CHAPTER X: A History of Jefferson County, Texas
By W. T. Block
In 1840, Jefferson County enjoyed no prestige as an agricultural province. Although many farmers and planters along the eastern seaboard of the United States were deserting their worn-out and eroded farms and were moving westward in search of prime cotton lands, few of them planned to settle in Jefferson County. This was due in large part to the lack of attention the area received in the popular travel accounts of the day.
Arthur Ikin, who visited Texas in 1841, heralded the Brazos River, where “alluvial lands on this stream are celebrated throughout America for their inexhaustible fertility.” He also praised the Red River region, “where some of the most productive cotton plantations in the world are,” but said nothing about the Neches and Sabine River country.1 Another traveler, George W. Bonnell, reported that “more cotton may be raised upon the lower Brazos . . . than can be saved by the hands who raised it,” but described the land between Beaumont and the sea as “not of very good quality.”2 Orceneth Fisher, an early Methodist circuit rider who praised the area near the Brazos and the St. Bernard rivers as “the richest lands in Texas, perhaps among the richest in the world,” failed even to mention Jefferson County in his Sketches of Texas in 184O.3
In 1848, Viktor Bracht, a German immigrant, considered lands along the Trinity River as being “the very best in Texas,” but was silent about the lower Neches-Sabine region.4 In 1840, British consul William Kennedy described the soil of Jefferson County as being “comparatively poor, and better adapted to grazing then tillage.”5 Such adverse accounts did little to attract southern cotton farmers and planters to settle in the county. Only two bales of cotton were grown in Jefferson County in 1849, 84 bales in 1859, 78 bales in 1869, and 77 bales in 1879.6
The fertility of the rich, alluvial marsh ridges of the Gulf Prairie were well-known at an early date, and the migrant planters from the eastern seaboard quickly settled there. By 1860, cotton-growing families totaling three hundred persons had braved the isolation (except by water) of Johnson’s Bayou in Cameron Parish, Louisiana, a few miles east of Sabine Pass.7 Nevertheless, not a single bale of cotton was grown on the two seven-mile-long alluvial ridges at Sabine in 1860, although the town’s population was around 500 persons, not including 101 slaves owned by twenty-one slave-holders.8 By contrast, 25 of the 78 bales grown in Jefferson County in 1869 and 69 of the 77 bales in 1879 were grown at Sabine Pass.9
The reader can quickly surmise that nothing resembling a cotton plantation-slave economy existed in antebellum Jefferson and Orange counties (although the latter produced 252 bales in 1859).10 For contrast, several nearby counties produced cotton in 1859 in the following amounts: Liberty, 1,565 bales; Jasper, 3,792 bales; Sabine, 2,127 bales; and Nacogdoches, 3,096 bales.11
The agricultural comments of the enumerator, Deputy Marshal George A. Pattillo, in the Orange County Schedule IV, Products of Agriculture, United States Census of 1860, are considered equally applicable to Jefferson County, for agriculture evolved in both counties in similar fashion. Each county contained equal parts of marsh, prairie, and timbered lands, large cattle herds, and a formation of black clay soil surface. Pattillo knew of one farm that had been in continuous cultivation for thirty-five years, and as dry as the year was, would still produce thirty bushels of corn to the acre. Despite a short crop, he expected sweet potatoes to produce 100 bushels per acre; cotton, 1,500 pounds per acre; oats, 15 bushels per acre; and sugar cane, 2,000 pounds of sugar per acre. The enumerator added that farming had been much neglected previously, and that men who tilled no more than five acres called themselves farmers, apparently being “employed by others so that they are not a charge on the public.”12
Describing early-day Jefferson County, one writer recorded that “settlers braved the enmity of cattlemen who disliked fences.”13 As a cause for low cotton production, however, his reason is considered illogical, for it did not hinder the production of 16,531 bushels of corn and 9,758 bushels of sweet potatoes in 1849.14 In 1859, the county’s eight largest cattlemen, with herds varying in size between 600 and 3,000 head, were also large-scale corn and sweet potato producers, averaging 470 bushels of corn and 286 bushels of sweet potatoes each.15
During his travels in Southeast Texas during the 1850’s, Frederick Olmsted described the inhabitants as “herdsmen cultivating no other crop than corn, and of that, not enough to supply their own bread demand.” Elsewhere, he added that, upon his attempts to purchase corn as horse fodder, farmers replied that “folks didn’t make corn enough to bread them, and if anybody had corn to give his horse, he carried it in his hat and went out behind somewhere.”16 However, sweet potatoes were probably used extensively as a fodder supplement. Except in abnormally dry seasons, one-third of the yams grown in Jefferson County were characteristically wormy and inedible, suitable only as animal feed.
