GREAT-AUNT NEAL WOOD MADDOX O'BRIEN
[Biography of Cornelia “Neal” Wood Mattox O’Brien]
My Grandmother, Florence Long Howe, once told me that her Great-Aunt Neal [sister of Florence’s Grandmother, Amanda Wood Long], had made cowboy outfits for Theodore Roosevelt. And my Grandmother’s sister, Leona Amanda Long, once remarked that Aunt Neal was the perfect kind of woman to live out in the Wild West.
Cornelia, known to her family as “Neal,” and her sisters Dee [Cordelia Bone] and Dell [Adelle Norton], were expert tailors and were also skilled at working with leather. The buckskin outfits she made for Teddy Roosevelt used to be on display at the Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, and on a vacation back in 1949, my grandparents, Martin and Florence (Long) Howe and my parents took my sister and me to the Roosevelt Park to see Aunt Neal’s handiwork.
It wasn’t until 1965 that I realised the extent of Aunt Neal’s influence on my grandparents’ lives. After reading my Great-Aunt Mae’s letter of condolence to my Grandma upon the death of my Grandfather, I discovered that my Grandpa had courted my Grandmother while she was visiting with her Aunt Neal and Uncle Tom O’Brien at their home near Sturgis in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Here follows an extract from Aunt Mae’s letter:
“[My husband] Eck [Robert Alexander Cox] still talks about the time you came up to visit us when we lived in the [Black] Hills in South Dakota, and we were at Uncle Tom’s and Aunt Neal’s and Martin [Howe] came up to see you, and came suppertime, Aunt Neal said, ‘where is Florence and Martin?’ Uncle Tom [O’Brien] said, ‘oh I seen them lullagating around down towards Sturgis.’ You and Martin had gone for a walk - don’t remember just where you went. Do you still remember it? Guess that was the first and last time we ever saw Martin.”1
Cornelia E. O’Brien was born December the 19th, 1844, probably at Smithfield, in Madison County, New York, the eighth child and fourth daughter of William Elliot Wood (1804-1861), of Augusta, Oneida County, New York and later of Loyd, Richland County, Wisconsin, by his wife, Mahala Johnson (1810-1859), who is believed to have been a full-blooded Iroquois woman of the Oneida or Mohawk Nation. In 1854, Cornelia moved to Wisconsin with her parents and nine surviving siblings, and seven years later, at the age of sixteen, she married George W. Mattox (or Maddox) at Loyd in Richland County, Wisconsin, on July the 2nd, 1861. One family story has it that it was Cornelia who pursued and convinced fifteen-year-old George to marry her.
No extant record exists of the couple’s early years of married life; however, it is assumed that during that period, they probably resided on a farm in either Sauk or Richland County, Wisconsin. Cornelia, henceforth known as Neal, may very well have developed her sewing and leather-working skills during these years, possibly under the tutelage of her elder sisters, Adelle and Cordelia, who according to her great-niece, Leona Long, used to wear a scissors-shaped pin on her lapel to advertise that she was a dressmaker.
The only other known record of Neal in the 1860s is contained in a still-extant letter inherited by a Wood cousin, Mrs Palmer of California. The letter was written to Neal by her brother Elliot who was off fighting in the Civil War. In 1984, Lucille sent me a transcript of the letter with the following comments:
“I have a letter that was written to Great-Aunt Cornelia, [dated] April 29, 1862. It says:
‘Dear Sister, Got your letter. Found me sick. Was sure glad to hear from you. I was sorry that your man has enlisted. If I was as I was five months ago, I would not enlist. I am so weak I can’t write much. Stoddard has got the raurites (??). Tell me where George is. Write soon. So Good By.
[PS:] We expect to leave here any day. Write how to direct a letter to you. Dell wrote one way and you wrote the other. Tell Dell that I would like to write to her but I cannot.
E. W. Wood
1st Wisc Cav., Co. M
St. Louis, Mo.’
