Eyewitness Accounts of the Berrien Tiger

The legendary Berrien Tiger was a large panther that mauled two Wiregrass victims in 1849 (before Berrien county was actually created). The first victim was Jim Hightower (aka James Stewart), step-son of  Thomas B. Stewart.  One of the eyewitnesses who saw the carcass of the Berrien Tiger was Martha Newbern Guthrie,  who was mother to generations of Berrien County residents, and who spent time in her final years living with her son Arrin’s family at Ray City, GA.  Her husband and brother-in-law were among the men who hunted down and killed the beast, after it attacked a young boy. Other stories of the Berrien Tiger (Early Account of the Berrien Tiger, 1849,  1849 Adventures With A Panther in Berrien County, GA) were posted over the past week. The account below, originally published in 1923 nearly 75 years after the event, provides additional details (or embellishments?) not included in early versions of the tale.

[When the Wiregrass Pioneers] were begining to realize a sense of relief from Indian depredations but not from the depredations of wild beasts, there occurred a thrilling encounter between a magnificent specimen of that species of felines known as a tiger and a party of men which encount- —– does when trying to decide whe- ——— only encounter of its kind in all this section originally known as Irwin County.

Setting in Mud Creek

It was back somewhere about the year 1848 and the scene of the episode was in what is now Clinch County but at that time Lowndes near the Alapaha River at what is known locally as the Mud Creek bridge, or “Indian Ford” as it was then known.

In that neighborhood lived Samuel and Hamp Guthrie, Alfred Herring, Jesse Vickery and a man by the name of Stewart (Editor’s note This man was Thomas B. Stewart, born 1798 in Virginia and a blacksmith by trade, and he  lived neighbor to Hamp Guthrie) and also Green Akins and others of the hardy pioneers who were in — swamp, immediately striking wind  —try from the wild man and the wild animals and making it a fit dwelling place to live. Stewart had a step-son named Jim Hightower. This boy was about 14 years old. He had had the misfortune to get his right hand mangled while feeding an old-fashioned wooden roller cane-mill by feeding his hand into the mill along with the cane when a very small boy, and when it healed up so far as I can learn, was the — of distorted and crumpled up stub of bones, consequently he had very little use of that member in any of the tasks he had to perform. The accident occurred at the home of Green Akins and Mrs. Akins who were the parents of Mrs. Jerry May who is now living about five miles east of Nashville. Mrs. Akins released the little fellow from his awful position by first stopping the horse, loosing him from the lever, backing the mill off the boy’s hand and releasing it.  It was impossible to obtain the service of a physician in that section and with the very best skill which Mrs. Akins could master she dressed the boy’s hand in her own way.

Hunts Hog, Flushes Tiger

This boy, Jim Hightower, in company with a little half brother was sent out one morning early to look for some hogs down by the river swamp. Their faithful dog accompanied them. Hunting along beside the swamp they were startled by the strange acts of the dog which had been running about, sometimes in the bushes, sometimes outside when suddenly like something half-dead with fright the dog came tearing out of the bushes and cowered down at the feet of his young masters and no persuasion of any sort could avail to get that dog to return to the swamp. The boys knew not what to think except that they surmised the dog was overcome with cowardice and only needed to have his masters near to encourage him in the face of supposed danger; and with this thought in mind no doubt, the boys proceeded on down nearer the swamp at the place where the dog emerged, at the same time setting the dog on and encouraging him in every way they could to go on in. But nothing they could do could avail to get that dog into the swamp ahead of them.

 While they were thus engaged and while they were pushing their way a little further on into the low bushes, the elder boy being somewhat ahead, they were struck with terror to see a great tawny red body rise out of the bushes with a sudden bound, alighting on Jim’s shoulders and bearing him to the ground. The small boy immediately took to his heels accompanied by his dog, leaving Jim to the fate to which the tiger would subject him.

 Alarm Given

Going by a neighboring house which was nearer than his home the small boy gave the alarm, the family being seated at breakfast. Quickly the man of the house ran to Stewart’s and told the family that a tiger had killed Jim. The news was spread from house to house as fast as possible and the dogs were on their way down to the swamp to make a search, expecting to find the boy Jim torn to pieces or probably eaten. Their guns consisted of the old-fashioned muzzle-loading shot gun, some of which had flint-locks, but in addition each man was armed with Bowie knives with which to fight if it should come to a hand-to-hand struggle.

