Alfred Butler: A Home in Texas
By Steven R. Butler, Ph.D.
Anderson County, Texas is located in the upper Trinity River valley about a hundred miles southeast of present-day Dallas. Situated in that part of the state known as East Texas, it is a land of gently rolling hills and dense green woods, thick with tall pines and oaks. Physically reminiscent of Arkansas as well as parts of Tennessee, Georgia or Alabama, it must have reminded many of its early settlers of their old homes back East. It was here, in 1852, that Alfred and Mary Butler made their first home in Texas.
Anderson County had been organized in 1846, shortly after Texas was admitted to the Union. It was named for K.L. Anderson, a native of Tennessee who fought in the Texas Revolution. A politician and public official, Anderson was also the last Vice-President of the Republic of Texas.
The county seat, Palestine, was named by the Reverend Daniel Parker, one the county's earliest settlers, not for the region in the Middle East but for the Illinois town in which Parker had previously lived before coming to Texas. It is pronounced "Palace-steen."
Although they probably arrived there during the early summer of 1852, there is no hard evidence of the Butler family's presence in Anderson County until February 28th, 1853. At that time they purchased a wagon, a team of two oxen, and a horse - the sale of which was entered in the deed records at the courthouse in Palestine, the county seat. However, if the Butlers bought any land in Anderson County prior to 1854 the purchase went unrecorded. So where did they reside? Unfortunately, the answer to that question is unknown. It's possible, even likely, that like many young couples of limited means, they initially boarded with friends or relatives, working for their keep until they were able to buy a place of their own. Such an arrangement was no less common in that time than it is today.
In late March 1854, nearly two years after leaving Arkansas, it was recorded in the Anderson County deed book that Alfred and Mary Butler purchased two tracts of land about a half-mile north of Palestine. One plot measured three acres, the other a little more than six acres. The price of $100 for both was paid to one Oliver C. Terrill and his wife, in partnership with one J.G. Wallace. Wallace, if he was not already, later became a brother-in-law when he married Laura Stanley, Mary Butler's younger sister. Coincidentally, Madison Owen, the Butlers' late brother-in-law, had bought land from Mr. and Mrs. Terrill in Dallas County, Arkansas some four years earlier.
Where the Thomas Stanley family resided during this period is also unknown but there's little doubt they had left Arkansas and were settled somewhere in either Anderson County or nearby Freestone County, on the west side of the Trinity River.
No sooner had Alfred and Mary Butler purchased property in Anderson County than they decided to move again, this time to neighboring Freestone County. There, on May 24th, 1854, county officials had accepted the $7,830 bid of contractor John C. Whitt to construct a new county courthouse, to replace the one which had been built in haste out of logs in 1851. Coincidentally, Thomas P. Whitt, from whom the Butlers had bought land in Arkansas, was John Whitt's brother. As a result of this acquaintance, it may be that Whitt was influenced to hire Alfred Butler, whose trade was carpentry, to help build the new courthouse.
During its brief antebellum era, from 1851 to 1861, Freestone County, Texas experienced a growth in population the likes of which it has never seen since. As streams of settlers poured into the newly-formed county, most of whom originated from the older Southern states, Fairfield, the county seat, was rapidly transformed from a raw frontier town into a booming community.
When the Butlers arrived there during the summer of 1854, Freestone County, Texas was not even four years old, having been officially created out of the eastern half of neighboring Limestone County by an act of the Texas legislature on September 6, 1850. Fairfield, originally called Mount Pleasant and re-named for a town in Alabama, was chosen as the county seat in December of that same year. The following January, county officials were elected and in February the first term of county court was held. However, it was not until June 20, 1851 that David Love, an early settler and veteran of both the Texas Revolution and Mexican War, deeded 100 acres of land for the town of Fairfield. It was laid out in a rectangular shape of thirty blocks, with the center block set aside for the county courthouse. An auction was held that same day, and the next, during which town lots were sold. In November, a post office was established at Fairfield with Dunbar Bragg as first postmaster.
