A. B. Norton and the News: Hail to the Chief

Tall and thin, he was built like a lightning rod. And indeed he lived his life as a lightning rod, drawing thunderbolts of enmity from Texas secessionists as the clouds of civil war formed over America in 1859 and 1860.

But in that politically charged environment, Anthony Banning Norton also found time to establish Fort Worth’s first newspaper.

Norton was born in Ohio in 1821. He earned a law degree at age nineteen and veered into politics and journalism. (Photo from Wikipedia.)

Norton was a member of the Whig Party and published the newspapers True Whig and Chippewa War Club (later known as Norton’s Daily True Whig).

Norton was a fervent disciple of Whig Party founder Henry Clay (U.S. senator, speaker of the House, secretary of state). The StarTelegram in 1912 said Norton once fought a duel over “the Henry Clay issue.”

In the 1844 presidential campaign, Norton at age twenty-three stumped for Clay in Ohio as Ohio veteran politician Caleb J. McNulty stumped for James K. Polk on the Democratic ticket.

At a Norton-McNulty debate for their respective candidates, Fort Worth historian Julia Kathryn Garrett writes in Fort Worth: A Frontier Triumph, McNulty bristled at the impertinence of the Whig whippersnapper:

“A smooth-faced youth had better tarry at Jericho and grow a beard before he assays to teach men their political rights.”

(2 Samuel 10:4-5: “And the king said, ‘Stay at Jericho until your beards grow, and then return.’”)

Young Norton leaped to the podium and vowed to not shave his face or get a haircut until Clay was elected president.

After Clay lost to Polk, Norton is said to have echoed Davy Crockett’s sentiment: “The country might be going to hell, but I’m going to Texas.”

(Henry Clay gave Norton a fine walking stick in appreciation of his support. The head of the stick can be seen in the Wikipedia photo and, indeed, in most photos of Norton.)

In 1848 Norton settled in Austin, where, Oliver Knight writes in Fort Worth: Outpost on the Trinity, he bought a part interest in the Southern Intelligencer newspaper. In the mid-1850s Norton relocated to east Texas, where in 1855 he was elected a state legislator representing Henderson and Kaufman counties. He was re-elected in 1857.

While serving as a legislator and writing under the pen name “Delhi Reporter,” Norton successfully argued against “the rule of the caucus.”

Sam Houston, then a U. S. senator, said with approval: “Delhi broke the rule of the caucus in Texas.”

Likewise, by then Houston had become second only to Henry Clay in Norton’s pantheon.

By 1857 Norton also was an early member of the Masonic lodge in Texas.

The years 1859 and 1860 were significant for individuals such as Norton and Houston and for Fort Worth, Texas, and America in general as the country increasingly debated the issues of slavery and states’ rights, even the merits of Union.

For starters, in 1859 Norton was re-elected to the Texas legislature, and Houston was elected governor. Houston, who was pro-Union, appointed Norton adjutant general. Norton became Houston’s “point man” in battling secessionists, led by editor John Marshall of the Austin State Gazette. Marshall advocated reintroducing slave trade from Africa “for the honor and safety of every poor white man.”

In 1859 Norton, again living in Austin, felt that Fort Worth needed another law firm. So, he opened one, giving Middleton Tate Johnson as a reference.

But far more important, Norton felt that Fort Worth needed a newspaper. After all, Birdville had two newspapers but wasn’t even the county seat anymore. Fort Worth, which had become the county seat, had no newspaper.

So, driving an ox wagon loaded with a hand-cranked printing press, boxes of metal type, and bundles of newsprint, Norton came up from Austin to establish the Chief.

He went back to Austin and left George Smith in Fort Worth to run the Chief, although Norton acted as corresponding editor, sending Smith editorial content by mail.

Anthony Banning Norton was antislavery, pro-Sam Houston, and pro-Union. And in Texas in 1859 that made him a man in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“Everybody loved him, [but] everybody hated his politics,” the Star-Telegram in 1912 quoted a man as saying.

Anthony Banning Norton was outspoken enough to be unpopular in two southern cities: In March 1860 he became editor and proprietor of the Southern Intelligencer in Austin. Norton’s editorial policy in first the Chief and then the Southern Intelligencer quickly became unpopular among many Texans.

Also in 1860 Norton stumped for Sam Houston just as he had for Henry Clay in 1844. When the antisecessionist Constitutional Union Party held its convention to nominate a candidate for president, Norton, waving his walking stick, his beard by then “half a yard long,” placed in nomination the name of Sam Houston.

