Kim Phillips: One mother’s legacy to Denton helps define city

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DRC Denton Original

Like many of you today, I am thinking about my mom. I’m among the fortunate. She lives, is healthy, is my greatest fan and dearest friend. I shudder to think how my life may have unfolded without her gentle hand, stellar example and depth of heart and soul. My mom is a great lady I aspire to emulate in every way.

Millions of stories out there are different from mine. One of those stories is intimately linked to Dentonites. It’s the story of John B. Denton and the mother he never knew.

Do you ever wonder about the mom behind the man? Standing near his grave on the courthouse lawn last week, I found myself wondering about the mama behind John B. I decided to see what I could find out about her. In everything I scoured, I couldn’t even learn her name.

The Portal to Texas History is a super resource available through the University of North Texas. I read everything on John B., including a book published in 1905 called Captain John B. Denton Preacher, Lawyer, And Soldier: His Life and Times in Tennessee, Arkansas, and Texas by William Allen. I knew the basic facts about John B., but this research brought him into 3-D focus.

Accounts regarding the exact order of events vary from source to source, but without fail, every version bears witness to the quality of the man. I am proud that our city and county bear his name. He was a man of great character, leadership, motivation, action and sacrifice, especially considering the odds stacked against him from the start.

Mrs. Denton gave birth to her second son, John B., in the Tennessee wild frontier in the summer of 1806. Her influence was no more than nursing and swaddling her baby boy before she died and left the two little brothers with a grieving, poverty-stricken father. He died, too, and when John B. was only 8 years old, the boys were apprenticed to a family called Wells to learn the blacksmith trade. Things didn’t work out between John and the Wells, so at 12 years old, John B. struck out on his own.

At 18, he married an educated girl who taught him to read. He became a great orator, preacher, lawyer, soldier and father. His influence spanned Arkansas, Missouri and Texas. His peers in the civilized Republic of Texas were the likes of Sam Houston. But he lived on the fringe, in the wild frontier, the life he had known from birth. And it was here he made his mark. He died fighting Indians around the southern part of Denton County, and our forefathers named this place in his honor.

Put yourself in John B.’s place. He had a lot about which he could have been bitter. No mama. No daddy to speak of. Unloved in his foster home. On his own since he was 12. In his book, Allen even states that some thought it cruel that little baby John B. lived at all.

Yet, this man went on to be great. He denied bitterness and overcame the horrible deprivation of his childhood to make a difference in many lives.

Had he lived beyond 34 years, he may have been beside the likes of Houston, Crockett and Bowie in Texas history lore. But sacrificed his life on the untamed frontier to progress the Texas whose fight to be independent and appreciated for originality was so like his own story.

Mrs. Denton. A nameless matriarch who barely knew her children. Her only legacies to the world were these sons. William went on to be a blacksmith. John B. left his name all over Texas. I believe something was bequeathed to little John B. from his parents.

The spirit of independence birthed in him, coupled with a life well lived, gave name to this place. And how fitting. John B. died in battle in 1841.

In 1846, Denton County was carved out of Fannin County with his name. The city of Denton came along in 1857. And since that day, ours has been a stance of original and independent.

I think of Mama Denton and her little bundled boy she never got to know. She gave us a great gift. We are named for a man who, against all odds, made great things out of nothing. Is it any wonder that creativity, ingenuity and entrepreneurship are the staple of Denton’s essence?

We are original and independent. It’s in our blood charter. We took his name. Denton. Original. Independent. Thank you, Mama Denton.

KIM PHILLIPS is vice president of the Denton Convention & Visitors Bureau at the Denton Chamber of Commerce. She loves promoting Denton’s original, independent spirit through the city’s sense of place and cast of many characters. She can be reached at kim@discoverdenton.com.


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