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Dallas: A History of

Dallas: A History of "Big D"

by Michael V. Hazel

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Dallas first grabbed the national imagination in 1936 when it hosted the Texas Centennial Exposition. Since then, the fascination with “Big D” has seldom flagged. If the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963 cast a pall over the city, the success of the Dallas Cowboys and the popularity of the television series “Dallas” revived the


Dallas first grabbed the national imagination in 1936 when it hosted the Texas Centennial Exposition. Since then, the fascination with “Big D” has seldom flagged. If the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963 cast a pall over the city, the success of the Dallas Cowboys and the popularity of the television series “Dallas” revived the image of a glitzy, hustling metropolis at the center of the Sunbelt.

In this concise overview, Hazel examines the city's roots as a frontier market town, its development as a regional transportation center, and its growing pains as it entered the twentieth century. Ku Klux Klan dominance in the 1920s is chronicled, as well as the half-century of control by an elite group of businessmen. The narrative concludes with a look at today's city, struggling with issues of diversity.

The author pays special attention to the role of ethnic groups in shaping Dallas: the French colonists of the 1850s; the German, Swiss, and Italian immigrants of the 1870s and 1880s; the Mexican Americans of the early twentieth century; and the Southeast Asians of recent decades. He also examines the role of African Americans, who came with the first Anglos and struggled for more than a century to gain equality.

Dallas: A History of Big D is based on pioneer letters and reminiscences, as well as the research of recent years. Written in a popular style, it will appeal to scholars and general readers curious about how Dallas grew to become the nation's eighth largest city.

Product Details

Texas State Historical Assn Press
Publication date:
Fred Rider Cotten Popular History Series , #11
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Barnes & Noble
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5 MB

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A History of "Big D"

By Michael V. Hazel

Texas State Historical Association

Copyright © 1997 Texas State Historical Association
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62511-016-9



THE HISTORY OF DALLAS as a permanent settlement begins in 1841, when the first Anglo pioneers arrived. Native Americans certainly traversed this area on hunting expeditions for thousands of years before then, but there is little evidence of prolonged encampment. Traces of conical structures typical of Caddo farm sites have been found in the Mountain Creek drainage area southwest of Dallas, and prehistoric tools and spear points have been unearthed on the edge of downtown Dallas. But such artifacts are still very rare, and knowledge about these early inhabitants of the region is scanty. In general, the Trinity River, which cuts the modern city in half, seems to have been a sort of dividing line between the more agrarian tribes of eastern Texas and the nomadic, buffalo hunting tribes of the west.

The primary asset of most of what is now Dallas County was its rich, blackland soil. "It is universally admitted to be the finest soil in the country," wrote Edward Smith, an Englishman who visited the region shortly after Texas joined the Union, "equalling in fertility the rich alluvial bottoms of the great Mississippi valley." Apparently his description was not too exaggerated, for an early settler wrote as follows: "This portion of the country is just as rich as any man wants it to be. The soil is black and sticky as far and deep as necessary. Corn, wheat and cotton grow well...."

Certainly this rich soil featured prominently in the advertisements of the Texan Land and Emigration Company, a group of Louisville, Kentucky, investors, headed by W. S. Peters, who signed a series of contracts with the Republic of Texas between 1841 and 1843. The Republic, anxious to encourage settlement in this region, granted over ten million acres of land to the company, including all of what was to become Dallas County except a ten-mile strip along the eastern edge. The Peters Colony, as this land was commonly called, extended north to the Red River and west nearly 200 miles. The company was responsible for surveying the properties and providing assistance in house construction. As an inducement to settle in the colony, each head of a family who met the conditions of settlement could claim homestead rights on 640 acres, and each single man or woman on 320 acres. The Peters Colony was widely advertised in both the United States and Europe, and eventually attracted nearly 3,000 settlers to Texas.

