Ex-Slave Becomes Community Leader

Born into slavery in Arkansas in 1845, Nelson Taylor Denson moved, at age eleven, to Falls County in East Texas with his master. Denson, who had been educated by his master, developed high regard for Sam Houston after hearing Houston speak when he visited Marlin in his campaign for governor. During the Civil War, Denson accompanied his master in the Confederate Army, serving as a saddle boy looking after the horses.

An account titled Slaves Narratives—Rural NW Louisiana African American Genealogy includes Denson’s account of the Civil War in which he praises Sam Houston for standing by his principles and refusing to take an oath of loyalty to the Confederacy, which resulted in Governor Houston being removed from office. Denson says he that at age sixteen he went to war as his master’s “bodyguard.” In his gripping account of the night before the Battle at Mansfield on the Sabine River, he describes the sound of whippoorwills calling and the low mummer of the men singing spirituals and listing for an attack from the Yankees camped just across the river.

Denson views the slaves who ran away and joined the Union forces as not properly caring for the women and children left behind on the plantations. He goes on to share his concern after the war for the change in the “old order,” and the decline in virtue and chivalry.

After the Civil War, Denson returned to Falls County as a free man and began working to fulfill his two dreams—to preach and to teach. Incorporating a deep understanding of human needs and rights, Denson became a circuit preacher in the Baptist denomination.

On November 8, 1868, the Reverend Denson, his wife, and eleven other blacks organized the Marlin Missionary Baptist Church, the first black congregation in Falls County. Denson believed that black citizens must have the basic rudiments of education, which led him to teach the fundamental skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic. He helped start a school sponsored by the Marlin Missionary Baptist Church, and others soon followed. By the mid-1880s Denson won election as county commissioner, becoming the first black official in the county. His good judgment and spirit of cooperation won the respect of both the black and the white communities, and he continued to be respected and called on for advice and counsel until his death in 1938 at the age of ninety-three.

The Rev. Nelson T. Denson and the Marlin Missionary Baptist Church historical marker is located at 507 Bennett at George Street in Marlin, Falls County.on

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William Cowper Brann–The Iconoclast

William Cowper Brann

William Cowper Brann

His supporters called him a visionary and a brilliant writer. Some even dubbed him the “Prairie Voltaire” and the “American Carlyle.” His detractors called him the “Devil’s Disciple.” Even his biographer Charles Carver described him as “a mean Mark Twain.” Upon his death, after a gun battle that also killed his assailant, those who hated him said, “At long last he’s in hell where he belongs.”

W.C. Brann acquired a third grade education, ran away at age thirteen in 1868 from the Illinois family who took him in after his mother’s death. He bounced around the country until he found work as a printer’s devil and cub reporter. He wrote for the St. Louis Globe Democrat, Galveston Evening-Tribune, Austin Statesman, San Antonio Express, and Houston Post, soon gaining a reputation as a brilliant though vitriolic editorialist.

Brann and his wife had two daughters and a son. After his thirteen-year-old daughter committed suicide in Houston in 1890, the family moved to Austin where Brann decided his editorial experience and the publication of three of his plays offered reason enough for him to use the limited family savings to begin publishing his “journal of personal protest,” the Iconoclast. It quickly failed.

Brann sold the journal to William Sydney Porter, the Austin writer who later became famous as O. Henry. After several more moves Brann ended up in Waco in 1894 as chief editorialist for the Waco Daily News. The following year he acquired the journal from Porter and started publishing the Iconoclast. This time the savagery of his writing gained attention across the U.S. and in many foreign countries, growing the circulation in three years to almost 100,000.

His articulate criticisms, even cruel comments fascinated his readers. He raged against the status quo and insulted people and institutions he viewed as overly sanctimonious or hypocritical. He held Episcopalians and Baptist in equal disdain but his attacks on Baptists garnered even more sensation because he published the Iconoclast in Waco, home of Baylor University, Texas’ premiere Baptist institution. He wrote that Baylor was “that great storm-center of misinformation.” He is quoted in a local publication as saying, “I have nothing against Baptists. I just believe they were not held under long enough.”

