William Paxton Burts: The Gavel and the Caduceus

In Fort Worth history Dr. William Paxton Burts holds a first and a second: He was Fort Worth’s first mayor and its second physician (the first was Carroll Peak).

Dr. Burts was born in Tennessee in 1827, practiced medicine in New York state.

burts voting 67Dr. Burts came to Fort Worth in 1858. This voter registration roll of 1867 shows that he had been here nine years.

burts war cardSoon after the Civil War began, when Dr. Peak organized the Tarrant County Rifles for the Confederacy, Burts enlisted as company surgeon. But when Dr. Peak—the town’s only other doctor—left town with his soldiers, Burts paid a substitute to take Burts’s place and stayed behind. After the war he briefly engaged in cattle driving—taking a herd of longhorns up the Chisholm Trail in 1870—and general merchandising.

When fellow Mason Middleton Tate Johnson was reburied here in 1870, Burts, along with Joseph C. Terrell and Ephraim Merrell Daggett, helped draft a resolution of recognition. Clip is from the Dallas Weekly Herald.

burts elected dwhWhen Fort Worth—all four square miles of it—incorporated in 1873, Burts ran for mayor, winning by 68 votes out of 366 cast. Also elected were Ed Terrell, Martin Bottom Loyd, and Gus Rintleman. So bad was the Fort Worth economy during the international Panic of 1873 that Burts and the rest of the new city leaders served without pay. In 1874 Burts was reelected despite criticism that his administration had run up a debt of $5,000 ($106,000 today) and was owed almost $20 ($423 today) in delinquent taxes. Clip is from the Dallas Weekly Herald.

On September 12, 1874 Mayor Burts sent the first official telegraph message from Fort Worth to the “outer world.” Mayor Burts sent the message to the mayor of Dallas, William Lewis “Old Tige” Cabell, the first of three Cabells to be mayor of Dallas. At the time, the new telegraph line was private, owned by Max Elser. In 1876 Elser sold the line to Western Union. (Fort Worth Gazette clip is from 1889; photo—taken by either Mathew Brady or his nephew, Levin Handy—is from Wikipedia.)

Note that Burts said Fort Worth had only six hundred people in 1874. And do you note an early hiss of intercity rivalry in Dallas’s “hoped her little sister would soon grow larger” reply to our telegraph? The legend of the Panther would be born five months later with Robert Cowart’s newspaper article. But by then Burts would no longer be mayor. He resigned in October 1874 and devoted all his energy to his medical practice.

In her Fort Worth: A Frontier Triumph, historian Julia Kathryn Garrett says Dr. Burts had a passion—sanitary municipal drinking water—and a superstition: When he was riding on horseback, if a jackrabbit crossed his path, Burts returned to his starting point and began his trip anew.

burts 66 cdIn 1875 Dr. Burts was one of two doctors who treated Timothy Isaiah “Longhaired Jim” Courtright after Courtright was shot in the stomach when he tried to disarm and arrest nineteen-year-old hellraiser Richard Alexander Feild, son of Julian B. Feild, one of the founders of Fort Worth. The other doctor who treated Courtright: Julian Theodore Feild, brother of Richard Alexander Feild. (Richard Alexander Feild would become, like his brother, a physician.)

Burts built a home at the corner of 2nd and Rusk (now Commerce) streets. In 1877 he donated land there for the city’s combination fire hall-city hall-calaboose (the 1907 Fire Station No. 1 stands there now). The wry 1883 Fort Worth Daily Democrat clip above indicates that part of the lot became a croquet lawn. (In the 1885 Sanborn map, the abbreviation “Dw’g” indicates a dwelling.)

city hall 8-18-07The fire hall also was the city’s first city hall. It also contained a small jail. Among those who served in that building were John Peter Smith, Jim Courtright, and disgraced Mayor William S. Pendleton.

In 1885, the Dallas Morning News reported, Dr. Burts was among physicians treating an outbreak of dengue fever—a cousin of yellow fever and West Nile virus—in Fort Worth.

burts 94 cdBy 1894 Drs. Burts and Feild had welcomed Dr. William A. Duringer to their office, located next door to the White Elephant Saloon.

But William Paxton Burts died on September 5, 1895 and is buried . . .

in Oakwood Cemetery. Among his pallbearers were civic leaders Jesse Zane-Cetti, John Peter Smith, and J. C. Terrell.

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