Mysterious Disappearance of John Ledbetter

Michael has a BA in History & American Studies and an MSc in American History from the University of Edinburgh. He comes from a proud military family and has spent most of his career as an educator in the Middle East and Asia. His passion is travel, and he seizes any opportunity to share his experiences in the most immersive way possible, whether at sea or on the land.

Shackelford County, Texas

    During the early days, it was the custom for several frontier ranches in a certain section to confederate together and employ some one to conduct a community school. And for convenience such schools were usually conducted during the summer.

    Just such a school was being taught by Wash Hullum, whose father was one of the first settlers of Golconda (Palo Pinto). The Hazlewood, Gonzales', Lynch, and Ledbetter children numbered among those who attended this school. At the time W.H. Ledbetter mined salt at the old Ledbetter Salt Works, about nine miles south and west of the present city of Albany, and his sons, Harve L., and John (Dev), attended the Wash Hullum school, which was being conducted at the J.C. Lynch Ranch.

    Late one evening while Mrs. Lynch was preparing supper, little John came in the kitchen and his behavior disclosed he was anxiously awaiting the evening meal. Shortly afterwards, however, he went out with some of the children about two or three hundred yards from the house to gather mesquite wax. The children became scattered in a short time, returned to the ranch, for it was almost time for supper. Little John, however, mysteriously disappeared. John Gonzales was the last to see him. But just why he did not return, no one knew. No one had heard him make an outcry. No Indians had been seen. And no danger had been apprehended. But little John was gone. Only his cap could be found. It was surmised that, perhaps, he had become dissatisfied and started toward his father's salt works. But it was learned he was not there. Almost immediately searching parties went in all directions for fear the little fellow had become lost, and wandered through the wild and open wastes of Western Texas. After diligently searching, not a single clue that would tend to explain his disappearance, could be found. The searching continued, and still no signs were seen. On the third day, a few meager evidences, of Indians were found. For thirty days, the local citizens searched and combed the earth for little John Ledbetter. But his sudden disappearance remained as mysterious as when first missed. By this time many people along the frontier were wondering what had become of little John Ledbetter.

    Since he could not be found, every effort was made to locate the Ledbetter boy among the wild tribes of the northwest, but the little fellow's fate still remained a mystery.

    In after years, a young man reported to have been an Indian captive, found his way to the ranches around old Fort Griffin. Since this young man could not satisfactorily explain his early life history, some of the frontier citizens began to surmise that perhaps he was the long lost Ledbetter boy. The news reached Mr. and Mrs. Ledbetter, who came at once to ascertain whether or not their long lost son had at last been found. Mrs. Ledbetter, who was almost blind, felt a scar on this young fellow's head, and since John had a similar scar when he mysteriously disappeared, she thought this was her boy. Mr. Ledbetter, however, was not sure. In fact he said it was not his son. He further stated there was no family resemblance, and insufficient proof to disclose this was John. But since Mrs. Ledbetter had been grieved so many years, to satisfy her during declining days, Mr. Ledbetter, in a measure, acknowledged him to be his lost boy. But neither he nor his son Harve sincerely felt that John Ledbetter had really been found.

    About the time, or shortly after Mr. Ledbetter died, this mysterious fellow wrote back that he was not John Ledbetter, and his real name was F.W. Wesley.

    This fellow Wesley has, since, been a minister of the Gospel, practiced medicine, and it was also reported he practiced law. As further evidence that this was not really John Ledbetter, when the estate was divided, F.W. Wesley received no part. Nevertheless, there are people living today, of the opinion that this mysterious fellow is really the long lost Ledbetter boy. Others have surmised, although we so not quote it as a fact, that this mysterious F.W. Wesley was hired to play this particular role, merely to please Mrs. Ledbetter, who had yearned so many years for her long lost boy. Nevertheless, the mysterious disappearance of John Ledbetter is today, as mystifying and bewildering as it was when he first disappeared. Did he wander away and perish in the wastelands of Western Texas? Was he carried into captivity by the Comanches and Kiowas, who lived in the wilds of the Northwest? These questions cannot be answered, for no one knows.

    Note: Author interviewed: Mrs. J.C. Lynch, who was getting supper when John Ledbetter disappeared, Harve L. Ledbetter, John's brother, who was at the ranch at the time. Also interviewed, Mrs. Wm. Cain, and Mrs. C.E. Ferguson, daughters of Geo. Hazlewood, J.B. (Bud) Matthews, W.D. Reynolds, Mrs. Pete Harris, and several others who were living in Shackleford, Stephens and adjoining counties at the time.

The above story is from the book, The West Texas Frontier, by Joseph Carroll McConnell.

From Ty Cashion's, A Texas Frontier:

Pioneers who "saw Indian sign" near the center of Shackelford County in 1867 believed that raiders were responsible for the disappearance of the Ledbetters' youngest son. The homesick boy, attending school at the Hubbard Creek ranch of J.C. Lynch, reportedly attempted to hazard the fifteen perilous miles to the salt works not long before a heavy rain. After the storm passed, W.H. Ledbetter and some cowboys scoured the countryside, but "the calls of the searchers," remarked a chronicler, "floated away and died on the dark night air."

[McConnell, West Texas Frontier II , no. 589; Biggers, Shackelford County Sketches , 54-55.]


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