The Thing That Comes in the Night

A story, circulated since the 1830s in South Central Texas, contains enough truth to merit a Texas Historical Marker. Residents along the Navidad River bottom in Lavaca and Jackson counties began seeing strange footprints along the riverbank, and at the same time, they began missing small amounts of sweet potatoes and corn. On moonlit nights half the food in their cabins disappeared even though an intruder had to step over sleeping dogs. Tools vanished, only to be returned, brilliantly polished and sharpened. In fall around hog-killing time families stopped fattening hogs because a fat hog was invariably replaced with a scrawny substitute. Valuables such as gold or watches were never taken although they were plainly visible when the food disappeared.

Everyone speculated about “it.” Slaves believed it was a ghost and called it “The Thing That Comes.” Settlers, finding two sets of footprints, believed one of the intruders to be a man and the other a smaller companion, perhaps a woman or child.

Many people organized search parties trying to capture the “Wild Man of the Navidad.” Sometimes they found his camp among a thick growth of trees, but he never returned to the site while the pursuers waited.

Texas folk author J. Frank Dobie in his book Tales of Old-Time Texas concluded that the phantom figure had to be a woman because several well-documented sightings reported that “it” had long, flowing hair and facial features more similar to a woman. Dobie writes of a near capture in 1846 during an intense search when a rider heard rustling in the brush just before “it” ran in the light of the moon onto the open prairie.  “She ran directly across the prairie in the direction of the main forest. The man nearest her rode a fleet horse and it needed all the speed it had to keep up with the object in pursuit. As the figure neared the dark woods, the rider was able to throw his lasso. But, as the rope neared the woman, the horse shied away and the lasso felt short. The figure darted into the woods never to be seen again.”

Dobie said the rider claimed that the creature had long, flowing hair that trailed down almost to its feet and it wore no clothing. Her body seemed to be covered with short, brown hair.

“As she fled to the woods, she dropped a club to the ground that was about five feet long and polished to a wonder,” Dobie said.

Finally, in 1851, with the help of dogs trained to hunt down runaway slaves, local residents following their baying hounds found a black man in a tree. He wore no clothes and spoke no English. Some accounts say he was put in jail where he remained for about six months until a sailor wandered through who was familiar with the native dialect of the captive’s African tribe.

The captive said his father, a chief of their tribe, sold his son into slavery for the price of a knife and tobacco. The new slave and a companion escaped after their transport ship reached Texas. They settled in the Navidad River bottom because of the abundance of wildlife and fruit. His companion died from exposure.

The captured man, whom they called Jimbo, was sold back into slavery and lived in Victoria and Refugio counties. Freed after the Civil War, he reportedly died in 1884.

J. Frank Dobie writes, “Of course all of this happened many years ago and in the telling, you can always guarantee some build up in the information will take place.  If these things did happen, I cannot explain how.”

Cabeza de Vaca Walks Across Texas

Six years after the conquest of Mexico, Charles I of Spain sent an expedition to colonize all the Gulf Coast from Florida to present Tampico, Mexico. We know the details of this adventure because Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca kept extensive notes, which he used for publication in 1542 of his Relación (Account) and an expanded version in 1555.

Cabeza de Vaca
Texas State Historical Association

de Vaca served as the treasurer and first lieutenant of the 600-man expedition under the leadership of Pánfilo de Narváez. Six ships sailed from Spain in June 1527, and after desertions in Santa Domingo and a terrible hurricane in Cuba, the Spaniards spent the winter re-outfitting the expedition. About 500 Spaniards and five ships struck out again in April. Available maps of the Gulf of Mexico were so inaccurate that when they reached Florida’s west coast, Narváez, believing they were within thirty to forty miles of Mexico—a miscalculation of about 1,500 miles—ignored protests from Cabeza de Vaca and others and put ashore with an exploring party of 300 men and forty horses.

