“Whoever Again Calls This State Great Or Its Government Just Will Have A Lie In Their Mouths.”
March 24, 2013 § Leave a comment
The first installment in a three-part series.
In the recent “Redlands, Red State” series, we explored the role that scoundrels and scalawags played in the formation of our modern Texas. Now we will take a look at how a new generation of the same type of scoundrels continued the development of the sorry state of things in which many of us live today.
Remember that by the 1840s, the whole of civilized Texas was awash in fraudulent land certificates. It was a Texas tradition dating back at least 20 years, and land certificate forgers and thieves would continue to plague honest, hard-working Texans for another 40-odd years.
After the Civil War, this breed of crooks was known as “land sharks,” and their perfidies were best described by two short stories written by William S. Porter (O. Henry), who worked in the drafting department of the Texas General Land Office from 1887-1891 as an assistant draftsman: “Georgia’s Ruling” and “Bexar Scrip No. 2692.”
The General Land Office (GLO) was created in December 1836 to “superintend, execute, and perform all acts touching or respecting the public lands of Texas,” which it did, after a fashion.
Land fraud problems continued through the 1850s and Civil War, but we will resume the story in the post-Civil War years, beginning with sketches of the land commissioners of the time.
Jacob Kuechler, born in Germany in 1823, moved to Texas at the age of 24. He became land commissioner by appointment of General Joseph Jones Reynolds of the military Reconstruction government in January 1870 and held the office until January 1874.
Kuechler had worked as a surveyor until 1861. He was commissioned by Governor Sam Houston to enroll state militia troops for Gillespie County. He was viewed as a traitor, however, because he only recruited Unionist sympathizers of German descent. More than half of Kuechler’s force of 61 men were massacred (some executed after being captured) along the Nueces River in 1862 as they attempted to escape Texas to go to Mexico, and eventually meet with union forces.
Kuechler anticipated civil service reform, and protected employees whose political views differed from his own. He was the first commissioner to suggest reforms and regulations for land surveyors as well. He stated that the incompetence of county surveyors led to a tremendous amount of additional work for land office staff, causing business to lag. He was also the first to recommend employing a state land surveyor at the GLO.
Johann Jacob Groos served as land commissioner from January 1874 to June 1878 and was the second German-born Commissioner of the General Land Office
Born in Germany in 1824, Groos worked as a surveyor before coming to Texas in 1845.
Groos dealt with many of the same problems as his predecessors. Difficult land laws and land speculators were among his biggest professional problems; however it was the Oklahoma border that captured Groos’ interest in 1877. He claimed that Greer County should be recognized as Texas land, rather than belonging to the United States.
He was quoted as saying “I hold it to be doubtful economy to retard the public business, particularly of that portion pertaining to this office, in which both the State and individual citizens are so deeply interested, in order to save the State a few thousand dollars, when the sequel will prove it both unwise and impolitic, and fails to effect that object.” It was during this period that the land sharks thrived. Groos died while in office.
William C. Walsh took over the commissioner’s job upon the death of Groos and served until January of 1887.
He wrote of his first week in office: “I found the Land Office files and records were in a tangled condition, so I closed the office for five days to take account of stock. Carelessness during and immediately subsequent to the Civil War permitted, if it did not invite, an organized gang of forgers and land thieves to raid the archives of the office.”
William C. Walsh came to Texas six months after his birth in Dayton, Ohio in 1836. At the age of 21 he began work as a clerk for the General Land Office.
Walsh resigned from his position with the GLO on April 30, 1861, to join the Confederate Army.
In January 1873, he was elected Chief Clerk of the House of Representatives. He left this post when Governor Richard Hubbard appointed him to fill the rest of the term of the late Johann Jacob Groos, in June 1878, at the GLO.
Land frauds were running rampant in Texas, “dragging their slimy forms about the State and enmeshing many people and land titles,” Walsh said. This was one of the most difficult and dangerous times in land office history, with numerous threats made on Walsh’s life. Bodyguards had to guard the land office and armed sentinels protected Walsh’s home at night.
As land commissioner, Walsh launched the prosecution of a ring of forgers and land thieves who had raided the archives of the land office; 30 were convicted and sent to the penitentiary, while at least 100 fled the state. Walsh also uncovered a scheme to defraud the school fund of pine timber lands acreage.
Walsh was defeated in the 1887 race for commissioner by Richard M. Hall. He eventually returned to the Land Office under Commissioner J. T. Robison.
Richard Hall served from January 1887 to January 1891.
“One great care has been to so exercise the discretion given the Commissioner of the General Land Office that the public interests should ever be protected and advanced, and at the same time no right or privilege contemplated in the law for any citizen should be abridged or interfered with.” – Richard M. Hall
Richard M. Hall was born in North Carolina in 1851. Educated in civil engineering and mathematics, Hall secured a job as county surveyor for Grayson County upon moving to Texas. Hall purchased a farm in La Salle County for him and his family, as well as an old family friend from North Carolina, William Sidney Porter, better known as “O. Henry.” Hall ran on the Democratic ticket for Texas Land Commissioner in 1886. He won and took office on January 10, 1887. He hired William Sidney Porter to work as a draftsman for the GLO, which is how the legendary short story writer became associated with the GLO.
During his administration, Commissioner Hall faced considerable political pressure from Attorney General Jim Hogg and the railroad industry because of the contentious Sidings and Switches Controversy. The Sidings and Switches Controversy specifically dealt with the Houston and Texas Central Railroad Company (H&TCRR), however, it would have far-reaching effects on all land granted since statehood if Attorney General Hogg was successful in his pursuits. Hogg claimed that H&TCRR received more land for internal improvements than was appropriate. Hogg contended that the railroad companies were making land claims based on their main rail line, in addition to supplemental and support rail lines that were not initially proposed, or part of the original contracts. These extra lines were known as sidings and switches. Hogg’s proposed lawsuits meant that the State would receive between 20 million and 38 million acres of land back that had already been granted. Hall pointed out, however, that the railroad companies had sold off approximately 96 percent of the land received for internal improvements, and this legal action would result in countless citizens being forced off their land by the government, which wouldn’t have been a good option, or, settlers would be forced to pay twice for land they already owned, which was also not a good option. Hall felt that the impending lawsuit would be difficult to administer, but would also infringe upon citizen’s property rights. He refused to take part in any lawsuit that would take land from citizens that had already been granted.
In 1890, Hall ran for Governor; his platform was based on two main issues: to have a relatively weak Railroad Commission, and the increased use of proceeds from the sale of public lands to benefit education in West Texas counties. Hall was unsuccessful in his quest for the governorship, and so both he and Porter left the General Land Office.
(Thanks to the General Land Office for its biographies of the above mentioned land office commissioners.)
Next time, the O. Henry story, “Georgia’s Ruling,” written in 1910, followed by “Bexar Scrip No. 2692,” a not-so-funny story written in 1894 for his humorous weekly, The Rolling Stone.