John Tarleton's Various Gravesites
By Frank Chamberlain
After his death in 1895, John Tarleton’s body has found little peace. His remains have been interred in three different locations in two different counties since his demise. It seems almost ironic that a man who is known to have resided in at least six places across America (and most likely, several more) would find as little permanence in death as he found in life.
Tarleton was originally buried in the Pisque cemetery in the town of Patillo in northern Erath County. Some researchers have asserted that his burial in this location, violated the wishes of the deceased. An acquaintance recalled that Tarleton once stated his desire to be laid to rest on his own property. However, he did not leave specific instructions in his will regarding his entombment, except to “ be buried in a decent and Christian like manner suitable to my circumstances and conditions in life.” Therefore, the body was interred in a cemetery near his property on the border of Erath and Palo Pinto Counties (King 13, 16).
The second phase of Tarleton’s post-mortem travels was initiated barely a year after he was originally buried. J.C. George, Tarleton’s former attorney, began a movement to transfer the corpse to the newly established college in Stephenville. In 1898, George’s plans reached fruition as the founder was moved to the campus. The process involved transferring the casket into an iron-lined box for the journey. The four men hired to carry out the task recounted that the body could be viewed via a window on the casket. They remarked that the founder’s face remained in excellent condition considering the length of time Tarleton had been deceased (Guthrie 12, King 17).
Tarleton was re-interred on the grounds of the original Campus Hall which sat in present-day Heritage Park. A fifteen-foot granite obelisk was erected at some point over the next decade to mark the grave. The actual date that the marker was acquired is not clear, but a 1902 picture of the first Founder’s Day celebration features the monument. This large tombstone was largely devoid of text; instead it was inscribed simply with the words “John Tarleton.” Incidentally, Mr. George was so impressed by the majesty of his client’s monument that he made arrangements to be buried beneath an identical marker (although he sold it to a local family prior to his departure form Stephenville) (Guthrie 12, 18-19).
Tarleton’s grave remained at this location even after the Campus Hall was demolished. In 1928, plans were made to build a new auditorium on the site. Thus, the body had to be exhumed once again. This second removal did not proceed as smoothly as the first (Guthrie 12).
According to one report, Tarleton’s coffin fell apart as it was raised, spilling the remains back into the hole. Since the removal was being done at night (to avoid attracting a crowd), a replacement coffin could not be found. Therefore, an onlooker went home and retrieved a shoebox-sized receptacle. The remnants of John Tarleton were scooped into this box for the reburial. In a slightly different version of the story, the participants realized that the coffin was too rotten to be moved. They sent for the aforementioned container and shoveled in as much of the now exposed remains as possible. On an odd side note, a rumor had circulated during the proceeding days that claimed the grave was empty. However, the subsequent turn of events proved this report to be rather erroneous. In either case, these proceedings represent a rather undignified twist in the journey of Tarleton’s body (Guthrie 13, King 19).
John Tarleton was re-interred in Tarleton Park, a small triangular island of land at the intersection of Washington and Lillian Streets. The large tombstone was also transferred to this location. In 1976, a campaign was initiated to secure a Texas State Historical Marker for the site. Due to the numerous uncertainties concerning Tarleton’s personal background (such as date and place of birth), the plaque was not received until 1986. Both the monument and historical marker can still be seen at John Tarleton’s current (and presumably final) resting place (Guthrie 12, King 19).
Guthrie, Christopher. John Tarleton and his Legacy: The History of Tarleton State University, 1899-1999. Acton, MA: Tapestry Press, 1999.
King, C. Richard. The John Tarleton College Story: Golden Days of Purple and White. Austin, TX: Eakin Press, 1998.