Before Burleson
By Robert Griffith, October 2008
Updated January 24, 2009

On 10 October 1881 General Grenville Mellen Dodge, an engineer with the Missouri, Kansas & Texas Railroad sold to M.W. Bailey and Samuel J. Williams the first lots in Burleson, Texas; before their simple, functional wooden business houses were raised, before the smoke and steam of the great iron horse pounded through northern Johnson County, this land had been indistinguishable from much of North Central Texas. Before them, the small, knotty hills and swaths of scraggily, brush-filled woods were broken only by rocky fields and the seasonal streams and rivers which cut lazily into the hearty soil.

Anglo settlement crept west following the Texas Revolution, but permanent settlements did not take root in North Central Texas until after the Civil War and relocation of the Indian tribes. The first recorded Anglo settlers in Johnson County arrived in the 1850s, and to them fell the task of clearing the unbroken land of its unforgiving natural timber and chalk-like limestone rock. For their labor, adventuresome pioneers were rewarded with pleniful sources of water and fertile black clay soil.

Those who bought and sold large portions of Johnson County before these iron-willed settlers arrived were not the rugged, callused sort pictured in John Ford films but speculators and politicians seeking fortune ‘out West’ and to fulfill the American right of Manifest Destiny. One of these determined, industrious souls was Hanson George Catlett (1808-1854), who ventured to Texas in October 1836.

Catlett left his wife and children in Maryland to make a better life in Texas. He courted favor with politicians, soldiers, and the President of the Republic of Texas, Sam Houston. He served as County Surveyor in Navasota (later Brazos) County in 1841 and 42, Postmaster of Austin in 1843 and 44, and an assistant clerk for the Texas State Department in 1844. During the Mexican War, Catlett served as a courier for Generals Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott before earning a commission as a captain in the U.S. Army, where he ventured into Mexico on reconaissance and courier missions.

Upon his discharge from the U.S. Army in 1849, Catlett partnered with then-U.S. Secretary of War and former Governor of Georgia George Crawford (1798-1872) and U.S. Senator from Georgia, Robert Toombs (1810-1885), to secure land scrip in Texas. The idea was to purchase large swaths of land sight unseen, survey it, then turn around and market the land based on its location and availability of natural resources, with the expecation and likelihood of receiving a substantial profit. In the partnership, Crawford and Toombs provided the financial backing while Catlett surveyed and secured titles to the land. Altogether, the partnership acquired rights to more than 80,000 acres of land, of which Catlett was entitled to one-third for his services. Included in their holdings were portions of present-day Cook, Johnson, Montague, Parker, and Tarrant Counties.

Hanson G. Catlett died in Austin on August 19, 1854 before many titles were properly secured and inventoried. As so happens, Catlett’s death fell the same month Johnson County was organized with a section of the Crawford, Toombs & Catlett holdings. Colonel Middleton Tate Johnson, for whom Johnson County was named, administrated Catlett’s estate until his son Henry B. Catlett arrived to settle his affairs, having never settled in Texas as his father long desired.

Administering H.G. Catlett’s estate was set aside when the surviving partners, Crawford and Toombs, became embroiled in Civil War politics. George W. Crawford chaired the Georgia secession proceedings in 1861 and Robert Toombs served as a brigadier general in the Confederate Army; while H.G. Catlett’s son and heir, Henry, enlisted and earned the rank of 1st Lieutenant in the Confederacy. After the surrender at Appomattox, Robert Toombs fled to Paris, France, where he remained until 1867. Then, on June 7, 1869, George Crawford sold to his son William P. and son-in-law Samuel W. Mays his interest in the partnership in consideration of “the sum of $1.00 and the good will and affection to the said grantees.” The following April 27th, Henry Catlett sold his interest in 100,000 acres for $7,500, half to William P. Crawford and Samuel W. Mays, the other half to Robert Toombs.

William P. Crawford turned over his interest to Samuel W. Mays and brothers James T. and Samuel E. Bothwell on April 2, 1875. Eight months later, on December 20th, Robert Toombs, Mays, and the Bothwells appointed attorneys J.P. Smith and J.J. Jarvis of Tarrant County to sell the land.

