A monthly column from the Chambers County Museum, written by Marie Hughes
Many folks have, at one time or another, been captivated by the romanticized tales of cowboys, cattle drives, and life on the range, but this was, and remains today, no easy life. It involves sweat, tears, up before dawn, late night hours, disrupted sleep, sore muscles, too much rain, not enough rain, choking on dust and mosquitoes, and just plain exhaustion coupled many times with grief and loss.
Our great state of Texas was shaped by the vision, courage, and fortitude of just such men and women of the range, who, despite what it cost them, persevered because of an indwelling love for the land and deep abiding sense of stewardship to leave it better for the next generation. The progenitor of this lifestyle in Texas was J. T. White of Chambers County, a lifestyle passed down to him by his grandfather, James Taylor White of Virginia.
Stay with me as we wade through some statistical data to lay the groundwork for the White family’s pilgrimage from Virginia to Texas.
Texas, where the legacy of James Taylor White, the “Cattle King of Texas,” is older than the great state itself.
James Taylor White of Virginia is the first American born James Taylor White. He was born in Orange County, Virginia, and descended from James White of Isle, Hampton, England. The White’s left Virginia in the 1750s, possibly for two reasons; Indian trouble and saturation of the population (they always seemed to be chasing wide-open spaces). They relocated their family of six children in South Carolina and then moved to North Carolina when political unrest became a problem. James probably died there in 1777.
Gifford White, in his book, “James Taylor White of Virginia,” records that James’ sons, John and James sold their assets in North Carolina and after loading all they owned onto a flatboat, traveled down the Tennessee River, arriving in Natchez Mississippi in 1782. In 1785, John sold the Natchez, Mississippi land grant he had received and by 1790 the White family had moved to Vermillion Parish, Louisiana, purchasing cattle upon their arrival.
“Everywhere the Whites went, they were in the cattle business,” said descendant Bill White of Stowell, Texas.
Texas Cattle Call
Tradition records that John and his brother James (J.T) were in Texas as early as 1807. A letter from Governor Colonel Antonio Cordero, in 1807, stated they had stopped a Juan Whaite (Wite) on 17 June of that year, who had a passport, but they expected it was fake and deported him. Bobby Edwards, of Stowell, said he remembers it being said that Juan had a Tiago (Portuguese for James) with him.
“A passport was required in Mexican-owned Texas after Thomas Jefferson negotiated a treaty with France, known as the Louisiana Purchase,” said Bobby. He purchased the Louisiana Territory for the sum of $15 million dollars.
This Juan and Tiago could be the sons of John White, who died on Jan. 8 that same year. After their father’s death, the cattle land was shrinking in Louisiana due to the westward expansion. Many believe this led J.T. to scout new land further west for the possibility of relocating their family, being lured by the wide open spaces and the irresistible call of the Texas cattle.
Amy Leads the Way
J.T.’s sister-in-law, Amelia “Amy” Comstock White, settled in Texas in September 1824, four years ahead of J.T.’s family. She was the widow of his brother, William, who had died in Louisiana in 1821. Amy emigrated to the provincia de Tejas with her children at the urging of her brother-in-law, Humphrey Jackson who had arrived one month earlier. She settled on 4,428 acres of land situated on the eastern bank of the San Jacinto River. Her family’s land grants were connected on the southern border of Humphrey’s. Humphrey was the husband of Amy’s deceased sister-in-law Elizabeth White.
In 1828, J.T. emigrated with his family to what is now Chambers County, Texas, after settling the estate of his mother, who died that year. It is not surprising that he left Louisiana, as the area of Lafayette had taken an economic downturn during the years leading up to his departure.
It is believed that he had already prepared the land and built a home for his wife and children before he brought them to Texas. One historical writing stated, “For two years he labored, clearing his homesite and building a house from native trees which he found in abundance in this new country. Two years later he went back to Louisiana for a short period and returned, to be followed by his wife, who made the journey by water from New Orleans to Anahuac, and with her husband, continued the journey to her new home on horseback.”
An unknown traveler, who visited J. T., in March of 1831, wrote: “Mr. Taylor White, one of the wealthiest inhabitants in this part of Texas, has settled on the prairie about five miles from Anahuac…Mr. White’s home stood a little in advance of a tract of woodland, which skirted a small stream or bayou. It was, of course, of logs, and faced the north, with an extensive prairie scene before it, on which cattle, innumerable at such a distance, were straying among rich and abundant pasturage, sometimes singly, and sometimes in considerable droves.
“The outhouses (outbuildings) belonging to this dwelling were such as to show that the owner had a number of laborers and carried on a very extensive business as a cattle raiser. His dairy, as usual, was comparatively small and ill furnished, being chiefly in the open air….
