A Columbus History

Columbus started life as an Indian village located on the banks of the Colorado River, identified on old Spanish maps as Montezuma. Montezuma happened to be located in the western corner of the 200,000-acre area of Texas along the Brazos and Colorado rivers granted to Moses and Stephen F. Austin for the purpose of settling American immigrant families. The first white settlers in the Montezuma area were Robert and Joseph Kuykendall and Daniel Gilleland, who arrived about Christmas of 1821. In August 1823 Stephen F. Austin and the Baron de Bastrop, Felipe Enrique Neri, surveyed 170 acres here on the Colorado River. This plot, the present site of Columbus, was to be capital and headquarters for the Austin colony. But Austin relocated his capital to a similar spot on the Brazos River, due to the frequency of Indian attacks here and the fact that most of the settlers had already located along the Brazos.

But the settlers here stayed on. That same year, 1823, W. B. DeWees, commonly regarded as the founder of Columbus, married the daughter of Leander Beason and built a home here. Others joined the Gillelands, Kuykendalls, and DeWeeses, and the little settlement was first known as Beason’s Ferry.

Austin’s contract with the Mexican government called for the family to be the basic unit of settlement. Each family that farmed and raised stock for a living was to receive a minimum land grant of one square league (4,428 acres). Because of the vagueness of the Mexican grant to Austin, the money paid by the settlers for their land ranged from nothing to about 3 cents per acre.

In order to gain legal title to the land, settlers had to satisfy a number of requirements, including such quaint practices as walking the land’s perimeters while shouting out the transfer of title from the Mexican government to the settler, pulling up herbs, throwing stones, and setting out stakes. They also had to cultivate the land and build a residence within two years of the grant.

Austin had his hands full trying to collect surveying fees from his colonists, creating and maintaining conditions in the colony conducive to its prosperous development, and dealing with the ever-changing Mexican government. In trying to walk the tightrope between the desires of the Mexican government and those of his colonists, Austin traveled thousands of harsh, strength-sapping miles through the Texas wilderness and spent more than two years in a Mexico City prison. Meanwhile, relations between the Mexican government and the Anglo Texans deteriorated.

By 1835 the village of Columbus had been laid out and named, and Texas was on the brink of rebellion. The village sent a contingent of men to Gonzales that fall, where they took part in the Battle of Gonzales. The war came to Columbus the next spring, as the Republican Army under the command of Sam Houston retreated from Gonzales. The Mexican Army was in hot pursuit. By March 6, 1836, Houston’s troops were camped on the east bank of the Colorado near Columbus. Here Houston tried to train his raw troops in the fine art of organized warfare. By March 24, the Mexican Army was camped on the west bank of the Colorado, reinforced by the arrival of Santa Anna.

Most of the Texans wanted to do battle then and there, but Houston counseled caution, saying he wanted to wait for the proper time and place, and this was neither. So the Republican Army burned every building in Columbus to the ground and hightailed it east, where they finally confronted and whipped Santa Anna at San Jacinto on April 21, 1836.

With the cessation of hostilities, the Anglo Texans began to drift back to the homes and settlements they had abandoned in the face of the Mexican Army’s rampage. Their hasty and ungainly retreat is known today as the Runaway Scrape.

Colorado County was organized in the spring of 1837 and the first court session was held under a giant live oak, since all the town buildings had been burned during the Runaway Scrape, and the new courthouse had literally slipped through the fingers of its builders. Preparations had been made for the construction of a county courthouse here. Lumber had been cut upriver at Bastrop and then floated to Columbus, but the obstruction built across the river to catch the lumber failed to hold and the timber continued merrily on to the Gulf. The court was presided over by Judge Robert McAlphin Williamson, more colorfully known as "Three-Legged Willie," by virtue of the wooden leg he had attached to the knee of his withered left leg. The lower, natural half of that leg he left protruding rearward, and he had all his pants tailored accordingly.

Justice in those days was of a no-nonsense nature. In May 1838, one Wilson H. Bibbs was charged with grand larceny (probably cattle theft). Pleading guilty as charged, Bibbs threw himself on the mercy of the court. The court’s mercy consisted of the following sentence: "That Wilson H. Bibbs should receive on this day 39 lashes on his bare back and be branded on the right hand with the letter T." The T presumably stood for "thief." He was also to be held in "outside" until a $500 fine was paid, but this portion of the sentence was later remitted when it was shown that the sum of $500 was not to be found anywhere west of the Colorado River. Bibbs was then released "from outside," where he had presumably been chained to a tree, there being no jail built as yet.

