“Whoever 
Again Calls This State Great Or Its Government Just Will Have A Lie In
Their Mouths.”

March 25, 2013 § Leave a comment

The second installment in a three-part series.

In the recent “Redlands, Red States” series, we explored the role that scoundrels and scalawags played the formation of our modern Texas. Now we will take a look at how a new generation of the same scoundrels continued the development of the sorry state of things many of us live in 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 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 and the 1850s and Civil War, but we are resuming the story in the post-Civil War years..

Today, we present the O. Henry story, “Georgia’s Ruling,” written in 1910.

William S. Porter worked for Land Commissioner Richard Hall, who 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

GEORGIA’S RULING

If you should chance to visit the General Land Office, step into the 
draughtsmen’s room and ask to be shown the map of Salado County. A
 leisurely German – possibly old Kampfer himself – will bring it to
 you. It will be four feet square, on heavy drawing-cloth. The 
lettering and the figures will be beautifully clear and distinct. The 
title will be in splendid, undecipherable German text, ornamented with classic Teutonic designs – very likely Ceres or Pomona leaning
 against the initial letters with cornucopias venting grapes and wieners. You must tell him that this is not the map you wish to see; that he will kindly bring you its official predecessor. He will then 
say, “Ach, so!” and bring out a map half the size of the first, dim,
 old, tattered, and faded.

By looking carefully near its northwest corner you will presently come
 upon the worn contours of Chiquito River, and, maybe, if your eyes are
 good, discern the silent witness to this story. The Commissioner of the Land Office was of the old style; his 
antique courtesy was too formal for his day. He dressed in fine
 black, and there was a suggestion of Roman drapery in his long coat-skirts. His collars were “undetached” (blame haberdashery
 for the word); his tie was a narrow, funereal strip, tied in the
 same knot as were his shoe-strings. His gray hair was a trifle too long behind, but he kept it smooth and orderly. His face was
 clean-shaven, like the old statesmen’s. Most people thought it a 
stern face, but when its official expression was off, a few had
 seen altogether a different countenance. Especially tender and gentle it had appeared to those who were about him during the last illness of his only child.

The Commissioner had been a widower for years, and his life, outside 
his official duties, had been so devoted to little Georgia that people 
spoke of it as a touching and admirable thing. He was a reserved man,
 and dignified almost to austerity, but the child had come below it all and rested upon his very heart, so that she scarcely missed the
 mother’s love that had been taken away. There was a wonderful
 companionship between them, for she had many of his own ways, being 
thoughtful and serious beyond her years.

One day, while she was lying with the fever burning brightly in her 
cheeks, she said suddenly:

“Papa, I wish I could do something good for a whole lot of children!”

“What would you like to do, dear?” asked the Commissioner. “Give 
them a party?”

“Oh, I don’t mean those kind. I mean poor children who haven’t homes,
 and aren’t loved and cared for as I am. I tell you what, papa!”

“What, my own child?”

“If I shouldn’t get well, I’ll leave them you — not give you, but
 just lend you, for you must come to mamma and me when you die too. If
 you can find time, wouldn’t you do something to help them, if I ask
 you, papa?”

“Hush, hush dear, dear child,” said the Commissioner, holding her hot 
little hand against his cheek; “you’ll get well real soon, and you and 
I will see what we can do for them together.”

But in whatsoever paths of benevolence, thus vaguely premeditated, the 
Commissioner might tread, he was not to have the company of his
 beloved. That night the little frail body grew suddenly too tired to
 struggle further, and Georgia’s exit was made from the great stage
 when she had scarcely begun to speak her little piece before the 
footlights. But there must be a stage manager who understands. She
 had given the cue to the one who was to speak after her.

A week after she was laid away, the Commissioner reappeared at the
 office, a little more courteous, a little paler and sterner, with the 
black frock-coat hanging a little more loosely from his tall figure.