When they arrived at the place where the small boy said the attack was made, there was the blood, the signs of the struggle, the leaves and straw where the victim had evidently been covered up but no trace of the boy or his clothing, except his little cap, could be found and except the blood.

Dogs Encounter Tiger

The dogs were set off into the swamp, immediately striking wind of the game and began raising a mighty din of yelps and the party knew that they were right on the animal. Immediately, however, the anticipatory sounds of the baying changed to death howls, and the party knew that their faithful dogs were being killed.

Three of the men, Hamp Guthrie, Alf Herring, and Jess Vickery, agreed to stand by each other until death and go into the swamp to the relief of their dogs. Armed with their guns and Bowie Knives they pushed their way as fast as they could through the swamp to where the battle between beast and dogs was raging, and were horrified to see that one or two of the dogs had already been killed and others were being mangled as fast as they came in reach of the in position in the center of the pack of dogs and in such close proximity that a shot could not be made without danger of wounding or killing a dog. Hamp Guthrie, being of a daring and intrepid character, somewhat braver than the other men, decided to get into the fight and tackle the beast with his knife but he made the others promise to stand by him and help him out of the danger to the last. The animal didn’t wait however for Guthrie to reach it. Releasing its hold on the dogs it leaped with a mighty bound upon the shoulders of Guthrie and bore him to the ground. There, in a perfect pandemonium of shrieks, growls, and yelps it held him while it proceeded to tear his flesh with teeth and claws until Jess Vickery ran up an holding the muzzle of his gun to its side, caught a moment when he could discharge his gun without danger to Guthrie, and drove the whole load from his gun through its body. The shot however, failed to make the animal release its hold. He then clubbed his gun and broke it over the animal’s body, still the beast did not let go. He then grabbed up Guthrie’s gun which had been dropped when he was attacked, and broke it over the animal. By this time , Alf Herring had run up with his Bowie knife and together with Vickery they succeeded in stabbing and cutting the beast until it fell over dead.

Guthrie had been terribly lacerated and bitten on the neck, shoulders and head, and his clothing were torn to shreds. He was weak from loss of blood and from the terrible encounter but was able to walk home.

Hightower Turns Up.

By this time, others of the neighborhood had arrived on the scene and brought to the hunters the news that Jim was not dead but horribly wounded and mangled by the tiger, his back, neck, and face and head being terribly torn, two of his jaw teeth broken out by the biting of the animal and clothing literally torn off of him.

The story of the attack as related by Jim, was to the effect when the tiger bore him down he fell on his face and having presence of mind, he would not cry out from the pain but would remain perfectly still like as if dead and worthy of his foe,  hold his breath when the animal would cease his biting and apparently listen, precisely as a cat does when trying to decide whether she has succeeded in extinguishing the life in the rat she has caught.  This was continued no doubt to what seemed an age to the suffering and bleeding boy, until finally the animal decided that it was safe to leave him and pursue the other and smaller boy.  Jim said he watched from one side as he lay on his face , the maneuvers of the tiger as he would lift his head and look in the direction in which the small boy left.  Finally, he said, the great cat began hastily to rake up leaves and straw over Jim’s body and when he had covered him he bounded off Jim knew not where.  When all was quiet and Jim could hear nothing more, he cautiously raised his bleeding head and looked around and listened again to see if he could hear anything of his foe.  Not hearing anything, and thinking it would be safe to try and reach home, he arose ans as fast as he could in his terrible condition, struck out towards home.  He had proceeded only a few hundred yards before coming to a little branch over which he had to pass in order to reach  home by the nearest route and by which route his little brother had gone. When he came in sight of that little branch, imagine his fright if you can, to see that tiger standing there in the path and lapping water.  Fortunately the animal didn’t see him and Jim turned and made his way home by a different route and so escaped a second attack.

Carcass Displayed

The men tied the tiger together, swung it upon a pole and carried it out to the home of Green (W.G.) Akins, placing it in the yard where it lay for a day, a sight to the numbers of people having heard of the great tiger fight, had come for miles to see.

It was a male tiger, a magnificent specimen, and from the description given by those who saw it, must have weighed as much as 250 pounds and as much as four feet in length. It was a solid tawny red in color and about 30 to 36 inches in height.

