By RENEE FITE
Descendants of the 1872 Goingsnake Massacre and other visitors gathered Friday morning at the Cherokee Nation complex for a presentation in conjunction with the tribe’s partnering with the U.S. Marshal museum in Van Buren.
A story from 1872 could well have been from 2013.
Angry family members glared at one another in the packed one-room Whitmore School, considered more secure than the Goingsnake Courtroom because it had fewer windows and doors. They were awaiting for the trial of Zeke Proctor to begin.
People from both sides knew trouble was brewing, as Judge Blackhawk Sixkiller began the trial. Suddenly, someone opened fire, leaving 11 men dead. To this day, no one is certain who began shooting first, said historian Robert Ernst as he painted a picture of the history of the Goingsnake Massacre.
“There are two versions of why the first shot was fired: one from inside the courtroom at the marshals, and the second that one of the Becks charged in with shotguns aiming at Zeke,” Ernst said. “His brother, James Proctor, was killed, but pellets went into Zeke’s leg.”
What ended in wholesale bloodshed began in with an instance of domestic violence, Ernst said.
“Three people started it,” said Ernst. “Ezekial Proctor had a problem with James Kesterson, a white man married to his sister, Elizabeth, who abandoned her and three kids after he went to work at the Beck Mill.”
When Proctor went to have it out with Kesterson, Mary Beck Downing Crittenden Hildebrand Kesterson, also known as Polly, threw herself between Proctor and her husband, just as Proctor pulled the trigger. He missed the first shot, which hit Polly, but wounded him with the second as he was running away.
“Zeke was faster than most. When he realized what he’d done, he turned himself in,” Ernst said.
Kesterson got away, and after signing a warrant for Proctor’s arrest, he was never seen again. He also wrote to the Becks in Van Buren, Ark., who came to be with him at the trial.
Because Kesterson was white, it gave jurisdiction to the federal government, so commissioners dispatched U.S. Marshal Jacob G. Owens. It was known that if Proctor was found guilty, he would hang, and if not guilty, the marshal would arrest him and take him to Van Buren.
Eventually, all charges against Proctor were dismissed. In later years before he died, Owens said the first shot came from inside the school.
“Nobody answered for this mess and nobody found out who was responsible,” Ernst said.
Diane White, one of the visitors Friday morning, volunteers with several historic sites in Fort Smith, Ark., and is getting a master’s degree in museum studies from The University of Oklahoma. A Sapulpa native, she grew up visiting Lake Tenkiller and said she’s very interested in Cherokee history.
“I didn’t know about this incident before today, it’s very interesting hearing both sides of the story,” White said. “I’m very partial to Oklahoma history.”
One man who said he was a descendant of Art Scraper, said he’d seen a document at an uncle’s home in the 1960s – a treaty with Zeke Proctor, dismissing the charges. But he didn’t know what happened to that document.
Goingsnake is most significant for its loss of marshals and Cherokees, said Catherine Foreman-Gray, Cherokee Nation Historic Preservation officer.
“This partnership is important for our story to be told correctly,” Foreman-Gray said. “Eight marshals and three Cherokees died, along with Polly.”
Many relatives – including Ronald Harris, of New York City, a great-great-grandson of Owens – came to learn family history and meet relatives.
Barbara Cecil, of Houston, came to the weekend event out of respect for her great-great-grandfather, Owens.
“I’ve met half a dozen cousins. I’m glad this is happening; it’s very informative,” Cecil said.
Bruce Barr, a history buff from Lee’s Summit, Mo., is a great-great-great-grandson of Owens. He was enjoying meeting family for the first time.
“So in 1966, a man named Scraper saw a treaty. How much more history is lost because people don’t know what they’ve found when a relative dies?” Barr said. “My grandpa is part of the basis for ‘True Grit’ and arrested Wyatt Earp.”
Lionel Owens, retired U.S. Army from San Antonio, is a great-great-great-nephew of Owens.
“I was so intrigued when I learned about my relative being a U.S. marshal, I moved to Oklahoma,” Owens said. “I really enjoyed Ernst’s talk; I didn’t know Owens was an officer in the Confederate Army.”