We’ve always known that Sam Houston and Mirabeau B. Lamar despised each other. What we didn’t know until a district judge began poking around in a Harris County warehouse is that the two Texas icons tangled in court in 1843 over a grave issue of state. Well, sort of grave. To be more precise, they tangled over used furniture in the president’s log cabin “mansion” in downtown Houston.
As the lawsuit lays out the details, the Texas Republic’s first president left his personal furniture behind when he moved out of the presidential cabin. Lamar claimed he also trashed the place. When the new president moved in, he sold the furniture and used the proceeds to patch the floor, whereupon Houston sued his successor for conversion of personal property.
Houston won, and Lamar appealed. On the last day that the Supreme Court of the Republic of Texas met before becoming the state Supreme Court, the justices affirmed the lower court ruling.
State District Judge Mark Davidson, the amateur history sleuth who discovered the hitherto unknown court case, pointed out the rat holes in the fragile paper, the holes caused by the fading acidic ink and the folds that would eventually be tears had the document not been rescued a few years ago. “Historians have been through all the letters and all the notes that they know of,” he said. “There are no unknown letters of Sam Houston still around, until now. And that to me is what’s really cool about this.”
Davidson, whose day job is to handle asbestos cases in Texas, has a thing about tracking down buried treasure – not gold and silver buried by a Jean Lafitte or a Jesse James, but nuggets of historical information hidden away in old county records. The burly Republican jurist also has a thing about preserving those records for posterity. The nuggets keep turning up.
The judge’s sense of urgency about preserving these records was fueled back in 1994 when the president of the Houston Bar Association asked him to write six stories about Harris County legal history. Deciding to dig into county records from the 1800s, he was directed to an un-air-conditioned warehouse, the records vulnerable to rats, bugs, weather and the ravages of time.
He came across a file containing the records of a collections lawsuit brought in 1853 by William Marsh Rice, the New Englander who came to Houston in 1838 at age 21, amassed a huge fortune and ultimately endowed the university that bears his name. Davidson saw the makings of a good story, but when he took the paper out of its envelope, it crumbled into confetti in his hand.
He scooped the scraps into an envelope and carried them to District Clerk Charles Bacarisse, who had been in office all of two weeks. Davidson dumped the confetti on his desk. “Do you know what that is?” he asked.
A surprised Bacarisse did not.
“This is one of your files,” Davidson said. “And there are 30,000 like it.”
Davidson, who keeps the scraps in a plastic bag, found an ally in Bacarisse, who immediately got the materials into an air-conditioned building. “That wouldn’t have saved it, but it slowed down the damage,” Davidson said. “And then, to his credit, a lot of people got together and worked on a project to raise money when commissioner’s court said, ‘Our contribution to this effort will be zero.’ ”
Today, the records are preserved and bound in a quiet, climate-controlled room on the second floor of the Harris County Civil Court House. Volunteers from the Daughters of the American Revolution and several aspiring Eagle Scouts have been working since last fall to index the voluminous material, which is available to the public by appointment.
Davidson, 61, continues to mine the records with the zeal and enthusiasm of a Gold Rush ’49er. Showing me around the other day, he picked up a 1924 document filed by a 19-year-old Houstonian who wanted to be declared an adult so he could take over his father’s company. The name on the document is Howard Hughes Jr. “If it has to do with Houston, it’s in here,” the judge said.
“Judge Davidson has an infectious passion for the local history found in court documents,” Harris County District Clerk Chris Daniel told me. “And he turned that passion into action. The historic documents room at the district clerk’s office wouldn’t exist without him.”
The story of Emeline
Perhaps Davidson’s most spectacular find – a stack of papers he pulled out simply because it was one of the largest – is an 1847 court case involving a freed slave named Emeline. According to court documents, Emeline (last name unknown) was the product of a union between a white man named Nunnally and one of his slaves, a woman named Rhoda. Nunnally’s sister was the wife of President Andrew Jackson, making Emeline the niece of the first lady of the United States of America. The young woman moved to Houston and in 1847 was seized by a man intent on selling her back into slavery. He took her two children as well.
“Somehow she gets a lawyer by the name of Peter Gray to represent her, and he was probably the best lawyer in Houston at the time,” Davidson said. “He was a member of the legislature and the author of ‘Texas Civil Practice Act,’ which is the predecessor to our ‘Rules of Civil Procedure.’ He also founded a law firm, Gray, Botts and Baker.” (Houstonians will know the street named in his honor, W. Gray.)
Although the Gray family had been slave-owners back in Virginia and Gray himself would serve with the Confederacy, he not only agreed to represent Emeline but managed to persuade a jury in slave-owning Harris County that she should be freed. (My Chronicle colleague, Andrea White, is writing a children’s book about Emeline; the Houston Grand Opera is preparing a chamber opera that will tell her story.)
The judge is well aware that similar hidden treasures in courthouses throughout the state are in danger of disappearing, not only because the records are deteriorating but also because they’re easy prey for thieves and vandals. “You can go into almost any courthouse in Texas with an exacto knife in your pocket, and say, ‘I want to see some records from the nineteenth century,’ and they’ll say, ‘Go to that back room, hon. They’re there.’ All somebody has to do is go back there, slice it out and stuff it in your pocket.”
Davidson also has found historic items on eBay and other Internet auction sites. “I once bought for $125 John Wesley Hardin’s conviction records from Tyler County, a murder trial,” he said. “I sent it back to the Tyler County district judge, saying, ‘You might tell your clerk to keep better watch on this stuff.’ ”
So should we all. Clerks in small counties need to be better trained. The Texas Legislature needs to appropriate money to preserve these irreplaceable treasures.
“The stuff we have here, and are still finding, is priceless,” Davidson said. “It’s a portal to our past that no historian has ever looked up. All over the state, there are local treasures that are unknown.”