In the 1840s as Texas made the transition from a republic to a state of the Union, one man and his organization acted as welcoming committee, real estate agent, and provisioner to easterners who had scrawled “G.T.T.” on cabin doors and had “gone to Texas” to start a new life out west.
Twenty years after Stephen F. Austin began colonization of Texas—then a part of Mexico—in 1821, William Smalling Peters began the next large-scale colonization of Texas—then an independent nation. On February 4, 1841 the Republic of Texas granted empresario rights to Peters’s Texan Land and Emigration Company. Eleven of the twenty organizers of the company, including Peters, were British. Also involved in the company were several members of Peters’s family, including son William Cumming Peters, who published several songs composed by Stephen Foster.
William Smalling Peters promised the republic that he would bring six hundred families into the colony within three years. The republic agreed to grant 640 acres of land to each family and 320 acres to each single man over age seventeen. In return for organizing the colonists and acting as go-between, the Texan Land and Emigration Company was to receive ten sections (1 section = 640 acres) of land for every one hundred families who settled and five sections for every one hundred single men who settled. The company could charge colonists a fee, payable in land, for such services as surveying land, providing title to land, and arranging transportation to the colony. The company also provided colonists with gunpowder, shot, and seed.
On August 30, 1841 the Peters company got its first contract with the Republic of Texas, establishing the boundaries of the colony as beginning on the Red River and extending south sixty miles and west twenty-two miles. (Map from The Peters Colony of Texas.)
A second contract on November 9, 1841 expanded the colony forty miles southward, taking in what would become eastern Tarrant County. A third contract on July 26, 1842 widened the colony by twelve miles on the east and ten miles on the west. (Map from The Peters Colony of Texas.)
A fourth and final contract on January 20, 1843 greatly expanded the size of Peters Colony, taking in all of Tarrant County and adding more than ten million acres to the west. The colony was now larger than Belgium. (Map from The Peters Colony of Texas.)
This map shows that much of Peters Colony lay west of the frontier line in 1849-1852. (Map from University of Texas Libraries.)
The January 12, 1842 Austin City Gazette reported that six hundred families had bought two steamships and planned to travel up the Red River to claim their new homesteads in Peters Colony.
The Civilian and Galveston City Gazette on September 24, 1842 quoted the Northern Standard of Clarksville as saying that settlers, accompanied by one of the Peters family members, had passed through town on their way to the colony.
The 1843 expansion of the colony took in Stephens County (Breckenridge). This 1879 map labels “Texan Emigration and Land Company’s Premium Surveys of Peters Colony Lands.” The map also labels public land that the state set aside to benefit eleemosynary schools: “Blind Asylum,” “Orphan Asylum,” and “Lunatic Asylum.” (Texas General Land Office map.)
This clip from the Northern Standard shows that not all Peters Colony settlers were from the eastern United States.
But Peters Colony was soon plagued by problems: inaccurate surveys, boundary disputes, the risk of Indian “trepidations,” delays in granting titles, empresario contract extensions, lack of organization, and poor communication between the British and American interests.
But perhaps the biggest problem was squabbles between the colonists and the company. An 1841 Republic of Texas law allowed the company to keep one-half of a settler’s land grant. The settlers protested this law to the republic, and the law was repealed. But by 1852 Texas was a state of the Union. The state compensated the company with a million acres of colony land. This compensation angered colonists and land speculators, who feared that land values would fall. The company’s agent, English-born Henry O. Hedgcoxe, was not popular with colonists. They felt that the surveying that Hedgcoxe provided was not accurate, that he was cheating colonists.
On July 12 and 13, 1852 a group of Dallas land speculators broke in to Hedgcoxe’s office in Collin County and examined the land records. They didn’t like what they saw. At a meeting in Dallas on July 15 the speculators reported that the company was defrauding colonists. John Jay Good, who would be mayor of Dallas 1880-1881 (and co-namesake of the Good-Latimer Expressway), then led a band of armed men to Hedgcoxe’s office. Hedgcoxe skedaddled, but most of his files were seized, and his office was burned. After the raid, the state amended the law so that colonists obtained their grants from the state, not from the Peters Colony company. But title disputes continued for years. The incident is remembered as the “Hedgcoxe War.” Clip is from the August 18, 1852 Daily Dispatch of Richmond, Virginia.
The Peters land company responded to the raid with a flyer designed to reassure colonists who feared that the company planned to invalidate their land claims. The flyer also condemned the theft of the Hedgcoxe files. (Image from private collection of Mary Newton Maxwell.)
Solomon Davis was one of the settlers who received his Peters Colony grant from the state after the Hedgcoxe raid. This is his land grant certificate for 640 acres in Denton District, Township 1, Peters Colony, 1854. Among settlers claiming Peters Colony land in Tarrant County were Lemuel Edwards, the York and Gilmore families, Samuel Tucker, Adolph Gounah, and Archibald Franklin Leonard.
An 1858 meeting of the colony commissioners in Fort Worth perhaps reflects a reduced activity in the colony. Clip is from the July 24 San Antonio Ledger.
Nonetheless, the stream of immigrants who had “gone to Texas” flowed on.
Seymour Connor in The Peters Colony of Texas wrote: “The colony that helped settle North Texas brought little if any profit to the investors and much disgruntlement among the settlers.” But despite its problems, Peters Colony is credited with bringing two thousand emigrants into north Texas and settling more than 800,000 acres. Some perspective: According to the 1840 census, the population of Texas when Peters Colony began was less than the attendance at a Texas-A&M football game today. Drawing is from the June 5, 1922 Star-Telegram.
Several reminders of Peters Colony can be found in local place names. Such as the city of The Colony in Denton County. The Colony has a Hedgcoxe War Historical Park on Colony Boulevard. Several other streets and schools within the Peters Colony boundaries are named after colony figures. To the west, in Stephens and Eastland counties, Colony Creek probably was named for the colony, which once covered all of Stephens and one-third of Eastland County.
There are also several historical markers. This one is in Lewisville.