Life and times of Clifton Branham, part 2

Jadon Gibson

In the weeks leading up to the hanging of Clifton Branham in Wise, Va., in 1903, the doomed man spent hours writing about his life.

Clifton was born on Cabin Branch in Letcher County, Ky., in 1861.

“It was the year the Civil War broke out that I was born,” Clifton wrote. “Two of my brothers were in the war. My father was a farmer but when the war came along it got him into it too. He was captured and taken to Camp Chase. He was kept there until the end of the war.”

When the war began Mahalia Branham took the remainder of her family, two sons and four daughters, to Pike County, Ky. She thought it was a safer place to live.

“My mother had it real hard in the war,” Clifton declared. “She had all the chores at home, too many, and she also had to take in work or do chores for others. She was trying to keep us all together. It kept her away from home a lot.”

They were living on the north side of Cumberland Mountain, near Elkhorn Creek, when the war ended.

“When my father came back after the war he looked so skinny, so bad, my mother couldn’t recognize him,” Branham wrote in his memoirs. “Finally when she did recognize him she became the happiest I ever saw her. They had a happy meeting.”

This picture is indicative of many of the returning Civil War prisoners following the war. Branham’s mother could hardly recognize Clifton’s father when he returned.

During the next few years, one by one, Clifton’s siblings left home. As he grew up he developed a keen interest in hunting. Game was plentiful and he spent many enjoyable hours in the wilds.

His family moved to an even more isolated area, named Beef Hide, and later his father bought property and built a cabin on Owl Branch.

“I was twelve years old,” Clifton recalled. “Me and Dad worked all week long and then on Saturday afternoon we would both go squirrel hunting. I had a good time growing up. I was so happy as my little feet roamed through the mountains but something terrible happened. My father started abusing me. I couldn’t understand it at first. He wasn’t treating me right. I lay on my straw-tick (bedroll) at night and wondered what to do. I had to do something.

“I finally decided to run away from home because daddy just wasn’t treating me right. I decided I would go to Johnson County, Ky., where a brother and two sisters lived. That was eighty or ninety miles away and I was only 12 years old.

“I just left early one morning without a word. Everything was alright until nightfall when I stopped at a cabin and asked if I could stay the night. They turned me away. There were mighty few houses on the wagon road and by the time I reached the next house it was dark and raining.

“I called to the man of the house and he came to the door. ‘What do you want,’ he asked. When I told him I wanted to stay the night with him until morning, he slammed the door without giving me a word.”

By this time it had become very dark and Clifton could barely see his way.

“I walked ahead slowly as best as I could,” Clifton penned. “At last I came to a barn and I climbed way up into the loft and slept there all night.”

The rain was pouring the next morning but Clifton knew he had to move on. It rained until the creek was out of its banks and he had to wade until he came to a place where there was a makeshift bridge made from two logs stretched across the swollen creek.

He shivered from the wet cold but after a long while Clifton came to another house. His halloo brought a young boy to the door.

“I fell in the creek and I’m almost frozen to death,” Clifton exclaimed through chattering teeth. Every stitch he had was soaked. “The boy’s father appeared from within the dark cabin and said ‘come in boy’ in a friendly voice. The old man was throwing wood on the fire when Clifton went in.

“He began stoking the fire,” Clifton wrote. I looked to my right and could see they had been eating breakfast. I don’t know what I wanted more, to warm by the fire or to eat, that is if I had a choice. He had me sit and warm by the fire after wrapping a heavy quilt over my shoulders. After a while he told Clifton to sit down with them and have breakfast.

“I told him I had no money,” Clifton wrote. “He said ‘that makes no difference.’ I ate breakfast and stayed until I was dry. He then told me the way to go on my journey and, before nighttime came, I arrived at the home of one of my brothers. Eighty miles through rain and swollen creeks, I made it in in two days. I was just 12 years old.”

Editor’s note: Clifton meets his future wife in the next segment. Jadon Gibson is a widely read Appalachian writer from Harrogate, TN. His writings are both historical and nostalgic in nature and can be read regularly at Don’t miss a single issue!

A Voice for God – a voice for good

My good Lord in Heaven has been so good to me. I had surgery at Tennova Regional in Knoxville on April 16th. We had to be there at 5 a.m to prep for my 7 a.m. surgery.

We elected to stay at Knoxville Downtown Holiday Inn so we wouldn’t have to arise early and then drive to Tennova. Good idea huh? Well yes except several blocks of Broadway were undergoing construction at the time and Broadway was our route to get us where we were going.

It can be difficult finding your way in a fairly large city on a dark morning. We tried to get directions but the road closure had others confused as well. We started our trek but each time we neared Broadway we were blocked.

We saw a service station at about 4:40 a.m. so I parked in front and started to go inside as the workers usually have a pretty good idea about important sites such as hospitals in their area.

Although it was open it was dimly lit and there were three questionable individuals on the outside. Two were to our immediate right on the sidewalk and the other half way behind a garbage can which was positioned near the front door.

Once I began to take a step toward the front door I saw that the two individuals to my right were approaching. The other began moving around the garbage can. I became uneasy. Something in my mind or from the good Lord above told me to be wary. I immediately glanced back to my wife in the front seat of the car and she motioned for me to get back inside. Likewise she felt it may be a possible setup. We locked the car doors and exited the station area.

Several times through the years I’ve read of situations such as this ending with terrible results.

But not this time and after just a few minutes we saw an indication which gave us our bearings. We arrived at the hospital at exactly 5 a.m., our check in time.

My good Lord in heaven has been so good to me. Pray for the Lord to watch over you and your loved ones. He’ll help you to be conscious of your surroundings.

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