Statistics of the early rice industry in Jefferson County are of equal interest. In 1849, four decades before the advent of steam-driven tractors, pumps, and harvesting machinery, rice was planted in rows, like corn, and depended solely upon rainfall for moisture. Hence, the small quantity of “providence” rice produced was recorded in pounds rather than bushels or barrels.17
A brief surge of Southeast Texas rice production in 1849 may have been directly attributable to falling cotton and corn prices. Commenting on the first lot of rice ever sold at Athens, Texas, the editor of the Houston Telegraph and Texas Register stated in 1849 that rice sold at seventy-five cents per bushel “would certainly be a better business than raising cotton at 5¢, or corn and wheat at present prices.”18 As a consequence, the editor urged the Eirmers of the rolling, upland counties to devote all suitable level lands (averaging less than 5% of their areas) to the culture of rice.19
Many farmers of that year evidently observed the Telegraph’s advice. Fifteen farmers in Jefferson County grew a total of 18,900 pounds.20 The 1849 rice production of the state was concentrated as much in the upland counties as in the coastal areas, as the following list reveals: Liberty, 6,651 pounds: Harris, none: Jasper, 3,565 pounds; Sabine, 9,855 pounds; Nacogdoches, 285 pounds; San Augustine. 6,780 pounds; and Shelby, 2,000 pounds.21 In 1851, the Telegraph’s editor reported that Judge Doughtery of Henderson County had “raised a crop of several hundred bushels of upland rice. The crop averages thirty bushels to the acre.”22
A decade later, a flourishing cotton market virtually ended the earlier interest in East Texas rice production. In 1859, the production figures in neighboring counties are listed on census returns as: Liberty, none; Harris, none; Hardin, 1,529 pounds; Jasper, 73 pounds; Orange, 600 pounds; Nacogdoches, 30 pounds; and Sabine, 19,740 pounds. In Sabine, the only county (Orange and Hardin did not exist in 1849) to maintain or increase its production, farmer S. V. Beckham grew 14,000 pounds.23 During three succeeding decades, Jefferson County’s rice production dropped to 1,000 pounds in 1859, to 11,300 pounds in 1869, and to 5,910 pounds in 1879. In 1869, fifteen farmers grew quantities of 200 pounds or more.24
Jefferson County’s most diversified planter of the 1840’s was Stephen L. Smith (a brother of Erastus “Deaf” Smith), who’s 325-acre farm included the land currently occupied by the Mobil Oil Company refinery and Lamar University. Smith was also the only significant sugar producer in the county. In 1849, he made 25,000 pounds of sugar, 1,000 gallons of cane syrup, and grew 600 bushels of corn, 1,500 bushels of sweet potatoes, 15 bushels of peas, and 25 bushels of Irish potatoes. His livestock holdings included five horses, four oxen, twelve milk cows, thirteen range cattle, 100 hogs, and sixty sheep.25 In July, 1852, Smith was murdered by an unknown assassin at his home, and no sugar or molasses production was listed in the county’s Schedule IV, Products of Agriculture, in 1860. In that year, the only significant sugar grower in the bi-county area was F. R. Flora, an Orange County planter, who made 20,000 pounds of sugar, 3,600 gallons of molasses, and grew 2,500 bushels of corn, 500 bushels of sweet potatoes, and 150 bushels of Irish potatoes. Flora, who resided in the Duncan Woods community near the Neches River, owned thirty-four slaves.26
Between 1860 and 1880, no significant sugar planter appeared in Jefferson County. In 1869, seven sugar cane growers made 3,800 pounds of sugar (from 200 to 800 pounds each) and 300 gallons of molasses. In 1879, two cane growers, Ursin Burrell and W. J. Landrum, made a total of 3,000 pounds of sugar. However, sixteen farmers engaged in syrup-making on a small scale, producing 2,169 gallons in that year.27