The National Bank of Augusta, the National Exchange Bank, The Bank of Augusta, and the firm of Harmon-Rowley acquired a one-quarter stake in the one-half interest owned by Samuel Mays and the Bothwells on June 29, 1877. Alfred Baker and H.H. Hickman, trustees for the banks, appointed Eugene F. Verdery of Tarrant County on November 14, 1877 to sell the land.

On September 20, 1879, Henry C. Renfro bought 898 acres from Toombs, Mays, and the Bothwells for the sum of $1,100. In the warranty deed, the land is described as—

BEGINNING at the east corner of 160 acres sold to Isaac J. Dickson, a stone from which a mesquite marked X bears south 48 degrees and west 579 feet;

THENCE North 45 degrees, west 950 varas to a mesquite which bears north 38 feet and west 194 feet;
THENCE North 45 degrees, east 329 varas to a corner of the tract sold to Collins;
THENCE North 45 degrees, west 78 varas;
THENCE North 45 degrees, east 768 varas to the north corner of the David Anderson Survey;
THENCE South 45 degrees, east 372 varas to the west line of the David Anderson 1/3 League Survey;
THENCE South 1918 varas to the northeast corner of a 120 acre tract sold to Thomas J. Mills;
THENCE West 1188 varas to a stake in line with the 80 acre tract sold to W.N. Warren;
THENCE North 45 degrees, east with the south line of said Warren and Isaac Dickson tracts to the place of BEGINNING, containing 281 acres.

Henry Carter Renfro (1831-1885) migrated to Texas from his native Tennessee, landing in 1853 at Baylor University in Independence, where he befriended Dr. Rufus C. Burleson, president of the university and influential Baptist minister. Renfro struck out for Johnson County in the spring of 1858 to visit his widowed sister on her farm near Alvarado. After selling his parents' farm in Cass County, Renfro settled in Johnson County and took a local woman, Mary Ray, as his bride. In 1860, Henry Renfro assisted in the establishment of the Bethesda Baptist Church. He and three brothers volunteered to serve the Confederacy in the War Between the States. Through his friendship with Burleson, Renfro became a Chaplain in the 10th Texas Infantry Regiment. After returning from the war, Renfro gained prominence as a Baptist minister in revivals across North Texas. He prospered as a farmer and rancher, acquiring land in central and northern Johnson County.

In 1881, General Grenville Mellen Dodge, an engineer with the Missouri, Kansas & Texas Railroad approached Renfro to sell a portion of his land, including that he purchased from Toombs, Mays, and the Bothwells in 1879, for the Denison to Waco road. According to an account from Renfro’s daughter, Mary Annette Clark, pubished by the Burleson News in 1910, H.C. Renfro offered to sell his land if General Dodge would guarantee the townsite and allow Renfro to retain every other lot. Dodge refused.

Then on March 17, 1881, Renfro sold 161 acres to Robert E. Montgomery for $1,500 in cash. Montgomery, Dodge’s son-in-law and partner in similar land deals in Washburn and Wichita Falls, turned the land over to Dodge for the same amount, $1,500 cash, on October 18, 1881.

The property sold to Dodge is described as—

BEGINNING at the east corner of a 160 acre tract sold to Isaac J. Dickson, a stone from which a mesquite marked X bears south 48 degrees, west 579 feet;

THENCE North 45 degrees, west 950 varas to a mesquite bearing north 38 degrees, west 194 feet;
THENCE North 45 degrees, east 329 varas to the corner of the tract sold to Collins;
THENCE North 45 degrees, west 78 varas;
THENCE North 45 degrees, east 768 varas to the north corner of the J.W. Henderson Survey;
THENCE South 45 degrees, east 372 varas to the west line of the David Anderson 1/3 League Survey;
THENCE South 1918 varas to a stake in the line of a 90 acre tract sold to R.N. Warren;
THENCE North 45 degrees, east with the south line of said Warren and Isaac J. Dickson tracts to the place of BEGINNING, containing 281 acres more or less.