“Mr. White informed me that, although he had only been in the country but three or four years, he had between three and four thousand head of which, but a small part were in sight. The great majority were straying through the bottoms and prairies for many miles off towards the east, along the route to Nacogdoches. He sometimes sends out three or four men to collect and mark them.“
All of J. T.’s cattle bore the “Crossed W” brand that was willed to him by his father in 1806, and this brand is still being run today by the Whites, making the “Crossed W” the oldest Texas cattle brand in continuous use.
For the Love of the Legacy
I recently visited with Bill White of Stowell, Texas, to chat about the history of the White Ranch in Chambers County. Bill White is the great-great-great-grandson of James Taylor White, the Cattle King of Texas. (Because there are so many James Taylor Whites, for clarity the “Cattle King” is referred to as J.T. in this paper.)
As we sat at the table of the Bill and Evie Edwards’ homestead, Bill’s cousins Bob Kahla, Susan Bollich, and Bobby Edwards joined the conversation. I sat enthralled as they reminisced about their memories of the legendary White Ranch.
“My mother put together a leather-bound scrapbook filled with news articles on the history of the White Ranch, and I sat down to read it when I was about 8 or 9,” said Bill.
This man, who is the epitome of a tough, seasoned cowboy, was instantly filled with emotion as he said, “When I read it something just happened inside of me, and I’ve never gotten over it.” That ‘something’ was a sense of pride and love for the family heritage that had been passed down to him from generation to generation and it continues to fuel the passion that still burns within.
“I’ve had people ask me, ‘Like, what do you do?’ ’cause most people who have cattle, they actually have a real job to support their cattle habit,” said Bill with a chuckle. “I had a girl ask me, ‘Mr. Bill, what do you do?’ and I said, ‘I don’t do anything, I’ve never had a job.’ And I haven’t, well, it’s not work when you love it. I’ve always been fortunate enough to do just exactly what I’ve wanted to do.”
“J. T. had traveled to Texas before looking for a place to settle, and this was like a gold mine, it’s sitting there waitin’ on you and all you have to do is go get it and claim it,” said Bill White.
Bill does not know exactly how many cattle J.T. brought with him to Texas, but he believes he probably just brought enough dairy cows to provide milk for them. J.T knew there were plenty of cattle already in Texas roaming the range and free to claim. When the priests abandoned the missions and the fort 25 plus years earlier, they turned their cattle loose.
“They abandoned the missions,” said Bobby Edwards, “shortly after Spain acquired Louisiana from the French. This used to be a frontier requiring a fort and a mission, but now there was no more frontier.”
The cattle would have multiplied greatly by that time and were free for the taking. W. T. Block in his paper on the Opelousas Trail wrote, “In 1773, the Spanish abandoned their missions at Presidio LaBahia and El Orcoquisac (Wallisville), along with 40,000 branded and unmarked cattle at the former site (Goliad) and 3,000 more at Wallisville.”
Hittin’ the Trail
There was no market in Texas for beef because they were so abundant, but J.T. knew there was a market in Louisiana.
“The meat wasn’t worth anything here; it was the hide and the tallow that was worth money,” said Bill. “They had a plant (Jones & Co.) in Liberty where they pickled the beef,” he said.
Bobby Edwards added, “They put it in drums and shipped it to the Caribbean Islands where it’s still a popular dish today, salted beef.”
“They could take the cattle back to New Orleans and get 5-10 times more than they were worth here. He wasn’t the only one doing that,” Bill continued, “Other ranchers were putting herds together too. There was some issues of them robbing them ‘cause they knew they were coming back and had money. They say that Taylor White put his money in the bank in New Orleans. The story I heard was that he had over $200,000 in gold and this was in the 1830s. That was lots of money.”
W. T. Block wrote that J. T. began his cattle drives to Louisiana during the early 1820s, so perhaps he was rounding them up and driving them to Louisiana long before he settled his family in Texas. The process was no easy task, as cattle had to be gathered over many miles of open prairie.
Dr. David Charlton Hardee, who visited the White ranch several times between 1838-1842 wrote of J. T., “For purely Spanish cattle, he had perhaps the finest and most extensive pasture grounds that could be found anywhere. The Gulf on his South and Galveston Bay on his West formed boundaries for his herds. Many square miles of government lands lay in this great cove upon which his stock continued to multiply. Taylor White, at the time I was there, was the richest man in Texas.”
The Whites drove their cattle eastward on The Opelousas Trail, also called “The Old Beef Trail,” the oldest and longest surviving cattle trail. This was an arduous journey for both cattle and drover, facing such perils as alligators, snakes, wolves, panthers, and mosquitoes so thick they would suffocate the cattle.
Jim Bob Jackson records in his book, They Pointed Them East First, that the cattle would cross the Neches River at the Tevis Ferry located at the foot of Calder Street in Beaumont and from there move on through Vidor, Texas. After crossing the Neches, the drovers would stop at various lodgings, including those of Baptiste Pevito, the Patillos, or John Harmon, before attempting the Sabine River and the swampy marshes.
