The Peters Colony
The immense litigation which will be involved in this controversy . . .
will greatly retard the growth of one of the finest districts in the state . . . .
Governor Peter H. Bell, Annual Message, 1851
In 1840, the infant Republic of Texas had neither a large population nor stable financial resources, and it seemed likely to perish. Taxes were uncollected and uncollectible, and the total population. exclusive of Indians, numbered fewer than 60,000, concentrated mainly in the river valleys of the southeast. Moreover, the republic lived under the double threat of Indian depredations and Mexican invasion.
Neither Mirabeau B. Lamar, president from 1838 to 1841, nor Sam Houston who served before Lamar and would succeed him in 1841 had been able to construct an effective military force. Defense of the republic relied on irregular volunteers, or what the English tradition called a militia. Those persons, settlers furnishing their own arms, were the chief protection of Texas against hostile Indians or hostile neighbors, and clearly, the greater the number of settlers, the better defended Texas would be.
When Texas was under Mexican rule, the government had attempted to bring settlers to Texas through the land contractor or empresario colony system. Under that arrangement, the government contracted with a person or company who would bring settlers -- colonists -- to Texas, and in return for that service the empresario received either land or money. Therefore, it was natural for the Fifth Congress of the Texas Republic, elected in 1840, to adopt the same system. What is more difficult to explain is why the republic did not use such a plan during its first four years of life. Perhaps it was because the legislators hoped to follow the example of the United States, which sold its public lands and thereby enriched the government. Following the practice of the United States, especially in a way that might help to fill the empty treasury, was surely attractive to the first congresses of Texas.
Despite the allure of selling land, the republic had been more than generous with land grants to individuals.1 The earliest grants were the largest. In 1836, the Constitution of the Republic of Texas gave all heads of families living in Texas on March 2, 1836, a "league and labor" of land. That measurement was a Spanish and Mexican one, a league being about 4428 acres and a labor about 177 acres, for a total of about 4605 acres. Six hundred and forty acres is a square mile, also know as a "section," so a league and labor totaled about seven square miles. The Spanish had estimated, generously, that a farmer could cultivate 177 acres and the attached league of land supplied sufficient pasture for grazing.
What such a grant did was to give qualified people certificates allowing them to "locate" and patent the stated quantity of land anywhere the land was not already owned. A patent was the legal record filed in the appropriate place. What this process amounted to was that a grantee had to find land that was unowned, survey it, and file that survey and the certificate with the General Land Office. In some cases, the certificates were negotiable, that is, they could be sold to a third party, who then had the right to locate the land himself.
The republic awarded grants to veterans of military actions against Mexico. A series of laws gave differently sized grants of land -- bounties -- to veterans who had served before or after certain dates and for various lengths of time. Most commonly those grants were for quantities of land between 640 and 1280 acres The average for those grants was a little over 700 acres.
Other grants followed. Persons who migrated into the republic after the Declaration of Independence and before October 1, 1837, got 1280 acres for a head of a family or 640 acres for a single man. Then people who immigrated between October 1, 1837, and January 1, 1840 (later extended to 1842), got 640 acres for a head of a family and 320 for a single man.2
That is, at first, the Republic of Texas did not follow the empresario system. Instead, land went directly to settlers through grants, and when the expected flood of new immigrants did not materialize, some method for increasing population was essential. After a brief flirtation with a scheme to promote French colonization, the Texas Congress reestablished the old empresario system, passing a law on February 4, 1841, in response to a petition from a group of men headed by W.S. Peters of Louisville, Kentucky.3
The background of that petition is obscure. Seymour Connor, who published a major work on the Peters Colony, made a determined investigation and found out very little, either about the group of men named in the petition or about the origins of the provision to establish an empresario colony. It is hard to believe that the petition generated spontaneously, especially when few of the petitioners had any connection with Texas. In fact, eleven of them, in addition to the Kentuckians, were English.
W.S. Peters, too, was an Englishman, but he had been living in the United States since about 1820. There is a legend that the W.S. Peters family lived in Texas between 1820 and 1823, but no evidence has ever been produced to support the claim. Other than that story, a demonstrable family connection to Texas was through a Peters son-in-law, Samuel Browning, who lived in Austin from 1840 to 1841 or 1842 and who was a signer of the petition.
Thus, the Peters petition was an unlikely document. For it to have been drawn up without any prior discussion by a number of Kentuckians, their friends and relatives, and eleven Englishmen seems unlikely. The only explanation -- though it is only speculation -- is that Samuel Browning was somehow led to believe the Texas Congress would be happy to receive an empresario proposal. Whether he suggested the idea or whether it was suggested to him, he appears to be the only likely channel of communication between the Republic and the Peters group.