Despite his screeds against fundamentalism and its preachers, he wrote very little about religion and did not attack theology. In one essay he deplored the commercialization of Christmas. In another he said, “Remember that God is everywhere—even in church.” The subjects of his opinion pieces ranged from cats, to cows, to cold feet. He called politics an “unsavory stew of Macbeth’s witches.”

Brann’s hatred included wealthy eastern socialites such as the Vanderbilts, anything having to do with Great Britain and its people, the New York social scene, and women. He reserved his most vicious remarks for African Americans, and after reading one of his essays it is hard to imagine his popularity even in a day when lynching was accepted in many communities.

Despite his many friends and supporters, the anger he stirred in Waco boiled over in October 1897 when a group of Baylor students kidnapped Brann and demanded he retract his statements about the university. A few days later a Baptist judge and two other men beat Brann.

Finally, on April 1, 1898, the father of a female Baylor student, shot Brann in the back on one of Waco’s downtown streets. Despite having taken a bullet, Brann turned and began firing at his assailant, emptying his borrowed Colt Single Action Army Revolver into the man’s body. Brann’s attacker, writhing in agony on the ground, continued firing until he emptied his gun. Both men died the following day.

The word TRUTH is engraved on Brann’s monument in Waco’s Oakwood Cemetery. Beneath the word is Brann’s profile with a bullet hole in it.

Baylor University holds the William Cowper Brann Collection in its Texas Collection.

The Complete Works of Brann The Iconoclast

The Complete Works of Brann The Iconoclast

Gail Borden, Pioneer Inventor

A brilliant eccentric—Gail Borden reportedly rode about Galveston on a pet bull; he invented a “locomotive bath house,” a portable affair

Gail Borden

Gail Borden

that allowed women to bathe privately in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico before he was “discouraged” by the city authorities; and he worked for the Galveston City Company laying out the streets while designing a self-propelled terraqueous machine that was supposed to move on land and on water.  During the maiden voyage, it reportedly dumped its occupants in the Gulf.

Born in Norwich, New York, Gail Borden, Jr. (1801-1874) moved with his family to Indiana where he received about a year and a half of formal education.  Before coming to Texas in 1829, he began to show his lifelong concern for others by helping rescue a freedman from rustlers.

After settling in Texas, he farmed, raised stock, and began serving as a surveyor for Stephen F. Austin’s colony.  He prepared the first topographical map of Texas, and as the war for Texas independence from Mexico became a certainty, Borden and some partners started the Telegraph and Texas Register newspaper to keep the citizenry informed of the pending conflict.  Throughout the war, the Telegraph was moved across Texas just ahead of General Santa Anna’s advancing army.  Ten days before the Texas victory at the Battle of San Jacinto, the Mexican army captured the Telegraph printers and threw the press into Buffalo Bayou.  As soon as Texas won its independence Borden traveled to Cincinnati and bought a new press, which he continued to move across Texas following the new republic’s congress as it began to meet in Columbia and then on to the new capital of Houston.

Map of Houston

Map of Houston

Borden drew the map laying out the new capital on the muddy banks of Buffalo Bayou. In 1837, the year after Texas became a republic, Borden moved to Galveston to serve as the first collector at the port. Active in the Baptist church, he worked in the temperance movement, served as a local missionary to the poor and to travelers visiting Galveston.  He and his first wife, Penelope, reportedly were the first Americans to be baptized in the Gulf of Mexico west of the Mississippi River.  He served as a trustee of the Texas Baptist Education Society, which founded Baylor University, and as an alderman he helped rid Galveston of gamblers.  Temporarily.