In late September 1852, the editor of the Leon Pioneer, Mr. W.D. Wood, printed these observations about Fairfield in his newspaper:
The town of Fairfield is situated on the southern edge of a small prairie. The town site is beautiful...and the town presents a thriving and busy aspect...At present it contains three drygoods stores, one grocery, two hotels, and a jail. No permanent courthouse has been erected, and the jail is just completed; was informed that it cost $600. A large hotel is in the course of construction...The erection of a masonic hall will soon be commenced...The town has hotel keepers, merchants, brick makers and layers, three resident lawyers and as many physicians...A large immigration is expected to the county this fall and winter. Crops are good, and provisions of every kind will be plentiful.
On July 3rd, 1854, Alfred Butler purchased two town lots in Fairfield, located barely a stone's throw from the courthouse square. Although circumstantial, this evidence supports the notion that Alfred had been hired as a carpenter by John C. Whitt, to help build the new courthouse. Located so close to the center of town, Alfred would have been able to walk to work every day in just a matter of a few minutes. Other men who may have worked on the courthouse include: John Klingen, a German-born carpenter; Joshua G. Wallace (or Wallis), Alfred Butler's brother-in-law (or soon-to-be brother-in-law) and a brick mason by trade; John McMillen, an English stone mason; John W. Park, a carpenter from Illinois; R.C. Dawson, an Alabama-born brick mason; and Morris Ranty, another German carpenter.
The property Alfred purchased from Zeno P. Clough (son of Zachariah Clough, another former Union County, Arkansas resident) for $100, was described in the deed as lot numbers 2 and 4 in block 17 "together fronting on Keechi Street one hundred & sixty-nine feet by one hundred & fifty feet on Comanchie Street." There, at the southwest corner of the intersection of those two streets, then only raw dirt roads, Alfred Butler probably erected a snug log house for his family, not unlike those found today on the grounds of the Freestone County Museum.
By mid-summer 1854, the Butlers had found a buyer for their Anderson County property. For $100, the same price they had paid only a few months earlier, Alfred and Mary sold their two tracts near Palestine to a man named Henry H. Link. The deed of sale, dated August 7th, 1854, was signed in Fairfield and witnessed by J. W. Moore and Alfred's father-in-law, Thomas Stanley. It was filed for record at the Anderson County courthouse on August 14th.
That same year, 1854, Mary Butler may have given birth for the third time. But if so, the child did not survive infancy.
During the remainder of 1854 and all during 1855, the work of building the new courthouse went on while the business of the county court was conducted in a Fairfield church. In 1855 Alfred may have renewed his acquaintance with his presumed employer's brother when Thomas P. Whitt came to live in Freestone County following the death of his wife, Elizabeth in Arkansas. That same year, Alfred made an attempt to obtain the bounty land he felt he was entitled to for his Mexican War service, no doubt regretting having been swindled out of his original land warrant eight years earlier. On July 19th, he swore out an affidavit declaring his wish to apply for any bounty land "to which he may be entitled under the `Act granting additional bounty land to certain Officers and Soldiers who have been engaged in the Military Service of the United States', approved March 3rd, 1855." He also declared that he had "not received a warrant for bounty land under this or any other act of Congress, nor made any other application therefor." Of course, that was only partly true. Yes, he had never actually received a warrant but he had applied for one and it had been duly issued by the federal government and sent to the New Orleans lawyer to whom he had sold it. Did he realize his statement was not completely true? Or did he, out of ignorance, never quite understand the arrangement to which he had agreed in 1846? Indeed, what was the arrangement? Had he considered the money he surely received for the warrant to be a loan? Had he made any previous attempts to contact Mr. Christy in New Orleans, regarding his warrant? Alas, the answers to these questions are not available. Regardless, his affidavit was subsequently forwarded to a Washington, D.C. attorney he had hired, apparently sight unseen, for the purpose of pursuing his claim. However, it appears the lawyer did not pursue the case with much vigor. As a result, nothing ever came of it. Nor does it appear that Alfred ever made any attempt to follow-up.
As the courthouse was being built, Freestone County continued to grow and by 1856, there were seven post offices: Avant, Fairfield, Flowerdale, Cotton Gin, Troy, Butler, and Keechi.