Jim Hightower, by reason of the many adventures he experienced, may be said to have possessed a charmed life.  He not only had a hand ruined in a cane mill and miraculously escaped death from a tiger, but was struck by lightning and stunned and was weeks in recovering; and he was bitten by a small rattlesnake and suffered greatly from that. Then later on in life he got into difficulty with a man named Wheeler, killing him and for which crime he served a penitentiary sentence of thirty years.

Story Said True

The above story is true and is given substantially as related to me by two persons who were living in the vicinity at that time.  One of them, Mrs Martha Guthrie, widow of Samuel Guthrie, the latter was in the hunt and was a brother of Hamp Guthrie. She and her husband were living at the Joe Stevens place on the Berrien County side of the river at the time, and she had been married two or three years.  She is still living at the home of her son S. F. Guthrie, in the Upper Tenth District of Berrien within four miles of where the hunt took place.  She is 87 years old, totally blind, but otherwise in possession of her faculties. Her mind is bright for one of her age and she talks intelligently about many things that happened in pioneer days.

Witnesses Named

The other living witness who can talk intelligently about frontier life is Mrs. Annie May, wife of Mr. Jerry May, who lives five miles east of Nashville, out on the Milltown Road.  She will be 87 years old on the 26th day of May, 1923, and is well-preserved for a woman of her age. She has spent a lifetime of hard work and still keeps house with her husband who will be 89 years old on next Sept 2nd.  She does her own cooking and housework feeding the chickens and pigs. She is the mother of seven children, all grown and married; and the youngest son Sirmans G. May lives near his aged parents and has grandchildren of his own. Mrs. May was a daughter of Green Akins, in whose front yard the slain animal was viewed by her as a little girl and by the hundreds who came to see it.

By all accounts, the Berrien Tiger  was certainly a large panther specimen. If it was as large as indicated in the account above – 250 pounds – then it was larger than the current record specimen, killed in Colorado in 2001.

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The Misadventures of Mr. Stewart

The previous post related the story, Adventures with a Panther, which occurred in Berrien County, GA in 1849.  A boy named James Stewart aka James Hightower, who was a step-son of Thomas B. Stewart, was attacked.  Neighbors John H. Guthrie, William Green Aikin,  and Jesse Vickery tracked down and engaged the beast in a bloody fight to the death.  The Stewart boy survived the panther’s attack, and the following clipping conveys a continuation of his misadventurous life.

From the Albany Medium

  Somewhere in the forties there lived in Berrien (it was not Berrien then) a boy by the name of Stewart. He was not remarkable for anything except for scrawniness, being of small statue, lean and of a clay-bank color, the result perhaps of private meals off of the chimney clay. But as time sped by he became a hero in that then wild country; at least he was a hero in one sense.

  The family with whom he lived resided not far from the Alapaha swamp. One day he and another boy were sent to the swamp to feed a sow. When within a short distance of it a large tiger sprang out of the bushes and brought Stewart to the ground. He fell on his face, and the tiger seemed to be in no hurry to kill him. Indeed the brute was engaged just then in watching the other boy fleeing in the direction of the house. Being satisfied as to the direction the other boy took, the tiger then took Stewart’s head in its mouth and closed on it, but its teeth slipped over instead of penetrating the skull. It bit the boy’s skull several times with the same result, and the boy, with a presence of mind wonderful in one so young, did not once flinch while the beast was tearing huge furrows through his scalp. The tiger, after holding its nose near the boy’s face an instant, as if listening if he was breathing, seemed satisfied that he was dead, and hastily covering him up with pine straw, ran hurriedly after the other boy.  As soon as the tiger was out of sight Stewart sprang to his feet and, taking a wide circuit, ran with all the speed he could command, and finally reached the house in safety.  The other boy reached the house some time before the tiger came in sight of it, and the brute, seeing that he was too late, hurried back to his first prey.

  If Stewart had moved while the tiger was biting his skull, or if he had breathed while the beast was listening, with its nose close to his face, he would have been torn into fragments; but the boy, have heard of many of the peculiarities of this ferocious beast, was prepared to profit by the knowledge.

