Updated: Star-Telegram, Wednesday, Dec. 9, 1998 at 22:22 CST

Group honors Texas pioneer woman

By Katie Fairbank
The Associated Press

JEFFERSON -- No photos, no tombstone and, until now, no recognition. Texans may not know what Harriet Ann Moore Page Potter Ames looked like or where she's buried, but the Caddo Lake Historical Research Committee is making sure that they know about her landmark life and court battles that helped recognize common-law marriage.

Last month, the 45-member group dedicated a monument of gray Texas granite to the woman known by her fellow pioneers as "the bravest woman in Texas."

For five years the committee worked to honor Ames, who lived a somewhat tragic life through several rough-and- tumble chapters in Texas history. "Harriet would have to be the epitome of the pioneer woman. She's never been recognized as such, although she should be," said Marcia Thomas, a committee organizer.

Thomas, who performs a play she penned based on Ames' life, has always felt close to her subject.

"I've just been interested in this woman for years. The more I researched her life, the more I believed she needs to be recognized in Texas history," she said.

Nearly $5,000 was raised through a benefit performance of Thomas' play Texian Woman to help buy the property for the monument stand. A nearby funeral home donated the stone memorial.

Ames' role in Texas history is known primarily through her own memoirs, which she wrote at age of 83 while living her final years with her youngest daughter in New Orleans.

Although her autobiography has never been printed, her trials as a 19th-century woman became known through a successful historical novel written in the 1950s by Elithe Kirkland called Love Is a Wild Assault.

Born in New York in 1810, Harriet Ann Moore's life began running parallel to Texas' violent birth when she married Solomon Page.

Page, who fought in Texas' War of Independence, stranded her and their two children in a desolate prairie in South Texas where she became one of the panicked participants of the notorious "Runaway Scrape," an event that chronicled the hysteria of Texans who fled their homes before what they mistakenly believed was the approaching Mexican Army.

Assuming that her husband had died at the Battle of San Jacinto, Ames threw in her lot with her rescuer, Robert Potter, who was once known as the "bad boy of the Texas Republic."

Together, they lived a tale of revolution, romance and legal recriminations, primarily in the "Neutral Ground," a strip of territory that belonged to no one, located between what is now Texas and Louisiana.

Potter, who had served as a congressman from North Carolina before leaving the state in a fuss over his castration of two romantic rivals, signed the Texas Declaration of Independence and was the first secretary of the Texas navy. His legacy lives on in several parts of the state: Potter County in the northwest part of Texas is named for him, as well as Potter's Point, an area near Caddo Lake that he was deeded for his military service.

Chief author of the republic's constitution, Potter served in the Texas Senate from 1840 to 1842.

Potter had made numerous enemies because of lingering resentment from the Regulator-Moderator War, a little-known rebellion against the Republic of Texas that had waged among settlers in deep East Texas. He was killed by his foes in 1842 when a band routed him out of bed one night, drove him into the lake and shot him through the head when he came up for air. He is now buried in Austin at the state cemetery.

After Potter died, it was learned that he had left his property to two women from the Austin area. Ames spent years in the courts trying to encourage the prosecution of his murderers and reclaim the land they had lived on together.

"A place more beautiful than Potter's Point it would be impossible to imagine," Ames wrote in her autobiography. "I never tired admiring the scenery that lay about my new home."

Ames said she had married Potter by bond, a written agreement made before witnesses, and deserved to inherit the land. Decades later, a judge disagreed.

"It can hardly be held that it has been clearly shown that a real marriage in good faith has been established, as the facts appear in the record," ruled Chief Justice Oran M. Roberts in 1875.

Still, Ames' fruitless court battles to prove herself Potter's legal wife were the foundation of laws that today recognize the common-law marriage, state historians say.

"I know it's the basis of common-law marriage," Thomas said. "It's seven years living together, and they were together seven years."

Ames married a third time, to Charles Ames, who later was elected a county judge. She died in Louisiana in 1902. No pictures or drawings of her have ever been verified.

The next step for the Caddo Lake Historical Research Committee is to get a Texas historical marker installed.

"We believe that will come soon, but we wanted to go ahead with this dedication before the end of the year because her descendants are older and some are not in good health," Thomas said. "They all feel she's been seriously overlooked in Texas history."

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