Stories about the old Goodnight and Chisholm Trails have so dominated the writings of Western Americana that even most Texans have forgotten that their first great cattle drives ended up at New Orleans rather than Abilene or Dodge City, Kansas. Known as the Opelousas Trail, enterprising men took advantage of the thousands of longhorn cattle, unbranded and roaming. In Texas and Mexico, the cattle were worthless. Across the Sabine in the United States, they were worth upwards of a dollar a head. At the time in 1825, it was illegal to drive longhorn cattle to Louisiana. That didn’t stop men seeking their fortune.
This is the tale of danger for those returning from New Orleans after selling cattle. A tale that rivals Alfred Hitchcock’s story of the Bates Motel in “Psycho.” (And I still have shivers when I think of that movie.)
Thomas Denman Yocum was born in 1796 in Kentucky to Jesse Ray Yoakum and Diana How Denton. From birth, Thomas learned theft and deceit. He and his father and brothers rode with John Murrell but struck out on their own. Jesse was tried for murder several times in Natchitoches, Louisiana. A veteran of the American Revolution, he was suspected of bribing witnesses and jurors and was never convicted.
After being forcefully “invited” to leave Louisiana, Thomas Yocum and his family crossed the Sabine and settled on a Mexican land grant on Pine Island Bayou, the south boundary of the Big Thicket of Southeast Texas, around 1830. Having acquired some wealth and affluence by 1835, the old killer and slave stealer became more selective with his victims. He and his family built Yocum’s Inn in Jefferson County, Texas.
Jefferson County was then a virgin, sparsely-settled region of prairies, pine barrens, and thickets. Any settler living within ten miles was considered a neighbor. The deep, navigable stream, 100 feet wide and 75 miles long, was a tributary of the Neches River and had already attracted ten or more pioneers who also held land grants from the Mexican government.
|Jefferson County in Reddish Pink|
Thomas Yocum’s Inn was a combination saloon and lodging house between Beaumont and Sour Lake and stood on the Opelousas cattle trail between Texas and Louisiana. Yocum reportedly rode out at the first sound of the herds heading east and invited the drovers to quench their thirst and satisfy their hunger at the Inn. The well-treated travelers spread word of the genial host’s hospitality. When they returned with money belts filled after selling their cattle, they once more stopped at Yocum’s Inn. Big mistake, as solitary travelers were never seen again. Instead, the Yocum’s stock of fine horses grew.
Exactly how many people the Yocum’s robbed and murdered is unknown. The popularity of Yocum's Inn spread far and wide. Yocum soon became the postmaster of Pine Island settlement under the old Texas Republic, supervised the local elections, served on juries, and was widely respected by his neighbors and travelers alike.
Yocum acquired much land and many slaves, and by 1839 his herd of l500 head of cattle was the fourth largest in Jefferson County. While other settlers rode the wiry Creole, or mustang-size, ponies of a type common to Southwest Louisiana, Yocum's stable of thirty horses were stock of the finest American breeds and his family drove about in an elegant carriage.
Apparently. a gentleman's life held no attraction for Yocum, a man who literally was nursed from the cradle on murder and rapine. For many years, Yocum's Inn was actually a den of robbers and killers. What is the most startling is the fact that Yocum was able to camouflage his activities for more than a decade, maintaining an aura of respectability while simultaneously committing the worst of villainies, with a murderous band of cutthroats unequaled in the history of East Texas.
How Yocum could accomplish this since he used no alias, is unexplainable, for he, his brothers, his father, and his sons were known from Texas to Mississippi as killers, slave-stealers, and robbers. If any neighbor not a member of the gang suspected that something at Yocum's Inn was amiss, he probably feared for his life too much to speak out.
One account, written by Philip Paxton in 1853, observed that Yocum, "knowing the advantages of a good character at home, soon by his liberality, apparent good humor, and obliging disposition, succeeded in ingratiating himself with the few settlers."
In 1841, the Yocum’s downfall occurred. A well-dressed man stopped at the inn and asked directions. Thomas agreed to ride with him and show him the way. Thomas returned leading the man’s fine horse.
Yocum’s wife, Pamela Peace Yocum, was overheard to ask, “How much did he have?” When Yocum replied only six bits, his wife said, “Any man who rode a horse like that, wore such fine clothes, carried a gold watch and chain, and only had seventy-five cents on him deserved to get killed.”
Another potential victim staying at the hotel overheard the conversation and went for the Regulators, an illegal but active vigilante group. The Regulator posse went to Yocum’s Inn, ordered him and his family to pack up and quit the country, and then torched the building. Shortly after the Yocums left, an elderly black man who’d been a witness to some of the goings on at Yocum’s Inn showed the posse the remains of other victims.
According to Paxton, the Regulators found the bones of victims in Yocum's well, in the neighboring thickets, in the "alligator slough," and even out on the prairie. The Regulator posse set out after the Yocums. A day or so later the posse caught up with the family. No longer willing to trust a Yocum's fate to the whims of any jury, the vigilantes gave the old murderer thirty minutes to square his misdeeds with his Maker, and then they "shot him through the heart" five times. In addition, they may have killed other members of the Yocum family.
|A place to hide bodies and treasure?|
Almost from the date of T. D. Yocum's death, legends began to circulate concerning the murderer's hoard of stolen treasure, because the vigilantes knew that neither he nor any member of his family had had time to excavate it before they were driven from the county. Some of them thought that only Yocum and one of his slaves actually knew where the loot was hidden. For years treasure hunters dug holes along the banks of Cotton and Byrd Creeks. Decades later sinks and mounds in the Pine Island vicinity were said to be the remains of those excavations.
|Now the Big Thicket is a National Preserve|
If anyone ever found the treasure, that fact was never made public, and one writer claims it is still there awaiting the shovel that strikes it first. At least the Thomas Yocum family can no longer waylay travelers.
TALES OF BAD MEN, BAD WOMEN, AND BAD PLACES, C. F. Eckhardt, Texas Tech University Press, 1999
Photos: Google commons