1873 – 1920 The Travels of Bernard Dent

The early years of Lester Dent are inexorably tied to his father, Bernard Dent. The elder Dent was something of a wandering pilgrim seeking success at some new location. The records on Bernard Dent’s early days are few and far between. The more reliable information comes from government documents and newspaper articles. Other information comes from anecdotal sources and is not so reliable.

Probably, the most significant anecdotal evidence comes from a document submitted to the National Register of Historic Places showing a nomination date of March 30, 1990. The application referred to the Dent home as the “House of Gadgets” and was intended to recognize the historical importance of the property and the societal contributions of Lester Dent. Page 26 of the documents lists Mildred V. Arnold with the notation “Original research and draft nomination.”
Mildred Arnold and her husband Kenneth were long-time friends of the Dents.

We can gather from this information that Mildred Arnold collected the data and compiled it for submission. The items of most interest are the dates on pages 21-23 titled “Partial Chronology of Places Lester Dent Lived.” It seems likely that this information was collected from Norma Dent and was largely based on stories she heard Lester or his parents, Bern and Alice Dent.

The Macon Chronicle Herald, Macon, Missouri, published an article on Wednesday, June 27, 1990, noting that the Dent home had been added to the National Register of Historical Places. The National Register of Historic Places document provides a timeline of Lester Dent’s early life along these lines:

The Dents moved to Broken Arrow, Oklahoma in 1906 at which time a tornado destroyed their home forcing them back to La Plata, Missouri. The family then began traveling by wagon to Wyoming in 1908 during which they spent some time in Alliance, Nebraska working to finance the remainder of the trip. The Dents arrived at their location in 1909 which was an isolated ranch near Gillette, Wyoming. Dent was taught school by his mother until he entered fourth grade. The family rented a property in Gillette where Lester and his mother lived during the school year while he attended the local public school. In 1917, the Dent family returned to La Plata, Missouri and lived on the family farm. Lester Dent graduated from high school in La Plata in 1923 and enrolled in the Telegraphy School at Chillicothe Business College in Chillicothe, Missouri.

There are two more pages of information but the dates on the first pages are of most interest for this analysis.

In short, the dates given are almost all inaccurate. Lester Dent’s birthdate and high school graduation date are the only verifiable dates shown. The other dates are all contradicted by census data and newspaper accounts.

The account below documents the locations of Bernard and Alice Dent using census documents and newspaper articles.

Lester Dent’s grandfather, Marquis Lafayette Dent (1823-1912) was born in Bullitt County, Kentucky on December 23, 1823.  He married Susan Adaline Sailing (1842-1916) on April 2, 1860, in Macon, Missouri.  Their marriage was registered a few days later, on April 29.  The 1860 United States Census shows Marquis Dent living in La Plata, Missouri.  He is 35 years old, and his farm’s value is listed at $8,000.  Marquis L. Dent died on March 25, 1912, and is buried in the La Plata Cemetery in La Plata, Missouri.  Susan Dent died February 3, 1916, and is buried in the La Plata Cemetery.

Lester Dent’s parents were Bernard Dent and Alice Norfolk Dent. Bernard was born on April 17, 1873. Alice Norfolk was born on March 5, 1873. Both were born in Missouri near La Plata, likely on their respective family farms. Bernard’s parents were Marquis Dent and Susan Sailing Dent. The Dent family appeared to be practicing Catholics. Bernard’s sister, Sally, died in 1888 and was buried in the Catholic cemetery near Macon, Missouri. His brother John died in 1889 and was buried in the same cemetery.

Bern Dent and Alice Norfolk were married in La Plata, Missouri on February 5, 1896. It is interesting to note that the marriage license was from Adair county. Someone has marked through Adair and written Macon above it. The service was performed by W. A. Hamilton, a “minister of the gospel.” An article in the Friday, July 3, 1896, edition of The Macon Republican, Macon, Missouri, describes W. A. Hamilton as being a minster in the Christian Church in La Plata, Missouri.

An item under “Oklahoma News” states that Berne Dent , John T. Norfolk, William Norfolk, and Lafe Norfolk left on the tenth for a trip to the Rocky Mountains.  The trip is to help improve the health of Lafe Norfolk.  Source: Kirksville Democrat, Friday, August 21, 1896

January 21, 1898
Doings of South Adair – The note states that Berne Dent and W. H. Norfolk will offer a public sale on January 27.  Both will be moving to northwest Nebraska in early March.  Another note further down states that W. H. Norfolk bought forty cattle that he will be taking to Nebraska.
Source: Kirksville, Democrat, Friday, January 21, 1898

February 23, 1898, Wednesday
Doings of South Adair – Berne Dent and his wife are headed for northwest Nebraska.  The short article mentions that Berne Dent will be in the cattle business and his wife will teach school.
Source: Kirksville, Democrat, Friday, February 25, 1898

The Kirksville Democrat carried a short notice in the Friday, November 20, 1898 issue.  The item was under the title “Oklahoma News” and noted that Berne Dent and his wife had spent Sunday at J. T. Norfolk’s home which would be November 15.