In May 1855, a negro slave belonging to H. Manning, allegedly fearing a threatened "chastisement" by Manning's overseer, apparently committed suicide by drowning himself in the Trinity River at West Point landing.
In 1856, sometime prior to the completion of the courthouse, John C. Whitt died. His brother, Claiborne Whitt, of Selma, Alabama, came to Texas to settle his estate, receiving from the county $8,330 for his late brother's work - the excess over the original bid representing the cost of interior finishing.
The spring of 1856 saw not only the completion of the new two-story, red brick Freestone County courthouse, but a change for the better in the Butler family fortunes. Probably with money he had earned for his work on the courthouse and the realization of an $800 profit on the sale of their Fairfield town lots (to one Lewis B. Haynie), Alfred and Mary Butler were able to purchase, for $1,000, a 100-acre farm on the northern edge of town. The seller was their brother-in-law, Joshua G. Wallace, whose wife Laura was Mary Butler's younger sister. Part of the old Redin Gainer league, the farm's western boundary ran parallel to present-day Bateman Road. A portion of its southern boundary is today marked by a street called Laurel Lane. Probably within that small part of their property which lay just inside the Fairfield city limits, Alfred surely built a new log house for his family to live in.
During that same year, 1856, the Butler family also experienced one each of life's three most significant events: Birth, marriage, and death.
Sometime during May (the same month in which Alfred and Mary sold their property in Fairfield), Mary gave birth to a baby boy, who was named William Oscar Butler. Whether he was born in town or on the farm is unknown.
The marriage in the family, the exact date of which is unknown, was that of Mary Butler's younger sister, Elizabeth Stanley (named for their mother), who wed William Reason Reagan of neighboring Anderson County. Reagan, younger brother of John H. Reagan (future Confederate Postmaster and Texas Senator), was a lawyer for whom the town of Reagan in Falls County was later named.
The death in the family was that of Mary's father, Thomas Stanley, who at the age of about fifty-eight, passed away on the 19th of September. The place of his death is unknown. While there's little doubt the Thomas Stanley family left Arkansas about 1852, no evidence has been found to verify in which Texas county they initially settled - although in all likelihood, they took up residence in either Anderson or Freestone counties. However, census and county deed records, for 1860 and afterwards, reveal that Thomas' widow, Elizabeth, was later lived in the community of Butler, located in southeast Freestone County.
The fact of his acquiring a piece of land as large in size as the town of Fairfield appears to be evidence that Alfred Butler, at the age of thirty-two, was determined to better himself in life by becoming a planter. For what use is a hundred acres of land to a carpenter? Indeed, there were numerous Freestone County citizens who had come into the area with their slaves, set up plantations where row after row of cotton plants grew in the rich Texas soil under the warmth of the Southern sun, and prospered.
During the years before the Civil War, Freestone County was most typically Southern in character in that its population included a large number of Negro slaves. In 1850, the federal census for Limestone County (which at that time included the area that shortly after became Freestone), found only 618 non-white persons out of a total population of 2,608. A count made in 1851, the first year of its existence as a separate political entity, showed Freestone had 290 slaves. By 1855, according to a report by the state comptroller on the "Estimated Production of Cotton", the number of slaves in Freestone County had increased to 2,167, with an aggregate value of $1,089,900. Ranked tenth among the largest slave-holding counties in the state at that time, Freestone had more negroes than any of the four counties it bordered. Five years later, on the eve of the Civil War, Freestone's slaves actually outnumbered the white population. Out of 6,881 persons, approximately 3,600 or more than half, were the chattel property of the remainder. However, Alfred Butler is not listed among the county's slave-holders in the 1860 federal census and whether he ever kept slaves again after leaving Arkansas is unknown.
