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Scholar seeking ‘Southern honor’ in Madera

October 13, 2018

Madera County Historical Society
R. Daryl Lewis, right, at the grave of Harry St. John Dixon in Fresno, shakes hands with John Dixon, Harry’s grandson. Lewis, an educator and author, is conducting research in Madera on Dixon.

Thirty-one years years ago, teacher Daryl Lewis came to Madera to visit the Mordecai Ranch. The young educator from Riverside High School near Leland, Mississippi had involved his students in a yearlong, trans-continental history project with classes from three other cities. They were researching the lives of Madera pioneers George Washington Mordecai and his wife, Louise Dixon Mordecai.


Lewis and his students had concentrated on Louise in their research, since she had come to what is now Madera County in 1870, from Sycamore Plantation, which at that time was located in what today could euphemistically be called Lewis’ back yard. In fact, he now lives just a stone’s throw across Deer Creek from where Louise Dixon was born.


During that year of working with teachers and students in Richmond, Virginia, Raleigh, North Carolina, and Madera, Lewis’ students uncovered the story of the Dixon family in Mississippi — a story that basically had not been told until it appeared in Refuge, the end product of that year of collaborative research among the young historians from four states.


In June 1987, Lewis brought several of his students to the Mordecai Ranch to celebrate their accomplishments with the other classes and the Mordecai family. When he packed up to go home, Lewis thought he was putting the finishing touches on an exhilarating teaching experience. Little did he know that the Mordecai project would begin to shape his professional life and would set him on a historical quest that would consume him.


When Lewis returned home to prepare for the next school year, he found himself drawn irresistibly to pioneers in his own community, specifically the Dixon family. He obtained a diary written by Harry St. John Dixon, Louise Dixon Mordecai’s brother. He searched his county and state archives. He left no stone unturned in his relentless sleuthing for Dixon material, and after more than two decades, he became the unquestioned authority on the Dixon family who would one day leave an indelible mark on, not only California, but the entire West as well.


On May 22, 2010, Lewis returned to California by invitation to take part in a graveside ceremony in remembrance of his hero, Harry St. John Dixon, father of the famous artist of the West, Maynard Dixon. There he met for the first time about 30 members of the Dixon family, including John Dixon, the only surviving grandson of Harry St. John Dixon. The Mississippi scholar then made a quick turn around and returned to his home the next day, but before he left, he made plans to return to California to search for “Southern honor.”


You see, in addition to studying the life of Harry Dixon, Lewis has been studying the “mind of the South,” and the code of honor that developed in that region. He thinks he sees abundant evidence of “Southern honor” in the lives of Harry Dixon and George Mordecai, and he wants to know if they brought their own brand to California with them.


Lewis knows that Harry Dixon was a member of the Alabama Colony, along with George Washington Mordecai, who became his brother-in-law. He knows that these two men, while Rebels in sentiment, were very different men. Mordecai came from aristocratic, genteel Virginia — the Old Dominion — while Dixon came from the rough and tumble Mississippi frontier. Lewis wants to examine the lives of the two southern expatriates in an attempt to see what vestiges of “Southern honor” they brought to California with them and how it impacted local history. It is a fascinating topic and one that will take considerable unraveling. However, if anyone can do it, Daryl Lewis can.


Every week since 1992, he as read the Leland, Mississippi, newspapers for each decade back 100 years and has compiled excerpts of the most important events occurring that week. He is the author of two books and was selected as a Mississippi Teacher of the Year.


Lewis was also appointed by then Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour to the Board of Trustees of the Mississippi Authority for Educational Television. So, if you ever see Daryl Lewis snooping around Madera, you will know what he is up to. He can be trusted and we can rest assured that when he is done, we will all know more about our beginnings as a community than we do at the present.

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