Life in the Pineywoods – Chapter 2

Ona Wood writes about life in Wood County in the early 1850’s reflecting the life of Peter Gunstream and especially the Holly Springs community of eastern Wood County in Chapter 2 of the story of her ancestor’s coming to the county. This chapter is available on the members only site by going to the link at the top right of this page. Here’s an excerpt from the chapter:

It was not until the year 1857 that the first school house was built in the settlement of the deep eastern part of Wood County. The little log school house was located about one half mile southwest of the Gunstream home. The principal patrons were P. M. Gunstream, Mr. Isham Burnett, and Mr. B. L. Robbins.
The first school that was taught in the log structure was under the tutelage of Miss Emily Smith, a very young girl. She had an enrollment of fifteen pupils.
The school term was very short. That was the case of all the school terms throughout the entire county, and in many other places of the state for the next half century. The school usually ran for a term of three or four months; and in some instances two months in the summer time after crops were “laid by.”
The children had to walk long distances to reach the school house, even as much as four miles or more. By the time a youngster reached the school building, ate his lunch, and returned home, most of the day was gone.
The only school books were those that parents might have brought from the old states or , perchance, some father had been lucky enough to find during a trip to Jefferson or Marshall when going for supplies for the family.

Life In The Piney Woods – Chapter One

We have begun the serial publication of Life In The Piney Woods by Ona WOOD. It is available to members on the members-only page which you can access at the top right column of this page. It will also appear in the second quarter (June, 2010) newsletter.

The foreword (by Mrs. Ona Wood) was previously published here. If you would like to read it again before going to Chapter one, click here.

Thanks to member Mark Reid who digitized the first chapters of Mrs. Wood’s book.


Life In The Piney Woods – Chapter One


The day dawned beautiful. The sun projected its rays across the waters of the northern seas in an effort, it seemed, to hold in check the restless beating of the waves.

On the deck of a ship lying at anchor in Baltic waters in the harbor of Copenhagen, Denmark stood a young man, well groomed and handsome.
The long locks of his light wavy hair sweeping loosely around his neck were tousled by the wind; the tangy sea breeze upon his face, caused his eyes to turn occasionally from their far-distant gaze; within their depths, like a mirror to his soul; shone a spirit of courage and strength, supported by an abiding peace.

Inside the iron-bound chest, bearing the name of P. M. Gunstream, that had just been placed on board were many tools that were to be used to ply his trade in a new world. To read the remainder of Chapter One, go to the member-only page.

FREE Genealogy Guide

Thanks to member Scott Fitzgerald in a posting to for this tip: a free downloadable .pdf copy of William Dollarhide’s “Getting Started in Genealogy Online.”

It’s a 60-plus page book with the basics of starting (and re-starting and getting back on track) your genealogical search with a large number of online clickable web links. You can go buy the hardbound book or get this one for free by downloading it.

There are a few ads on the first pages (three) one for a book by Scott Drew, one for the website where you can — if you wish — sign up for a free genealogy newsletter by email, and one for which is offering the Dollarhide book download for NOTHING. As a courtesy I looked at the ads and as a way of thanking them, I browsed those three ad pages, but it’s not required.

For me, this download was a must have. After looking at it, I saved a copy (perfectly legal by their terms of use) to my computer. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
This is the download link:

Scott Fitzgerald is the editor of “East Texas Family Records, a quarterly publication of the East Texas Genealogical Society which covers the counties of Anderson, Gregg, Henderson, Panola, Rusk and Smith.” and the “Treasurer (2008-2011) of the Texas State Genealogical Society” among other things in the genealogical world of Texas. He has also presented programs at our Wood County society meetings.

A Real “Rootin’, Tootin” Pioneer Hero

It’s a wonder that no one has made a novel, movie, or television series about the life of Wood County’s Martin Varner. It’s all there in black and white in Don Raney‘s recent history of Varner, “Martin Varner: Texas Pioneer, His Life Story and His Descendants.” And, there’s a whole lot of Wood County history there through tracing the many family connections of the Varner family.

