The Munsons of Texas — an American Saga

Chapter Eighteen


Mordello Stephen Munson and Sarah Kimbrough Armour were married on February 6, 1850. They first lived at Bailey’s Prairie in the “Russell Place,” which they named “Hard Castle.” In about 1855 they built a new home nearby, which they named “Ridgely.” There they raised their family and lived the remainder of their lives. Today this is called “The Old Home Place.” Mordello was a stockman, farmer, and lawyer; he gradually accumulated a large plantation; and he served in the Texas State Legislature from 1857 until 1861. He was a strong proponent of slavery and secession, and in January of 1862 he left his family and plantation and volunteered for the Confederate Army.

When Mordello and Sarah were married, he was 24 years old — she was but 18. The site of the wedding is not recorded. It may have been held in Brazoria or Columbia, Texas, or at Black’s Ferry, where the bride’s mother and stepfather lived, or at Oakland Plantation, where the groom’s mother and stepfather lived. The new couple began their married life in the small house on Bailey’s Prairie known as the “Russell Place,” that had been purchased by brother William Benjamin in 1847. This may have been the residence of Mordello for the nine months after he returned from New Orleans and before his wedding. They named the place “Hard Castle,” and this was their home for about five years.

Although William Benjamin had written that he had bought 500 acres, there is only an estimated 360 acres in the plot as best identified today. It is now mostly thick woods with some cleared grazing land. Mordello owned five slaves from the division of his father’s estate the previous year, and he probably started his plantation immediately with cotton, corn, vegetables, and livestock. He also opened a law office in the county seat of Brazoria, about five miles away.

The location of their first home can be spotted today by the presence of the unusual perennial plant known as “cry-baby myrtle,” so named from the shape of the blossoms. These wild plants would be considered a part of the local weed crop today, but they were used as ornamental yard plants in those earlier times. To avoid the frequent floods, this home had been built on a ridge running through the property known as the “cooter back,” the slaves’ term for “turtle back.” In later years the largest cultivated field became known as the “north-field” and the northernmost pointed field as the “point-field.” These open spaces can easily be identified today among the huge, native pecan and live oak trees and the wild youpon holly and other underbrush. The late Lewis Munson supplied the above information as related to him by his father, Milam Stephen Munson, who was the eighth and last child of Mordello and Sarah, and who was born and raised on the property.

The Munsons had always been land hungry, and it did not take Mordello long to start building his plantation. On July 10, 1850, he purchased the adjoining 300 acres to the west from Lucinda Bailey Florence, the daughter of Smith Bailey and the granddaughter of Brit Bailey, for $750.00. The price represented $2.50 per acre.

During these years, land ownership records were often indefinite, overlapping, unrecorded, and/or lost; and William Benjamin had apparently not been careful in establishing clear title to his land. On November 15, 1850, a court petition was filed in Brazoria County District Court by James Knight of Fort Bend County complaining against Mordello S. Munson of Brazoria County as follows:

     That Petitioner is, and has been, since the tenth day of May, A.D. 1849, the legal owner of three hundred acres of land, situated near Bailey’s Prairie, in said County of Brazoria, being a part of the tract of land lately. . .occupied by William J. Russell, and being a part of the league of land originally granted to Cornelius Smith by the Government of Mexico, and, also, part of the two tracts of land purchased by William J. Russell in the year A.D. 1839 from Robert Scoby, and bounded as follows. . .
     That on or about the tenth day of May, A.D. 1849 Mordello S. Munson, a resident citizen of the County of Brazoria, with force and arms, illegally entered upon and took possession of the said three hundred acres of land, without the knowledge or consent of Petitioner, and the said Defendant refused to deliver up to Petitioner the possession of the aforesaid tract of three hundred acres of land, although often requested so to do -
     Wherefore your Petitioner prays that the said Mordello S. Munson may be cited to appear at the next Regular Term of your Honorable Court to be holden at Brazoria, in and for said county, to answer this Petition, that the said defendant be condemned to deliver up to your petitioner the tract of land aforesaid, that a writ of possession be granted to petitioner, and that he be quitted in the title and possession of said land.

This suit was dismissed in December of 1851. An entry in the court records dated December 6, 1851, reads: “In this case a rule for costs was taken by the Clerk and the same has not been satisfied, and the plaintiff still failing and refusing to satisfy said rule, it is considered by the Court that this case be dismissed under the rule of costs. . .the plaintiff and defendant both refusing to pay the Jury fee of three dollars. . .

