The Regrettable Death Of Little Rube Potter

By: Linda Potter Whitt

 

 Reuben "Little Rube" & Hulda Wright Potter

 

 

My father, Lunda Potter said; as did my grandfather George Potter; as did my great-grandfather, James Potter that John Wright, the first cousin of Hulda Wright my great-great-grandmother, killed Ruben Potter, my great-great-grandfather.  These men, now of the past leave in me the breath of a spoken belief that “time when changed, changes us”. 

 

          The following came from Harry M. Caudill's book,

          The Mountain, the Miner, and the Lord, page 66:

 

            "In the hills many and marvelous are the tales that are told about the war.  Five times the nation has gone to war since Appomattox but in the mountains those are remembered as lesser conflicts when they are remembered at all.  The Civil War, the War between the States, the War for Southern Independence, the War of the Rebellion--the old-timers called it by many names but always they remembered it with horror.  In Appalachia generally, and in Eastern Kentucky in particular, the struggle degenerated into a bloody and protracted contest between civilian factions.  Long before  Lee's surrender Yankee sympathizers were killing "rebels," and vice versa.  Regiments of the two armies passed through the region on raids headed for Virginia or for the Kentucky Bluegrass and Ohio. They foraged for supplies, a practice the populace considered arrant robbery, and were mercilessly "bushwhacked" in retaliation.  This led to the capture and execution of hostages which, in turn, generated more bushwhackers.  By the end of the war the land and populace had been plundered back to primal poverty, internecine feuds were raging that would not die out entirely for fifty years, and political lines were drawn that have persisted to this day."

 

It is recorded that Ruben Potter signed up to fight in the Civil War on October 4, 1862, and listed as having deserted the next day.  I believe that upon further scrutiny one will find that this is in error.   John Wright enlisted in Whitesburg, Kentucky on the same day, October 4, that Ruben Potter signed up in Whitesburg, KY.   It is possible that in tying up loose ends after the war the date was entered erroneously.  It isn't feasible that John Wright would have been sent to retrieve Ruben Potter on their second day in the military Brian D. McKnight refers to David W. Austin's Recollections  by Sutherland in McKnight's book, Contested Borderland on page 192:.

  

              "Across Pound gap, other hardships existed, little Rube Potter had been fighting for the South but had deserted and returned home when he had heard his family was starving and had no shoes to wear.  When the squad sent to retrieve Potter came into view, he was in the act of making shoes for his children.  Potter dropped his shoe leather and needles and ran.  John Wright, being a part of that small force, shot and killed him as he jumped a fence near the house.” 

 

This recounting of what happened to Ruben Potter is the same story that has been passed down from father to son to grandson for the last 150 years.

My father told me that Ruben Potter born 1829, was the son of Benjamin and Susannah Potter and that he was a scout during the Civil War.  My Dad said that he was told by his grandfather that Ruben could ride the hair off the back end of a horse.  Ruben married Hulda Wright sometime after 1850 but before 1853 at the home of George Dixon, husband of Dacy Wright.  Dacy was Hulda's half sister.  Ruben and Hulda parented four children and were living near Beefhide close to the Letcher/Pike County, KY line according to the 1860 Census which list Rubin Potter age 31; Hulda age26; Tandy age 8; James age 6; Benjamin age 4; Mahalea age 1.  On this same census where you find Hulda and Ruben living in dwelling number 129, you will find John W. Wright age 16 living with his parents in dwelling number 148.  Between these dwellings you will find James and Susannah Wright, Hulda's parents living in dwelling number 139 and not far from the Wrights, you find Isaac Potter and Mary, Ruben Potter's aunt and uncle in dwelling 136.  The road to Pikeville and the Big Sandy Valley, ran east, down the valley; the Pound Gap road, now U.S. 23, turned south climbing Pine Mountain; the third road traversed the headwaters of main Elkhorn, crossing the low pass into the Potter's Fork of the North Fork of Kentucky River where the Wright's and the Potter's made their home.  

As the war encroached on land that Wright’s and Potter’s claimed, they found themselves on one side or the other of a bloody fence that really had very little bearing on their meager hard sought existence. Many mountain families resented government interference and resisted any efforts to tax or to dictate. They were fierce fighters when boundaries were bothered or when they felt they were wronged but for the most part the Potters and the Wrights were a quiet gentle people. My father, Lunda Potter was the recipient of the Silver Star during WWII as was another descendent of Rubin Potter’s brother Isaac Potter, Donald F. Potter, both from Greenup County, KY. This honor, I am told, is not lightly bestowed, for much bravery and valor in the mist of battle qualifies one for the heroic endeavor deserving of such recognition. Potter men are very humble and would not see themselves as being heroic. I didn't realize the significance of this honor until my dad died and the funeral director insisted that my father have a military funeral. He said, " I have known many brave men that received A Purple Heart or other military honors but you don't see many Silver Star's." 

