Smith County, Texas

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History of Tyler
by Miss Lucy Marsh

 

The earliest inhabitants of this area were Indians, tribes of the Caddos and Cherokees; the former had lived here for more than two hundred years. The only trace of their civilization left were the paths, which were a contribution, because it was these trails that the white men travelled when they came looking for a land on which to live and to live meant just that. Their homesteads must be self sufficient.

When they first began to trickle in over these trails is not known. Many were held back by fear of the Indians until 1839, when that danger was removed, and then the settlers came in great numbers. These people were typical pioneers, dependent on their labor and resourcefulness to squeeze a living from the land. They were English speaking, protestant stock, many probably from the mountain regions of Tennessee, Alabama, and North Carolina.

Their motive for coming was to find a home of their own in a generous environment. The land was cheap - some sold for 50 cents per acre. The soil was fertile, the climate mild, the rainfall average, timber plentiful, and the water supply ample. This water came from large springs that ringed the location picked for Tyler.

They came in ox-wagons, packed with their meager possessions, or on horseback. Their transportation was slow, the hardships great. It was possible to bring only a few tools, what clothing they owned, and food staples to last until the first harvest. They cleared the timber and brush from their fields and built rude log houses.

On the heels of the early settlers a quite different type came. This was the planter who came from the southern part of the United States and was from a social-economic background quite different from the early homesteaders. They too were looking for greater opportunities in a new land. Many came from families of some wealth, education, and practical political experience. With this group farming was a business and a move was soon on foot to form a new county to make business transactions easier. This effort was successful in 1846 when the First Legislature of the State of Texas passed "An Act Creating Smith County." This act set out specific instructions as to the location and organization of both the county and its county seat. The speed with which this law was carried out is indicative of the men and their way of doing things. The Act was passed April 11, 1846; the first election was held August 8th, 1846 in which the County Commissioners were elected and the building of the first Court House authorized; the first term of court was held December 3rd, 1846 (the first case tried was a suit for divorce); and the first auction of lots on the square was held December 21st, 1846. In a period of eight months the boundaries of the county had been located, the 100 acres of land selected for the county seat, the square designated, and the lots on its perimeter surveyed and numbered. In the meantime there had been a condemnation suit to take over the 100 acres and the former owner was paid $150.00 for the tract. The county was named for General James Smith, a hero of the Texas Republic, and the county seat for the 10th president of the United States.

By 1850 the population of the town was 276 persons - 174 males and 102 females. A Methodist, a Baptist, and a Presbyterian Church had been organized, a private school opened, the first store built on the square.

The next decade was one of growth. More and more planters were moving in. Their standard of living was far above that of the early homesteader. Large farms were worked by Negro slaves, and surplus products for trade were necessary to satisfy these needs, and transportation was the bottleneck to commerce. Wagons were the only means of hauling freight. By 1860 cotton had become the chief cash crop; in 1850, 450 bales were produced, in 1860, 11,000 bales.

The need for a better system of transportation led to talk of a railroad. In a copy of the newspaper printed in the town in the 50's is an advertisement for a meeting of all people interested in a railroad for the town. The editorials in the paper indicate interest in politics; states rights, tariffs, and Know-nothingism. The social life has been described as gay - dances, houseparties, musicals. In 1855 during the performance of a travelling show, the balcony in the Federal Building fell and many were injured, none seriously.

By 1860 the population had increased to 1,027 persons. The community was prosperous. There were 31 merchants in the town, one of whose property was valued at 85,000.00, and five others with property worth at least $30,000.00. Most of these men were from the southeastern states; however, a few were natives of European countries. There were 4 stage coach routes serving Tyler. The heaviest trade was through Shreveport on the Red River. It took two weeks for the wagons to go one way.

There were 16 lawyers in the town - most of them college trained - several from the University of Virginia Law School, and one R. B. Hubbard, who later was elected the 15th governor of Texas and also served as United States minister to Japan, was a graduate of Harvard Law School. Politics was one of the chief interests of the people in Tyler, and they exerted much influence in the affairs of the state. This group - the planters - furnished the leadership to a growing and changing community, and they developed the cultural background which gave Tyler the prestige it possessed for decades. Up to 1930 this atmosphere gave the town unity.

