Henry C. Gilliland

©2001 by Steve Green

The Victor Record Co. session in New York in June 1922 at which Eck Robertson made his landmark recording of "Sally Goodin" has become a legendary part of country music history. Robertson may claim some responsibility for getting oldtime fiddling in the record company catalogs and helping foster today's country music industry, but he was just a youngster at the time compared to his fiddling partner Henry Gilliland, a Confederate veteran and ex-Indian fighter from the Texas frontier. Today, most people who have heard of Gilliland know of him because his name appeared on  the record label for two tunes recorded with Eck Robertson, "Arkansas Traveller," and "Turkey in the Straw." But regionally, in his native Texas and in his adopted state of Oklahoma, Henry Gilliland was a renowned fiddler even in the 19th century. 

Born March 11, 1845 near Granby in Newton County, Missouri, Henry Clay Gilliland was only eight years old when his family began the long westward trek bound for the California gold fields. The family reached Sherman, Texas and spent the winter, continuing to Weatherford in Parker County in the fall of 1854. Henry's father died in 1855 which left his mother to cope alone with the hardships and perils of life on the unsettled frontier. The communities around the small settlement of Weatherford at that time were situated in hostile Comanche territory (Parker County was not officially incorporated until 1856), and Indian raids were a continual threat facing the white settlers in the area. In protecting his family and friends the young Henry Gilliland found himself involved in a number of skirmishes and narrow escapes that he later recounted in writing.  He educated himself by studying books by firelight after cutting brush all day. 

During the Civil War, Gilliland enlisted in the 2nd Texas Cavalry and later transferred to the 21st Infantry. The exact term of his service is unclear since he gave conflicting reports in two different pension applications. Most of his duties probably were related to guarding strategic posts along the Gulf Coast of Texas. During this time he suffered considerable exposure to the elements and hard conditions that left him crippled for the rest of his life.  Before enlisting however, Gilliland took advantage of having charge of his brother's fiddle while the younger Gilliland was away serving the Confederacy, and thus began his lifelong association with oldtime music.

Returning home after the War, the men of Parker County found that Indian depredations in the area had become more intense in their absence. The constant threat of Comanche raiding parties was justification for maintaining a force of armed citizens to ward off attacks, and Henry Gilliland ostensibly became a captain in a company of Texas Rangers. His memoirs recount several engagements with Indians, but Gilliland's service records for this time have not been found, so it's possible that his was an "unofficial" militia. 

Between Indian raids, Henry Gilliland farmed, married a Parker County girl named Susie Borden in 1869, and became expert with a fiddle and bow.  His musical services were requested for the house dances that were common throughout the countryside. According to Gilliland, there were no fiddle contests in old northwest Texas in the 1870s, so his playing was honed primarily for dances.

The few available sketches of Gilliland's life reveal little concerning the period 1870-1890. He is credited with helping establish the second Methodist church in Parker County in the early 1870s. Around 1876, he was freighting lumber between Sandy and Jacksboro where Fort Richardson was being built, and he also worked driving a team for a neighbor during that time. In 1881 and again in 1887, he served brief terms as postmaster in the small community of Carter, Texas near present day Weatherford. In 1888, he was elected District Clerk of Parker County.

A fiddle contest was held in Weatherford in July, 1900, and Henry Gilliland took top honors winning the $10 prize by playing "Apple Blossom" and "Wagoner." His high spirits were dashed when a few months later, his mother, who had moved to Indian Territory (Oklahoma) to live with a married daughter, passed away. Gilliland found himself overcome with a "strange melancholy" and he decided to pull up stakes in Texas and move to Oklahoma. Letters home to the Weatherford newspaper tell of the bewildering excitement and simultaneous uncertainty Gilliland had while participating in the great Oklahoma land rush of August, 1901 near Fort Sill. While he did ultimately make Oklahoma his new home, he returned frequently to visit friends and relatives in Texas and also to play his fiddle.

In the spring of 1901, the United Confederate Veterans in Fort Worth inaugurated a  fiddle contest, and Gilliland found himself fiddling against stiff competition including Jesse Roberts, Polk Harris, J. C. Miller, Moses Bonner, and fifteen other contestants. Not only did Gilliland win first prize (a gold watch) but he also won prizes for the best rendering of "Dixie" and "Arkansas Traveler." The enthusiasm generated by the event caused the participant fiddlers to form The Old Fiddlers Association of Texas on the spot— the minutes of the "meeting" being prepared and submitted to the Fort Worth newspaper by the newly appointed secretary-treasurer, Henry Gilliland. M. J. Bonner was elected President of the organization.

