Chapter Two: Foundations for Enmity

Chapter 2

Foundations for Enmity
Since we are looking at Navasota as a microcosm of Trans-Brazos Blues Culture, we have to visit upon the background that pooled the virulent waters that spawned the blues. And this is no story for sissies or the faint of heart. I tell it out of necessity, all the while writing it with a rock in my stomach. After researching and writing this, I think I know better the confused emotions of those who have had to tell a regrettable story on their own countrymen, even their own heroes or ancestors. You see, I have no doubt that some if not several of my direct ancestors played a shaded role in this story. But like Josephus or Solzhenitsyn, or my hero Sam Houston, I hold that the Truth is more important than even the Texas National pride. I am a son of the South, a Texan to the marrow of my bones. But I am also accountable to God for what I have done with what I have learned.

After suffering and surviving a recent heart attack, I resolved to not let this story die with me. I enter the following with deep regrets and beg understanding from those who might feel threatened by it. And I call upon all those traits inherent and dear to the American character, as William Barrett Travis spoke of, to simply accept these next entries as new chapters to Profiles in Courage. As the reader will see, there are several Blues Valley heroes that have never been recognized. And our generation will ask, what kind of place would erase such men from their regional memory?

It becomes almost apparent that men in those times made a deal with the Devil, if you will, as they struggled to survive and prevail in the area. When Dan Arnold arrived in 1826, to claim his league which became the very ground under the present town of Navasota, there was no town. Only a rough wilderness straddling the Navasota River, bisected by an ancient Spanish trail used to move cattle and contraband slaves east to Louisiana. Jim Bowie and his brother Rezin often used thus infamous trail to convey contraband slaves into Louisiana. This trail was known for hundreds of years as La Bahia, or the Bay Trail, ever since De Leon had marched through the area looking for any trace of the French incursionist La Salle. De Leon had started looking for La Salle and his colonists on Matagorda Bay, and with the forced guidance of some of La Salle’s survivors, his search led him here. But Robert Cavelier Sieur de La Salle had been murdered, and was gone without so much as a grave marker. The Coushatti Trace, a Native American hunting route, came from the northeast and joined this infamous road, near where Navasota sits today. Old Dan Arnold just called it “Cross Roads.”

Blues enthusiasts will perk up instantly when that name is mentioned. Perhaps the most celebrated blues song ever is one first recorded by Robert Johnson called Crossroads Blues. It is supposedly a song about a man who wants to play the guitar so bad he goes to a place, perhaps physical and perhaps spiritutal, known as “the Crossroads,” a place thought by some interpretations to be where the Powers of Darkness reside, and makes a deal with the Devil, so he can play the guitar with superior prowess. He has to trade his soul for the deal to be consummated, and this he does with predictable results. Whether this legend had any similarity to Robert Johnson‘s intentions, we will never know, but this place he sang about became popular myth and had many imitators. Hopefully Dan Arnold rejected any such deals, and perhaps he did, for there was never a town christened with his name. But by the 1850’s there were two villages in his survey, one called Nolanville, after Judge Nolan who built an inn on those crossroads, and another one about a mile east called Hollandale, after a local family who lost a son at the Alamo.

Dr. John Lockhart’s biography about growing up at Washington on the Brazos, and the very early days of Texas, reveals that Navasota started out on a bedrock of violence and infamy. Back in the Republic days, before the town of Navasota even had a name, before there was a village, it had a reputation. The leaders of the Republic of Texas lived across the river at Washington on the Brazos; Sam Houston, his cabinet, prominent Texas attorneys, politicians and doctors.

Washington on the Brazos around 1850.

Whenever a thief or other kind of undesirable outlaw needed to be punished, they rowed him across the river, very near the great fork in the Brazos, to the Navasota side. There they would tie the outlaw between two Grimes County cottonwood trees. They would beat the man until he bled, and cut him loose, and tell him to never come back.

What kind of character profile would you expect out of such a man? Defensive? Angry? Insolent? Contentious and contemptuous? Perhaps mean and ruthless?

Most of the outcasts probably went on, learned their lessons and became responsible citizens. But a lot of them just stayed and camped on this side of the river and watched resentfully across the river at the epitome of frontier propriety, and stoked the fires of perdition. Welcome to Grimes County.

In those days it was still a part of Montgomery County, but soon this slave rich area would be carved out to itself after Texas joined the Union. By 1848 it was reapportioned as Grimes County, and teaming with misfits expelled from both sides. At this time, Grimes County reached much farther south, taking in Hempstead and the Field’s Store community. Regardless of future boundary changes, these communities would maintain an invisible bond hereafter. It would not be absurd to posit that the county was divided again later to break up a powerful cultural network that would still frustrate social engineers for decades.