The Peters petition was pushed through the Texas Congress rapidly. The first official mention of the Peters petition was on January 4, 1841, although it was apparently discussed somewhat earlier. In any event, the bill passed the Texas Congress and received the presidential signature on February 4, 1841.4 The bill, "An Act Granting Land to Emigrants [sic]," authorized the President of the Republic to make an empresario contract with the signers of the Peters Colony petition. Those persons would get ten sections of land for every one hundred families they brought to Texas and ten half-sections for each one hundred single men. Even more generous was the act's allowing the empresarios to charge the colonists they brought in a fee to cover the costs of transportation, surveying, filing titles, and other matters. At one point, the company contracted to build cabins and furnish tools to the colonists. To cover all those charges, the empresario could take up to one-half of the land given the colonists. Thus, potentially, the Peters group could receive not 10% of the land, but that 10% plus one-half of the remaining 90%, or a total of 55% of all the land they settled. That provision caused terrible problems later.
Nothing happened for the next six months, and then on August 30, 1841, Samuel Browning and the Republic of Texas signed what has become known as the First Contract. Under its conditions, the Peters group was to bring six hundred families to Texas. They would settle in the eastern half of present Denton County, the eastern third of present Cooke County, the western fourth of present Grayson County and a thin western slice of present Collin County. To satisfy their part of the contract, the Peters group had to bring in two hundred families within one year, two hundred more the next year, and the final two hundred the third. If the Peters group did not meet these time limits, they would forfeit their reward.
It was impossible to fulfill that First Contract. Some settling had already taken place in the designated area, and those earlier immigrants had already located and patented much of the land. The Peters group needed a minimum of six hundred and sixty sections (384,000 acres) to settle six hundred families and to receive their own bonuses, and that much unappropriated land apparently did not exist within the geographical limits of the First Contract.
President Sam Houston recognized the justice of a plea Browning made to modify the contract. On November 20, 1841, he extended the boundaries of the Peters Colony. He moved the southern boundary forty miles south, so that it now extended one hundred miles south from the Red River, and included the western third of what would become Dallas County. He also extended the western boundary of the land allotted to the colony so that it now included the eastern quarter of future Tarrant County. At the same time, this Second Contract required the Peters group to bring eight hundred settlers, not just six hundred, to the area and required the Peters group to survey the area within eighteen months, a difficult demand to meet.
Peters and his associates, now including seven more Americans, found it more difficult to entice potential settlers to accept free land in Texas than they had thought. The first families arrived from Louisville, Kentucky, in the winter of 1841-42. Their number is uncertain. Perhaps as few as twelve or as many as one hundred constituted this first wave.
The problems were obvious. President Houston and the Peters Colony agent in Texas, Ralph H. Barksdale, negotiated a Third Contract on July 26, 1842. Although the Peters Group had amply demonstrated its ineffectiveness as it had tried to fulfill the first two contracts, the Third Contract pushed the boundaries of the area open to settlement ten miles west and twelve miles east. The First Contract included an area of about 650,000 acres; the second added 500,000 more. The addition of the eastern and western strips of the Third Contract doubled that amount. More important, each alternate section of land was reserved for the republic. That is, the Third Contract, although it enlarged the boundaries substantially, now gave the Republic of Texas ownership of a checkerboard of land throughout the potential colony.5
At this point, with the Third Contract in force and colonization begun, the Peters Colony was a reality. But now, developments on the other side of the Atlantic influenced events. Peters had been ignoring the eleven English signers of the original petition. In England, a Daniel J. Carroll talked the original English members of the Peters group into assigning their rights to a new group of six men, which they did in October 1842, and nothing more was heard of the original petitioners. Two of this new group of six men became important to events in the Peters Colony: Carroll and Sherman Converse. Converse came to America and met with members of the Kentucky part of the Peters group, and after talking them into giving him control over their shares in the enterprise, he moved on to Texas.
In Texas, he met Carroll, who had come from England by a different route, and somehow the two of them convinced the Texas Congress to enlarge the Peters Colony grant one more time. On January 16, 1843, the Texas Congress authorized President Houston to make a new contract, which he did four days later.6 This new contract, the Fourth Contract, enlarged the boundaries enormously. It extended the time limit for compliance to five years, and more important, it gave title directly to the Peters contractors, who could then convey the land, or as little as one-fourth of it, to the settlers. It also authorized the sale of the alternate sections previously reserved for the Republic of Texas to the Peters Colony for $12 a section.
