Marion County History


Marion County was formed from the southern portion of Cass County by an act of the state legislature on February 8, 1860. Territorial additions in 1863 and 1874 extended its southern boundary to include both banks of Big Cypress Bayou. The county was named for American Revolutionary War hero Francis Marion, the "Swamp Fox." Due to a large natural log-jam and collection of snags on the Red River, known as the Red River Raft, which formed a series of navigable lakes and bayous in the river valleys of Marion County, Jefferson, founded in the early 1840s, rapidly developed a booming river trade with New Orleans. Jefferson quickly became the favored inland Texas port for the deposit and transport of North Texas agricultural produce. Thus, Marion County became the commercial conduit for frontier Texas and did not relinquish this position until the establishment of transcontinental rail links that bypassed its wharves in the mid-1870s. Another important attribute of Marion County's early character was the geographical and cultural origins of its residents. Ninety percent of them migrated from the Deep South and the border states of Tennessee, Arkansas, and Missouri, bringing with them the slave economy of their former environment. In 1860 the slave population of Marion County constituted 51 percent of the total population. Slaveholders, though small in number (213), held 60 percent of the county's wealth and dominated its political institutions. Marion County sent two of its prominent citizens, James H. Rogers and William S. Todd, to the Secession Convention, and the county's voters unanimously approved the Ordinance of Secession in 1861.

The acquisition of lucrative Confederate government contracts proved to be a catalyst to the county's already growing economic fortunes. For example, the Kelly Iron Works, established in the antebellum period as a successful producer of agricultural implements, received a commission to manufacture cannonballs and rifles for the Confederate States Ordnance Department. J. B. Dunn's meat-packing firm was authorized to produce tinned beef for the Confederate commissary. Cut off from potential competition from eastern industrial firms and protected from invasion by its geographical location, Marion County's infant manufacturing sector and Jefferson's riverport commerce continued to expand and thrive throughout the Civil War. The defeat of the Confederacy and the ensuing federal occupation led to the most volatile and tumultuous period in the county's political history. On October 4, 1869, George Washington Smith was murdered in Jefferson by a band of vigilantes. Smith's slaying led to the military occupation of Jefferson by Union troops under the command of Gen. George P. Buell, whose orders were to establish the security of citizens loyal to the United States and to arrest and try Smith's killers. The action taken by the military tribunal that followed was known as the Stockade Case.qv With military protection afforded the black majority, the white Republican minority, through the use of the local Union League,qv took control of county government. Prominent among Marion County Republicans during the Reconstructionqv era were Donald Campbell, Colbert Caldwell,qqv Charles Haughn, and A. G. Malloy. Republicans continued to serve in county political offices through the decade of the 1870s. The restoration of white conservative rule, commonly called "redemption," did not come until 1882 with the election of a Democrat-dominated commissioners' court. However, despite violence and intimidation aimed at the black majority throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century, blacks continued to deliver Marion County's majority for the Republican presidential ticket until the white primary effectively disfranchised them in 1898. From this point on, county voters returned a majority for Democratic presidential candidates in every election through 1992 except in 1956 and 1984.

In spite of the intense passions engendered by Reconstruction politics, the county's prominent citizens were able to separate politics and financial necessity, opposing a proposed boycott of Republican businesses in 1869 and 1870. Few disliked the Republicans enough to refuse to do business with them. The 1870 census ranked Jefferson second in commerce and industry among all Texas cities. Such modern novelties as gas lighting, artificial ice, refrigeration, and soda water were in common use by Jefferson's commercial elite. Cotton exports from Jefferson's wharves increased from 25,000 bales in 1865 to 76,238 bales in 1872. However, material wealth and commercial optimism plummeted during the mid-1870s. Jefferson's unchallenged monopoly over the trade of approximately twenty northern Texas counties was broken by the construction of two east-west rail routes during the 1870s, linking the Grand Prairie farmlands directly with eastern markets. At this point, the flight of capital and skilled labor from Marion County began in earnest. Between 1870 and 1880 the county lost 138 businesses and began to resemble more nearly the other rural counties contiguous to it. In 1870 urban residents made up 50 percent of the county's population, but by 1900 they constituted only 26 percent. During the 1870s and 1880s the number of farms in the county grew rapidly, from 186 to 1,063, as many of the large plantations were broken up and sold or turned over to share croppers. Cotton and corn constituted the leading crops, with cattle, swine, and other livestock contributing to the farm income. The discovery of oil in 1910 and the subsequent speculation and production that followed resulted in an expansion of the county's nonagricultural economy for the first time since the 1870s. By 1920 Marion County had acquired sixty new businesses, including eleven manufacturing firms. Communities beside the County Seat of Jefferson include Berea, Gethsemane Community, Gray, Hartzo, Jackson, Kellyville, Lassater, Lodi, Lodwich, Orrs, Potters Point, Prospect, Smithland, Sunview, and Warlock.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Lucille Blackburn Bullard, Marion County, Texas, 1860-1870 (Jefferson, Texas, 1965). Ben C. Cooner, The Rise and Decline of Jefferson, Texas (M.A. thesis, North Texas State University, 1965). Allen W. Trelease, White Terror: The Ku Klux Klan Conspiracy and Southern Reconstruction (New York: Harper and Row, 1971).

From the Texas Handbook


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For updates and/or corrections, contact Angela Hartman, Marion county coordinator.
This page was last update: Wednesday, April 30, 2014
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