Route of the Cabeza de Vaca Expedition

After slogging along the coast for a month, suffering from Indian attack and food shortage, they realized that they must return to the sea for their travel. The lone carpenter guided the construction of five rafts using deerskin and hollowed-out pieces of wood as bellows. They melted stirrups and bridle bits to cast primitive saws and axes for felling trees and shaping crude planks that they caulked with pine resins and palmetto fibers. They fashioned sails out of their shirts and trousers and wove rigging from horse manes and tails. They tanned the skin from the legs of horses to form bags for carrying fresh water. They fed themselves by killing a horse every third day. On September 22, 1528, they loaded fifty men on each raft and set out along the Gulf, remaining within sight of the shore.

Soon after passing the mouth of the Mississippi River, strong winds separated the rafts, eventually driving all ashore between Galveston Island and Matagorda Peninsula. About ninety Spaniards and at least one African slave named Estevanico landed two rafts on a beach Cabeza de Vaca soon named la Isla de Malhado (the Isle of Misfortune). His description leads scholars to believe they were just below present Galveston on Follets Island.

The exhausted and starving men were terrified to see six-foot giants towering over them. Using sign language, the Indians who occupied the islands along the coast, indicated that they would return the following day with food. Cabeza de Vaca wrote that the next morning, after taking their fill of food and water, the Spaniards tried launching their rafts only to have them capsize and drown three men before tossing the others back onto the shore. When the Indians saw the terrific loss of men and all their possessions, Cabeza de Vaca said the Spaniards were stunned when these “crude and untutored people, who were like brutes,” sat down with the survivors and cried, weeping and wailing for half an hour.

Still believing they were close to their destination, four strong swimmers went ahead with an Indian guide. Over the winter Cabeza de Vaca observed the Indians, noting that when a child died the entire village mourned the loss for a full year. He observed this same sensitivity toward everyone in their society except for the elderly, whom they viewed as useless, occupying space and eating food that the children needed. He also wrote that during the first winter, five Spaniards became stranded on the mainland. As they reached starvation they began eating one another until only one man was left. The natives were revolted by the cannibalism and horrified that the Spaniards were so disrespectful of their dead that the survivors feared the Indians were going to kill them all. By spring 1529, exposure, dysentery, and starvation had decimated the wayfarers. Only Cabeza de Vaca and fourteen others survived.

Cabeza de Vaca set out alone to explore inland and became seriously ill. When he did not return as expected, he was given up for dead, and twelve of the survivors decided to move on down the coast toward Mexico. Two men refused to go because they could not swim and feared crossing the waterways along the coast.

Meantime, Cabeza de Vaca recovered from his illness, and for almost four years he traded with the Indians, carrying seashells and sea snails to interior tribes, which they used to cut mesquite beans, in exchange for bison skins and red ochre, a dye prized for body paint by the coastal Indians. The natives gave him food in exchange for what they believed were his healing powers. He blew his breath on the injured or afflicted parts of the body and incorporated prayers and the Catholic practice of crossing himself, which he reported almost always made those receiving the treatment feel better. Each winter he returned to Malhado to check on the two survivors who steadfastly refused to leave.

In 1532, when one of the men on Malhado died, the survivor Lope de Oviedo, agreed to journey down the coast after Cabeza de Vaca promised to carry him on his back if they had to swim across streams. At Matagorda Bay, a tribe Cabeza de Vaca called Quevenes threatened to kill them, which caused Oviedo to turn back with a group of native women and disappear. Despite their threats, the Indians told Cabeza de Vaca of “three Christians like him” and agreed to take him across the bay. Upon reaching the other side, he traveled to the “River of Nuts,” present Guadalupe and found three of his former companions being held as slaves, the other nine having died as they made their way along the coast.

For the next eighteen months, the four endured slavery under the Coahuiltecans, always planning to escape at their first opportunity. During their captivity, they heard stories of the fate of their expedition. Some had died of exposure and hunger; others succumbed to violence among themselves or from natives, and some of the survivors resorted to eating the flesh of their companions. In late summer 1534, they slipped away separately and headed toward the Rio Grande. Despite the odds, they soon met again and joined friendly Indians southwest of Corpus Christi Bay, where they remained for the next eight months.