His desk was piled with work that had accumulated during the four 
heartbreaking weeks of his absence. His chief clerk had done what he 
could, but there were questions of law, of fine judicial decisions
 to be made concerning the issue of patents, the marketing and 
leasing of school lands, the classification into grazing,
 agricultural, watered, and timbered, of new tracts to be opened to settlers.

The Commissioner went to work silently and obstinately, putting 
back his grief as far as possible, forcing his mind to attack the
 complicated and important business of his office. On the second day
 after his return he called the porter, pointed to a leather-covered
 chair that stood near his own, and ordered it removed to a lumber-room 
at the top of the building. In that chair Georgia would always sit
 when she came to the office for him of afternoons.

As time passed, the Commissioner seemed to grow more silent, solitary,
 and reserved. A new phase of mind developed in him. He could not
 endure the presence of a child. Often when a clattering youngster
 belonging to one of the clerks would come chattering into the big
 business-room adjoining his little apartment, the Commissioner would
 steal softly and close the door. He would always cross the street to
 avoid meeting the school-children when they came dancing along in 
happy groups upon the sidewalk, and his firm mouth would close into a 
mere line.

It was nearly three months after the rains had washed the last dead
 flower-petals from the mound above little Georgia when the “land-shark”
 firm of Hamlin and Avery filed papers upon what they considered the
 “fattest” vacancy of the year.

It should not be supposed that all who were termed “land-sharks” 
deserved the name. Many of them were reputable men of good business 
character. Some of them could walk into the most august councils of 
the State and say: “Gentlemen, we would like to have this, and that, and matters go thus.” But, next to a three years’ drought and the 
boll-worm, the Actual Settler hated the Land-shark. The land-shark 
haunted the Land Office, where all the land records were kept, and 
hunted “vacancies” – that is, tracts of unappropriated public domain, generally invisible upon the official maps, but actually existing “upon the ground.” The law entitled any one possessing 
certain State scrip to file by virtue of same upon any land not previously legally appropriated. Most of the scrip was now in the hands of the land-sharks. Thus, at the cost of a few hundred dollars,
 they often secured lands worth as many thousands.

Naturally, the 
search for “vacancies” was lively.

But often – very often – the land they thus secured, though legally
”unappropriated,” would be occupied by happy and contented settlers,
who had laboured for years to build up their homes, only to discover 
that their titles were worthless, and to receive peremptory notice to 
quit. Thus came about the bitter and not unjustifiable hatred felt by
 the toiling settlers toward the shrewd and seldom merciful speculators 
who so often turned them forth destitute and homeless from their 
fruitless labours. The history of the state teems with their
 antagonism. Mr. Land-shark seldom showed his face on “locations” from
 which he should have to eject the unfortunate victims of a monstrously 
tangled land system, but let his emissaries do the work. There was
 lead in every cabin, moulded into balls for him; many of his brothers
 had enriched the grass with their blood. The fault of it all lay far back.

When the state was young, she felt the need of attracting newcomers,
 and of rewarding those pioneers already within her borders. Year
 after year she issued land scrip – Headrights, Bounties, Veteran
 Donations, Confederates; and to railroads, irrigation companies,
 colonies, and tillers of the soil galore. All required of the grantee
 was that he or it should have the scrip properly surveyed upon the public domain by the county or district surveyor, and the land thus
 appropriated became the property of him or it, or his or its heirs and assigns, forever.

In those days – and here is where the trouble began – the state’s
 domain was practically inexhaustible, and the old surveyors, with
 princely – yea, even Western American – liberality, gave good measure and over-flowing. Often the jovial man of metes and bounds 
would dispense altogether with the tripod and chain. Mounted on a pony
 that could cover something near a “vara” at a step, with a pocket compass to direct his course, he would trot out a survey by counting 
the beat of his pony’s hoofs, mark his corners, and write out his field notes with the complacency produced by an act of duty well performed. Sometimes — and who could blame the surveyor? — when 
the pony was “feeling his oats,” he might step a little higher and
 farther, and in that case the beneficiary of the scrip might get a thousand or two more acres in his survey than the scrip called for.
 But look at the boundless leagues the state had to spare! However, no
 one ever had to complain of the pony under-stepping. Nearly every old survey in the state contained an excess of land.