But the candidacy went to John Bell of Tennessee.

Meanwhile, the year 1860 had turned ugly.

That summer suspicious fires broke out across Texas. Slaves and abolitionists were suspected of plotting a slave revolt.

Norton in his two newspapers maintained that the fires had been set by secessionists to lay blame on abolitionists.

In Tarrant County the suspicion of slavery advocates fell on newly arrived strangers, especially northerners.

Northerners such as William H. Crawford. He was accused of being found in possession of weapons “with which to arm the slaves.”

The Raleigh, North Carolina Weekly Standard quoted A. B. Norton‘s Fort Worth Chief: Crawford had been hanged from a pecan tree three-quarters of a mile from town, and a citizens committee had “endorsed the action of the party who hung him.”

As for the headline “Poison Furnished the Negroes,” in August several slaves in the Fort Worth area were found in possession of strychnine, enough to half fill a barrel if aggregated.

This, too, was seen as evidence of an abolitionist plot.

Then came the Bailey letter.

In August, Paul Isbell, a slave trader who lived at White Settlement, revealed that he had found a letter written by a Reverend William H. Bailey and addressed to a Reverend William Bewley. Bewley was a Tennessee-born minister who by 1858 was living in Johnson County south of Fort Worth. Bewley was a Northern Methodist, opposed slavery, endorsed abolition.

The letter (I append an edited version) urged Bewley to continue his abolition work in Texas. The writer mentioned “our glorious cause” and the “Mystic Red” abolitionist organization and said, “If we can break Southern merchants and millers, and have their places filled by honest Republicans, Texas will be an easy prey, if we only do our duty.” “Our Heavenly Father will reward us for helping him in blotting out the greatest curse on earth.” The letter called for “a different material to be used about town, etc. Our friends sent a very inferior article; they emit too much smoke, and do not contain enough camphene,” a combustible liquid.

This letter triggered outrage among Tarrant County slavery advocates, who saw it as yet more proof of a plot to incite slave revolt. And once again, abolitionists such as Norton claimed that the letter was a ruse to give slavery advocates an excuse to persecute abolitionists.

After the Bailey letter was made public, people of Fort Worth held a mass meeting and voted that abolitionists such as Norton should be watched with suspicion.

Meanwhile, Reverend Bewley had fled the county. He was arrested in Arkansas and returned to Fort Worth. Newspapers in August reported that he had been hanged from the same tree from which William Crawford had been hanged.

In Houston the Telegraph printed the Chief’s report of the lynching of Bewley. (Garrett and Knight say Crawford and Bewley were hanged near Fort Worth, not in Parker County.)

In that same issue the Telegraph printed an entire column of news about violence across the state. This is just a sample of the column.

After the lynchings of Crawford and Bewley, sentiment against Norton in Fort Worth increased. In fact, Knight in Outpost on the Trinity writes that a grand jury in Weatherford recommended that Norton, too, be hanged.

Major Khleber Miller Van Zandt in his autobiography Force Without Fanfare writes that Norton’s antislavery and pro-Union views simply had become too unpopular in Fort Worth.

Anthony Banning Norton was fully cognizant that discretion is the better part of valor.

So, in September the Chief was sold to Captain Harris A. Hamner, who co-edited The White Man, a newspaper in Jacksboro that advocated secession and removal of Indians from north Texas.

No doubt Hamner bought the Chief just to silence its opposing viewpoint.

Norton later wrote: “The hostility of the people, growing out of Secession views, compelled [the Chief’s] discontinuance after the hanging of Rev. Anthony Bewley and Crawford.”

Meanwhile, Norton may have sold the Chief, but he still had the Intelligencer. And he still had political differences with John Marshall, proslavery secessionist editor of the Texas Gazette. In August and September the two men engaged in a heated exchange (“coward,” “liar,” “slink,” “poltroon”) on the pages of their newspapers that resulted in Marshall challenging Norton to a duel. After much hemming and hawing about when and where, the two editors agreed to meet in Oklahoma because dueling in Texas was illegal. According to Donald E. Reynolds in Texas Terror: The Slave Insurrection Panic of 1860 and the Secession of the Lower South, as Norton and Marshall headed north for the duel they were arrested and jailed in Sherman because it was illegal in Texas even to challenge someone to a duel. This delay gave both men time to simmer down. Upon their release, each bowed his neck and blustered and insisted that the duel still take place, but each blamed the other for creating complications that prevented it. Finally both men returned to Austin and continued to sling ink, not lead, at each other.

