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.
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 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.
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 of Lufkin is the author of more than 50 books about East Texas history and folklore. He can be reached at bob-bowman.com)