Jane (Aunt Jenny) Brooks Johnston Family of the Byler Road
By: Rickey Butch Walker
Walker Mountain Folklore (October 1995)
According to The Legend of Aunt Jenny Brooks by Thomas C. Pettus, Jane Bates, daughter of the prominent Bates family of Walker and Jefferson Counties was born on January 22, 1826. She was one-half Cherokee Indian. At the young age of fourteen she married Willis Brooks at Jasper, Alabama.
Jane (Aunt Jenny) Bates Brooks and her husband, Willis, first appear in the Lawrence County Census records in 1850. At that time they had three children – John, five yeard old; Angeline, three years old; and Mack, two years old. Aunt Jenny and Willis had six other children: Amanda, 1850; Willis, Jr., 1853; Donna (Donie), 1855; Gainam, 1860; Henry, 1862; and Frances (Fannie), 1863.
According to Mr. Rayford Hyatt (noted historian of Bankhead Forest), about 1838, Willis and Jane Brooks bought 40 acres at the forks of Byler and Kinlock Roads from John W. Blackwell who had originally purchased the land in 1836. Mr. Blackwell eventually moved into Winston County and served two terms as probate judge from 1850-1851 and again from 1862-1865.
According to Old Land Records of Lawrence County by Margaret Cowart, Willis Brooks entered 120 acres of land in section 19 of township 8 south and range 9 west on October 22, 1855. Later, after marrying Jacob S. Johnston, Aunt Jenny entered an additional 80 acres of land in sections 18 and 19.
Prior to the Civil War, the closest neighbors of Willis and Jane were the David Hubbard family who owned a summer home at Kinlock. The Hubbard family also had black slaves that used the Hubbard name. They were evidently caretakers of David Hubbard’s home site and stayed in the forest at the conclusion of the Civil War. Many of the Hubbard blacks still call Lawrence County home. The William Hubbard home place was about one mile south of Aunt Jenny on Kinlock Road.
North of Aunt Jenny’s home place, about one-half mile, was the home of William McCanin. He owned some forty acres of land between the Byler Road and Bear Creek. His land joined the Brooks place.
Civil War Comes to Aunt Jenny
Things with the Brooks family and the area appeared to move along quite smoothly until the Civil War broke out. Wilderness life in the mountains was tough enough raising nine children without complicating matters with war; however, the problems of war were brought to the home of Willis and Jane Brooks.
Willis and Jane Brooks were like other mountain families who had to work hard and struggle to provide for their family. Even though they lived in one of the most beautiful areas of Bankhead Forest, conflicts of the Civil War brought death and destruction to their front yard. During the war, from 1861 to 1865, at least three groups of Federal troops passed along the Byler Road within a few feet of Aunt Jenny’s front door; however, the precise events that claimed the lives of Willis and John Brooks will probably never be known. The deaths of the Brooks men in 1864 caused turmoil and grief in Aunt Jenny’s home for many years to come. The deaths also caused a tremendous amount of speculation of several writers concerning the cause and effect on the remaining Brooks brothers.
Three versions of the fatal day in 1864 are told: in the first version, according to "Stars Fell on Alabama," Confederate soldiers, known as the home guard, were forcing men to join the army and take up arms against their northern brothers. Willis and his oldest son, John, resisted and fought to remain at home. Both Willis and John L. Brooks were probably shot and killed at home in front of their family.
The second version was printed in the April 3, 1924, issue of the Moulton Advertiser. Willis, who had been a soldier in the Mexican War, attempted to enlist with the South at the outbreak of the Civil War, but was refused because of his age. When the war came to North Alabama, he gained entrance and fought in numerous battles. Upon returning home, he learned his wife had been harassed by another man. Willis eventually killed the man, starting a feud with the dead man’s family, which lasted about sixty years. First, Willis Brooks was killed and later his son, John, was murdered and thrown into a sinkhole.
The third version, according to family legend, relates that Willis and his son were killed by Yankees, probably those in route to take the grain and meal stored at Kinlock. The Yankees were probably planning to destroy the grist mill at Kinlock, or anything in their path; however, fighting broke out resulting in the deaths of several Yankee soldiers.
After the Battle of Shiloh on April 6-7, 1862, Union forces were occupying places in northwest Alabama with guerrilla type warfare occurring along major routes such as the Byler Road through Bankhead Forest.
According to the "Annals of Northwest Alabama," in one such skirmish, a group of local citizens ambushed a foraging party detached by Colonel Able Streight (Commanding Officer of the 51st Indiana Regiment) near old Granada – Aunt Jenny’s home place. The ambushers poured a heavy volume of fire from both sides of the road into the ranks of the Federals, killing several men and driving the others off.
Aunt Jenny was said to have aided in the burial of the Federals. Some folks believe the Yankees were given descent burials in the black Hubbard cemetery at Kinlock.
It is very probably that Willis and John L. Brooks were killed while fighting the Yankees and trying to protect their loved ones, home, and property. In any event, all versions point to the fact that the result of the Civil War was either directly or indirectly responsible for the deaths of Aunt Jenny’s husband and son. Therefore, I believe that Willis and John were killed by Yankees, exactly as Aunt Jenny had described to her remaining children and others.
Death of the Brooks Boys
Some previous writers have portrayed the whole Brooks family as an outlaw gang. These authors try to justify isolated, and apparently unrelated, (to the deaths of Willis and John) acts of violence carried out by Aunt Jenny’s sons and grandsons as a continuing feud or as a gang related event.
