Smallholder County:
A History of Denton County

Geography, Pre-history and the Peters Colony
by Dr. Bullitt Lowry

Chapter 1
Introduction: From the Founding of the County to Recent Years
Denton County was settled comparatively late in the American experience.1 The first recorded settlers of European stock came in 1843, the county was organized in 1846, and the area remained only sparsely settled until after the Civil War. What gave Denton County a character different from much of east and south Texas was that it, with a number of surrounding counties, was part of a colonization project, the Peters Colony, begun during the years of the Texas Republic and continued after statehood. Under the provisions of the Peters Colony grants, immigrant families received, depending on the particular system in effect in a given year, an amount of land that varied between 160 acres and a 640 acres.

Similar provisions could be misused, as they were in northeastern New Mexico. In that arid land, control of the water- courses gave control over vast stretches of unwatered land. There, the minority of land claims that controlled water dominated all other holdings. In contrast, Denton County had an abundance of springs and streams, and no person or small group could dominate from geographical advantage, although certainly some land was better than others. In the western part of the county, there were a few big holdings at one time or another, but 2 most of the people who ran large numbers of cattle, like John Chisum, owned relatively few acres and instead used the unfenced common range. The effect was that Denton was settled mostly by people who held a sufficient, but small, amount of land.2 There were few landless laborers; there were few wealthy persons. The usual inhabitant of Denton County in those early years was a yeoman farmer -- proud, independent, fiercely jealous of his rights, but not wealthy. The great bulk of the population were smallholders, and it was a smallholder county.

The earliest years of the county, from the beginning of the peters Colony in 1840 through Reconstruction, are poorly documented. Because the Denton County courthouse burned in 1876, only the final land titles from earlier years still exist, reconstructed from records in the state capital. The census records of 1850 and 1860, along with some off-year censuses like the one of 1845 when Texas joined the union, provide a great quantity of information, but like all censuses, they were directed toward getting specific statistical information thought useful at the time. The only information about individuals comes from the answers given to statistical questions.

Another major source for these early years is the recollections of pioneers collected by the Old Settlers' Association. Ed F. Bates published that material in 1918, after vicissitudes that included the destruction of much of the original material and its reconstitution.3 Unfortunately for the 3 historical record, these recollections were given by people a half century or more after the event. Often, they had been small children when the events they describe took place, and even if their memories were accurate, they had seen things with a child's eye.

The major concern of the early settlers was simply making a living from the land. Their farms were subsistence farms; they planted only few cash crops because transportation of produce was prohibitively expensive. Denton County, during its earliest years was a self-contained unit, importing only a few luxuries like nails and tools. It was also isolated from the rest of the United States by sheer distance. For example, in 1848, it required thirty to forty days for mail from Washington, D.C. to reach the eastern edge of Texas.4 Despite complaints, however, the farmers seem to have prospered. Certainly, there was little want in the area.

The inhabitants were mostly transplants from the Upper South, often with intermediate stops in Missouri or Arkansas. When they came to Texas, they brought slavery with them. Nevertheless, because most of the farmers were smallholders, slaves were only a small proportion of the county population. The Census of 1850 lists only 256 slaves out of a total population of about 5,000.

In 1861, probably because of their cultural origins, Denton County's inhabitants gave their sympathies to the South, although 4 the secession referendum won only narrow approval from the voters, 331 to 256. Indeed, in the neighboring counties to the east, west, and north, the secession referendum failed, possibly owing to the efforts of J.W. Throckmorton, an exceptionally able anti- secession leader, whose home was in neighboring Collin County.

The flood of the Civil War never washed across Denton, although the increase in Indian activity after the withdrawal of Federal troops from the frontier forts did cause anxiety, and Indians killed several settlers during and immediately after the Civil War years. The impact of the war on Denton County -- other, of course, than the tragic loss of life that occurred in campaigns and battles elsewhere -- was economic. To support their armies, the South and the state of Texas tried to mobilize capital they did not possess, and all through the South, with the volunteers gone to war, the people who remained behind had to maintain their farms and communities with pitifully few resources. Denton County's male population in the military age bracket, fifteen to fifty, numbered 1297, according to the Census of 1860; of that number, perhaps 800 served in various Confederate units, although not all of them were gone for the entire duration of the war. Still, the county was without a major part of its labor force for several years, and women, old men, and boys, could not keep agricultural production up to its prewar levels.

