Ballots, Barrels, and Bullets (Part 2): Fort Worth Ascendant

In 1853 the small civilian settlement of Fort Worth lost its original raison d’etre when the Army abandoned the military fort.

But the civilian settlement that had grown up around the fort continued to grow, led by civic leaders such as John Peter Smith and E. M. Daggett (both of whom have been called the “father of Fort Worth”).

In fact, in 1856 Daggett led a delegation of Fort Worth boosters who talked the state legislature into giving the voters of Tarrant County a chance to reconsider the 1850 selection of the community that became “Birdville” as county seat (see Part 1).

birdville 9-27-56 dhThe legislature called for the do-over election to be held on the first Tuesday of November. That was November 4. Clip is from the August 27, 1856 Dallas Herald.

The Dallas Weekly Herald of June 14, 1856 wrote about Independence Day celebrations planned in Fort Worth and Birdville prior to the county seat election.

As Election Day neared in November, both towns planned to entice as many white men—the only residents who could vote—to the voting polls. So, Birdville and Fort Worth had open barrels of whiskey ready so that voters could drink to democracy. But Oliver Knight in his Fort Worth: Outpost on the Trinity writes that on the night before the election Fort Worth partisans stole Birdville’s whiskey, leaving the county seat high and dry.

But Fort Worth partisans were not done.

Fort Worth historian Mack Williams quoted Sam Woody (pictured), who was a resident of Wise County at the time of the 1856 election: “I had a short time prior been a citizen of Tarrant County, but when the election came off I was living in Wise County. Around me were fourteen other settlers, and on the day of the election I got them together and started down to Fort Worth to help my former fellow citizens get what they wanted.

“There were three polling places in the county, and each faction had guards stationed to prevent fraud. Barrels of whisky with heads knocked out stood in front of every building. Buckets of sugar were open for those who did not take their liquor straight. All conditions were favorable for free and frequent drinking.

“. . . But I corralled my lads and said to them, ‘Boys, we’ve got to stay sober till this election is over. I must vote every one of you, so we must hold on till we get home.’

“We were the soberest lot in Fort Worth that day. The Birdville people never once suspected that I did not belong to Tarrant County and supposed that my fourteen companions were neighbors from over the western part of the county. We never opened our heads about our intentions until late in the afternoon, when I thought it was about time to act.

“I led the way to the polls, followed by my supporters, and pretending to be in a hurry, I pushed forward to the judges saying, ‘Come on, boys, let’s vote, for we’ve got a long way to go, and we must get home before dark.’ They never challenged one of us, and there were fifteen votes for Fort Worth that day from Wise County.”

When the dust and drink had settled on November 4, 1856, Fort Worth had won the election by a margin of either one or seven or thirteen or (hic) twenty-six votes (historical accounts disagree on the margin).

Sam Woody remembered that Birdville protested that Fort Worth had “voted every man as far west as the Rio Grande.”

How quickly Birdville became an “also ran” after that election. This clip from the December 6 Cherokee Sentinel of Rusk congratulates “our friends about Fort Worth” and adds only that “Birdville was the other place voted for.”

Historian Julia Kathryn Garrett in her Fort Worth: A Frontier Triumph writes that one night soon after the election a Fort Worth committee led by Charles Turner went to Birdville, packed up the county records and equipment, and hauled them from Birdville’s log courthouse to Fort Worth.

Birdville’s six years as the sun in the Tarrant County solar system were over.

In 1857 Fort Worth built its own log courthouse. In 1859 Fort Worth would begin work on a more substantial courthouse of brick and stone.

After the election, hard liquor yielded to hard feelings. While Fort Worth celebrated, Birdville seethed. On December 15, 1912 the Star-Telegram ran a two-page retrospective headlined “Removal of County Seat from Birdville Caused Bitterness That Lasted for a Generation.” The retrospective claimed that four men were killed in three incidents after the election.

Surviving newspaper coverage of the three incidents is scarce. This May 9, 1857 Texas State Gazette clip quotes the Dallas Weekly Herald as saying M. J. Brinson (pictured) of Fort Worth exchanged gunfire in Birdville with Samuel Tucker. Tucker, who had settled in Birdville on Peters Colony land, was killed. Matthew Jackson “Jack” Brinson (1826-1901) was the son-in-law of Middleton Tate Johnson. Julia Kathryn Garrett writes that Brinson and Bob Slaughter had built Fort Worth’s first brick store building in 1856. Brinson also was an early school trustee.