They crossed the Rio Grande into Mexico near present Falcon Dam Reservoir, but upon hearing of hostile Indians along the Gulf coast, turned back across northern Mexico to the Gulf of California and the Pacific Ocean. Four men out of the original 300 reached Mexico City in July 1536, almost eight years after setting foot on the Florida Gulf coast.

Estevanico by Granger
Texas State Historical Association

Two of the men married wealthy widows of Conquistadores and remained in Mexico. Estevanico was sold or loaned to serve as a scout for an advance expedition of Coronado’s entrada. Stories as to his fate. One account says he was killed by Zuni Indians in present western New Mexico. Other accounts claim that he and friends feigned his death and he escaped to freedom.

Cabeza de Vaca had not completed his service to the crown. He was assigned the governorship of present-day Paraguay in Central South America. His experience in Texas, despite mistreatment and slavery, had made him a champion of the native people. When he tried to initiate policies that would help the local tribes—removing Indian slaves from cruel masters and placing them with kinder owners, instituting restrictions against holding Indian women as concubines, and adding modest taxes, settlers determined to exploit the native population removed him from office and sent him back to Spain in chains.

During his six-year trial, conviction, and his subsequent pardon, Cabeza de Vaca wrote Relación (Account), his detailed description of his Texas experiences as a merchant, doctor, ethnologist, historian, and observer of plants and animals. He recorded Native American’s incest taboos, dietary habits—spiders, ant eggs, worms, lizards, and poisonous vipers—when nothing else was available, and methods used for insect repellent. He even recorded his profound distaste for sodomy among the hunting and gathering culture. His description of the buffalo was the first written account of those wild creatures.

Cabeza de Vaca died about 1559, but his extraordinary adventures and his detailed documentation have earned him the title of Texas’ first historian. He performed one other amazing task as he and the other castaways walked barefoot across Texas and Mexico. His description of removing an arrowhead lodged in the chest just above an Indian’s heart earned Cabeza de Vaca fame as the “Patron Saint” of the Texas Surgical Society.

Cabeza de Vaca surgery
Texas State Historical Association

NORRIS WRIGHT CUNEY RISES TO POWER AFTER THE CIVIL WAR

Born into slavery in 1846, Norris Wright Cuney did not lead an ordinary slave’s life. His education and other opportunities led the way to his becoming one of Texas’ most powerful black political leaders of the nineteenth century. Cuney’s father, Colonel Philip Cuney, one of the largest landholders in Texas, owned 105 slaves and operated the 2,000-acre Sunnyside Plantation near Hempstead. Cuney’s mulatto mother Adeline Stuart was one of the colonel’s slaves, but she worked as the colonel’s chief housekeeper and bore eight of his children. Cuney’s mother made sure that he and his siblings never lived in the slave quarters or worked as plantation field hands. In fact, Cuney learned to play the bass violin and carried it with him when he traveled with his father on trading trips.

Norris Wright Cuney

During the time Cuney was growing up, his father also had a white family. About the time his father married his second wife in 1843, he also embarked on a political career as a member of the House of Representative of the Republic of Texas. He became a delegate to the Convention of 1845 that voted for Texas annexation to the United States, and he served as a brigadier general in the Texas Militia. After Texas joined the Union he became a member of the Texas State Legislature and the State Senate.

In 1853, not long after Colonel Cuney married his third wife, he left his plantation in the hands of an overseer and moved all his family to Houston, including Adeline Stuart and her children. That same year he began freeing his black children, starting with Cuney’s older brother Joseph went to the Wylie Street School for blacks in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. Over the years Colonel Cuney continued freeing his children and their mother Adeline Stuart.

In 1859 Cuney and his sister Jennie were freed. Cuney went to school in Pittsburgh and Jennie sailed to Europe for her education. Jennie later passed as a member of the white community.