The Fourth Contract added almost ten million acres to the colony. The Peters Colony was now a rough rectangle, with the Red River forming an irregular northern boundary. The eastern boundary was unchanged from the Third Contract. It ran south from the Red River through the middle of present Grayson County to the top half of present Ellis County, one hundred miles south of the river. Then the boundary went due west one hundred and sixty-four miles, through present Johnson, Hood, Erath, and Eastland Counties, ending in the middle of present Callahan County. From there, the boundary went north for about one hundred and forty miles, taking in all of present Shackleford County, and all but the western extremities of present Throckmorton, Baylor, and Wilbarger Counties before the boundary line closed on the Red River.7
The Fourth Peters Contract included all of thirteen present counties and parts of thirteen others. Among the thirteen counties completely included was present Denton County, which was almost on the eastern edge of a gigantic tract of over eleven million acres. Incredibly, Converse thereupon set out to enlarge the contract even more, but restraint finally prevailed at the capital.8
In the following months, the situation, which had never been a simple one, became even more confused. The Republic of Texas declared the original Peters contract forfeited in favor of Carroll and Converse, whereupon the Kentuckians declared their grant of power to Converse was void and claimed the Fourth Contract as theirs. The Peters group decided -- correctly -- that the first thing they needed to do was to find settlers, so that there would be no question over whether they had fulfilled the contract, and then, if necessary, they could argue with Converse.
They apparently did induce a sufficient number of people to come to Texas the first year to satisfy the contract, but the people did not stay. In July 1843, it was reported that there seemed to be only thirty-five families in the Peters Colony.9 Many families had come to Texas, but they were staying near the Red River, rather than clearing land in the Peters Colony.10
The company advertised widely, and as a result of its efforts in various places as well as Louisville, Kentucky, the Peters Colony group claimed it had met the Fourth Contract's first deadline of July 1, 1844. By that date, the colony was required to have settled 250 colonists. The colony authorities reported they had settled 197 heads of families and 184 single men by that date.11 Counting each single man as one-half of a family, they claimed they had settled 289 persons. They also claimed that by July 1, they had surveyed 358 sections.12
The Louisville group meanwhile reincorporated as the Texas Emigration and Land Company in October 1844.13 This new company claimed all the Peters Colony rights, in which effort they were successful. By 1847, the Texas Emigration and Land Company controlled all the Peters Colony assets and had cut out Carroll and Converse.
In 1845, the Peters Colony agent (it is convenient not to change the name of the company for this narrative) reported that the company had settled 331´ new families for the year.14 Another list filed under that same date gives a smaller figure and adds that the company built 367 cabins during that same year. During that same period the company reduced the quantity of land given to new colonists to 320 acres for a family and 160 acres for a single man.
By the middle of 1845, according to Peters Colony claims, there should have been a total of around 620´ families settled in the area (counting a single man as one-half a family), less those who had died. In fact, many people had left the colony and gone elsewhere, so that the actual total on July 1, 1845, was probably about half the number the Peters Colony claimed.
In 1845, Texas was becoming part of the United States. The transition of Texas from republic to statehood affected the Peters Colony only indirectly. By the terms of the agreement under which Texas entered the Union, the new state kept control over its own public lands. On October 13, 1845, Texas voters approved joining the United States by a vote of 4354 to 257, and in December 1845, President Polk signed the bill making Texas the twenty-ninth state. The Mexican War that began almost immediately and lasted until the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in February 1848 affected the administration of the Peters Colony not at all.
The administration of the colony was supposed to press on with surveying the land, but it was by no means done with that task when Texas became a state. In 1846, the legislature of the new state created Denton County and the counties of Collin, Dallas, and Grayson without regard to the Peters Colony boundary. At the same time, settlers who were not Peters Colonists were growing more and more unhappy with the company. The problem goes back to the land grants described earlier as well as to other paper claims on the public land of Texas. The republic had established those bounties and had also issued scrip backed with potential land claims. All this paper allowed a settler to find unoccupied land, survey it, and make it his own. Speculators trafficked in this paper, and legitimate settlers often bought it.
Some of those claims had already been located in the area of the Peters Colony, but after the date of the First Contract, only Peters Colonists could legally locate land in the area. Furthermore, by the terms of the contracts, colonists had to be immigrants to Texas. Persons already resident in Texas were prohibited from locating grants in the desirable area reserved ever more extensively to the Peters Colony.
Thus, land speculators and resident Texans were unhappy at their legal exclusion from the area of the Peters Colony. Peters Colonists, too, were dissatisfied over the failure of the company to provide the services it had promised to furnish. Additionally, the second wave of Peters Colonists -- those who came after the summer of 1844 -- got only half the amount of land the earlier colonists had gotten, and they were irritated over this treatment.
As early as 1846, colonists, perhaps egged on by land speculators, protested against the Peters Colony. One petition, dated from Fannin County, which was outside the boundaries of the Peters Colony, protested "the frauds and collusions which the agents of Colony are and has [sic] been practicing on the Government and Colonist by obtaining the affidaved [sic] of certain individuals in order to prove to the State that they had the number of settlers required . . . ."15 The petition offered evidence "by individuals which are returned as Colonists who state at that time they were not and never had been in the Republic of Texas. . . ." Equally serious, claimed that Fannin County petition, were Peters Colony deficiencies in surveying. The surveyors "make no return to any county or county surveyor in this state," and they were charging "double the amount of fees allowed by the present law. . . ."
