She made her mark

Give TCU’s cofounders credit where due, but without Rachel Lynn DeSpain, the University might never have begun.

She made her mark

Give TCU’s cofounders credit where due, but without Rachel Lynn DeSpain, the University might never have begun.

Fifty-six-year-old widow Rachel Lynn DeSpain climbed from the buckboard at Pecan Point and set her first footprint on Mexican Texas soil in January of 1836.

The mother of nine carried her grief in silence “to the Lord.” She had buried a daughter beside the trail, victim of snakebite. Anticipation of joining her sister and another daughter and son kept her headed west.

Another son — the namesake of Rachel’s father, Benjamin Linn, a Revolutionary War scout, Indian fighter and longbow-hunter turned preacher — led the 156-member wagon train. Davy Crockett had pointed them west from Alabama, but left early, fearful he would miss the fight brewing between Texas and Mexico. Crockett was impatient with this “church on horseback,” a community of Christians descended from French Huguenots.

They did not travel on the Sabbath. Benjamin Linn DeSpain, a preacher like his grandfather, practiced what Rachel had instilled. They worshipped God on Sundays. Shaking dust from her apron, Rachel suggested they “celebrate the Lord.”

An oak stump draped with a buffalo hide served for a pulpit. Setting up the large white tents, their homes for winter, could wait. Hunters supplied game, and Rachel supervised meals at the communal fire. After supper she would sit on a barrel, tap her feet and clap to “happy tunes that make me feel good.” Her warm, ringing laughter thawed Texas’ wet and bitter winter.

By March though, a chill pervaded. A rider brought word of her son Randolph’s death at the massacre at Goliad. By late spring when lush green prairie grass along the Jonesborough bluff rose “saddle skirt” high, the Texians had won at San Jacinto. Rachel buried her grief. Her family turned south. Near Nacogdoches, she and her youngest, Hettie, 12, moved into a log house.

The Republic of Texas granted Rachel her headright, 1280 acres, in 1838. She made her “mark” on the deed with an “X” because, she said, “Us girls didn’t go to school; boys did during winter. Our chores, cooking, cleaning, spinning went on all year.”

She would be the last woman in the DeSpain family left out of schooling. “We raise the little onesÉwe need to teach them right,” she said, and that meant reading, writing, ciphering, understanding the “Lord’s word so we know how to conduct our lives.”

Candles in the window, lanterns glowing, pine smoke curling from the chimney and a well-laden table beckoned family, friends and sojourners, especially circuit-riding preachers. After dinner, Hettie played the piano and sang while Rachel rocked in rhythm with the hymns.

One day, a traveler on his way east stopped in. He acquired office space and a room from Rachel and enjoyed her hospitality. But it was Hettie’s beauty, music and challenging mind that altered Joseph Addison Clark’s plans. He and Esther “Hettie” DeSpain married in 1842.

Enchanted by the good nature and laughter in Rachel’s home, his skeptic’s view of religion was challenged by Rachel’s practices of kindness and acceptance. Joe Clark studied and was baptized, attracted to the faith by his mother-in-law, her home a center for this band of Christians.

When he and Hettie moved on, Rachel moved with them. Over the years, she gathered more land. She received 960 acres, Randolph’s “bounty” for serving the Republic of Texas, and when a “good deal” was offered, she sold and bought more, making her “mark” once more. By the time Texas was a state, she owned parcels in Grayson, Fannin and Hopkins counties. Impressed with Joe Clark and his “newspapering,”

Rachel loved and respected him. She wanted Hettie to “keep up,” so she tended their toddlers, Addison and Randolph, while Hettie went east to seminary. Coming home the next year, Hettie advertised in the newspaper as a “femme seule” (a woman declaring herself legally responsible for her business matters), bought a piano and began a seminary for girls in Palestine.

Years later, Randolph wrote of his family: “blessed with a mother and a grandmotherÉ Esther and Rachel, and the unfeigned faith that dwelt in themÉlearned that God is an ever-loving FatherÉthe world and all things, even the commonplaceÉbelong to HimÉpeople must be about the Father’s work.”

Horse trader, homemaker, independent woman of strong and joyful faith, shy on education but not of common sense, Rachel and her footprints led from the Red River to the Sabine and Trinity rivers. Her legacy included love, joy, faith, a zeal for education and land that would be brokered to begin a coed school in 1873.

Rachel did not live to hold her great grandson, AddRan Clark, for whom TCU was first named — AddRan Male and Female College. Rachel’s spunk fell to numerous DeSpains who pioneered, “preached and taught.”

All of the women descended from Rachel have been educated well, although I am the first of the DeSpain line — a great, great, great granddaughter — to attend TCU.

Carmen Goldthwaite is a Fort Worth freelance writer. Her essay about Rachel Lynn DeSpain, she said, comes from “a wealth of family stories from a strong oral tradition, diaries, family Bibles and letters.” Additional sources include: genealogical tracts of the DeSpain Log, Reminiscences of Randolph Clark; Thank God We Made It, by Joseph L. Clark; Colby D. Hall’s A Fruitful Huguenot Strain through the DeSpain Family; Albert B. Shankland’s Benjamin Linn, Indian Fighter-Hunter-Scout-Preacher; H.L. Waldrop’s Wagons and Wit; Anglo-American Activities in Northeast Texas, 1803-1845 by Rex Strickland; Heroes of the Saddlebags by Jesse G. Smith; land records from the original Red River County and Nacogdoches County courthouses, military records and state archives.