On February 22, 1854, Mordello purchased from S. T. and Mary Angier a thirty-five-acre plot adjoining his land to the south at $4.30 per acre for a total price of $150.00. This was a part of the above contested land. Then a curious transaction took place on December 31, 1855. Mordello purchased from the wealthy Brazoria bankers and land-traders, Robert and David G. Mills, 500 acres at the high price of $10.00 per acre, a total of $5,000.00. This purchase included most, but not all, of the land in the James Knight petition as well as all of the Angier thirty-five-acre plot. The Mills brothers were the same men with whom William Benjamin had traded in 1847 to acquire the original land. It appears that they had re-entered the picture, and Mordello was paying them generously again to insure his title to the disputed land.

Some years later, on February 16, 1859, Mordello purchased from Polly Hinds, former wife of Smith Bailey and mother of Lucinda Florence, another adjoining 600 acres to the west at $3.33 per acre for a total price of $2,000.00. With this purchase Mordello owned all of the western quarter, and more, of the Cornelius Smith Survey — a plantation of approximately 1,500 acres — and he had paid a total of $7,900.00 in addition to William B. Munson’s original trade.

Mordello and Sarah’s family was growing during their years at “Hard Castle.” There they had their first two sons: Henry William, born on August 16, 1851, and George Caldwell, born on January 12, 1853 . Mordello named his first son for his father, Henry William (and his brother William), and the second for his brother George and his stepfather James Caldwell. With his first two sons, he had honored the names of his father, his stepfather, and his two closest brothers. In all he had six sons, and none was ever named for him.

In the operation of the plantation, the slaves tended the fields and the livestock. As fast as he could have more land cleared, Mordello increased the number of his cattle and horses, and the size of his cotton and corn fields. He organized his slaves for the various kinds of work. Ralph (or “Rafe”) was the general manager of all of the work, and Mordello held him responsible. Ralph issued instructions to two main foremen — one had charge of the stock and one had charge of the farming operations. Ralph would get the workers started, and then would go hunting or fishing. While cotton and corn were the major crops, Sarah’s diary mentions the setting out of tobacco and potato plants and the growing of wheat. A cotton gin was built in a field that came to be known as the “gin-house field.” Cotton was sold to the brokers in Columbia and Brazoria, including the Underwood firm and the Adriance firm. It brought varying prices on the New Orleans market, but the sale price was practically clear profit, as Mordello owned the land and his slaves supplied all of the labor.

Sarah similarly organized the household work. One slave was trained to cook and serve the family and the “company meals.” Her diary shows that family members, neighbors, the minister, friends, and “drop-ins” were very frequent visitors. Slaves scoured and carded the wool, carded cotton, and did the spinning. Others were trained to dye the thread and weave it into cloth, and some were trained seamstresses and made clothing. Still others did the washing and ironing. Soap and candles were homemade. As the babies came, a slave was trained as a nurse. Almost every entry in Sarah’s diary tells of making clothing — including shoes, coats, and deerskin vests — for some member of her family. Sometimes cloth was purchased from Brazoria, Columbia, or Houston.

It is obvious that Mordello and Sarah were well on their way to building their large plantation, and it is obvious that his law practice was flourishing. In later years his son Milam Stephen remarked that his father’s activities as lawyer, stockman, and planter were so closely intertwined that he could easily be classified as any one of the three. At some time he opened additional law offices in Houston and in Galveston. His reputation as one of the finest land title lawyers in Texas, and at the same time honest and trustworthy, brought him clients from many sections of the United States. At some time he was in partnership with A. L. Lathrop and later with H. T. Garnett, and an H. H. Shepard once wrote asking to be admitted into his office.

Family records relate that in about 1855 Mordello and Sarah built a long, rambling ranch house — four bedrooms, a living room, a dining room, and a kitchen. The story is told that one spring day they were walking through the woods when a wild turkey hen suddenly flew up from her nest. They decided then and there that this would be the location of their new home. It was about three-quarters of a mile to the west of “Hard Castle” on their newly acquired 300 acres. The house backed up to Mill Bayou, and they named it “Ridgely.” Always careful and apprehensive of fire, they housed the kitchen in a separate building nearby, connected to the main house by a covered walkway. A smaller separate building with two rooms was added as Mordello’s office, and this later became the “boys’ room.” Mordello and Sarah moved their family to the new home and lived there the rest of their lives. The house burned a few years after Mordello’s death in 1903, and the lands were divided among their children in 1907. Almost all of these particular lands are still owned by their descendants today.

