by: Mary Sue Rogers
edited by: Marjorie Ledbetter Yelton
On February 4, 1841, the Fifth Congress of the Republic of Texas adopted an important land and colonization law called "An Act Granting Land to Emigrants." This law was proposed in the form of a petition or memorial and signed by 20 men previously unknown in Texas who declared their interest in colonizing unoccupied portions of Texas. William Smalling Peters was the original contractor with the government, and his name headed the list of signatures. The group became known as Peters Colony, with offices in Louisville, Kentucky. Peters and his associates had special circulars printed on letterhead for distribution and posting in public places advertising the rich lands of the Red and Trinity River Valley. A copy of the leaflet is on file at the Hall of State (Fair Park) in Dallas (file Ref. A524), along with other material regarding Peters Colony. The files contain a photograph and story published by The Dallas Morning News, March 1, 1941, (Ref. A4130) showing the "overlord" of the Texian Emigration and Land Company as a white haired old man with gaunt face, fierce eyes, a lantern jaw, and full lips. The files also contain a map of Peters Colony--1852 (Ref. A41152).
The law of February 4 authorized the President of the Republic to enter into an empresario contract with the petitioners who organized themselves, affixed their signatures, and made plans for carrying out the contract. Of the 20 petitioners, 11 were residents of London, England, who signed as follows: Daniel S. Spillman, Robert Hume, John Salmon, W. Byrne, Henry Richards, Robert D. Stringer, and William Oldmixon. The nine United States residents who signed the petition were W. C. Peters, John C. Bansamen, John Peters, William Scott, Phineas J. Johnson, H. S. Peters, Timothy Cragg, Samuel Browning, son-in-law of W. S. Peters, and Peters himself.
W. S. Peters and his family migrated to the United States from Great Britain in 1820 but had not taken an oath of allegiance to this country at the time of the 1841 contract. The children, all born in Woodbury, Devonshire, England, were William Cummings (b. 1805, d. 1866), Henry J. (b. 1816, d. 1878), John, Emily, and Emma. They lived in Louisville, Kentucky; and the elder Peters may have visited Texas as early as 1823. William Cummings Peters appeared to be the most prominent of the children, according to Seymour V. Connor in The Peters Colony of Texas, published by the Texas State Historical Association in 1959. William C. Peters was at various times a music professor, music store proprietor, concert pianist, publisher, and composer. His obituary
in 1866 indicated that some of his masses were favorably received in Europe. His most successful business may have been the publication of Stephen Foster's music, as follows: "There's a Good Time Coming," "Louisiana Belle," "What Must a Fairy's Dream Be?," "Uncle Ned," "Stay Summer Breath," "Suzanna Don't You Cry," "Away Down South," "Santa Ann's Retreat from Buena Vista," and possibly others. Peters probably encouraged and influenced Foster in his career.
Henry J. Peters, also one of the 20 petitioners, was a music professor and became proprietor of his brother's music store. He moved to Young County, Texas in 1877. Accompanying him in wagons were his wife Mary, sons Harry and Carl, and daughter Adele Peters Benedict and her children Harry Yardell and Carl Peters Benedict . Descendants of the Benedicts presently live in Dallas.
The story of Peters Colony, one of the most successful empressario ventures, is complicated, with no hero, no villain, no love affair, little drama, and virtually no plot.
Two major problems were dealt with in the law of February 4, 1841--the granting of land and the settling of immigrants. One section of the law extended the "Third Class Headright" to January 1, 1842, and made it retroactive to January 1, 1840. Every family settling during this period was to receive 640 acres of land and each single man 320 acres, provided they lived on the land three years, had it surveyed, plainly marked and fenced, cultivated at least 10 acres, and built a good and comfortable cabin. They were to pledge allegiance to the Republic and procure from the Chief Justice of the county a certificate signed by two reliable witnesses testifying that terms of the law were fulfilled. The colony was to receive one section of land for every 100 families to build a church. The 20 empresarios were to receive a bonus of ten sections for each 100 families and ten half sections for each single man. They could charge the colonists a fee, collectible in land, for such services as selecting, surveying, and acquiring title to land, as well as transportation expense. Empresarios were permitted to take as much as one-half of any colonist's grant as payment for the above specified "fringe benefits." This provision was the basis for a great deal of conflict and ill will between the colonists and empresarios.
On January 20, 1842, an item entitled "Emigration Extra" appeared in the Louisville Journal regarding a Louisville company that had purchased 800 sections of Eastern Texas land.1 The steamer Embassy from Louisville arrived at Shreveport with 100 families destined to be the first settlers. The emigrants planned to ascend the Red River to the Cross Timbers; women and children were to proceed in wagons or on horseback while the men, carrying rifles, walked to the settlement.
