The site of James Briton Bailey’s land grant, known today as Bailey’s Prairie. (Click for larger image)
Twelve years after “Brit” Bailey succumbed to cholera on the hot, humid coastal plain of Stephen F. Austin’s colony, events had taken a turn. Texas had become a Republic, and word of the opportunities to be had there was spreading, particularly among the Germans.
In November 1845, German scientist Ferdinand von Roemer debarked in Galveston. Sent to Texas by the Berlin Academy of Sciences, he had been charged with the task of evaluating mineral assets on the Fisher-Miller land grant west of San Antonio. In the process of meeting his obligation, Roemer not only established himself as the father of Texas geology, through his association with John Meusebach he became an important player in the opening of the Fisher-Miller grant to settlement.
Meusebach himself had been appointed in April 1845 as the second Commissioner General of the Adelsverein (also known as the Society for the Protection of German Immigrants in Texas). It was Meusebach who founded the first settlement on the outskirts of the Fisher-Miller grant, naming it Fredericksburg in honor of Adelsverein member Prince Frederick of Prussia.
The grant was located in Comanche territory, where previous conflicts had exacerbated German nervousness about moving into the neighborhood. Because the grant required completion of a land survey by the fall of 1847, a treaty between the Germans and the Penateka Comanche was imperative. Under Meusebach’s guidance, the treaty was signed, and three million acres of land were opened to settlement.
John Meusebach’s granddaughters, Mrs. Irene Marschall King and Dr. Cornelia Marschall Smith, brought the original Meusebach-Comanche treaty document from Europe in 1970, and presented it to the Texas State Library in 1972. Now on public display, it’s reputed to be the only treaty between white settlers and Native Americans that never was broken.
“Gathering, Lasting Friendship, 1847-1997” commemorates the Meusebach-Comanche Treaty. The sculpture was dedicated as a part of Fredericksburg’s 150th anniversary celebration.
One of Meusebach’s notebooks also is on display at the Texas State Library. Despite the elaborate script and the fact that it’s written in German, two phrases stand out. One involves beer, and the other, in English, proclaims, “Texas Forever.”
By the time Meusebach began treaty negotiations, Roemer had made his own way from Houston to Fredericksburg. Along the way, he studied not only the geography of the land and such wonderful geological oddities as Enchanted Rock, he also catalogued a wide variety of flora and fauna. Many of his observations are memorialized in the scientific names of Texas wildflowers, such as cedar sage (Salvia roemeriana), sensitive briar (Mimosa roemeriana), and two-leafed senna (Senna roemeriana)
An equally close observer of people and cultures, Roemer’s accounts of the Penateka Comanche are lively and interesting. After his return to Germany, the 1849 publication of his somewhat ponderously titled book, Texas: 1845 to 1847 (With Particular Reference to German Immigration and the Physical Appearance of the Country, Described Through Personal Observation) opened a marvelous world to its readers.
Characterizing the three Comanche chiefs involved in treaty negotiations with Meusebach as “serene and dignified,” Roemer goes on to portray Old Owl as a “political chief” and Santa Anna as a “war chief.” Then, he describes the chief known as Buffalo Hump.
[He was] the pure unadulterated picture of a North American Indian, who, unlike the rest of his tribe, scorned every form of European dress. His body naked, a buffalo robe around his loins, brass rings on his arms, a string of beads around his neck, and with his long, coarse black hair hanging down, he sat there with the serious facial expression of the North American Indian which seems to be apathetic to the European.
He attracted our special attention because he had distinguished himself through great daring and bravery in expeditions against the Texas frontier which he had engaged in times past.
Although equally interested in the early Texas settlers who surrounded him, Roemer found many of them less impressive. His notes indicate the presence in Texas of “the most degraded riff-raff — adventurers, gamblers, swindlers and murderers — the scum not only of the United States but of all nations.” On the other hand, as if to atone somewhat for the harshness of his judgment, he was willing to allow that, “the present morals and respect for the laws of the land are as a general rule not any lower [in Texas] than in the adjoining Southwestern States.”
Twenty-five years before Roemer’s grand tour, Stephen F. Austin seems to have recognized the presence in Texas of the same “degraded riff-raff,” and the need to cull them if his own colony of three hundred families was to flourish. Because his grant of land came from Mexico, loyalty to the Mexican government and adherence to the Roman Catholic faith were assumed. “Good character” was a little more slippery. Still, it was required.
With a few exceptions, empresarios such as Austin advertised for settlers, their broadsides and posters making clear which qualities would meet the terms of their contracts with the Mexican government.
Unfortunately, Austin was forced to deal almost immediately with a man who had preceeded him into Texas, and who failed to meet nearly every requirement for settlers in the colony — James Briton Bailey.
At first glance, Bailey would appear to be the perfect settler. Born in North Carolina in 1779, of Irish stock and a distinguished lineage that may have included Scotland’s Robert Bruce, he moved first to Kentucky, where he served in the state legislature. When his first wife, Edith, died and left him with six children, he married her sister and had five more. He fought in the War of 1812, and apparently had some success in business.
After deciding to opt for life in Texas, Bailey, his wife and six children, and a half-dozen adult slaves traveled first to New Orleans, where they booked passage to Galveston. Some accounts have Bailey and his entourage traveling directly to the Brazos River. Others suggest he left the family in Anahuac, traveled to the Brazos, selected his land, returned for his family, and began building a new life on land he claimed he had purchased from Spain.
