18 September 2007

"Chatham Citizen Shot." (1908)

[Image of St. Leo's Hospital, Greensboro from the North Carolina Collection's North Carolina Postcards digital collection.]

What is the line that takes a man from "Citizen" to "Blockader"? Last week's post "Chatham Blockader Shot" told the violent story of the "noted blockader of Bear Creek township named John Cheek," who ran afoul of the sheriff of Moore County over 1500 gallons of illegal beer. Armed with a Winchester rifle, Cheek fired on the sheriff and his deputies; himself shot, he lay wounded under guard while the sheriff went for help.

A scamper six months ahead in the Chatham RECORD reveals no follow-up on the fate of John Cheek. But something does turn up from five years before. It raises some interesting questions about the blockader John Cheek (1908 July 29):
Chatham Citizen Shot.

From the Greensboro Record.

John Cheek, of the Bear Creek neighborhood, Chatham county, is a patient at St. Leo's Hospital suffering from a gunshot wound received at his home one night a week ago, his brother having mistaken him for a burglar and fired upon him, the load of buckshot taking effect in his thighs.

Mr. Cheek's residence had been robbed the night before and he and his half-grown brother were out in their yard watching to see if the burglar would return. After being on watch for several hours, Mr. Cheek handed a double-barrelled shotgun to his brother telling him he was going into another part of the yard and would return the same way. Instead of doing so he went around to the kitchen door and just as he reached it his brother blazed away, thinking he was a burglar.

His injuries are quite serious, but he is reported to be getting along very well and will probably be able to leave the hospital within in the next few weeks.

The account of the 1908 incident tells a lot about its own John Cheek in a few sentences. In a tense situation, he puts the weapon in his younger brother's hands, relays the plan, then botches it. For this mistake he gets the long bloody journey to Greensboro, and then a recovery. What does he think about as he lies in St. Leo's? Does he laugh for what a fool he was? Does the trauma harden his character?

Then, in 1913, a notorious criminal by the same name opens up on the sheriff and deputies at the site of his distillery. For this work he abandoned a wife and family back on the farm in Chatham. Did he die from his wounds in 1913? If he had, the RECORD would have mentioned it, and editor London taken the occasion to lecture on temperance and stronger laws against beer. But while his crimes in Moore County generate newspaper copy, they could also put a man on ice somewhere far away.

Knowing what we know, no one can blame the Rabbit for asking. Did the guy who was hit by buckshot as a young man, turn to the life of an outlaw? When cornered by the police, did the friendly-fire victim of five years before flash PTSD and open up with his Winchester?

The Rabbit confesses to blogging today with only fragments of evidence that neither indict nor clear 1908's John Cheek of brewing contraband beer and assaulting the police in 1913. I'll tell you a secret, rabbits occasionally take time to pursue other pleasures besides blogging, considerable though the latter be. See the postscript to this post for my research if you're interested in that kind of thing. But for now, certainty requires more -- a middle initial, a name for the brother, another exploit of the "noted blockader" in the RECORD.

And that's really the point of today's post. We can't know the answer to the questions that we have without digging deeper. But if you've read this far you must want to know. I do. These discoveries plot two points for a story to connect, and seeking and liking connections helps make me human, er rabbit. Our kind are weak for sweet story, the gooey nougat of narrative that makes for rich mind candy. I openly, actively, unabashedly root for the two John Cheeks to be the same guy. But I'll enjoy it best if I do everything in my power to prove they aren't.

History happens both inside and outside. At some levels it sweeps but at others it shuffles, and the little inducements lead to the critical moment that changes everything. We know that John Cheek the blockader lived outside the law. In one view he's a two-bit thug, dangerous when cornered, a hard man and a bad man. In another he's a soldier and a casualty in the War on Booze that culminates in Prohibition and the rise of gangster life in America. Which in turn feeds into the present-day global boondoggle called the War on Drugs, seems to the Rabbit.

In my original post I recommended the story to "action fans" and thereby reduced its violence to a cartoonish interpretation. A rabbit should respect more ... these are life and death affairs, not zany madcap adventures, no matter how arch the RECORD's coverage, or febrile the rabbit mind. Descendants of either John Cheek may live in these parts, and descendants of that notable family indeed do [see item B below for more on the Cheek family]. Stories don't have to be respectful but they can be. Despite last week's take on "Chicken Eats Flies" this is not some southern grotesque thing we're doing here. It's the story of the place where we live and it's complicated.