The Civil War disrupted Cuney’s studies, and he spent the wars years working on steamboats between Cincinnati and New Orleans where he met and became influenced by black leaders such as P.B.S. Pinchback, who became Louisiana’s first black governor after the Civil War.

After the war, Norris Wright Cuney settled in Galveston near the homes of his mother and brothers. He began studying law and took advantage of being a literate, educated mulatto son of a wealthy white man. He worked with the Freedmen’s Bureau and the Union League during the Reconstruction-era to push former slaves to the voting booth, which resulted in more than 100,000 blacks voting annually into the 1890s. When the Reconstruction Legislature established a public school system, Cuney worked to ensure that tax money also went to black students within the segregated system.

Cuney married Adelina Dowdie, a schoolteacher, and daughter of a mulatto slave mother and a white planter father. The Cuney’s had two children, and since both parents were musical—Cuney played the violin and Adelina was a singer— art and music filled their home, and they emphasized education. Their son Lloyd Garrison Cuney, named for the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, became an official in the Congregation Church. Their daughter Maud Cuney Hare studied at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston and became an accomplished pianist, folklorist, writer, and community organizer in Boston. She wrote Norris Wright Cuney: A Tribune of the Black People.

Maud Cuney-Hare

 

Over the years of Cuney negotiating with white elites and despite serious strikes, unionized blacks finally gained access as workers on Galveston’s docks.

After being elected the Texas national committeeman in the Republican Party in 1886, Cuney became Texas party chairman, the most powerful position of any African American in the South at that time. However, his position did not sit well with some Republicans in Texas and throughout the country, which led to some in the party trying to have black leaders expelled. Cuney coined the term “Lily-White Movement” to describe the Republican effort.

In 1889 Cuney was appointed U.S. Collector of Custom in Galveston, the highest-ranking position of any black man in the South in the late nineteenth century. However, Cuney’s death that year coincided with efforts across the South to disfranchise black and poor white voters. Legislatures passed laws that made voter registration difficult and Texas instituted the Poll Tax and White Primaries (only whites could vote in the primaries) that greatly reduced the number of black voters from the high of 100,000 in the 1890s to less than 5,000 by 1906. During the Great Depression, racial strife within the unions dissolved much of the labor cooperation that had been established between blacks and whites.

Despite Cuney’s legacy of inspiring other black leaders, and the designation by some historians of the period between 1884 and 1896 as the “Cuney Era,” it would take the passage in the 1960s of the Civil Rights laws before blacks across the South regained the right to vote.

Norris Wright Cuney: A Tribune of the Black People

Rachel Whitfield, Free Woman

Black women have received little attention for the critical role they have played in maintaining their families and contributing to their communities. After running across a brief reference to Rachel Whitfield (1814-1908) a “former slave who made it on her own as head of a household, subsistence farmer,” I began searching for more. How did an uneducated black woman survive after the Civil War? I found Rachel’s story, which was written by her granddaughter Lela Jackson, included in Women in Early Texas.

In 1852 Jim and Rachel Whitfield lived with their six children in Arkansas, Missouri. Their master, a man named Whitfield sold Jim to a slave owner, and the family never saw him again. Rachel and the children were placed together on the auction block. Washington McLaughlin purchased the family, and they began a months-long trip to Texas, sometimes on foot and others times in an oxcart. They settled on a site with deep, rich soil on the north bank of the San Gabriel River in Williamson County.

The slaves cut thick brush and a variety of trees to clear the land, built cabins, and prepared the soil for planting. Lela Jackson writes that McLaughlin “was not even-tempered and at times whipped the slaves.” At other times he gave them passes in compliance with the law that required slaves to carry a pass any time they left the owner’s property. If they were caught without a pass, they could be whipped for being out without permission.

Sometime during the Civil War, soldiers rode into the plantation, took supplies, and then headed south. One of the slaves heard McLaughlin read the “Proclamation of Freedom.” He said nothing until early one morning he gathered the slaves and angrily announced: “You are now free people. You are free as I am. You can go anywhere you want to. You can stay here if you wish, but I don’t need you. I can do without you.”