Don was born here himself in the Hoard community and not very far from the area that Varner and his family (the first White settlers in the Wood County area) lived just south of present-day Hainesville. Connections to other historic pioneer families of Wood County are also in the book.

Don made all this come alive in his presentation to the April meeting of the society at the library in Quitman. If you want a story about a man who traveled across the United States to Texas with conflicts along the way with Indians, the United States government, and, oh, yes, the Mexican government and ultimately Santa Anna’s army, Don Raney is a man you should see (or at least read his book). Varner’s ultimate death at the hands of a neighbor over what seems to us a trivial matter (tools of the neighbor’s trade) qualifies as a true heroic tragedy.

I am so happy I didn’t miss the April meeting and, thus, miss hearing Don tell the story. I knew he was a good teacher from a previous visit he made to the society and from workshops I attended which he taught at a genealogical conference in Lufkin several years ago.

If you missed the meeting and have not seen his book, society Vice-president Dororthy Harbin has some copies of the book for sale at a very reasonable price (and a part of the purchase price will go as a donation to the society). You can contact her at 903-571-4965 or at P.O. Box 794, Quitman, TX 75783 or by email at

New address for Wood County book

Thanks to member Lou Mallory who brought us up to date on the site for address for buying “Wood County 1850-1890″. It has been corrected on the Publications Page of this website. FYI: Lou Mallory, P. O. Box 255, Mineola, Texas 75773. Lou’s email is The book costs $15.00 plus $4.00 postage. Lou is Wood County Historical Commission chairman.

Query: Wood County 1850-1900

A comment at this link: Looking to purchase inquires about where the person can buy a copy of the history “Wood County 1850-1900.” If you can help, follow the link above and post a response.

Life in the Pineywoods

First installment

Mrs. Ona Wood, a Wood County family history researcher and historian, wrote a history of the county in the 1950’s through the story of some early pioneer families here. She is a descendant of Wood County pioneer Peter Gunstream among others.

We are beginning the serial printing of the book in installments for the Wood County Genealogical Society Bulletin starting in the March 2010 newsletter. Part one is the foreword to the book.

LIFE IN THE PINEY WOODS: A History through the story of some early settlers Of Wood County Texas
by Ona Wood
Quitman, Texas


“A people which takes no pride in the noble achievements of remote ancestors will never achieve anything worthy to be remembered with pride by remote descendants.” – Lord McCauley

This book has been written in reverence and in profound respect to those people whose names appear upon its pages.
I have written of my own people , not because of selfish reasons, but because I know their joys and sorrows; their hardships and achievements.

My people, I think, are typical of most of the pioneers of any part of East Texas; they were not wealthy as wealth is valued in money; they had their good years and bad ones; they worked hard to keep – as they said – “body and soul together.”

I love and respect my people and give honor where honor lies; for what they were, I am.

The blood of our ancestry courses through the veins of their progenitors, and the ancestry was of many nationalities, English, French, Swede, Irish, Scotch, and probably pure American.

The same thst is true of my family holds true for their neighbors.
I like to walk along their paths, if not in reality, then in dreaming, and look for their tracks wherever they may wend, and stand along beside them into the dawn of a new era. Their tracks will never be obliterated, not by time or elements.

Their names have never been written into history books, and many of their names were never found in newspapers beyond the confines of their own county. They are not listed in the scrolls with the great, but they made history.

The pioneers seemed stern and severe, and so they were; but, beneath the veneer which the wilderness provoked, was to be found a compassionate spirit.

And, as most of them – your forefathers and mine – sleep in the age-old burying grounds, near and far, may we in humbleness, bless the day when they set foot on East Texas soil.

Book Review: Martin Varner, Texas Pioneer

Martin Varner book review published in STIRPES, Vol.49, No. 4, Page 33, Dec. 2009. The author, William Barr, Katy, TX, has granted permission to reprint this review.

“Sweet Mother Texas” by William Barr

“Mother of heroes, we come your children true,
Proclaiming our allegiance, our faith, our love for you.”