In 1846, land poachers were blatantly running illegal surveys inside the boundaries of the Peters Colony. Henry O. Hedgcoxe, an Englishman who had succeeded Charles Hensley as the resident Peters Colony agent in April 1846, protested bitterly. He threatened legal action and wrote to Austin, laying details before the state authorities. In May 1847, he accused three surveyors by name who were working under the authority of the district surveyors of the Robertson land district.16 Willis Stewart, the new president of the Texas Emigration and Land Company, employed William G. Hale as attorney for the Peters Colony interests. Hale was the law partner of Ebenezer Allen who had been both attorney-general and secretary of state of Texas. Allen would be attorney-general once again from 1850-52 when the Peters Colony litigation was at its height, so it was a useful connection to make.
Stewart recommended Hedgcoxe highly to Hale, which may have been misplaced enthusiasm.17 Hedgcoxe and Hale got the courts to issue an injunction against any outsider's locating land inside the colony's borders.18
Charges of influence and corruption surround the court battles of the Peters Colony, although not only in Texas but elsewhere in the western United States, they tend to swirl around land cases in general. The judge who would hear many of the Peters Colony cases was the new United States District Judge, John Watrous. Watrous had been involved personally in land dealings and, it was later alleged, the Peters Colony from 1841 to 1846. In 1848, the Texas Legislature passed a resolution claiming that Watrous "aided and assisted certain individuals, if not directly interested himself, in an attempt to fasten upon this State one of the most stupendous frauds ever practiced . . .," and called for his resignation.19 His involvement in land speculation led ultimately to impeachment proceedings in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1858, the House deciding at the end that the evidence was insufficient to warrant impeachment.20 It must be stressed that the matters over which Judge Watrous was criticized did not include directly any of the Peters Colony cases, but for years the public had distrusted his judgments.21
A meeting of the Peters colonists on April 1, 1848, appointed a committee to draft "Resolutions for the further Security of Their Rights.22 One member of that committee of six was Sam Bogart, who was not a colonist. He represented Fannin County in the State Legislature and would be vice-president of the State Democratic Convention in August 1848. In the next legislature he represented Denton, Collin, and Grayson counties. The other five members were all colonists resident in Collin County: James McReynolds, at whose house the committee met; William McNeil; Gallatin Searcy; Lawson Clark, and J.B. Wilmeth, clerk of the District Court of Collin County. Their petition accused the Peters group of failing "to comply with the Law and contracts under which we have settled. . . ." The company "has failed to survey the Land and Build the houses or cabbins [sic] agreeable to the provisions of sd. Law and contracts. . . ." The petition went on to accuse the company of having used "fraud and falsehood" in its attempts to prove compliance with the terms of the contract. If land certificates were issued as a result of those frauds, it would "greatly prejudice the right of honest settlers." The petitioners requested the Land Office not to issue patents for land to the Peters group.23 Committee member and district clerk J.B. Wilmeth wrote separately to the Secretary of State.24 We were induced to come to and settle in the collony [sic] by said [Peters] company previous to the Lands being surveyed and were told be said company that there would be no difficulty in our titles. . . . [N]ow where they have surveyed recently they have notified those that are fallen on even sexions [sic] to leave their homes forthwith, men who have from twenty to one hundred and fifty acres of land in cultivation[,] and we are resolved not to put up with such treatment. The provision of the Third Contract reserving alternate sections of land to the Republic -- now the state -- was coming up for payment.
The Fourth Contract expired on June 30, 1848, but that was by no means the end of the affair. Six more years of unrest would intervene before the general settlement. Henry O. Hedgcoxe had become the company agent in 1846, and he ended by presiding over the dissolution of an eleven million acre empire. The casual surveying already done had simply left too many grants overlapping. Hedgcoxe dealt with the problem in a technically proficient way; unfortunately for the course of a smooth settlement, the man himself did not inspire confidence among the colonists.
In January 1848, at the same time that Hedgcoxe got the United States Court to prevent non-colony surveys and patents from being located in the Peters colony area, a group of colonists petitioned the Texas State Legislature to intervene.25 One hundred and eleven colonists petitioned the legislature to have the county courts issue the titles that the colony had not yet issued.
At this point, Hedgcoxe's tactlessness rose to new heights. He demanded that the settlers who had received 640 acres relinquish 320 of those acres back to the colony in payment for services rendered. Although Hedgcoxe's demand was, in the strict sense, a legal one, it was certainly not a wise one, and in fact most of the services referred to had not been rendered.