Judge Nolan’s Nolanville became known as a frontier way station, a tent town of the roughest type characters. “Judge” Nolan, a self proclaimed judge and jury during area lynchings, kept a pet brown bear that gladly entertained his guests. He required two slave boys to handle him, who enthusiastically scrambled with the bear for silver coins thrown to them. The bear obligingly wrestled with the more adventurous visitors to the inn. If you could whip the bear, you might fit in.

Nolan saw the ideal geography of his crossroads as the flow of slaves, cattle and cotton began to increase; two main roads converging on the merging of two rivers, to receive the loaded steamboats that were becoming more and more frequent on the Brazos.

But these plans for the old crossroads would be discarded in favor of an historic arrangement made with the Houston and Texas Central Railroad in 1854, for an even bigger crossroads that would bring the rails right through the town to be known as Navasota. Completed by 1859, this railhead became the only railroad into the interior of Texas, and an essential wartime shipping point during the Civil War. Confederate weapons, gunpowder, shoes and supplies were gathered, stored, and freighted to Galveston for the cause of the Confederacy. It may not have been a deal with the Devil which brought so much good fortune, but Navasota seemed to have some kind of help from above, as it became, for a season, Texas’ rising star.

Ironically, the social outcasts across the river at the crossroads had established a strategic economic center at the expense of the former Texas capital, Washington on the Brazos, who had refused the railroad with provincial arrogance. Enterprising Navasota scavengers would literally build their town out of the dismantled materials recycled from the proud Texian town of “Old Washington” that bet on river trade for its subsistence. Stubbornly independent, Navasota was a place born in insolence and optimism, that had learned early to cast its fortune on the gaming table with gusto. It was survival of the fittest, may the best man win, easy come-easy go, ask for no quarter and give none.

The Fathers of Texas had rejected progress and eagerly handed Nolan’s crossroads geographic importance and thus eternal economic stability. But there was a price to be paid for this sweetheart deal. From that time on, Navasota would be treated as an illegitimate child, born in sin, and ignored by its neighbors and land developers. Written tours of the region by land speculators skipped past Navasota as if it was insignificant, or hopelessly flawed. In description after description, the trains seemed to whiz by as if Bryan or Brenham were the only place worth considering. J. De Cordova, David Lipscomb, and others often failed to even mention Navasota or show it on maps. Dr. John W. Lockhart, the historian of Washington on the Brazos, would scarcely even mention the town. Navasota was rough to the core, not a good Media representative for Texas, and did not appeal to proper sensibilities. In fact it might offend, and thus Navasota did not exist in most travel journals of the period.

But businesses and residents could not have cared less, as they had all the commerce they could stand. The railroad brought everything the mind could imagine. Nolan’s tent town exploded with people, opportunity and all the trouble money could buy. And the scars of the past were soon forgotten. It became the frontier rendezvous for cattlemen, rustlers, slave traders, cotton merchants, gamblers, investors, prostitutes, outlaws and opportunity seekers. And soon the churches began to quietly move lock, stock and barrel across the river from Old Washington to the magnetic new crossroads of Texas.

Born in the wilderness, and raised in raw capitalism, to say Navasota had an attitude is insufficient. Its father was the railroad and its mother an avenue of saloons and brothels. And still there was the former counter-cultural inner psyche, the memory of the man lashed between the cottonwoods. Navasota was the swaggering redneck whose pride was almost invincible; the man at the gallows who had no tears, the quintessential Southerner, inspired by an Alamo complex. And above all, the rattler in the dark hole waiting to strike.

And charmingly self deprecating. So much so that Navasota still has its own masochistic nomenclature. But with so much bravado, its wave of Rebel glory was short lived. The deal at the crossroads went sour. One of the big national news events in 1866 was about the Texas ex-Confederates who congregated at Navasota, the end of the railroad line into the Texas interior, finding huge stores of gunpowder and other war supplies that never got to them. They had been walking barefoot, enduring freezing cold, out of ammunition, throwing rocks at their enemy for the last months of the war, only to come home and find Jefferson Davis’ stash of war supplies. At first the stores of Confederate goods were pilfered, then brandished, and then for some reason…perhaps an accident, perhaps intentionally, somehow the warehouses got blown to Kingdom Come. Burned the whole town down. They were finding bits of iron and bayonets melted together, all over Navasota for a hundred years. Navasota is one of the few Texas towns that ever felt the sting of the Civil War, a sting inflicted by its own homecoming heroes. That would make you learn to laugh at yourself, and never believe in heroes.

