Mary Belle Hardin
A Witcher Family Genealogy
This webpage contains a fascinating essay which includes family history for the sons of Taliaferro Witcher, who was the son of Ephraim and Betsey (Fips) WItcher. This essay was written by Flip Boettcher. Many thanks to Mr. Boettcher for his graciousness in allowing us to reprint his research on this site. Please respect his rights as the author of this material, and do not reprint without his expressed permission.
The thesis (which is presented after my comments) is a collection of stories and family facts about a pioneer woman named Mary Belle Harden. In her youth, Belle married Taliaferro Witcher, who was then affectingly known as “T.” This Taliaferro was one several sons of Taliaferro Witcher. “T’s” grandparents were Ephraim and Betsey (Fips) Witcher, of Surry County, North Carolina. Click here to read about Ephraim and Betsey Witcher.
Taliaferro, and his brother John Reeves Witcher, had migrated to the Cripple Creek area of Colorado in the early 1860s. These two men were several of the Witchers who were founding citizens in this part of Colorado. Sadly, their stories seem to be largely unknown to many Witcher family researchers, but their influence as wealthy ranchers was apparently significant in the formation of the Fremont County, Colorado region.
Before I offer Mr. Boettcher’s research, I wish to present a poem the Gentleman had forwarded to me. This poem was written by John Reeves Witcher’s widow. Recall that John Reeves Witcher (JR Witcher) was one of the brothers of “T” Witcher. This sad poem was apparently published in a Colorado newspaper in 1911. It was a tribute to JR Witcher and his beloved “Witcher Mountain.”
An eternal monument to the name and memory of my dear husband, John Reeves Witcher.
“This morning as we stood gazing on the beauties of nature, our eyes fell on Witcher mountain, golden with aspen leaves already touched by the killing frost, fading as man must fade, dying as surely as man must die.
The thoughts awakened, touched my soul, as we stood and gazed. By my side, the man who in youth, in manhood strength, had given to this mountain its name, looked upon it, as the past passed in mental review, and as he faced the present, saw his own declining life typified in the fast falling leaves.
These autumnal days, dark and gloomy, merging into the cold, dreary winter, blighting, killing all the beauties of the spring and summer, cold and merciless.
No hand can stay thy onward march. Oh time. Ye trample on the very heart-strings of all life, why do you fly so fast, only to bring the cold winter’s killing blast. Oh time. What lies in store for us when the winter is past.
Has thy future a balm for every ill, where mortal man will weep no more? Have you a home for the weary and the down-trodden of earth; where the burden of life with all its woes, its disappointments are laid down and all tears wiped away.
If you have in store all these and more, fly on, oh time; you have promised us the spring time, when all will be new, and we shall come forth with the newness of life and immortality.
The great ocean of eternity rolls at our feet, already I feel the touch of the waves, as I see it lash loved ones from the shore of time. Teach me my duty, that the crossing may mean eternal life, light and love.”
Written by Laura B. Witcher, in 1906, in memory of her beloved husband John Reeves Witcher, son of Ephraim and Betsey (Fips) Witcher, and brother of “T” Witcher.
I have also included some Witcher family pictures shared with me by Mr. Boettcher. I do not own the rights to these images, and others should respect the proprietary rights of those who do possess them.
Here is a link to read other interesting research about the first Colorado Witchers, offered by Flip Boettcher.
MARY BELLE HARDIN WITCHER WOODS
By the time Mary Belle Hardin married Taliaferro (pronounced Tolliver) Witcher on May 30, 1880, in Fremont County, Colorado, she had already had a pretty full life by today’s standards.
Belle was born February 15, 1860, in Blue Township (later Lee’s Summit) Missouri. Her brother William Joseph was born two years later, January 14, 1862. Their parents were Joseph P.L. Hardin and Sarah Isabelle Stokes, who was the daughter of Lamira Young. Presumably Younger, as Sarah’s children called her Grandma Younger. Perhaps Lamira dropped the “er”, as was done in those days, to escape recognition as belonging to the infamous Younger family, according to a 2002 account of Dorothy Houts, Belle’s granddaughter and Nancy Thompson, Belle’s great-great niece, as remembered from stories they were told and research.
