Henrietta Taggart (1842–1915)
On a February morning in 1878, two years after moving to Dallas with her husband and two small daughters, an exhausted Henrietta “Hattie” McCoy Taggart sat down by the fire to write to her mother back home in Indiana:
Oh, Mother, this is a weary dreary world … I have lost so much sleep that it seems I can’t sleep even when I have the chance.
Hattie’s girls — Cora, 5, and Laura, 6 — had been sick for nearly four weeks, Hattie was pregnant with son George, and husband Will was away working in Austin. Aunt Eliza, bedridden with typhoid fever for most of November, had been lending a hand, the two women nursing the children night and day.
While the girls napped, Hattie allowed herself the comfort of confiding in her widowed mother. Cora’s fever had broken, she wrote, but she almost coughs her little life away day and night. Laura, she added, was doing less well.
I fear for her all the time, she is not near so stout as Cora and now that the whooping cough has set in full force upon her, it seems more than she is able to get through with. She has been whooping for more than a week and from the first has had a considerable fever, difficulty of breathing especially at night, no appetite whatever…
…Poor little thing, she moans when she is asleep all the time, so pitiful. It makes my heart ache to hear her. Oh Mother, it seems I could never be reconciled to bury them here and Oh I cannot bear the idea of parting with one of them.
Hattie did not lose her little girls: They survived to become gray-haired ladies. As did their mother, whose change in hair color may have been accelerated by fears for her family, as well as an assault on her senses in those early days in Dallas.
Founded when Hattie was one year old, Dallas was a raw Western town of about 5,000 when she left Indiana in 1876. Educated at the Female Academy of Charlestown (Indiana) and the Female College in Shelbyville, Kentucky, Hattie was teaching art at Franklin College, a private liberal arts school still in existence, just before she headed west.
Clearly accustomed to more refined settings, Hattie described her new home’s rougher edges in her letters to her mother. She mentioned navigating impassably muddy streets onto which inebriated men sometimes tumbled from their horses; she wrote about watching from her window as great loads of buffalo hides made their way into town.
She also shared what continues to be a recognizable truth about Texas: I never saw such a climate for sudden changes, Hattie wrote in October 1877. One day it will be so warm you can hardly keep your clothes on, the next will be cold enough for overcoats and shawls.
And, in August, she understandably complained, the mosquitoes are eating me up.
Family and financial hardship are what lured Hattie and Will Taggart to Dallas. Hurt by the economic depression of 1873–1877, they left their Indiana farm to join family already settled in Dallas. That included one of the true pioneers of the city, John Calvin McCoy, Hattie’s uncle.
McCoy, an Indiana surveyor and lawyer, signed on in 1845 as a sub-agent with the Peters Colony, whose mission was to bring settlers to North Texas. Upon his arrival in Dallas, he made his way to founder John Neely Bryan’s log cabin. McCoy soon resigned his position with the Peters Colony, choosing instead to practice law. In 1849, he built his law office, the first frame building in Dallas. He subsequently served as the city’s first district clerk and as district attorney; he also was elected to the state legislature.
Although there wasn’t much to recommend the city at the time — a visitor in 1867 described it as “a few businesses clustered about the courthouse” — McCoy convinced his nephew, John Milton McCoy, Hattie’s brother, to leave Indiana in 1870 and join his Dallas law practice. In 1874, Hattie and her family arrived; Aunt Eliza (John C. McCoy’s sister) also came that year. Following in the 1880’s were Hattie’s mother and younger brother, William Addison “Addie” McCoy, a doctor.
It’s clear from Hattie’s letters that she longed to have her mother in Dallas. She wrote soon after her departure from Indiana that she worried about her mother being alone, liable at any time to be sick, with no one… to come in to see and wait upon you. I feel so uneasy about you that if it was not for Will and scarcity of money, I would just jump on the cars with the children and come home and spend the winter with you.
