An Englishman's Journey Through Texas
Bonham Daily Favorite, August 30, 1992
There are, of course, certain salient facts about the history of any community. Usually these facts are little more than a framework on which the fabric of the community is woven. The 155 year history of Bonham is known primarily from its framework and not from the more mundane descriptions of its growth and development, its statistical data, or records of its governing bodies
Bailey Inglish brought the first settlers to the area in March of 1837. That's a given. Fort Inglish was built in the autumn of that year as protection against bands of marauding Indians. That's another given. Alexander Russell opened the first general store in Bonham about November 1837. How do we know? Probate records for the county contain charge bills, presented for payment, to the estates of deceased persons, from Russell's establishment in that time frame. The first school was in a building shared by the county surveyor located where Hickory Bar-B-Que is today. An order to sell this building is found in the minutes of the Fannin County Justices Court.
But none of these snippets of information really tell us much about the town. What did it look like to the traveler passing through to other destinations. Were there good prospects for a young man seeking his fortune? Who elected to build a certain style structure for his residence or his business? How was the business area defined and separated from the residential areas? The records tell us very little.
A better look at 19th century Bonham, particularly during those formative years before the Civil War, comes from a variety of writings, journals, diaries, and especially correspondence from persons who were eye witnesses to the evolution of Bonham from a frontier settlement to a small bustling county seat.
The first of these writings are from a book published in England in 1850 by a Dr. Edward Smith. Smith journeyed to Texas in early 1849 with the intention of locating an area of rich farm land to which he could introduce a colony of English citizens. In fact, the prospectus he published did attract about 100 colonists who sailed to Galveston and from there made a difficult overland trip to the Bosque River some 50 miles north of Waco and established a a community called the City Of Kent. Inexperience, hostile Indians, poor living conditions, and a general dissatisfaction with the plan caused the colony to be abandoned.
To locate this proposed colony Dr. Smith journeyed through much of east, north, and central Texas gathering data from various sources. Bailey Inglish was his primary host in Bonham although he did quote from additional sources. Unfortunately Smith failed to make accurate and frequent listings of the dates during which he visited an area. We can only guess as to the approximate times he was visiting Bonham.
His first statement concerns a brief description from Inglish of the region when he and other settlers arrived. Most of the information concerns availability of plentiful game which initially was the mainstay of the pioneer diet. According to Inglish it was not until the next season that they could procure any vegetables. He went on to say that it was virtually impossible to obtain milk, butter, cheese, sugar, tea, coffee, beef, or mutton at any price.
Dr. Smith also commented on the relative sizes of Bonham and Paris, each according to his calculations, having a population of around 300 persons. An additional comment about Bonham concerned the courthouse being built of brick but other houses in the area were constructed of pine boards.
In discussing religious organizations Smith reflected that most of the mainstream Protestant churches had extensive organizations in the area but the Methodists and Presbyterians being more influential
In an effort to apprise the educational backgrounds of the persons he interviewed Smith also made record of the books or libraries maintained in homes. At Bailey Inglish's he noted that there were a "variety of legal, classical, and literary works."
Although not descriptive of Bonham, Smith did comment on an incident that had transpired earlier involving several men accused of killing and robbing a small band of peaceful Indians in southeastern Fannin County. This incident will be detailed more extensively in a later column.
Much of Smith's commentary comes from interviews with Inglish. Paraphrasing his host, Smith had this to say, "On arrival the country was in the possession of the Indians and he (Inglish) had to maintain a perpetual war against them. A few settlers lived near each other and built a blockhouse into which they ran when attacked by Indians, and whence they could fire down on them. These blockhouses were stored with provisions and ammunition. The danger was always present, so that during fifteen or so years he never slept more than three hours on any one occasion, and was awakened with the slightest noise. His dogs did much toward destroying the Indians by keeping watch whilst the men slept and their barking whenever the Indians appeared. Near to his present residence he built a blockhouse, which years ago was their castle."
Smith also remarked that Inglish had recently built a new frame house for education and religious purposes. "The school is well attended by children during the week and on Sundays the chapel is filled with worshipers. They have religious services regularly and believe that no moral place could be found in the world."
Dr. Smith was extremely interested in the health of the communities he visited. Interviews with Dr. Penwell and McKay (probably Dr. S.W. McKee) elicited these comments: " Their neighborhood is particularly healthful. Ague is their ordinary disease. The attacks are slight (except along Red River) and they rarely see a patient more than once. All emigrants are liable to attacks but those persons exercising ordinary temperance and prudence have nothing to fear.''
From the scant reports contained in Smith's prospectus we can construct something of a more detailed picture of Bonham fourteen years after its emergence from the frontier prairie and just before the community began to shape its character and fortune at mid-century.
Next week, Bonham as seen through the eyes of two young single men who came to Texas searching for their fortunes.
Fannin County Museum of History
One Main Street, Bonham, Texas