About Willis Stewart

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Peters (Peters’) colony was the name commonly applied to a North Texas empresario grant made in 1841 by the Republic of Texas to twenty American and English investors led by William S. Peters, an English musician and businessman who immigrated to the United States in 1827 and settled in Blairsville and then Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Peters viewed the colony primarily as a business venture. But, influenced by his studies of the philanthropic ideas of William Godwin and Thomas Paine, he may also have envisioned the colony as providing new opportunities for the English industrial middle class. Half of the investors were residents of England, and the other half were residents of the United States.

Of the Americans six were probably related to Peters-three sons and three sons-in-law. All of the original investors, except possibly one or two, were native Englishmen. The headquarters of the Peters colony was in Louisville, Kentucky, where Peters’s son William C. operated a successful music store. From this music store W. S. Peters and Samuel Browning, Peters’s son-in-law, departed in June 1839 to seek English support for the colony. This was the first of several trips Peters made to England and France on behalf of the colony. He returned from England in July 1841 with news from the London investors, and in Austin on August 30, 1841, Browning signed the first of four contracts with the Republic of Texas.

The first contract established the boundaries of the colony as beginning on the Red River at the mouth of Big Mineral Creek, running south for sixty miles, then west for twenty-two miles, north to the Red River and then east with the river to the point of origin. According to the terms of the contract the empresarios had to recruit settlers from outside the republic at a rate of 200 families in three years. In return the colonists were to be granted 320 acres per single man and a maximum of 640 acres per family. The empresarios were allowed to retain up to one-half of a colonist’s grant as payment for services rendered, including land surveys and title applications. The empresarios provided powder, shot, and seed and in some cases built settlers’ cabins. The empresarios also received ten sections of premium land from the republic for each 100 families.

Insufficient unappropriated land within the boundary of the colony led to a request for an extension of the boundary, which was granted in a second contract, signed on November 9, 1841. This contract extended the boundaries of the colony forty miles southward, but also increased the number of required colonists to 800. On November 20 the Texas Agricultural, Commercial, and Manufacturing Company was formed in Louisville, with the addition of seven Louisville associates, to help offset the absence of financial backing from the London investors. The new company sent the first group of immigrants to the Cross Timbers area of Texas by steamboat as early as December 1841, but difficulties in attracting and keeping people in the colony caused the company to request an extension of time and another adjustment of the boundaries. By terms of a third contract, signed by Sam Houston for the republic on July 26, 1842, the company was given a six-month extension for the introduction of the first third of the colonists, and the boundary was extended to enclose a ten-mile-wide strip on the west and a twelve-mile-wide strip on the east. In return for these concessions, however, the republic reserved for itself each alternate section of land.

On October 3, 1842, the English investors transferred their interests to three other Englishmen and three Americans who were each scheming for control of the colony: Daniel J. Carroll, Sherman Converse, and Charles Fenton Mercer. Converse, after persuading the Louisville group to assign their rights to him, obtained a fourth contract with the Republic of Texas on January 20, 1843. It gave a five-year extension, to July 1, 1848, to fulfill the contract and added over ten million acres to the west of the colony. When the promises that Converse had made were not fulfilled, the Louisville group, thinking themselves deceived, found additional investors and reorganized as the Texas Emigration and Land Company on October 15, 1844. Under the leadership of Willis Stewart, an astute Louisville businessman and one of the new investors, the company made good its claim to be the true owners of the Peters colony. The confusion over ownership, however, discouraged immigration to the colony, and by July 1, 1844, according to the company’s own agent, Ralph H. Barksdale, there were only 197 families and 184 single men in the colony. The company was further hampered in its attempts to attract settlers by an ordinance passed by the Convention of 1845 that required an investigation of all colony contracts on the assumption that they were unconstitutional. The company increased its problems by employing as its agent in 1845 the London-born Henry O. Hedgcoxe, whose foreign and officious manners irritated the colonists and reinforced a commonly held suspicion that the contractors were mere land speculators. An influx of squatters into the colony also complicated the company’s task of administrating the colony.

Expiration of the contract on July 1, 1848, did not end the company’s difficulties. Land within the colony was now legally open for the free laying of certificates that permitted new settlers to obtain grants of 640 acres from the state. Many of the old settlers thought that the company’s claim to up to half of what they considered their land was intolerable. The settlers demanded that the legislature rectify an unjust situation. Their protest took the form of mass meetings, petitions, and a colony convention, held in Dallas on May 21, 1849. During the controversy John H. Reagan and James W. Throckmorton, neither of whom were colonists, emerged as leaders in the protest movement. In January 1850 the legislature attempted to end the controversy by passing a law to secure the colonists’ claims. The legislation, which was detrimental to the empresario company’s interests, angered the stockholders of the Texas Emigration and Land Company and led to litigation. A compromise was reached on February 10, 1852, when the legislature passed an act granting 1,700 sections of land in floating certificates to the company. The colonists would have until July 1, 1852, to establish their claims, and the company would have 2½ years from that date to lay its certificates. The colonists immediately opposed the compromise law and resolved to continue their fight. On July 12, 1852, a citizens’ committee forced its way into Hedgcoxe’s office in Collin County to investigate the Englishman’s records. At a mass meeting in Dallas on July 15, 1852, the committee issued an unfavorable report on Hedgcoxe. On July 16, 1852, a contingent of armed men from the Dallas meeting attacked Hedgcoxe’s office and drove him from the county in an incident that became known as the Hedgcoxe War. A settlement was eventually reached, and the compromise law was amended to extend the deadline for colonists to file their claims to May 7, 1853. But it took nearly ten legislative enactments over nearly twenty years to bring final settlement of the land titles. The colony that helped settle North Texas brought little if any profit to the investors and much disgruntlement among the settlers.