The company's broadsides make somewhat amusing reading today. According to the promoters, North Central Texas possessed a "mild and beautiful" climate, which "for health and pleasure, is not surpassed by any in the world, and in this respect may be termed the Italy of America." It might also interest modern residents of Dallas to read that—according to this broadside—the Trinity River was navigable all the way to Galveston Bay.

Meanwhile, a frontiersman named John Neely Bryan had already selected the region as a likely spot for settlement. Like many men of his age and time, Bryan had led a rather nomadic existence. Born December 21, 1810, at Fayetteville, Tennessee, he studied law, was admitted to the bar, and moved to Memphis. In 1833 he contracted cholera and sought to recover his health in the Arkansas wilderness, living among the Cherokee Indians. Four years later he was in Van Buren, Arkansas, a trading center, where he bought and traded building lots. In 1839 he traveled southwest to Holland Coffee's trading post on the Red River where he clerked. Here he heard about the uninhabited land in the region called the Three Forks of the Trinity.

Exploring, he found a bluff overlooking a natural ford. Here the Trinity River, which could be an impassable barrier of mud and water, narrowed like an hourglass over a formation of Austin chalk, providing a rock ford. This ford was already the intersection of two major Indian traces and would clearly be important for settlers moving into the region. There is a tradition that Bryan originally planned to establish a trading post here. With his experience as a land speculator in Van Buren, he may also have envisioned a town. In either case, he grasped the potential for profit in the site. Marking his claim with a stick and some stones, he returned to Fort Smith to close out some business, and in the fall of 1841 he set out for Texas again. Arriving at his bluff in late November, he built some sort of crude shelter and settled in.

Several things had happened since his first visit which boded well for Bryan's plans. The government of the Republic had recently cleared most of the Indians from the region and had built Bird's Fort (close to modern Irving) to provide protection. William G. Cooke was employed to survey a highway along the Preston Trail, running from Coffee's Station on the Red River to a point just north of Bryan's site, and then a Central National Road northeast from there to Paris in Red River County. The Republic had also entered into the first of its contracts with the Peters Company to encourage settlement in the region. This, of course, was a mixed blessing for Bryan, since he was, in effect, squatting on Peters Colony land. It took several years for him to legitimize his claim.

Apparently it didn't take Bryan long to decide to found a town. In January 1842, he traveled up the West Fork of the Trinity to Bird's Fort and persuaded the Gilbert and Beeman families, who had been having problems with Indians, to leave and join him at his bluff. According to James J. Beeman, Bryan described the site and town he intended to build there and "was very anxious for us to move down."

As it happened, the Beemans eventually settled along White Rock Creek, and the Gilberts moved elsewhere after two years. Bryan's problem was to convince people to take a lot in his "town" rather than file for their own 640-acre headright elsewhere in the Peters Colony. One story is that he offered a free lot to every newly married couple. Another story is that he offered a lot as a prize in a contest to name the town, and that Charity Gilbert won it by suggesting "Dallas" in honor of Commodore Alexander Dallas, a well-known naval hero, who was supposed to have fired the first shot in the War of 1812. This name would, so the story goes, symbolize the town's intended destiny of commercial greatness through river transport. The town may also have been named for George Mifflin Dallas, the Commodore's brother, who was elected vice president of the United States in 1844 with President James K. Polk, on a platform advocating annexation of Texas to the Union. Whatever its origins, the name Dallas appeared in deed records in August 1842, in a diary written in the summer of 1843, and in a Houston newspaper in November 1843.

While John Neely Bryan was trying to create a town, the other settlers moving into the area were busy clearing land for crops, building pens for animals, and erecting homes. Their major problem was transporting goods and people in and out of the area. The two roads laid out by the Republic, the Preston Road and the Central National Road, from Dallas to the Red River, were probably accurately described by one observer as "universally primitive." Crossing the numerous streams could be treacherous. One early settler recalled, "There were no bridges or graded roads. When travelers came to one of those rushing streams they just had to wait until the water went down. Getting up and down those steep muddy banks was a hard problem. Wagons would often stick to the hubs. With each wheel loaded with sticky black mud that had to be pried off with poles, the teams had to be doubled and hitched to a wagon to get across."