This was the last time anyone heard from him [Elliot William Wood, brother of Cornelia O’Brien & George Wood & Amanda Long] and [George’s daughter] Anna Berryman had it [the letter] in her possession. On the back of the letter he had written: ‘Tell Dell that I would like to write to her but I cannot.’”2
In 1876, Neal and George Mattox decided to head out to the Black Hills of Dakota, no doubt influenced by news of the gold rush there. “Rich gold deposits were discovered in the Black Hills in 1874, and in 1875, the Sioux Indians, within whose territory the Black Hills until then had been included, were removed from their ancestral lands which were then opened up to white settlers.
The Black Hills belonged to the Sioux Indians and the government intervened to keep settlers out until an agreement could be made with the owners. However, the Sioux refused to give up the region and government opposition to settlement ceased. When rich deposits of gold were discovered at Deadwood, thousands of people rushed to the new diggings.”3
“Chief Sitting Bull (1837-1890), a chief and medicine man of the Dakota Sioux, was born on Willow Creek in what is now North Dakota, son of Chief Jumping Bull. He gained great influence among the reckless and unruly young Indians, and during the Civil War led attacks on white settlements in Iowa and Minnesota. Though he had pretended to make peace in 1866, from 1869 to 1876 he frequently attacked whites or Indians friendly to whites. His refusal to return to the reservation in 1876, led to the campaign in which General George A. Custer and his command were massacred. Fearing punishment for his participation in the massacre, Sitting Bull, with a large band moved over into Canada [to the Wood Mountain Hills (where Aunt Neal’s great-niece, Florence Long, later homesteaded with her husband, Martin Howe), of what is now southern Saskatchewan, about twenty miles north of the American border]. He returned to the United States in 1881, and after 1883 made his home at the Standing Rock Agency.”4
With Dakota history in mind, it can be seen that Aunt Neal and her first husband George had arrived in Dakota Territory at a turbulent time. Aunt Leona Long recalled that Aunt Neal [who was half Native Indian herself] fought Indians and hunted buffalo out in Dakota, probably during her first year of life there. As recorded in both her obituary and in her biography which was included in a history of the Black Hills, Neal, who according to one account had just arrived in the vicinity, witnessed a tragic result of the strife between the settlers and the Dakota Sioux who were just then returning from the Battle of the Little Big Horn. “She was in the vicinity when Charles Nolin was massacred near Sturgis in 1876.”5
“On that fatal day in August, 1876, when Charles Nolin, pony mail carrier, was murdered by Indians, Mr. and Mrs. George Mattox (Cornelia’s first husband) were camped with a small outfit on Alkali Creek. They were on their way to the Black Hills, coming from Wisconsin in a No. 3 lumber wagon drawn by oxen who travelled twenty miles a day. Although Cornelia never saw Nolin, she did see the scattered mail by the three oak trees where the old Sidney and Fort Pierre Trails crossed the creekbed southeast of Sturgis, and the pile of boulders that marked Charles Nolin’s fresh grave.”6
After assisting in Nolin’s burial, Neal and George resumed their westward journey and “reached Central City during a violent windstorm. They stayed there two years, then moved to a ranch near Sturgis where they also specialized in making buckskin gloves and suits, then in great demand by teamsters and soldiers.”7
“They [then] moved to Sand Creek, North Dakota, where they met Theodore Roosevelt (later United States President). He was a very young man then and stopped in at Mrs. Mattox’s tent to ask her to make him a special buckskin outfit. A hospitable woman, she made Roosevelt and the other five men, all buffalo hunters, a breakfast of coffee, hot bread, cake, and pickled buffalo tongue.
