By John Ronan Broderick
HALLETTSVILLE’S FOUNDING MOTHER
Of the 25 articles I have written about the histories of Texas towns, Hallettsville is only the second one I have run across that had a “Founding Mother” as opposed to the typical Founding Father(s). The other city is Brenham, 72 miles northeast of Hallettsville, though in that instance the woman sold, rather than gave, the plot of land for the townsite, a significant difference in what may be referred to as “foundership” status.
On February 15, 1833, (some sources cite 1831) Stephen F. Austin granted a league of land on the east bank of the Lavaca River to a 50-year-old, British-born former sea captain named John Hallett, Sr., and his wife Margaret Leatherbury Hallett, a genteel lady who hailed from a prominent family in Virginia. Margaret’s family had deemed the marriage unsuitable, but the determined young woman, age 21, followed her heart and married her beloved aboard a ship in Chesapeake Bay; presumably, the marriage was performed by the ship’s captain, who may have been Hallett’s American foster father.
The couple lived in Baltimore, Maryland for several years before moving west. Margaret had given birth to three sons and one daughter by 1822. Before coming to Texas, the Hallett family had reportedly lived in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, Mexico for a few years, where they operated a store until it was confiscated by the Mexican government sometime prior to 1818. They then relocated to La Bahia, in Texas, some 200 miles north of Matamoros, and set up a trading post.
As legend would have it, the tongue of their wagon in which they had traveled west from the East Coast in search of opportunities in a new land had been fashioned from a ship’s mast, and the wagon cover cut from the sails of a ship. It is also reported that the retired sailor even brought along his ship’s anchor. Whereas the first two claims may have been factual, I sense some embellishment on this last point– likely just another “Texas Tall Tale.” Who, in their right mind, would tote a weighty anchor 2,000 miles across land-locked America to Mexico? These sorts of trivia make for interesting folklore but are seldom based on fact.
The log cabin Hallett built in 1833 on his new land grant from Empresario Austin became the first home in the area, though he did not actually occupy it at that time, instead soon returning to La Bahia, in Goliad County, where he died and was buried in October 1836. The elder Hallett, may have, along with his oldest son, John Jr., fought in the Texas Revolution (sources differ). Hallett Sr. had also volunteered to fight as a sailor in an engagement against the British in Chesapeake Bay during the War of 1812, so he was an American citizen of some stripe by that time. Soon after John Sr.’s death, John Jr. was killed by Indians near San Antonio in 1837. John Jr. had fought at the Battle of San Jacinto, which entitled his heir, his mother, to 640 acres of land. It is unclear whether she ever bothered to claim it.
After her husband’s death, Margaret and her daughter, her only surviving child, left La Bahia and came to settle in the log cabin her husband had built a few years earlier. How her other two sons died is not recorded. There at the cabin she opened a trading post and conducted business with both the local Tonkawa Indians and the white settlers who had begun to move into the area. Among these other early settlers were men such as general store owner Callart Ballard, David Ives, Dr. M.B. Bennett, blacksmith Ira McDaniel, and A.W. Hicks. These and other colonists formed the nucleus for what came to be known as the Hallett settlement.
Margaret Hallett was apparently an industrious, even shrewd, pioneer woman, trading hides and pelts for corn, clearing a field for a crop, and eventually breeding horses under her own brand. She even acquired a basic working knowledge of the Tonkawa language and one other Indian tongue, plus she was already fluent in Spanish as a result of her residency in Mexico years earlier. Not only was she a multi-tasker, but she was also multi-lingual.
Legend has it that when a Tonkawa brave attempted to do a little shoplifting in her store, Margaret caught the culprit red-handed and gave him a good thumping, what she referred to in her explanation of the incident to the tribe’s chief as “a knowledge knot.” Chief Lolo purportedly had a good laugh and rewarded her with the nickname, “Brave Squaw,” and then accorded her honorary membership in the Tonkawa tribe.
According to an article entitled “Tonkawa Indians,” written by Jeffrey D. Carlisle in 1952 and published in the Texas State Historical Association’s Handbook of Texas, on their website, he states: “The arrival of Anglo-Americans, Stephen F. Austin’s colonists in particular, apparently ushered in a period of cordial relations [as opposed to what the Tonkawas had previously experienced under Spanish and Mexican rule]. The Tonkawas often aided their new Anglo allies against the Comanches. . . . The Tonkawas remained staunch allies of the English-speaking settlers in Texas. They continued to help the Texans and later the United States during their wars with other Indian tribes.”