February 8, 1863, near Independence, MO, Belle’s father Joe was killed while in winter hiding with Cole Younger’s guerilla fighters. Houts “feels that he [Joe] is buried in an unmarked grave in the Younger plot, next to Cole.”
Without a husband or means of support and two young children, Sarah went to live with Grandma Young. At that time Grandma Young had another woman living with her named Auntie Dickie Hylton. Auntie Dickie did the outside chores and Sarah was supposed to do the inside work, as some days Grandma was unable to get out of bed; perhaps because of arthritis, added Houts.
According to Houts, Belle remembered the Younger boys and the James boys coming to visit, and as Belle grew older she was given the job of lookout for them.
Belle’s mother Sarah did not seem quite normal after her husband Joe’s death. In fact, according to Belle, she seemed no longer able to defend herself or her children. So, Jesse James taught Belle how to shoot.
In 1870, when Belle was 10 years old, the family moved back into town, Lee’s Summit, where Sarah took in boarders. Interestingly, among the boarders was Esther Young (Younger?). She had lived next door to the Young family before Joe’s death.
A short time before 1875, the nearby home of Zelenda Samuel, the mother of Jesse and Frank James, was bombed. Their half-brother Will James was killed and Zelenda lost half of one of her arms.
Because of the bombing, and the fact that her husband Joe had supposedly found gold in Colorado while there on a hunting trip, Sarah decided to move to Colorado in 1875. Shortly before Belle left for Colorado, Jesse James gave her a Smith and Wesson just like his. “He told her to keep it near her always and she did.” Houts still has this gun today, 2002.
By 1880, Sarah decided Belle should marry Taliaferro Witcher, one of her boarders in Cripple Creek. Sarah also had a small ranch on Cottonwood Creek in Fremont County where she, Grandma Younger, Belle and Belle’s brother William lived. Sarah also had property in Canon City.
Taliaferro Witcher, also known as T., was born in 1842 in North Carolina and later moved with his family to Georgia. After serving as a Confederate Private in Company C of the 1st Regiment of the Georgia Cavalry under General Forrest in the Civil War, T. [as Taliaferro was then know] arrived in Colorado in 1867. T. stayed with his older brother John Reeves Witcher and family at 8-mile Park at the entrance to Phantom Canyon and Beaver Creek, northeast of Canon City.
By 1872, T. had purchased other property in west Fremont County, north of Cotopaxi, but he also had bachelor quarters at the west 4-mile ranch; known today as the Teaspoon Ranch on County Road 102, northeast of Guffey.
The marriage took place in May, 1880 even though the two were very different. T. was thirty-eight years old, seventeen years older than Belle; almost twice her age. Belle was twenty years old. T. was short, 5’4” and Belle was just about 6’. T. was a republican and Belle was a democrat.
Also, T. and Sarah were very strict church goers. Not sure what religion they were, but Belle remembers that from sundown on Saturday until sundown on Sunday, no fires were allowed in the house no matter how cold the weather was. No hot food was allowed and most definitely no visiting. They were only able to play Bible games, read from the Bible and pray.
After the marriage, the couple moved to T.’s bachelor quarters on west 4-mile, where they lived until early 1881. As a large rancher, T. was gone a lot of the time, so Belle decided to stay with her mother Sarah for the birth of their first child, son Otis, on February 27, 1881.
While Belle was in Canon City, T. built what he called a thirty-two by thirty-two foot square commodious house for Belle, two miles north of Cotopaxi on Bernard Creek. It was on farm land he wanted to homestead. Belle moved there, known as the lower ranch, in 1881.
Apparently, according to From Trappers to Tourists, by Rosemae Wells Campbell, 1972, Belle was “not enthusiastic about the four room, one-story box house made of lumber salvaged from old buildings near a sawmill.”
Houts recounts the fact that Belle was out in the middle of nowhere by herself most of the time with only a small child and a lady, Indian or Mexican, who helped with the birth of her second son, Taliaferro Lee August 20, 1883. The only other neighbors in the area were Russian speaking Jewish immigrants who got tricked into coming to the area, but that is another story. After T. Lee’s birth, T. left a couple of hired hands at the ranch so there would always be someone nearby.
