Noah Turner Byars
Navarro County, Texas


HOME



Biography from the Navarro County Scroll;
Why Two Grave Stones for Noah T. Byars ?
;
Biography from the Texas Handbook;
HPU receives two state historical markers


 

Noah Turner Byars

by Joseph Martin Dawson
Reprinted from the Navarro County Scroll, 1964
Printed with permission of the Navarro County Historical Society

In the past hundred and forty years few men in Texas have contributed so much to the state's emancipation from Mexico, to its material development and spiritual advancement as a quick-tempered, sharp-eyed, large-nosed, bristly-haired, tough-built, undersized man named Noah Turner Byars.  Belatedly this has been recognized.

Born in Spartanburg, South Carolina May 17, 1808 and dying in Brownwood, Texas July 18, 1886, this much loved small stuttered man, late in maturing, lived in humility but wrought with amazing creativity.  His services included such a variety of distinguished accomplishments and extended over such wide areas that we are surprised that not more has been published about him.  The explanation lies not in lack of respect for him while he was alive, but in his self-effacement which allowed scant monuments bearing his name.  Perhaps in Navarro County, where he lived for a decade, enduring institutions form the most striking.

It is known that Byars' education was quite limited, but his parents were of excellent character and he enjoyed good home training.  At the age of sixteen, he became a member of the church and for a time considered entering the ministry.  His exalted conception of that vocation, however, deterred him, feeling that he was sadly unqualified for it.  Instead he went to nearby Georgia and studied to be a gunsmith.   The fact that in 1835 he made his way to Texas has caused some to speculate that in Austin's Anglo colony in the rough Mexican province he might have thought manufacturing guns would prove profitable.  In any event he did not stake his future on any such expectation.  Upon arriving in Texas he chose not to confine himself to a gunsmithy but engaged also in the sale of real estate, a fact overlooked by most when referring to the room in which the Texas Declaration of Independence was adopted.

Curiously there is much confusion in the popular mind about that Texas Independence Hall.  Usually it is mentioned as Byars' blacksmith shop, but actually it was an unfinished commercial house, rented from him by a group of citizens for use of the Convention which resulted in the Texas Revolution.  It is necessary for us to clear up this confusion.

Surprising it is to discover that Dr. J. M. Carroll, in his history of Texas Baptists, was the first to say the room was a blacksmith shop.  Dr. Carroll doubtless thought that logic compelled the conclusion, but likely he was impelled by sentimentality, in an effort to show what meager resources the Texans had.  Since I was a member of the editorial committee which approved his manuscript before publication, I should feel remiss in not engaging in adequate research and challenging the accuracy of his designation.

Upon examining a dozen or more of the generally accepted early authentic Texas histories one cannot find any of them which identifies the building as Byars' blacksmith shop.  Only Rupert N. Richardson, a respected Texas historian, says it was, but rather obviously he repeated Carroll's statement in the belief that the oft-quoted identification had to be correct.  But William P. Zuber, in a manuscript now in the Texas Archives, who wrote as an eyewitness on the scene, describes quite another kind of building: "a two-story frame, but they occupied only the first floor .... new, a commercial house."  The Baptist General Convention in its 1888 obituary resolution simply called it Byars' "dwelling."  Byars, himself, in efforts to collect the rent from the Republic, which recommended instead a suite against the group of contracting citizens for payment of the rent, made no reference to a blacksmith shop.   The only semblance of evidence that the building was a blacksmith shop anywhere to be offered is an old photograph shown by the Ellison Photo Company, Austin which has the words, "N. T. Byars' blacksmith shop, in which the Texas Declaration of Independence was signed."  But experts say Ellison could never tell where he obtained the photograph and the clothes worn by the men in the picture belonged to the late 1880's, not the time of 1836 more that a half century earlier.  Likely the building was some old remodeled house.

In whatever building the fifty-eight members of the Constitutional Convention unanimously signed the Texas Declaration of Independence, we know that it belonged to Noah Byars.  We know, too, that in the terribly swift action of those March days when Sam Houston was elected Commander-in-chief of the Texas forces, it was Byars the gunsmith on whom was laid the momentous responsibility of serving in the capacity of armorer, not because of his store of supplies, but obviously because of his knowledge and skill.