Like most of Texas, with all the bloodshed of the Civil War, “Reconstruction,” and the Civil Rights violations for decades after, Navasota was never humbled. It never had a“Come to Jesus” meeting, was never brought to its knees. It never had that collective repentance, a cathartic moment when the town could wipe the slate clean and see a new potential in each of the various demographic groups. Instead various ethnic and cultural factions were set in stone. That is the Navasota psyche, even its legacy. Unsurprisingly, the town has suffered greatly over the years for inevitable self-inflicted wounds.

I have watched with heartbreak over the years every time another divisive issue divided the community. Every time we gather our anger and get riled and show our ancient talent for toughness and contention, we are that man down at the river strapped between the two trees.

We are the men whipping him.

We are the blood on the ground, the unforgiveness across the river.

The town of unbroken outlaws, left to our own devices.

We need no enemies…

The following actual historical events, freshly uncovered from the iron box, illustrate Navasota’s ability to hate and hurt itself… The Civil War brought out the worst and the best in the people of our Country. But its aftermath brought out the worst demons our Southern culture could muster. Blue demons, I’m sure…

At the very end of the War Between the States, a mass migration had already been started, whereby Southerners anticipated salvaging their fortunes and assets by removing them to stellar and pristine Texas. This desperate flight became primarily a massive slave drive across country to places in the Brazos Valley of Texas believed to be safe from Union occupation.

President Jefferson Davis, at the very end of his reign, had considered a last stand for the Confederacy in Texas, where there were ample supplies and railroads fortified with Texan resolve. But the coast of Texas had already been attacked, and Gulf Coast slave owners had already evacuated their plantations, bringing their slaves to perceived security upriver to Hempstead, Navasota, Bryan and Marlin. So as thousands of slaves from all over the South were “refugeed” and concentrated in Blues Valley, it became a demographic juggling act to keep them fed, housed and most importantly, under control.

This young Black conductor exudes talent and grace, the antithesis of White expectations.

When the war ended and the slaves were freed on June 19th, 1866, long after the Emancipation Proclamation, now forever known affectionately as “Juneteenth.”Whites immediately went on the defensive, fending for themselves, offering minimal support to their former slaves, and challenging the Federal Government to take care of the mess they had created. Soon they were on the offensive however, acting on the fears of their worst nightmares, as the swelling numbers of blacks made an overwhelming majority.

There were no greater candidates for suffering anguish and mental depression than Confederate veterans. They had lost the war, their pride and much of their assets. Some had lost their sight or their limbs. Emancipated blacks presented an ominous challenge for them, for some even an impossible reality. Old Brazos Valley plantation families like the Groces and Goodrich’s became desperate to maintain their wealth and status and engaged in extreme measures to do so. Upon returning from the war, Leonard Groce abandoned his grand Bernardo Plantation near Hempstead and relocated his entire farm, including his slaves, to South America. Other restless Texas Confederates like Ben Thompson of Austin went to help Emperor Maximilian of Mexico fight for his life. And some like the Goodrich brothers, sons of Texas founders, now disgusted with the South, headed for greener pastures in New Mexico, California or the Arizona Territory.

But many Texans stayed and smoldered, dreaming that someday, “the South shall rise again.”

Local Blacks had already become disillusioned with the U.S. Government and its hollow promises after Emancipation. The KKK had emerged and was sweeping the Country with a new reality, based on lawlessness and intimidation. The wheels were coming off of federal occupation.

All over the South, Blacks were beginning to mobilize in self defense. In the Brazos Valley, there seemed to be a deadly quickening as The Klan marched through Millican the summer before, and race relations became an overt field of terror. Disastrous town fires and Yellow Fever epidemics had decimated Navasota’s population, and the carnage had left people hardened and bitter. They soon began to take their frustration out on their former slaves, and blacks soon resorted to violence and lawlessness themselves.

Riots broke out in mid-July of 1868, just north of Navasota in Millican, Texas led by a black Methodist preacher. Parson George Brooks, then serving as a Brazos County Voter Registrar, had been aroused to organize and defend his flock against KKK terrorism which had surfaced in the past year.

The following is an official Government letter from Captain Sam Sloan, who was based in Millican almost a year before even greater violence broke out. Frustrated and overwhelmed by his surroundings, he provided a list of race related crimes he was able to investigate in just five weeks, and inadvertently outlined a sampler of some of Brooks’ possible grievances.

A period illustration of black enfranchisement.

Office Sub Assistant Commissioner
Bureau R. F. & A. L. State of Texas
Millican, Texas Sept. 7th, 1866

Lieutenant Maden
Acting Asst. Adj. Gen.
Galveston, Texas


In reply to your communication dated Sept. 11th, 1866 that just reached me on yesterday. I have the honor to state that I have only been stationed at this Post since August 4th, 1866. And in all cases of murder and outrages committed upon Freedmen & co there is no official record.Hence I cannot give you the date and in some instances do not know anything officially of the circumstances warranted therewith. There have been more murders committed within this District upon the persons of Freedmen than (illegible). But the following are all that I have any official evidence of and of which I can furnish any data.