The slaves stood in silence, stunned, unsure of what freedom meant. Finally, the cook went to the kitchen and prepared breakfast for the McLaughlin family. After the master had eaten, he told all the slaves to leave, not allowing them to eat or carry anything with them.

They slipped along the San Gabriel River, finding places to hide, unsure of their safety, listening for any strange noise. Rachel’s oldest son Allen married that spring and helped Rachel and the younger children settle in a log cabin next to a creek. They foraged for wild plums and berries, ate pecans and black walnuts. The owner of a stray cow gave the family permission to keep the milk in exchange for raising the calf for its owner. They kept milk, butter, and cream fresh by storing it in a bucket lowered into a well. With the change of seasons, they moved about, picking cotton and vegetables for landowners. They gathered prairie chicken eggs and trapped birds, squirrels, and possums. They ironed clothing for white people using flat irons heated on a fire log in the yard. Rachel made quilts and asked men to save their ten-cent Bull Durham tobacco sacks, which she ripped open, bleached, and used for the lining.

The high point in their lives came on “pastoral days,” the Sundays when a preacher held worship services. People came from miles around, and for those who could not read, the leader “lined” out the words. They enjoyed baptizings in the creek, sing-songs, camp meetings, and dances. When someone died, Rachel and her daughter Demmie prepared the body and laid it out on a board or a door that was balanced on chairs. Coffins were made from the plentiful local cedar and stained dark brown.

Lela Jackson writes that her grandmother, who lived until she was ninety-three and all her children held the respect of both their black and white Williamson County neighbors.

Black History Month–Part IV

Black women have received little attention for the critical role they have played in maintaining their families and contributing to their communities. After running across a brief reference to Rachel Whitfield (1814-1908) a “former slave who made it on her own as head of a household, subsistence farmer,” I began searching for more.  I found Rachel’s story in Women in Early Texas, an account written by 41NhJL7XncL._SX270_her granddaughter, Lela Jackson.  In 1852 Jim and Rachel Whitfield lived with their six children in Arkansas, Missouri.  Their master, a man named Whitfield sold Jim to a slave owner, and the family never saw him again.  Then, Rachel, age thirty-eight, and the children were put together on the auction block.  They were purchased by a man named Washington McLaughlin, and they began a months-long trip to Texas, sometimes on foot and others times in an oxcart.  They finally settled on a site with deep, rich soil on the north bank of the San Gabriel River in Williamson County.

The slaves cut thick brush and a variety of trees to clear the land, built cabins, and prepared the soil for planting.  Lela Jackson writes that McLaughlin “was not even-tempered and, at time, whipped the slaves.”  At other times he gave them passes, which were required to leave his land.  If they went out without a pass, they could be whipped for being out without permission.

Just before the Civil War soldiers rode into the plantation, took supplies, and then headed south.  One of the slaves heard McLaughlin read the “Proclamation of Freedom,” but he waited for several days until early one morning he gathered the slaves and angrily announced: “You are now free people.  You are free as I am.  You can go anywhere you want to. You can stay here if you wish, but I don’t need you.  I can do without you.”

They stood in silence, stunned, unsure of what freedom meant.  Finally the cook went to the kitchen and prepared breakfast for the McLaughlin family.  After the master had eaten, he told all the slaves to leave, not allowing them to eat or carry anything with them.

They slipped along the river, finding places to hide, unsure of their safety, listening for any strange noise.  Rachel’s oldest son Allen married that spring and helped Rachel and the younger children settle in a log cabin next to a creek.  They foraged for wild plums and berries, ate pecans and black walnuts, and got permission to milk a stray cow in exchange for raising its calf for its owner.  The milk, butter, and cream stayed fresh in a bucket they lowered into a well. They moved about as the seasons changed, picking cotton and vegetables for landowners.  They gathered prairie chicken eggs and trapped birds, squirrels, and possums.

