Marker dedication will honor Ryan Cemetery in Tarkington on May 30

In this photo dated 1913, members of Rural Shade Baptist Church in Tarkington held a dinner on the grounds. The church's history is linked to Ryan Cemetery.

The Liberty County Historical Commission will honor Ryan Cemetery with an Historic Texas Cemetery subject marker on Sunday, May 30, 2021 at 2 p.m.  The dedication will follow the Memorial Day Service held annually at this historic cemetery which has many military dead interred within its boundary.  The public is invited to attend. 

The cemetery is named for early settler, John Jacob Ryan who arrived in Liberty County from Ireland sometime between 1850 and 1860. Ryan owned land on Tarkington Prairie including the property upon which the cemetery is located and opened a general store. 

From census records, Mr. Ryan was very prosperous.  Ryan was found shot to death in August 1873 on the public road that ran in front of the cemetery.  By 1874, the pastor of Rural Shade Baptist Church, Reverend D.W. Jackson and church members, W.M. West and W.H. Croft were indicted and tried in the District Court of Liberty County for Mr. Ryan’s murder. 

Ryan Cemetery in Tarkington is named for John Jacob Ryan, a rural settler in the Tarkington area. Ryan arrived in Liberty County from Ireland some time around 1850 to 1860.

According to Reverend Jackson’s autobiography, Ryan was ill-tempered and querulous with neighbors and members of the church.  He had publicly cursed, threatened and abused the Reverend, accusing him of making Ryan the subject of one of his “Hell-fire” Sunday sermons on sinful people.  Since Ryan had difficulties with many of his neighbors, some half dozen others were also arrested and were subjected to a long tedious examining trial.

Reverend Jackson, West and Croft were placed under bond to await action of the Grand Jury.  Time passed with no indictment until the fall of 1874, when the foreman, a friend of the Reverend, urged a bill to bring the case to trial.  A few days before the convening of the court to try the case, the courthouse and all the records and evidence were destroyed by fire and lay in a ruined heap along with the bill of indictment.  A few weeks later, on the insistence of the defendants to clear their names, the district attorney held a trial without any of the records and after three days, all were acquitted. 

Tarkington “lore” paints a different story.  Many residents believed the Reverend and several of his male vigilante congregants ambushed John Jacob Ryan and killed him on his way home through what is now Ryan Cemetery.  Not knowing which of the many bullets hit its target, it was impossible to know the killer. Of course, this “lore” was never substantiated but is a unique twist to the mysterious death of John Jacob Ryan. The true story rests in the grave with Ryan.   

Ryan Cemetery has been associated with Rural Shade Baptist Church almost from the church’s beginning in about 1870. Besides owning the cemetery for 81 years, many of the founding members of the church are buried in the cemetery along with several other members who held important positions in the church and community.  On June 10, 1959, the church voted to have an annual memorial service at Ryan Cemetery the Sunday following Memorial Day and was later changed to the Sunday before Memorial Day.  This tradition continues today.

The earliest marked grave in Ryan Cemetery is that of 10-year-old William E. West who died in 1863.  There are many unmarked gravesites in the cemetery making it impossible to know exactly when the earliest burial took place.  Many veterans of wars beginning with the Texas War for Independence are buried in the cemetery. 

One such notable is John Cherry (1808-1891) born in Highland County, Ohio and came to Texas with his father Aaron Cherry in 1818 and settled near a Coushatta Indian village.  He was a soldier in Captain William Logan’s company, 2nd Regiment, Volunteers, Texas War for Independence from Mexico.  There is a Texas Historical Commission subject marker in Ryan Cemetery honoring Cherry near his gravesite.  There are several Civil War veterans in the cemetery, both Confederate and Union as well as veterans of World War I, World War II, Korean War, Vietnam, and Gulf Wars.  The Tarkington Prairie Masonic Lodge has also been historically associated with Ryan Cemetery.  Many of the 1878 charter members of Lodge No. 498 are also buried in the cemetery.

Ryan Cemetery is a significant reminder of the early development and pioneer settlers that inhabited the Tarkington Prairie area dating back to the 1820s, many of whom are buried in this cemetery.  The Liberty County Historical Commission, the sponsor for this marker, will dedicate an Official Texas Historical Commission Marker along with the Historic Texas Cemetery designation honoring Ryan Cemetery’s rich history in Liberty County.  Please join us for this important dedication and afterwards wander through the cemetery and enjoy the great history!

For more information, please email LCHC County Chair, Linda Jamison at  lchc318@gmail.com or call 936-334-5813.

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