HOMETOWN HEROES: Say a prayer for Delphine Williams

Published 8:11 am Sunday, June 30, 2024

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Say a prayer as you drive by Calvary Cemetery in Port Arthur.

Buried somewhere in that cemetery in a grave no longer identified as hers are the remains of Delphine Huntington Williams.

Delphine was born in 1861 and died on Thursday, August 7, 1930.

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An obituary in The Port Arthur News that day celebrated her as a pioneer citizen of the city and a member of the altar guild in her church.

Fifteen years later, the very morning after the United States detonated an atomic bomb over Hiroshima, The News carried a column headlined “15 Years Ago Today …”

It again remembered Delphine as a “pioneer Port Arthur resident.” She was indeed a pioneer Port Arthur resident, a faithful mother and a member of the altar guild at St Mary’s.

But the grave kept her secret.

Delphine had been born in Calcasieu Parish, Louisiana, in the year when the Civil War began. Her father, Ambrose P. Huntington, a native of New York state, had been born in 1823.

He came to Louisiana and settled in Calcasieu ten or fifteen years before the war, and contrary to his Yankee upbringing, he joined the Confederate army in 1860. He was captured at the battle of Missionary Ridge in Tennessee in 1863, spent a year or so in a Union prison in Illinois, swore out an oath of allegiance to the United States and returned to Lake Charles at the end of the war.

Ambrose Huntington fathered Delphine and Delphine’s sister, Ellen, by a woman who had the French name Louison Bonin.

Louison — with some justice — took up the surname Huntington after she bore children by him, even though there’s no evidence she and Ambrose were married and no evidence Ambrose took any responsibility for the two daughters he fathered by her.

Louison’s daughter Delphine married Mississippi native John Robert (J.R.) Williams in Houston in 1881.

They moved to Beaumont in approximately 1908 and then to Port Arthur before 1920.

J.R. died at the Texas State Hospital in Austin in 1921.

When Delphine died nine years later in 1930, she was proprietor of a smaller boarding house on Lakefront Drive on the ship channel in Port Arthur, where she lived with her son, Grover Charles Williams, a ship’s cook.

Here’s the secret that Delphine and her children knew, and the public at large did not know: Delphine’s mother Louison Bonin had also been known as Kishyúts in the old native language of southeastern Texas and southwestern Louisiana, a language Delphine and her sister Ellen had learned from their mother.

Delphine may have looked like everyone else. She may have talked in public like everyone else. But unknown to almost everyone around her she was one of the native people of southwestern Louisiana and southeastern Texas.

How do we know?

In 1885, Dr. Albert Samuel Gatschet of the Smithsonian Institution’s Bureau of American Ethnology traveled to Lake Charles, where he interviewed Delphine’s mother, Kishyúts (Louison Bonin/Huntington) and her aunt Tóttoksh (Delia Moss), who also spoke the native Atakapa language of southwestern Louisiana and southeastern Texas.

A later Smithsonian investigator, John R. Swanton, named “Delphine Williams, wife of J. R. Williams” as a surviving speaker of the old language in 1908.

We can’t identify many of the historic native people of southeastern Texas by name, but we can name Delphine Williams, the daughter of Kishyúts (Louison), the daughter of Kishmók (also called Ponponne), one of the five daughters of the Atakapa Chief Shukuhúy.

Delphine had known and spoken the native language that had been spoken in this region for centuries.

Say a prayer to honor Delphine and her people.


— Ted A. Campbell is a native of Beaumont, educated at the University of North Texas (BA), Oxford University (MA) and Southern Methodist University (PhD). He serves as the Albert C. Outler Professor of Wesley Studies at Southern Methodist University and is an elected Fellow of the Royal Historical Society of the United Kingdom. This article is part of his work in progress on a history of Southeast Texas.