Renfro included another 20 acres, described as—

BEGINNING at the southeast corner of said Isaac J. Dickson 160 acre tract, a stake in the prairie;
THENCE North 45 degrees, east 950 varas to a stake from which a mesquite bears south 48 degrees, west 579 feet;
THENCE North 45 degrees, west 118.8 varas;
THENCE South 45 degrees, west 950 varas;
THENCE East with the line of said 160 acre tract 118.8 varas to the place of BEGINNING, both of said tracts forming one tract in one body of 301 acres SAVING AND EXCEPTING a tract of 140 acres to be taken out of said tract of 301 acres described as follows:

BEGINNING at the northeast corner of a 129 acre tract sold to Thomas Jefferson Mills;
THENCE West 1300 varas to a corner in Warren’s land;
THENCE North 45 degrees, east 1345 varas to a corner stake and rock;
THENCE East 313 varas to a corner stake and rock on the east boundary line of the J.W. Henderson Survey;
THENCE South 902 varas to the place of BEGINNING, making the tract hereby conveyed to G.M. Dodge containing 161 acres more or less.

How aware Renfro was of the relationship between Dodge and Montgomery is unclear. Bolstering the argument Renfro was aware of the connection between Montgomery and Dodge is the fact the townsite was named for Renfro’s mentor and friend, Dr. Rufus C. Burleson. In his later years, Renfro's reading of religious and historical texts drew him into the classes of free-thinkers and, for their time, liberals. Ironically, Renfro never lived in the town he is given credit for founding; he continued to live on the homestead near Bethesda until his death on March 2, 1885. Dr. Burleson made the arduous trip to Bethesda from Waco to deliver a eulogy for his late friend's funeral, attended by more than a thousand area residents. Only days later, Renfro's youngest child, James Burleson Renfro, succumbed to the pnuemonia which killed his father and was buried at Henry Renfro's side. In 1894, Mary Renfro sold her husband's farm and commissioned a fine Victorian home in the town of Burleson. Their daughter Margaret Annette Clark lived in the home until her death in 1943. As recently as 2008, direct descendents of Parson Henry Renfro continue to call Burleson and Johnson County home.

Over a quarter-century, G.M. Dodge divided Burleson into blocks and lots, selling land to dozens of the area’s pioneering merchants and settlers, among them Samuel J. Williams, George W. Bransom, H.C. and P.H. Goodloe, Samuel F. Hackney, Wallar H. Overton, William P. Lace, and George W. Dobson. His legacy, and theirs, is the prosperous, sprawling town of Burleson, Texas.

Special thanks to Jackie Wilson of Burleson for her loan of detailed abstracts which formed the basis for this narrative. - Robert Griffith

Bibliography

“Abstract of Title to Part of 4, all of lot 5, block 6 in Burleson.” Johnson County Abstract Company, Cleburne, Texas. Jackie Wilson Collection, Burleson, Texas.
“Abstract of Title to Part of block 6, Burleson, Texas.” Johnson County Abstract Company, Cleburne, Texas. Jackie Wilson Collection, Burleson, Texas.
A Memorial and Biographical History of Johnson and Hill Counties, Texas." Chicago: Lewis Publishing, 1892.
Burleson Historical Committee. Burleson - The First One Hundred Years. Dallas: Taylor Publishing, 1981.
“George W. Crawford.” New Georgia Encyclopedia website, accessed 7 October 2008. http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/nge/Article.jsp?id=h-3244
Griggs, William Clark. Parson Henry Renfro: Free Thinking on the Texas Frontier. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994.
“Hanson Catlett.” Texas State Cemetery website, accessed 7 October 2008. http://www.cemetery.state.tx.us/pub/user_form.asp?step=1&pers_id=8870
Personal Notes of Michael H. Beard.
Private Papers of George Washington Bransom (1843-1933). Alice Bransom Collection, Burleson, Texas.
“Robert Toombs.” New Georgia Encyclopedia website, accessed 7 October 2008. http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/nge/Article.jsp?id=h-799

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