 As soon as the boys told of their wonderful escape, three neighbors, all resolute men, determined to hunt down and kill the beast. They had one musket and two hunting knives. Taking a favorite deer hound, they proceeded to the swamp.  When near it they saw the dog take to the trail of the tiger and enter the bushes. In a few moments they hear a howl, then all was quite.  They knew the dog had been killed. Halting, they made a solemn compact to stand by each other to the last. Then they entered the swamp, the man with the musket in front and the others close behind, in Indian file, the front man with his musket ready and the other two with their knives drawn. They had not proceeded more than fifty yards in the swamp when the front man was felled to the ground. The tiger seemed to drop out of the clouds upon him. He fell on his back and the beast tried to seize his throat with its mouth, but he threw up his arm and that member was seized instead. In a moment the second man seized the musket, and, placing the muzzle close to the tiger’s side, fired the load of buck-shot through its body. It still held its hold. Clubbing the gun, he dealt the animal three powerful blows on the head, and still it did not release its victim.  The third man then threw himself upon the tiger and cut its throat. Then it loosened its grip and expired on top of its victim. The animal measured twelve feet from the end of its nose to the tip of its tail.

  A few years after the above occurrence Stewart, while feeding a cane mill; had one of his hands caught and drawn between the rollers and so badly mashed that the hand and a portion of the arm withered.

  Later on he was in the field at work, when a thunder storm came up and he was struck by lightning and left for dead. He came to however, and was all right in a few days.

  By this time he was old enough to take unto himself a wife, but the parents of his girl did not favor the alliance, so they decided on elopement. In those days, even, a hero could get married without shoes, so he started for his future wife, succeeded in getting her from the house and the happy pair were on their way to the parson’s when Stewart was bitten on the foot by a moccasin, a dangerous reptile. Even that did not stop him. They proceeded to the parson’s and were united in wedlock. Stewart did not die from the snake bite. History does not say whether the snake died.

  Next we hear of Stewart, he was being tried for his life for the murder of a man named Wheeler. The evidence was all against Stewart and everybody thought he would hang. He was defended by the now venerable Judge Hansell, of Thomasville, then a young lawyer just “starting out.” So able was the defense, so pathetically did the young lawyer dwell upon the many hairbreadth escapes of the prisoner, who seemingly had been preserved through them all through providential intervention, that the jury brought in such a verdict as to send him to the penitentiary for six years. While in the penitentiary he learned the painter’s trade, and after satisfying the sentence of law returned home, where we leave him.

   While in Irwin recently we learned the above facts from Rev. Jacob Young, who has the local history of all that county for forty or fifty years past at his fingers’ ends, so to speak.

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1849 Adventures With A Panther in Berrien County, GA

Here is a tale that has become part of the mythology of Berrien County, GA. It occurred in a swamp along the Alapaha River in 1849, before  Berrien County was created from parts of Lowndes County.  Although the principals involved where not residents of the Ray City area themselves, their relatives and descendants were. The story illustrates that the early pioneers of Berrien County and Ray City, GA were on the frontier of America. They settled wild lands to create their farms and the towns we know today.

This tale, Adventures With a Panther, was told  by the Reverend George White in Historical collections of Georgia: containing the most interesting facts, traditions, biographical sketches, anecdotes, etc. relating to its history and antiquities, from its first settlement to the present time ; compiled from original records and official documents ; illustrated by nearly one hundred engravings of public buildings, relics of antiquity, historic localities, natural scenery, portraits of distinguished men, etc., etc.,  published in 1855.

    ADVENTURE WITH A PANTHER. — In 1849, a step-son of Thomas B. Stewart and his younger brother were hunting hogs near a swamp, one mile from the Allapaha River, and ten miles above Knight’s Bridge. Their dog had left them and gone into the swamp ; but soon returned at full speed, closely pursued by a huge panther.

    Escape was impossible. The panther seized the elder brother, and mangled him most fearfully. Leaving him for dead, it then pursued the younger brother and the dog. It soon, however, returned. The boy finding escape impossible, pretended to be dead. After smelling around him, the animal proceeded to cover him partially with leaves and grass, and again renewed its pursuit of the other party.

    The wounded boy had by this time so far recovered from his wounds and fright as to be able to make good his escape, which he did as rapidly as possible. In the mean time, the younger boy had given the alarm and aroused the neighbourhood. William G. Aikin, John H. Guthrie, Alfred Herrin and Jesse Vickery, immediately went in pursuit.

