HENRY R. GREEN:
FAKE OBITUARY IDENTIFIED BEAUMONT'S EARLY SCHOOL TEACHER-HISTORIAN
By W. T. Block
Reprinted from Beaumont ENTERPRISE, May 27, 1977.
Sources: "Letters of Hal," Galveston WEEKLY NEWS, Sept. 30, 1856 to Nov. 9,
1859, most of which are reprinted in "Beaumont in the 1850s: The Writings of H. R.
Green," TEXAS GULF HISTORICAL AND BIOGRAPHICAL RECORD, XI (Nov., 1975), 49-78, as
researched, compiled, and edited by W. T. Block.
Buried deep in the old files of the Galveston "Weekly News"
are about fifty delightful letters bearing dates between 1856 anfd 1859 and signed only
with the pseudonym of "Hal." Almost every letter is datelined Beaumont, and
collectively, they depict antebellum social life in the Neches River sawmill town and some
neighboring villages in a manner not previously revealed.
Except for a prank, the world probably would never have known who the
author was, for H. R. Green never revealed his identity in any of his letters. In 1857,
the "News" reported the sudden death of its Beaumont correspondent, Henry R.
Green, whose identity as "Hal" was known only to a few intimate friends. Two
weeks later, the "News" printed a retraction, stating that the 'obituary' was a
thoughtless prank of a fellow correspondent, and that Green was still alive and reporting
from his post in Beaumont.
Nothing is known of Green's life except during his stay in Jefferson
County. Where he came from and where he went to when he left Beaumont about January 1,
1860, are still mysteries. His editor had commissioned the young writer to visit and
report from various towns throughout East Texas, and he had already been in most of the
river ports along the Trinity River valley before arriving in Beaumont on Sept. 11, 1856.
At first, the young correspondent considered the town on the Neches as
only another stop along his East Texas jaunt. But soon finding the frontier freshness of
the sawmill hamlet very much to his liking, Green decided to settle down and wager his
future there. And without a doubt, it was an offer to him to take over as schoolmaster at
the Pine Street school that surely must have affected his decision.
From the date of his first letter, Green revealed a superb ability to
communicate in a witty, folksy, and humorous vein, and his characterization of people was
often without peer. Shortly after crossing Pine Island Bayou en route to Beaumont from
Sour Lake, he met an elderly couple of the present-day Voth neighborhood, not identified
by name, whom he described as follows:
"He was a good old man and had a good old wife. They have lived
there (Voth or Rosedale?) for 37 years. The old gentleman has acquired a fortune merely by
the assistance of nature, as hundreds of cattle and much land and cotton testify. I could
but smile at the simple-hearted, good man when he spoke of the accomplishments of his two
daughters, whom he loved much, and who had just returned from some fashionable boarding or
finishing school at one of our fashionable, inland towns."
"'Here's my two gals,' said our friend, 'that's jest come home
from school, and I'm afeered they've larned more divilment than I kin physic out of 'em in
a year. When they left here, they was just plain, honest country gals, and now they've
come back with a ring on every finger, and so much jewelry, figameries (?), . . . flaps
and hoops that it is impossible for 'em to get in at the door'"
"Well, I seed inter the thing arter a while, and as they was
gettin' tollable costive (?) and it took a sight of money to keep 'em a guine, so I
concluded to fetch 'em home until all sich high-collared, fashionable watering places die
out . . ." The young correspondent agreed that at some frontier Texas schools,
jewelry was 'certainly worshiped more' than school books.
Henry R. Green was a 26-year-old, urbane bachelor when he arrived in
Beaumont. Unfortunately, his writings disclose very little about the author's personal
life, but they do reveal a young man who was educated far beyond the average for that
period of frontier Texas. Quite obviously an outgoing and extroverted personality, he
blended in well in all aspects of Beaumont's early social, religious, and political life.
