“Ours has been a desultory ramble, as rambles should be.”
William Senior, By Stream and Sea (1877)
I was rambling over back roads and chanced to pass a cockeyed gate. Over the gate there was a sign indicating that it gave way to the Hammond Colony Cemetery. Now when I ramble over back roads, I ramble slowly, progressing when possible at about ten miles an hour; but even to the eye of so sedate a traveler, this Hammond Colony Cemetery appeared to be nothing but the usual mix of dusty thickets and rank bunchgrass. It lays on one side of the valley at the head of Pin Oak Creek, in the sand hills of Robertson County, and in comparison to its surroundings looked like much of a muchness.
I normally stop at this sort of country cemetery, especially one fronted by a cockeyed gate, but the hour was late and supper was calling, so this time I drove on.
The curious name of Hammond Colony stuck with me, though. Country cemeteries are hereabouts most often named for a church, a family, or a rural neighborhood (what Texans called a community). Sometimes they are named for the party of pioneers who first settled the vicinity, and who referred to their clustered frontier farmsteads as a “settlement” or a “colony.” There is, for instance, a Walker Settlement Cemetery on the crest a prairie hillock not far from where I write.
My first thought was therefore that this Hammond Colony must be one of these.
After a little digging (metaphorical, I assure you), I discovered that this Hammond Colony was a different matter. B. F. Hammond was an Alabama Doctor who came to Texas with about 100 slaves in 1853. He owned two large plantations in the Brazos River bottom, and was in the last half of the nineteenth century a magnate of Robertson County. Following the Civil War, Hammond divided his plantation among those former slaves who were willing to remain as sharecroppers, and the Hammond Colony seems to have been part of this general reorganization of Hammond’s estate.
I have found no record of the event, but some portion of Hammond’s former slaves appear either to have left or been taken off of the bottomland plantations, and to have settled or been settled at this colony at the head of Pin Oak Creek. I do not know if Hammond provided the land or acted as landlord, but both appear likely from the fact that the colony bore his name. My guess is that Hammond settled superfluous and possibly recalcitrant labor on this decidedly marginal land, rather than turn them loose as vagabonds.
But I am open to correction.
I have found but one mention of the Hammond Colony in the record. This is from 1879 and reads:
“Fifteen wagon loads of exodusters came here [Hearne] to take the train for Kansas. They came from the Hammond colony, five miles east of Hearne, and number about 100 souls.”*
Exodusters were Blacks who left the South in the hope of obtaining free Federal land in Kansas in the 1870s, and this large exodus from the Hammond Colony suggests that a small patch in the sand hills was not everyone’s idea of felicity. Other Blacks left the Colony for nearby towns such as Hearne, which the new railroads had brought into being. In time, the hill at the head of Pin Oak Creek returned to desolation, and all that remained of the Hammond Colony was this plot of mostly unmarked graves behind that cockeyed gate.
I went back to the Hammond Colony Cemetery yesterday, and this time I stopped and went through that cockeyed gate. I had learned that a minor celebrity was buried there, and so hoped to find her headstone in that wilderness of thickets and bunchgrass.
Rosie Lee Moore was born in the Hammond Colony in 1899, and she went on to become the last living model of Aunt Jemima, the famous trademark of the Quaker Oats Company. Mrs. Moore toured the country in the 1950s and 60s, encouraging Americans to eat more pancakes and syrup, and when she died in 1967, her bones were laid in this place where she was born.
I feel a certain connection to Mrs. Moore because it was her likeness that I saw on the syrup bottles of my youth, and it was from her likeness that I formed my early and entirely favorable impression of Blacks as jolly people who made good food. Life has forced some amendments to this early impression, but the memory is pleasant and Mrs. Moore can claim much of the credit for it.
It takes some fortitude to pay one’s respects to Rosie Lee Moore, for her grave lies in a thicket near the back of the cemetery, and to reach it one must cross a rank prairie laced with sandburs. And crossing a rank prairie laced with sandburs involves scratches on the order of what one can expect from scrambling over four barbed wire fences in shorts.
When I at last beat my way through to the gravesite, I found that I was not the first pilgrim to pass through the cockeyed gate. In fact, I found that I was a miserable and unworthy pilgrim who had neglected to bring the customary gift, for those who had gone before had left by the grave their gifts of good corn syrup.
The moral of this story is that cockeyed gates should be opened, even at the hazard of sandburs. There is more to this world than can be seen from the road, even if one is progressing at the sedate rate of ten miles an hour. And an apparent wilderness of thickets and bunchgrass may conceal nothing less than the shrine and barrow of a pancake queen.
* ) Galveston Daily News (Oct. 30, 1879).