Census schedules of four decades indicate that agricultural patterns of nineteenth-century Jefferson County did not vary greatly. Grigsby’s gin remained at Beaumont for several decades. Its ownership can be traced to W. P. Herring’s store in 1851, and to William and Valentine Wiess during the 1870’s, but the gin must have depended on cotton grown outside of the county for its continued existence.28 In 1870, three cotton gins (owned by William Maas, Thomas R. Jackson, and J. H. Armiger) were in operation at Sabine Pass, but their combined output was only 14,000 pounds of ginned cotton, or thirty-five bales.29
During his saddle trips of the 1850’s, Frederick Olmsted was told (in Liberty County) that “the country was retrograding rather than improving—an old class of planters gradually disappearing, leaving their places to be occupied by graziers.” Later, Olmsted passed “many abandoned farms” on both sides of the Sabine River.30 As late as 1882, Ashley W. Spaight, the Texas Commissioner of Insurance and Statistics, observed that agriculture in Jefferson County, “as a regular business, is pursued by a very small percent of the population. It is carried on sufficiently to show that corn, cotton, sugar cane, rice, tobacco, potatoes, melons and all garden vegetables are successful crops and can be grown profitably.”31
In general, two types of farmers can be identified in antebellum Jefferson County. One class consisted of large and medium-scale cattlemen, who relied on agriculture as a secondary and necessary route for survival on the frontier. Other than their large families, most of them owned one or more slaves who had to be fed. The second class was subsistence “sodbusters,” who lacked either the means or motivation to engage in agriculture beyond the point necessary for existence.
Agriculture made its giant leap in Jefferson County after 1890. By that time, technology and agriculture methods had improved vastly. Beginning in 1895, the Port Arthur Land Company’s 200-acre experimental farm in the black clay belt south of present-day Nederland proved that almost any variety of plant, fruit, or livestock could be successfully grown. These included asparagus, dates, and olives.32 By 1904, 13,000 acres of rice were under cultivation at Nederland alone,33 and county-wide, probably 50,000 acres.34
The cotton culture finally arrived in Jefferson County, but it came late and without the slave houses. During the writer’s early school years, about 1928, the south side (and much of the north side) of Highway 90 from Beaumont to Nome was a solid sea of cotton blossoms and fig orchards, not of flooded rice fields as one might suppose. And this is true despite the fact that Beaumont could not support a single cotton gin as of the year 1905.35
The 1850 through 1880 census schedules of agriculture tend to verify what was readily visible to the earliest Anglo-American settlers. Jefferson County, with its miles of windswept prairie grasses and salt grass-covered marsh terrain was rightfully the domain of the longhorn steer, and it was he who held the undisputed title by right of possession throughout the nineteenth century.
1 Arthur Ikin, Texas, 1841: Its History, Topography, Agriculture, Commerce, and General Statistics (reprint; Waco: Texian Press, 1964), pp. 23-25.
2 George W. Bonnell, Topographical Description of Texas To Which Is Added An Account of The Indian Tribes (reprint; Waco: Texian Press, 1964), pp. 12, 38.
3 Orceneth Fisher, Sketches of Texas in 1840 (reprint; Waco: Texian Press, 1964), pp. 27-28.
4 Viktor Bracht, Texas in 1848, translated by C. F. Schmidt (San Antonio: Naylor Company, 1941), p. 8.
5 William Kennedy, Texas: The Rise, Progress, and Prospects of The Republic of Texas (reprint; Fort Worth: The Molyneaux Craftsmen, Incorporated, 1925), p. 137.
6 Manuscript Returns of Jefferson County, Texas, Schedules IV, Products of Agriculture, Seventh, Eighth, Ninth, and Tenth Censuses of the United States: 1850, Microfilm Reel No. 1, Lamar University; 1860, Microfilm Reel No. 1, Lamar University; 1870, Microfilm Reel No. 9, Texas State Library; and 1880, Microfilm Reel No. 29, Texas State Library.
7 Manuscript Returns of Calcasieu Parish, Louisiana, Schedule I, Population, Eighth Census of the United States, 1860, “Augusta or Sabine Pass” community.
8 Ibid Manuscript Returns of Jefferson County, Texas, Sabine Pass community, pp. 5 1-62; Schedule II, Slave Population; and Schedule IV, Products of Agriculture.