One of John Neely Bryan's first enterprises was a ferry operating across the Trinity River. John Beldon Billingsley, whose family spent several days in the village of Dallas in March 1844, was unimpressed. Billingsley described the ferry as "three cotton wood canoes placed parallel with each other and floored over with slabs." "It was pulled," he recalled, "by a buffalo wool rope tied to trees on each side of the river." His family had to unload their wagons to get across, and the cows and oxen had to swim.

Lacking river or rail transportation, pioneers had to haul goods overland, usually from Jefferson, which was the closest river port. In February 1846, J. W. Smith and James M. Patterson decided to open a general store in Dallas. They bought their first load of supplies in Shreveport, and it took them forty days to make the 200-mile trip, swimming their oxen over the intervening streams and floating the two wagons and goods on rafts constructed for the purpose.

Life on the sparsely populated frontier could be very lonely. Churches helped develop the ties of community. When Isaac Webb and his wife settled at Farmers Branch in 1844, they found a kindred Methodist spirit in Mrs. Nancy Jane Cochran. But all the other men in the area were, in Webb's words, "Sunday hunters." When they "would go a hunting," Webb recorded in his diary, "I would call the families together and read, sing and pray and instruct them the best I could. I was determined to stick to my beloved Methodism" Webb wrote a friend of his near Clarksville asking for a preacher, and "sure enough in a few weeks Thomas Brown a preacher rode up to the settlement with his gun a liting before him inquiring for Webb." Brown stayed the night with the Webb family and preached what Webb believed to be the first sermon in the region.

That fall Webb was instrumental in organizing the first camp meeting in the county. Four families pitched tents, and four ministers gave sermons. "We had good preaching and quite a happy time and some accessions to the church," Webb wrote. Finally, in the spring of 1845, they put up an eighteen-foot-square church, made of hewed logs and covered with four-foot clapboards. Located 200 yards from Webb's house, this first church in the region was called Webb's Chapel in honor of the devout Methodist.

The other institution which helped bind a community and perpetuate its values was the school. According to one early history of Dallas County, the first formal school was taught in the Webb's Chapel building by Thomas C. Williams in February, March, and April of 1845. Early schools, however, were extremely tenuous, dependent on the availability of a teacher and the ability of the parents to pay him, and operating only when the children weren't needed at home for planting or harvesting.

In 1845 a majority of Dallas voters—twenty-nine out of thirty-two—voted in favor of annexation with the United States. Like their brothers throughout Texas, they felt the time had come to sacrifice their independence as a Republic to the advantages of union with their powerful neighbor. During 1846 John Neely Bryan was kept busy setting up the government for the newly created Dallas County, and the political history of the region entered a new chapter. It's perhaps significant that the first recorded celebration of Independence Day in Dallas took place on July 4, 1846.

The entry of Texas into the Union encouraged immigration. By 1850, the population of Dallas County was 2,743 (163 in the town). Many were born in Georgia or Alabama and had immigrated to Tennessee and Missouri for a few years before coming down through Arkansas and across the Red River into North Texas. Nearly all the men were farmers by occupation, although some also had a specialty such as blacksmithing or milling. Foreign immigrants were also enticed to the area by the glowing reports of pioneers, speculators, and land companies. The 1850 Census listed two Germans, one a farmer and the other a blacksmith, and about a dozen people born in England or Ireland. The English included a shoemaker, a plasterer, and a millwright.

In 1853 a Frenchman named Victor Considerant arrived in Texas looking for a suitable place in which to found a socialist Utopian community based on the ideals of Charles Fourier, who had died in 1837. The fertile lands of North Central Texas in springtime captivated Considerant. He returned to France, wrote a promotional book entitled Au Texas, and helped organize an emigration company. Early in 1855, 200 French and French-speaking Swiss and Belgians landed at Galveston after a stop in New Orleans. They made the overland portion of their journey from Galveston via Houston by wagon train, hiring as a guide a farmer living near Dallas who had come to Houston to sell two bales of cotton. The trip from Houston to Dallas took almost four weeks.

