The Last Posse, a novel  Inspired by Real Events      Author's Note:       The Last Posse, a novel by Steven Key Meyers

 

My great-uncle, Sheriff J.D. Key of Wilbarger County, Texas, led the Southwest's last great posse in 1916, chasing the famous Oklahoma Yeggman Frank Holloway across Texas and Oklahoma, capturing him, and bringing him back for trial in Vernon, Texas. (The Vernon Record, May 30, 1919, p. 1, alludes to this epic event.)

James Daniel Key (1872-1951) was my grandmother’s favorite, much-older brother. He served as Sheriff of Wilbarger County from 1911 to 1920, retiring to enter the oil business, later still serving as Vernon's chief of police. He was the son of Nathan Micajah Key (1851-1890) and of Mary Jane Groves Key (1850-1924), whose father, James Daniel Groves (born 1818 in Kentucky, died after 1880), was head hand on the first iteration of the Waggoner Ranch in Wilbarger County.

The posse is one of the two main plot strands in The Last Posse. The other one concerns the theft of Nathan Micajah Key's long-buried bones in 1922 (see Vernon (TX) Record, August 27, 1922, p. 1 and Wichita Falls (TX) Daily Times, August 27, 1922, part one, p. 6). My book may be said to have started when my Uncle Bing told me his earliest memory, dating to the age of four or five: watching his grandmother saw her husband’s shinbone in half so as to fit it into an urn for burial. Wow! I hope not many families have such memories floating about.

I suspect the solution to the mystery I offer is the correct one, and that my cousins who have clammed up for almost a century know more about it than my branch of the family does. (Tellingly, Della Tyler Key's The Keys in Texas makes no mention of the event.) Whatever. My father, Harold Burton Meyers, whose acclaimed 1989 novel Geronimo's Ponies likewise draws on Key family lore, explains it thus in his privately printed family history, Plain Folks, (Williamsburg, Virginia, 2000), from which I quote with his kind permission (pp. 26-27):

The fantasy our branch of the family called "the Key Estate" was said to consist of 42 to 100 acres or more of choice Manhattan real estate, including Wall Street and Trinity Church, worth billions; some accounts added 7,000 acres in Kentucky. Unfortunately, the Key claim is contested not only by the present owners of the land, who hold titles that every court addressed on the subject has held to be valid, but also by other claimants in related branches of the family who know it as the Bibb or Edwards Estate.

The exact nature of the Key claim on this bonanza can be grasped only by great leaps of faith. Fog rises quickly when one tries to pin anything down. In some versions, the claim rests on a 1640 gift of the Manhattan land by Charles I to one of the ubiquitous John Keys of the time for unspecifed services. In other accounts it involves a sea captain of dubious reputation, Robert Edwards, who is said to have received that generous chunk of Manhattan Island as a reward from a grateful King—possibly a George, but more likely a Charles—for piratical exploits on behalf of the Crown. The old privateer may or may not have been one-legged, a detail that assumed interest for Texas Keys after all of Nathan Micajah Key's skeleton except one leg was seized by grave robbers in 1922, more than thirty years after his burial.

In one Key version of the Estate story, rights to Edwards' Manhattan property eventually fell to Nancy (Ann) Bibb, wife of Martin Key, through Nancy's sister, who married an Edwards heir and died a childless widow. An alternative spin on the story has it that Martin Key—and not his wife—inherited the land, by virtue of being descended from the John Key who may have got the land from Charles I before ever an Edwards appeared on the scene. In any case, all Key accounts agree on two points: Martin and Nancy Key owned the land and had many children.

Before his death in about 1791, Martin Key is supposed to have given a 99-year lease to unnamed parties. By the time the lease expired in the late 19th century (the exact date is up for grabs), all documents pertaining to the case, such as leases and deeds, had been misplaced, leaving no trace in official records. Nancy Bibb's and Martin Key's numerous heirs found themselves unable to regain the land. From time to time since then, potential Key, Bibb, and Edwards heirs—now numbering in the thousands—have glimpsed the will-o'-the-wisp, usually with the aid of a sharp-eyed lawyer or private investigator who claims to have a lead on the whereabouts of the missing documents and is willing to produce them for a price.

Since about 1880 potential heirs have periodically formed dues-collecting family associations to claim the legacy. In 1924, when the lost Manhattan acres were said by enthusiasts to be worth as much as $4 billion, such associations were active in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and other states. Texas and Florida Keys seem not to have set up their own associations, but were accepted as members by the Georgia and Alabama associations. I have not been able to determine what proofs of descent were required. Perhaps proof was not needed for membership in associations relying so purely on faith. After all, the more dues-paying dreamers who could be got aboard, the better for the dream's promoters. As a Greenville, SC, newspaper reported in 1924 about the dreams of would-be heirs: "At the bottom of it all is the same urge that prompts suckers to go up against the gambling devices of county fairs, knowing these devices are crooked, yet always believing sombody is going to give something away. (Quoted, minus the newspaper's name, in Della Tyler Key, The Keys of Texas, p. 62.)