My theory is that most folks under Lone Star skies encounter these words from the state song only in Peter Bogdanovich’s “The Last Picture Show”. Unless they are of a certain vintage, contemporary Texans have a better chance of knowing the tune to the Agincourt Hymn than to “Texas, Our Texas”.

That said, it is a pleasure to recommend a biography-cum-genealogy of Martin Varner, a book authored by one of his descendants who does his folks proud and the rest of us a favor in assembling the facts about a family numbering among Austin’s “Old Three Hundred”.

Author Don Raney, an engineer by profession, developed an interest in family history more than forty
years ago leading up to his book and a post-retirement career in teaching genealogy classes for Richland College in Dallas. That his book had its origin in little family information, a disinterested many among his kinsman, and a charismatic, garrulous older relative with a rage to tell of his people makes the reading of Raney’s research all the more interesting.

The author marshalls an extensive array of detailed maps and primary and secondary sources in detailing Martin Varner‘s story. When it comes to Varner’s mortal wounding by Simon Gonzales, who as well murdered Stephen Austin Varner in the same incident, it’s to Raney’s credit that he includes multiple, somewhat contradictory versions of the tragedy.

Varner’s German forebears came to colonial Pennsylvania. In the wake of Lord Dunmore’s War, the Varner men placed their families in safety but returned of necessity to frontier farms in a war zone. Indian woes would pursue the family in their subsequent pioneering efforts in Ohio and Texas.

As a man in his late twenties, Martin Varner left the family farm in Warren County, Ohio for points south during the War of 1812. Flatboats carried him and some friends to the Arkansas and Missouri Territories, where they hunted buffalo and trapped beaver. This led to Varner joining the Jones Brothers’ abortive settlement along both sides of the Red River and his carving out a farm in present-day Choctaw County, Oklahoma.

By the time Varner married Elizabeth (“Betsey”) Inglish, another pioneer in the Wild West of their day, the Adam-Onis Treaty clarified the international border between Spanish Texas and the United States. When Federal troops from Fort Jessup subsequently burned the cabins and fields of the 200 settlers west of the Kiamichi River in the interest of re-settling the Choctaws, Varner and his neighbors attempted to ambush the soldiers in retaliation.

At this juncture, the Varners, after crossing the Red River, regathered in Jonesboro.They elected to follow Henry Jones into Stephen F. Austin’s Colony in 1821, “the seed colony of Texas”. The opportunity to acquire cheap cotton lands was too great to pass up, and Varner was clearing land and farming present-day Washington County by 1822.

By 1825, Martin Varner established a farm lower down the Brazos which in the twentieth century become the Varner-Hogg Plantation State Historic Site. From here he distilled the first spirituous liquor in Texas in 1829, a product from his cane fields. It was during this time of extending his wealth and raising a growing family that Varner participated in the Battle of Velasco in 1832.

Varner sold the property in 1834 to the Patton brothers after much improving it. The site of Varner’s log home appears to lie underneath the plantation house built by the brothers, a home alike restored and improved by the late Ima Hogg of Houston, aka “Miss Ima”.

An intriguing report from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department hints at Martin Varner choosing to build on the creek which bears his name with an eye towards attracting trade and developing a town in Brazoria County. Given his ill-fated patronage of the carpenter Simon Gonzalez, which dates from this period, the possibility exists that the Varners’ return to East Texas, with Gonzales in tow, was in part motivated by exposure to the profits to be made from trading posts and settlement development.

Clearly, the development of towns to facilitate agricultural expansion and stock raising was a goal of Varner’s nearest neighbor on the Brazos, Josiah Bell, and of Stephen F. Austin himself, the recipient of that that first bottle from Varner’s farm.

Guarding the baggage of General Houston’s army at Harrisburg, Varner, a man over fifty, played a role in the Texian victory at San Jacinto. Having first secured the safety of his family by seeing them east of the Trinity, he hastened in 1836 to join the war against Mexico securing the independence of the Lone Star republic. Around the time, the Varners and some of their relations had moved to the Sulphur River, near Fort Lyday in present-day Lamar County.