Fiddle contests became ever more popular throughout Texas and Oklahoma and Gilliland began an avid participation that he kept up for the rest of his life. His successes were numerous and his reputation spread widely as one of the best fiddlers in the region.    Gilliland frequently visited M. J. Bonner in Fort Worth where they both provided fiddling entertainments for the Sunday afternoon meetings of the Confederate Veterans camp. An avid member of the UCV in Oklahoma, Gilliland served several years as Adjutant of the local camp in Altus. He was also a Justice of the Peace there for many years.

Gilliland's wife, Susan, died in 1913 but shortly afterward, while visiting friends, Henry was invited by his hosts to play his fiddle for an anonymous friend over the telephone.  He obliged by playing "Sallie Johnson." The anonymous party at the other end of the wire turned out to be an attractive widow, Mollie Aldridge, and eventually she and Gilliland were married. Although younger than Henry by twenty-six years, this second wife passed away only three years later. Gilliland spent his final years fighting his life's "battles" alone, either on the fiddle contest platform or in his memories of earlier combats on the frontier. Henry Gilliland was not only a first class oldtime fiddler, he was a deeply spiritual person, and his writings, tempered with religious faith, reflect on a long life filled with hardship. 

In June, 1922, Gilliland and the much younger Eck Robertson, who were probably already well-acquainted, were both in attendance at the Confederate Reunion in Richmond, Virginia. The story of their legendary visit to the Victor Recording studios and their pioneering first recording is recounted elsewhere. It has been surmised by some historians that Gilliland played second fiddle to Eck's lead on "Arkansas Traveler" and "Turkey in the Straw," but given Gilliland's role in enabling the pair to visit New York (he had an acquaintance who hosted them during their stay), his seniority, his expertise on those tunes in particular, and the fact that his name appears first on the record labels all suggest that he was probably the lead fiddler.

While Eck Robertson began to actively pursue a career as a stage fiddler and recording artist, aging and crippled Henry Gilliland returned to his quiet life in Altus, Oklahoma. He died there in April, 1924 at the age of 79, and his funeral at the Altus Baptist church was reportedly one of the largest ever held in that community.  

Henry Gilliland ranks as one of the very earliest-born fiddle players to have left any sound recordings for posterity. It is a real pity that he was not able to record any solo numbers, for by all accounts Gilliland was one of the western South's foremost oldtime fiddlers and he would have helped us better understand the transition from a dance-oriented frontier tradition to the more stage-oriented tradition that has evolved into today's "Texas Style" contest fiddling.


[Gilliland wrote the following on August 14, 1920. Copied by Steve Green in 1998 from the Weatherford Daily Herald, August 19, 1920]