In later years, when the state became more populous, and land values 
increased, this careless work entailed incalculable trouble, endless
 litigation, a period of riotous land-grabbing, and no little
bloodshed. The land-sharks voraciously attacked these excesses in 
the old surveys, and filed upon such portions with new scrip as
 unappropriated public domain. Wherever the identifications of the old tracts were vague, and the corners were not to be clearly
 established, the Land Office would recognize the newer locations as valid, and issue title to the locators. Here was the greatest hardship to be found. These old surveys, taken from the pick of the
 land, were already nearly all occupied by unsuspecting and peaceful
 settlers, and thus their titles were demolished, and the choice was placed before them either to buy their land over at a double price or
 to vacate it, with their families and personal belongings, 
immediately. Land locators sprang up by hundreds. The country was held up and searched for “vacancies” at the point of a compass. 
Hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of splendid acres were wrested 
from their innocent purchasers and holders. There began a vast hegira of evicted settlers in tattered wagons; going nowhere, cursing
 injustice, stunned, purposeless, homeless, hopeless. Their children
 began to look up to them for bread, and cry.

It was in consequence of these conditions that Hamilton and Avery
 had filed upon a strip of land about a mile wide and three miles long,
 comprising about two thousand acres, it being the excess over
complement of the Elias Denny three-league survey on Chiquito River, 
in one of the middle-western counties. This two-thousand-acre body 
of land was asserted by them to be vacant land, and improperly 
considered a part of the Denny survey. They based this assertion and
 their claim upon the land upon the demonstrated facts that the beginning corner of the Denny survey was plainly identified; that its 
field notes called to run west 5,760 varas, and then called for
 Chiquito River; thence it ran south, with the meanders – and so on — 
and that the Chiquito River was, on the ground, fully a mile farther west from the point reached by course and distance. To sum up: there 
were two thousand acres of vacant land between the Denny survey proper
 and Chiquito River.

One sweltering day in July the Commissioner called for the papers in 
connection with this new location. They were brought, and heaped, a
 foot deep, upon his desk – field notes, statements, sketches,
 affidavits, connecting lines – documents of every description that shrewdness and money could call to the aid of Hamlin and Avery.

The firm was pressing the Commissioner to issue a patent upon their
 location. They possessed inside information concerning a new 
railroad that would probably pass somewhere near this land. The General Land Office was very still while the Commissioner was
 delving into the heart of the mass of evidence. The pigeons could
 be heard on the roof of the old, castle-like building, cooing and 
fretting. The clerks were droning everywhere, scarcely pretending 
to earn their salaries. Each little sound echoed hollow and loud from the bare, stone-flagged floors, the plastered walls, and the 
iron-joisted ceiling. The impalpable, perpetual limestone dust that 
never settled, whitened a long streamer of sunlight that pierced the 
tattered window-awning.

It seemed that Hamlin and Avery had builded well. The Denny survey was
 carelessly made, even for a careless period. Its beginning corner 
was identical with that of a well-defined old Spanish grant, but its 
other calls were sinfully vague. The field notes contained no other 
object that survived – no tree, no natural object save Chiquito
 River, and it was a mile wrong there. According to precedent, the Office would be justified in giving it its complement by course and
 distance, and considering the remainder vacant instead of a mere excess.

The Actual Settler was besieging the office with wild protests in re.
 Having the nose of a pointer and the eye of a hawk for the land-shark,
 he had observed his myrmidons running the lines upon his ground.
 Making inquiries, he learned that the spoiler had attacked his home, and he left the plough in the furrow and took his pen in hand.