Bibb and Key claimants have usually worked together, but the Edwardses dispute the Bibb-Key claim and go their own way. They agree, of course, that such an estate exists, though they know it as the Edwards Estate. They argue that the heirship never left the Edwards line and urge Keys and Bibbs to be fair and step aside. An effort by Keys and Edwardses to join forces, thereby avoiding litigation, came to naught in 1924. Rivalry between the families grew intense, causing some Keys to worry "about what the Edwards are doing." (The Keys in Texas, p. 72.) What the Edwardses were doing, it turned out, was filing suit, to no avail, against Trinity Church, which sits on part of the disputed Manhattan land. (See the Atlanta Journal, Februay 22, 1925: "Edwards Heirs Sue Church for $10,000,000"; cited in Marcus Key, The Virginia Genealogist, Vol 8, No 4, note, p. 179.) . . . .

After my grandfather's grave was robbed in 1922, Will Key seems to have blamed the theft of Nathan Micajah Key's bones on an opposing faction in the Key Estate dispute. According to my mother, he and my other uncles developed a theory that a certain soldier, AWOL from Ft. Sill, had been hired by seekers after the Key Estate to produce the skeleton of a one-legged sea captain named Micahah Key. That was the name of our great-great-grandfather as well as of our grandfather, neither of whom was a sea captain. (Mostly likely, neither of them had so much as seen the sea.) Mother didn't go into the question of how, in those pre-DNA days, a skeleton plucked from a grave on the plains of west Texas, even with one leg left behind, could prove anything about the Estate one way or another. We, of course, didn't think to ask.

She always ended up with the most gripping tale of all—how her hot-headed brothers, burly six-footers all and one a former sheriff, tracked down the suspected grave robber, a soldier absent without leave from Fort Sill. She refused to say exactly what happened to the fellow, hinting only that neither the Army nor Texas ever saw him again.

The New York Times provides a good overview of the Edwards Estate in its story of January 1, 1991, p.10.

My grandmother, along with the other schoolchildren of Vernon, was one day mustered to the courthouse square to witness the town's sole legal hanging; as my father marvels still, "What kind of society wants its children to see a public execution?"

Garden City’s Windsor Hotel was such as I describe, a once-magnificent structure. I stayed there in 1973 to meet my maternal grandfather’s widow, who lived in Garden City; she recalled my grandfather's courting her there and his joking that horse rustlers used to be hanged from the upper-story balustrades (she was horrified). It was then almost empty, a TV blaring in the cavernous atrium for its handful of resident pensioners. Truman Capote made the Windsor Hotel his headquarters while doing research for In Cold Blood. I confess to inventing the train line from Clinton, Oklahoma to Garden City, Kansas, but I needed it.

My great-uncle Reuben Key (1875-1936) had a tragic experience when he was deputy sheriff in Altus, Oklahoma, responding to gunfire aimed at him in the dark by shooting and killing the young gunman, who probably was shooting at random to celebrate New Year's. Reuben was acquitted of murder, but the shooting ruined his life (see Altus (O.K.) Times, December 9, 1909, p. 3, for his acquittal). While awaiting trial, he was reassigned to Elmer, Oklahoma, where, with the jailer, he one evening thwarted the intentions of a lynch mob that was demanding their prisoner be handed over to it (see Altus (O.K.) Times, June 3, 1909, p. 1).

Incidentally, as in The Last Posse, my Uncle Bing was indeed a friend of the great Western actor Ben Johnson’s, whose ranch was just up the road from his house in Pawhuska, Oklahoma. Late in life Bing himself happened to appear in a movie, holding his own with the great Javier Bardem in the best scenes of Terrence Malick's To the Wonder, an experience he thoroughly enjoyed, affirming the following year in almost his last words that he’d do it again. It came about through the chance that he then resided in the same Bartlesville, Oklahoma nursing home as Malick's mother.

Uncle Jim’s demise in the Last Posse is based on a near-escape by my Uncle Bing’s cattleman friend, Frederick F. Drummond, as he told it to me.

Two memories of visiting Vernon: Driving past Archer City, a little ways to the southeast, I was so struck by the clouds being cottonballs pressed against glass that I wrote it down, only to remember with disgust that the image had been used by Archer City native Larry McMurtry in one of his excellent novels. In Vernon I went by Walmart, looking for beer; looked and couldn't find it, so asked help from a young man stocking the shelves. "Sir," he said with a look of absolute woe, "Wilbarger County's dry."

 

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