In 1838, Margaret donated a portion of her league of land for the townsite of Hallettsville, which was named in her, not her deceased husband’s, honor. She built a new home on her remaining land and became a tireless promoter of the town. As one of its leading citizens, she further donated the building site for the Alma Male and Female Institute, which was a successfully run private school until it was forced to close in 1861 due to the outbreak of the Civil War. Margaret Hallett died in 1863, at age 76, and was buried on the Hallett League, where Tonkawa Indians decorated her grave. Her remains were later relocated to the Founder’s Cemetery, aka City Memorial Park, a short distance from the town square, where a grave marker acknowledges her as the founder of Hallettsville.
COUNTIES AND COUNTY SEATS, A NATION AND THEN A STATE
The period between Texas independence from Mexico in April 1836 and its annexation by the United States in December 1845 was one of political turmoil as the fledgling republic attempted to carve up its vast land area into county boundaries and establish county seats for each county. Matters often got heated, even erupting into violence, as one town vied against another for the honored title of county seat. Add to that the ongoing problem of gerrymandering, where new counties were constantly being created, then recreated, from carved-up sections of adjoining larger counties, and it was a recipe for political bedlam.
Hallettsville’s situation was no different from that of, say, Johnson City vs. Blanco or Brenham vs. Independence in this regard. For it, too, had another town, Petersburg, six miles to its southeast, that competed to become the county seat. You see, in 1842, the new Republic’s legislature created a “judicial” county from portions of five other counties. They named it La Baca County and the battle lines were drawn. (Note: Some sources state that Hallettsville was designated the county seat in 1842, others say it was a battle right from the start.) Since there was not yet a county courthouse, district court sessions were held in Margaret Hallett’s home pending the selection of a county seat, thereby making Hallettsville the de facto county seat, at least in her eyes and those of her fellow citizens.
But La Baca County was abolished after Texas became a state and it was renamed Lavaca County and organized the following year, in 1846. Petersburg was named the county seat of the new county. Naturally, this did not sit well with the citizens of Hallettsville, and in a hotly contested 1852 election to settle the matter once and for all, Hallettsville prevailed. Naturally, the folks in Petersburg claimed election fraud and political maneuvering in one of the fiercest county seat rivalries in Texas history. It was not as bad, however, as the gunfight that erupted on a similar election day in Blanco County in 1890, which resulted in one death and the wounding of a deputy sheriff.
Still, the Lavaca County archives had to be taken by force of arms from the citizens of Petersburg. In the incident known locally as “The Archives War,” where a “committee” of Hallettsville citizens rode into Petersburg and “liberated” the archives. To add insult to injury, they stuck around to eat the barbeque the Petersburg folks had prepared for a celebration. Some say that Margaret Hallett was instrumental in this action and that she saw to it that the county records remained in Hallettsville. She was a tenacious, tough-as-nails pioneer woman, so I have no difficulty imagining her participation in, perhaps even instigation of, such an incident. The issue was not settled by the courts, in Hallettsville’s favor, until 1860, by which time Petersburg had sunk into decline. Today it is a virtual ghost town.
In the aftermath of the Civil War, which negatively impacted most everyone in the South, Hallettsville eventually received many new immigrants from Germany and Czechoslovakia. (Author’s note: In 1967, I went through U.S. Army Basic Training with one of the descendants of these immigrants during the Viet Nam War at Fort Polk, Louisiana. It was the first time I had ever heard of Hallettsville. I believe the soldier’s last name was something along the lines of Biehunko.)
Besides an incredible work ethic, these welcome new citizens brought with them many advanced agricultural techniques which transformed the struggling town from a trading post into the agricultural center of the county. Hallettsville voted to incorporate in 1870 but surrendered its charter five years later, probably due to a decline in its fortunes, and reincorporated in 1888, likely due to the influx of these immigrants, which increased its population from about 600 in 1875 to 1,700 in 1890.
By the 1880s, other signs of progress were afoot: the founding of Sacred Heart Academy in 1881, undoubtedly the result of some of the new Catholic immigrants; implementation of a public school system by the late 1880s; the arrival of the San Antonio and Aransas Pass Railway in 1887, which made Hallettsville the primary center of trade and shipping for the area’s growing agribusiness; and by 1892, the town had introduced its own utility plants, both electricity, and water supplied by artesian wells.
Nor was there a shortage of newspapers in Hallettsville, the first one, the Lone Star, started in 1860; but it folded a year later, when the Civil War began. Another newspaper, the Herald, was established in 1871, and by the 1890s, there were weekly newspapers published in the German and Czech languages. By 1913, there were 13 newspapers with a total circulation of 25,000. From 1911 to 1917, the state paper of the Socialist party, the Rebel, was also published in tiny Hallettsville. (Note: Socialism was, during this period of American history, a growing political movement. One of its greatest proponents was best-selling novelist Jack London, who in 1907 wrote a classic work about the movement entitled The Iron Heel.) By the late 1980s, the only major newspaper left was the Tribune-Herald, undoubtedly a merger of two newspapers.