Just for fun, let's list the pertinent facts in these two pieces, and consider how to follow up in the documentary sources. First of all, there's one main fact driving this post -- each incident involves a John Cheek of Bear Creek township. So beginning with a name a place and the dates around 1900 and 1910, census records might help to identify possible John Cheeks.

Next, the main points from the 1908 piece. 1) The incident occurred at "Mr. Cheek's residence." The phrasing strongly implies that Mr. Cheek lives as head of a household, but does it also suggest that he owns the land? Here consult land records as well as census. 2) His "half-grown brother" shot him. Seek any evidence showing a John Cheek with a brother "half-grown" in 1908. 3) Cheek received treatment in St. Leo's Hospital, which is in Greensboro. These days hospitals notify police when treating gunshot wounds. Was the same true in 1908? Did the police take a report?

Finally, from the 1913 piece. 1) He was a "noted blockader" and "a fugitive from justice." So the RECORD may yield more about his exploits 1909-1911, and a rap sheet might turn up in the criminal records. 2) He operated in Moore County, so look for connections there. 3) He "abandoned his wife and family", so consult marriage records and keep an eye out for wives and children in the record. 4) He "owned a very good farm," which takes us back to the deed books.

Having no ready access to census records right now, I've pursued fewer of these avenues than I'd like. And as a rule, the directive "Ask Some People" always holds; of course oral history could probably do as much for this inquiry as anything. But there follow a few follow-ups.

A) I consulted Cemetery Census, which is a remarkable resource if you don't know about it. Great care goes into the extensive listing of names, dates and inscriptions from cemeteries around Chatham County. It goes without saying that I can't vouch 100% for the accuracy of data from an online source, but it must be very close to exhaustive, and it's highly usable. Listings there show that there could have been multiple men named John Cheek active in Bear Creek for several generations, including the period in question. Somehow, the inscription "noted blockader" doesn't appear on any headstones. In short, the cemetery listings do support the possibility that the 1908 and 1913 John Cheeks are entirely different John Cheeks.

B) As to the connections to Moore County, they exist in number. The name of Cheek is a very old and distinguished one in both Bear Creek and Moore County. Cheeks took land grants along the Deep River in Moore and Chatham; they stood and fought as Regulators; and they propagated and prospered throughout the counties of Moore, Chatham, Orange, and elsewhere. See this extremely well-researched genealogy web site for some of the big picture, and this page of it for an example of a John G. Cheek (1801-1892) who migrated to Chatham County and lies with his wife Jane in an eponymous cemetery in Bear Creek. Chatham Deed Book AD 276-277 [pdf's] also designates a "John Cheek of the County of Moore" who acquires land on Tyson's Creek that had been granted to Robert Cheek. This John Cheek may be a grandson of Robert Cheek of Moore County; see here under "2. Richard CHEEK". A John Cheek with the dates 1811-1897 lies at Bear Creek Baptist Church.

To stress again the prominence of the Cheek family in the county, I'll add that Chatham County 1771-1971 lists "J.D. Cheek" among the founding members of Siler City Mason's lodge No. 403 [p. 314]; a J.D. Cheek (1826-1912) is buried at Brush Creek Baptist Church in Bear Creek township, and a Mason's insignia adorns his headstone. A Mason insignia likewise marks the grave of Joe J. Cheek (1870-1928), who lies at Bear Creek Baptist Church.

C) A deeds search turns up of a handful of John Cheeks buying land in Bear Creek at varying rates and amounts in the relevant time frame. Again, nowhere does the text solve our problems by referring to any of them as a "notable blockader".

D) Legal actions would have fallen under the jurisdiction of Moore County, though records may exist.

E) I don't have the Chatham RECORD from 1909-1911 but this story has convinced me to fill the gaps on my next visit the NCC Microfilm Collection. More stories could turn up on the "noted blockader" and other intriguing topics. Let's just say John Cheek has become a person of interest in the Rabbit's pantheon.

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