When the war between the states ended, and we returned to our wasted homes, we were glad to get a little of something to do in order to live.  The Yankees had a fort at Jacksboro, Texas which was called Fort Richardson.  I was employed by Marion Paterson to haul lumber from Sandy, about forty miles east of Jacksboro, to build Fort Richardson.  On one occasion, we started from Sandy with wagons loaded with lumber for Jacksboro, it was a beautiful morning in March, 1876.  We had three wagons, and four men in our crowd.  We had no horses and the Indians paid no attention to us.  Having traveled three or four miles that morning, we were overtaken by ten wagons, drawn by fine mules and there were twenty men who were well armed.  They were from Sherman and Denison and were loaded with [threshed oats] for the soldiers at Jacksboro. They appeared to be excited and came to me for council.  I was driving the front team and told them that they would fight Indians before they reached Jacksboro.  There was a long mountain extending [parallel] the road called Hog Eye mountain.  I told them that Indians were seeing them from this mountain and advised them to cross West Fork and go a short distance from the river and camp at a prairie hill south of the road and for them to [coral] their wagons and put their teams inside the [coral].  They moved out and left us and we went on until we reached the river and came into the road, hobbling our oxen and placing the bells on them and in a short time had our supper.  After we had played seven up until we were tired we fell asleep.  In a short time we could hear these men talking.  About 9 o’clock we heard the owl scream and knew it was Indians.  We took the lumber from my wagon and stood it up on edge at the sides and piled ox yokes up under the front wheels, and put our bed under the wagon and was there before the Indians came by our camp.  They were going to the mule camp  and we knew they were going to make battle.  The river was about 50 yards from our camp and when they crossed the river it sounded like there was 100 of them.  In about twenty minutes the battle opened and the Indians ran around and around the wagons.  The night was still, and the shooting and screaming of these Indians was terrible in the extreme.  They kept it up for five or ten minutes and then everything was still as death.  Some of my men said, “they are scalping our boys now.”  But I said, “No, they are whipped[”] and not a sound of any kind could be heard, except the ring of our ox bells.  In about twenty minutes the fight was resumed and it seemed more terrible this time than before.  It lasted about ten minutes and all was still again.  In a few minutes the Indians came back toward our camp, but when they reached the bank of the river they built up a fire north of the road and worked and talked for a full hour, then they came through the water which was about three feet deep and came on either side of where we lay, and we could see them plainly as they were a few feet from our wagons.  After they had got in behind the last wagon they sat and talked low for a few minutes and then gave a big yell and then left.  We lay there the rest of the night and when I awoke the birds were singing their sweetest song and our ox bells were busy ringing, the sun was peeping through the wheels of the wagon and I was not at all scared, so I slipped out from under the wagon and taking a pait of old hard boots poked them inside the wheel and began to shake the boots and I screamed like Indians.  Mr. Patterson jumped up, struck his head against the coupling pin and ran out, revolver in hand, and began cursing me.  I had no gun and had to take it.  The other boys got out and disarmed him, so peace was restored.  We wanted no breakfast and got our teams up and was soon rolling on for Jacksboro.  When we crossed the river, I wanted to stop long enough to see what they had done when they built the fire but none of my crowd would stop.  We went on out of the bottom and when we got in sight of the camp ground not a thing could we see of our freighters.  Their camp was 150 yards from the road, and none of my bunch wanted to go out and see but I stopped my team and told them if they would not go with me to drive around; they all went with me to the battle ground.  I have been used to battle grounds all my life, but this was the worst I ever have seen.  The ground was covered with arrows and they had run around the wagon so often that they had a big road beaten out.  We went on to Jacksboro and when we were in a few hundred yards we could see the oat haulers standing in a group, guns in hand.  They came in a run and gathered me in their arms like I was a babe and in a short time I was very drunk.  They said that my advice to them had saved their lives and their teams.  Their wagons were badly shot up and one mule had been shot in the top of the head and not a man was hurt.  I was working for $20 a month and they offered me $40 to go with them to Grayson county and remain with them in the future, but I had a widowed mother in Parker county to support and did not accept.  I went to Mr. Patterson and told him that I would work for him no longer and he begged me to stay on, but I refused.  I then hired to Uncle Sam Shadle and drove a team for him.

August 14, 1920



[In 1899, Henry Gilliland applied for a Confederate pension.  His application (No. 3346) is on file at the Texas State Library and Archives in Austin.  The application was rejected, a verdict which seems harsh considering the answers that Gilliland wrote.  The application paints a picture of a man who is crippled as a result of his military service; who cannot earn a living; who has only some poor rocky land, a wagon, and a gun to his name; who describes his physical condition as “exceedingly bad;” and who claims that he is in indigent circumstances.  On the outside fold of the application is a bold black “R” for “rejected” and scribbled on an adjacent flap are the words “too much land.”  Thus Gilliland’s total holdings of 111 acres was considered too plentiful inspite of its value at $2.50 an acre.  Following his rejection in Texas in 1899, Gilliland pulled up stakes in 1901 and moved to Oklahoma, seeking land in the land rush that took place that year.  Below is transcribed the Texas Confederate application.  Although it was rejected, Gilliland reapplied in Oklahoma and was approved there.]





To the Honorable County Judge of ParkerCounty, Texas.

            Your petitioner, Henry C, Gilliland respectfully represents that he is a resident of Parker County, in the State of Texas, and that he makes this application for the purpose of obtaining a pension under the act passed by the Twenty-sixth Legislature of the State of Texas, and approved May 12, A. D., 1899, the same being an act entitled “An act to carry into effect the amendment to the Constitution of the State of Texas, providing that aid may be granted to disabled and dependent Confederate soldiers, sailors, and their widows under certain conditions, and to make an appropriation therefor,” and I do solemnly swear that the answers I have given to the following questions are true.