The period from the 1870s through the 1890s was one of lawlessness in Lavaca County, including much cattle-rustling and fence-cutting. The town fathers had the good sense to hire a fellow as town marshal and constable who was cut from the same bolt of cloth as the men he had to police. Former Confederate Captain James Alexander “J.A.” Jamison donned his tin star in Hallettsville in 1877 and remained until 1878. His background was questionable and rather unsavory, having ridden with Quantrill’s Raiders during the Civil War. But he got results, and that was all that mattered.
Unlike regular Confederate soldiers, Quantrill’s men were guerillas. They included such notable post-Civil War outlaws as Jesse and Frank James and Cole Younger and his brothers among the 450 who rode under Quantrill’s command, primarily in “Bloody Kansas” and Missouri. Their most infamous attack occurred in Lawrence, Kansas, where they killed between 160 and 190 men and boys, many in cold blood, before putting a torch to the town. It was referred to as the “Lawrence Massacre.”
Captain Jamison came to Texas after the war ended and in 1868 joined the Texas Rangers, where he served for several years before taking the job as town marshal in Hallettsville. After “cleaning up” Hallettsville, Jamison went on to serve in the same capacity for several other Texas towns—Schulenburg, Flatonia, Luling, Gonzales, Yoakum, even as a Houston police officer in his advanced years. A book could probably be written about his exploits, Jamison often commented in private conversations, though he was never specific about these events, at least not in print. He died in 1906 in Yoakum of pneumonia.
Jamison had a few successors who were also no-nonsense lawmen: Sheriff Smothers, who in 1887, arrested a band of fence-cutters who had been giving cattlemen a hard time in the southern part of Lavaca County; their arrest effectively ended that period of range wars; and Sheriff J.W. Bennett who, in the early 1890s, shot it out near the county courthouse with a fellow named Ben Stoner, getting slightly wounded in the process himself before killing Stoner.
Maybe I am prejudiced, but so be it. For I love to hear about characters with monikers like “Bad Man Buckley,” who “ran roughshod over the citizens of Hallettsville” from 1877 to 1883, until he finally met justice at the working end of City Marshall D.W. Merritt’s double-barreled, 12-gauge shotgun. Buckley’s offense on this day? Spitting in Marshal Merritt’s face. Merritt spat back into Buckley’s face with two barrels of double-ought buckshot, the “Bad Man’s” head and brain splattered all over the street in front of Pepper’s Store. Justice was swift and merciless in the bad old days. And though a Lavaca County Grand Jury indicted Merritt for manslaughter in this instance, a jury of his peers found him not guilty. Don’t you just love Wild West lore and gore?
There was no shortage of violence—“frontier justice,” if you will–extending up into the beginning of the 20th century. One of the last of these instances involved the bushwhacking (back-shooting) of Shell Mason of Yoakum by the Newman brothers in 1905. They were simply avenging the death of their sister Lillian, three weeks earlier, for which Mason had been held accountable. There was no follow-up to how they were dealt with by the justice system, but I imagine they got off scot-free, likely viewed as “justifiable homicide,” since their sister had been a beloved nurse in the community.
THE TWENTIETH CENTURY AND BEYOND
According to Mary Ramsey’s article, “Hallettsville, TX,” published in the TSHA’s Handbook of Texas, today “Area farmers raise cattle and grow rice, corn, hay, fruit, and pecans. The town is also the site of the Lavaca Medical Center, a portable-building plant, and a major soda-bottling plant.” The population has had its ups and downs, from 2,589 in 1988, to 2,718 in 1990, back down to 2,345 in 2000, back up to 2,550 in 2010, up to 2,643 in 2021, thus it has a relatively stable population. Today Hallettsville is known as the ”City of Hospitality,” and is a welcoming and family-oriented community.
The city of Hallettsville is twice blessed with local historians Brenda Lincke Fisseler and Murray Montgomery, who in their own individual ways do a superb job of chronicling the history of this city whose founding dates back 186 years. Between the two of them, the articles they publish keep alive the old family histories and genealogies of those early pioneers, tales of Indian depredations, Wild West desperadoes, vigilant, no-nonsense lawmen, historic structures, even an entry in Ripley’s Believe it or Not! I would be remiss if I did not also mention the Lavaca Historical Museum, which keeps the history of the county alive with interesting exhibits.