December 8th, 1865 - John Echols, citizen of Burleson Co., shot and killed a freedman in his employ named "Kit." From the evidence on file it appears that the said Mr. Echols had the night previously beaten the wife of the freedman Kit and in the morning without any provocation I can see killed the boy Kit.

June 21st, 1866 - Marie Edwards, a freedwoman, was shot and killed by Court Brown, a citizen of Robertson County. Know nothing of the circumstances as at this time there has been no official investigation.

July 1866 - William Tate, a citizen of Robertson Co., shot and killed a freedman. Since then Tate has fled the County and as yet there has been no official investigation, but is said to have been a cold blooded murder.

July 1866 - Mr. Fields is a citizen of Grimes Co., shot and killed two freedmen, father and son, a cold blooded murder. An official investigation has not taken place.

September 9th, 1866 - Seaton, a freedman under contract with a Mr. Goggan of Burleson Co., while in custody of the Civil Authorities, was taken away from them by a party of armed men (citizens) during night and undoubtedly murdered, as I have been unable to learn any trace of him since.

September 15th, 1866 - At night on the Plantation of Dr. Hardy, Planter of Brazos Co., the Superintendent, Mr. Stout, struck a freedwoman on the head with a single tree, fracturing skull (and will beyond all question result in death). The occasion of it was the fact that the freedwoman above alluded to make some complaints about her rations being short. Since that Mr. Stout has left as I have used every effort to cause his arrest.

There are no known people living within my district, with the exception of a few discharged officers and soldiers, sojourning temporarily here and all of them, I think, will join me in stating (although no outrages have been committed against them as yet) that the feeling is becoming more cynical toward "Yankees" as they are termed daily. It will be dangerous to attempt to remain after troops are withdrawn from the community.

Sir you will please excuse my paper as I cannot get a whole sheet of paper from our A. Q. M. and am left to use what he sends me.

I am
Very Respectfully
Your Obdt. Servt.
Sam C. Sloan
Capt. And Sub Asst. Commr.

Parson Brooks had taken it upon himself to organize an all black militia in Millican, training his men on military skills every Saturday. As the H&TC Railroad pushed northward, Millican had been an important Confederate railroad supply station in the south end of Brazos County during the war. Mimicking the marching and training they had been studying there for several years, the freedmen just wanted to be safe from KKK assaults and be given the forty acres and a mule they had been promised at the end of the war. Almost destitute and tenuously enfranchised, the Black home guard was saying in effect, “We aren’t going to take abuse from anybody.”

The Millican Riot of 1868 became a pivotal National symbol of the ultimate futility of the war. Texas made the national news every week for several weeks, as racial tensions boiled over and blacks and whites duked it out in a landmark contest.

The presence of federal troops caused Texans to abandon their Southern hospitality.

It is supposed that they thought this kind of behavior would make them appear equal to the men they had previously been enslaved by. It may have made them feel safer. But militarization is a dangerous gamble where opponents can up the ante. Then, some intentional mischief created a perceived threat that led to unnecessary bloodshed, and an unprecedented outpouring of evil.

Four days of violence were precipitated by the disappearance a black leader named Miles Brown. Brown had been threatened in his home by unnamed nightriders, and ran into the Brazos bottom jungles for safety. For blacks in Millican, a missing brother meant probable foul play, and they were already harried to the point of retaliation. For some reason a local hotel operator named Holliday became a prime suspect in Brown’s disappearance, and Brooks and his large and undisciplined militia began the hunt for the lynching victim and the suspected lynchers. This led to a couple of armed conflicts where at least five of the black leaders, including Parson Brooks were slain. After Brooks and four others were gunned down or captured and hung without trial, probably by KKK operatives, the defiant black mob, now numbering in the hundreds, turned and proceeded to march north and reorganized several miles up the Brazos River towards Bryan. This turned out to be a critical miscalculation.

Much of this community was related to, if not dependant on landholders and former slaveholders living in nearby Navasota, which was just a few miles across the Navasota River in Grimes County. Hundred of blacks rioting in Millican meant many of Navasotan’s former slaves had finally broken into the violence they had always feared. The White citizens of Millican, Navasota, Bryan and the surrounding area not surprisingly organized and fought back. And fighting is what they did best.