Two daughters were born to Mordello and Sarah during these years: Emma on February 26, 1855, and Sarah Kimbrough II on June 9, 1858. It is not known why they chose the name Emma, but Sarah Kimbrough, always known as “Doll,” was named for her mother. On May 22, 1861, their fifth child, Joseph Waddy was born. He was named for Sarah’s favorite uncle, Joseph Kimbrough Waddy (“Uncle Jo”) of Collierville, Tennessee.

In April of 1852, Ann and James P. Caldwell and children Robert Milam and Mary Jane moved from Oakland Plantation to Hays County near San Marcos, Texas. Oakland remained a family enterprise with Mordello as “Curator” and Gerard as the resident manager. The annual profits were divided among all members of the family. In October of 1856, James, Ann, and Mary Jane Caldwell were visiting in Brazoria County, possibly for the marriage of Gerard and Ann Westall, when James Caldwell became ill in the yellow fever epidemic of that year and died on November 16, 1856, at the Bailey’s Prairie home of Mordello and Sarah.

Mordello’s Participation in the State Legislature and Secession [1]

In 1857 Mordello was elected to the Seventh Texas Legislature as the representative from District 52, which was Brazoria County, and served two terms from 1857 until 1861. When Mordello was first elected in 1857, the contest for governor was between then United States Senator Sam Houston and Hardin R. Runnels. The vote was 32,552 for Runnels and 23,628 for Houston. Houston had served as president of the Republic of Texas for two terms and had led Texas to statehood. In 1846 he was one of the first two U. S. Senators elected from Texas (along with Thomas J. Rusk), in which capacity he served for twelve years. Certain of his moderate votes on the slavery issue were unpopular in Texas and led to this defeat as governor. He ran for governor again in 1859 and defeated Runnels by a vote of 36,257 to 27,500. Thus Mordello’s two terms were served under the governorships of Hardin Runnels and Sam Houston. During these years the two-year legislatures usually met only one time for about two months. The Seventh Legislature under Governor Runnels was in session only from November 2, 1857 until February 16, 1858. The Eighth Legislature under Governor Houston, which struggled with secession from the Union, was in regular session from November 7, 1859 until February 13, 1860 and in extra session from January 21 until February 9, 1861. Governor Houston refused to take the new oath of office required by the Secession Ordinance which became effective on March 2, 1861, so Lt. Governor Edward Clark assumed the office of governor and called the Eighth Legislature into adjourned session from March 18 until April 9, 1861.

During the early years of these sessions the legislature dealt with the problems of Mexican and Indian raids on the Texas frontiers, efforts to attract railroad building in the state, and the settlement of fiscal matters with the United States. Texas attracted railroads to the state by granting large amounts of public land to the railroad companies in return for their building railroads. Today many Texas land surveys carry the names or initials of these early railroad companies, as the H.T. & B.R.R. Survey at Bailey’s Prairie, which became a part of Mordello’s Ridgely Plantation.

The legislature frequently appropriated money to send armed expeditions against the raiding Comanches, Apaches, and Lipans in west and north Texas; and the Mexicans along the Rio Grande. In 1859 Governor Houston appealed to the federal government in Washington to take steps to stop the raids of a band of Mexicans under the leadership of Juan Nepomuceno Cortina. The U. S. government acted promptly by directing Colonel Robert E. Lee, then in command of federal troops in the Department of Texas, to adopt the most energetic measures to destroy Cortina and his band. Colonel Lee, with his regular army men and a group of Texan volunteers under the command of Colonel John S. Ford, occupied Fort Brown (now Brownsville) and defeated Cortina in a battle on December 27, 1859. The raiders were dispersed, leaving the country in comparative quiet.

The overwhelming issue of these sessions was the ever-rising national threat to the institution of slavery, which was the very life-blood of this southern agricultural society. Most of the citizens had never known anything else and would give slavery up only by the force of arms. The heart of the national debate then centered on the status of slavery in the new states rapidly entering the Union. When California entered as a slave-free state in 1850, this gave the free states control of the U. S. Senate and the House of Representatives. Attention then turned to the rapidly growing Kansas-Nebraska Territory, where armed conflict soon broke out over the question of the eventual slave status of these future states. The southern states felt severely threatened. In 1858 the Texas Legislature, of which Mordello Munson was a freshman member, passed the following resolution:

     Resolved, That the Governor of the State is hereby authorized to order an election for seven delegates to meet delegates appointed by the other southern States, in convention, whenever the executives of a majority of the slave-holding States shall express the opinion that such convention is necessary to preserve the equal rights of such States in the Union, and advise the Governor of this State that measures have been taken to meet those of Texas.