1900 – Potter Township, Nebraska
The 1900 United States Census for Potter in Cheyenne County, Nebraska provided some insight into the activities of Bernard Dent and his relatives. Berne Dent, age 26, was living in Potter, a village in Cheyenne County, Nebraska. His occupation was listed as a farmer, and he was a renter. Alice Dent was not listed on the form.

1900 United States Census for Bernard Dent. [Click on image to open in new tab.]

Bernard Dent’s brother-in-law, Frank M. Norfolk (1866-1934), was also living in Potter, Nebraska. He was unmarried and rooming with Thomas Davis. Both men were working as day laborers for the railroad.

Bernard Dent’s brother-in-law, William Henry Norfolk (1871-1936), was yet another relative also living in Potter. William Norfolk was living with his wife and three children. William was working as a day laborer for the railroad.

Alice Dent’s brother, George Thomas Norfolk and his wife, Lulu Gardner Norfolk, were living about twenty miles away from Potter, Nebraska. George Norfolk and his wife Lulu were living in Sidney, Nebraska. Both were working as cooks.

The next mention of Bernard Dent is in the La Plata Home Press, Thursday, December 27, 1900. Readers were told that Berne Dent was back from Nebraska visiting his parents, Mr. & Mrs. Marques Lafayette Dent.

Lester Dent was born on October 12, 1904, Wednesday at the home of his grandparents, John Thomas Norfolk and Mary Boring Norfolk, in Wilson Township, Adair County, Missouri.

1904 – La Plata, Missouri
Bernard Dent’s name appeared in the La Plata Home Press on November 24, 1904. The paper stated that Bern Dent had returned from the west and was considering staying in La Plata permanently.

Four months later, The Macon Republican, March 23, 1905, edition reported that Bernard Dent was one of a party of men who left Tuesday to buy land in the Indian Territory (Oklahoma). A week later, the La Plata Home Press reported Bern Dent decided to settle in Oklahoma and did not return to La Plata with the group.

During this time, Alice Dent appeared to have been spending time with her father, John Norfolk. The La Plata Home Press wrote on Thursday, April 6, 1905, that she and her father had visited relatives last Saturday in Knox County:

1905 – Broken Arrow, Oklahoma
The La Plata Home Press wrote on Thursday, May 4, 1905, that Bernard Dent’s wife and son left on the prior Friday and were headed for Broken Arrow in the Indian Territory (Oklahoma) to join Mr. Dent who has rented a farm there.

An article in The Macon Republican, Saturday, September 19, 1908, reported that Alice Dent and son Lester visited here the prior week. The Dents were living in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma.

1910 – Lone Star Township, Oklahoma
The United States Census for 1910 recorded the Dents living at Lone Star, Wagoner County, Oklahoma. Alice and Berne Dent are both age 37. Lester is age 5. Berne Dent is working as a farmer. Alice Dent’s name is listed as “Allie.” The document notes that Bernard Dent was buying his farm. Bernard Dent’s name also appeared in Hoffine’s 1910 Tulsa Directory on page 399 and stated he lived in Broken Arrow.

1910 United States Census

1910 United States Census for Bernard Dent, Alice Dent, and Lester Dent [Click on image to open in new tab.]

The Broken Arrow Democrat, Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, Friday, July 15, 1910, noted that Bernard Dent headed to La Plata, Missouri on Monday for a ten-day visit.

Alice Dent was in La Plata on April 16, 1912. The La Plata Home Press, Thursday, April 18, 1912, stated she visited her brother, F. M. Norfolk and W. H. Norfolk in Kirksville, Missouri.

The public records do not indicate exactly when the Dent family traveled to Wyoming. The National Register of Historic Places application states that in 1913 the Dents rented a home in Gillette, Wyoming so that Lester could attend school. Lester Dent would have been age 13 on October 4 of that year. No documentation was found to verify this date.

