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Silas Claiborne Turnbo (1844–1925)

Silas Claiborne Turnbo was a former Confederate soldier who spent much of his life collecting reminiscences of life in the Ozark Mountains. These tales are preserved in several archival institutions and provide important primary source information on the region.

Silas Turnbo was born on May 26, 1844, on Beaver Creek in Taney County, Missouri, one of eight children of the farming family of James C. Turnbo and Eliza Turnbo. By 1862, the family was living in Arkansas in Marion County, and the young Turnbo enlisted as a private in Company A, Twenty-Seventh Arkansas Infantry, in June 1862, at Yellville (Marion County). He rose to the rank of third sergeant in 1863 but resigned that rank on January 31, 1864, and served the remainder of the war as a private.

Turnbo married Mary Matilda Holt in 1865, and they had five children. Turnbo became interested in listening to the stories of older residents of the White River valley in the early 1870s and may have at that time started writing down what would become a voluminous collection of Ozark Mountain stories. Around the turn of the century, he became a regular correspondent of newspapers in Arkansas and Missouri that ran reminiscences of the region.

In 1902, Turnbo lost his 160-acre farm to foreclosure, and he and his wife moved into their daughter’s home in Pontiac, Missouri. For the next six years, he gathered more stories, some of which he published in 1904 in the first volume of Fireside Stories of the Early Days in the Ozarks, which he sold for fifty cents a copy; a second volume was published in 1907. He completed a third volume, never published, as well as a history of the Twenty-Seventh Arkansas Infantry Regiment that would not be published for another eighty-one years.

In 1905, Turnbo began a partnership with author and publisher William E. Connelly, hoping that the more successful author would assist him in publishing his stories, though he considered himself “nothing but a poor scribbler without means and education.” Turnbo’s health began to fail in 1907, exacerbated by a heat stroke he suffered in August near Oakland (Marion County). Beginning in 1908, Turnbo would split his time living with children and siblings at Pontiac and Protem, Missouri; Broken Arrow, Hadley, and Jenks, Oklahoma; and Montoya, New Mexico, sometimes accompanied by his wife. Turnbo also lived on occasion at the Missouri Confederate Home in Higginsville.

Turnbo had sent the majority of his voluminous but unorganized writings to Connelly in hopes that he would be able to edit and publish them. Connelly ultimately purchased the rights to all of Turnbo’s papers in 1913 for $27.50. Turnbo continued wandering throughout the Ozarks and collecting stories in his later years, ultimately dying in Broken Bow at age eighty on March 15, 1925; he is there buried next to Matilda in Park Grove Cemetery. The fate of the materials he gathered after the 1913 sale to Connelly is unknown.

Connelly died in 1930, and various handwritten and typed copies of Turnbo’s stories were sold. J. N. Heiskell, publisher of the Arkansas Gazette, acquired some of Turnbo’s papers, including a handwritten copy of the history of the Twenty-Seventh Arkansas Infantry, which were then placed in the archives of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Other Turnbo materials can be found in the Arkansas State Archives, in the University of Oklahoma archives in Norman, and at the Kansas State Historical Society. Perhaps the largest collection was acquired by the Springfield-Greene County Public Library in Missouri.

Desmond Walls Allen’s Arkansas Research, Inc., published Turnbo’s History of the Twenty-Seventh Arkansas Confederate Infantry in 1988 and published at least nine other collections of his stories, and the Springfield-Greene County Public Library electronically published some 800 of Turnbo’s stories. Though he never achieved widespread success in his lifetime, Turnbo left perhaps the most extensive collection of reminiscences and tall tales of the Ozarks region that survives today.

For additional information:
Allen, Desmond Walls, ed. History of the Twenty-Seventh Arkansas Confederate Infantry Conway, AR: Arkansas Research, 1988. 

Ingenthron, Elmo. “Silas Claborn [sic] Turnbo: An Early Historian of the Upper White River Valley.” White River Valley Historical Society Quarterly 4.1 (Fall 1970): 3–4.

Keefe, James F., and Lynn Morrow, eds. The White River Chronicles of Silas Turnbo. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1994.

Morrow, Lynn. “‘I am Nothing But a Poor Scribbler’: Silas Turnbo and His Writings.” White River Valley Historical Quarterly 10 (Spring 1991): 3–9.

“The Turnbo Manuscripts.” Springfield-Greene County Public Library. https://thelibrary.org/lochist/turnbo/ (accessed January 31, 2019).

Mark K. Christ
Little Rock, Arkansas

Last Updated 1/31/2019

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