They ironed clothing for white people using flat irons that they heated on a fire log in the yard.  Rachel made quilts and asked men to save their ten-cent Bull Durham tobacco sacks, which she ripped open, bleached and used to line her quilts.

The high point in their lives came on “pastoral days,” the Sundays when a preacher held worship services.  People came from miles around, and for those who could not read, the leader “lined” out the words. They also enjoyed baptizings in the creek, sing-songs, camp meetings, and dances.  When someone died, Rachel and her daughter, Demmie, prepared the body and laid it out on a board or a door that was balanced on chairs. Coffins were made from the plentiful local cedar and stained dark brown.  Rachel, who lived to ninety-three and all her children held the respect of both their black and white Williamson County neighbors.

JacketBlack Women in Texas History chronicles the lives of amazing black females from the days when they first arrived in Texas as both free and slave—during the Spanish Colonial Period—up to their present influence on Texas’ politics and education.  One of those women was Lulu Belle Madison White who graduated in 1928 from Prairie View College (present Prairie View A&M University) with a degree in English.  Before beginning a ten-year teaching career in Houston, White joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) where her husband had been active for several years.  She resigned from teaching after nine years and devoted the rest of her life to bring justice to the black community.  She was an amazing fund-raiser and organized new chapters of the NAACP throughout Texas.  Even before the Supreme Court in 1944 found that the white primary was unconstitutional, White had started organizing a “pay your poll tax and go out to vote” campaign.  She was the strongest advocate in Texas for using the black vote to force social change.  She argued: “we cannot sit idly by and expect things to come to us.  We must go out and get them.”LuluBelle

She sought to educate the black community by leading voter registration seminars, and she urged black churches to speak up about public issues without endorsing specific candidates.  She pressed white businesses to hire blacks, using boycotts, protest demonstrations, and letter-writing campaigns to influence the change.

In 1946 when the NAACP began its push for integrating the University of Texas, there was only one state-supported black college in Texas—Prairie View A&M—and it did not offer training for professional degrees. White not only persuaded Herman Marion Sweatt, a black mail carrier, to act as the plaintiff against the university, she raised money to pay his legal expenses.  Years later Sweatt claimed that it was White’s encouragement that helped him maintain his resolve.  When the state offered to open a separate black university with its own law school in Houston instead of integrating the University of Texas, White supported Sweatt’s rejection of the proposal on the basis that separate was not equal and only continued the status of Jim Crow.

The victory of Sweatt v. Painter before the Supreme Court in June 1951 opened the door for Brown v. Board of Education and the march toward dissolving the color line in education. A week before Lulu White’s unexpected death in 1957, the national NAACP established the Lulu White Freedom Fund in her honor.

Black History Month Part II

Many slave families were sold and ripped apart by white slave owners as easily as if they were selling purebred puppies.  When Matilda Boozie Randon was a child in South Carolina, her mother and siblings were sold and she never saw them again.  Matilda was sold to a family that brought her to Texas, settling first in Mt. Pleasant. When she was about thirteen she bore her first child after being raped by her master’s son.  At some point she and the family moved to Washington County. After the Civil War, possibly because of the rape, Matilda and her husband, a preacher named Randon, were given 1,500 acres. Randon farmed and rented portions of their land. Matilda sold butter and eggs and became well known throughout the county as a midwife, delivering both black and white babies. In an oral history, Matilda’s granddaughter said Matilda woke up at any time during the night to go to a birth and that she stayed until the mother was able to care for herself.  According to her granddaughter Matilda had a black bag that looked like a doctor’s bag, in which she carried scissors and number eight thread for tying the umbilical cord.  The children in Matilda’s family were not allowed to touch that black bag, and they “weren’t allowed to even look at it too hard.”  Matilda was paid for her midwife services in canned goods, hogs, chickens, eggs, quilts, and other objects of barter.