Green soon became headmaster of Beaumont's only school of 75 pupils,
which was located in the mill area on the Woodville Road, now Pine Street. Nearby were the
new Phillips sawmill and the Ross and Alexander mill, the latter erected only two months
after Green's arrival. Shortly after Green began teaching, a second school was located in
the "Corn Street neighborhood," with Henry G. Willis as its headmaster. In
December, 1857, Green reported that Beaumont's schools numbered "two in full blast,
with a goodly number of pupils, and if all should attend, there would be enough (students)
Green received $2 for each month's tuition for each student. Each
semester he also was reimbursed from county school funds for those students from indigent
families. In 1857, he reported that a "spirit of rivalry, jealousy, and
opposition" existed between the patrons of his school and those of the Corn Street
school. Green considered the animosity between them as a threat to education in the
frontier village, but he did not elaborate concerning the exact causes or effects.
The early correspondent-teacher was also a proponent of law
enforcement, church attendance, political activity, and the social arts and graces, and he
engaged himself wholeheartedly in every community activity. A good social mixer, it's
quite obvious that he was a capable dancer and a social drinker, but he always cautioned
his readers against intemperance or extremism of any kind. He was also president of the
Beaumont Debating Society.
His personal exception was politics. A secessionist long before his
time, Green was an uncompromising Southern Democrat and states' rights advocate, always in
conflict with the Unionist philosophies of then-Sen. Sam Houston. Green's most vicious
political diatribes were directed against Gen. Houston during the latter's gubernatorial
campaigns of 1857 and 1859. Eventually it would be his same political persuasions that
would result in his fall from grace and quick retreat from the local scene.
It is also apparent that the young teacher was a man quite ready to
exchange his unwanted bachelorhood for wedded life, but fate was not to smile upon him in
that respect either. Perhaps he fell in love in Beaumont and was rejected, or otherwise
experienced an unhappy love affair. Wherever he went, he always commented on the
pulchritude of the local belles, regretting only that all were either married or
betrothed. During the 1850s, there was a considerable number of young, unmarried men
arriving in Jefferson County from the eastern seaboard states, creating an excess of
eligible males by about a three to one margin.
In 1858, Green wrote that one shouldn't come to Jefferson County
"to hunt up a wife -- the race is nearly extinct; but in about three years an
abundant crop will be gathered. We have about a dozen young ladies in the county, some of
them quite beautiful, while the others are -- quite handsome."
In many East Texas counties, Green had encountered much local church
opposition to ballroom dancing, but not so at Beaumont. Between 1858 and 1860, two dancing
schools were taught there at different intervals by James C. Clelland and William Harris.
Green noted that Clelland's school was in session three nights weekly, dedicated to the
"total eradication of double-shuffle, go-along, thump-ta-bump movements of ancient
times." Green noted that the dancing students were attending school
"tri-weekly." In 1860, after Green's departure, William Harris was charging a
total of $10 for a series of dancing lessons for "Beaumont gentlemen."
During the summer of 1859, Green was appointed district clerk of
Jefferson County, and the court records for the remainder of that year contain many
entries in his handwriting.
It was during the quarterly sessions of the district and county courts
that early Beaumont came alive, its hotel filled to capacity, and overflowing into the
private homes with visiting jurors, lawyers, litigants, and others, and the town's social
life really blossomed. The rural families especially always combined the rare opportunity
for church attendance, dancing, and social gatherings.
In December, 1858, the correspondent devoted an entire column to a
quarterly court session and the weekend preceding it when "there was dancing on hand
everywhere." Apparently tiring of the drinking that accompanied such occasions, Green
added that he was "sicker of eggnog than the whale was of Jonah."
Thanks to Green, early history has a complete record of Beaumont's
early Ross and Alexander sawmill and its subsequent destruction by fire; the trial and
execution of Jack Bunch (which was antebellum Beaumont's most celebrated criminal case and
the county's first legal execution); some of the early steamboats, education, statistics,
and even cattle and agricultural history. Green also wrote three long letters about
antebellum Orange and two about Sabine Pass, which remain as the best accounts of those
cities written in pre-Civil War days.
The school teacher loved to travel by steamboat or other water
conveyance, and it was on such occasions that he wrote his glowing accounts of the
neighboring cities. In fact, one such letter of Orange could almost be labeled 'poetic
prose,' and one cannot read Green's description of his first sight of Orange and ever
forget it. He also described the presidential election of 1856 when Beaumonters celebrated
President James Buchanan's victory with "the firing of guns, hilarity, good cheer,
and good-humored free drinking, a franchise apparently indispensable to liberty."