Panic in Bryan and the Brazos Valley

Reports up and down the Brazos Valley were that hundreds, perhaps a thousand former slaves were armed and on the warpath. Whites all over the Brazos Valley went into pure panic. Hundreds of former Confederate rebels threw off the now impotent federal yokes restricting them and gathered in Bryan, offering their services. They found and pleaded with the men who had led them during the war, demanded they organize resistance, and with the help of the local constabulary, ultimately commandeered a train.

There was a false start, and a wasted trip to Millican, and then loaded with perhaps two hundred armed and resolute Confederate veterans, the train went far enough south to confront the march before it could threaten Bryan.

Probably outnumbered 2-1, but relishing this opportunity, the veteran soldiers advanced through the dense Brazos bottom jungles to meet this outrageous and unprecedented threat; Ex-slaves armed by Federal agents, organized and on the move. Somewhere in the pecan forests deep in the Brazos River bottoms, they ambushed the unsuspecting black mob, perhaps in more than one skirmish, mowing them down Civil War style in a carnage rarely ever seen in the annals of American civilian history. And I might add, never really recorded. We will never know the details or the extent of the carnage. Federal troops were involved to some degree, but their reports did not fully explain the event. Reports that they withdrew may be true and they may have done so, afraid to get caught up in the crossfire, and afraid to take on a superior ex-Confederate force.

The Federal army came again after the smoke cleared and did an investigation. From all accounts, not to mention the blood and signs of battle, they could detect scores of possible casualties. But neither side wanted to talk about it much. For obvious reasons, the leaders of the Confederate militia were unknown, not to be identified. Former Confederate officers were questioned with no results and no indictments. And many a black marcher tossed his firearm into the Brazos, not wishing to be found with a gun and then be executed on sight. Both sides chose to cool their heels and wait for another day, when the Yankees would not interfere.

Ex-Confederates rally in the Brazos bottoms to defend Bryan.

Many of the blacks had just gotten their first taste of the price of freedom. One critical lesson learned was that a gun does not a soldier make. And an armed mob is rarely an instrument of justice. One can only imagine the grief upon Miles Brown’s face when he appeared in Millican after the hostilities had ceased, and heard what his absence had instigated.

The whites, still wearing their wartime humiliations, had tested their prowess and were quite pleased. So soon after the war that supposedly ended slavery, these hard men had learned how to get results by force of arms, right under the noses of the authorities. And sadly the Media was marginally useful if not a hindrance during this series of events.

Major G. W. Durant, a resident of Bryan and a popular ex-Confederate leader after the war.

A small article appeared on July 18th out of a Galveston paper, estimating the death toll to be fifty or sixty. And the blacks had still entrenched themselves about three miles out of Millican and refused to disperse until they were finally busted up by overwhelming forces. In this account, the member of the Loyal League (Brown) who had been supposedly hung and searched for by the black militia had been found alive, making the whole debacle over nothing.

(Death Toll: 50-60 blacks, no whites)

A July 19 entry in the New York Times, contributed by the New Orleans newspaper, reported that hostilities were not yet over and that there were too few troops on the ground. On the 22nd a report from the same source left doubt about the status of the situation in Millican, and offered the concern that nothing had been heard from there since the 18th, because telegraph service had been interrupted.

One can only guess by whom and why this occurred, and imagine the veil of secrecy moving in the Brazos bottoms like an October fog. But if there had been over fifty casualties as of the 18th, we can only imagine the carnage after several days of engagements.

Then this appeared in July 25 of 1868 edition of the New York Times:

[July 18] “THE RIOT IN TEXAS.;

Armed Opposition by Negroes to the Military Authorities in Millican -- Many Negroes Killed -- Particulars of the Affair.

A special dispatch from Houston, 18th inst., to the New-Orleans Times, gives the following account of the riot at Millican, Texas, which commenced on the evening of the 15th, and of which some account was given by telegraph: "From passengers on the train news is received of a riot of serious dimensions, having its origin in a charge made against a white man named HOLLIDAY, of assisting to hang a negro…”

The Times went on to give several possible scenarios that had been offered so far:

The first account was excerpted from the “Houston Kuklux Vidette Extra” and explained that Negroes in Millican had accused a white man named Holliday of lynching, and proceeded to give him a taste of his own medicine. The local Sheriff had organized a posse and had killed five Negroes in the ensuing conflict. The Freedman’s Bureau Agent in Bryan had caught the train that night and tried to arrest an angry mob of approximately 300 Negroes but found them ready to do battle. The Agent then attacked the mob with the help of some whites and fifteen more Negroes were killed in the skirmish. But the blacks were still undispersed and spoiling for confrontation. United States Troops out of Brenham were then brought in to break up the riot and three Negroes were killed by a scouting party. Captain Randlett, Commissioner of the Freedman’s Bureau made a last plea for them to lay down their arms. Even when Federal Troops made their appearance, the blacks held fast, and outnumbered, the U. S. Army withdrew.