NOTE — Applicant must make answer to all of the following questions, and such answers must be written out plainly in ink.

Q.  What is your name?  Answer  Henry C. Gilliland

Q.  What is your age?  Answer  Fifty Four Years

Q.  In what County do you reside?  Answer  Parker

Q.  How long have you resided in said County and what is your post office address?  Answer  Forty Four Years,  Carter, Parker Co., Texas

Q.  Have you applied for a pension under the Confederate Pension Law heretofore, and been rejected?  If so state when and where.  Answer  I have not Applied before

Q.  What is your occupation if able to engage in one?  Answer  Farming but not now able by reason of Physical disability, resulting from lameness in right leg and hip

Q.  What is your physical condition?  Answer  Exceedingly bad

Q.  If your physical condition is such that you are unable by your own labor to earn a support, state what caused such disability.  Answer  Exposure and doing heavy patrol duty guarding the Gulf Coast of Texas while in actual service in the Confederate army

Q.  State in what company and regiment you enlisted in the Confederate army, and the time of your service?  Answer  Company H  2nd Regt Texas Cavalry Twenty Five months

Q.  If you served in the Confederate navy state when and where, and the time of your service.  Answer  Never served in Navy

Q.  State whether or not you have received any pension or veteran donation land certificate under any previous law, and if you answer in the afirmative state what pension or veteran donation land certificate you have received.  Answer  Have received nothing whatever

Q.  What real and personal property do you now own, and what is the present value of such property?  Give list of such property and value.  Answer  111 acres prairie land @ 2.50 per acre $277.50  1 wagon $25.00  One gun $10  Total valuation of property $312.50  Situate 11 1/2 miles north west from Weatherford Texas, about fity acres of the land is in cultivation, but it is all very poor rocky land

Q.  What property, and what was the value thereof have you sold or conveyed within two years prior to the date of this application?  Answer  none whatever

Q.  What income, if any, do you receive?  Answer  I have no income

Q.  Are you in indigent circumstances; that is, are you in actual want, and destitute of property and means of subsistence?  Answer  I am

Q.  Are you unable by your labor to earn a support?  Answer  I am

Q.  Have you transferred to others any property of value of any kind for the purpose of becoming a beneficiary under this law?  Answer  I have not

Q.  Did you ever desert the Confederacy?  Answer  I did not

Q.  Have you been continuously since the first day of January, 1880, a bona fide resident of this State?  Answer  I have

            Wherefore your petitioner prays that his application for pension be approved and that such other proceedings be had in the premises as are required by law.

                                    (Signature of Applicant)  Henry C. Gilliland

            Sworn to and subscribed before me this 15  day of  July  A. D.  1899

                                                                        J N Roach [?]
                                                            County Judge  Parker  County, Texas



[copied 1998 by Steve Green from Grace, Jonathan S. and R. B. Jones.  A New History of Parker County. (Later edition copyright 1987 by the Parker County Historical Commission).]

The subject of this sketch was born March 11, 1845, in Newton county Mo., at what is now known as Granby.  My mother discovered the first lead ore found on the celebrated lead mines at that place, which was in the year 1849.  My father moved from Newton county to Independence, Jackson county, and from that point started on the long overland trip to the gold fields of California, Sept. 1853.  On reaching Sherman [Texas], we halted and passed the winter and the following autumn, Sept. 3 1854, took up a pre-emption claim 5 miles north of the present city of Weatherford.  At this place my father, J. C. Gilliland, Sr., died, February 14, 1855, which left my widowed mother in a strange and unsettled county with a family of eight orphan children to rear.  It was two years from the date of our arrival in the new country before it was organized; and the thrilling incidents that attended my citizenship in that county which embraced a period of forty seven years one month and four days, would fill a large volume, but we forbear going into details, and will give only a few incidents.  Suffice it to say that as my mother, brothers and sisters died, or moved away, together with others of my acquaintances, a strange melancholy took possession of my nature, and in order to lessen the sorrows of time’s ravage, on October 7th 1900, I sold out and moved to Oklahoma, where I now live.