James Briton Bailey, Respectable Citizen
At that point, events took yet another turn. Mexico achieved its independence from Spain in 1821, and the same land which Bailey had purchased or claimed in 1818 was given by Mexico to Stephen F. Austin. Austin considered Bailey a squatter, and tried to evict him from his colony. Eventually, he sent a letter demanding that Bailey vacate the land within sixty days. Bailey ignored the letter.
A determined Austin traveled to meet Bailey personally, and found himself facing a man with a rifle. Words were exchanged, leading Austin to raise reports about Bailey’s time in Kentucky, which included a conviction of forgery and a brief stint in prison. In his chapter on Bailey, Don Blevins reports Brit’s reply: “T’aint [forgery] I’m ashamed of. It’s the term I served in the Kentucky legislature which sits heavy on my conscience.”
Whatever Austin thought about that, or any further conversations with the cantakerous old settler, Bailey’s claim to his land near the Brazos finally was recognized on July 7, 1824. A newly respectable member of the Old Three Hundred, he went back to raising crops and cattle, serving in the militia and being the general hell-raiser that by nature he was.
Brit Bailey, Hell-Raiser Extraordinaire
Larger than life characters always give rise to tall tales, but there’s no question Bailey was a hard drinker. On one occasion, intoxication led him to set fire to every structure on his property. Only the main house survived.
He was a willing fighter as well, often joining fights in the town of Brazoria purely for the pleasure of it. If no fight was taking place, he’d create his own. Encountering one of the Austin boys on the streets of Brazoria, he said, “Prepare to fight,” and fight they did. Eventually, Bailey said, “That”ll do,” and rode on.
A classic Bailey tale has two versions — one involving another Austin son, the other focused on a visiting parson. In both, Bailey uses his rifle to encourage the other man to strip naked and “dance.” Both men did his bidding, before taking advantage of his drunkenness to grab his rifle and turn the tables, demanding a dance from Old Man Bailey himself. Which version is true? Probably both.
In the end, it was cholera rather than hard-living or hard-drinking that killed Brit Bailey, though he had time before his death to make a few requests.
He wished to be buried standing up, making it impossible for anyone to look down on him or say, “There lies old Brit Bailey.” He asked that his rifle, powder horn, and lead bullets accompany him to the grave, as well as a jug of whiskey. Most of all, he wished to be buried facing west. As he put it, he’d been going west all his life, and saw no good reason to change direction.
A portion of James Briton Bailey’s Last Will & Testament, showing his request that he be “intered erect with my face fronting the west.” (Click for larger version)
His family acceded to most of his wishes. His casket was lowered, feet first, into an eight-foot, vertical grave. His rifle, powder horn and bullets were buried with him. At the last minute, the jug of moonshine he wanted to have placed at his feet couldn’t be found. Some said his wife refused to include it, while others claimed the gravediggers made off with it. Whatever the truth about the whiskey, Brit Bailey was home at last, standing guard under the same huge oak where some of his own children lay buried.
Today, the oak is gone, taken by a storm, and no one remembers the precise location of Bailey’s grave. “Between Angleton and West Columbia, south of Highway 35, down by the flag pond” is as close as most need or care to know.
For others, it hardly matters, since they firmly believe it’s easier to be found by Brit Bailey than it is to find his grave.
When I first saw the light, I thought little of it. Autumn had settled in, and the night was cool and dry, perfect for roaming the countryside. The light bobbed slightly, like a hand-carried lantern. Campers, I thought. Teenagers, maybe. Or hunters. And then it was behind me, out of sight and out of mind as I drove on toward Angleton.
Years later, on the same stretch of road, a different light bobbed about. Larger, seemingly closer and tinged with yellow, it resembled a small, rising moon as it snagged in the hedge rose and vines. Strange moon, I thought, then slowed to look more closely. That can’t be the moon. It’s due south. Easing off onto the shoulder, I watched the light grow larger. Was it increasing in size, or coming closer? I didn’t know, but I didn’t care to find out. I pulled back onto the highway, glancing over my shoulder for another look. It was gone.
Many years later, during a foggy trip through Brazoria County, a friend’s remark about foxfire reminded me of the lights. “You’ll never guess what I saw out here,” I said. As I recounted the stories, she began to laugh. “That was Brit!” “Brit?” I said. “Brit who?” “Brit Bailey. This is Bailey’s Prairie, and they say Old Man Bailey’s out here roaming around, looking for the bottle of hootch they were supposed to put in his grave.”
Whether Brit’s roaming or whether he’s not, the stories do abound. When John and Ann Thomas bought the Bailey homestead, they swore they saw his ghost floating through the house. Reports of the light on the prairie have been consistent for decades, chronicled in such books as Catherine Munson Foster’s Ghosts Along the Brazos, and innumerable personal accounts. Even the Texas state historical marker for Bailey’s Prairie makes mention of his ghost — an acknowledgement, if not an endorsement, of the continuing strange saga of Brit Bailey.
Today, Brazoria County has changed. Kayaks ply the Brazos, not paddle wheel steamers. Stephen F. Austin no longer lies buried in Gulf Prairie Cemetery, but in the city which bears his name. Chemical plants have supplanted sugar cane, and Saturday night dances require no compulsion.
Still, if much has changed, much remains. Lifting fog still slides along the hidden creeks and sloughs. Kettling hawks rise above the clouds as graves settle ever more deeply into the earth, burying anew the names of settlers long since passed.
Throughout the prairie, Roemer’s flowers spread and bloom. Even during the day, if the slant of light is right, you may see mats and tangles of sensitive briar closing their leaves for no apparent cause, their slight and tremulous movement seeming to mark a mysterious passage across the land.