Columbus eventually got its courthouse and jail built and proceeded to grow into a prosperous little city. One of the town’s more memorable settlers during this era was Colonel Robert Robson, who hailed from Dumfries, Scotland. Once in Columbus, Robson erected a castle of homemade lime and gravel on the south side of the Colorado, on the site where Austin had planned to establish his colonial headquarters. Robson’s three-story fortress was surrounded by a moat, and entrance was gained via a drawbridge. Most of the rooms were 20 feet by 20 feet, with a grand ballroom three times the length of the other rooms. The castle was also the first building in Texas to have running water and a roof garden. Colonel Robson also introduced the Mexican huisache tree to Texas. The Robson house was undermined by a severe river flood in 1869 and torn down in 1883 to make way for a beef processing plant.

Steamboats plied the river from the Gulf up to Columbus through the Civil War, so Columbus served as a shipping point for inland farm products and as a supply center for wagon trains headed west.

Colorado County grew dramatically in the 1850s as a plantation economy, based on cotton, emerged. New communities were founded at Osage and Oakland. By 1860, the county’s population numbered 7,885, including 3,559 African Americans. Fourteen Colorado County men had fortunes of $100,000. That year the county had 397 farms and 306 slaveholders; 160 owned fewer than 5 slaves, while 12 had 50 or more and 4 had more than 100. Colorado County had the fifth-largest cotton crop of all Texas counties in 1860, more than 14,000 bales. With almost 30,000 head, cattle ranching began to assume an important role in the county economy.

One of the slaveowners’ most persistent fears was the possibility of slave insurrection. They attempted to prevent such uprisings by a variety of practices, such as denying their chattel any formal education or the right to congregate except in small, supervised groups. But plots were concocted among the slaves despite their masters’ efforts.

According to contemporary newspaper accounts, Colorado County was very nearly laid to waste in the late summer of 1856. The reports say that the white slaveowners of the county uncovered a plot for mass rebellion just days before it was to occur. Supposedly, over 200 blacks were in on the plot, along with "every Mexican in the county." Possessing large numbers of guns and homemade knives the rebels were to have indiscriminately murdered all the county’s white inhabitants—men, women, and children. No mention was made of just what the blacks and Mexicans were to do once this wholesale butchery had been accomplished. At any rate, the "diabolical" plan was unearthed just in the nick of time. The three slave ringleaders were hanged, two more were whipped to death, and all Mexicans were ordered to leave the county within five days, never to return upon pain of death. And life in Colorado County settled back down to the norm. Click here to read a contemporary account of the "rebellion." Click here to see a reward notice for a runaway slave from Columbus.

Columbus and Colorado County voted for secession in 1861, although the predominantly German town of Frelsburg voted against it. Hundreds of able-bodied men marched off to war. The very old and very young men stayed at home serving in the Home Guard, or "Heel Flies."

While fighting never reached Colorado County, the war devastated the county’s plantation economy, which depended so heavily on slave labor that the value of county farms dropped from $3,066,070 in 1860 to $493,890 by the end of the war. While the value of livestock fell by about half during the 1860s, the value of overall farm property fell by more than 80 percent.

The Reconstruction years were turbulent and sometimes violent. At war’s end, the newly freed slaves came to the courthouse square in great jubilant crowds singing, "Lincoln rode de big black horse, Davis rode de mule, Lincoln wuz de nobleman and Davis wuz de fool." Naturally, the recently subdued white Rebels didn’t take to this behavior too well. Federal troops occupied Columbus in June 1865, and troops were garrisoned there through 1870. The Yankee occupation troops put the freedmen in uniform and commissioned them to keep the peace in Colorado County. Freedmen’s Bureau agents stationed in Columbus opened schools for black children and attempted to mediate labor contracts between planters and freedmen.

An organization in the spirit of the Ku Klux Klan composed of Colorado and Fayette County men and formed around a nucleus of Confederate veterans, was active in the county in the late 1860s.

These unreconstructed Rebels would ride into town, fire a couple dozen shots, then dash back into the wooded night. The bluebellies would then halfheartedly pursue the raiders a mile or two before turning back. Federal authorities and county officers often clashed.