Denton suffered very little from the direct effects of Reconstruction, although like the rest of the state, it endured 5 the chaotic economics and unsettled politics of the years after the war. The focus of Denton's citizens was still inward. Transportation remained expensive, so the main cash crop was the one that could transport itself: cattle.

That changed when the railroad reached the county. Between 1873 and 1880 the Texas and Pacific Railroad completed a track across the county from northeast to southwest. Five years later, the Gulf, Colorado, and Santa Fe Railroad completed a track across the county from north to south, with about two-thirds of the county east of the line. The completion of these railroads between 1873 and 1885 mark the second phase of Denton County's history off from the first.

To begin with, railroads lowered the cost of transportation as much as 90%. With the coming of barbed wire, invented in 1873, and the development of other agricultural technology, the farmers of Denton County could move from livestock as a cash crop to grain. Wheat farming was the most important crop, and indeed Krum, in the western part of the county, claimed the prestige of being the largest inland wheat-loading station in the United States.

Farmers became more prosperous, and as a consequence, mercantile life began to flourish. The city of Denton, founded in 1856-57 as an administrative convenience in the center of the county, developed a neighborhood of expensive homes. They gave an 6 impression of far greater prosperity than had been seen a generation before.

In Denton County, there was little manufacture other than items for local consumption, like brick. It was eduction that set Denton County off from its neighbors. In the last decade of the nineteenth century, Denton County had three academies, or colleges as they were known at the time, one in Pilot Point, which subsequently failed, and two in the city of Denton. One of the latter was John B. Denton College, which after several transformations became part of Abilene Christian College to the west. The other was Texas Normal College, established in Denton in 1890 and chartered by the Texas legislature in 1899 as North Texas State Normal College. It has today grown to become the University of North Texas.

At almost the same time that the legislature chartered North Texas Normal College, pressure from women's groups and from the Grange led to the Texas legislature's establishing the first state institution for women. A search committee recommended Denton over several other possible sites, and in 1902, the Girl's Industrial Institute and College of Texas accepted its first students. It has today grown to become Texas Woman's University.

Throughout Texas, the history of private or locally supported academies was usually one of ultimate bankruptcy or failure through lack of leadership. Both North Texas Normal and the Girl's Industrial Institute were state-supported and showed 7 steady growth, bringing each year a quantity of money from students and the state treasury into the county. Equally important, although less capable of exact measurement, was the ferment of ideas that came from faculty and students.

When World War I began, the communities of Denton County, with the exception of the city of Denton, which was the county seat and the home of two educational institutions, existed primarily to serve the needs of the farms that surrounded them. The only reliable transportation was by railroad, and even at the close of World War I no straight, all-weather road connected the towns within the county or crossed the county.

The years after World War I saw the third phase of Denton County's history. The first was subsistence farming. The second, the result of the railroad, showed increased grain farming, significant prosperity based on agriculture, and the beginnings of urban life. The third phase is marked off by the development of the truck and the automobile, as well as the phenomenon of decreasing localism as the telephone, radio, and finally television connected people in Denton to the outside world. An increasingly specialized economy on the national level has caused Denton, like all other local areas, to become dependent on other manufacturing centers for everything from polio vaccine to pick up trucks. As local barriers and systems broke down, it becomes harder for a historian to isolate events in Denton County from those of the region, state, and nation. 8

These few pages will focus on the geography of Denton County, the prehistory of the area, and then the struggles surrounding the Peters Colony. A fourth chapter on Denton during the 1840s and 1850s may appear later, along with chapters on the Civil War and Reconstruction. 9

    • 1. Only one modern history of Denton County exists, one that Dale Odom and I wrote during the Bicentennial. It was only a sketch, not a complete study, and it appeared as A Brief History of Denton County, Texas (Denton: Terrill Wheeler Printing for the Denton County Historical Commission, 1976).
    • 2. Some grants gave full sections, 640 acres which is a square mile, to one family, and a small number of larger bounty or headright grants were filed. Men without families received less than than a man who was head of a family. The proportion varied between one-third and one-half the amount a head of a family got.
    • 3. Ed F. Bates, History and Reminiscences of Denton County (Denton, Texas: McNitzky Publishing Company, 1918; reprinted, Denton, Texas: Terrell Wheeler Printing, 1976).
    • 4. Clarksville Northern Standard, 1 July 1848.