W. T. Block wrote, “The swimming of cattle was a dangerous occupation for the ‘cattle crossers,’ one of whom was a pioneer settler named Sterling Spell of Beaumont.”
A biography of Spell in the Beaumont Journal of April 11, 1908, described the brute strength he expended in that effort, as follows:
“Sterling Spell was an extraordinary man in some respects. He was six feet and six inches in his bare feet, and his usual weight was 256 pounds. . . The stock raisers here would employ him when driving beeves to the New Orleans market to assist them, and it was related to this writer by an eyewitness that when the drove arrived at the Neches River, Spell would take off his outer clothing and go in among the cattle and seize a big 1,000 pound, four-year-old steer by the horns, back him into the river, turn him around, hold to the horns by his left hand, and swim across the river with him. The other steers of the drove would follow. No other man was known to have attempted that feat of strength.”
To cross the Sabine River, the drovers headed to Ballew’s Ferry, south of Niblett’s Bluff, La. They would swim the cattle across and move up the east side of the Sabine on the natural levee to avoid the swamps. They would pen at Granger’s Place and head the next morning to the Calcasieu River, making the Bagdad Ferry, owned by Reese Perkins, in one day. Mr. Perkins kept swimming steers to lead the cattle across the river.
Once the drovers reached Butte La Rose in the Atchafalaya Swamp, they had to reserve a spot on a steamboat to cross the swamp and another to take them into New Orleans where they would be pastured until sold.
The legendary Cattle King of Texas died in 1852 at the age of 62. His wife, Sarah Cade White, died nine days later, possibly due to contracting cholera during a trip to Galveston, but no one knows for sure.
The legacy he began continues to flourish in Chambers County with great-great-great-grandson, Bill White, and wife Katherine, holding the reins.
Barbed Wire & The End of an Era
Bobby Edwards stated, “People didn’t really own much land other than their homeplace. Everybody just had a home place that they owned and then they just used the land, it was open range. People didn’t actually start buying much land until about 1879 onto about 1900. They had to start purchasing land that they had been using for free before. I’m sure it was a very traumatic time for them,” said Bobby.
“Well, when you say purchasing,” said Bill, “they weren’t giving a whole lot of money for it. But money was pretty hard to come by back then.”
“The Whites had been using open range for two generations,” said Bobby, “Before they were forced to buy land.”
No one can say how many acres they actually owned at one time, but Bobby said, “I remember seeing an oil lease on the White Ranch that was 100,000 acres in the early 1900s. It could have been the entire ranch, I don’t know.”
Bob Kahla said, “My grandpa brought his cattle out and put them out north in a Winnie pasture and finally in ’25 or ’27 he leased the Crawford sections, there was two sections. In the summer he and his brothers would drive the cattle 45 miles from Bolivar to Stowell and put them in the pasture. When my grandpa died, Acoms or Atkins, whoever owned it, offered to sell it to my dad for $28 an acre. He said he didn’t want to buy it, because he could lease land for 50 cents an acre.”
In a 1933 interview with Monroe White, Dean Tevis wrote, “For years the Whites, these old kings of the range, knew no boundaries, no fences. They trod the earth and looked at the sky, fearing only the gray prairie wolves and storms. Then Monroe White, who just here steps briskly into the picture, riding a stout Spanish pony, reins in hand, rope on the saddle pommel, built a 21-mile-long fence, under the direction of his father. That was the first cattle fence in southeastern Texas, possibly the first in the domain known as south Texas — certainly the first east of the Trinity River. He built it with cypress posts, most of which still stand. Wire was high priced in those days, but White skimped little and they built it with four stout strands. That was in the year ’83 (1883) Monroe and his father, big Texas hats shading large Texas faces, big frames erect, who could ride from sunup to dark, were the first to ride the fence. They were proud . . . and yet that was the beginning of the end of the range, and they probably saw in the splendid shadows of the cypress posts trailing far out of sight the thing that was to come — the settler, the farmer.
“The famous fence ran from Big Hill, later to be known as the Dutch Joe country, and now under the domain of the McFaddins, cattle imperialists of today, clear to East Bay bayou on the west. It skirted the entire north line of White ranch. It cost $100 a mile, and the Whites thought the price was high.
“So, the year ’83 marked the closing of the big White pasture. Just prior to that through the 70s and the 80s, before the towns of Hamshire, Winnie, Stowell, and High Island had sprung up, fully 100,000 head of longhorns with some new bloods, roamed the flat reaches and the low rises from the salt grass to the summer pastures of the north line.
“They ranged from the bank of the Neches, long before rice was dreamed of, clear to the Trinity. The second to fence their lands were John and Jim Jackson. All of the country under discussion was once included in Liberty County. Even the country east of Big Hill was open, free grass.”