At this point, the legislature intervened and passed a law on 21 January 1850 entitled, " An Act to secure to all actual settlers within the limits of the . . . Peters' Colony, the land to which they are entitled as Colonists.26 The act began by giving 640 acres to each head of household and 320 acres to each single man, regardless of any reservations the company had put against the land. Under the authority of the statute, the governor appointed a special commissioner, Thomas William Ward, to travel through the colony and issue certificates validating land claims.27 The only proof required was for the settler to testify under oath that the land was his.
In the summer of 1849, Ward travelled around the colony, stopping at the Denton County seat of Alton. By modern standards, the problems in Denton involved only a small number of people. According to the Census of 1850, Denton County had 110 families, with the total population made up of 332 white males and 299 white females. There were no free blacks and only 10 slaves. It is odd that the Census counted only 81 farms for those 110 families, which gives the proportion of 1.4 families inhabiting each farm.28
Instead of Ward as special commissioner, the colonists had pressed for the appointment of a local person, fearing "many outrageous frauds that will be attempted to be practiced by designing and dishonest persons. . . ."29 In the meantime, the Peters Colony administrators began a complex series of legal actions, beginning with getting court orders stopping the Land Commissioner from issuing any patents to individuals, requiring him to issue patents to the company, and forcing him to receive those patents as evidence of fulfillment of the Fourth Contract.
In the court actions, Hedgcoxe, on behalf of the company, claimed that the company had settled a total of 1520 families and 1350 single men in the Peters Colony.30 A joint committee of both state legislative houses examined the Peters Colony claims and reported in favor of the company.31
Compromise seemed necessary to evade litigation that would otherwise snarl land titles and probably prevent further settlement for years. In 1852, the state and the Texas Emigration and Land Company arranged a compromise, which was intended, in the language of the act, "for the relief of said colonists and company, and to settle, adjust, and effectually quiet the titles of lands in said colony . . . ."32 The act reaffirmed the January 1850 bill: all settlers who were heads of a family got 640 acres, and each single man got 320 acres. All the various lawsuits were dropped, and the Texas Emigration and Land Company got 1700 sections (about 1.1 million acres) for its efforts, one half of which the company was required to sell within ten years. The Texas Emigration and Land Company thus gave up questionable claims to 600,000 acres and got more than a million acres in return, a pleasant outcome. Finally, no one other than authorities of the colony could patent land in the colony for two and one-half years, which would allow the company to patent its 1700 sections on choice land.
So the company got more than it probably deserved, and it was happy. The state of Texas lost some land, but it certainly had enough land elsewhere. The people who were openly the most dissatisfied were land speculators. Now they were forbidden to locate land in the area of the colony for another two and one-half years while the company patented the best land for itself.
The colonists, moreover, were still dissatisfied. They were frightened that somehow they would be cheated of the land that the company had promised them. One set of provisions included in the 1852 compromise particularly disturbed them. They were required to file their land claims before August 4, 1852 -- that is, within about six months from the time the legislature passed the bill.
That time limit was severe, and what disturbed the colonists even more was that they were required to file their claims with the company agent, the despised Henry O. Hedgcoxe. That agent was supposed to forward those claims to the Land Office, which would issue the legal patents. That is, according to the 1852 compromise, Hedgcoxe was to serve in a triple capacity. He was an agent for the company, an agent for the colonists, and an agent for the Land Office. Those roles were probably incompatible in the best of circumstances, even though there is no evidence that Hedgcoxe was either dishonest or incompetent. The most serious impediment to Hedgcoxe was that he did not have the confidence of the people he was supposed to help. As the editor of the Northern Standard put it, Hedgcoxe "has a rum facility for making himself odious to the people among whom he has lived."33
The Texas Emigration and Land Company was an easy target of attack, too. The 1852 compromise was motivated by an attempt to avoid protracted lawsuits; its purpose was not, in the abstract, to provide justice. Land speculators launched an emotional attack against the compromise, the Texas Emigration and Land Company, and Henry O. Hedgcoxe.
On April 28, 1852, there was a mass meeting in Limestone County, which is outside the Peters Colony area.34 The resolutions passed at the meeting were unrestrained. The company had "commenced a piratical system of extortion." It charged unreasonable fees and stirred up the colonists against each other by treating them unequally. As a consequence, according to one resolution, "the settlers rebelled, threw off the yoke that was too heavy for them to break, refused to have anything to do with the contractors or their agents, and boldly appealed to the citizens and Government of Texas for relief."
The persons at the mass meeting were naked in their motives. The compromise just reached in the legislature excluded the claims of the "widows and orphans of the Fathers of Goliad." The compromise arranged matters "so that none can receive a patent to their lands, which have been located in said Colony under the protection of said ordinance, unless they prostrate themselves before Lord Hedgcoxe, Lord Stuart [sic Stewart], or whosoever else may be the company's anointed and He shall say, 'I allow it.'" Those present at the Limestone County meeting pledged to oppose the compromise.