    Upon arriving at the spot, they found the pile of leaves and grass, and broken bushes, but the boy and panther were both gone. Having an excellent dog, they soon trailed the panther into the swamp, and in a few hundred yards brought him to bay. The hunters entered the swamp, and proceeded cautiously until they approached within about thirty yards of the huge monster. Here they stopped to consult as to the manner of attack. Not so the panther. He was in their midst at almost a single bound.

    Seizing Guthrie, he dashed him violently to the earth, horribly gashing his head and face. Vickery discharged his piece, loaded with buckshot, into the panther’s breast, at a distance of six feet. Herrin’s gun missed fire, when he drew his knife, in real Western style, and cut the panther’s throat. The dog was killed in the fight by the cougar, but Guthrie and the boy escaped with their lives, and still survive to tell the tale.

In this account the victim of the panther attack, “The Boy,” is never fully identified, just that he was the stepson of Thomas B. Stewart.  Other accounts of the attack identify the victim as Jim Hightower (aka James Stewart), step-son of  Thomas B. Stewart.  There are records of Thomas B. Stewart and family in Lowndes County in the census of 1840 (prior to the creation of Berrien County), but  the members of his household are not identified by name.    Thomas B. Stewart appears in the census of 1850 in that portion of Clinch County that was cut from Lowndes County. His nearest neighbors are Alfred Herrin, William Green Akin, John H. Guthrie, and Jesse Vickery but the census gives no indication as to which of Thomas B. Stewart’s son’s might be step children.

1850 United States Federal Census enumeration of Thomas B Stewart:
Name: Thomas B Stewart
Age: 52
Estimated Birth Year: abt 1798
Birth Place: Virginia
Gender: Male
Home in 1850:  Clinch County, Georgia (Formerly Lowndes County)
Household Members: Name Age
Thomas B Stewart 52
Elizabeth Stewart 42
James Stewart 18
Nathaniel Stewart 15
Elizabeth Stewart 13
Joshua Stewart 11
Thomas Stewart 9
George Stewart 4

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Martha Guthrie: Babe of the Indian Wars

Before her death Martha Guthrie, born amid the conflict of the Indian Wars of 1836-38 related the role of her family in that conflict. The Newbern homestead was located on the east bank of Five Mile Creek, perhaps about eight miles northeast of Ray City, GA.  This was probably somewhere in the present day vicinity of the Highway 168 bridge over Five Mile Creek.

Martha Newbern Guthrie was born April 10, 1836,  the daughter of Dred Newbern and Bettsy Sirmons. In the spring of that year, pioneers all across Wiregrass Georgia were facing increasing hostilities from the Native Americans who were being forced out of their ancestral lands.

The skirmish at William Parker’s place, on the Alapaha River about five miles east from the Newbern homestead, was a prelude to the Battle of Brushy Creek.

Here is Martha’s story, published many years ago, of the last Indian Fight in Berrien County:

    On the west side of the Alapaha River, six miles south of Bannockburn, on lot of land No. 201 in the 10th district of Berrien County, is a historic spring that is really entitled to be called Indian Spring, were it not that another spot in Georgia bears that name.
    On this lot of land in 1836 lived William Parker, who came to this section in search of a new home in new territory.  Four miles North and on lot No. 63 lived John Gaskins and his wife and four boys. Nearby lived William Peters and family.
    Four miles to the Southwest and on the East bank of Five Mile Creek lived Dred Newbern and his family (This [was later] known as the John Fender Place).
    William Gaskins lived further to the north where Bannockburn now is, while Harmon Gaskins lived west of the Parker Home five miles and on lot No. 172.  All this was then in Lowndes County.

Leaves for a Day

    One day in July 1836, William Parker had to be away from home, leaving his wife, small child and daughter, just entering her ‘teens, at home alone.  Mrs. Parker and her daughter did their washing down at the river bank at the spring mentioned above, and when the noon hour came they went back to the house some 300 yards distant to prepare and eat the noon-day meal. While so engaged they heard a noise down at the spring and on investigating were horrified to discover a band of Indians, dressed Indian fashion with headfeathers, assembled at the spring getting water.
    Hurriedly and cautiously Mrs. Parker sped back to the house and gathering up her baby, with her daughter, left quickly and set out to the west toward the home of Dryden Newbern.
    Arriving there she related what she had seen, as fast as her fright and exhaustion  would allow, for she had run every step of the way, and she was almost overcome with heat and fatigue.
    On learning this Mr. Newbern realized that the cause of their own experiences of the night before when the horses had become greatly frightened, snorting and breaking out of the horse lot and coming back the next morning.  It was supposed that they had become frightened at the sight of the Indians who were prowling around the neighborhood to steal.