In the second incident, Mack Williams writes, Birdville newspaper editors A. G. Walker (by then a state senator) and John Courtenay exchanged gunfire on a Birdville street. Courtenay was killed. Walker claimed self-defense. Clip is from the August 10, 1859 Southern Intelligencer.

Local historians disagree on the facts and motives of the men in the third incident. Julia Kathryn Garrett writes that an argument occurred between Hiram Calloway of Birdville and Archibald Young Fowler of Fort Worth at the “mixed” barbecue at the Cold Springs. Calloway pushed Fowler, who fell and broke his arm. Sheriff John B. York sided with Calloway. On August 24, 1861 Fowler and York met in downtown Fort Worth. Both men drew a gun; both men were killed. Historian Dr. Richard Selcer believes the York-Fowler shooting was not a result of Birdville-Fort Worth animosity.

Archibald Young Fowler belonged to Fort Worth’s Masonic lodge, which published this tribute in the September 11, 1861 Dallas Weekly Herald.

If Hiram Calloway was involved in violence, this fact perhaps reflects the intensity of the Birdville-Fort Worth feud. Calloway was respected as a peacemaker, an unofficial mediator of local disputes. The Star-Telegram later called Calloway’s house “the Hague” of Tarrant County. Clip is from the December 27, 1894 Fort Worth Gazette.

The Birdville-Fort Worth violence died down after 1861 as the Civil War began. But the animosity lived on. For years Birdville children, the Star-Telegram said in 1912, were taught that Fort Worth residents were robbers; Fort Worth children were taught that Birdville residents were weaklings.

walker speech 58After the 1856 do-over election, Birdville was down but not out. Soon it was Birdville’s turn to demand another election. In 1858 colonel and state senator A. G. Walker, the Birdville newspaper editor who had killed fellow Birdville newspaper editor Courtenay, petitioned the state legislature on his town’s behalf. His impassioned speech, which filled almost four full columns of newsprint, boiled down to three words: “We wuz robbed!” The January 30, 1858 Texas State Gazette published his speech verbatim.

Walked charged that Fort Worth had committed electoral chicanery back in 1856. He also claimed that Fort Worth had promised to build a fine courthouse at no expense to the county and to have an artesian well bored if the county seat was relocated to Fort Worth.

But the state Supreme Court let the 1856 county seat election results stand.

Birdville persisted. In 1860 Walker et al. managed to get a third election for county seat called. This time, on the second Monday in April, Birdville got buried in a landslide. Fort Worth, which by then had a population of about 450, got 548 votes; a geographical point at the center of the county got 301 votes. Birdville received a mere four votes.

Ouch.

Clip is from the April 18, 1860 Dallas Weekly Herald.

Birdville for the second time was left to ponder its “might have been”s. If Birdville had remained the county seat, what might have been? Surely Birdville’s star would have continued to rise, Fort Worth’s star surely not rising as high. In most counties the county seat is the most populous and most important city. Court Mondays would have continued to stimulate Birdville’s prestige and commerce, not Fort Worth’s. In 1876 might the Texas & Pacific railroad have chosen Birdville, not Fort Worth, to lay track to? Not until 1903 did Birdville get a railroad as the Rock Island line passed through—on its way into Fort Worth, which by then was the rail center of the county. Might having more railroads have brought Birdville, not Fort Worth, a stockyards? Might having a stockyards and railroads have brought Birdville, not Fort Worth, the Swift and Armour packing plants? Camp Bowie, the bomber plant, the helium plant, TWU, TCU? For Birdville the “might have been”s are endless.

Perhaps the most visible remnant of the county seat that was and then wasn’t is Birdville Cemetery, where some of those early Birdville partisans are buried. The cemetery is located in Haltom City near where Tarrant County’s first courthouse stood for six years.

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2 Responses to Ballots, Barrels, and Bullets (Part 2): Fort Worth Ascendant

  1. Jeff Bendewald says:

    I know about Birdville ISD and the area, but when did the town of Birdville cease to exist? Great read BTW.

    • hometown says:

      Thanks, Jeff. I don’t know much about the final years of Birdville. The Birdville post office closed in 1906. In 1932 the community of Haltom Village was founded on land that had belonged to jeweler G. W. Haltom. That same year some businesses in the downtown area of Birdville relocated to take advantage of the traffic on East Belknap/Highway 121. In 1949 Haltom City incorporated and began annexing old Birdville, although into the 1950s newspapers still occasionally used the “Birdville” dateline. But by the 1940s the word Birdville increasingly referred to the school district.

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