John Wesley Huddleston (1862–1941)
John Wesley Huddleston is best known as a struggling farmer who found two diamonds on the surface of his field near Murfreesboro (Pike County) in August 1906 and made himself and his state famous. Soon after the discovery, he was recognized as the first person outside South Africa to find diamonds at an original volcanic source. In the process, he also became the controversial subject of numerous folk tales.
A native of Pike County, John Huddleston was born in 1862 to David Fielding Huddleston and America White Huddleston. He had seven siblings before his mother’s death in the early 1870s and gained three step-sisters after his father’s remarriage to Francis Carey.
In 1886, Huddleston wed Sarah A. Keys, the mother of a three-year-old son, John T. Keys. The couple had six daughters but lost their second-born, Ellen, in 1895.
Huddleston had deep roots in Pike County. His paternal grandfather, David Huddleston, served twenty-two years as county judge after arriving in 1835. A great-uncle, Lewis Huddleston, held the sheriff’s office from 1843 until his death in 1853. Eventually, the grandparents, parents, and other members of the large extended family settled along the Little Missouri River a few miles south of Murfreesboro and owned several properties by the 243-acre tract where the diamonds were found.
John and Sarah Huddleston’s home farm, 49.26 acres purchased in 1889 for $100, lay only a mile from the future diamond field. They also owned about forty acres beside the field until their growing family evidently prompted them to sell that property. Later, after the birth of their last daughter in 1899, the couple bought another forty acres in the same area.
Huddleston was known as one of the many avid outdoorsmen and amateur prospectors of his era, and no doubt he became familiar with the wooded hills and gullies of those 243 acres before he and Sarah paid $2,000 for the big tract in July 1905. The Huddlestons intended to finance the new property not only by farming or other work but also by selling appreciating parcels of land or using the rising value of their home place to secure loans from a well-to-do landowner of the area.
In August 1906, however, Huddleston found two unusual crystals along a public road running through the new property. Experts in Little Rock (Pulaski County) and New York City identified them as diamonds, and soon word of the discovery got out. When diamond-mining interests appeared on the scene in September 1906, the Huddlestons accepted $360 cash for an extendable six-month option on the 243 acres, at a purchase price of $36,000. Afterward, they signed deed contracts and received payments on principal and interest for almost ten years.
In later accounts, Huddleston was presented as an irresponsible “son of a sharecropper” or a “dreamy backwoodsman” who received cash for the property and soon squandered it. But actually the couple used the bulk of their available cash to buy clear title to land in Murfreesboro, rural Pike County, and adjoining Clark County. In early 1908, the entire family moved to Arkadelphia, the Clark County seat, primarily to give the five daughters the social and cultural benefits of a city.
In Arkadelphia, the Huddlestons reportedly enjoyed “a life of ease and leisure.” John Huddleston soon purchased an automobile and often was seen driving near his old home and the diamond field. Then Sarah had a fatal heart attack in December 1917, and their youngest daughter, Joe May (“Miss Joe”), died in February 1918. The following month, Huddleston and his unmarried daughter, Delia, moved back to Murfreesboro, where he occupied himself with grandchildren, cars, and real estate. When a writer for the Arkansas Gazette visited in late 1920, he found the elderly widower still “a wealthy man, as wealth goes in this remote region.”
Huddleston’s love for the real-estate business was tested severely by his disastrous marriage to young Lizzie Curtis of nearby Pike City (Pike County) in December 1921. At first patient and hopeful, he went so far as to indulge his restless bride by putting up various properties as collateral for loans totaling almost $4,000. After she deserted the home a second time, he finally got a divorce in June 1924 on grounds of adultery and abandonment.
Huddleston salvaged most of the mortgaged land with the financial aid of J. C. Pinnix, who was both an old friend and Pike County’s leading lawyer and banker. Then came the Great Depression and drought, and suddenly land became a tax burden more than an asset. By 1934, Huddleston had transferred all properties except his home in Murfreesboro to family members and Pinnix. To supplement occasional farming, he started a business at his place on Kelly Street, buying and selling used goods. On October 1, 1936, he also began drawing a federal Old Age Pension (Social Security) of ten dollars a month.
Huddleston died at home on November 12, 1941, after a brief illness. He was buried in Japany Cemetery, a family-owned site by the main road three miles south of the diamond field. Originally, only a plain stone marked the grave. In 1995, relatives and a few other concerned residents of the area fashioned a headstone of native rock. A craftsman among them carved a simple inscription beside the image of a sparkling gem: “‘Diamond’ John Huddleston, 1860–1936.” The dates are being corrected.
For additional information:
Evans, Georgia Belle. “Fielding Huddleston of Parson Co., N. C. and His Descendants.” Southwest Arkansas Research Archives, Washington, Arkansas; and Pike County Archives and History Society, Murfreesboro, Arkansas.
Millar, Howard A. It Was Finders-Keepers at America’s Only Diamond Mine. New York: Carlton Press, 1976.
Shiras, Tom. “Arkansas Diamond Discoverer.” Arkansas Gazette. Magazine section, January 4, 1942, pp. 1, 10.
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