The political issues mentioned above were the cause of the War Between the States from 1861 to 1865. The town suffered great losses in the war - in men, property, and temporary exhaustion. From 1865 to 1872 were the so-called reconstruction years with first military occupation and then with carpet bag rule.

However, by the early 1870's the old leadership had asserted its power again and displaced the radicals who had so badly mis-ruled Texas, and Tyler's progress began where it had left off 10 years before. The first bank was organized, and after twenty yeers the railroad came, and then a second railroad. R. B. Hubbard was elected the 15th governor of Texas, and O. M. Roberts the 16th governor, after having served as Chief justice of the Supreme Court.

There are no census figures available for 1870; but by 1880 the population had increased to 2,423. The first Catholic congregation was organized in 1878. The town flourished in the 80's. The first telephone exchange was installed in 1883 by Southwestern Telegraph and Telephone Company. About the same time the first electric lights were furnished the town by the Tyler Electric Light and Power Company. The electric plant was a by-product of the Tyler Car and Lumber Company, a builder of wooden railroad cars. The Car Company bought the electric generator so that it could dispose of the scrap and waste lumber. There were other factories and mills. Two national banks were organized. In 1882 the first public school was opened. In 1886 the first Library was opened - it was on a subscription plan and the project of the women's clubs - there were four. In 1886 the first Negro public school was opened.

This brings up another group of settlers, the Negroes. Before the war they had lived on the plantations and farms and worked the land. After the war most of them continued to work the land as tenants. As a group these farmers produced much wealth, which through their trade in Tyler, helped the town's growth. Some moved to town and their contribution to Tyler's growth was as the source of unskilled labor before the age of mechanization. They pushed the shovels, lifted the heavy loads, and worked as domestic help.

In 1850 the Negroes made up 16% of population in Smith County. 
In 1860  28% 
In 1910  40% the peak 

During and after World War I many migrated to the war plants of the east, north and west. A diminished but steady flow away from this section continues. At present 20% of population is Negro. The race problem has always been and still is a delemma. It is complicated by emotionalism caused by economic and social facets.

The 1890's were panic years. All three banks failed, business slumped, and times were really bad. The population had grown to 6,098. The first water works system was begun.

By 1900 the population was 8,069 and recovery had set in. The school system was expanded - three ward schools built.

In 1910 the population was 10,400. The following was the decade of the First World War. In 1915 the city government was changed to a commission form of government from Mayor Alderman type. The impact of the automobile was first felt and agitation for good roads began. Smith County pioneered good roads program for this state.

The 1920's began with a panic, but Tyler weathered it well. Street paving on a large scale began. Up to this time the people who chose to live in Tyler had individual motives. Of the later additions to the population the majority are associated with industries.

I have tried to give you an idea of your community's beginning and development. The characteristic that stands out has been the ability of its citizens to change with the times. They have looked forward and met each challenge.

Written January - 1958 - By Miss Lucy March, Tyler, Texas


Note by Mary Love Berryman:

A special thanks to Ms. Margaret Marsh Mebus who gave permission to publish this history on the internet. Although there are not many names mentioned in the history, I believe that it gives invaluable background material for researching Smith County people. There is a 1870 Census of Smith County but I guess Miss Lucy did not find it.

Miss Lucy Marsh was the daughter of Henry B. Marsh and Sarah Portis, descendants of the Marsh family which settled in Smith County in the 1850's. Miss Lucy had two sisters, Miss Mittie and Miss Sarah who were English teachers in Hogg Junior High School and Tyler High School and a brother Bryan. Miss Lucy handled the financial affairs of the family and my Dad rented an office from her. Her office was across the hall so I got to know her as a child. Miss Mittie was my English Teacher at Hogg and I was terrified of her but I did learn English. The Marsh Family has contributed much to Tyler and Smith County and we are grateful for their contribution.

Thanks also to Howard Marsh for obtaining permission to reproduce this document.

 

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