1860: Big Trouble
Texas was a cotton state and wholly Southern in its attitudes about slavery. Many of the most prominent planters and politicians in the state were openly secessionist. Also working for secession was a shadowy group called the Knights of the Golden Circle. The Knights were for a Southern confederacy that would expand aggressively into Mexico and the Caribbean, creating a vast agricultural empire that would supply world markets with cotton, rice, sugar, and coffee. The Knights actually tried to mount an invasion of Mexico in the spring of 1860, but it collapsed from ineptitude as soon as it began.
With their secret society and grandiose ambitions, the Knights might have seemed like a joke, but Sam Houston knew better. National events were conspiring to fuel secession fever. Abraham Lincoln, the Republican candidate committed to stopping the expansion of slavery into the territories, appeared likely to win the 1860 presidential election. If that happened, Houston knew that at least some of the Southern states would leave the Union.
How could he prevent Texas from being one of them? Houston moved in several directions. Ever the schemer, he took a page from the Knights’ book and hatched a plan to establish a protectorate over Mexico. Houston hoped Texans would rather go adventuring against their old enemy than fight their fellow Americans. If worse came to worst, he could lead a charge to reestablish the Republic of Texas rather than let Texas join the proposed Confederacy. On a more concrete level, Houston prepared for possible unrest by secessionists by beefing up the Texas Rangers and stacking the officer corps with Unionists loyal to himself.
If Houston’s machinations ever had a chance, they went up in smoke on July 8, 1860. That day, a series of mysterious fires broke out in North Texas. A blaze destroyed downtown Dallas. The same day, fire destroyed half of Denton’s town square, and a store in Pilot Point burned down. Fires were reported in Kaufman, Waxahachie, and other towns. In the aftermath, a Dallas newspaper editor, Charles R. Pryor, leveled the accusation that “certain negroes” had confessed to a conspiracy to launch a slave uprising that would make the legendary Nat Turner’s rebellion look like child’s play. The masterminds behind the plot were two white abolitionist preachers who had been whipped out of town the previous year.
Pryor’s sensational allegations were published in newspapers across the state. Rumor spread that the slaves and abolitionists had planned to add mass murder, poisonings, and rapes to the arson. In an outbreak of mob justice that became known as the “Texas Troubles,” alarmed Texans formed committees to search for and punish blacks and whites who might have participated in the conspiracy. At least 30 people are known to have been hanged by the vigilantes, though the actual number may have been as high as 100. One of the preachers, a Methodist minister named Anthony Bewley, was pursued all the way to Missouri by a posse, brought back to Texas and hanged, and his bones displayed and given to children for playthings.
By September, the panic had played itself out. But the damage was done. Kansas-style violence had come to Texas. Most Texans were now convinced that abolitionists and their Republican overlords would stop at nothing to hurt the slave states, even encouraging blacks to rise up and kill their masters. Many Texans felt that secession was the only way to keep themselves, their families, and their property safe.
Neither Pryor nor anyone else ever produced any evidence against slaves or white abolitionists for the July 8 fires. The cause of the fires is still unknown. Many historians believe they may have been accidental, caused by the effects of extreme summer heat and improper storage of highly unstable phosphorous matches, which had just been introduced.
Page last modified: August 5, 2011