Indian trouble had earlier seen the removal of the Varners to the area around San Felipe (present-day Waller County) from their original settlement near what is now Independence. As a result of pressure from other tribes, they fled the area around Fort Lyday in 1841 to what is now Wood County, the Indian troubles there having been removed with the Texian victory over the woodland tribes at the Battle of the Neches in 1839. Another factor in heading south and east lay in a dispute with the Lydays involving land claims in the area about twelve miles south of present-day Quitman.

Whether Martin Varner and his only son met their deaths as a result of Gonzales resenting the garnishment of his tools for debt, or this factor was exacerbated by the latter encouraging Varner slaves to runaway to Mexico, it is beyond dispute that the Mexican carpenter also perished in the altercation of 1844. Joe, a slave of Martin Varner, assisted the fatally wounded patriarch in dispatching Gonzales with a knife after the carpenter had shot and killed the teenaged Stephen Austin Varner.

Most of Raney’s book consists of genealogy, located in the second section of pages. I think the book is worth reading by non-family members who appreciate not only Texas history, but the skillful telling of a family history which effectively draws on local and state history to make possible our understanding of lesser-known heroes.

Martin Varner was a hero of early Texas, and this literary work in heritage preservation neither understates nor overstates the case for such a claim.

William Barr of Katy, Texas holds the MA degree from the University of Texas and the MDiv degree from Yale University. He is an instructor of American History at San Jacinto College and writes for a Tennessee daily newspaper, the Paris Post-Intelligencer.

Don Raney, Martin Varner: Texas Pioneer; His Life Story and His Descendants (The Book Warren, San Diego, California, 2009), 430 pages. Copies may be purchased with a check payable to the author by mailing $25.00 plus $5.00 shipping and handling to Don Raney, 1506 Comanche Trail, Garland, TX 75043.

Martin Varner Book by Don Raney

A recent posting at was for Don Raney’s book on his ancestor and the first settler in Wood County, Martin Varner.

Don is a friend of the society and has presented programs here for us. He is a genealogist who teaches genealogy classes at a local college where he lives in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex.

His book is available for $25.00 plus $5.00 shipping and handling by mail to Don Raney, 1506 Comanche Trail, Garland, TX 75043. Make checks to Don Raney.

Varner was an early settler of Indian Territory, Spanish Texas, a member of Austin Colony’s “Old 300,” a soldier at the Battle of San Jacinto, and, as noted, the first settler in the area that is now Wood County. He died a tragic death after an altercation in an argument over debt with Simon Gonzales of Wood County. Gonzales shot Varner and Varner’s son Stephen Austin Varner. The son died instantly and Varner, the elder, a few days later. Varner, with the help of a slave managed to kill Gonzales.

Don Raney’s book, 432 hard-bound pages with 27 pages of maps and photographs, is titled: “Martin Varner, Texas Pioneer: 1785-1844 (Brazoria, Lamar, and Wood Co., Texas).

Out of Print Books Update

Stay tuned.

We are likely to hear more about the agreement just reached by Google Books which will allow it to scan and put out-of-print books (but not yet of the age to enter the public domain) online for viewing or downloading for pay. Not all of the details were available over at the Google Blog, but this much was clear.

1. The agreement is between Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers and Google. 2. It will apply to all out-of-print books printed after 1923 (thus likely not yet in the public domain). 3. Those who own a legitimate copyright can opt out of the book being offered by Google by a specified date (which was not published in the blog). 4. Those holding that copyright on out-of-print books can establish privacy rights (who can view, etc) and set their own price if the book is priced for selling or withdraw the book altogether. 5. For books whose owners do not opt out, Google can make the book available for viewing or sale at a “reasonable default” price. 6. “This allows access to the many orphan works whose owners have not yet been found and accumulates revenue for the rights holders, giving them an incentive to step forward.”

More will surely be heard about this, both pro and con. It will mean access to books to some and stealing of rights of rights to others. It has a lot of importance to those of us who do family research or who have produced works of genealogical value.

Stay tuned.


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