North Texas Daily

John B. Denton and the body on the Square

John B. Denton and the body on the Square

John B. Denton and the body on the Square
July 08
14:58 2014

Joshua Knopp // Senior Staff Writer

UNT resides in southwest Denton, the seat of Denton County. Both the city and the county are named after John B. Denton, one of the first settlers of North Texas. Denton was supposedly re-buried on the square 60 years after his death. It is his third grave. But is that really John B. Denton?

Denton was born in Tennessee in 1806. Orphaned at an early age, he was taken in by a blacksmith and Methodist preacher named Wells. Denton didn’t get along with Wells’ wife and ran away at age 12, but Methodism stuck with him. In those days, several Methodist congregations on the frontiers were served by “circuit riders,” ministers who rode around a designated area. By 1826, Denton was a circuit rider serving northern Arkansas and southern Missouri.

Denton served in this capacity for 10 years until he and his wife settled down in Clarksville, Texas in 1836, three months before Texas won independence from Mexico. Denton became a lawyer and partnered with John B. Craig, another Methodist minister-lawyer. He would run for Texas Congress in 1840, but lost to Richard Potter.

American Indians still controlled much of the area in Texas, and the country was very underpopulated. Cities relied heavily on volunteer militias to protect them. When eight members of the Ripley family were killed in Titus County to the south, Denton joined just such a militia, the Fourth Brigade, which was lead by Brigadier General Edward H. Tarrant.

The Tarrant expedition rode out looking for American Indians. They went west to present-day Whitesboro and then turned south to Village Creek, one of the largest American Indian settlements in Texas, in what is now Arlington. Denton was killed in an ambush, and the company quickly retreated.

Denton was beloved in Clarksville as both a speaker and a community leader, and burial rites were much more important in that time period, so they collected his body before they retreated.

After a day’s ride, the body started to stink, and so the militia buried Denton under a tree by a creek.

Conflicting Reports

After being ambushed, there are different accounts about the direction the company retreated, and Denton’s grave was marked by nothing but a stone. There are several different stories about finding Denton’s body at several different creeks around the DFW metroplex. As former council member and local historian Mike Cochran notes, whenever someone finds a body, their mind immediately goes to who they know that’s missing.

“There were random Indians buried all over the place,” Cochran said. “There were random settlers who died and got covered.”

Cochran dug up several conflicting stories about finding Denton’s body over the course of the 1800s. Jim Isham found a skeleton by Bear Creek in present-day Euless that he claimed was Denton. A body that was supposedly Denton’s was found further north by Denton Creek.

Henry Stout, who served as a captain on the Tarrant expedition alongside Denton, supposedly guided a party to his grave in 1879, but Stout never saw the grave himself.

Unknown Location

The body that would end up on the Square was discovered in 1856 by a couple of children playing near Oliver Creek in what is now Justin. John Chisum, a respected community member who’s father had been on the expedition and had grown up admiring Denton, heard of the find and went to inspect the body. He found that the skeleton had a broken arm where Denton had broken it long before his death, and was also missing two teeth that had been taken out of Denton’s mouth when he was young.

Cochran disputes that this could be the body because Oliver Creek is further west than Village Creek and more than 30 miles north, meaning the company would have had to go very far and well out of their way to get there. Cochran guessed the body would be located about 12 miles northwest of Village Creek because that’s the direction Clarksville was in, but all of the stated locations are north or northeast.

Chisum took the body up to his ranch west of present-day Sanger and tried to get Denton’s relatives to collect him, but they didn’t believe it was the correct body. Eventually, the corpse began to stink again and Chisum buried him on the ranch. Eventually, Chisum sold the ranch to the Waide family and moved, but he left a note with John W. Gober detailing everything about the body in the backyard.

At the turn of the century, as the present-day metroplex was getting started, the old settlers decided they wanted Denton’s body taken to the city that was named for him. After a long search, Gober stepped forward, and the city exhumed the remains on the Waide ranch and brought them to the area that would become Denton Square. After 60 years, John B. Denton finally had his permanent resting place.

Assuming it actually is Denton.

Feature Illustration by Jake Bowerman

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