Little House on the Prairie: The First Family of Fort Worth

George Preston “Uncle Press” Farmer, wife Jane Woody Farmer, and daughter Susan Ann were Fort Worth’s first family. In fact, they were here before there was a here here.

farmers“Uncle Press” (1817-1892) was born in Tennessee. Jane Woody Farmer (1827-1895), also born in Tennessee, was the daughter of Wise County pioneer Sam Woody. (Photos from Tarrant County College NE.)

farmer marriageGeorge and Jane were married on July 13, 1845 in Tennessee. Soon after the birth of Susan Ann, the first of the couple’s fourteen children, in Tennessee in 1847, the Farmers moved to Fannin County, Texas. Sam Woody and family soon followed. Sam is said to have built the first house in Wise County.

In 1849 George and Jane left Fannin County and moved to unsettled Tarrant County, settling on the bluff near where the courthouse is today. They intended to farm. (George’s brothers David Vaughn and Joseph Beryl were early settlers of the White Settlement-Castleberry area.)

Mrs. Farmer later recalled those early days: “There was no sign of life anywhere, and nature was undisturbed.  . . . At the time we settled here, all kinds of game and honey and wild grapes were plentiful. Grapes, however, were the only fruit we had, and there were no vegetables whatever. Ten years elapsed before I had a mess of Irish potatoes. Groceries and provisions of all kinds had to be hauled from Houston [by freighter], and sometimes during the rainy season it took two or three months to make the trip.”

Historical accounts of the Farmers’ early days here differ in some details.

By some accounts the Farmers had arrived on the bluff in May 1849—just three weeks before Major Ripley Arnold and his Second Dragoons arrived to establish an Army fort—and were “squatters,” roughing it in a tent on the site where the courthouse was later built. Historian Julia Kathryn Garrett wrote that the Farmers first built a log cabin but that Indians attacked the Farmers, who fled. When the Farmers returned, they found the log cabin burned down. Thus, the Farmers were living in a tent on the courthouse bluff when the Army arrived.

Major Arnold and his soldiers originally had been camping about a mile northeast of the courthouse bluff in the Samuels Avenue area. By some accounts the soldiers were camped in a low-lying area near the river. By other accounts the soldiers were on higher ground at Live Oak Point near Traders Oak and the Cold Springs.

Middleton Tate Johnson, some accounts say, both owned the land on the courthouse bluff and recommended it to Arnold as the site for the fort. Historian Dr, Richard Selcer says no one owned the courthouse bluff land. Other historians say the land was part of Peters Colony. Regardless, Arnold and company abandoned the Samuels Avenue camp and built their fort on the courthouse bluff. Arnold also hired Uncle Press Farmer as the fort’s sutler (quartermaster). Uncle Press supplied the soldiers with provisions (biscuits, button polish, tobacco) and with meat and hay bought from the few local settlers. He also worked as a freighter, hauling in provisions for the fort. When the Army abandoned the fort in 1853 Farmer returned to farming.

In 1888, when Farmer was seventy-one, he gave a folksy account of those early days to County Judge and historian Charles Caldwell Cummings. On June 22, 1888 the Fort Worth Gazette printed Cummings’s account of his conversation with Farmer. Farmer recalled building the first house in Fort Worth and said it was he who suggested the courthouse bluff as the site of the Army’s Fort Worth. Here are Uncle Press’s words as told by Cummings:

“It was made of logs,” Farmer recalled of his house. “The ax did the work, the lone ax. The boards were riven [split] with it. I had no gear, or wagon, nor anything to haul with, so I tied the logs to my horse’s tail and dragged them to the spot where the first house was built, down there in Frank Twombly’s yard. My old woman handed the boards up to me, I fastened them down with log weights; we had no nails. I made us a bed with this same axe; took two upright pieces for bed legs, made out of saplings, stood them up in the corner of the cabin with a dirt floor, ran rough pieces for slats into the cracks the wall, and our bed was made, at least the frame work. Prairie grass was much higher then than now, and it afforded ample material for stuffing the gunny sacks for a tick [bedding], and we got it done one evening just before dark. A rain was coming up (and it rained in Texas even at that early day); we got in under our shelter just in time to hear it splatter the roof, and maybe you don’t believe it was pleasant sleeping, listening to the rain without under our own vine and tree, or words to that effect. When the patter on the roof was at the hardest we heard a growling sound; it was outside. I peeped through the cracks and what do you reckon I saw amid the flashes of lightning? For it had a way of lightning here then all the same as now. It was a bear and a coyote. They were fighting over some beef bones that we had thrown out. We cooked out of doors under the shade of them nice live oaks down there in Frank Twombly’s yard, we did, wife and I. Didn’t have no chicken pie for dinner, like you and the aldermen want. We didn’t have no graveled walks nor rockemised [?] streets, but we drank plenty of good branch water down there in that ravine on the west; and we were happy without gasworks and lawyers and such. For gasworks and lawyers, somehow, are mighty alike in sound to me, leastwise I always thought so. Maybe I am wrong. But let it go. You lawyers can stand a heap of mighty hard abusing. You see every year about the time the festive candidate wants some chicken pie, when the yaller legged chickens get ripe and ready to pull at the picnics—then you get your share from the stump.