Roosevelt didn’t like the high-water pants fashionable at the time, so Cornelia made him a suit out of five buckskins, boot packs, and double fringes for thirty dollars. This is the outfit Teddy Roosevelt wears in pictures of his early hunting days.”8
Neal’s obituary tells it slightly differently. “Mrs. O’Brien in 1883 [recte 1884], lived for a time near Slim Butte [North Dakota] and while there young Theodore Roosevelt called at her home and for him she made a cowboy suit of antelope hides, and later in life, Mr. Roosevelt wrote her a two-page letter and expressed his great gratitude for the favor.”9
As a young man, Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), who became the 26th President of the United States in 1901, established a ranch in Western Dakota in 1883. At the end of a political campaign in the following year, which began tragically for Teddy who lost both his wife [following the birth of a daughter] and his mother within twelve hours of each other, he betook himself to his Dakota ranch where he resided for the next three years.10 And as Fate decreed, young Teddy was to cross paths with our formidable Aunt Neal, who therefore came to be immortalized in Roosevelt in the Badlands, a biography of the young Theodore Roosevelt, published by Hermann Hagedorn in 1921. Here follow extracts from the aforementioned biography, which includes quotes from Roosevelt’s friend, Lincoln Lang:
“Roosevelt remained behind. ‘Lincoln,’ he said, ‘there are two things I want to do. I want to get an antelope, and I want to get a buckskin suit.’ Lincoln [Lang] thought he could help him to both. Some twenty miles to the east lived a woman named Mrs. Maddox who had acquired some fame in the region by the vigorous way in which she had handled the old reprobate who was her husband; and by her skill in making buckskin shirts. She was a dead shot, and it was said of her that even ‘Calamity Jane,’ Deadwood’s ‘first lady,’ was forced ‘to yield the palm to Mrs. Maddox when it came to the use of a vocabulary which adequately searched every nook and cranny of a man’s life from birth to ultimate damnation.’
They found her in a desolate, little mud-roofed hut on Sand Creek, a mile south of the old Keogh trail. She was living alone, having recently dismissed her husband in summary fashion. It seems that he was a worthless devil, who, under the stimulus of some whiskey he had obtained from an outfit of Missouri ‘Bull-whackers’ who were driving freight to Deadwood, had picked a quarrel with his wife and attempted to beat her. She knocked him down with a stove-lid lifter and the ‘bull-whackers’ bore him off, leaving the lady in full possession of the ranch. She now had a man named Crow Joe working for her, a slab-sided shifty-eyed ne’er-do-well, who was suspected of stealing horses on occasion.
She measured Roosevelt for his suit and gave him and Lincoln a dinner they remembered. (The buckskin suit which was still doing service thirty years later, was made under the supervision of Mrs. Maddox by her niece, now Mrs. Olmstead of Medora.) A vigorous personality spoke out her every action. Roosevelt regarded her with mingled amusement and awe.”11
“For three weeks Roosevelt was in the saddle every day from dawn till night, riding, often in no company but his own, up and down the river, restless and indefatigable. On one of his solitary rides he stopped at Mrs. Maddox’s hut to call for the buckskin suit he had ordered of her. She was a woman of terrible vigor, and inspired in Roosevelt a kind of awe which none of the ‘bad men’ of the region had been able to make him feel.
She invited him to dinner. While she was preparing the meal, he sat in a corner of the cabin. He had a habit of carrying a book with him wherever he went and he was reading, altogether absorbed, when suddenly Mrs. Maddox stumbled over one of his feet.
‘Take that damn foot away!’ she cried in tones that meant business. Roosevelt took his foot away ‘and all that was attached to it,’ as one of his cowboy friends explained subsequently, waiting outside until the call for dinner came. He ate the dinner quickly, wasting no words, not caring to run any risk of stirring again the fury of Mrs. Maddox.”12
“I am inclined to doubt the truth of this story. Mrs. Maddox was a terror only to those who took her wrong or tried to put it over her. Normally she was a very pleasant woman with a good, strong sense of humor. My impression is she took a liking to T. R. [Teddy Roosevelt] that time I took him there to be measured for his suit. If ever she spoke as above, she must have been on the war-path about something else at the time.’ - Lincoln Lang.”13
“Mrs. Maddox, the maker of the famous buckskin shirt, who was an extraordinary woman in more ways than one, had her own very individual notions concerning the rights of the Indians. When Roosevelt stopped at her shack one day, he found three Sioux Indians there, evidently trustworthy, self-respecting men. Mrs. Maddox explained to him that they had been resting there waiting for dinner, when a white man had come along and tried to run off with their horses. The Indians had caught the man, but, after retaking their horses and depriving him of his gun, had let him go.