One of the leaders of the attack against the compromise was a politician whose star was temporarily in eclipse, John H. Reagan.35 In 1849, at a public meeting in Henderson County, which is about one hundred miles from the closest Peters Colony border, about thirty non-colonists had formed a committee to protect the Peters Colony from the Texas Emigration and Land Company. Reagan had emerged as one of the leaders at the Henderson County meeting, but he was defeated in the state legislative elections in the fall of 1849 because he was too moderate on the land question.
Determined to remedy that public misconception, Reagan jumped in to lead the opposition against the 1852 compromise. Other rabble-rousers showed a similar lack of civic responsibility. To be sure, the Peters Colony administrators were not without faults, but what Reagan and others were really complaining about was that the compromise legislation made it difficult for them to locate the land they held through certificates they had bought as a speculative venture.
Whatever their motives, they got a wide and receptive audience. On May 15, there was a mass meeting in Dallas County at which Reagan was present by special invitation.36 After passing a number of resolutions opposing the language and intentions of the compromise, the people present concluded with unanimous agreement to a statement declaring that if the company tried to deprive anyone of his land, they would assist that colonist "by all the means in our power to obtain his rights as a colonist -- 'peaceably if we can - forcibly if we must.'"
On the night of July 15, 1852, after hearing exhortations to cast off the shackles of tyranny, a band of armed men rode north from Dallas County to Hedgcoxe's office, which was then at Stewartsville, in Denton County east of present Lewisville.37 They invaded his office, which was also his home, and seized most of his records. Amid general rejoicing, the riders then took the captured records back to Dallas, while Hedgcoxe fled south to Austin.
B. Warren Stone of Dallas justified this mob action to the editor of the Northern Standard. He accused the legislature of "squandering the pubic domain, by donations to a foreign company, who are not identified with the interests of the people of Texas. . . ." Liberal with his aspersions -- "mercenary horde," "trustlessness and depravity of their agent" -- Stone claimed that the forty riders who had attacked Hedgcoxe's office were "the best citizens of this colony." They were men "of age, influence and discretion." Stone saved his strongest invective for Hedgcoxe. "The people of this colony had known said agent for a number of years, as being destitute of all the essential elements of an honest man or a good officer. . . ." Stone claimed that close examination of the company's books would show how the company planned to "defraud and harass" the colonists. ". . . The State," Stone wrote, is suffering first from the profuse prodigality in giving away the public domain to foreigners, who, perhaps will add nothing to the production, capital or energy of the State, but who on the other hand will expect to reap the reward of immense fortunes, by the labor and improvement, of honest, poor men . . . ."
Some colonists feared that the mob action would jeopardize their claims, or they disapproved of what the Dallas riders had done. On July 20, a mass meeting of Collin County citizens assembled.38 They called for cool heads although they resolved that they would "use all the means that our honour as men, or our rights as citizens and colonists may justify to secure our homes, our rights, and our Lands."
Nevertheless, the Collin County meeting approved the 1852 compromise legislation in general and called upon the Dallas riders to "have the justice" to return the papers to their lawful owners. They also passed a resolution that they condemn in the most explicit terms, the action of the self constituted and self styled committee . . . who pretended to act for and by the authority of the citizens of Collin County in their co-operation with the citizens of Dallas County, examining the Books and papers of Henry O. Hedgecoxe [sic].39
Denton County's residents, however, supported the Dallas actions. On July 24, a mass meeting in Denton County took place at the home of John Hallford, with Thomas C. Wilson in the chair and A.P. Loyd as secretary.40 The people present passed resolutions condemning Hedgcoxe for attempting "to Rob many of the most meritorious settlers of their Lands."
The people at the Denton meeting stated that they "heartily" concurred in the actions of the Dallas riders and in their ordering Hedgcoxe to leave the colony. They ended their meeting with the ringing declaration that as we are unwilling to enter into a long and expensive lawsuit with a lordly company of European Aristocrats, which would cost more to support than our lands are worth and the crisis having arrived at which forbearance ceases to be a virtue, we will defend our homes to the last extremity, peaceably if we can --forcibly if we must.
The climax of all this came at a mass, multi-county, public meeting at McKinney, Collin County. It convened on July 29, 1852, and it continued in session for three days, a great burden for farmer-delegates.41 This convention, in Seymour Connor's opinion was "originated by, developed by, and led by outside land speculators."42 Denton County sent representatives, and unlike the delegations from other counties, all of Denton's delegates to this McKinney convention were genuine colonists. They were James W. Chowning, A.P. Loyd, John W. King, Daniel Strickland, Jesse Gibson, and Samuel A. Pritchen [sic, Pritchett].