Despite the unrest of Reconstruction, there were new fortunes to be made now that the war was over. In 1869, the railroad finally came to Columbus. The Buffalo Bayou, Brazos, and Colorado Railway had reached Alleyton (three miles east of Columbus) by 1860, but the Colorado River still stood in the way. After the war, the Buffalo Bayou, Brazos, and Colorado Railway reorganized as the Galveston, Harrisburg, and San Antonio Railway and finally made the big leap over the Colorado and into Columbus. The railroad made it much cheaper to ship out Colorado County cotton and bring in all sorts of consumer goods. But instead of riding the rails to market, Colorado County cattle were trailed north. At least one man, Robert Earl "Bob" Stafford, made a million dollars from Texas Longhorns, which were almost as numerous as grasshoppers in the region after the war. But prosperity did not bring peace to Colorado County. During the pre-barbed-wire days of free range and wild cattle (about 1875), a feud developed between the Townsend family—longtime pillars of Colorado County—and the Staffords, relative Johnny-come-latelies who had wasted little time in getting wealthy. No one knows exactly how the feud got started, but once it got going, it was a hot one. Things came to a head when J. L. "Light" Townsend was elected county sheriff. The Stafford faction tried to unseat him at succeeding elections, but failed.

The Townsend clan (Asa and Rebecca Harper Townsend and their nine children) had come to Columbus in 1838. Asa was involved in Texas politics by 1845, when he served on a committee involved with the annexation of the Republic of Texas to the United States. He was also director of the Colorado [River] Navigation Association and an active Mason.

Robert Stafford, born in Georgia in 1834, came to Texas in 1856 and settled in Colorado County, where he farmed and raised livestock on a small scale, using the l.C.U. brand. At the start of the Civil War, Stafford joined Hood’s Texas Brigade, but soon returned home and spent the rest of the war years building up his herd. After the war, Stafford, who was the oldest child in his family, was joined by five of his brothers, six or seven sisters, and assorted other relatives.

Cattle rustling was common in that time, and the Stafford clan and their employees soon gained a reputation as people not to be crossed, according to Colorado County historian Bill Stein. At least once, and probably twice, the Staffords sent their cowboys into the countryside to kill whomever they suspected of rustling. And, Stein says, a good many people ended up dead. Retaliation was inevitable, and one of the Stafford brothers was shot dead, with another merely wounded. But the violence didn’t hinder Bob’s empire building.

In 1869, he successfully drove a herd of cattle to Kansas. Emboldened by his success, he enlarged his business by buying up all the brands in his section of the county that were for sale. In 1872, he contracted to deliver beef to Havana, Cuba. He also sold cattle that went to pacified Indians out west. His fortune increased rapidly, to the point that he organized his own bank in 1882, of which he was president and sole owner. The following year, Stafford realized that he and his fellow stockmen could make more money off their beeves by shipping dressed, chilled beef to distant markets than by driving live cows up the long and arduous Chisholm Trail. He organized the Columbus, Texas Meat and Ice Co. and became its president. The Columbus, Texas Meat and Ice Co. built a $250,000 three-story plant on the site of the old Robson Castle in 1884. At the time, it was one of only three packing houses in Texas. The plant could process either 125 or 250 head of cattle per day, depending on who you believe, and could make 40 tons of ice daily. The company filled an order for an English syndicate and also shipped dressed carcasses to Chicago, New Orleans, Galveston, and other points via the new refrigerated rail cars that were the wonder of the age. The plant closed in 1891 and was later torn down.

In 1889, a group of progress-minded Colorado County citizens decided that the little 1855 courthouse no longer befitted a town of Columbus’s stature and they persuaded county commissioners to build a new one. Despite considerable opposition from county citizens who lived outside Columbus, the commissioners went ahead with their plans. But the project was plagued by delays. Citizens demanded that the brick be manufactured in Colorado County, so the schedule was relaxed. By April 1890, the foundation had finally been poured. The county decided to incorporate the laying of the new courthouse’s cornerstone into the county’s traditional July 4th celebration. But that date couldn’t be met, so it was delayed until July 7, 1890. At 11 that morning, about 3,000 folks from around the county began gathering on the north side of Columbus for a barbecue. About 5 that afternoon, they assembled in parade formation and marched down Milam Street to the courthouse square. The Masons of Caledonia Lodge #68 conducted the cornerstone laying and ceremony, and then the group paraded back to the barbecue grounds. At this point, the crowd began to disperse. Many went off to prepare for the big dance to be held that night at the Opera House. But about an hour before the dance was scheduled to start, Opera House owner Bob Stafford got into an argument with city marshal Larkin Hope, who was Sheriff Townsend’s son-in-law. What transpired between them depends on whose side you’re on, and some folks in Columbus still take sides over 100 years later. At any rate, the argument ended when Larkin Hope and his brother Marion shot and killed Bob Stafford and his younger brother John.

With the death of Bob Stafford, Colorado County went into rapid economic decline, Stein says. The new courthouse (like the opera house Stafford built in 1886) was to be a symbol of the prosperity that Columbus had come to enjoy. Stafford’s death ended any chance for the future success of the meatpacking plant, opera house, and a host of other endeavors associated with Bob Stafford. Within 20 years, there would be little of the Stafford fortune in Columbus.