‘I don’t see why they let him go,’ she exclaimed. ‘I don’t believe in stealing Indians’ horses anymore than white folks’, so I told ‘em they could go along and hang him, I’d never cheep! Anyhow, I won’t charge them anything for their dinner,’ she concluded.”14
Mrs Palmer's letter advises that “Great-Aunt Cornelia was married twice. She hunted buffalo and fought Indians with Maddux [recte: Mattox]. He wanted her to go to Alaska and she said ‘No!’ She divorced him [in 1892] and went back to Wisconsin where she went and married Thomas O’Brien [correction: Tom & Neal were married at Sturgis, South Dakota, in 1899]. She made Teddy Roosevelt’s buckskins. Every time he came to Deadwood she would take his old ones and repair them and give him a new set. They are on display every once in a while at the museum in Deadwood, South Dakota. I have seen them.”15
Family tradition has it that Teddy Roosevelt wasn’t Aunt Neal’s only famous dinner guest. Wood relatives in Nevada recall hearing that Aunt Neal also had Chief Sitting Bull over to her cabin for dinner. Another family story has it that Aunt Neal knew both Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane. And it is also claimed that she was once personally robbed by Jesse James!
According to the records of the Circuit Court [located in Sturgis], Eighth Judicial Circuit, Meade County, South Dakota, Cornelia Wood filed for divorce from George W. Mattox on February 16th, 1892. Cornelia’s divorce action advised that her husband, George W. Mattox, deserted her in the Spring of 1884, and that he had subsequently failed to provide her with the neccessities of life, although he had the ability to do so, since he was an able-bodied man who owned horses, cattle and other property.
Florence Howe’s sister, Leona Long, advised that “Aunt Neal raised horses on her ranch in North Dakota, and later on she sold them and used the proceeds to buy herself a little house just out of Sturgis in the Black Hills. Like all her sisters, she was an excellent cook and once worked in a forestry camp where she made meals for a large number of men. After the death of her second husband, Tom O’Brien, she moved right into Sturgis where she resided until the end of her days.”16
“When the Nolin monument was dedicated in Sturgis in 1932, she [Neal] and Jesse Brown, [of] Deadwood, were the only pioneers left who knew anything first-hand about the tragedy. On Memorial Day, 1932, the Charles Nolin Monument in south Sturgis was dedicated. Eighty-eight year old Mrs. Cornelia O’Brien and Jesse Brown, the only two living old-timers even remotely connected with the Nolin tragedy, were honored guests.”17 The compiler of this biography has a photograph of Neal and Jesse seated in front of the monument surrounded by the Memorial Day crowd.