One of the protests the Commissioner read twice. It was from a woman,
 a widow, the granddaughter of Elias Denny himself. She told how her 
grandfather had sold most of the survey years before at a trivial
 price – land that was now a principality in extent and value. Her
 mother had also sold a part, and she herself had succeeded to this western portion, along Chiquito River. Much of it she had been forced
 to part with in order to live, and now she owned only about three 
hundred acres, on which she had her home. Her letter wound up rather
 pathetically:

“I’ve got eight children, the oldest fifteen years. I work all day
 and half the night to till what little land I can and keep us in 
clothes and books. I teach my children too. My neighbours is all poor and has big families. The drought kills the crops every two or 
three years and then we has hard times to get enough to eat. There is 
ten families on this land what the land-sharks is trying to rob us of, and all of them got titles from me. I sold to them cheap, and they 
aint paid out yet, but part of them is, and if their land should be 
took from them I would die. My grandfather was an honest man, and he helped to build up this state, and he taught his children to be
 honest, and how could I make it up to them who bought from me? Mr. 
Commissioner, if you let them land-sharks take the roof from over my children and the little from them as they has to live on, whoever
 again calls this state great or its government just will have a lie in
 their mouths.”

The Commissioner laid this letter aside with a sigh. Many, many such
 letters he had received. He had never been hurt by them, nor had he
 ever felt that they appealed to him personally. He was but the
 state’s servant, and must follow its laws. And yet, somehow, this reflection did not always eliminate a certain responsible feeling that 
hung upon him. Of all the state’s officers he was supremest in his
 department, not even excepting the Governor. Broad, general land laws
 he followed, it was true, but he had a wide latitude in particular
 ramifications. Rather than law, what he followed was Rulings: Office Rulings and precedents. In the complicated and new questions
 that were being engendered by the state’s development the 
Commissioner’s ruling was rarely appealed from. Even the courts sustained it when its equity was apparent.

The Commissioner stepped to the door and spoke to a clerk in the other
room – spoke as he always did, as if he were addressing a prince of 
the blood:

“Mr. Weldon, will you be kind enough to ask Mr. Ashe, the state
 school-land appraiser, to please come to my office as soon as 
convenient?”

Ashe came quickly from the big table where he was arranging his 
reports.

“Mr. Ashe,” said the Commissioner, “you worked along the Chiquito 
River, in Salado County, during your last trip, I believe. Do you
 remember anything of the Elias Denny three-league survey?”

“Yes, sir, I do,” the blunt, breezy, surveyor answered. “I crossed it
 on my way to Block H, on the north side of it. The road runs with the
 Chiquito River, along the valley. The Denny survey fronts three miles 
on the Chiquito.”

“It is claimed,” continued the commissioner, “that it fails to reach 
the river by as much as a mile.”

The appraiser shrugged his shoulder. He was by birth and instinct an 
Actual Settler, and the natural foe of the land-shark.

“It has always been considered to extend to the river,” he said,
 dryly.

“But that is not the point I desired to discuss,” said the 
Commissioner. “What kind of country is this valley portion of (let us 
say, then) the Denny tract?”

The spirit of the Actual Settler beamed in Ashe’s face.

“Beautiful,” he said, with enthusiasm. “Valley as level as this 
floor, with just a little swell on, like the sea, and rich as cream.
 Just enough brakes to shelter the cattle in winter. Black loamy soil for six feet, and then clay. Holds water. A dozen nice little houses
 on it, with windmills and gardens. People pretty poor, I guess – too 
far from market – but comfortable. Never saw so many kids in my life.”

“They raise flocks?” inquired the Commissioner.

“Ho, ho! I mean two-legged kids,” laughed the surveyor; “two-legged, 
and bare-legged, and tow-headed.”

“Children! oh, children!” mused the Commissioner, as though a new 
view had opened to him; “they raise children!”

“It’s a lonesome country, Commissioner,” said the surveyor. “Can you 
blame ’em?”

“I suppose,” continued the Commissioner, slowly, as one carefully
 pursues deductions from a new, stupendous theory, “not all of them are
 tow-headed. It would not be unreasonable, Mr. Ashe, I conjecture, to 
believe that a portion of them have brown, or even black, hair.”

“Brown and black, sure,” said Ashe; “also red.”