  

                                 

                                        Army,  Sargent Lunda Potter

                             

 My Dad, son of George Potter who was the son of James Potter, who was the son of Ruben Potter and Hulda Wright, earned a Silver Star.  My father's brother, Hubert Potter was killed on Omaha Beach during the Invasion of Normandy. He was only 22 years old. My Dad read about his death in the Stars and Stripes Newspaper while deployed in Italy.  These brave men are the descendants of Abram Potter, a Revolutionary War Soldier that fought in the battle of Cow Pens.

 

The line from Lunda Potter to Abram Potter is documented through the National Society of the DAR

Just as the war went creeping up the hollows and down the creeks to a place called Beefhide, I went creeping in search of Ruben and Hulda with nothing more than a persistent whisper that my family had lost something there.  I found  Ruben buried in Joel Wright's Cemetery with a military stone. My family was very proud that a stone had been set for Ruben. The Potter’s knew the devastation brought on by this war and realized the impact on their family and many others. I could still feel the doom that a war fought in the 1800’s left on a area that had so little to gain and so much to lose.  Progress was impeded in the mountain regions of Kentucky to a greater extent because the war imposed a legal and judicial structure of power and politics that promoted an economy composed of corrupt coal mine owners and illegal whiskey industry.

My father had the impression, that on that cold morning when someone at the camp reported to Ruben Potter that his family was freezing and that they didn't have shoes or firewood, that Ruben was set up or tricked into leaving without authorization. Ruben was later found sitting on a log mending his children's shoes when John Wesley Wright rode up with three of the guard.  Ruben saw the men and turned to run and was shot by John Wright while the guard watched. It was reported that Ruben died of his wounds, a deserter. 

Thus, began the gathering of speculation about the struggle and hardship that fueled emotions of shame and bitterness that could cause the very heart of a family to break.

Hulda was John Wright's first cousin, making it difficult for our family to vindicate him or condemn him for this seemingly heartless act. John Wright also known as Bad John Wright did many good things to bring some kind of sanity to a lawless war ridden Eastern Kentucky but it is also known that Bad John Wright was to have been on the fringe of more than one skirmish involving the Potters and their kin. Tradition has handed down only one story about the death of Ruben, never varying in the least which is in itself quiet astounding. Yet, Hulda had two more children, John in 1866 and Joel in 1871.  We don't know what happened to Joel. My dad said that the family used to refer to him as Buck. On the 1880 Floyd County Census you see Hulda living with her son, my great-grandfather, James, and listed are her two youngest sons and their ages. In the 1870 Johnson County Census you find Hulda living with the Frances Marion Conley family in Johnson County. Her older children are with her and John, age four, was only named Potter. Joel wasn't born until the following year.  Hulda raised her children and live to see Tandy, James, Mahalea, and John marry well.  The 1900 census ask how many children to which Hulda gave birth and how many children are living. Hulda answered that she had six children but that only five were living so we know that the boy named Joel, that everyone called Buck, did in fact die before the 1900 census but after the 1880 Census.  The 1890 Federal Census was for the most part destroyed in a fire in Washington D.C. By the 1910 census some of Hulda's children, moved on to Greenup County,  Mahalea married John Boone Sammons and moved to West Virginia, one family member reported that Mahalea moved her family to get her boys out of Floyd County to keep them from getting killed.  Hulda is not on the 1910 census living with Halea's family or any or her other children.  There are three Potter graves in the Reffitt Cemetery at Spurlock in Floyd County marked unknown. This land was once owned by James Potter, Hulda's son, my great-grandfather.  We know this because the barn that James Potter built and carved his name on, still stands on that land.

John Potter’s (John Potter's birth date is listed differently on several census but his death certificate shows that he was born in 1863; 1870 Census shows 1866; 1880 Census shows 1866; 1900 shows 1864; 1910 shows 1865; 1920 shows 1867; and 1930 shows 1864.) tombstone shows that he was born in 1868 but my Dad and his brothers bought the stones for his grave and for my great grandfather, James' grave and both dates are incorrect and because of extra expense the stones were never changed.  John Potters married Tennessee Staggs.  They raised their family in Carter County close to the Greenup County line. My father and grandfather used to visit John Potter.  My father would laugh when he told these stories. He said that some of them were told by a man whose last name was Sizemore. I asked him if John looked like the rest of the Potters and he said, "Yes."  My dad, though a small boy at the time knew his cousins and his great Uncle John and never heard that John might not have been a full brother yet on John’s death certificate, the name of his father appears to be rubbed out.  We don't know what happened to Hulda and Ruben's son Benjamin. Some say that he went to California but no one in our family knows for sure what happened to Benjamin. He does not appear on any census after 1880. Tandy Potter raised his family in Greenup County.  My great-grandfather married Cynthia Ann Allen and moved his family to Greenup County sometime after the 1900 census and before the 1910 census.