General Sam Houston was inaugurated as governor on December 21, 1859, and Mordello Munson was re-elected as a member of the Eighth Legislature. This session was consumed primarily with constant state military action against the Indians and the lengthy considerations leading to secession from the Union. In late 1859, South Carolina, the leader in the secession movement, passed a resolution calling for a convention of the southern states to consider such action. In the Texas Legislature a Committee on Federal Relations was appointed to consider the call. On February 7, 1860, during the regular session of the Eighth Legislature, Mr. M. S. Munson, for the majority, read the following report to the legislature:

     To the Hon. M. D. K. Taylor, Speaker of the House of Representatives:

     The preamble and resolutions passed by the legislature of the State of South Carolina, and submitted for our consideration, have been deliberated upon by the Committee on Federal Relations, and your Committee respectfully submit to the House for its action the following resolutions:

     1st. Resolved. That the State of Texas declares that whenever one section of the Union presumes upon its strength for the oppression of the other, then will our constitution be a mockery, and it would matter not how soon the Union was severed into a thousand atoms and scattered to the four winds.

     2nd. Resolved. If the principles of confederation upon which the American Union was consummated are disregarded, there will be for Texas neither honor nor interest in the Union; if the mighty, in the face of written law, can place with impunity an iron yoke upon the neck of the weak, Texas will be at no loss how to act or where to go before the blow aimed at her vitals is inflicted. In a spirit of good faith Texas entered the Federal fold. By that spirit she will continue to be influenced until it is attempted to make her the victim of Federal wrong as she will violate no Federal right, so she will submit to no violation of her rights by Federal authority.

     3rd. Resolved. That the Legislature of Texas assure South Carolina and all her sister states, that she will not submit to the degradation threatened by the Black Republican Party for, sooner than subject herself to the ignominy ensuing from sectional dictation, she would prefer restoration to that independence she once enjoyed. Sorrowing for the mistakes which she committed in sacrificing her independence upon the alter of her patriotism she would, if there were none others to act with her, unfurl again the banner of the Lone Star and re-enter upon a national career, where, if no glory awaited her, she would at least be free from a subjection by might, to wrong and to shame.

     4th. Resolved. That we pledge ourselves to any one or more of the states to co-operate with them, should it become necessary, to resist Federal wrong, and claim that it is not only our right, but imperative duty, at all times to aid any member of the Confederacy in protection of property, in preserving the lives of women and children and in resisting fanaticism and treason.

     And that the Governor is hereby requested to transmit a copy of the above preamble and resolutions to the governor of South Carolina, and to the Executives of the various states of the Union, and to our Representatives and Senators in Congress.

John H. Manly of the committee submitted a minority report stating that none of the evils complained of were ascribable to the legitimate operations of the federal government, that the dissolution of the Union would cure none of the evils complained of, that it behooved those who had been faithful to the Constitution to maintain the government against its enemies, that the doctrines that a state had a right to secede from the Union or to practice “nullification” was dissented from, that it was inexpedient to send delegates to such a convention as that proposed by South Carolina, and that no sufficient cause existed for taking the incipient steps for a dissolution of the Union.

The resolution was adopted by a majority of the legislature, and early in the year 1860 Governor Houston ordered a canvass of the citizens of the state to ascertain their views on this matter. The resolution was ratified by an overwhelming majority of the voters as the country convulsed over the issue.

Amidst this furor a president of the United States was to be elected in the fall of 1860. For the last eight years the office had been in the hands of Presidents Pierce and Buchanan, both elected by the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party was the major national party, but a division sprang up in the party concerning the details of the determination of slave-holding rights in the territories and in new states. The party became so divided that when the 1860 nominating convention met in Charleston, South Carolina, it was unable to make a nomination between the leading candidates, Stephen Douglas and John Breckinridge. The contentious, stalemated convention adjourned to Baltimore, where the delegates split and both men were nominated by their factions. A third splinter group, the Constitutional Union Party, put forth the nomination of John Bell of Tennessee. After the Democratic Party, the next most powerful party was the new Republican Party which nominated Abraham Lincoln from Illinois. In Texas only two tickets were run, those listing Breckinridge and Bell. Public furor and suspicion were rampant when Lincoln was elected by a minority of the national voters and without the support of a single southern state.