There was considerable outrage over the Stafford killings, and many called for Townsend’s removal, but this was not effected until his death several years later. The feud did not cease to exist with these killings; in fact, it expanded. Before long, more than half a dozen area families were involved. After Townsend’s death in 1894, his relatives squabbled over who would be his successor as sheriff. His deputy and cousin by marriage, Samuel Houston Reese, took over and held the post for four years. Reese’s deputy and former Columbus City Marshal, Larkin Hope, ran against him in 1898, but was murdered in downtown Columbus before the election. Reese was not implicated in the shooting, but he was voted out of office, and, a few months later, he and an innocent bystander named Charles Boehme were killed in a downtown gun battle.

The killings had two important consequences for Columbus, according to Stein. First, despite strong evidence to the contrary, Reese’s children regarded their father’s death as a cold-blooded, premeditated assassination and spent years exacting their revenge. So several more gun fights in Columbus and elsewhere followed, with five more men killed and five others wounded. Secondly, the killing of Boehme, who had been a farmer in town on business, and the continued atmosphere of violence in Columbus, persuaded many of his fellow farmers to take their business elsewhere, severely damaging the town’s economy. People commonly referred to Columbus as Hell’s Half-Acre and many travelers skirted the town altogether for years thereafter.

But this period of trial and tribulation was not without its humorous incidents. At the north end of Columbus, the Colorado River makes a big loop north, returning to the south end of Columbus some six miles later. One day a man robbed a store in town and escaped down to the river, where he commandeered a boat and made clean his getaway. After miles of rowing he cane to a town, which he supposed to be Wharton, whereupon he got out of the boat with his loot and proceeded to walk downtown to peddle his heisted, goods to the unsuspecting citizens. Almost as soon as he had set up shop on a street corner, he was accosted by the Colorado County sheriff. The hapless criminal had rowed down-river right back to the scene of his crime.

As the feud dragged on through the 1890s, frustrated townspeople called for its end. In an attempt to restore order, they demanded that the office of town marshal be reinstated. A couple of years earlier, the town had dissolved police force as a cost-cutting measure. The mayor was in agreement, but the money-conscious city council refused. In desperation, the citizens forced, by signed petition, an election to consider dissolving city government, so that the county sheriff would have full jurisdiction in the town. The measure passed overwhelmingly, Stein notes, and so in 1906, the city of Columbus (incorporated in 1866) was voted out of existence. It would be 21 years before the town reincorporated. It is said that a Texas Ranger was permanently stationed here to help enforce the peace. With that, the feud was pretty much over -- at least the shooting part. Eight men had died in the process.

But the Stafford-Townsend feud was only one facet of a larger civil war that wracked the county, one that also pitted whites against blacks.

In spite of the county economy’s decline during the 1860s, the population continued to grow, reaching 8,326 in 1870. The black population grew as well, reaching a peak of 46 percent of the county population in 1880; thereafter, while continuing to grow in absolute numbers, African Americans declined in relative terms to 43 percent of the whole by 1900.

These numbers translated into political strength; several blacks from Colorado County held state and county office during and after Reconstruction, including county commissioner Isaac Yates, state representative B. F. Williams, and county commissioner Cicero Howard. A group of Colorado County whites attempted to intimidate black voters in 1873 by killing two freedmen. The county nevertheless voted for Republican governor Edmund J. Davis that year and supported Republican presidential candidates from 1872 to 1884. In spite of the growth of the White Man’s Union Association in the late 1870s, blacks continued to hold county office through the 1880s.

Black voters also helped to repeatedly reelect Sheriff James Light Townsend, who, despite an apparently good record in office, was widely criticized for appointing family members to many law enforcement positions and for failing to suppress, if not actually fostering, a climate of violence in the county.

In the state elections of 1894 and 1896, the white voters of Colorado County split into Democratic and Populist Party factions. The result? Both times, Robert Lloyd Smith, an African-American Republican living in Oakland in southwestern Colorado County, was elected to serve Colorado County in the Texas House of Representatives. His was a lonely life, being the only black man in the Texas legislature. But it was a delightful irony for Smith, representing a county that had cruelly shut down the putative mass rebellion scheme of 1856, a county with a majority-white population, during times when blacks and Republicans seldom held any public office in Texas. After Smith’s win in 1896, 70 years would pass before another black Texan was elected to the Texas legislature.

