Before a central state penitentiary was established in Texas, local jails housed convicted felons. The Congress of the Republic of Texas defeated bills for a penal institution in both 1840 and 1842; in May 1846 the First Legislature of the new state passed a penitentiary act, but the Mexican War prevented implementation of the law. On March 13, 1848, the legislature passed the act that began the Texas penitentiary. On October 1, 1849, the first prisoner, a convicted horse thief from Fayette County, entered the partially completed Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville. The facility held only three prisoners in 1849, but by 1855 it housed seventy-five convicts, and by 1860, 182.

In 1852 the state established the office of financial agent, a position first held by John S. Besser. Texas initially supervised its prisoners under the Auburn System, developed by penologists at the state penitentiary in Auburn, New York. In Auburn penology, prisoners housed behind enclosed walls engaged in day labor and retired in silence to their cells during the evening hours. By 1856 the state had built a cotton and wool mill at Huntsville in order to make the penitentiary self-sustaining. The mill, which could process 500 bales of cotton and 6,000 pounds of wool annually, provided money to the state. During the Civil War the penitentiary sold more than two million yards of cotton and nearly 300,000 yards of wool to both civilians and the government of the Confederate States of America. Wartime production made a profit of $800,000. The end of the war and reduced demand for cotton and wool products, however, resulted in financial difficulties as the prison population began to grow.

The number of convicts increased from 146 to 264 between the end of the Civil War and the fall of 1866. In February 1867 the board leased 100 prisoners to the Airliner Railroad and 150 to the Brazos Branch Railroad. For most of the next forty-five years the state contracted large numbers of Texas prisoners to private employers. L. A. Ellis of Marion County leased the Huntsville Penitentiary from January 1878 through March 1883.

Below are census records for 1880, the time period in which L.A. Ellis leased the prisoners. They were housed in a prison camp in Kellyville, Marion County, Texas.

2015 Angela Hartman