of the most delectable historical desserts of East
Texas are found in the yellowed documents of the thirty-plus county
courthouses scattered across the pineywoods.
One such morsel is the
little-known story of two courthouse fires in Trinity County, one of the rowdiest
of our early counties.
From Anna Hester of Groveton
comes a pair of old affidavits by J.P. Stevenson, a frontier lawyer, and J.B.
Gipson, the son of a county surveyor. Both lived in the turbulent 1870s.
Their affidavits were transcribed in 1909, apparently in an effort to clarify
property deed records which may have been in dispute.
Stevenson and Gipson
recalled a November, 1, 1872, fire which destroyed most of the county records
at the first county seat at Sumpter.
The only surviving documents were some criminal records of a peace justice and
the surveyor’s records of properties in the county.
At the time, Gipson’s
father, George, was the county surveyor and was holding the survey records at
his home in Trinity, about twenty
miles west of Sumpter.
had a good reason to remember the fire. As a lawyer in Trinity and Walker counties
since l868, his life revolved around the courthouse and the records lost in the
Why and how the courthouse burned is not clear, but Sumpter
was a hotbed of violence during the l860s and early l870s when federal reconstruction
gripped the South in the aftermath of the Civil War. Out of this violent era came
a Sumpter preacher’s son, John
Wesley Hardin, who killed three Union soldiers near Sumpter
in 1868, and went on to become Texas’ most notorious
When the Sumpter
courthouse burned, the county seat was located at Trinity
in 1873. It remained there only until 1874 when it was relocated at Pennington,
where, according to Stevenson, another courthouse was burned in 1876, again destroying
some county records.
The county’s land records and criminal documents,
however, were saved. J.T. Evans, the clerk of the local district court, kept the
criminal records in an iron safe, which survived the fire.
also carried the property deed records to his home the night of the fire after
“a number of bad parties had been indicted” and he became “fearful they would
undertake to destroy their indictments” by burning the courthouse.
said his surveyor father saved the land surveys at Pennington
by entrusting them to deputy W.M. Freeman who kept them “in a safe place not in
reason of this fact, they were again saved from fire at the burning of the courthouse
at Pennington,” wrote J.B.
Gipson in his affidavit.
Although the Trinity County survey records were
saved from two fires, the records of the district clerk were stolen on the night
of March 5, 1880 and Gipson said other documents were later partially destroyed
“by rough, bad handling by parties who had access to them.”
Trinity County moved its courthouse from Pennington
to Groveton in 1882, not only
because it was a cental location, but Trinity County Lumber Company donated the
site for a town square and materials for a new courthouse. It remains there today.
5, 2005 Column, updated August 26, 2012
Bob Bowman's East Texas
column syndicated in 109 East Texas newspapers
Texas | Trinity