“But I was on the first house. Yes, and I can tell you just how Fort Worth was founded. It happened in this way: I was living there in that first house; my old woman was kinder poorly [another account says it was settler Ed Terrell who was poorly], and I went down to the Jim Woods place [Samuels Avenue], which Henry Holloway now owns, down in them live oaks north of town, near the race track [driving park], for the surgeon [civilian physician J. M. Standifer] of the post. The soldiers were camped there, and the doctor was an institution in their camps, the first doctor of the county. When we got along on the square where the court house now is I pointed out the spot to the doctor and told him if he would move his men up there it would stop them chills [malaria]. He did and the square was used as the drill ground just like them little Fort Worth Fencibles [militia unit] use them now, drilling around by electric gaslight. But they didn’t have no gas in them men. They was Injun fighters away back from Bitter Creek, they was. They warn’t no flasherlarity in ’em neither, but a mighty heap of durability. Henry Daggett had the first store down there in them live oaks [at Traders Oak] and Bony Tucker, that good old Anti-Democrat of the strictest sect kind—one that takes his liquor and his Democracy straight—he was the first county judge, and Ben Ayers’ daddy—good natured fat Ben Ayers, that loves the gals and his fun with all mankind—his daddy was the first clerk of our courts. I could tell you a heap more, but my old lady is waiting to go out and if I can get away without meeting a police to tell me where I must or mustn’t hitch my nag, and where I may walk, and which side of the street, and what I must wear I will go. I don’t know nobody and nobody don’t know me, but I heard a lawyer once say that old man Shakespeare said that where ignorance is bliss, a man’s a fool to be any wiser, or words to that effect, so good bye. Come out six miles south on the prairie [George and Jane had moved southeast to where the Federal Medical Center stands today] and see me and my old woman. We will give you some chicken pie for dinner, that you say them aldermen won’t give you in Fort Worth, if not we’ll kill a fat old hen.”

Years later daughter Susan Ann Farmer recalled stirring times of those early days. Once during an Indian raid on the fort, she said, her parents wrapped her in a blanket, hid her in the cellar of their log cabin, and galloped off on horseback to lead the Indians away from the cabin. The Indians ransacked the house but did not find Susan. When her parents returned the next morning she was safe.

farmer 1850 censusBy 1850 the Farmers were listed in the new county’s first census near Ed Terrell, Archibald Robinson, and commandant Arnold and family at the fort. Note that daughter Susan, age three, was listed as born in Tennessee—in opposition to some accounts that say she was the first child born in Fort Worth.

susan-farmer-censusIn 1868 Susan Ann Farmer married Thomas Gillespie Young (born 1843). They farmed where the town of Aurora would be founded but soon moved to Lewisville, where Thomas owned a drugstore. By 1910 Susan had outlived her four children. Living with Susan and Thomas were two grandsons.

susan-farmer-graveAfter forty-nine years of marriage, Susan and Thomas died seven weeks apart in 1917. They are buried in Smith Cemetery in Lewisville.

Having lived in this area from 1849 to 1917 Susan Ann Farmer Young witnessed the first sixty years of this area’s white history, saw Fort Worth’s population grow from three (her parents and herself) to 100,000.

farmer tombstonesGeorge and Jane Farmer are buried in Forest Hill Cemetery. Their tombstones read “Pioneer moved to Fort Worth in 1849” and “First white woman to live in Fort Worth.” (Other Farmers are buried in Thompson Family Cemetery and Thompson Community Cemetery.)

And what became of that one-room log cabin built by Uncle Press and Jane Farmer in 1849?

farmer twombly 88 cd and mapUncle Press Farmer in 1888 told Judge Cummings that in 1849 he and his wife had built their log cabin where Frank Twombly lived in 1888. The 1888 city directory lists Twombly living in the northwest corner of the intersection of West 1st Street and Royal Avenue. Royal Avenue was one block west of Florence Street, which is where Henderson Street is today. That is about six blocks southwest of the fort, which was just west of the courthouse between today’s Main and Taylor streets.

first houseThis photo, labeled “Fort Worth’s First House,” appears in a book of photos of Fort Worth printed in the 1890s.

farmer iconoclast 6-22-88 gaz Alas, that June 22, 1888 edition of the Gazette reported that Frank Twombly told Judge Cummings that Twombly had just torn down the Farmer cabin—Fort Worth’s first house, built by Fort Worth’s first family.

Preservation in Cowtown was not off to an auspicious start.

Uncle Press Farmer and the Boomerang Gold Piece

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4 Responses to Little House on the Prairie: The First Family of Fort Worth

  1. Janis Tucker Grimland says:

    I am also a direct descendent as this was my mother’s fathers grandparents. His name was Charley Burgess and his father was C. C. Burgess whose mother was one of the Farmer children Emma Bell Farmer. My mother was Betty Burgess Tucker.

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