It was a wild and remote place to live and raise a family. Houts relates how one summer day, Belle was working in the kitchen and the two boys were playing in the back yard under a huge old cottonwood tree, when she noticed the cottonwood leaves rustling but there was no breeze. Belle picked up her gun; probably the one Jesse James gave her, and shot into the tree, killing a large, male mountain lion and his mate. The male mountain lion’s skin was on display in the Denver Museum as late as 1949 as the largest lion ever killed in the state.
There is also an account of eight or nine Indian bucks ransacking the house in 1886, when Otis was five years old. Apparently Otis hid behind the corral fencing.
Being a rancher’s wife, Belle was left for long periods of time with only the boys, the Indian lady and the two ranch hands for company. It was a one week wagon trip to Canon City, so that wasn’t done often. According to Houts, Belle noticed the hands playing cards and asked them about it. They were probably playing poker, but taught Belle how to play Whist, an early form of bridge.
They would sit on the porch in the afternoons while the boys took their naps and play cards. One afternoon T. came home unexpectedly, found them playing cards, blew up and fired the hands. T. made life so miserable for Belle that she left the ranch in 1887 and moved to Canon City, ostensibly so Otis could go to school. 1887 was the same year T. got title to the 140 acre lower, or home, ranch.
Belle refused all T.’s offers to return calling him “avaricious, penurious, and morose,” From Trappers to Tourists. Dictionary definitions of: avaricious – a pathological driven greediness for money or other valuables and usually suggests miserliness; penurious – extremely stingy, parsimonious (frugal, mean, miserly), miserly; morose – gloomily or sullenly ill-humored, moody, sour, sulky.
The account of Belle leaving T. is a little different in From Trappers to Tourists, by Rosemae Wells Campbell than in the written account by Belle’s granddaughter Dorothy Houts and her great-great niece Nancy Thompson as remembered from stories they were told and from research. Information found at the Canon City History Museum.
From Trappers to Tourists says Belle also leaves the ranch in 1887 and moves to Canon City to send Otis to school. In June though, Belle leaves her two sons, six and four years old in Canon City and elopes to Eagle County with a lover. Her brother William went and brought her home a month or so later. Belle would not return to T. no matter what he promised her; a bigger, better ranch house at the Wet Mountain Valley Ranch and a horse and buggy; or if she did not want to stay with him, a house in Canon City; if she would stay single and raise the boys.
Houts feels this is not a true account that her grandmother eloped and she thought that Belle already had a horse and buggy. We will probably never know which account is true, but Belle did refuse to return to T. and did move to Canon City in 1887 and had rooms above Merit’s market there.
What really seemed to cement the separation between T. and Belle was her dancing with newly elected President Benjamin Harrison at the inaugural ball in Denver in early 1888.
Sometime in 1888, Belle moved in with her uncle J.D. Hylton in Cotopaxi. Hylton was postmaster at the Cotopaxi post office and Belle wrote President Harrison for a job there, too. Belle got the job but only for four months, until President Harrison was voted out of office. Belle also had a millinery shop and made hats and dresses, according to Houts. This is also mentioned in a written interview with Harold Witcher, T.’s grandson in 2000, the account is found at the Canon City History Museum.
Since Belle lived in town, she got to see Otis and T. Lee as they came and went to school. According to Houts, Otis came over to talk to Belle but T. Lee never did.
T. had since persuaded his niece Nancy Ann Gambill, better known as Aunt Sis or Nannie Gambill, to come and take care of Otis and T. Lee, her cousins, at T.’s Wet Mountain Valley Ranch southeast of Cotopaxi, west of Hillside, in 1889.
By September, 1889, realizing there would be no reconciliation, T. sued Belle for divorce and custody of Otis and T. Lee. The divorce proceedings lasted three and a half years, according to From Trappers to Tourists, with Belle suing for alimony and trying to prove she had not deserted one of the richest ranchers in the county and T. trying to prove she had committed adultery. The divorce drained T.’s finances, according to From Trappers to Tourists.
Early in 1890, Aunt Sis, Otis and T. Lee went to live at the mouth of Phantom Canyon northeast of Canon City, with early homesteader Adam Stultz, where Nannie Gambill was the housekeeper. They moved to Aunt Sis’s homestead on upper Beaver Creek near her sister Mrs. Martha Jane Merit in 1891 or 1892, according to Story of Phantom Canyon, Mabel Hall, 1963.