In Texas popular excitement became intense, and throughout the state public meetings were held at which a great majority of the people felt that Texas had only the alternatives of withdrawing from the Union or awaiting the destruction of her domestic institution of slavery. Even as this was the dominant popular impression of the time, Governor Houston sought by every means within his power to stay this tide and preserve the Union. In December of 1860, promptly after Lincoln’s election, South Carolina passed the Ordinance of Secession. Within two months five other states had joined her and had agreed to an assemblage of delegates at Montgomery, Alabama, for the purpose of forming a new Confederate Union. Governor Houston declined to support a call for a convention in Texas to consider secession. However, when mass meetings over the state called for such action, a call was issued, signed only by the lieutenant-governor and numerous state officers and distinguished citizens, requesting the people in all counties to assemble on January 5, 1861, to elect delegates to a Secession Convention to assemble in Austin on January 28. Such convention was to have the authority to determine the future course of Texas on this grave question.

To face this issue, Governor Houston issued a proclamation convening the legislature in extra session on January 21, 186l. Mordello Munson was a member of this legislature. Governor Houston transmitted his message detailing the condition of the state. It dealt heavily with matters of protection from Indian raids. He then concluded with his message on secession, which read in part as follows:

     The Executive feels as deeply as any of your Honorable Body the necessity of such action on the part of the slave-holding States as to secure to the fullest extent every right they possess. Self-preservation, if not a manly love of liberty. . .prompts this determination.
     But he cannot feel that these dictate hasty and unconcerted action, nor can he reconcile to his mind the idea that our safety demands an immediate separation from the government, ere we have stated our grievances or demanded redress. . .
     While deploring the election of Messrs. Lincoln and Hamlin, the Executive yet has seen in it no cause for the immediate and separate secession of Texas. . .
     Whatever may be the course of Texas the ambition of her people should be that she should take no step except after calm deliberation.
     . . .The time has come when, in my opinion, it is necessary to invoke the sovereign will for the solution of this question affecting our relations with the Federal government. The people, as the source of all power, can alone declare the course that Texas shall pursue, and, in the opinion of the Executive, they demand that the legislature shall provide a legal means by which they shall express their will, as free men at the ballot-box. . .

The legislature then passed an act recognizing the pending convention as a plenary body and representing the sovereignty of the people of Texas, but with the restriction that a proposal to secede would have to be submitted to the people.

The Secession Convention assembled at Austin on January 28, 186l, with 177 delegates. The five delegates elected from Brazoria County included Mordello Munson. On February 1, 1861, the convention passed the Secession Ordinance, dissolving the relations of the State of Texas to the federal government and declaring that Texas resume her position as an independent government. The ordinance was adopted by a vote 166 to 8 . Mordello Munson’s name is not among the signatures and is not among those who abstained. For reasons unknown, it appears that he did not participate in this phase of the convention.

On February 2, 1861, the convention adopted an “Address to the People of Texas,” which set forth the reasons which impelled its action. The numerous reasons listed included the following: “. . . leaders of the North had preached such strange doctrines as ‘the equality of all men, irrespective of race or
color. . . "

On February 23, 1861, by a vote of 44,317 to 13,020,3 the voters of the state approved the Secession Ordinance. In its final session, called to canvass that vote, the convention approved the Provisional Constitution of the Confederate States of America adopted in Montgomery, Alabama. It also modified the Texas Constitution of 1845 into the Constitution of 1861, substituting “Confederate States” for “United States” wherever the latter term occurred. The president of the convention declared Texas out of the Union on March 2, 1861, the twenty-fifth anniversary of Texas independence.

Of the 177 members of the convention, about 145 served in the Confederate army, the exceptions being mostly men who were too old to serve. Seven became generals, thirty became colonels, and about thirty were killed in battle or died in the service.

The convention then assumed that secession was an accomplished fact, and that Texas had become one of the Confederate States. An ordinance was passed requiring all officers of the state to take a new oath in accordance with these changes. This placed Governor Houston in a most trying position. When the appointed hour for such oath occurred, at noon on March 16, 1861, Houston and six other state officers did not appear for the oath, and when they did not appear by the next day, Lieutenant-Governor Edward Clark entered upon his duties as acting governor. A few days later Governor Houston retired to his home in Independence and later in Huntsville, where he died on July 26, 1863.

The first shots of the Civil War took place at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, on April 12, 186l. The first serious battle was at Bull Run, Virginia, on July 21. A state of war was proclaimed by the governor of Texas on June 8, and energetic measures were adopted for raising and drilling troops. On July 8, 1861, the port of Galveston was blockaded by a federal fleet and soon thereafter all of the ports of the Texas coast were blockaded, leaving Texas shut-in from the rest of the world. Mordello Munson’s term as a legislator ended in the fall of 1861, and in January of 1862 he enlisted as a private in the Confederate Army at Galveston, Texas.


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