It has been written that in spite of "the large slave population Freestone did not turn so strongly to cotton as some of her neighbors," and that because the county was remote from grain and meat producing regions, "Freestone plantations developed a self-sufficing, balanced farming system." In addition, because one-seventh of its land was densely wooded, "the acreage in cultivation (was) much smaller than in many counties lying to the west." These facts notwithstanding, it has also been said that before the Civil War, Freestone County "was one of the chief centers of cotton production in the upper Trinity Valley." Indeed, in 1855, some 4,517 bales were produced in Freestone County. Most of that cotton, presumably, was cleaned of its seeds by a mule-powered gin located at the little Freestone County community called, appropriately, Cotton Gin. Next, it would have been baled and then shipped by barge or paddle-boat from Troy (about twenty-two miles east of Fairfield) down the Trinity River to Galveston. With 59,609 bales received at the port that year (out of an estimated 100,000 produced in the whole state), Freestone's production represented nearly 8% of all the cotton sent to Galveston in 1855 (or almost 5% of the entire state's production).
Regardless of his possible agricultural aspirations, Alfred Butler probably continued to work as a carpenter. In 1857 his brother-in-law "Josh" Wallace, in partnership with David H. Love, was awarded a $5,992 contract to build a new brick jail in Fairfield. As a result, it seems likely that Alfred would have been among the carpenters who were hired to help erect the building which still stands today on the northeast corner of Hall and Main Streets, housing the Freestone County Museum. At the time it was completed in 1858 it was pronounced one the most substantial jails in Texas and no doubt its longevity is due to the sturdiness of its construction: Interior walls 18 inches thick, outer walls 30 inches, constructed of brick and oak timbers. The prison, upstairs, had a floor of thick oak planks, with a subfloor of iron. Used for its original purpose until 1913, it is said that the notorious outlaw, John Wesley Hardin, once spent a night behind its bars. The museum opened in 1967.
The same year construction for the jail began, 1857, the Butler family may have been caught up in the excitement which was surely generated by the appearance in Fairfield of none other than the "Hero of San Jacinto", former Republic of Texas President and then U.S. Senator Sam Houston. Without the backing of any political party, Houston decided to campaign for the office of Governor of Texas, running against Democratic nominee Hardin R. Runnels. During the summer, Houston toured the state in a crimson buggy owned by a plow salesman named Sam Sharp (who accompanied him on the trip), Houston's itinerary brought him to Fairfield on either Monday, June 29th, or Tuesday, the 30th, where he stayed at the home of John Fuller Huckaby - whose house, built in 1851, is still standing today. There, on Huckaby's lawn, under a spreading oak tree, Houston spoke to the assembled citizens of Fairfield. In many towns Houston gave his speech while standing in Sharp's buggy, emblazoned on each side in large gilt letters proclaiming "Warwick's Patent Plow." Whether he did so in Fairfield is unknown. But what a sight he must have been! As author Marquis James wrote in his celebrated biography of Houston, The Raven:
The summer was hot, and he would peel off his shirt and harangue the folk clad in a rumpled linen duster that reached from his neck to his ankles...He stirred the people. He quickened them...(and) said things on the stump for which another man would have been shot. This appealed. A legendary figure had come to life - the weather-beaten figure of "Old San Jacinto" himself, with a heart for any fortune and a hand for any fight.
Did Alfred Butler vote for Houston? Perhaps, but there's no way of knowing. Regardless, despite his seeming popularity, the old general lost the election. The vote was 32,552 for Runnels and 23,628 for Houston.
1858 saw the addition of another Butler baby to the family. A girl, she was named Endora, but just called "Dora" for short. That same year, Alfred was chosen to serve as a juror in Freestone County court although whether or not he ever actually sat in judgement of a case is unknown.
Today, the appearance of the Butler farm near Fairfield can only be imagined but it's not unlikely the family lived in a house made of logs, built by Alfred Butler himself, since planed lumber was both scarce and expensive at the time. Oak logs, because that tree was most plentiful, were the usual choice of Freestone County residents. The rest of the homestead was probably not unlike the typical Texas farm described by Francis Edward Abernathy in his book, Built In Texas:
...the farm complex included the house, the barns and all the outbuildings necessary for the family to maintain its self-sufficiency. After the house was built and the family was out of the weather, the settler built his crib or barn to protect his corn and his tools and ploughs. The barns continued to grow by necessity, being double-penned in the same way as the houses, with extended roof lines to add sheds or lean-tos, Chicken houses, pig pens, cow lots and gardens were added and fenced in to keep animals and crops separated for the owner's good.
