My ancestors have been farmers for hundreds of years. While I find them fascinating, they are decidedly not “newsworthy.” This is why I was totally surprised to find that one time, my ancestors made national news. I wish they had a “feel-good” story that I could enjoy sharing with family and friends. Instead, the New York news magazine Harper’s Weekly reported on my ancestors after a terrible tragedy, “The Tragedy of Buck Island.”
The Rodens are from northern Alabama, where the Tennessee River flows through Marshall County. Before the Tennessee Valley Authority built Guntersville Dam in 1939, there were several small islands in the river. Each winter, farmers would drive their cattle onto these islands for protection from thieves and wild animals. My ancestor, Benjamin Roden, built a small cabin on Buck Island to provide shelter for the men who took turns staying there to guard the livestock.
The building of Guntersville Dam flooded the area, covering Buck Island in eight feet of water. In the twentieth century, industries began to appear in Marshall County. Today, the landscape looks nothing like it did when the Rodens were carving a living out of the Alabama soil a hundred and fifty years ago.
This is one of the reasons that the 1897 Harper’s Weekly article is so wonderful. The writer, John A. Wyeth, does a fantastic job describing the landscape just as it was in the mid-1800s, when my ancestors first came to the area.
Wyeth notes, “Just in this bend in the river is a group of islands…Buck Island is one of this cluster and contains about eighty acres of ground…. At the time of which I write, however, it was almost wholly covered with a heavy forest of tall oak, hickory and gum trees, of which the leafy tops shut out the rays of the summer sun while the soil from which they sprung was hidden in a wilderness of cane [he is referring to the native plant called American Bamboo] from ten to thirty feet in height and thick that in many places a man could not penetrate unless with an ax or hunting knife he cut his way… The farmers drove their cattle into these islands for winter pasturage, where upon the rich perennial cane they fattened until the freshets of spring forced them again to higher ground for safety.”
The storm of civil war, Wyeth explains, changed everything for farmers in northern Alabama. “It found a paradise of plenty and left it a wasted, blackened and desolate land. None but those who knew the fertile and beautiful ‘Valley of the Tennessee’ in the days of the old regime, when its hillsides were burdened with fruit and foliage… and then visited after Appomattox, can realize the great change which has transpired… Within a radius of thirty miles, Guntersville, Vienna, Woodville, Camden, Larkinsville, Bellefonte, Stevenson, Scottsboro and Claysville, all thriving towns, were wiped out by fire.”
Wythe explains that the poor farmers of this region were more concerned with feeding their children than maintaining the Union. They tried to keep out of the Confederate service because, “They held that it was a slaveholders’ war, and as they never owned and never expected to own a slave, they did not see why they should do any of the fighting.” From the records, it sounds like the Roden men were conscripted into the Confederate Army, but they were able to come home occasionally to tend the crops and livestock so that their entire livelihood would not be wiped out.
It was on one of these visits home that the Rodens ran into Ben Harris and his band of “cutthroats and marauders.” These were men who dodged Confederate service by hiding in the wilderness, sometimes spying or conducting guerrilla warfare unofficially on behalf of the Union. Led by Harris, the gang made a business of pillaging farms where the men had gone to fight in the war. Harris was from northern Alabama himself, so this was a more personal attack than any met on the battlefield.
The Harper’s Weekly article explains that in December 1863, James Roden and his neighbor, Charles Hardcastle, were on leave from the Confederate army to drive their livestock to winter pasurage. James and Charles agreed to make the journey to Buck Island together for added protection from cattle thieves. James, his son, Felix, and his brother, Porter, traveled with Hardcastle to Buck Island on December 23rd. The men knew that if they were caught, “they would in all probability share the fate of many others who had been killed by this murderer,” Harris.
A week after they settled in, James’s father, Benjamin Roden, came to relieve one of the men. Moments after he arrived at the camp, they were discovered by none other than Ben Harris, accompanied by a squadron of men in U.S. cavalry uniforms. (Research found these men were not Union soldiers, they probably stole these uniforms to keep warm in the winter.) Benjamin attempted to reason with the gang, but to no avail. Harris was growing wealthy thanks to his illegal activities, and he wanted no witnesses to haunt him after the war was over.
Charles, Benjamin, James, Porter, and Felix, were lined up on the bank of the Tennessee River and shot, execution style, their bodies tossed into the river. All four Roden men died on the spot, while Charles was wounded. He managed to cling to some driftwood and float away towards the distant shore. Freezing cold and weak from the loss of blood, he made his way to the nearby home of his brother-in-law where he stayed until he was well enough to return home.
News soon reached James’s wife, Mary. At that time, she was pregnant with James’s eleventh child. Imagine how she felt to discover that James and Felix were never coming home. I am descended from Mary’s daughter, Catherine, who was two years old when her father died. She never spoke of him to her grandchildren, and in that generation, the grandchildren weren’t allowed to ask or didn’t think to do so.
This execution-style killing of the Roden family is known as “The Buck Island Massacre,” in local history. It is mentioned on the granite Confederate Monument in front of the Marshall County Courthouse in Guntersville, Alabama.
The Harper’s Weekly was a surprising place to find my family history and it felt very personal in spite of being a national publication. I am still trying to figure out how to feel about an artistic rendering (Image 1) of my great-great-great-grandfather’s murder.
This is Week 7 of the “52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks” challenge. The prompt from Amy Johnson Crow was “An Unusual Source.”
Roden, C.W. “The Buck Island Massacre — A Roden Family History & Tragedy,” Southern Fried Common Sense. http://southernfriedcommonsense. blogspot.com/2015/03/the-buck-island-massacre-roden-family.html . Accessed 21 February 2021.
Wyeth, John A. In Harper’s Weekly, Vol. 41, p. 897–98. New York, NY: Harper’s Magazine Company, 1897. Read on Google Books https://books.google.com/ books?id=FEVaAAAAYAAJ. Accessed 20 February 2021.
Wyeth, John A. “The Tragedy of Buck Island,” The Progressive Farmer, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, 12 Oct 1897, p. 5, col. 2-4. Read on Newspapers.com https://www.newspapers.com/clip/4723731/the-tragedy-of-buck-islandcharles/. Accessed 20 February 2021.
Bean, Heather. “Grave Reminders,” 28 July 2017. Includes photos of the Roden Family Cemetery near Buck Island and a family photo of some of James Roden’s descendants.