“Mrs. Cornelia Mattox (Tom) O’Brien, aunt of Cal Wood of Vale [South Dakota], was one of the memorable pioneers who left her footprints for future generations. In later years, she alternated her time between Sturgis and her nephew’s home near Vale where she spent a good deal of her time tanning bear skins.”18
Cornelia Wood O’Brien departed this life in her 90th year on June 22nd, 1934, in Sturgis, South Dakota. Her obituary advises that “Funeral services for Mrs. Thomas O’Brien were held from the F.O. Jolley Funeral Parlour on Sunday afternoon at two o’clock [June 24, 1934]. Reverend Carroll D. Erskine officiated. There was a large attendance of old pioneers and neighbors. Mrs. Emmett Dyer presided at the piano. Mrs. Harry Howard sang a solo: ‘Lead Kindly Light.’ The choir sang two selections: ‘Sometime We Will Understand’ and ‘Isle of Somewhere.’ Those in the choir were: Mrs. J. A. Nichols, Mrs. William Boop, Mrs. Harry Howard, Ruth Shaw, William A. Thurston, Glen Shaw and Mrs. Dyer. The pallbearers were: Lee Forbes, John Kelly, Harry Grams, Bert Hamblet, Henry Hanlon and Matt Flavin. Interment was in Bear Butte Cemetery. The casket was covered with a profusion of flowers.”19
“She died at the home of Mrs. Bertha Sampson on Sherman Street on Saturday morning following a long illness. She is survived by nephews and nieces as follows: Calvin Wood, Vale; Frank E. Wood, Plains, Montana; O.C. and Arden Wood, Cedarville, California; Mrs. Anna Berryman and Dr. Robert I. Wood of Sturgis. She was baptized and a member of the Baptist Church.” 20 “Up to the time of her death she took a keen interest in present day events and her mind was clear and strong and she was a devout woman of prayer and Bible reading. On her next birthday, had she lived, she would have reached her 90th birthday.” 21
1.Martin & Florence Howe Family Papers; copy of Mae Long Cox’s 1965 Letter of Condolence to her sister, Florence Long Howe, upon the death of Martin C. Howe. Copy of letter included in the Howe Family Files of Count Caragata.
2.1984 Letter from Mrs Palmer; Letter included in the Wood Family Files of Count Caragata.
3.Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1948 edition, volume 21, page 91, Article on South Dakota
4.Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1948 edition, volume 20, page 723, Article on Sitting Bull
5.Cowboys & Sodbusters, A History of Butte County, South Dakota, 1968, pages 394-5
9.Obituary of Cornelia E. Wood Mattox O’Brien, on file at the Sturgis, South Dakota Library, microfilm; from the Black Hills Press, Sturgis, Meade Co, SD, Thursday, June 28, 1934.
10.Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1948 edition, volume 19, page 537, Article on Theodore Roosevelt
11.Roosevelt in the Badlands, by Hermann Hagedorn, Houghton Mifflin Company, The Riverside Press Cambridge, Boston & New York, 1921, pages 95-96
12.Ibid, pg 150
13.Ibid, pg 150
14.Ibid, pg 356
15.1984 Letter from Mrs Palmer
16.1984 Interview with Leona Amanda Long, great-niece of Neal Wood Mattox O’Brien
17.Cowboys & Sodbusters, A History of Butte County, South Dakota, 1968, pages 394-5
19.Obituary of Cornelia E. Wood Mattox O’Brien
Memories of Aunt Neal - Mrs Arionus
Mrs Arionus remembers Aunt Neal, having visited with her upon a few occasions back in the late 1920s. Born and raised in South Dakota, Mrs Arionus is the daughter of Robert Cox and Mae Long, who was Neal Wood O’Brien’s great-niece. During one visit, while Aunt Neal had little Arionus sitting on her lap, Neal reached into her apron pocket and pulled out a bottle of whiskey and had herself a few swigs and then passed it on to her good buddy Poker Alice who also helped herself to a few drinks.
Upon another occasion, Mrs Arionus's folks took Aunt Neal and the kids over to visit another of Aunt Neal’s great-nieces. Finding no one at home, they all went into their relative’s house anyway and made themselves at home. The place was pretty dusty and kinda messy, so Aunt Neal wrote a message with her finger on a dusty countertop, “Dust Me.”
Being on a limited income in her later years, Aunt Neal decided to rent out her little house near Sturgis to raise some needed cash, while she moved into the chicken coop out back. She had partitioned the chicken coop with the chickens on one side and a tiny bedroom and kitchen for her on the other side.
The buckskin outfits Aunt Neal made for Teddy Roosevelt may still be on display at The Museum of Natural History in New York City. Mrs Arionus saw them displayed there during a visit to New York back in the 1960s.
Compiled by Count Caragata, 2003