A month later the lightning rod Norton, in his Intelligencer, condemned an “incendiary” New York newspaper for publishing two letters—from writers in Marshall and in Fort Worth—that encouraged violence against abolitionists.

The Fort Worth letter writer refers to the slaves found in possession of strychnine and vows that “we will hang every man who does not live above suspicion. .  . . every man coming from a northern State should live above suspicion. Such is the universal sentiment of this community, and soon must and will be of the entire South.”

Norton complained that because his newspaper did not spread such “infernal falsification,” it was considered “unsound on the slavery question.”

(Of course, at the same time Norton was condemning the New York newspaper for publishing the two letters, Norton himself was publishing them!)

Two notes:

  1. The “school boys” is a reference to the Marshall letter.
  2. “J. W. S.” was the writer of the Fort Worth letter.

Fast-forward to 1861. Governor Sam Houston continued to oppose secession and tried to keep Texas out of the Confederacy. After Texas seceded, and Houston refused to take an oath of allegiance to the Confederacy, he was forced out of office on March 16. When Houston left office, so did Adjutant General Norton.

The Confederacy fired on the Union’s Fort Sumter on April 12.

Norton knew it was time to leave Texas. The final issue of the Intelligencer under his editorship was February 22, 1862. Norton returned to Ohio for the duration of the war.

In Ohio Norton worked to improve conditions for Confederate prisoners of war (especially Texans) at Camp Chase, rehabilitating somewhat his standing in this state.

In 1865, the war over, Norton came back to Texas and was elected to the Constitutional Convention of 1866 as a representative of Kaufman, Henderson, and Van Zandt counties.

The ink still flowed in his veins, and in 1867 he established the Union Intelligencer in Jefferson. And Norton was still a lightning rod: The Union Intelligencer was a staunchly Republican newspaper, and Norton again met hostility among embittered ex-Confederates enduring the humiliation of Reconstruction. In 1867 a mob wrecked his newspaper office and attempted to attack him. Wrote the Galveston Daily News: “The office and contents were destroyed by a mob and to save his own life, Norton was forced to flee to the thickets of Van Zandt [County] where he had friends and where he hid himself for several weeks.”

Over the next two decades as Norton the journalist published his newspaper, Norton the politician ran—unsuccessfully—for Congress twice, for governor twice.

But he also was appointed judge of the Fifth Judicial District of Texas, postmaster of Dallas, and U.S. marshal for northern Texas.

About 1868 Norton settled in Dallas, where he published an incarnation of his original Intelligencer. (I have enlarged the Henry Clay quotation in the nameplate.)

In 1870 Norton gave Fort Worth another chance with another newspaper, the Whig Chief. (The Whig Party had folded in 1854.) The Dallas Herald and Fort Worth Democrat did not seem to take the new paper seriously. And, indeed, the Whig Chief, like its predecessor, was short-lived.

Six years later, as the second (1860) Tarrant County courthouse was being torn down, copies of the Chief were found in the cornerstone.

Thirty miles down the Trinity River in Dallas, with his revived Intelligencer the peripatetic Norton at last had found stability, if not popular acceptance. His party affiliation had moved from Whig to Know-Nothing to Constitutional Union to Republican. He continued to promote the Republican philosophy in a largely Democratic city.

By 1893 Norton and his hand-cranked printing press had grown old together. The press no longer produced letter-perfect type. One day a printer asked Norton why he was not more concerned about the print quality of the Intelligencer.

Norton smiled woefully: “Most of the people of my political persuasion in this part of the country are the colored people, and a majority of those who read my paper, unfortunately for them, could not read its great truths even though printed with letters of gold on pages of silver.”

By 1893 Norton’s hair and beard were flowing and white. He still carried the walking stick given to him by Henry Clay in 1844.

Lightning rod Anthony Banning Norton died in Dallas on the last day of 1893.

In Fort Worth, Norton was little remembered, his Chief not even mentioned by name in this brief obituary from the Dallas newspaper. (The Chief was not “the first newspaper in the county.” The Birdville Western Express had been founded in 1855, the Birdville Union in 1857.)

Norton was seventy-two years old when he died in 1893. Retaining his allegiance to Henry Clay to the end, Norton was still unshorn and unshaven.

Henry Clay had been dead forty-one years.

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