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Texas | Columns | Lone Star Diary

Lavaca County
and the Raw Frontier

by Murray Montgomery
Murray Montgomery
Several years ago, I received a complimentary copy of a new book, Raw Frontier (Volume Two), written by Keith Guthrie. His book is sort of an assortment of historical facts about the area that made up Green DeWitt's Colony during the birth of Texas.

Guthrie's Raw Frontier is a 16-county area in south central and the coastal bend region of Texas. He traveled extensively in this portion of the state and visited with various descendants of pioneer families who settled there.

One portion of the book that I found to be especially interesting was his observations about the early pioneers who settled in Hallettsville and Lavaca County. Information in the Raw Frontier explains that one of the first settlers in the area was John Hallet. He had received a land grant from Stephen F. Austin in 1831.

Hallet died in 1836 and his wife, Margaret, donated the land for the town site. In 1842, old La Vaca County was formed and Hallettsville was chosen as the county seat. However, historical records indicate that the county was later abolished. When Texas became a state in 1846, Lavaca County was created once again.

According to the Handbook of Texas, two cities were competing for the county seat. Hallettsville and Petersburg were evidently at great odds with one another over who should be awarded the seat of county government. An election was held on June 14, 1852, with Hallettsville receiving the majority of votes.

Petersburg hotly contested the election claiming that there was election fraud and other illegal things going on. After years of legal maneuvering and some armed confrontations, the courts finally determined in 1860 that Hallettsville would indeed be the county seat. The unique old courthouse that is the hub of the downtown square was built in 1897. It is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Folks in Lavaca County experienced some exciting times as did most people living on the frontier in early Texas. Included in Guthrie's book, is an account of life in Hallettsville in 1845. It was written by Mrs. Ellen McKinney Arnold and tells of her life as a child in the John McKinney family. Her recollections have been passed down through the family for generations.

Following are excerpts of her observations of old Hallettsville: "There were only three houses there, one was a blacksmith shop run by Ira McDaniel and the other was a store run by Callart Ballard. He sold powder, lead, flint rifles and groceries.... The first barrel of flour that I saw, father gave him [Ballard] $35 worth of deer hides for it.

"We wore out our shoes the first year and never had any more for years. Father tanned hides and made us moccasins, which I think are better than shoes.... The prairie was covered with mustang ponies and wild cattle; game of all kinds was plentiful. Father could stand in the door of his tent and shoot dear and wild turkey...there were lots of bear. Father's favorite sport was hunting Mexican lions. He killed enough to cover the tent floor."

Mrs. Ellen McKinney Arnold was 87 years old when she recorded her memories and this information can be found in the public library at Hallettsville.

What a place Texas must have been in those days! One thing is certain; folks should have never starved to death back then. There were worse ways to die - the Indians saw to that, and Lavaca County had its share of problems with the hostiles.

In one account from the Raw Frontier, the Indians were attacking and killing the settlers during what has become known as the "Runaway Scrape." After the fall of the Alamo, the Texas Army was at Gonzales and Gen. Sam Houston ordered the town (Gonzales) to be destroyed by fire. The army retreated toward the coast and passed through an area that would later become part of Lavaca County.

Families from all around the area were also on the run in fear of the advancing Mexican army. The Indians took advantage of the turmoil and made their move as the following excerpt from the Raw Frontier indicates: "The families of O'Dougherty and Douglass, on Clark Creek, were getting ready to join the exodus fleeing the Mexicans when Indians killed all of them, except Augustine and Thadeus Douglass, ages 15 and 12, who had been sent into the timber to find and bring the oxen to draw sleds.

"As they were returning, they saw that their cabins were on fire and could hear the war whoops and the screams of their kin and neighbors. The boys watched powerless from hiding places. At night they approached their home site and found the scalped bodies of their father, mother, sister, and little brother, and of the O'Doughertys, his son and two daughters lying naked in the yard."

It is a tribute to the resilience of those settlers of early Texas that they would endure such horrible events and still return to carve out a home in the wilderness. All Texans should be very proud of their heritage.

Many immigrants from Czechoslovakia and Germany settled Hallettsville, Texas, in the late nineteenth century. It has a rich legacy and reputation for productive farms and friendly people.

Murray Montgomery
February 13, 2019 Column

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