It’s the story of one of local history’s greatest “might have been”s.
The story begins on May 24, 1841, when General Edward H. Tarrant’s Republic of Texas militiamen clashed with Native Americans at the Battle of Village Creek in present-day Arlington. Captain John Denton, for whom a city and county are named, was killed. (The above report of the battle to the secretary of war is from the July 14, 1841 Austin City Gazette.) In response to the battle, the republic directed Major Jonathan Bird to establish a fort in the upper Trinity River valley to protect white settlers in the area. Bird built Bird’s Fort near the Trinity River at what is now Calloway Lake in north Arlington. The fort, although short-lived, evolved into the area’s first settlement. In fact, in 1841 John Neely Bryan invited settlers at Bird’s Fort to relocate to the site of a town he envisioned twenty miles to the east. Some at Bird’s Fort took Bryan up on his offer. In fact, Bryan married a woman, Margaret Beeman, whose family had moved to Dallas from Bird’s Fort.
The military abandoned Bird’s Fort in 1842, but the fort had one more duty to perform:
This faded clip from the October 7, 1843 Red-Lander newspaper of San Augustine reads:“Correspondence. Washington. Sept. 23d, 1843. A. W. Camfield: Having received instructions from Generals Terrell and Tarrant, Indian commissioners, Mr. Eldredge left here on the 20th for the neighborhood of Bird’s Fort, in company with Colonel Tom J. Smith. Nothing has been heard from the commissioners since I last wrote you. Yours, S.”
Generals George W. Terrell and Edward H. Tarrant, Indian commissioners of the Republic of Texas, had instructed J. C. Eldredge, superintendent of Indian affairs for the republic, to go from Washington-on-the-Brazos, the capital of the republic, to Bird’s Fort. Traveling with Eldredge was Thomas Smith, a Texas Ranger and Indian agent. In those days news traveled slowly: By the time this newspaper article was published, Tarrant and Terrell had already negotiated the Treaty of Bird’s Fort on September 29, 1843. The treaty was intended to end hostilities between the republic and several Indian tribes.
Page 1 of the treaty reads:
Whereas, a treaty of peace and friendship between the Republic
of Texas and the Delaware, Chickasaw, Waco, Tah-woc-cany, Keechi, Caddo, Ana-dah-kah, Ionie, Biloxi, and Cherokee tribes of Indians, was concluded and signed at Bird’s Fort, on the Trinity River, on the twenty ninth day of September, in the year of Our Lord one thousand eight hundred and forty three, by G.W. Terrell and E.H. Tarrant, Commissioners on the part of the Republic of Texas, and certain chiefs, Headmen and warriors of the tribes
of Indians aforesaid, on the part of said Tribes; which treaty is, in the following words, to wit:
A Treaty of Peace and Friendship, Between the Republic of Texas,
and the Delaware, Chickasaw, Waco, Tah-woc-cany, Keechi, Caddo, Ana-Dah-kah, Ionie, Biloxi, and Cherokee tribes of Indians, concluded and signed at
(Photo from Texas State Library & Archives Commission.)
Bird’s Fort faded into history after the treaty was signed, but local white settlement continued. Statehood came in 1845, and settlers petitioned the state for local self-government.
This clip is from the February 3, 1850 Texas State Gazette in Austin, the newspaper of record of state government. The clip is the text of the legislative act of December 20, 1849 that created Tarrant County. The act states that the new county would measure thirty miles on a side (like so many other north Texas counties) and be located due west of Dallas County. That area then was part of sprawling Navarro County. The new county would be surveyed and divided into precincts. On the first Monday in August 1850 Tarrant County voters would select officials and a site for the county seat. Middleton Tate Johnson would open the returns. The act called for the county seat to be provided with jail, courthouse, and other public buildings. Six men, Johnson among them, were named to lay out the county seat and to sell town lots.
Like me, all your life you may have read that in 1850 voters in the new county of Tarrant selected an existing settlement named “Birdville” to be the county seat. But look at the last sentence of section 6: “the place receiving the highest number of votes shall be the place established as the county seat of said county of Tarrant, and shall be called Birdville” in honor of Major Bird. That sentence seems to say that the new county seat was given the name “Birdville,” not that Birdville was given the title of county seat.
Likewise, the notion that the winner of the county-seat election would be named “Birdville,” not that Birdville was the winner of the election, is echoed in this footnote in Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 100, July 1996-April, 1997.
However, says the Birdville Historical Society: “Birdville area resident Ed Terrell offered his log cabin for an election polling site to choose the new county seat and to elect officers who would succeed the temporary persons appointed the preceding December 1849. The election, on August 5, 1850, was won by Birdville. Tarrant County in 1850 had a population of 599 whites and sixty-five slaves.” (See 1850 census.)