Word Sent Out

  Quickly as possible, word was sent out by Mr. Newbern to his scattered neighbors.  The  women and children were gathered up and carried, some to Milltown  where they were placed in a strongly built gin house on the farm of Joshua Lee, while others were taken north to the home of John Marsh near where the S. B. Dorminey home is. A guard was left at each place for their protection and every able-bodied man that would be mustered returned to the Parker home and organized for action.
It was found that during the night the Indians had entered the homes of William Parker, Willis Peters and John Gaskins,  and finding no one at home proceeded to take out the feather beds, opened the ticks, emptied the feathers and appropriated the ticks.
They took other valuables including a shotbag from the Parker home containing his money,  a handsomely flowered pitcher from the Gaskins home, and other valuable articles which they thought they could carry.  They also obtained a small amount of sliver coins tied up in a rag from the Peters home.

Indians escape from first net

    Skirting the river on the West side and opposite the Parker home, is a hammocky swamp interspersed with spots of high ground and almost inaccessible to white men; and when the little band of white men arrived at the scene just after sunrise they could see the smoke of the Indian camp-fires rising in the center of the swamp.
William Peters was placed in command of the little band, because Capt. Levi J. Knight (in command of the militia at the time) had not arrived.  Orders were given to the men to entirely surround the Indian camp before firing a shot, if possible.
In the eagerness of the moment, however,  precautions were not observed and before the circle could be completed the Indians discovered the approach and opened fire; the whites returned the fire, and were horrified to see their leader, William Peters,  fall wounded through the front part of the abdomen by a bullet from a redskin gun.

Overtake Indians

    This so horrified and frustrated the whites until every Indian made his escape. As soon as the wounded man could be properly cared for and the whites being joined by others including Capt. Knight, gave pursuit and overtook the Indians while the last of the band was crossing the river, up near where the Withlacoochee bridge now stands, on the Nashville-Willacoochee road.
The whites pressed the Indians so hard and were so close in behind them until a portion of the plunder was thrown into the sloughs by the Indians, in order to allow swifter flight.
Among the articles thrown away were Mr. Parker’s shotbag containing his money, which was caught on a swinging limb and was suspended just under the water when found; the flowered pitcher taken from the Gaskin’s kitchen, and a shotgun (which was later sold for forty dollars),  also the small package of money taken from the Peters home, was found tied to a small bush under the water.  The river slough in which the pitcher was found has ever since been known as “Pitcher Slough.”
    The further progress of this band of Indians and their pursuers as they pushed their way through what is now Clinch county and the engagements near “Boggy Slough” and in which William Daughtry had a horse shot from under him and Barzilla Staten was dangerously wounded, is told by Folks Huxford in  his “History of Clinch County,” published in 1916.
The man who first discovered Mr. Parker’s shot bag containing his money was William Green Aikins.

Note–The forgoing episode was related to me by Mrs. Martha Guthrie, widow of Samuel Guthrie, and a daughter of Dred (or Dryden) Newbern and his wife, Elizabeth. Mrs. Guthrie was blind, but otherwise in full possession of all her faculties, and talked entertainingly of so many things that happened years ago.

The children of Martha Newbern and Samuel F. Guthrie:

  1. Lewis Guthrie  abt 1853 –
  2. Josephene Guthrie 1856 –
  3. Archibald Guthrie 1859 –
  4. Samuel Guthrie 1860 –
  5. Arren Horn Guthrie 1864 – 1932
  6. Dicey Guthrie 1866 – 1953
  7. James Berrien Guthrie 1868 – 1949
  8. Martha Guthrie 1870 –
  9. Linton Guthrie 1872 –
  10. Betty Guthrie 1874 –
  11. John Guthrie 1876 –
  12. Dread Guthrie 1879-