Imagine if you can the difficulties which confronted Byars when he undertook to provide munitions for the Revolutionists.  As early as November 12, 1835, when Sam Houston was elected Major-general, he had emphasized the prime necessity for Munitions.   Col. Fannin had with him ten pieces of artillery and Col. J. C. Neill had fourteen cannons in the Alamo.  No doubt among other reasons Houston had in mind for ordering Fannin to abandon Goliad and Neil to blow up the Alamo was his desire to conserve munitions as well as preserve the soldiers in each place.  Now these men and their arms had been destroyed.  Houston's forces had not a single cannon to start with.   Worse still, the "runaway scrape" began with the retreat from Gonzales, thus removing all possibility of augmenting equipment from the settlers, who carried everything away with them.

We can understand better at this date why the Commander-in-Chief so stubbornly -- against fierce opposition of his own undisciplined troops, mostly boys --- kept retreating, retreating from the Guadalupe to the Colorade, from the Colorado to the Brazos, and apparently meant to retreat to the Sabine for U.S. aid.  Luckily at the nadir of discouragement came the gift of the Twin Sisters, two cannons from Cincinnati.   By cutting up horseshoes and bits of metal he also fashioned cartridges for the rifles that hours later mowed down the Mexicans on the field of San Jacinto.  But for the handiwork of this craftsman behind the scenes, not even classed a soldier, the Declaration adopted in his humble house might have become the instrument of guilty death instead of the immortal document of triumphant freedom.

The next we hear of Byars is of his being sergeant-at-arms of the Senate of the Lone Star Republic in 1837, a position which he retained for five years.  During the last two years of this period he was also associate judge, or justice of peace of the County Court in Austin.  When re-elected to the judgeship, he declined, under a conviction that he should yield to the long deferred duty of preaching.  He did not take this final decisive step before seeking to confer with trusted religious counselors.   His greatest desire had been to get the advice of Judge R. E. B. Baylor, of whom it was said "He held court during the day and preached at night."   Understandably Byars thought that Judge Baylor, who alternated between service to the state and exercise of the Christian ministry, would know.  He failed to contact Baylor, but came upon one T. W. Cox, pastor at Independence and LaGrange, prominent among Baptist organizers, yet soon to be unfrocked by his brethren, ironically enough with approval of Byars along with the leaders.  However serious the charges against Cox, he was an able man, and no doubt gave good advice.

On October 16, 1841, Noah Turner Byars was ordained as a minister by the Macedonia Baptist Church, situated ten miles east of Austin.  To his great delight Elder Z. N. Morrell, the Baptist's illustrious founder, conducted the solemn ceremony.   Many from Bastrop, Byars' home, were on hand and President M. B. Lamar and his entire cabinet attended in a body.  No doubt this strange decision of Byars caused the people to wonder.  Why would a popular holder of public office turn to a vocation such as the ministry which promised such meager support?

It the ministerial novice entertained any fears of survival, he was soon to experience relief.  Immediately he was called to the pastorate of the strong Providence Church in Burleson County, to which the eminent Carroll brothers, B. H. and J. M. belonged.  That he could succeed was attested by the fact that within a year he had erected one of the handsomest church edifices to be seen in all Texas, or so said Judge Baylor.

Still Byars could not pull completely away from public office.  When his devoted friend, Sam Houston, succeeding Lamar, returned to a second term as President of the Republic in 1842, Byars accepted appointment as "armorer"

Still Byars could not pull completely away from public office.  When his devoted friend, Sam Houston, succeeding Lamar, returned to a second term as President of the Republic in 1842, Byars accepted appointment as "armorer and blacksmith to the Indians," a position which he held for only six months.  He might have succumbed to Houston's overpersuasion, but much as he shared the President's ardor for the Indians and hoped to achieve some degree of civilization for them, a larger task loomed on the horizon.  The Baptists wanted him to become their missionary to the West.   Unorganized Navarro County, which then stretched almost from boundaries of Burleson County to Palo Pinto between the Brazos River and the Trinity River needed the refining, constructive force of religion, and he could not say no.

Upon responding to the Baptist appeal, President Houston named him notary of the public, which under all the conditions then prevailing meant more than the office does today, in fact afforded a neat supplement to his meager missionary stipend.