He apparently began inventing around 1840 with a scheme to market jelly made from the horns and hooves of oxen.  He tried preserving a peach mixture using hydraulic pressure.  Penelope’s death in the yellow fever epidemic of 1844, prompted Borden to abandon his other projects and search for the cause of the disease. Recognizing that yellow fever struck during the summer heat and disappeared with the first cold front, he built a large-scale icebox, using ether to cool its interior.  He imagined a refrigerator large enough to cool the entire population of Galveston during the summer months. He abandoned his refrigerator project after hearing of the tragic fate of the Donner Party, a wagon train on the California Trail that became trapped in a snow storm in the Sierra Nevada.  Thirty-six of the eighty-one members of the train perished from starvation and exposure.  Borden devoted himself to creating a meat biscuit that he believed would provide nutrition for travelers such as the Donners and for the U.S. Army.  He boiled eleven pounds of meat to get one pound of extract, which he combined with flour and baked into a biscuit.  It was recognized for its nutritional value and earned a gold medal in London at the 1851 International Exposition.  Borden built a factory in Galveston; he introduced the meat biscuit at Texas’ first state fair in Corpus Christi; and he finally  moved to New York to be closer to distribution centers.  After seven years of struggling  to sell the ill-tasting biscuit, he suffered heavy financial losses, and finally abandoned the business.

Meat biscuits

Meat biscuits

 

Still convinced that he could improve the food supply by developing concentrated food products, Borden condensed milk by using a vacuum pan with a heating coil to remove the water without burning or souring the milk.  In this fashion he produced the first condensed milk in 1853 that could be stored and shipped long distances. He started a dairy company in Connecticut, and for the first time in his life, he was in a perfect position to capitalize on his invention.  During the Civil War, he began providing condensed milk for the Union Army, and saw his business flourish.  Still the experimenter, Borden created processes for condensing fruit juices, the extract of beef, and coffee.

Borden ad, 1899

Borden ad, 1899

After the war, he returned to Texas, founded the town of Borden west of Houston, established a meatpacking plant, a sawmill, and a copperware factory.  His Borden Milk Company with Elsie The Cow as its logo became known throughout the world.

Elsie the Cow

Elsie the Cow

Ex-Slave Becomes Community Leader

Born into slavery in Arkansas in 1845, Nelson Taylor Denson moved, at age eleven, to Falls County in East Texas with his master.  Denson, who had been educated by his master, developed high regard for Sam Houston after hearing Houston speak when he visited Marlin in his campaign for governor.  Denson admired Houston’s devotion to his personal beliefs that prompted him to resign from the governorship rather than support secession.  During the Civil War, Denson accompanied his master in the Confederate Army, serving as a saddle boy looking after the horses.UHP-IND146

An account titled Slaves Narratives—Rural NW Louisiana African American Genealogy includes Denson’s account of the Civil War in which he praises Sam Houston for standing by his principles and refusing to take an oath of loyalty to the Confederacy.  Denson says he was fourteen when Texas seceded and at sixteen he went to war with his master as his “bodyguard.”  Denson’s account of the night before the Battle at Mansfield on the Sabine River is gripping in his description of the sound of whippoorwills calling as the men listen for an attack from the Yankees camped just across the river.

Interestingly, Denson sees the slaves who ran away and joined the Union forces as not properly taking care of the women and children left behind on the plantations.  He goes on to share his concern after the war for the change in the “old order,” and the decline in virtue and chivalry.

Denson kept records of dates and events and describes in careful detail his original trip from Arkansas to Texas over and around the Great Raft that clogged portions of the Red River above Shreveport, Louisiana.

After the Civil War, Denson returned to Falls County as a free man and began working to fulfill his two dreams–to preach and to teach.  With a deep understanding of human needs and rights, Denson became a circuit preacher in the Baptist denomination.

On November 8, 1868, the Reverend Denson, his wife, and eleven other blacks organized the Marlin Missionary Baptist Church, the first black congregation in Falls County.  Denson believed that black citizens must have the basic rudiments of education, and he taught fundamental skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic.  He helped start a school sponsored by the Marlin Missionary Baptist Church, and others soon followed.  By the mid-1880s Denson won election as county commissioner, becoming the first black official in the county.  His good judgment and spirit of cooperation won the respect of both the black and white communities, and he continued to be respected and called on for advice and counsel until his death in 1938 at the age of ninety-three.

The Rev. Nelson T. Denson and the Marlin Missionary Baptist Church historical marker is located at 507 Bennett at George Street in Marlin, Falls County.