John Wright more than any other represents the good and the bad in all those mountain men that fought for survival in a land that would beat you down and steal the very heart right out of you.  John Wright's sister married Abraham Potter who was a nephew of Ruben Potter. Abraham and John's cousin's Sarah Wright had a son named Creed. Creed Potter and the Reynolds brothers got into a feud with other factions which deemed them candidates for a stay in the state penitentiary. I believe that Reynolds might have been pardoned by the governor but Creed was to do some hard time.  Some say that Creed escaped with the help of John Wright.  Sources say that Creed lived a productive life as a good citizen in the state of Oregon under a different name.  In light of the knowledge that John Wright was inclined toward family loyalty, it really makes no sense that he would have killed Ruben Potter, the husband of his very own cousin, in front of witnesses and then for this cousin, Ruben's widow, to go on to give birth to a son and name him John, (actually she didn't name him until after he was four years old. (John is listed on the 1870 census just as Potter, age 4) and then to have a second son in 1871 and name him Joel, both Wright family names (Joel is John Wright's father's name). Still, the mother in me wonders why Hulda would name a child John when the name of the man that shot her husband was named John?  It is said that John Wright had 36 children or more by seven different women.  He supposedly had a son Joel born in 1770 by Martha Humphrey. This Joel would have been born just one year before Hulda's son Joel was born. Tradition has it that John Wright may have killed Hulda's son Joel who was supposedly mentally challenged. This story was not passed down in my family and is not befitting a man that is said to love children. Maybe John Wright took Joel to Lexington where many like Joel were institutionalized.  The story that was told said John Wright was to have sent word to Hulda that he had a turkey or a goose for her family and would she send down Joel to get it and when Joel got down to the creek where John Wright was waiting, John Wright killed him.  I talked to a family member of John Wright and he said that most of the stories attributed to John Wright are legend based on few facts. I have learned that often there is some truth to stories passed down but often there are many lies woven into these stories. We don’t know what happened to Joel but that he was referred to as Buck when discussed by my grandfather and that my dad, and that no untoward story except that he lived and was rambunctious was repeated is all that we know for sure.  We also don't know what happened to Benjamin, Ruben and Hulda's oldest son. Our family thinks he may have gone to California. My father never spoke ill any Wright family member. John Wright did have skirmishes with the Potter family but sometimes when this happened, the Potter’s were on the down side of the law. 

If any one thing diminished a family back in those days it was the loss of the father. This must have been the case with many families after the war. Ruben's sister was married to Lafayette Bentley who was killed by Ephriam Ratliff in front of his young family.  And, yet, descendants of that family live today to tell of the cruel behavior that befell them.  No doubt the evolution, of these families, leaves us with a record of the struggle and hardship of a family that evolved under horrific conditions, but more often than not we are left with more questions than answers.   

Did Hulda's first cousin, John Wright kill her husband? Is it possible that Ruben like many scouts, was also a spy and John Wright only staged a killing so that Ruben could live under another name?  It is said that the Wright Family hollowed out an oak tree and used that as a casket in which to bury Ruben in The Old Sol Wright Cemetery. Spies were sometimes hidden in hollowed out logs that were concealed in the floors of log homes like the one in which Hulda and Ruben lived.  Who is the father of Hulda's two children that were born after Ruben supposedly died?  And, why would Hulda name this child John, when the man that killed her husband had that name?  That Joel was mentally challenged bring some speculation to the table and that the cause of his death seems to be unclear makes one question what happened to him. 

I am a Potter but I am also a Wright so when the blood of either of these families spills, it is my blood.

The truth is as confusing as the memories are conflicting but we owe much to Hulda Wright Potter for teaching our family that in the experience of tragedy we have the sweet arms of the Wright’s and the Potter’s legacy around the change, they caused within us.

And at the end of this story, there are only people and families doing the best that they can to understand what happened to them.

 

Linda Potter Whitt

 

 

 

The material on this webpage holds a copyright © 2001 by Linda Potter Whitt, Nancy Wright Bays

& Patty May Brashear

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