(Death Toll: 23 blacks, no whites)

But the second account in the same article from the Galveston News was more interesting:

“By the afternoon train we have intelligence of a very serious riot at Millican on Wednesday afternoon…”

This story had more details and except for the casualty count, sounds like a more reliable version. It named Brooks as the black leader, as well as an unknown white schoolteacher, who led in the lynching attempt of the local hotelier named William Holliday. Apparently Holliday was saved by a group of whites by force. The express messenger of the Houston and Texas Central Railroad wrote further:

“… a line of battle was formed and skirmishing for about an hour. Five of the Negroes were killed, number of wounded not known. The uptrain last night was pressed at Bryan to run down with reinforcements. About 200 volunteers went down from Bryan. One Negro was killed last night…”

The paper went on to agree that the Army had been dispatched from Brenham, and that the two sides had encampments on either end of town, and both sides were calling for reinforcements. The blacks were gathering at Freedman town and the whites at the Railroad depot. It was believed that the number of Negroes had grown considerably, and taunted “Come and take us if you want us…”

(Death Toll: 6 blacks, No whites)

A cryptic footnote at the bottom of the article may explain much, quoting a telegraph message from a Thomas McCarthy to W. R. Baker, President of the Houston and Texas Central Railroad on midnight of the 16th:

“Conductor Spencer sent back from Millican to the station. His train seized by the Sheriff of this county, and ordered to report to this place for reinforcements. Report Freedman in large numbers three or four miles from Millican…”

At this point things got as murky as Brazos River mud, as Freedman Bureau agents, the Federal Army, the Media and the Railroad officials, many of them ex-Confederates, conspired to keep the event under wraps. This last but most informative midnight missile to the railroad president could be interpreted to mean that after the death of five of their number, and probably Brooks their leader, the growing group of blacks that had been staging at Freedman Town in Millican were now mobilized and four miles down towards Bryan. Now the train had been sent back to get more armed men, in addition to the ones camped at the Millican depot, then the drama being described could only have ended in some kind of confrontation. Various reports made on the 18thclaimed from 6 to 60 blacks had been killed in action. But amazingly, according to the witnesses and newspapers, this crisis never had a climax, or more likely it was buried in bureaucratic subterfuge, after communications were successfully cut off. But what appeared to have happened was the blacks, inexperienced in military strategy, thought themselves escaping the carnage done by the men posted at Millican and failed to recognize the jaws of death as they moved into the middle of a pincer from the north and the south, made up of war savvy Confederate veterans.

On July 30th, the New York Times ran an obviously premature letter dated July 17th sent by the Mayor of Millican, G. A. Wheat, who offered a now belated, inaccurate and long outdated eyewitness account of everything. History has eventually exposed that he sent out an intentional smokescreen via the July 17 edition of the Houston Telegraph:

THE RIOT AT MILLICAN.; Statement by the Mayor of the City--Particulars of the Affair.

To the Editor of the Houston Telegraph: As many wild rumors have gone out relative to the riot at this place, I deem it proper to drop you a line, and give you a plain statement of the facts…”

Wheat recounted how on the morning of the 15th, Parson Brooks had sent a posse of 73 armed black citizenry led by a “Captain Harvy” to investigate the rumored hanging of a black man on a plantation near the river. This show of force had been received with great anxiety and women and children had come to town to find refuge. He rounded up a posse and headed for the black militia, still making threats down in the bottoms, although they had not found the hanged black man they were looking for. His group of around 40 Whites met up with the would-be vigilantes on the road, and in an unfortunate exchange, gunfire erupted killing three Negroes, “Captain Harvy” being the first to fall. The rest ran away, and Wheat assured that few besides these three had been harmed on either side.

Wheat went on to describe laborious negotiations with Parson Brooks, in his efforts to get him to disarm his militia and assure him that arms were not necessary. When an Enfield rifle was stuck in his face by one of Brooks’ men, he gave up, declaring “Then fight it is!” He sent for Brazos County Sheriff Neill and told the whites to prepare for the worst. But by around 8:00 that night, Brooks had reconsidered and sent a delegation that agreed to a pow wow the next day. A train that night arrived with the Sheriff and a number of armed men but Wheat claimed he sent them back to Bryan, assuring them their services were not necessary. On the morning of the 16th a Sheriff’s deputy sought and found Brooks and his men sour and once again up in arms. But Wheat and the Sheriff went ahead to the prescribed peace council, only to find Brooks had disappeared.