9 Ibid. Schedules IV, Products of Agriculture, 1870, 1880, Ninth and Tenth Censuses of the United States, Microfilm Reels Nos. 9, 29, Texas State Library.
10 Manuscript Returns of Orange County, Texas, Schedule IV, Products of Agriculture, Eighth Census of the United States, 1860, Reel No. 2, pp. 1-3, Lamar University.
11 Ibid Manuscript Returns of Liberty, Jasper, Sabine, and Nacogdoches counties, Texas, Microfilm Reels Nos. 1 and 2, Lamar University.
12 Manuscript Returns of Orange County, Texas, Schedule VI, Social Statistics, Eighth Census of the United States. 1860.
13 Texas Writers’ Program, Texas: A Guide To The Lone Star State (New York: Hastings House, 1940), p. 195.
14 “Analysis of the 1850 Census,” Texas Gulf Historical and Biographical Record, VII (May, 1972), pp. 68-69.
15 Manuscript Returns of Jefferson County, Texas, Schedule IV, Products of Agriculture, 1860, Microfilm Reel No. 1.
16 Frederick L. Olmsted, Journey Through Texas .4 Saddle-Trip On The Southern Frontier (reprint; Austin: Von Boeckman-Jones Press, 1962), pp. 228, 239.
17 T. C Richardson, East Texas: Its History and Its Makers (4 volumes; New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Company, 1940), III, p. 1049.
18 (Houston) Telegraph and Texas Register, February 8, 1849.
20 Manuscript Returns of Jefferson County, Texas, Schedule IV, Products of Agriculture, Seventh Census of the United States, 1850, Microfilm Reel No. 1, pp. 447-452.
21 Manuscript Returns of Liberty, Jasper, Sabine, Nacogdoches, San Augustine, and Shelby Counties, Texas, Schedules IV, Products of Agriculture, Seventh Census of the United States, 1850, Microfilm Reel No. 1, Lamar University.
22 (Houston) Telegraph and Texas Register, November 7, 1851.
23 Manuscript Returns of Liberty, Harris, Hardin, Orange, Jasper, Nacogdoches, and Sabine Counties, Texas, Schedules IV, Products of Agriculture, 1860, Microfilm Reels Nos. 1 and 2.
24 Manuscript Returns of Jefferson County, Texas, Schedules IV, Products of Agriculture, 1860, Microfilm Reel No. 1, Lamar University; 1870, 1880, Microfilm Reels Nos. 9, 29, Texas State Library.
25 Manuscript Returns of Jefferson County, Texas, Schedule IV, Products of Agriculture, 1850, Microfilm Reel No. 1; “Analysis of the 1850 Census,” Texas Gulf Historical and Biographical Record, pp. 69, 1 24; Beaumont Journal, July 25, 1908.
26 Manuscript Returns of Orange County, Texas, Schedules IV, Products of Agriculture, 1860, Microfilm Reel No. 1, Lamar University; 1870, 1880, Microfilm Reel Nos. 9, 29, Texas State Library; (Galveston) Weekly News, August 3, 1852 and June 8, 1858.
27 Manuscript Returns of Jefferson County, Schedules IV, Products of Agriculture, 1870, 1880, Microfilm Reel Nos. 9, 29, Texas State Library.
28 Volumes I, p. 1, and P, p. 510, Deed Records, Jefferson County, Texas. During the 1860’s, the same cotton gin belonged to Lucinda Calder Ruff.
29 Manuscript Returns of Jefferson County, Texas, Schedule V, Products of Industry, Ninth Census of the United States, 1870, Microfilm Reel No. 46, Texas State Library.
30 Olmsted, Journey Through Texas, pp. 234, 239.
31 Ashley W. Spaight, The Resources, Soil, and Climate of Texas (Galveston: A. H. Belo and Company, 1882), p. 163.
32 Port Arthur Herald, July 22, 1897; Port Arthur News, March 18, 1897.
33 Beaumont Journal, July 23, 1905.
34 Frank W. Johnson and Eugene C. Barker, A History of Texas and Texans (5 volumes; New York: American Historical Society, 1914), II, p. 699.
35 Beaumont Journal, November 1 2, 1905.