By 1850 Tarrant County had few civilian settlements to choose among for the county seat. Notable were the small civilian settlement around the Army fort, Grapevine, and Johnson Station. But Grapevine and Johnson Station were not within five miles of the center of the county, as stipulated by the state. The Army fort settlement at the confluence of the Clear and West forks of the Trinity River was centrally located. But one historian says that five miles northeast of the fort was a community of thirty families that also was centrally located. That community won the election and became “Birdville.”
In 1851 two landowners, William Norris and George Akers, donated forty acres each from their respective adjoining surveys for the site of county seat buildings and streets for Birdville. This 1895 county map shows Birdville and the surveys of W. Norris and G. Akers.
In 1851 farmer John A. Hust, Tarrant County’s first tax assessor, filed with the state of Texas a copy of the plat of Birdville. The plat consisted of twelve blocks within a grid of nine streets. Most of the plat today is located on Birdville school district property. Four of those original streets—Broadway, Edwards, Rogers, and Walker—still can be found. Today another original street, Elliot Street, is Bewley Street; Main Street today is Carson Street. The first county courthouse (C on aerial photo) was in block 7 where Birdville Church of Christ is today. Akers Street was named for George Akers, who donated land for the townsite. Hutton, Rogers, Elliot, and Johnson streets are named for Vincent J. Hutton, Walling R. Rodgers, Sanders Elliott, and Middleton Tate Johnson, who are mentioned in Section 5 (see above) of the legislative act establishing Tarrant County. Walker Street probably was named for Birdville booster Albert Gallatin Walker (see below), who may have surveyed the plat.
Town lots were not sold until 1854.
This Tarrant Appraisal District map shows the Birdville town plat. Lot 1 of block 1 was in the upper right corner of this map, north of Broadway Avenue and east of Willowcrest Drive.
The first county courthouse was a log building. This photo from Down Historic Trails of Fort Worth and Tarrant County shows the old building in a state of neglect.
Birdville prospered as the county seat. Perks came with the job. For example, as the county seat, Birdville received priority for post roads and postal service. These clips are from the March 8, 1851 Clarksville Standard and the February 7, 1854 Texas State Gazette. (Alton was the Denton County seat at the time.)
Each month the county seat hosted “Court Monday” (also known as “First Monday”), the day of the month when people came to town to attend court proceedings at the courthouse and to buy and sell on the courthouse square. The tradition continues in county seats such as Canton and Weatherford.
As county seat, Birdville drew important people such as Isaac Parker, who settled there in 1853. Parker served in both the House and Senate in Austin.
Also settling in Birdville in 1853 was attorney Edward Hovencamp, who became a judge and district attorney. Another Birdville attorney was R. B. Sigler. Birdville also had a physician. Note that Dr. Hamilton lived and worked in the Birdville Hotel. Ads are from the May 10 and April 5, 1856 Dallas Weekly Herald.
Some people settling at Birdville had Peters Colony land grants for 640 acres (a family) or 320 acres (a single man). This certificate, dated April 7, 1856, is from Governor E. M. Pease to Samuel Tucker for 320 acres at Birdville. (Samuel Tucker will reenter the county seat saga in Part 2.)
Birdville soon had two newspapers. In 1855 John Courtenay founded the Birdville Western Express. In 1857 Albert Gallatin Walker (pictured) founded the Birdville Union. Cowtown would not get its first newspaper until 1859, when Anthony Banning Norton founded the short-lived Fort Worth Chief. (Photo from J. C. Terrell‘s Early Days of Fort Worth.)
Editor Walker also was a surveyor and had surveyed the new county’s boundaries. Clip is from the April 25, 1855 Texas State Gazette.
On March 17, 1855 the Clarksville Standard printed this ad for lots for sale in “the flourishing town of Birdville.” Benjamin P. Ayres, who lived east of Fort Worth, had been elected Tarrant County’s first clerk.
On the day after Independence Day 1856, the Dallas Weekly Herald reported that a number of Dallas County residents had celebrated the Fourth at barbecues and balls in Fort Worth and Birdville. The clip mentions an Independence Day celebration at La Reunion French commune in Dallas County. Fort Worth postmaster Charles J. Louckx (1846-1913) came to Fort Worth from La Reunion.
On July 12, 1856 the Dallas Weekly Herald reported growth in Birdville and pointed out that Birdville had plans to build a permanent brick county courthouse.
Ah, but Fort Worth had plans of its own.