of the most delectable historical desserts of East
Texas are found in the yellowed documents of the thirty-plus
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
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.
Stevenson 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 fire.
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 gunfighter.
When the Sumpter
courthouse burned, the county seat was located at Trinity
in 1873. It remained there only until 1874 when it was relocated
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.
Evans 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.
Gipson 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 the courthouse.”
“By 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.
Bob Bowman's East
5, 2005 Column, updated August 26, 2012
A weekly column syndicated in 109 East Texas newspapers