The African-Americans

The African-American residents of the community populated the area from the beginnings of settlement from the United States. Some of the settlers who came brought their slaves with them to help them in settling the new area. "Slave-labor was confined principally to plantations in South and East Texas. The majority of North Texans had come from 'free' states, while the numerous Germans of Southwest Texas always had done their own work. The ranches could not profitably work slaves, as it was an easy matter for them to escape into 'free' Mexico, which did not recognize slavery" (Hunt, 1992, p. 35).

There are many historic accounts of the erecting of buildings and deeds accomplished through slave labor. There is an account of an early resident, John W. Hill, taking his Negro slavewith him when he took up arms for the Confederacy in the American Civil War (Crockett, 1990, p. 9). Jeff Hamilton, one of General Sam Houston's slaves, relates that this was not an uncommon. He stated that, "You see it was the custom during the Civil War for Confederate soldiers to take their slave-boys to war with them as personal servants" (Hunt, 1992, p. 105).

Document after document concerning the history of the Smithville area mentions the accomplishments of the black slaves. Few records of early black residents are available. Most of the pictures, artifacts, newspaper articles and family records in the Smithville Historical Society's archives, however, portray mostly the white, prosperous settlers who became land owners, proprietors of successful businesses and leading professionals of the township. Nancy Gosch wrote A Black History of Smithville in the Spring of 1981 for a college course in multicultural education. In the paper she relates much of the early black history of the town.

There are some accounts of the life of the black residents that were recorded from former slaves by interviews through the Federal Writer's Project of the Works Progress Administration during the 1930's. A word of caution is in order. Since the interviewees were remembering events back several decades, many of them were children before the Civil War ended, some may have been fearful of saying something that was not politically correct and there may have still been feelings of bitterness and hatred associated with many of the memories of their past conditions there may have been some things left unsaid or some of the participants may not have told the reporters exactly like it was at the time (Kesselus, 1987, p. 120). According to Kesselus, "Slavery had existed in the county since Anglo-Americans had first populated the area. Throughout the period from Statehood to 1860, the number of slaves owned there grew steadily, as the following chart indicates:

Year

Number of Slaves

Year

Number of Slaves

1847

524

1857

2,129

1848

654

1858

2,293

1850

919

1859

2,417

1855

1,748

1860

2,591

1856

1,853

(Kesselus, 1987, p. 120)

It was also reported that "seventy-one percent of Bastrop County owners operated small farms or used slaves as house servants" (Kesselus, 1987, p. 123). The 1860 Census indicated that there were many owners of twenty-five or more slaves:

A.W. Moore

88

Cordeler Oliver

35

T.B.J. Hill

87

John Fawcett

34

John Caldwell

50

Eliza Hardeman

33

Claborne Harris

49

A.M. Hubbard

32

Brice, Lyman & Co.

48

Jonathan Burleson

31

James Harris

47

Margaret Chambers

30

John Craft

45

J.H. Wilkins

30

Eli M. Smith

44

A.W. Hill

29

John Pope

40

C.H. Phillips

29

D.M. Oliver

40

Jacob Sarrall

27

M.W. Trigg

40

J.C. Higgins

25

Alanson Trigg

37

(Kesselus, 1987, p. 124)

While all of these plantations were not in the Smithville area, several of them were in "Paradise Valley" along the Colorado River where cotton was grown in the rich bottom land. Two plantations owned by Middleton M. and T.B.J. Hill were across the river from present-day Smithville and John Fawcett's plantation was nearby (Kesselus, 1987, p. 124). Other plantation owners who lived in the community of Hill's Prairie were the Hubbards, Moores, Wiley Hills, Prices, and Triggs (Kesselus, 1987, p. 127). Living conditions of the slaves differed from that of their masters. A Mrs. McDowall was quoted as describing them as "being most comfortable and well kept" (Kesselus, 1987, p. 128). Other accounts differ from this description and describe living conditions that were provided for the slaves as barely sufficient for living.

Slaves were not allowed to travel in the county by themselves without special travel passes issued by the county road commissioners. According to Kesselus they appointed quasi-military units with a "captain" and several "privates" composing each "company." County patrols in the Smithville area in 1857 were as follows:

  1. [Across the river from present-day Smithville] D.M. Oliver, Captain; W.D. McDaniel, John Wilks, S. Peterson, Privates.
  2. ["Mrs. Hardeman's Prairie," up-river from Smithville] Dobbs, Captain; William Fawcett, Joseph Suddeth, H. Ferrell, Tom Hancock, Privates.
  3. [Hill's Prairie] W. Byrd, Captain; R. Latham, A.W. Moore, B.M. Hubbard, J.T. Highsmith, Privates.

(Kesselus, 1987, p. 147).

The offense for traveling without a pass could be considered as an offense under the 1843 Bastrop County Ordinance calling for thirty-nine lashes or a hundred under the 1845 ordinance (Kesselus, 1987, p. 148).

When the slaves were given their freedom after the Civil War was over, many of the former slaves were given land of their own by their previous owners or were kept on as tenet farmers or "sharecroppers."

It was the coming of the railroad to Smithville that brought many of the present day black resident's families. Not only was the railroad an attraction for jobs, but it attracted others who would set up ancillary businesses and services for the new residents. This included school teachers, owners of small businesses, bar owners, morticians, preachers and others who lived "high" off the money earned by the railroad workers. In fact, there were parts of Buntetown that were off limits to nice girls because it was too "fast." Smithville was known to its residents as a "fast town" because the railroad workers always had money since they were paid twice a month instead of once a month as was the custom at the time.


Personal histories as told by the residents themselves:

  • Naomi Johnson-Thompson (1995) - "Educational Prospectives"
  • I.T. Harper (1995) - "Working on the Railroad in the Early 1930's"
  • Phil Mounger (1996) -"Segregation in Railroad Jobs"
  • Crockett, Silky R. (1990). Early History of Smithville, Texas. Smithville, TX: Friends of the Smithville Library.
  • Hunt, Lenoir (1992). My master: the inside story of Sam Houston and his times by his former slave Jeff Hamilton. Austin, TX: State House Press.
  • Kesselus, Kenneth (1987). History of Bastrop County, Texas 1846-1865. Austin, TX: Jenkins Publishing Co.
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