Newspapers from Pennsylvania to Missouri reported in 1888 that “Col. Lamar Fontaine” of Mississippi had trained a pair of bears to pull a buggy and could be seen driving “his novel team every fine afternoon.” Anybody with trained bears to pull his buggy must have been an interesting character, but simply to call Lamar Fontaine interesting would be the grossest of understatements.
Standing about six feet tall with dark brown beard and hair as thick as any bear’s fur, he was an impressive man by his looks alone. The son of an Episcopal clergyman, his personal history, as related by himself on numerous occasions to reporters eager to print his story, was almost unbelievable.
Depending on the source you read, he was born in 1829, 1830, 1840, or 1841, in a tent along Onion Creek, about seven miles southeast of Austin, Texas. When the Civil War erupted, Fontaine enlisted in the Mississippi Rifles, Jefferson Davis’s former regiment that had distinguished itself at Buena Vista during the Mexican War.
Despite suffering horrendous injuries early in the War – one article numbers his war wounds at 67 – Fontaine served throughout the conflict as a scout, spy, and sniper. Following the War Fontaine settled in the village of Lyon in Coahoma County, Mississippi, where he made his living as a civil engineer, working on the levees built in the 1880s, and surveying and mapping for the towns springing up in the post war Delta.
He also earned a nationwide reputation as a raconteur full of stories that were fascinating if not always entirely believable. Indeed, his name became synonymous across the country with exaggeration. One paper in far off Portland, Oregon, for instance, in reporting an unusual but true hunting story, assured its subscribers that what they were reading was “no Lamar Fontaine Tale.”
Among other things, “Major” Fontaine, as he came to be known, claimed to have been captured by Comanche Indians as a boy; lived with his captors as an adopted son for four years; sailed to the arctic on a naval vessel; traveled throughout China; served as a Texas Ranger; and fought the British as a Russian soldier during the Crimean War, all before his 27th birthday. He also claimed to have written the lyrics to “All Quiet Along the Potomac,” one of the most popular of Civil War era songs, although his authorship of those words was hotly contested.
Depending on whom you believe, Fontaine led one of the most amazing of lives, or he was about the biggest liar in the old Confederacy. Possibly both are true.
What is certain, though, is that Fontaine was one of the most popular figures in the post bellum South. One distant relative seeking him at a Dallas, Texas, Confederate veterans convention was told that locating Fontaine would be a simple matter – he need only look for a man surrounded by a crowd of people.
Sure enough, the kinsman found Fontaine seated among a large group of folk laughing uproariously at the old veteran’s tales. Fontaine, too, was a practical joker nonpareil, and his many victims included his friend, James Alcorn, the first elected Republican governor of Mississippi.
Fontaine often visited the governor at Alcorn’s Eagle's Nest Plantation a few miles northeast of Fontaine's home in Lyon. A double row of trees lined the drive from the roadside gate to the veranda of Alcorn’s house. Once on the way to visit Alcorn, Fontaine shot a black fox squirrel with the rifle he often carried. He tossed the squirrel beneath a sweet gum by the plantation gate.
The Governor came out to meet Major Fontaine, and the two men sat on the gallery drinking mint juleps, smoking cigars, and enjoying friendly talk. Without warning, Fontaine began to stare toward the gate. "I see a squirrel in that gum tree down there, Governor," he said.
"Fontaine, don't try to palm off any of your miraculous stories on me," responded the Governor. Despite Fontaine's repeated assertion that a black squirrel was in the sweet gum by the gate, the Governor would have none of it. The tree to which Fontaine referred was some 300 yards distant. "No man," the Governor insisted, "was ever gifted with such eyesight, Fontaine, and you needn't try to dupe me."
Fontaine would not stop. "Governor, I'll just wager $10 that I see a black squirrel, and more, that I can kill him from here." The Governor took the bet.
Fontaine got his rifle, pretended to study the tree for a bit, then raised the gun and fired. "Jim," said Fontaine, turning and addressing the Governor's servant, "go down there and you'll find a black squirrel at the root of that gum tree on the left."
In minutes Jim returned with the evidence in hand. "Fontaine," Alcorn said, as he presented the old jokester with a $10 bill, "you're the most remarkable man I ever met." Lamar Fontaine, remarkable to say the least, died in 1921 and is buried in Lyon, Mississippi.
Copyright 2017 by James T. McCafferty