In April the colonists arrived at Considerant's chosen spot in the limestone hills three miles west of Dallas. Here they organized themselves according to the Fourier system, calling their community La Reunion. Within three years the community had failed, through a combination of inadequate skills, bad weather, poor leadership, and internal dissension. But many of the colonists moved into Dallas, bringing with them diverse skills and a level of cultural refinement not usually found in frontier towns.

Not all the early settlers came by choice. African Americans had entered the county as early as whites, but as slaves. The Mabel Gilbert family, whom John Neely Bryan persuaded to join him at his settlement in 1842, brought with them a young male slave identified only as "Smith." The following year Allen (Al) Huitt accompanied his master John Huitt to Cedar Springs. A skilled blacksmith, Al Huitt became an important figure in Dallas County; as late as 1875 the City Directory mentioned, "Old Allen still lives in Dallas County, a venerable and respected citizen."

According to the Federal Census, in 1850 there were 207 slaves in Dallas County. They were owned by 56 individuals—or 2 percent of the white population of 2,536. Most slave owners were engaged in agriculture, although slaves were also owned by two lawyers, two physicians, two wagon makers, two merchants, one inn keeper, and one tailor. The majority of slave owners possessed fewer than four slaves; only thirteen owned more than ten, and none owned more than twenty. There were no slave markets in Dallas, but slaves could be purchased privately or imported from elsewhere.

Although the region remained overwhelmingly agricultural, business and even industry (on a small scale) were also developing. Dallas's first French immigrant, Maxime Guillot, opened the first factory, manufacturing carriages and wagons. Adolph Gouhenant, another immigrant, opened a picture gallery; the Caruth brothers (William and Walter) opened a general store; and Thomas Crutchfield opened a hotel. There were also an insurance agency, a boot and shoe shop, a milliner, two brickyards and two saddle shops.

Dallas's business leaders, however, were Alexander and Sarah Cockrell. Alexander was a native of Kentucky who moved to Missouri and later to the Indian Territory, where he lived with the Cherokees. He joined his cousin in the Mountain Creek area west of the Trinity River in 1845, fought in the Mexican War, and received 640 acres of his own in southwest Dallas County. There he farmed and raised livestock and established a freighting business. Because he was illiterate, Alexander relied on his wife, Sarah Horton Cockrell, for writing, reading, and preparing business documents.

In 1852 Cockrell agreed to pay John Neely Bryan $7,000 for what remained of Bryan's property in Dallas. Alexander and Sarah left Mountain Creek and moved into Dallas. Alexander's first project was erecting a covered bridge across the Trinity River to replace Bryan's old ferry. This made transportation across the river far more convenient, and since it was a toll bridge, it was extremely lucrative for Cockrell.

Cockrell also built a steam sawmill at the foot of Commerce Street. The availability of sawn lumber created a demand for contractors, mechanics, carpenters, and masons, as well as investors. Cockrell started construction of a fancy new hotel, although he was killed before it was completed. In the spring of 1858 he was gunned down on the street by the town marshal, who owed him money. However, his widow, Sarah, completed the hotel, which she named the St. Nicholas, and she continued to operate the other businesses.

Alexander Cockrell's son once compared his father and John Neely Bryan. Bryan, he said, was a "planner"; his father was a "builder." Bryan had the imagination to envision a town on the banks of the Trinity, but it took Cockrell to help bring it to fruition.


Excerpted from Dallas by Michael V. Hazel. Copyright © 1997 Texas State Historical Association. Excerpted by permission of Texas State Historical Association.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

MICHAEL V. HAZEL is a Dallas native who currently teaches Dallas history at SMU. He is also archivist for the A. H. Belo Corporation and the editor of Legacies, a regional history journal.

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