The delegates at the McKinney Convention passed a resolution condemning Hedgcoxe and defending the actions of the Dallas riders. . . . "The outrages and insults inflicted upon the rights and feelings of the people of the Peters Colony by Henry O. Hedgcoxe, the agent of the company, and the preconcerted schemes of villany [sic] and fraud which he was daily carrying out, and by which he was greatly endangering the colonists in the secure enjoyment of their rights to land in the colony made it necessary for the people of the colony for the security of these [sic, ?their] rights to take the books, maps, and papers of said agent, into their own hands, and to drive him out of the colony."
Then the McKinney delegates condemned the company. ". . . We assert it as a fact within the knowledge of every settler in the colony that they [the company] have never complied with their contracts in whole or in any one of their particulars." The McKinney meeting ended with resolutions approving the theft of Hedgcoxe's papers and calling for the repeal of the legislative compromise. The convention appointed John H. Reagan as counsel for the fee of $10,000, a very large sum, and one which the colonists alone could never have raised.
The controversy, now very political and public, continued, but it lessened in intensity. The Northern Standard noted that a meeting in Dallas scheduled for mid-October did not achieve a quorum.43 In fact, the only delegates who came were from Tarrant and Dallas Counties. "The Colony business has so far subsided that little is said about the difficulties. . . ."
The company, which had acted rather arrogantly, became conciliatory and published a letter in the November 20, 1852, Northern Standard.44 The company maintained that Hedgcoxe was operating as an officer of the state, not an agent of the company. They claimed that they had told Hedgcoxe "that so far as our own company had any right to say any thing on the subject, that they were willing that the colonists should have their lands just as they chose to select them." There was enough good land for everyone. The company urged people who had already filed their claims to get their papers back "from those who have them and send them on to Austin."
A month later, Willis Stewart, John C. Smith, and William C. Peters published an open letter,"To the Colonists of Peters' Colony," in the Northern Standard.45 It is now well known to every one, that the abstraction of the papers from the Agent's office, on the 16th of July last, was a great and material injury done to every Colonist, and that it has placed them in the most disadvantageous position, both with the Government and with the Company.
Declaring that they had no wish to condemn misguided people, the company officers added that they had did not want to "dispute with those who designedly projected [sic] and led them [innocent colonists] on that silly and useless violation of law and order." They claimed that land speculators and their hired hands would gain nothing from the uproar. "The returns of the Agent [Hedgcoxe] to the General Land Office have ruined all their hopes, and they have totally failed in their principal object, viz: -stopping the action of the law of 1852 and making a breach or quarrel between the Colonists and the Company." The company would not suffer because of the raid on Hedgcoxe's office; the colonists would, because the Land Office could not issue titles without the papers. "The agitators, who have hitherto misled you, tell you that the legislature will relieve you." But that was impossible because the legislature did not have the records they needed to do it. According to the company officers, the compromise of 1852 gave the colonists everything they wanted. People got twice the amount of land they had contracted to get, and the company set aside its rights in favor of the colonists. The letter ended with general praise for the company's patience in difficult times.
Although it would seem that it was very much in the colonists' interest to recover Hedgcoxe's records, those files never were submitted to the Land Office. The best evidence suggests that they were stored in the Dallas County Courthouse and later burned during a fire there. Meantime, with the files still missing, the whole affair was once again dropped in the legislative lap. On February 7, 1853, the legislature approved a final compromise.46 By that law, colonists could file their claims directly with the Land Office, and after a three-month waiting period, the company could begin filing its own claims. Under the terms of the 1852 and 1853 compromises, and earlier bills, about 1200 Peters Colonists patented their land between 1852 and about 1854. Another 500 colonists sold their claims before locating them, thus treating them like bounty land certificates. In Denton County, colonists filed 189 claims. The Texas Emigration and Land Company itself neither located nor patented any land in Denton County.
The idea of a colony along the northern slope of the Republic, and later the state, was not a bad one. The people who carried it out -- the company and its agents -- seem to have been driven more by optimism that they would become wealthy through the process than by any realistic assessment of the problems involved. The hostility and manipulations of land speculators turned a situation that might have been dealt with sensibly into confrontational politics, which profited neither the colonists nor the state. In the end, however, the system did achieve the result it sought, although more slowly than the original contracts had hoped: the result was a substantial smallholder population along the northern border of the state.
THE PETERS COLONY
1. Thomas L. Miller, "Texas Bounty Land Grants, 1835-1888," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 66 (1962): 221-233.
2. For a list of persons who located land grants within the area of Denton County, see Appendix I.
3. Seymour V. Connor, The Peters Colony of Texas: History and Biographical Sketches (Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 1959), blazed a trail for a generation of researchers to follow.
4. H.P.N. Gammel, comp., The Laws of Texas, 1822-1890, 10 vols. (Austin: Gammel Book Company, 1898), 2: 554-556, and erratum, 663.