1916 – Wyoming
Bernard Dent’s mother, Susan Adaline Sailing Dent died on February 3, 1916. The La Plata Home Press carried the obituary in its Thursday, February 10, 1916, issue. The funeral was in the M. E. Church on Monday in La Plata. Rev. A. E. Babb conducted the service. Persons attending were:
   Mrs. Maggie (Dent) Williams, Elmer Missouri,
   J. W. Dent, Knox City, Missouri,
   Frank E. Dent, St. Vrain, New Mexico,
   Bernard Dent, Gillette, Wyoming,
   Mrs. Lizzie (Dent) Dickerson, Colorado Springs, Colorado.

The La Plata Republican, March 3, 1916, reported that Berne Dent’s nephew, J. Clyde Dent, left for Billings, Montana, where he planned to relocate. He planned to visit his uncle and family who were living in Gillette, Wyoming, during his trip.

1918 – Gillette, Wyoming
Bernard Dent’s draft card dated September 12, 1918, listed his permanent residence at Gillette, Wyoming. He was 45 years old and worked as a farmer. Alice Dent was listed as the nearest kin and living in Gillette. Bernard Dent’s brother-in-law, John Bert Norfolk (1879-1961) was also living in Gillette, Wyoming at this time.

It has been reported that Lester Dent began attending school for eighth grade at Blanket Grove School in Wilson Township in Adair County, Missouri. Bernard Dent’s draft card indicates they were still living in Wyoming at the start of the school year.

1920 – Wilson Township, Missouri
The last documented entry is the 1920 United States Census. Bernard Dent was working as a farmer. Alice Dent’s age was keeping house. They are both age 47. Lester Dent was age 15 and in eighth grade. The documents indicate that Bernard Dent owned the home they were living in. Notations on the margins of the census document indicate the location was south and west of Gibbs, Missouri. This matches the approximate location of the Marquis Dent farm.

1920 United States Census

1920 United States Census for Bernard Dent, Alice Dent, and Lester Dent [Click on image to open in new tab.]

1900 – Bert Norfolk arrives in Wyoming
Another pertinent fact relates to Bert Norfolk as he is sometimes mentioned in other articles relating to Bernard Dent’s early years. The April 27, 1967, edition of The News-Record, Gillette, Wyoming, carried a lengthy article on Bert Norfolk. The article noted he was an earlier settler of the area and first came to Wyoming in 1900. He was a cowboy and worked on the Sunnyside Ranch for W. P. Ricketts. The article noted he homesteaded on the Powder River that same year. In 1906, while in Missouri, Bert Norfolk met sixteen-year-old Maudie Eitel. Bert went back to Wyoming but returned a few weeks later and the pair were married on October 21, 1906.

The tales about Bernard Dent have growth to near mythical proportions. It has been written that he traveled to Wyoming by covered wagon and fought off attacks by native Americans and bandits along the way. That he was a rancher and built the famous 4J Ranch near Gillette, Wyoming. That oil was discovered on the farm he sold in Oklahoma and on another farm in Wyoming he sold to his brother-in-law.

The earliest bit of hyperbolic overstatement comes in Bern Dent’s obituary as reported in the La Plata Home Press, La Plata, Missouri, in the Thursday, April 6, 1950, issue:

Earlier in life Mr. Dent was a pioneer settler in Wyoming by trail-driving a small herd of cattle in from Nebraska. The Wyoming area at this time was almost unsettled and much of it was hostile Indian country and the trip was made by covered wagon. Mr. Dent was also a pioneer in the so-called Indian territory, which later became the state of Oklahoma, living for several years near Broken Arrow, Oklahoma.

Wyoming became a state in 1890, long before Bernard Dent passed its border. Oklahoma became a state in 1907 while Bernard Dent was a resident. Attacks by native Americans was a part of history rather than current events during Bernard Dent’s time in either state. No doubt, it could be dangerous traveling in the uninhabited regions, making a journey from Missouri to Wyoming but it was nothing like the wild west of a prior generation.

Bernard Dent’s name is often associated with the 4J Ranch located south of Gillette. The ranch there was created in 1896 by George Keeling and his sons. The distinctive 4J brand was registered with the state of Wyoming. Bernard Dent may have worked on this ranch, or he may have had a ranch that he nostalgically called the 4J, but it was not the Keeling 4J Ranch.

It is also noteworthy that every record associated with Bernard Dent stated he was farming rather than ranching.

The Bureau of Land Management records show no homestead claims by Bernard Dent in any state.

None of this is meant to diminish the achievements of Bernard Dent. He lived an extraordinary life. But the factual documents available do not support some of the larger-than-life stories associated with his life.