Wheat’s story ended with the return to Millican of approximately 150 volunteers from Bryan, now no doubt weary from riding up and down the tracks in boxcars all night, who unloaded and after a quick show of force, effected the subsequent dispersal of the Negroes, who saw the futility of the rebellion and only wanted to return to their farms. Even after adequate time to reflect on the event, which he had witnessed at every turn, he had no idea about other casualties, and promised to get back to the newspaper on that point of interest.

This account, written a day after the event, but published later, sought to reduce the number of casualties to three, and Brooks the instigator had merely disappeared. There was no mention of Holliday, or the attempted lynching by Brooks and his militia, or the blacks supposedly slain by the Federal Troops, or even the Federal Troops. This was the official, insufficient whitewash slapped over this egregious conflict, and it was never formally corrected. After all that had been reported to the contrary, it was this report that the Times gave the final say.

(Death Toll: 3 blacks, no whites)

In a couple of weeks, unexplainably, it had all blown over. The August 6th, 1868 New York Times blandly reported in an article borrowed from a late July edition of Flake’s Galveston Bulletin, “The Riot at Millican, Texas--Exaggerated Reports.” By this time, after the horrible price paid for the War Between the States, on both sides, Northerners were as ready to dismiss these kinds of events as Southerners:

“Col. GENTRY, Inspector-General of Gen. BUCHANAN'S staff, leaves this afternoon for New Orleans. He has been engaged in the investigation of the Millican riot. He reports the matter much exaggerated, and says that he could learn the names of no more than four negroes killed and two wounded. He states that the affair was in no way, nor on either side premeditated.”

(Official Death Toll: 4 blacks, no whites)

This casualty count perhaps was finally admitting at least to the death of Parson Brooks, but was probably an attempt to sew up the whole mess, and relieve the culprits on both sides of further bloodshed.

The sheer numbers of people involved, and the passion with which they must have entered the skirmish, and the multiple reports from Railroad and news agencies of dozens of casualties, defy the conclusions of the final Government findings.

Word soon spread all over Texas, armed Freedmen would be dealt with, and with prejudice.
Flake’s Galveston Bulletin went on to confess that Col. Gentry had obviously made a cursory investigation; its value was superficial at best. It was obvious the “Inspector- General”decided to cover up the whole affair by cleverly reporting on the riot relative to the town of Millican proper, minimalizing it and ignoring any other skirmish that might have occurred a few miles away in the bottoms. It was a governmental can of worms to admit what had really happened. According to Col. Gentry, and the United States Government, it never happened.

On August 13th, the Galveston News ran a last, best summary of the Millican riots. N. H. Randlett, Sub- Assistant Commissioner of the Freedman’s Bureau, was quoted out of his August 8th newsletter, details similar in comparison to the events framed by the Brazos conspirators; Miles Brown’s disappearance led to a manhunt ordered by Parson Brooks. Harvey Thomas had led a militia of around fifty volunteers to find Brown and his killers, upsetting whites and blacks in the area. They ran into Holliday at his home, and convinced he had something to do with Brown’s disappearance, surrounded his home. Messengers were sent and a white militia, probably KKK, came and dispersed the blacks and saved Holliday’s neck.

The Deputy Sheriff heard of the confrontation and organized a posse and joined the other whites, who then ran into the black vigilantes on the road, where not surprisingly, gunfire erupted. The Mayor of Millican tried to talk with Parson Brooks, who was inconsolable about the killings on the road, and he refused any petitions for peace.

The Galveston paper went on to explain previous known unfair slander of Brooks by whites, who were inspired by simple prejudice. Then the paper does something most others failed to ever do; put names on those slain. Killed in the “riots,” all “colored,” were Harry Thomas, Moses Hardy, King Holiday, Dan Zepher and George E. Brooks. Wounded was Mac Moore, and wounded and missing was someone named Robert.

(Death Toll: 5 blacks, no whites, 2 wounded)

But there were accounts at the time which rendered some hauntingly trustworthy details, including an article in the October 24th issue of the New Orleans Advocate, a Methodist grapevine of the day. However, Brooks was known by his middle name Edwin instead of George. He was remembered as a former slave, a machinist who enrolled as a student at the Thomson Biblical Institute, and a Grand Army of the Republic veteran before he was ordained as a Methodist preacher. Described as courageous, intelligent and powerfully built, he would have been 28 years old. According to the article, most likely provided by a black witness in Millican, Parson Brooks had survived the riots and reprisals, and went to Austin to make a report of the event as he knew it. But he never got out of the bottoms, and was intercepted, interrogated, tortured and executed by unknown assailants. This time devils were subverting the details…

“They stripped the flesh from his body, but he refused to
recant; they broke his legs, but he declined to foreswear his honor and
his faith; they then hung him by the neck till he died a martyr for his
Church and country.”