5. Joseph Waples to W.S. Peters, 18 August 1842, Texas State Archives, Record Group 307, 2-9/26.
6. Gammel, Laws of Texas, 2: 851-852.
7. The territory included much of the 1828 Cameron Land Grant, which had lapsed unfulfilled.
8. Converse to Anson Jones, 1 February 1843, Texas State Archives, Record Group 307, 2-9/26. The capital was now Washington-on-the-Brazos. It had moved from Austin to Houston in 1842 as a consequence of the Mexican invasion that year, and then to Washington-on-the-Brazos. It would move back to Austin in 1845.
9. Clarksville Northern Standard, 6 July 1843.
10. Letter of Major E.B. Ely, Clarksville Northern Standard, 2 March 1844.
11. Ralph H. Barksdale Report, 7 December 1844, Texas State Archives, Record Group 307, 2-9/26.
12. R.H. Barksdale to Secretary of State, 16 December 1844, Texas State Archives, Record Group 307, 2-9/26.
13. Articles of Incorporation, 15 October 1844, William G. Hale Papers, Barker Collection Archives, University of Texas, Austin, 2D256.
14. Jno. C. McCoy and R.H. Barksdale to Secretary of State, 11 August 1845, Texas State Archives, Record Group 307, file 2-9/26.
15. Fragment of Petition to Secretary of State, Bonham, 9 May 1846, Texas State Archives, Record Group 307, 2-9/26.
16. Henry O. Hedgcoxe to [W.G. Hale], Buckner, Collin County, 5 May 1847, Hale Papers, Barker Collection Archives, University of Texas, Austin, 2D256.
17. Willis Stewart to W.G. Hale, Louisville, Kentucky, 10? July 1847, Hale Papers, Barker Collection Archives, University of Texas, Austin, 2D256.
18. [Willis] Stewart et al. v. David R. Mitchell et al., District Court of the United States in Equity, 10 December 1847; filed 10 January 1848, Travis District Court, File 54, Austin, Texas.
19. Printed in U.S. Congress, Congressional Globe, 35th Congress, 2d. sess., 80, 14 December 1858.
20. U.S. Congress, Congressional Globe, 35th Congress, 2d. sess., 102, 15 December 1858.
21. For example, Clarksville Northern Standard, 12 April 1851.
22. Citizens of Peters Colony to Secretary of State, n.p., 6 April 1848, Texas State Archives, Record Group 307, file 2-9/26.
24. Dated from Pleasant Grove, Dallas County, 6 April 1848, Texas State Archives, Record Group 307, 2-9/26
25. Memorial # 162, 24 January 1848, Archives, Texas State Library, Austin.
26. Gammel, Laws of Texas, 3: 489.
27. The Peters colonists wanted Colonel John M. Crockett, not Ward, as special commissioner. Petitions of various dates, 1850, Texas State Archives, Record Group 307, file 2-9/27
28. Clarksville Northern Standard, 20 December 1851. Names on the Denton County Tax Roll of 1847 are printed as Appendix II.
29. A.G. Walker and William M. Cochran to Governor, 12 January 1850, Texas State Archives, Record Group 307, file 2-9/27.
30. Petition with Endorsements, Travis District Court Archives, File No. 54, Austin.
31. Texas, House Journal, 4th Legislature, Regular Session, 477-486; Texas, Senate Journal, 4th Legislature, Regular Session, 725 .
32. Gammel, Laws of Texas, 3: 950-957.
33. Clarksville Northern Standard, 31 July 1852.
34. The secretary's minutes are printed in Clarksville Northern Standard, 3 July 1852.
35. Ben H. Procter, Not Without Honor: The Life of John H. Reagan (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1962), 79-83.
36. Clarksville Northern Standard, 7 August 1852.
37. The "Hedgcoxe War," as this attack on Hedgcoxe's office came to be called, figures prominently in a number of accounts. Much of the following comes from a partisan participant's account, B. Warren Stone to Major DeMorse, Dallas, 20 July 1852, printed in the Clarksville Northern Standard, 31 July 1852.
38. Clarksville Northern Standard, 7 August 1852.
39. In contrast, a letter to DeMorse on 21 August signed by about 60 persons from Collin County claimed that "three-fourths if not four-fifths" of the colonists in Collin County approved of what the Dallas colonists had done. Clarksville Northern Standard, 11 September 1852.
40. Clarksville Northern Standard, 7 August 1852.
41. Clarksville Northern Standard, 16 October 1852.
42. Connor, Peters Colony, 144.
43. The information is in a letter, dated 16 October 1952, with an unreadable superscription printed in a badly damaged issue of the Clarksville Northern Standard, 13 November 1852.
44. Willis Stewart and John J. Smith to John C. Easten, Esq., Office of the Texas Emigration and Land Company, Louisville, Kentucky, 18 September 1852, Clarksville Northern Standard, 20 November 1852.
45. Clarksville Northern Standard, 25 December 1852.
46. Gammel, Laws of Texas, 3:1314.