From one of his Orange letters, he described frontier religion in action, when
"shrieks, sobs, groans, shouts, and loud amens rent the air," and about
"the talent of squalling infants, terrible enough to carry away the shrouds and sails
and even the human soul itself . . ."
In December, 1858, Green left what is probably the only description of
an early-day Christmas in Jefferson County. As the holiday guest of the prominent McGuire
Chaison family, he shared in all of the family activities, one of which was that
"inseparable concomitant of jubilation -- great chit-chat and glorious gab."
(Note: the Christmas tree had been introduced in Ohio only a few years earlier and did not
reach Southeast Texas until about 1875.)
The holiday may have been devoid of frills by modern-day standards, but
thanks to a chicken dinner, popcorn, fiddling, dancing, conversation and eggnog, it was
still a gala occasion of merrymaking and a scene of gentle family tranquility.
The headmaster also noted that there were very few criminal cases in
Jefferson County, a social phenomenon that existed as early as 1847 (criminality ran
rampant under the old Texas Republic). He recorded cattle movements along the old, unsung
Opelousas Trail, which crossed the Neches River at Beaumont. Shortly before his arrival in
1856, over 3,000 New Orleans-bound steers swam the Neches at Beaumont, and during the
succeeding two months another 15,000 heads arrived from the Brazos, Colorado, and
Guadalupe River regions.
Apparently Green's greatest mistake was to desert his school house for
the court house, and politics turned out to be Green's 'Achilles heel.' The schoolmaster
who was so easy-going, extroverted, and humorous in every field except politics was
probably short-tempered and hostile to any political opinion which differed with his. In
November, 1859, the county's criminal docket book bore a new indictment that was not in
Green's distinctive handwriting, the State of Texas versus Henry R. Green, for assault and
Since no conviction exists, one is left to surmise that the
"News" correspondent's political activism finally resulted in personal conflict
with some prominent Jefferson County figure, probably an elected official at the court
house, and in a moment of temper, a fist fight. Certainly, not everyone shared Green's low
opinion of Gen. Sam Houston, for men such as William McFaddin, Benjamin Johnson, and Jacob
Garner had fought in Houston's army at, or near, San Jacinto. The district attorney's
Galveston "News" articles ceased very abruptly, and it appears the former
headmaster considered it expedient to migrate to greener pastures.
Nothing about Green's subsequent life is known, and he was not
enumerated in the county's 1860 census. He was an ardent secessionist, however, and
probably welcomed the advent of the American Civil War. In fact, he probably enlisted with
the first call for volunteers to the Confederate ranks. The only clue to his fate
indicates that Green was dead by 1865, and most probably died in action or of disease
while in the Confederate service. On Jan. 26, 1867, the commissioners court minutes
carried the following notation: "It is ordered by the court that the account of H. R.
Green, deceased, against the County of Jefferson be rejected."
Even Green explodes for all time the myth that frontier Beaumont was
only a two-gun, one saloon cowtown of no redeeming worth, possessing nothing of cultural
value or the fine arts prior to Spindletop. In 1858, Beaumont did have one saloon and a
lot of cowpokes passing through town, but it also had two religious denominations, the
Beaumont Debating Society, dancing schools, law enforcement and judicial departments, as
well as many schools, to combat the encroachment of the frontier. And of course, the
records of the 1880s and 1890s shoot that myth into the bread basket with one round of the
How sad that readers are left with no knowledge of the eventual fate of
Beaumont's early headmaster and its first historian, who may well have died in battle in
defense of the Southland that he loved! In later years, there were many early Beaumonters
who fondly recalled that it was Henry R. Green who had drummed the first rudiments of
knowledge into their heads as well as the seats of their trousers. This was indeed a
tribute to the young school teacher, "News" correspondent, and district attorney
who remained only 3 1/2 years, but loving Beaumont the way that he did, has left posterity
a great legacy of Southeast Texas in his writings.