Thomas R. Phillips 0000-00-00 00:00:00
Justice in the New State Capital Travis County District Court Minute Book C, which covers 1850 to 1853, offers a fascinating glimpse of law and life in mid-19th century Texas. With Austin having just been reconfirmed as the state capital,1 Travis County’s population and commerce were exploding. Yet Austin still had less than 1,000 souls, and the occasional Greek Revival mansion rising on the city’s edge was but a thin veneer of refinement over the rough and tumble of what was still a frontier town, barely a decade old and only recently relieved from the threat of Comanche attacks. Travis County was one of eight counties in the Second Judicial District. Until 1851, the presiding judge was William E. “Fiery” Jones, a newspaper editor and former Republic of Texas congressman whose Unionist sympathies would, despite Confederate service, ultimately lead him into the Republican Party and a brief return to the bench under Gov. Edmund Davis. Jones’ successor, John Hancock, later served briefly in the Texas Legislature before his expulsion for refusing to take the Confederate oath of allegiance, then served four terms in Congress during and after Reconstruction,2 winning a three-way race over M.A. Dooley and William H. Gordon. The court’s civil filings reflected the citizenry’s near obsession with land, as actions for trespass to try title, foreclosure, partition, specific performance, and to cancel conveyances crowded the docket. Most civil cases were for debt, but claims were also brought for slander, assumpsit, trover, damages, and divorce. Few if any suits were directly connected to state government, although several actions by former empresarios against Sam Houston in his capacity as president of the Republic serve to remind not only of Texas’ former sovereign status, but also of the sometimes slow pace of justice from time immemorial. The more numerous criminal docket included prosecutions for murder, assault, battery, larceny, horse stealing, malicious mischief, and burning a building, as well as more exotic crimes such as “marking an unmarked hog without the consent of the owner.” Also present are chilling reminders that about one-fourth of Travis County’s 3,138 residents were held in bondage, with several actions for “selling ardent spirits to a slave” and one for “clandestinely supporting a runaway slave.” Prosecutors valiantly attempted to preserve the citizenry’s morals, prosecuting such crimes as “living in fornication with a woman” or “keeping a disorderly house.” Far more numerous, and markedly more successful, were actions for operating or playing games of chance such as faro, roulette, monte bank, and rondeau or for playing or allowing poker or cards “in a house for the retail of spirituous liquors.” By Chief Justice Thomas R. Phillips Notes 1. On March 4, 1850, Texas voters selected Austin over four East Texas towns as the “temporary capital” of Texas. The totals: Austin, 7,679; Tehuacana, 3,142; Palestine, 1,884; Huntsville, 1,215; Washington, 1,143; scattering, 23. Executive Record Book, Gov. P.H. Bell, pp. 147–49, State Archives Reel 3474 (third volume on reel). 2. Hancock, an Austin attorney, received 925 votes, defeating M.A. Dooley of New Braunfels with 733 votes and William H. Gordon of Guadalupe County with 675. Executive Record Book, Gov. P.H. Bell, p. 116, State Archives Reel 3474 (fourth volume on reel); Texas State Gazette, July 26, 1851 p. 2 (candidates’ announcements).
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