It was indeed a trying ordeal to turn my back upon the scenes of my early childhood, for, not withstanding the many hardships and tribulations we encountered, yet there were many pleasantries associated with the lives of those who fought back the red men and opened up the possibilities for a better civilization.  In the early settlement of Parker county, as is the case in all new counties, educational facilities were extremely meager; in fact, if we learned to “read, write and cipher,” we had it to do at home; which brings to mind very forcibly the lines from Gray:

            Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
            The dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear;
            Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
            And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

There are many educated people of today who may read those lines and fail to comprehend the great depth of thought therein contained.
The lives of the early settlers were spent in hard living and continual dread, from 1858 to 1874.  That space of sixteen years seemed to me longer than all the remaining thirty one years of my life in Parker county.  At this juncture, I desire to say that if any pioneer of Parker county can truthfully say that he has seen more hardships and witnessed more heart-rending brutalities perpetrated by the Indians in Parker county than I have, then I suggest that we meet and write a history, the sale of which would make us both rich in a few years.


[The following letter written by Henry Gilliland was sent from Oklahoma to the newspaper in Parker county, Texas.  Copied in 1998 by Steve Green from the Weatherford Weekly Herald, Thursday, 25 July, 1901]


As Seen By a Parker Countyite
Who Longs To Breathe Free
Air Again.


Editor HERALD:

We are 25 miles from Fort Sill, which is headquarters for the great distribution of lands, to be alloted after the registration of applicants.  We understand that our crowd of seven are not all who desire homes in this garden spot of the world, as there are several thousand already registered.  We are in sight of the “promised land,” but like the Children of Israel we will hardly inherit any part thereof.  We will drive in tomorrow (Sunday) and try our luck Monday.  I am seated on a bale of hay trying to write but there is so much wagon racket and general excitement among this moving mass of humanity that we cannot keep on the subject.  We counted the wagons we met today and at this hour, 6:30 p.m., have met 113 wagons homeward bound and they are still passing in droves.  There is much controversy among the people with regard to the plan of drawing Aug. 6th, and not withstanding President McKinley’s proclamation is very plain, yet every man has his opinion and hardly any two agree.  Some have marked or staked out their future homes and burned off the grass.  As for your humble servant, I make no calculations on being among the lucky members.  I never got but one thing I drew for and I must tell you about that, viz.: Years ago, I, with a dozen other buffalo hunters, was encamped one mile from water near the head of Big Wichita River; we drew straws that night for who should go for a bucket of water and I was the lucky boy who got the “long straw” and had to go for the water.

This is the best country I have ever seen for the poor man to get rich farming.  The land is as rich as the richest, the grass is like a meadow, with creeks and springs of pure water all over the land, the cattle and horses are fat and fine, timber is limited, there is no rock or waste land.

We have suffered from dust and heat, having been on the road five days.  Our bill of fare consists of black coffee, light bread, swine bosom (feminine gender) with large weeping onions, a meal of this kind mixed with black sand and July sunshine, is enough to make a fellow wish he was seated under one of the many electric fans at Weatherford, bathing his parching tongue with ice cream.
They say that the people of this country are extremely gritty, for a man can’t eat without insulting his gastric economy with more or less sand.  Will say in conclusion that while I think this is a great, grand and fertile country, yet I believe I can somehow worry along in old Parker.  In fact I never know how to measure the advantages of my native home until I have visited other countries and paid old time war prices for the cold, clammy friendship so often purchased among strangers.  You may say to the readers of the HERALD that I, for one, will not apply sackcloth and ashes if I don’t get any “Injun land.” 


LATER:— Fort Sill, July 21.
We arrived here today, and found the country covered with people and dust.  If there were four circus shows combined at Weatherford it would be as silent as death compared with the bustle and noise of this place.  I will not attempt to describe it but must say that this is the finest land I have ever seen.  The grass is fully a foot high and as green as a spring wheatfield.  The cattle are fat and much larger than the cattle of Texas.  In fact every specie of the animal kingdom looks to be one third larger than our home production; the “katy dids” are nearly as large as “humming birds” and the grasshoppers look almost strong enough to pull a “Georgia stock” with a twelve inch heel sweep.  If you will pardon me for this digression, I will close.

Hoping soon to be at home among my friends and breathing the free winds of old Parker.


Read Gilliland's memoirs in PDF format. This booklet, self-published in 1915, is exceedingly rare. The copy below was digitally prepared by Steve Green from a photocopy in the public library in Weatherford, Texas. Life and Battles of Henry C. Gilliland.

Battles with the Fiddle and Bow