in Austin I had collected material about the original claims of the Babcock and Marden headrights. I left a file of my hastily typed-up research documentation (Note 2.). Perhaps future researchers will continue our hunt.
Rita Barnes must have read about the Cockrell infant burial and put her #34 site number onto the closest prominent hilltop at Alex Cockrell’s claim – she probably had no more specific location information than we found. M.C. concluded that the burial of the infant Cockrell might have been moved to Greenwood Cemetery when Sarah Cockrell bought a new family cemetery plot there and moved the coffin of her husband from her father’s Horton Family Cemetery (where he had first been buried in 1858). It just felt unlikely that Sarah had abandoned the grave of her first-born. M.C. thought the infant’s re-burial might be in one of the unmarked gravesites within the Cockrell family section of Greenwood. That makes good sense to me; but then why is there no tombstone for the reburied baby?
M.C. thought the original Cockrell hilltop cabin probably had been on
the site of today’s
My own “best guess” is different. The writings about Alex and Sarah’s Cockrell homestead White House cabin describe it on a hilltop with views for miles in various directions -- an old Indian trail passing nearby. The modern Highway 303 seems to follow that old Indian trail – but exactly how closely it follows today’s road I don’t know. Everyone wants to throw the “hilltop cabin” up to the top of the escarpment where Dallas Baptist University now stands – but that’s an awfully steep climb home every night (carrying water). It’s a “mountaintop”, not a “hilltop”. And, more significantly, that mountaintop is not on Alex and Sarah Cockrell’s land claim. The University’s buildings are on land never owned by Alex Cockrell (Sr.). I don’t know why M.C. doesn’t like it as a possibility, but I saw a little park on the shore of the Lake below the University -- a little “hill” with views for miles in many directions. It might have looked more like a “hill” before the lake leveled everything below it.
In an article published in The Dallas Morning News in March of
1899, Alex Cockrell, Jr. is quoted as describing the first “painted” house in
Detail from the Sam Street’s Map of Dallas County, dated 1900:
The single house on the Alex Cockrell half-section is circled in yellow.
The house which Tom Jones’ photographs show, tagged by Monroe F. Cockrell, is circled in red. (Alex Cockrell had sold the ranch headquarters to a ‘Dr. Gillespie’).
My “hilltop” suspect-site for the Cockrell White House cabin is marked on this contemporary aerial photograph by a yellow dot. The site of the 1895 headquarters of the White House Ranch in the John Marden Survey is marked by a red dot. (Source: Jim Barnes via Google-maps)
2008 aerial photographic view showing the outline of the Alex Cockrell ˝ square mile headright survey in yellow. (Source: M.C. Toyer)
So, M.C. Toyer and I ran out of research steam in 2009. We simply don’t know --aren’t sure –can’t prove anything. I would like to use the 1899 quotes of Alex Cockrell, Jr. and the 1900 Sam Street Map as definitive “proof” but I have run into so many errors in old newspaper accounts that I can’t feel comfortably certain.
Strangest of all is that meticulous and scrupulous amateur family historian Monroe F. Cockrell didn’t know where the original White House cabin was located. After 1852 the Cockrells lived in town. It’s easily conceivable that the Cockrells had tenant caretakers who living in their tiny old White House cabin. The Cockrell family then left their tenants alone in privacy and built themselves a spiffy new White House Ranch headquarter house up on the mountaintop, closer to the road. The White House name was transferred to the larger new house. Monroe might have had little interest in family history during his youth-- perhaps he never even saw the original cabin. What if the original description of a hilltop site for the 1840s White House cabin started as nothing more than Monroe’s recollection of his father’s ranch headquarters on the John Marden Survey? That Monroe F. Cockrell mistook the original White House cabin location is a surprising thought – hard to swallow.
The story of the Cockrell family is interesting, and I hope someday to read the discovery of the answer to the history question M.C. Toyer raised.
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These photographs were loaned to me, for the purpose of making digital scan copies, by 85 year old retired architect J. Tom Jones of 2250 Shady Hollow Lane; Dallas Texas, who made the following comments:
These photographs were taken, and the handwritten annotations added, by his aunt, Lois Ledbetter Talley. Though “Aunt Lois” made no identification of the site, Tom Jones said that he remembered that this particular house was located on the north side of Kiest Blvd. along which he bicycled when he was growing up in the area. The location of the house, Jones thought, is now The Potter’s Church (on a hilltop between highway “Spur 408” and the campus of the Dallas Baptist University) and he recalled that the house was demolished when the church was constructed. (There might be a demolition permit record he commented.) He further said that he thought this dwelling was labeled on the 1900 “Sam’s Street Map” as the “Dr. Gilespie Ranch” in the John Marden Survey 906.
The “Lonnie and Perd” noted on the first photograph were Arthur Leonard Ledbetter and Perdita Myers Ledbetter, whose children Hubert Stanley Ledbetter, Gordon Ledbetter and Lois Elizabeth Ledbetter (the photographer) were born in the house. Lonnie had purchased and lived (“batched”) there when he was a bachelor, prior to his marriage to Perdita. The Ledbetter family had been living in that region of Dallas County, Texas since 1848. A history of the family, written by Tom Jones, is recorded in Volume I of the Dallas Count Pioneer Association’s 1986 publication Proud Heritage: Pioneer Family of Dallas County, pages 141-148.
Neither of us feels certain that this was indeed Alexander Cockrell’s “Whitehouse” but believe it is indeed possible that either the earlier Cockrell dwelling had been moved and/or imbedded inside of later modifications.
When questioned on her veracity, Tom Jones remarked, “I take everything from Aunt Lois with ‘a grain of salt’—a BIG ‘grain of salt”.
2. My research notes about the Alex and Sarah Cockrells’ White House cabin and infant burial were saved on a digital compact disk as I packed to leave Texas in July 2009. Along with my History of the William Myers Section, this Cockrell White House research disk is archived in the Jim Barnes Collection of the Dallas Public Library’s Dallas & Texas History Division (today’s 7th floor, downtown main library).
3. The Dallas Morning News; 29th March 1899, page 10, in an article titled: “Round About Town”.
2008 Aerial photographic view showing the outline of the Alex Cockrell ˝ square mile headright in yellow. (Source: M.C. Toyer)