“No doubt,” said the Commissioner. “Well, I thank you for your
 courtesy in informing me, Mr. Ashe. I will not detain you any longer 
from your duties.”

Later, in the afternoon, came Hamlin and Avery, big, handsome, genial,
 sauntering men, clothed in white duck and low-cut shoes. They 
permeated the whole office with an aura of debonair prosperity. They 
passed among the clerks and left a wake of abbreviated given names and fat brown cigars.

These were the aristocracy of the land-sharks, who went in for big 
things. Full of serene confidence in themselves, there was no 
corporation, no syndicate, no railroad company or attorney general
 too big for them to tackle. The peculiar smoke of their rare, fat brown cigars was to be perceived in the sanctum of every department of
 state, in every committee-room of the Legislature, in every bank 
parlour and every private caucus-room in the state Capital. Always 
pleasant, never in a hurry, in seeming to possess unlimited leisure, people wondered when they gave their attention to the many audacious 
enterprises in which they were known to be engaged.

By and by the two dropped carelessly into the Commissioner’s room
 and reclined lazily in the big, leather-upholstered arm-chairs. They 
drawled a good-natured complaint of the weather, and Hamlin told the 
Commissioner an excellent story he had amassed that morning from the Secretary of State.

But the Commissioner knew why they were there. He had half promised
 to render a decision that day upon their location.

The chief clerk now brought in a batch of duplicate certificates for 
the Commissioner to sign. As he traced his sprawling signature,
”Hollis Summerfield, Comr. Genl. Land Office,” on each one, the chief 
clerk stood, deftly removing them and applying the blotter.

“I notice,” said the chief clerk, “you’ve been going through that
 Salado County location. Kampfer is making a new map of Salado, and 
I believe is platting in that section of the county now.”

“I will see it,” said the Commissioner. A few moments later he went to 
the draughtsmen’s room.

As he entered he saw five or six of the draughtsmen grouped about
 Kampfer’s desk, gargling away at each other in pectoral German, and 
gazing at something thereupon. At the Commissioner’s approach they
 scattered to their several places. Kampfer, a wizened little German, with long, frizzled ringlets and a watery eye, began to stammer 
forth some sort of an apology, the Commissioner thought, for the 
congregation of his fellows about his desk.

“Never mind,” said the Commissioner, “I wish to see the map you are 
making”; and, passing around the old German, seated himself upon the 
high draughtsman’s stool. Kampfer continued to break English in 
trying to explain.

“Herr Gommissioner, I assure you blenty sat I haf not it bremeditated 
 –sat it wass — sat it itself make. Look you! from se field notes 
wass it blatted — blease to observe se calls: South, 10 degrees west
 1,050 varas; south, 10 degrees east 300 varas; south, 100; south, 9
 west, 200; south, 40 degrees west 400 — and so on. Herr Gommissioner,
 nefer would I have — “

The Commissioner raised one white hand, silently, Kampfer dropped his 
pipe and fled.

With a hand at each side of his face, and his elbows resting upon the
 desk, the Commissioner sat staring at the map which was spread and 
fastened there – staring at the sweet and living profile of little 
Georgia drawn thereupon – at her face, pensive, delicate, and infantile, outlined in a perfect likeness.

When his mind at length came to inquire into the reason of it, he 
saw that it must have been, as Kampfer had said, unpremeditated. The
 old draughtsman had been platting in the Elias Denny survey, and 
Georgia’s likeness, striking though it was, was formed by nothing more than the meanders of Chiquito River. Indeed, Kampfer’s blotter,
 whereon his preliminary work was done, showed the laborious tracings
 of the calls and the countless pricks of the compasses. Then, over his faint pencilling, Kampfer had drawn in India ink with a full, firm pen the similitude of Chiquito River, and forth had blossomed
 mysteriously the dainty, pathetic profile of the child.

The Commissioner sat for half an hour with his face in his hands,
 gazing downward, and none dared approach him. Then he arose and 
walked out. In the business office he paused long enough to ask that 
the Denny file be brought to his desk.