The only reason, besides sheer hatred to have killed this leader, was that he knew the truth as to how many had been killed, and he had to be silenced. If there had only been the three or four deaths claimed by authorities, then the worst that Brooks could have done is repeated that which everyone already knew. Therefore he would have been no threat, and in fact his report should have been welcome by both sides, to subdue the rumors and suspicions. But according to the Advocate, he refused to recant his Republican Party ideals, his current knowledge or to betray his duty or his brethren. This was a Brazos bottom gangland murder. The torture and hanging of Brooks, a respected black leader and Christian minister, perfectly illustrates the moral depravity common during this era, and the savage and depraved methods of racist radicals in the Brazos Valley.

The next entry in the New York Times about Texas was on July 28th, and seemed to be saying, “lets’ forget about the whole thing” as it reported the first cotton bale of the year coming in from, that’s right, Grimes County. Weighing 408 pounds, a fellow by the name of M. J. Duke had sold it to L. W. House, who had shipped it to New York.

Nobody in New York probably asked, where the Hell did this guy harvest cotton so early in the season? The riots had been going on just a week before, and since they usually began harvesting in August or September, certainly not much harvesting had been going on. Somehow the idea of a Grimes County cotton farmer working diligently through all of this pandemonium and producing an amazingly early crop, ginning and baling it and even selling it seems extraordinary, if not ridiculous. Although only a figment of my imagination, I could easily conjure up a dusty group of New York cotton factors opening up this suspicious “first bale”… fresh from the Texas riots, only to find Parson Brooks’ personal belongings, if not remnants of his veritable hide, in the heart of it; a cryptic yet subtle message to Yankeeland from Navasota, Texas. It was bidness as usual down heah!

So successful was this business plan that other neighboring counties followed suit with their own versions of this effective form of guerilla style insurgency. Just south of the county line in Waller County, a community known as Fields Store became a hide-out for Southern insurgency, where racist plots were hatched and expedited. Numerous lynchings there led to an all-white district, where the law dared not tread. In 1870, over in Montgomery, then the neighboring County Seat of Montgomery County, around four dozen highly skilled marksmen hidden from sight assassinated fifteen freshly appointed County Officials, nine of them black. All dressed up in their “Sunday go to meetings” and lined up in the morning sun for their swearing-in ceremony, in front of the Montgomery County Courthouse, they were shot down, execution style, along with ten members of the State Police and the Federal Judge who was attempting to swear them in. 26 lives taken in an instant. Mostly good men, many of them black, who were only doing what the Governor had asked them to do. Americans think foolishly when they consider terrorism unlikely in the American character.

In Diamond Six, the history of the legendary Texas Ranger, Montgomery County Sheriff Wesley Smith and his prominent Montgomery County family, reveals an unapologetic support for the Southern cause, and it flatly states that the Montgomery County murders were done by the Ku Klux Klan, with the help of member marksmen from other neighboring towns. Smith supposedly said, “Whoever the men were, they took their lessons in creating new laws from General Philip H. Sheridan. He rewrote the laws of Texas, but Montgomery County simply outwrote him.” Barely clever rationale for ruthless, mass murders for political and racial dominance.

Suddenly, once again, the few had found the will and the means to control the many. Texas was once again in the clutches of a war, albeit clandestine, and this time on its own soil. But Southern resolve was to prove too great a foe for newly emancipated and terrorized blacks, and a jaded and discouraged North.

This was a new kind of silent war. Northerners were aghast at Southern willfulness, at the point of abandoning most precepts of American civil behavior. They were speechless, dumbfounded at the price they had paid, and for what? Southerners did not care. They would not be placed under black rule, no matter what was changed at Appomattox. The minority among them who did not have the stomach for ruthless, vicious terrorism, just watched in silence.

And this silence became the unsaid conspiracy, committing unsaid horrors, on unsaid victims, with unsaid consequences. There was the gracious, genteel face of the Old South, but then there was the silent stone heart of the South, and it would stop at nothing, fight to the death if need be, to maintain the status quo. Fierce racism and regional pride had combined with the Western gun culture to breed a relentless foe to the American ideals of equality and freedom. Silence became the South’s greatest, most impervious weapon, and it was met with a similar silence from the black people down at the nearest Freedman town, where it was becoming clear that the struggle for equality was only begun. And a black man with anything bigger than a squirrel gun had better prepare himself for a battle to the death.

The black community withdrew and bound its wounds, and became sullen and eerily silent. Except for one thing… a feint sound of powerful, soulful melody down in the bottoms, at the Negro church houses on Sundays… And sometimes they would sing all day.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Russell. I am so moved by the extent of your conviction. Thank God for truth bearers.