With the divorce final in 1892, T. had custody of the boys and Belle continued to live in Cotopaxi and make hats and dresses. Belle met Thomas Sherman Woods, a drummer [a traveling salesman], according to the Harold Witcher interview. Woods was Houts’ grandfather. According to Houts, Woods was a farmer-salesman-drummer who was selling ribbons at Belle’s millinery shop when they met.
The couple were married in 1894, according to records, and moved to Florence where Belle had been raised when she first came to Colorado. The Woods’ built a hotel in Florence where their son, Ralph Andrew (Houts’ father) was born in October, 1896, a few months before the hotel opened.
The hotel did not pay and the couple sold it and moved to Golden, Colorado. The 1900 census shows the Woods’ living in Vasquez, Colorado. They stayed a couple of years and then moved to Alhambra, California around 1902, where they had a dairy farm on Valley Boulevard with about 200 cows, Houts remembers.
Things did not work out for Tom and Belle and Tom returned to Denver sometime before 1910. Houts says that Belle then bought land in the Coachella Valley, California, and the 1910 census supports Houts showing Belle as the head of the household living in Indio with son Ralph.
Belle started raising mules on her property and breaking them to harness. Belle had a part Indian man working with her on the ranch. One day the Indian brought a pregnant mare to the ranch that he had caught in the mountains. There were still wild horses there. Ralph raised and trained a beautiful colt from that mare who he named Socks.
Houts says that Belle would take a team of eight or more mules into Los Angeles to sell and come back to the ranch with two mules to pull the loaded wagon. The trip to Los Angeles took one week each way by wagon. Ralph remembers that Belle was a crack shot and always had her gun nearby. Ralph said he saw her take the head of a rattlesnake off at 20 – 25 feet; she shot from the hip. Perhaps this was the Smith and Wesson Jesse James had given Bell in 1875 before she came to Colorado.
Belle bought some land in Thermal, just south of Indio, and Ralph went to school through high school there, about 1914. Since Ralph wanted to be a machinist, Belle sold the ranch and moved back to Los Angeles. The 1920 census shows her living in Inglewood, outside Los Angeles.
Sometime between 1919 and 1922, Belle’s son Otis moved to Lomitas, California, came to see Belle and stayed with her awhile, according to Houts. Otis moved to California to become a machinist, according to Otis’ grandson Jerry Witcher of Canon City, whose father Harold was born in California during that time.
In the crash of 1929, Belle lost most of her money that was in the bank and had to sell some of her things, said Houts. The family who wanted Belle’s dining room table and chairs had no money, so they traded 160 acres in Barstow, north of Los Angeles, for the set. The 1930 census shows Belle in Barstow. Houts says the family still has this property, as of 2002.
Sometime in the 1920’s, when Belle was in her sixties, she learned how to drive a car. Once when a police officer stopped her, he saw her ever-present gun on the front seat. Belle argued that it was not concealed and so got off, according to Houts.
Belle built a very small, garage-sized house at the back of her lot in Barstow where she lived. Houts said Belle became a minister so she would not have to pay as much in taxes. Belle lived on her property until she died at seventy-six years old on March 10, 1936. Belle was cremated and her ashes are buried at Hollywood Cemetery, Los Angeles, California.
Houts says of Belle, “She was a stern, not smiling kind of person, who scared her daughter-in-law, Houts’ mother, but she loved her sons.” Ralph stayed near her after he married and Otis stayed awhile with her when he lived in California. Sadly, there is no mention of any contact or visiting with T. Lee, though.
Houts says of Belle, “She used to tell my Dad, Ralph, that if you run away from trouble, it will just get bigger and bigger. But, if you face it, it will get smaller and sometimes even disappear.” Houts thinks Belle “Lived her life that way, facing whatever came. I don’t think there was much joy in her life, but I don’t think she was mean or in any way a bad person.”
Think of what Belle saw in her lifetime: born just before the Civil War in Missouri in 1860; moving to Colorado by wagon train and living a truly remote ranching life; finally moving to California by train, learning to drive a car; and living through the Great Depression. What a gal; a typical pioneer woman.
Written by Flip Boetcher-2017
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