The upcoming 150th anniversary of the Civil War is shaping up to be a big deal. Dozens of states, from New Jersey to Arkansas, have formed commissions to observe the sesquicentennial. Not Texas. The state’s Historical Commission has some grants to preserve a couple of battlegrounds; other than that, its staff must use existing funds to improve a marker here and a website there.
Texas would like to forget it was a slave-holding state. The nation saw that this spring as some members of the State Board of Education tried to erase the word slavery from several parts of the social-studies curriculum. According to the still-dominant narrative here, slavery was no big deal in Texas. As University of North Texas historian Randolph Campbell puts it, “Without slavery, Texas gets to be a Western state,” one that joined the Confederacy for reasons of principle only. History that contradicts this narrative is conveniently forgotten.
In fact, Campbell found from census rolls that by 1860, nearly 200,000 slaves lived in Texas—one-third of the population. And slavery was very much on the mind of Texans in the summer of 1860, when mass hysteria swept the Lone Star State. By year’s end, dozens and perhaps hundreds had died in a slave-insurrection panic known as the Texas Troubles. The events were publicized widely around the country and, some historians argue, may have precipitated the Civil War.
There’s a sesquicentennial you’re not hearing about.
Hear University of North Texas historian Randolph Campbell’s comments:
The state has had a complicated relationship with the war from the very beginning. In March 1861, when the leadership of Texas took an oath to the new Confederate States, they did it literally over the body of Sam Houston. The governor sat in the basement of the Austin Capitol, one witness later wrote, stubbornly whittling a stick while lawmakers called him to take the oath. “I am stricken down now, because I will not yield those principles which I have fought for,” Houston lamented when he finally emerged. “The severest pang is that the blow comes in the name of the state of Texas.” With that, the old man was removed from office. And Texas was no longer part of the United States.
Texans had elected Houston and several other pro-Union candidates to office only two years earlier. What happened? To start with, in October of 1859 abolitionist John Brown had tried to foment a slave revolt in Virginia by raiding the federal armory and arsenal in Harpers Ferry. And a drought and heat wave scorched much of the South in the summer of 1860, exacerbating the tense political atmosphere. Water wells dried up and crops withered in the fields as temperatures reached above 100 degrees for days on end. On July 8, most of Dallas’s 678 residents were sweating out their siestas indoors when a fire broke out at Wallace Peak’s drugstore downtown. The townspeople could do little but run outdoors as hot winds blew the flames from one dry wooden building to the next. By the time the fire burned out, half the town’s business district was destroyed.
Similar fires happened at almost the same time in Denton and the hamlet of Pilot Point. The excitable editor of the (burned-down) Dallas Herald, Charles Pryor, sent letters to several newspapers about an alleged abolitionist plot afoot in Texas that aimed to burn the state down. “Each county in Northern Texas has a supervisor in the person of a white man, whose name is not given: each county laid off into districts under the sub-agents of this villain,” Pryor wrote, although he didn’t reveal his sources. “Poisoning was to be added, and the old females to be slaughtered along with the men, and the young and handsome women to be parceled out amongst these infamous scoundrels.”
The response was swift and inflammatory. The Houston Weekly Telegraph wrote on July 31, 1860, that “an outraged country demands the blood of the murderers. Slaves who have thus been had by the false teachings of wicked fanatics, to commit deeds which render their lives a forfeit, demand the blood of the guilty. … Let the whole people organize for protection and vengeance.”
That was a call to form vigilance committees, secretive bodies usually elected by the men of a town or county to bypass normal jurisprudence. “We will hang every man who does not live above suspicion,” wrote “J.W.S.” of Fort Worth’s vigilance committee to the New York Day Book in August 1860. “It is better for us to hang ninety-nine innocent (suspicious) men than to let one guilty one pass, for the guilty one endangers the peace of society.”
The committees formed night patrols and set about identifying suspicious slaves, as well as potential abolitionists. White Northerners, foreigners and Mexican Americans faced terrifying treatment. One man in Marshall wrote his father: “Every man that travels this country is taken up and examined, and if he does not give a good account of himself, he is strung up to the nearest tree.”