Almost coincidentally with these developments came from Texas Republic the allocation of 3, 129 acres of land on Richland Creek, two-thirds of a league and one labor, in terms of survey.  This was in payment for his work as armorer in the Texas Revolution.  At once he built a house of logs near the home of a man named Ethan Melton.  Ever he had a passion for building, as in Washington and Burleson Counties.   On January 28, 1838 Byars had married Miss Sophia A. Lowden and they were already blessed with a son Jefferson, or Jeff, and were destined to have two more, Charles Baylor, and Adoniram Judson.  Happiness beckoned to them.  In later years a second marriage increased the number of Byars children.

The village of Dresden sprang up on a corner of the Byars' tract.  The owner invested in cattle which bore a big B. for his Brand.  One might rightly judge that Byars could be expected to become a very rich man.  This prospect brightened in 1847 when Dresden was regarded as the certain selection for the capital seat of the newly organized county of Navarro.  The location committee of five citizens, however, by a majority of one vote passed up Dresden for "a camp-site midway between it and Porter's Bluff on the Trinity River."  The place chosen was named by Jose A. Navarro, Corsicana, for Corsica, his father's birthplace.  As of 1848 when this was done Navarro County contained in whole or in part the domains of what are now known as Hill, Ellis, Tarrant, Hood, McLennan, Limestone, Johnson, Parker, and Palo Pinto Counties.

To the surprise of everybody except those who knew him intimately, Byars showed little interest in money as shown by his refusal to press a suit for the collection of rent due on houses which became famous as Independence Hall.  According to Alva Taylor, who has looked up the records in the Navarro County clerk's office, he began to sell off parts of his land.  Among these sales we note 430 acres, March 10, 1846 to Jonathan Newby for $1,200; other parcels to Newby in March of the same year; a sale to W. T. White in 1846; acreage to Squire Smith 50 acres for $50 in 1848 and 60 acres to the Squire, January 14, 1853.  In 1851 Byars moved to Waco where he had organized the First Baptist Church.  Within a few years he was a poor man, always pushing West, no matter what the costs.

Obviously Byars at no time slighted his employment as missionary.  His diligence and zeal in pursuit of souls, his sacrifices, his courage in face of dangers on the wide frontier, his extreme exposures and tireless rides of an estimated 100,000 miles through the sparse settlements amazed the most indifferent, won the respect and admiration of all those who caught sight of him.  At intervals he suffered intensely from bronchial attacks, but kept on, even when living on relief.

By 1848 in Navarro County he had constituted six small churches -- Corsicana (now first Baptist Church of Corsicana), Union Hill, Providence, Springfield, Society Hill, and Leona.  With these he organized at Providence Church, north of Chambers Creek, the Trinity River Association.  The territory of this vast association between Trinity and Brazos rivers extended one hundred fifty miles in length and at least half as far in width.  In this organizational beginning it is commonly reported that Judge R. E. B. Baylor, in Corsicana for his court circuit, presided, and to guide deliberations was the most highly revered of all Texas Baptists, the Rev. Z. N. Morrell.

Byars is credited with setting up a total of sixty-five churches and three district associations.  Many of these rural and village churches have ceased to be, but most of the large town and city churches established by him live on to perpetuate his incomparable work -- churches in Corsicana, Waco, Belton, Brownwood, and the like.

A noteworthy aspect of Byars' evangelism was his ardent correlation of it with education.  He was one of that celebrated band of leaders who started the Texas Baptist Education Society in 1845, which six months later originated Baylor University, chartered by the Republic of Texas.  Nor have Baptists failed to recognize his zeal and heroism in building Golconda Academy in Palo Pinto County, which attained such vigor that it invited Rufus C. Burleson to leave the presidency of Baylor to become its head.   Except for a disastrous fire and outbreak of the war between the States, Golconda might still be on the map and there be others of his begetting.

At the Belton session of the Baptist General Convention in 1888, upon the passing of this man of apostolic labors, it was declared in a resolution adopted, "his work in extending or Redeemer's Kingdom will live when the world has burned and the stars have faded from the sky." One wonders if any man ever equaled his record as a missionary on the frontier.

In the observance of the Texas Centennial, 1936, this writer has the privilege of awarding two honors in memory of Noah Turner Byars.  The first was the placing of a bronze tablet in the sanctuary of the Byars-founded First Baptist Church, Waco, and inviting Dr. J. Howard Williams, Executive Secretary of The Baptist General Convention of Texas and former pastor of the Byars-founded First Baptist Church of Corsicana to give the installation address.  The second was delivering the address on the occasion of dedicating a monument to him erected on the campus of Howard Payne College, Brownwood.   The celebration in Brownwood, his burial place, was greatly enhanced by a reunion on the descendants of N. T. Byars, a large group of worthy men and women from different sections of the state and other states.