He found Hamlin and Avery still reclining in their chairs, apparently
 oblivious of business. They were lazily discussing summer opera, it
 being, their habit – perhaps their pride also – to appear supernaturally 
indifferent whenever they stood with large interests imperilled. And 
they stood to win more on this stake than most people knew. They 
possessed inside information to the effect that a new railroad would,
 within a year, split this very Chiquito River valley and send land values ballooning all along its route. A dollar under thirty thousand 
profit on this location, if it should hold good, would be a loss to 
their expectations. So, while they chatted lightly and waited for the 
Commissioner to open the subject, there was a quick, sidelong sparkle 
in their eyes, evincing a desire to read their title clear to those fair acres on the Chiquito.

A clerk brought in the file. The Commissioner seated himself and
 wrote upon it in red ink. Then he rose to his feet and stood for a
while looking straight out of the window. The Land Office capped the 
summit of a bold hill. The eyes of the Commissioner passed over the 
roofs of many houses set in a packing of deep green, the whole
 checkered by strips of blinding white streets. The horizon, where his 
gaze was focussed, swelled to a fair wooded eminence flecked with 
faint dots of shining white. There was the cemetery, where lay many
 who were forgotten, and a few who had not lived in vain. And one 
lay there, occupying very small space, whose childish heart had been 
large enough to desire, while near its last beats, good to others.
 The Commissioner’s lips moved slightly as he whispered to himself: “It was her last will and testament, and I have neglected it so long!”

The big brown cigars of Hamlin and Avery were fireless, but they still
 gripped them between their teeth and waited, while they marvelled at 
the absent expression upon the Commissioner’s face.

By and by he spoke suddenly and promptly.

“Gentlemen, I have just indorsed the Elias Denny survey for patenting.
This office will not regard your location upon a part of it as legal.”
 He paused a moment, and then, extending his hand as those dear old-time
 ones used to do in debate, he enunciated the spirit of that Ruling that subsequently drove the land-sharks to the wall, and placed the seal of
 peace and security over the doors of ten thousand homes.

“And, furthermore,” he continued, with a clear, soft light upon his 
face, “it may interest you to know that from this time on this office
 will consider that when a survey of land made by virtue of a certificate granted by this state to the men who wrested it from the
 wilderness and the savage – made in good faith, settled in good faith,
 and left in good faith to their children or innocent purchasers — when such a survey, although overrunning its complement, shall call for
 any natural object visible to the eye of man, to that object it shall hold, and be good and valid. And the children of this state shall lie down to sleep at night, and rumours of disturbers of title shall 
not disquiet them. For,” concluded the Commissioner, “of such is the Kingdom of Heaven.”

In the silence that followed, a laugh floated up from the patent-room 
below. The man who carried down the Denny file was exhibiting it
 among the clerks.

“Look here,” he said, delightedly, “the old man has forgotten his
 name. He’s written ‘Patent to original grantee,’ and signed it 
’Georgia Summerfield, Comr.”‘

The speech of the Commissioner rebounded lightly from the impregnable 
Hamlin and Avery. They smiled, rose gracefully, spoke of the baseball 
team, and argued feelingly that quite a perceptible breeze had arisen
 from the east. They lit fresh fat brown cigars, and drifted courteously away. But later they made another tiger-spring for their
 quarry in the courts. But the courts, according to reports in the
 papers, “coolly roasted them” (a remarkable performance, suggestive of 
liquid-air didoes), and sustained the Commissioner’s Ruling.

And this Ruling itself grew to be a Precedent, and the Actual Settler 
framed it, and taught his children to spell from it, and there was 
sound sleep o’ nights from the pines to the sage-brush, and from the 
chaparral to the great brown river of the north.

But I think, and I am sure the Commissioner never thought otherwise, 
that whether Kampfer was a snuffy old instrument of destiny, or
 whether the meanders of the Chiquito accidentally platted themselves 
into that memorable sweet profile or not, there was brought about “something good for a whole lot of children,” and the result ought
 to be called “Georgia’s Ruling.”

 

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