The best-documented accounts of the Texas Troubles come from where it began, in Dallas. The vigilance committee met in the still-sooty county courthouse on July 23. According to one retelling more than 30 years later, some members wanted to hang all the slaves in the county, but authorities worried that this would “entail a great loss of property.” So the committee settled on three black men: Patrick Jennings, Sam Smith and “Old Cato.” Cato had been entrusted by his owners, the Overton family, with running their mill; Sam Smith was a preacher; Jennings, who came from Virginia with his master, was later described by the master’s son as “an agitator.”
The three slaves met their deaths the following day on the bank of the Trinity River. The site no longer exists, since the river itself has been rerouted through downtown Dallas. But recently I met with Dallas historian Michael Phillips at the nearest place: Dealey Plaza.
We walked under the Triple Overpass bridge to an isolated triangle of land formerly known as Dealey Annex, which the city quietly renamed Martyrs Park in recognition of all the bad things that have happened on this spot. No marker names the place. “Hanging is difficult to do,” Phillips remarked over the roar of traffic. “You have to know what you’re doing. You have to calculate the weight of the person and then the amount of drop that’s allowed by the rope.” In Dallas, witnesses say, authorities miscalculated. Jennings, who had shown remarkable composure before his execution, “strangled for several minutes. It took him a long time to die. He was dangling, and he was conscious while he tried to free his neck from the rope,” Phillips said.
Most of the area’s slaves watched the brutal deaths. They also faced whippings, according to many accounts. By then, the racial paranoia had spread throughout slave-holding Texas, with hangings reported in Fort Worth, Crockett, Henderson, Waxahachie, San Antonio and many other places.
“Everything you look at says this was a tragic farce, tragic because it caused so many people to be killed—we still don’t know how many—and so many others to be beaten or expelled from the state,” said historian Donald Reynolds, who has written a book on the troubles called Texas Terror. He and many other historians believe that there was no conspiracy, no arson, no insurrection at all. They blame the summer’s fires on the drought, the heat and combustible phosphorus matches, called prairie matches, which were widely used in Texas at the time. (The matches were also aptly called “Lucifers.”)
“The initial reports of the various fires in North Texas all tended to agree that the spontaneous combustion of prairie matches was the cause in each instance. Since most of the fires occurred in stores that would have stocked these matches, it was natural for them to reach such a conclusion,” Reynolds wrote in Texas Terror.
But one group does hold fast to the idea that some kind of uprising took place: descendants of the slaves themselves. Donald Payton’s ancestors worked under Crill B. Miller, who owned a farm outside Dallas that caught on fire a few days after the town burned. When Payton, an amateur historian, first read that members of his extended family were implicated in the fire, he felt certain there was a plot. “The slaves weren’t as naïve as the movies make them. They heard and saw things like everybody else did,” Payton said of the turbulent times after the raid on Harpers Ferry. “I just don’t think it was an accident.”
Payton tells his version of the story every year to a huge reunion of the Miller family that gathers around July 8 on the former slaves’ land in Oak Cliff. “I always want people to be conscious that our struggle to be free did not start or did not stop with Martin Luther King,” he says. “We took freedom in hand, and that’s a good feeling.”
If there was a coordinated uprising, it didn’t accomplish much. But that summer’s hysteria did, politically. The stage was set for the state to secede the following year, despite the efforts of Sam Houston to keep that from happening. And the wide reportage on the Texas Troubles across the South may have been the deciding factor in getting other key states to join the Confederacy. With most rumors printed and few retracted, Southerners believed that war had in fact already come to them.
If we’ve forgotten the Texas Troubles, we can first thank many of the participants themselves. One secessionist editor who published the “evidence” of the abolitionist plot later went on to write the first history of Dallas County. By then, in 1887, he could barely bring himself to mention the events of 1860. To write of that time, he said, “would be to open a question, the discussion of which should be left to a later day.”
That day is still being put off. Randolph Campbell laughs at the thought of the state organizing any kind of public discussion or exhibition on the Texas Troubles 150 years later. “It would be murderously difficult,” he said.
Campbell touches on the Troubles in his book An Empire for Slavery. The book also matter-of-factly describes how, at the time, it was nothing odd for a Texan to hold the title “Negro and Real Estate Broker,” and how the leased labor of slaves put young white heirs through college. This was not a moral quandary in 1860 for most Texans, and thousands of them would die in brutal conflict before it started to become one. If, 150 years later, Texans still can’t talk about what slavery made of us, then part of our history remains trapped inside that peculiar institution.
Julia Barton is a writer and radio journalist from Dallas. She is working on a novel set in Antebellum Texas.