Stephen F. Austin State University

James and Ruth (Shannon) Miller (July 2014)

By Kevin Ladd

The history of Nineteenth Century Texas, much like history almost anywhere, is a tale usually rendered from the perspective of the male participants. To those of us who labor in the field of Southeast Texas history, there are to be found copious lists of pioneer settlers, almost always limited to the male head of each household. Buried within family records, only rarely appearing on any public documents, are the wives and other women of the household. In most cases, therefore, our male-dominated histories give us only part of the story and often bypass some fascinating accounts of strong, persevering pioneer women.

Long before the town of Wallisville was laid out in 1854 or settled in the mid-1820s, the Spanish came here and established Presidio San Agustin de Ahumada just north of Wallisville in the year 1756. Joined with Mission Nuestra Senora de la Luz and a small rancheria, this complex was called "El Orcoquisac," a Spanish version of the Akokisa peoples who resided here. The presidio usually had around 30 soldiers plus a commanding officer assigned there at any given time. Some Spanish records indicate a few of the soldiers brought their wives with them. The Spanish abandoned the entire complex in 1771.

An ancient Indian footpath that follows many of the modern day meanderings of Interstate 10 ran south of this old Spanish complex site and came to be called the Lower Road or the Orcoquisac Trail. Some even called it the Smuggling Trail, a pathway favored by those who were moving contraband from west to east, or vice versa. Travelers who were simply traveling through the country also used this route. For some reason a blacksmith by the name of James Miller and his wife Ruth Shannon moved their small family here.

It is interesting to speculate why a blacksmith would choose to settle in such a place, and the only logical conclusion is that there were enough travelers passing through the region to warrant his line of work. Someone riding horseback might occasionally have need of a horse shoe or bits, or repairs to the same. Someone travelling with a team of horses and a wagon would have even more possibilities for repairs that a blacksmith could address.

This establishes why James Miller came here in 1821, a good three years before other pioneers settled in modern day Chambers County. His wife, Ruthy, as she was usually known, came simply because she was his wife and the mother of their children. As the first Anglo woman to settle in this place, hers would prove to be a difficult experience.

The Millers followed a circuitous journey on their way to this place. James was born about 1792 in Tennessee. Ruthy, born about 1799 in Georgia, was a daughter of American Revolutionary veteran Owen Shannon and his wife Margaret Montgomery, who settled in Montgomery County in 1821. The Millers were married sometime before 1815, the year their first child, Penina, was born. At that time they were residing in Missouri. Ruth was around sixteen years of age when her daughter was born. Three other children followed in 1816, 1817 and 1821 while they were living in Arkansas. The last two children were born about 1823 and 1825, while the family resided at Lake Miller. The Miller home place was located just north of the Lower Road, or the Orcoquisac Trail. The 1826 census of the Atascosito District shows Miller to have been a blacksmith by trade, a profession that may have been useful to both local pioneers and to travelers passing along the old roadway.

The Millers were in the process of obtaining their land grant when James died suddenly in about 1830. This left Ruth and her eight children in destitute condition, a state of affairs that extended for several months. If you ever want to imagine yourself as a woman on the western frontier in 1830, it would be interesting to place yourself in Ruth Shannon Miller's shoes. After the death of James Miller, Ruth's father, Owen Shannon, along with her two brothers, John and Jacob Shannon, and their slaves went to Lake Miller and moved Ruthy, her family, cattle and possessions to Owen and Margaret Shannon's home in the Lake Creek Settlement. It was an inauspicious beginning for women in what is today Chambers County. She lived out the rest of her life there. Her parents and brothers helped to raise and care for their children.

The Shannons, as mentioned previously, lived in the old Lake Creek Settlement of Montgomery County. This community, located near the old town of Montgomery, is now called Dobbin. My old friend, the late Harry G. Daves, Jr., was a descendants of Jacob Montgomery Shannon.