"The country they have selected is beautiful, healthy, and fertile. A few years of struggling, and they will find themselves surrounded with all the comforts of competency, and all the refinements of society."2
The following item appeared in The New Orleans Crescent City, April 15: "The colony from Kentucky under the control of Mr. Peters, has located in the upper end of Robertson County, and in the garden spot of Texas, being in the vicinity of that Eldorado, the Three Forks of the Trinity."
A later report in the Louisville Journal indicated that the settlement known as the "Cross Timbers Settlement" in Fannin County had been broken up by Indians, and the 12 families had taken refuge at a fort. Cattle and buffalo destroyed their corn crop and the settlers later sought protection among the settlers of Bowie County.3
The story of Peters Colony is complicated by inaccurate surveys and boundary disputes, delays in granting titles problems with the Indians, empresario contract extensions, lack of organization of Peters Colony and lack of contact between the American and English interests, transfer of rights, etc.
Three contracts had been made between Peters Colony and the government, in which the 11 Englishmen had not participated. On October 3, 1842, their collective rights were transferred to another group in a contract engineered by one of the original English group, Daniel J. Carroll. Under the contract sign ed in London, the Original English group assigned whatever interest was theirs to Daniel J. Carroll, Sherman Converse, Thomas Jones Mawe, Martin Stukely, Edward Tuke, and Charles Fenton Mercer. Although some members of the new group had good intentions, Carroll was an opportunist and Converse a promoter. Mercer, the most respected o the group, was a Virginia aristocrat and former member of Congress of the United States during Jackson's administration. There was considerable vying for control between Mercer, Converse, and Carroll; but their scheme was not made clear. President Houston signed a contract with Converse but later ignored it and made a contract with Mercer on January 29, 1844, it being the fourth and final contract with Peters Colony Texas Emigration and Land Company. Apparently, the only advertising by the colony since the initial printed handbills was by word of mouth. Although numerous attempts were made to navigate the Trinity as an easy route to the colony, "all the interest in the world could not make the river float steamers."3
There was continuing controversy between the English and American interests which led to the reorganization of the company. There was lack of leadership on the part of the empresarios in dealing with the colonists. The empresarios were negligent in fulfilling their part of the contract for services and supplies; however, the required number of immigrants moved into the colony to complete the contract. Samuel Browning, one of the original 20 petitioners and a son-in-law of W. S. Peters, died in 1844, and the Northern Standard recorded his passing:
"In Trinity Colony, on Thursday, the 21st of June, Mr. Samuel Browning, formerly of Louisville, Ky., and since of the City of Austin, in the 43rd year of his life. Mr. Browning was one of the original contractors for the first Trinity Colony, under the grant of 1841. He settled on it when it was a wilderness; had remained in it, and administered to its interests under all its vicissitudes; and at last after having endured much privation; and seen hundreds come and go; and the Colony at one time, with only sixteen families left in it out of the large number who had ventured, but shrunk away again, from the hardship and hazard of a wild country; he lived long enough to see the success of the enterprize. When he died there were sixteen families more within its limits than were required to comply with the terms of the contract. Mr. Browning was an amiable worthy man, and has left a family to mourn his loss."5
Settlers were dissatisfied with policies of the empresarios. There was friction over land location and surveys and land speculation. The prescribed boundary of Peters Colony, was: "Commencing at a point on Red River 12 miles east of the mouth of Big Mineral Creek, thence due south one hundred miles, thence due west one hundred and sixty miles, thence due north to Red River and thence down Red River, with its meanders to the point of beginning.6
Henry O. Hedgecoxe was an English emigrant who was living in Indiana when he became the company agent. The settlers did not like his arrogant attitude. He claimed to be a civil engineer and directed all the surveying. Inaccurate surveying was more disturbing to the average settler than none at all. Hedgecoxe issued certificates to the colonists stating the amount of land to which they were entitled, but the colonists demanded that the county courts be authorized to issue titles. Hedgecoxe demanded they give up half of their claim as payment for services. The ensuring episode was known as the "Hedgecoxe War." In defense of their homes against the outrages and insults inflicted by Hedgecoxe, the colonists took said agent's books, maps, and papers into their own hands and drove him from the colony.
Reports indicated that there were 197 families and 184 single men in Peters Colony prior to July 1844. Also, there were 305 cabins, 482 children, 29 slaves, 286 rifles, and a supply of powder and lead. The largest number of colonists were from Missouri, Illinois, and Tennessee, with lesser percentages from Arkansas, Kentucky, Indiana, North Carolina, Virginia, Georgia, South Carolina, and Europe. The people who settled this part of the American frontier were mostly native Americans from bordering and midwest states, who came seeking economic betterment. Most of them engaged in farming.
1 Seymour V. Connor, The Peters Colony of Texas, published by The Texas State Historical Association, H. Bailey Carroll, Editor, page 49.
2 Ibid., p. 49.
3 Ibid., p. 49.
4 Ibid., p. 72.
5 Ibid., p. 82.
6 Ibid., p. 88.