The farmhouse itself may have been a "dog-trot", a popular building style whereby the rooms of the cabin were separated by a wide central porch or breezeway. Abernathy tells how they were constructed:
The method of building depended on the tools at hand. A good axe, either double-bit or with a driving head was the first necessity for the Texan building in the timber regions. Beyond that, a broad-axe sped the labor of scoring and squaring the logs. An adze was useful in dressing the matching sides of the logs and smoothing off puncheon floors, and a draw knife was good for the fine work. A froe and mallet were used to change a pin-oak block into a stack of shingles. And the well-equipped builder had chisels and planes, augers, awls and saws, and when commerce caught up with him he had nails.
Most East Texas log cabins were square-notched, a style of building that had its "first wide-spread acceptance" among the "settlers of English ancestry in the interior coastal plain and piedmont of Virginia," writes Abernathy, adding, "Most likely the Virginia English were attracted to this least complex notch style because log construction was to them an alien technology. Their descendants carried square notching across the inner coastal plain of the South, eventually reaching East Texas." Thus, if Alfred Butler built his home in this manner, he was following a long established tradition.
In 1859, Sam Houston ran again for the office of Governor of Texas and this time he won. That same year, Alfred Butler, along with three hundred other Fairfield residents, had an account at Clay Robertson's general store, the ledger of which is preserved in the Freestone County Museum. It records that in partial exchange for over $233 worth of the many goods the Butler family bought there on credit, Alfred did some work on a stone house being built for Robertson and his new bride, paying his balance of $43.40 in cash.
Among the items purchased at Robertson's store were shoes, hats, school books and toys for the children. Frequent purchases of cloth by the yard is evidence that Mary Butler sewed much of the family's clothing. The account ledger also reveals Mary, like many frontier women, dipped snuff (30 cents per bottle) while her husband enjoyed the occasional bottle of whiskey (50 cents) and like most men of that time and place, was in the habit of chewing tobacco (40 cents a plug). Other items bought during the year include a pocket knife, a bridle for a horse, boots, tools, a bucket, and candles. The only food items purchased were coffee for $2 and sugar for $1. The amounts of each are unknown. Most of the purchases were made in the spring and fall, indicating that during the summer the family was probably too busy tending their crops to come into town as often - even though it was only a short distance from their farm.
1860 was a year of both joy and sadness for the Butler family. A new baby boy, Andrew, was born to Mary in January. Unfortunately, he was mildly retarded, although his condition may not have been immediately apparent. Then, during the heat of mid-summer, Alfred became ill. The nature of his illness is unknown. It may be he suffered a recurrence of some malady, perhaps malaria, with which he'd been stricken during the Mexican War. Or, like many nineteenth-century Americans, perhaps he suffered from consumption (tuberculosis). Regardless, by July 10th it had become obvious he might not recover. On that date, both his doctor, D.J. Moody, and his lawyer, Judge John Gregg, witnessed a deed of gift to Mary in which Alfred attested that "it may be better for our mutual family" that he grant to her title to all his property, both real and personal. Two days later, on Thursday, July 12th, 1860, Alfred Butler died. At the time he was about thirty-six years old. Afterward, he was probably buried in the Fairfield City Cemetery, but if ever his grave was marked, the stone is no longer there.
For Mary Butler, the death of her husband proved to be especially untimely. Widowed at the relatively young age of twenty-eight, she was left with five young children to care for, ranging in age from a few months (Andrew) to twelve years (Mollie). Additionally, the political climate in the United States at that time left little doubt that the country was on the brink of a civil war between the North and the South, a possibility which must have preyed on Mary's mind. As summer turned into fall, the news came in November that Abraham Lincoln had been elected President of the United States. No doubt Mary was not unaware of the resulting secessionist fervor which gripped many of her neighbors and surely she must have worried and wondered what the future would bring for her and her children.
In 1996 I applied for a free Veterans Administration headstone for Alfred Butler and had it shipped to a funeral home in Fairfield, Texas, which very kindly placed in the Fairfield City Cemetery. Although the exact location of his final resting is still unknown, I am confident that he was almost certainly buried there.
This website copyright © 1996-2013 by Steven R. Butler, Ph.D. All rights reserved.