Ms. Fisseler is the head librarian of the French Simpson Memorial Library, which she refers to as her “day job.” But it is her articles that appear in the Victoria County Historical Society’s quarterly publication that are of most importance to those of us with an eye to the history of Hallettsville and Lavaca County. Her pieces range from genealogical studies to pieces on historical buildings, which all begin with the prefix, “The Past is Still Visible: . . .,” to amusing and informative articles such as, “How Much is a Dead Man Worth? The Story of Charles Debord, Gambler.”
Mr. Montgomery, who is a columnist for Lone Star Diary, seems to prefer digging around in old local newspapers for his retelling of unusual and noteworthy historical incidents, more often than not dealing with the desperadoes of Hallettsville’s Wild West era, though he too can do a superb job in describing historical architecture, as in his description of the 1897 Lavaca County Courthouse. But it is in his tales of the early days’ bandits, cattle rustlers, and outlaws, and the lawmen that brought these miscreants to justice, often with deadly consequences, that he seems to excel, and I have borrowed from some of his columns in my recounting of the lawmen who tamed the town during the latter part of the 19th century.
Hallettsville’s lucky number was apparently the number most folks with a superstitious nature seem to think unlucky–the number 13. For it was this number that, in 1913, found Hallettsville published in Ripley’s Believe It or Not! For in 1913, it seems, the population of the town was 1,300, and there were 13 newspapers, 13 saloons, 13 churches, and the name of the town had 13 letters in it. These statistics were resurrected in yet another article by Mr. Montgomery, entitled “One Saloon for Every Editor in Old Hallettsville.”
These are but a few of the many interesting facts and incidents from Hallettsville’s colorful past, a past that began the same year that Texas became a nation. Those lawless days ended around the turn of the 20th century, thus 21st century Hallettsville has been pretty much at peace for 120 years or thereabouts. It is a worthy destination to put on anyone’s bucket list, for there is much more for you to learn about this intriguing Texas city.
There are essentially four types of historic designations for properties in Texas, all identified below by underlining. The most prestigious of these is the coveted National Register of Historic Places (NRHP). There are three such properties in Hallettsville. The 1897 Lavaca County Courthouse, which has also been designated as a State Antiquities Landmark, the highest distinction awarded by the Texas Historical Commission, was designed by a noted architect of that era, Eugene Heiner, in the Romanesque Revival style. It replaced two previous county courthouse structures and is reverently referred to as “The Grand Old Lady on the Square.”
The second of these NRHPs is the 1890 Kahn and Stanzel Building, a commercial structure built in the Late Victorian Italianate and Romanesque style and designed by renowned architect J. Riely Gordon. It is located on the northwest corner of the courthouse square. The third of these buildings on the NRHP is the Lay-Bozka House, constructed over the years 1878 to 1882. It is also accorded the dual honor of being listed as a Recorded Texas Historic Landmark (RTHL). Moreover, there are two sites that have been designated with Texas State Historical Markers, the site of John Hallett’s original 1833 log cabin, and the “Old Hanging Tree,” where in 1879, an Indian was hanged for the murder of an Englishman. The tree still stands.
Among other historical buildings in Hallettsville that have yet to receive any such historic designations are the: 1925 Cole Theater, one of the few remaining downtown single-screen movie theaters in Texas (one is reminded of The Last Picture Show book and movie); 1917 Hallettsville City Hall, originally home to two banks prior to being repurposed as the city hall in 1974; 1896 Fey & Braunig Building, the first structure constructed west of the Mississippi River for the sole purpose of housing a photography studio; 1896 Kahn and Stanzel Opera House, originally a three-story structure of 7,700 square feet, with the second and third stories reserved for the 600-seat opera house and the bottom floor for retail purposes; in 1957, the upper two stories were found to be unsafe and were demolished, leaving only the first story as it exists today. It is probable that the reason none of these buildings have received no historic-oriented designations is because they have been extensively remodeled or not restored to their original appearance. Finally, Hallettsville is one of the official stops on the Texas Independence Trail, for it was caught up in the “Runaway Scrape” in the aftermath of the fall of the Alamo, when Texian colonists were forced to flee their homes as Santa Anna’s blood-thirsty army made its way across Texas. Of course, we all know how that ended for Santa Anna 128 miles east of Hallettsville at the Battle of San Jacinto on April 21st, 1836. Santa Anna, according to several historical accounts, attempted to escape, disguising himself as a woman. When he was apprehended by Sam Houston’s troops shortly after the battle, it is reported that he was wearing a dress. Fact or folklore? In this instance I prefer to look upon it as fact.