Byars fervently preached belief in an immortality in another world, but we can proclaim that he attained an immortality in this world, most certainly in Texas.


Why two gravestones for Noah T. Byars?
Original Website

Noah T. Byars has two monuments on his Greenleaf Cemetery grave. Have you ever wondered why? I had to find the answer to this perplexing matter. There had to be a historical reason for such an honor. Presidents and generals usually only get one tombstone.

I searched for clues from his life. Was it something he did from 1808, when he was born in South Carolina, to 1888 when he died in Brownwood?

The following facts jumped out at me. When Noah T. was 27 he came to Texas and opened a blacksmith-gunsmith shop at Washington-on-the Brazos. General Sam Houston liked his work and appointed him armorer and blacksmith of the whole Texas army.

Legend has it the Texas Declaration of Independence was drawn up in his blacksmith shop. After Houston defeated Santa Anna and set up the Republic of Texas, Noah became the sergeant-at-arms for the Texas senate.

He was an associate judge of Travis County when he felt the call to preach the gospel. He was one of the eight charter members of the first Baptist church ever formed on Texas soil (it was organized sometime just before the Alamo fell). This was Z. N. Morrell's church at Washington-on-the-Brazos (somewhere near Navasota).

At Noah's ordination to ministry, Mirabeau B. Lamar, the Republic of Texas' second president, and members of his cabinet were present. With such a start Reverend Byars began organizing Baptist churches and associations all over the place. He began the First Baptist Church of Waco in 1851 and the First Baptist Church of Brownwood in 1876. In all he is credited with helping begin over 60 churches in the state.

He officiated at the wedding of Katherine Anne Porter's parents, Harrison and Mary Alice Porter at Indian Creek, May 15, 1890. Ms. Porter is Brown County's greatest claim to literary fame.

Brother Byars had definitely done enough to warrant two monuments on his grave. But it still seemed strange since even the governors graves I have visited have only one obelisk or gravestone

Then it was that I discovered that back in 1936 when Texas celebrated 100 years of freedom from Mexico, a blue marble spire was erected to Byars on the Howard Payne University campus. That turned out to be the second monument now on Byars' grave. Why was it moved? Byars was a Baptist till the day he died. He was all for Christian education. He died in Brownwood.

Then it was an informer (who shall remain anonymous) filled me in on the reason his grave has two monuments. It seems back in the late 1930s, when a certain college in Abilene came to play Howard Payne in football, the visitors from said Abilene school drenched Byars' blue marble monument on the campus with red paint. So the powers that be wearied of scrubbing off the paint and moved the monument to Bryars' grave site at Greenleaf. That is the reason that Noah T. Byars has two huge gravestones. It is not because of his accomplishments, but because Howard Payne's administration ran out of paint remover.


Extract from the Handbook of Texas

BYARS, NOAH TURNER (1808-1888). Noah T. Byars, pioneer Baptist preacher, was born in Spartanburg, South Carolina, on May 17, 1808. He moved to Georgia as a young man and subsequently, in 1835, to Texas, where he established a gunsmith and blacksmith shop at Washington-on-the-Brazos. He was also involved in a real estate business with Peter M. Mercer;qv the two were described as "merchants and partners" in the deed records of Washington County in 1835. On January 21, 1838, Byars married Sophia A. Lowden; they had three children.

In 1836 Sam Houstonqv appointed Byars armorer and blacksmith of the Texas army. He also served as sergeant-at-arms to the Texas Senate from 1837 to 1841 and as armorer and blacksmith to the Indians, a position to which he was appointed by Mirabeau B. Lamar.qv Byars was associate judge of Travis County from 1839 to 1841 and was elected for another two-year term but declined to serve because of his ordination in 1841 to the Baptist ministry. When he moved to Burleson County to assume his first pastorate, he was appointed notary public for the county by the president of the Republic of Texas.qv

Byars had been one of eight charter members of the first Baptist church in Texas, which Z. N. Morrellqv established at Washington-on-the-Brazos. His ordination, on October 16, 1841, was attended by President Lamar and members of his cabinet. In 1848 Byars was appointed the first missionary of the Texas Baptist Convention. His mission field extended from the Brazos River to the Trinity and northwest to Palo Pinto and Young counties. It covered the territory of thirty present-day Texas counties. Byars was instrumental in founding five Baptist associations in Texas: the Trinity River Association in 1848, the West Fork (of the Trinity) Association in 1856, the Brazos River Association in 1858, the Pecan Valley Association in 1876, and the Hamilton County Association in 1877. He also founded more than sixty churches in Texas, including First Baptist, Waco, in 1851, and First Baptist, Brownwood, in 1876.

