The Spanish Influence on the Organization of the County
Bonham Daily Favorite, November 22, 1992
One of the more pressing concerns of the new republican government of Texas was the creation and orderly organization of political/judicial areas into semi self-governing units. The units were designated as counties with the organization based on the Spanish/Mexican municipality. These municipalities were essentially large districts containing one or more settlements and a specified area surrounding the settlements.
Officers were a council (ayuntamiento), a judge (alcalde), several aldermen (regidores), an attorney (sinco procurador), a sheriff (alguacil), and a secretary (escribano). The modern day Texas county organization can be seen in this ancient Spanish influence although the duties and powers of these offices are based primarily on the county form of government as found in the southern areas of the United States.
Under the laws of the Republic of Texas the county government followed a set pattern of organization headed by a chief Justice appointed by Congress, and a varying number of Justices of the peace who were elected. Other major officers were the sheriff, coroner, and county clerk who were all elected; a tax assessor was appointed by the county board. The sheriff for a time was responsible for collecting taxes. One of the most important positions during these formative years was the county surveyor who was appointed by Congress.
Another important post was the county treasurer. Congress stipulated that each county clerk would serve in this position, but the Constitution of 1845 provided for a separate office appointed by the county board. In 1850 this position became elective.
Evidently Fannin County officials ignored the law for in the time period from 1841 to 1845 different individuals served as county clerk and county treasurer. The first to be listed by that title was Joseph Sowell in 1840.
The office must have had its problems. Sowell served only a short time before he was slain by Indian horse thieves at Warren in late 1841. John T. Scott was appointed to succeed Sowell but he tendered his resignation in July 1842.
Montgomery B. Shackleford took office after Scott but resigned in February 1843. Garrett Fitzgerald assumed the duties of the office in Januray 1843 but resigned two years later. The position was filled by William Porter from 1845 to 1848. It is assumed that county clerk Roswell Lee handled the affairs of the office during this two year break preceeding Porter.
Thomas Cowart, son-in-law of Bailey Inglish, was appointed to the position in 1848 and was re-elected to the post every two years after that until 1864. In September of that year Cowart was killed by bushwackers suspected of being Confederate army deserters. Tradition has long held that Eliza Inglish Cowart was appointed to fill her husband’s term. The commissioners records make no mention of this and curiously no treasurer is identified by name in these records until the election of Thomas Gates in 1866.
Congress did provide for the election of certain officers of a county, but when Fannin County was created in 1837 all the first officials were appointed. There are no records either locally or at the state level of any elections before 1840.
That first appointed government consisted of John G. Jouett, Chief Justice, Justices of the Peace James R. Oneal, Joseph Swaggerty, Thomas Lindsey, Mabel Gilbert, Thomas G. Kenedy, Robert B. Fowler, and Joseph Murphy. John Legg was also appointed but he left the area before serving.
The only other office indicated for that term was the County Clerk Thomas Jouett. He probably served as the tax assessor.
Although no mention is made of a sheriff, the records of the probate court (also presided over by the Chief Justice) indicate that John Hart was designated Sheriff.
The first county surveyor, Daniel Montague, was not appointed until 1840 and the District Court was not organized until that same year when John M. Hansford was appointed judge and J. S. Baker, clerk.
The first meeting of the government was in February 1838 at Jacob Black's cabin near Lexington. In 1839 the county seat was moved to Fort Warren and government offices occupied space in the newly constructed two story log courthouse.
The seat of government was transferred to Bois d'Arc (Bonham) in 1843 and a two room log structure was built in the village square.
One room was occupied by the clerks and tax assessor and the other room served as the court. The county surveyor occupied a small building with a school just southeast of the square.
Difficulty in travel coupled with distance created problems for county officials to attend to duties. In almost every term of the justices court various individuals are recorded as being absent and fined for non-attendance. In most cases the fines were rescinded when acceptable excuses were presented.
The Constitution of 1845 changed the title from Justice of the Peace to County Commissioner. In 1847 the number of commissioners was fixed at four.
The office of county attorney was created in 1866 and the office was appointive until 1876. Certain counties were allowed to establish the auditor's office in 1905 but only in 1945 was the office created statewide for counties with a population of 35,000 or more. The county health officer was installed in 1891, county superintendent of schools in 1887, and school trustees in 1911.
In the 156 year history of county government in Texas probably the most controversial act, statewide, was the removal from office of certain officials by the reconstruction government shortly after the conclusion of the Civil War. Among those removed in Fannin County were Samuel J. Galbraith, County Clerk, A.P. Carter, District Clerk, Thomas Gates, Treasurer, Sheriff C.M. Cotham, Commissioners Alexander Moore and John Carr, and County Judge James K. Blair.
During this era the name of the Commissioners Court was changed to Police Court, William Bledsoe was named Sheriff and a new position of Chief of the County Police was created with T.D. Bartley filling that office. In essence the area became a virtual police state and actions by the military authorities were probably instrumental in creating the Lee-Peacock feud and the ambush of Judge Hardin
Fannin County Museum of History
One Main Street, Bonham, Texas