Soon enough, money was not as scarce. Having left behind farming for better opportunities in Dallas, Will at first worked in a small grocery store and in a wagon yard, studying bookkeeping to advance himself. During his months-long stay in Austin when his girls were ill, he prepared for a position as a bookkeeper with an agricultural firm, starting at $60 per month. For most of the 1880’s, he was employed as a bookkeeper for a harvesting machinery company.
Will’s advancement validated the couple’s decision to make Dallas their home. As early as 1877, Hattie described its energy to her mother:
(I see) great loads of cotton constantly coming in and business seems (to be) brisk. I wish you and Addie were living here and we could all be together. Dallas is a lively place. I never step out on any of the business streets without seeing some new building going up. It certainly is destined to be a great place in course of time…
Hattie’s optimism abut the future and the details she shared about her daily life — her attendance at a concert led by an eminent music teacher, her delight with the quality of the watermelons and sweet potatoes, and her excitement at learning to make hair flowers — all seemed designed to encourage her mother to make a move.
Hair flowers? A local woman taught Hattie the Victorian art of weaving strands of loved ones’ hair and fashioning them into jewelry and other decorative items. Although often associated with the dead (as in mourning jewelry), Hattie made a wreath of individual flowers representing each member of her family: She used her mother’s hair to fashion a white lily.
Eleven years after Hattie left Indiana, Rebecca Hester McCoy finally moved to Dallas in 1887, the same year family patriarch John C. McCoy died. Hattie put away her pen and paper, so we aren’t privy to how mother and daughter may have enjoyed their reunion. We do know Rebecca moved into her dead brother-in-law’s home (at the corner of Main Street and South Harwood) with his sister, Aunt Eliza.
We also know that Rebecca employed a housekeeper named Josie Vroom. Rebecca died in 1895, having given Hattie eight years to turn her mother into a Texan. Although it’s unlikely she ever called herself a Texan, let alone a Dallasite, Rebecca is buried in Dallas’s historic Oakland Cemetery, as are a multitude of other McCoy family members. Josie Vroom* is among them.
The McCoy responsible for making Texans of so many Hoosiers — John Calvin McCoy — rests in Oakland Cemetery’s lot #1, section 2. An impressive monument marks the spot. Fittingly, John Milton McCoy, who followed his uncle to Texas and encouraged others to take his lead, lies nearby. Aunt Eliza is there. So are Hattie and her husband, Will Taggart, who died in 1900.
Born on Christmas Day in 1842, Henrietta Jane McCoy Taggart — called Hattie by some members of her family and Hennie by others — died December 9, 1915. Cause of death was angina pectoris with the complication of Bright’s disease. She was 71 years, 11 months and 14 days old.
She was an artist and a teacher, a dedicated correspondent, a maker of hair flowers…and certainly an attentive daughter. She was also a wife and the mother of two girls, Cora and Laura, and two boys, George and Johnnie. Sturdy little Cora lived to be 94; Laura died at 66. George became an oilman; Johnnie died before his fourth birthday. Of the four, Johnnie and Laura are buried at Oakland Cemetery.
NOTE: This story, for me, began with Josie Vroom, who worked for both Hattie’s mother and for John Milton McCoy. I had hoped to discover what brought her to Dallas, to work in a prominent family’s home, to die at 36, and most of all, to have earned a final resting place among the McCoy family. I was mostly unsuccessful, although what is written on her difficult-to-read tombstone offers insight into her character.
Miss Josie B. Vroom/April 1863-Dec. 26, 1899/Ancestors Trenton NJ
Not a Relative Survives/But Friends Many
Lived for Others/Loving Loyal and True
ACKNOWLEDGMENT: It’s rare when writing about the long-dead to have access to their thoughts, but I was able to read Hattie’s, thanks to the remarkable book edited by Elizabeth York Enstam, When Dallas Became a City: Letters of John Milton McCoy, 1870–1881, published by the Dallas Historical Society in 1982. Many thanks to Dallas writer/historian Darwin Payne for lending me his copy.