Though he had little formal education himself, he wanted the church to lead the way in providing education in Texas. Under his leadership, the Brazos River Association founded a school at Golconda (now Palo Pinto). He later founded a school known as Byars Institute in Houston. By 1843 the Texas Baptist Educational Societyqv was functioning as a separate organization but in connection with the Brazos River Association; it included Byars on its first board of managers. The education society founded Baylor University in Waco and the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in Belton while Byars served on the board of managers. A year after his death, the Pecan Valley Association established Howard Payne College (now Howard Payne University) in Brownwood.

In his old age Byars served as pastor of First Baptist, Brownwood, for fourteen months in 1881-82. His last full charge was at Clear Creek Baptist in Brown County in 1884. He officiated at the wedding of Katherine Anne Porter'sqv parents. In 1884-85 he was appointed missionary to the Texas Baptist Convention without definite charge (probably as a means of giving him a livelihood rather than for actual services.) But Byars returned to the pulpit in the last months of his life. In April 1888 he petitioned the conference for permission to preach at least one sermon a month in the Coggin Academy Building across the street from his home in Brownwood. Permission was granted, and he preached there until his death on July 18, 1888. He was survived by his second wife, whom he had married in 1877, and his children from his first marriage. He is buried in Greenleaf Cemetery in Brownwood. In 1936 a special Byars Memorial Thanksgiving Service was held in honor of the Texas Centennialqv on the campus of Howard Payne College. A blue marble spire was erected there and later moved to Byars's grave.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Baptist Standard, June 11, 1936. James Milton Carroll, A History of Texas Baptists (Dallas: Baptist Standard, 1923). Thomas Robert Havins, Noah T. Byars–A Study in Baptist Missionary Effort on the Frontier (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Texas, 1941).

Charlotte Laughlin

The Handbook of Texas


Howard Payne University
Nov. 30, 2001
For Release Upon Receipt
Contact: Bryan Mize / 915-649-8046

HPU receives two state historical markers

BROWNWOOD ­ The Texas Historical Commission has recognized Howard Payne University’s early founders by awarding two official Texas Historical Markers in honor of Rev. Noah Turner Byars and Dr. John David Robnett.

The markers are located on the HPU campus near the corner of Austin and Center Avenues. HPU dedicated the markers during Homecoming which was attended by descendants of Byars and Robnett.

"Celebrating Howard Payne University’s 113-year history has been an important emphasis for President Rick Gregory," said Dr. Bill Heston, senior vice president. "There are those who have come before us who have made great sacrifices for our benefit and beyond. Recognizing these two visionary founders of our university is meaningful for our students and the community at large."

Heston expressed appreciation to the Texas Historical Commission and Brown County Historical Society for their response to HPU’s request for the markers, and to Michael Belvin of the Texas Department of Transportation and Dr. Robert Mangrum, HPU’s historian.

Byars was considered one of the greatest Texas frontier preachers. He moved to Brownwood in 1882 and began a movement to generate support for a Baptist college. Robnett, then pastor of Brownwood’s First Baptist Church, continued Byars’ efforts and was instrumental in establishing Howard Payne College in 1889. Robnett received funding from his brother-in-law, Edward Howard Payne, who lived in Missouri. The board of trustees named the college in his honor.

"The Official Texas Historical Marker Program helps bring attention to community treasures and the importance of their preservation," said Larry Oaks, executive director of the THC. "Awareness and education are among the best ways to guarantee the preservation of our state’s history. This designation is a tool that will increase public awareness of important cultural resources."

The THC is the state agency for historic preservation. The agency administers a variety of programs to preserve the archeological, historical and cultural resources of the state. Texas has the largest historical marker program in the United States with approximately 12,000 markers.


Navarro County TXGenWeb
© Copyright March, 2009
Edward L. Williams & Barbara Knox