Not all slave families suffered from permanent separation.  Elizabeth Ramsey was a mulatto slave in South Carolina who gave birth in 1828 to her master’s child whom she named Louisa. One account claims that because Louisa looked like the master’s other child, Elizabeth and Louisa were sold to a planter in Mobile, Alabama. When Louisa was about thirteen, she and her mother were separated in a sale to different slaveholders.  Despite being sold to a man named Williams in New Orleans, Louisa remained determined to find her mother.  Williams made Louisa his concubine, and she gave birth to four of his seven children.  Upon his death, she was set free and given enough money to move to Cincinnati where she married a mulatto named Henry Picquet who encouraged her continued search for her mother.

Meantime, Elizabeth had been sold to Col. Albert C. Horton who served as Texas’ first lieutenant governor and as acting governor during the Mexican-American War.  By the opening of the Civil War, Horton was one of the wealthiest men in the state and owned 150 slaves on plantations in Wharton and Matagorda counties.

A friend of Louisa’s, who had traveled to Texas, brought back descriptions of Horton that matched Louisa’s memory of the man who had purchased her mother.  Around 1858 Louisa began writing letters to Horton and to her mother, pleading to buy Elizabeth’s freedom.  Horton wanted $1,000 to give up Elizabeth.  Finally, Louisa convinced Horton to accept $900.

Louisa Picquet the Octoroon

Louisa Picquet the Octoroon

Raising $900 was no easy task.  Louisa borrowed against her husband Henry’s salary, and she asked for help from Methodist minister and abolitionist, Hiram Mattison, in May 1860.  Eager to help Louisa raise the money, Mattison tried to present her case to a meeting of Methodist bishops, but was unable to get it on the agenda.  Instead, Mattison published his interview with Louisa with most of his

Louisa Piquet, the Octoroon by H. Mattison, 1861

Louisa Piquet, the Octoroon by H. Mattison, 1861

account centering on the whiteness of her skin and how shocking it was for white women to be held in slavery.  Eventually, the savings and public solicitations resulted in Louisa purchasing her mother and being reunited after a twenty-year separation.

After Texas won independence from Mexico, allowing free persons of color to remain in Texas went against the basic principles of those who supported what was often called the “peculiar institution.”  Among the many reasons used to hold blacks in bondage was the claim that slaves and free Negroes were incapable of self-government. Consequently the constitution of the new Republic of Texas stated that free blacks could not remain in Texas without permission from congress.  Various resolutions resulted in freedmen being allowed to remain in Texas only until January 1, 1842, at which time they would be sold back into slavery.  Several thousand free people of color petitioned the congress asking to remain as free citizens of Texas.

In 1840 Fanny McFarland’s petition stated that William McFarland brought her “to this country” in 1827 and that he freed her in 1835 because of “long and faithfull [sic] services to him and his family.”  The petition goes on to say that “at the time of the Mexican invasion,” by which she meant the 1836 Texas Revolution, she was living in San Felipe de Austin as a free person, and as a result of the war she was driven from her home and lost all her possessions.  After Texas won independence from Mexico, she moved to Houston in 1837 and “acquired a little property.” Accounts of her early time in Houston indicate that she was a laundress, saved her money, and began buying small pieces of property, eventually operating one of Houston’s first successful real estate ventures.  Her petition states that she “would beg leave to urge upon your Honors the hardships of being obliged in her old age to leave her children to sacrifice her hard earned property to be obliged to part from friends of years standing to be obliged to leave her only home and be turned loose upon the wide world.”  The petition continued, “she has four children held as slaves in this Republic so that all her hopes and prospects in this life lie here.”  She asked, “to spend the few reminding [sic] days of her life as a resident and Citizen of this republic.”  Despite more than seventy people signing a petition dated October 30, 1840, stating that Fanny McFarland was a good and useful citizen of Houston, the Congress of the Republic of Texas denied her request.  Undeterred, Fanny McFarland remained in Houston until her death in 1866.  There is no record of whether her children, freed in 1865 at the end of the Civil War, were able to be with their mother in her last year.

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.