In the Texas House, Smith worked to improve educational opportunities for black Texans, especially the advancement of Prairie View Normal School (now Prairie View A&M University). He also struggled to protect the civil rights of black Texans, which were being steadily eroded by the discriminatory, "Jim Crow" laws that were then being enacted throughout the South.

White resentment to the continued black political power in Colorado County culminated in the establishment of White Man’s Reformation Association in 1894 and the White Man’s Party in 1902. Leaders of the White Man’s Party reached an agreement with the local Democratic Party leaders in which the latter stipulated that the White Man’s Party nominees for local offices would automatically be nominated by the Democrats, effectively eliminating the Democratic primary. Since only white men were allowed to vote in the White Man’s Party primary, blacks were effectively disenfranchised.

But Robert Lloyd Smith’s career of public service wasn’t over, it just shifted gears and locales. Born a free negro in Charleston, S.C., in 1861, Smith earned a B.A. from Atlanta University and by 1885 was living in Oakland (located 10 miles south of Weimar on FM 532) as principal of the Oakland Normal School, training young African-Americans to be teachers. Smith served as an aide to Booker T. Washington and espoused Washington’s philosophy of accommodation and self-help. Click here to read several letters from Smith to Washington.

In 1890, Smith organized the Village Improvement Society of Oakland in order to boost "the American Negro up to a high standard of citizenship." At first, the society encouraged only home beautification projects, but it soon began teaching improved farming methods and cooperative buying. The results were nothing short of spectacular; according to Smith, you could not "pick out the location of the homes of the races by the exterior, or, for that matter, the interior of their dwellings."

Smith’s success in Oakland led to the formation of the Farmers’ Home Improvement Society, a farmers’ association for negroes, whose purpose was guide its members out of the serf-like share-cropping/credit cycle, and into economic self-sufficiency through home and farm ownership. Society members learned about crop diversification and other improved farming methods, cooperative buying and selling, and how to raise most of their own food. With Smith as president, the society sponsored agricultural fairs and provided sick and death benefits. In 1900, it claimed 86 branches and 2,340 members. By 1909, it had 21,000 members in Texas, Arkansas, and the Oklahoma Territory. By 1912, the society owned 75,000 acres of land valued at more than $1 million. The group’s enterprises included a truck growers’ union, an agricultural college at Wolfe City in 1906, and the Woman’s Barnyard Auxiliaries, with membership in 20 counties, which specialized in better egg, poultry, and butter production and the raising of improved swine for the market. The society even had its own bank, the Farmers’ Improvement Bank, founded in 1911 in Waco. But the society was chronically in financial trouble, mostly because of its overly generous benefits package.

Smith wasn’t fated to pass his life away in little Oakland. He was elected to the Texas House of Representatives in 1894 and 1896. A nationally respected Republican, he was appointed to a post in the United States Treasury Department, only to have the appointment blocked by another black Texas Republican, Charles Ferguson. Smith was appointed deputy US marshal for the Eastern District of Texas by President Theodore Roosevelt and served from 1902 to 1909, when he was removed in the early days of the Taft administration. During these years Smith began a factory for manufacturing overalls. He was elected the first president of the Texas branch of the National Negro Business League when it was organized in 1907. Smith called himself a "practical sociologist." He was married to Ruby Cobb, and the couple adopted two children. In 1915, while at Prairie View, he became the first director of the state’s Cooperative Extension Program for Negroes and began teaching improved agricultural methods to black farmers. He died in 1942 in Waco, where he and Ruby had lived for a number of years.

In 1898, William Dunovant, who owned a plantation near Eagle Lake, had planted the county's first rice crop. Buoyed by his success, he and others quickly converted vast acreages in the southern part of the county to the cultivation of rice. More recently, the gravel and oil industries have supplanted Colorado County’s traditional sources of agricultural income.

Today Columbus is considerably more peaceful but a person brought up in those wild and woolly days would not have too much trouble finding his or her way around, so much remains of old Columbus—enough, in fact, to merit a small book all its own. Many of these oldtimers now reside in the town's two cemeteries.

Eternally resting in the Old City Cemetery (1300 Walnut) are Benjamin Beason, W. B. Dewees, Dr. John Logue (opened first drugstore in Texas), Columbus Tap Railway President E. P. Whitfield, and Dilue Rose Harris. The Stafford brothers and Larkin Hope rest in the Odd Fellows Rest Cemetery (1500 Montezuma), as well as Wells Thompson, who served as Texas lieutenant governor from 1878 to 1880. Then there is Ike Towell, whose epitaph reads: "Here rests Ike Towell -- An infidel who had no hope of heaven nor fear of hell, was free of superstition, to do right and love justice was his religion."