Anyone who makes a trip across the country knows how many familiar names of towns, rivers, roads, etc., there are from state to state.
You would be surprised at how many towns there are with the name of Mulberry, Paris and even Denison, especially between Texas and eastern Tennessee. Many of Texas’ early settlers came from Tennessee and evidently brought the names with them, dropping off a few along the way.
Driving through the northwest tip of Alabama en route to Texas a few years ago, we took a different route through the country rather than traveling by the freeway. I was surprised when I saw a road sign reading, “Colbert’s Ferry.”
My first thought was to slam on the brakes and back up, but my second thoughts were much better and we kept going across the Tennessee River before stopping at a small roadside park to talk over the situation.
We decided to retrace our route across Tennessee as my husband wanted to watch the little tugboat guiding 12 barges along the river anyway. I wanted to see what Colbert’s Ferry was.
We didn’t go back far enough to get to the original road sign, but we found a marker denoting Colbert’s Stand.
It seems that a George Colbert (it is unknown whether he was related to this area’s Frank Colbert, who was chief of the Choctaw tribe) had operated a ferry across the Tennessee River from 1800 to 1819. He had a stand or inn there that provided travelers with a warm meal and shelter during their journey on the Old Trace.
Old Trace was the original part of the Natchez Trace Parkway that goes from Natchez, Mississippi, to just outside Nashville, Tennessee, that was completed in the late 1980s. We traveled more than 100 miles on the route, a beautiful, tree lined road maintained by the U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service. The only drawback to the route at that time was that the speed limit was 50 miles an hour and I guess that was the main reason there was very little traffic there.
The trace was first a series of hunters’ paths and slowly became a trail from the Mississippi over the low hills into the valley of the Tennessee River. As early as 1733, Frenchmen made a map that showed it as an Indian trail made by the Natchez, Chickasaw and Choctaw. By the 1800s, there were many inns, locally called stands, along the trace and by 1820 more than 20 were in operation.
Colbert was said to have looked after his own well being and once charged Andrew Jackson $75,000 to ferry his Tennessee Army across the river that now is probably a mile wide.
Our Colbert also operated Colbert’s Ferry across the Red River, north of Denison, about 50 years later. The ferry was established in 1853 about 100 yards from the present Highway 75 and just east of the Old Toll Bridge over the Red River. Of course at that time there was no toll bridge and the ferry was the only way across the river at that point. During that time, it was on a well-traveled road from Arkansas and Missouri into Texas.
Colbert’s Ferry in Oklahoma was the overnight stop for the Butterfield Stage that came on past Denison.
We don’t know about George Colbert, but it has been rumored Frank Colbert didn’t believe in banks and buried his gold. A lot of people have looked for it, including his son, Corn Colbert, but no one ever found it.
A.G. Gilbert, who once owned the property in Oklahoma, told a Denison Herald reporter in 1964 that Corn Colbert once told him that his father kept his gold coins in a bois d’arc box under the bed and when they needed money they unlocked the box. He said he had seen the box many times and sawed the lumber himself to make the two foot long by one foot wide box that had been put together with brass screws.
Gilbert said Corn Colbert went to Tishomingo to a meeting of the Choctaw Tribe of which he was a member and when he returned home, the box was gone. His father told him not to worry because he had put it in a safe place.
Some time later Frank Colbert became violently ill after eating tainted meat and died the next morning without telling the son where the box had been hidden.
Whether this is one of the stories that make the Denison area so unique, or whether there is a box of money buried somewhere in the Texoma area, remains a mystery. One thing is for sure though. With all the water being released from time to time at the dam, the banks of the Red River get so swollen that it would certainly be hard to begin digging.
While we are talking about Colberts, there was another one who made a name for himself, but not as a ferry operator. Benjamin H. Colbert, a former U.S. Marshal, was a Rough Rider who fought in the Spanish-American War at San Juan Hill under Theodore Roosevelt’s command. He was cited for bravery by the Cuban government.
The town of Colbert, where he was born when Oklahoma was Indian Territory, was named after his family.
When Roosevelt became president, Benjamin H. Colbert, who had been closely associated with him, was appointed U.S. Marshal for the southern district of Indian Territory. He also attended Baylor and Vanderbilt universities. He was a long-time resident of Tulsa and had moved to Hot Springs to live with his son, Ted (named for Roosevelt) in about 1919. He died on Dec. 10, 1920.
Donna Hunt is former editor of The Denison Herald. She lives in Denison and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. She has been a longtime contributor to the Herald Democrat with her bi-weekly column, which appears in the Wednesday and Sunday editions. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Herald Democrat.