1867 Settlement is pivotal part of Texas pioneer history
Ancient oaks stand stately and tall along the approach to the historic set-aside that once was the heart of a pioneer African-American community known as the 1867 Settlement.
Established 150 years ago in what is now Texas City, the Settlement was the result of local Judge William Jefferson Jones in 1867 receiving authorization to begin selling homestead plots to local freedmen determined to be of “good standing and industrious habit.”
Tucked into the northwest elbow of land formed by the intersection of the current state Highway 3 and FM 1765, the Settlement eventually occupied 320 acres of land and was known for its hard-working residents who dedicated themselves to the celebration of their freedom and the opportunity to own land. In the second half of the 20th century, however, the area began to fall into disrepair as young people increasingly left the area for opportunities elsewhere.
Not content to let such pivotal history be lost, concerned Galveston County residents set about investigating ways to preserve the area and its history. Today, as a result of these efforts, the Settlement is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, has two Texas historical markers, and is the subject of a growing number of efforts directed toward increasing awareness of the importance of African-American history in Texas.
In “Pioneer Families of the 1867 Settlement, Texas City, Texas,” published in 2015 in cooperation with the Galveston County Historical Commission, author Melodey Mozeley Hauch writes that the Settlement’s first residents, Kneeland and Sylvia Britton, paid $100 each for three 10-acre tracts of land. Their daughter Priscilla with her husband, Albert Phillips, purchased a single 10-acre tract.
The Brittons, similar to a number of the Settlement’s first residents, were initially associated with the large nearby cattle ranch operated by George Washington Butler. Some of the men had been slaves on the ranch at one time, but after their emancipation stayed on with Butler to work as freedmen and drive his cattle on the legendary Chisholm Trail. In addition to Kneeland Britton and his son Tom Britton, the Settlement’s founding black cowboys included Calvin Bell, David Hobgood and Thomas Caldwell, whose own achievements as well as those of their family members, are woven throughout the Settlement’s subsequent history.
Several of the early Settlement residents not only met their future wives while working for the Butler Ranch, but arranged to have a portion of their wages paid in cattle, with which they started their own herds. Among the wives was Katie Johnson, also a ranch employee, who married Calvin Bell. Originally from Germany, she became the Settlement’s first school teacher, teaching both children and adults to read and write. Another first was the African-American cemetery established by the Phillips family in the 1870s.
As the Settlement grew and prospered, more families bought land and established churches, stores and other businesses. By 1900, there were 83 permanent residents, and the literacy rate was 88 percent.
The 20th century saw farming and ranching begin to take second place to employment with the industrial plants that were quickly becoming the area’s economic drivers, and the Settlement began to add population and businesses, but lose some of its cohesive identity.
In 1953, the once independent African-American community was annexed by Texas City, but many of the descendants of its early residents, along with state and local historians, were unwilling to let the Settlement story be forgotten.
Mary Margaret Smith, who grew up in the Settlement and later earned a doctoral degree in education, was among those determined to preserve the story of her home community’s pivotal role in Texas City history. Today, she serves on the Galveston County Historical Commission and heads up its African-American Historic Preservation Committee, of which Hauch is a member.
“The Settlement gave me my roots,” Smith said. “It is my honor today to be able to give back to the community by keeping alive the story of this vibrant and pioneering African-American community.”
Today, despite boarded up windows in some homes and empty slabs where a prosperous community once stood, those who do remain in the Settlement area take pride in being a part of this pivotal chapter in Texas pioneer history.
On his way to recent services at the Greater Bell Zion Missionary Baptist Church, Gregory DeLaney pointed out the sites of several now-gone landmark buildings and, with special excitement, a football field that served the former Lincoln High School.
A few streets down, Roy Daniels welcomed friends arriving with a lumber-loaded pickup. They were there to help him rebuild the chicken coop behind the house he had inherited from his mother, the late Ethel Mae Daniels, whom he described as one of the Settlements’s last influential matriarchs.
“My mother loved her chickens,” he said. “She always had chickens, and this house is not the same without them.”
On leaving the community, a stroll through the old cemetery yielded a surprise encounter with a few fire ant mounds, but amid a light scattering of broken grave stones, one of the few remaining intact markers offers what could perhaps be a clarion call for the future of the Settlement: “Gone, but not forgotten.”