I believe the Brooks brothers were brought up in a time of war and had trouble accepting the violent deaths of their daddy and older brother. These early problems carried over to the post-war period where violence was their answer, and in most cases the final solution.
Several events seemed to be connected with Bankhead’s most famous tragedy that was responsible for the death of Willis and John Brooks. Each version seems to confirm the following: the deaths of Willis and John was directly or indirectly related to the Civil War; several of Aunt Jenny’s outbuildings and probably her home were destroyed by fire; both men were shot to death; their death began a long period of violence and gunfighting for the younger Brooks boys and even some of the grandsons of Willis and Jane; and in the end, Aunt Jenny claimed "my sons died with their boots on."
Shortly after the death of Willis Brooks, Aunt Jenny married Jacob Stauder Johnston. Johnston who also had children, moved in and lived at Aunt Jenny’s home. In addition to raising her own nine children, Aunt Jenny accepted the responsibility of helping raise step-children as well as many of her own grandchildren. The famous lady of Bankhead was always there when her family was in need, and did all she could to help her neighbors and friends. She served as a midwife to an herb doctor and was on call 24 hours a day. Folks learned quickly, if she liked you, she would do anything she could for you, but if she disliked you, be very careful.
After the deaths of Willis and John Brooks, Mac was killed. Mack Brooks was born in 1843 and the events concerning his death unknown. He is listed in the 1870 Census; therefore, he was killed after 1870.
Aunt Jenny’s son, Gainam, was a noted crack shot and feared throughout the country. Gainam was shot and killed in a gunfight with the Hubbard blacks on April 12, 1884. The feeling among the black folks concerning the gunfight appeared to be "kill or get killed." At the young age of 24, Gainam was shot to death in the yard of William Hubbard, a black man. He was supposedly killed by Henry Hubbard, William’s son, with a breech-loading shotgun. That night most of the Hubbard blacks moved from the mountains with all eventually leaving Bankhead. All of the William Hubbard’s family moved to the North Courtland area of the valley in Lawrence County. Wash Hubbard’s family stayed on in the forest after the gunfight. All the black Hubbard’s have many descendants still living in the Courtland, Tharptown, and Haleyville areas of North Alabama.
After the gunfight with the Hubbards, Aunt Jenny’s remaining sons, at least one daughter, and some grandsons moved to Indian Territory in the west where gunfights continued to take their toll on the Brooks family.
Aunt Jenny’s son, Willis Jr., and her grandson, Clifton, were killed in September 1902, by the McFarlands at Spokogee, Indian Territory. Aunt Jenny’s grandson, John, was also shot through and through but survived. This was the second major confrontation the Brooks boys had with the McFarlands.
Sam Baker, who was supposedly Frances Brooks’ husband and Aunt Jenny’s son-in-law, first rode with the Brooks boys and later served as a deputy. Eventually, Sam, killed several notorious gunmen. Sam Baker was killed in October 1911 over an account with a businessman in Muskogee, Oklahoma.
In 1920, Aunt Jenny’s remaining son, Henry, was killed at his moonshine still located not far from his old Bankhead home place. Henry had one leg due to a previous gunfight wound which caused his leg to be amputated.
As many of our ancestors struggling to survive on mountain land, moonshine whiskey was made and sold as a means of survival. Making moonshine whiskey usually brought trouble with the law; however, in the case of Henry Brooks, the law brought a quick end to the trade. Even today, there is still speculation as to the manner Henry Brooks was gunned down.
Two other grandsons of Aunt Jenny, Carl and John Sammans, were charged with murder. Both Aunt Jenny and the heirs of her daughter, Donie Sammans, transferred some of their land in Bankhead to pay for Carl and John’s lawyer. Attorney R.L. Almon of Moulton conveyed the Brooks’ land to pay the attorney’s fees of John A Deweese in Denver, Colorado. Aunt Jenny’s grandsons were eventually acquitted of murder on February 25, 1922.
The Sammans brothers were the sons of Donie Brooks Sammans. Donie is listed on her tombstone at Poplar Springs as being born on October 18, 1848; however, census records show she was born in 1855. Donie died on January 1, 1905. Before her death, she was postmaster at Grenada from January 10, 1894 to March 25, 1903. The post office was in her home and was located across the road from her mother’s place – Aunt Jenny.
At Donie’s death her youngest daughter, Dora, was only eight years old. Dora moved in with her grandmother, Jenny, who was 80 years old at the time. Aunt Jenny was truly a remarkable woman who cared for her family through many years.
According to Dora’s son, Mr. Ottice Abbott, his mother lived with Aunt Jenny for some eight years. Ottice’s mother told him of having to get up at all hours of the night to milk the old cow. When Aunt Jenny or Dora heard the bell begin ringing, they would get up and milk before the cow wandered off. The cows roamed an open range and usually wore a neck collar and bell to aid in locating the animal. Dora Sammans married Ben Abbott when she was 16 years old and moved from Aunt Jenny’s home. Most of the Abbott family eventually moved to the Mt. Hope area.
During my visit to Mr. Abbott’s home, he and his cousin said, "People use to go to the mountains and have their fortune told by an old black man – Lawson Hubbard." Many of the Hubbard and Brooks descendants still call Lawrence County home.
In her latter years, Aunt Jenny donated two acres of land for a church, became a Christian, and joined a Missionary Baptist Church at Macedonia. When once questioned by a storekeeper about a large sum of money she carried she replied, "I pay myself twenty dollars a week just to tend to my own business." Aunt Jenny’s remarkable and colorful life continues to be a vital part of our beloved history of the "Warrior Mountains."
Aunt Jenny died on March 29, 1924.