The Republic of Texas constitution adopted in 1836 provided for the following land grants for “citizens,” that is, individuals who were residents on March 4 of that year when independence was declared—“Africans, the descendants of Africans, and Indians excepted.” (Note 1.)
- Head of family: one league (4428 acres) and one labor (177 acres) of land (4605 acres total);
- Single man age 17 or older: one-third of a league of land (1476 acres).
William Becknell was not among the very earliest residents of Red River County to act on his right to land. Perhaps during 1837 he was considering whether to relocate further south. Nevertheless, on February 5, 1838, the Red River County Board of Land Commissioners issued Certificate No. 167, which entitled him to a grant as a head of household, and he settled on the land that became known as Becknell’s Prairie.
It would be another 15 years before Becknell established legal title to the 3500 acres (5-1/2 square miles) that he occupied about five miles west of Clarksville. He finally obtained a formal grant of that land from the state of Texas on August 16, 1853, based on the 1838 certificate, and the grant was recorded in Red River County in 1855. (Note 2.) His compliance with these legal niceties resulted from a court case filed in 1852—in which he was both a nominal defendant and a witness—and which is described in more detail below in this Part X.
Both Becknell sons also obtained Board of Land Commissioners certificates on February 5, 1838, but for a single man’s allotment of one-third of a league (1476 acres). In order to meet the residency requirement, William Jr. and four witnesses attested to his “continued residence from the 17th December 1835 untill the present time.” (Note 3.) Whether he was actually a resident when Texas independence had been declared might be questioned, given that he spent much of 1836 back in Missouri. (Note 4.)
William Jr. never occupied land that he was entitled to under his grant. Instead, he promptly sold his rights to Martin Guest on March 23, 1838. (Note 5.) In any event, the certification process establishes that he was single at the time of his emigration.
John Becknell was also granted the right to one-third of a league of land by the Board of Land Commissioners in Red River County, although details of his certificate beyond the February 5, 1838, date of issue have not been preserved. Unlike his brother, John converted his grant into title for a tract of land. Like his father, however, John did not promptly pursue formal title, but a patent was finally issued to him on March 28, 1856. (Note 6.) On November 29, 1839, he had prospectively sold to B.F. Ellis 300 acres “of good tilable land to be located” in Red River County, apparently in anticipation of this grant. (Note 7.)
The land John was granted spanned the Sulphur River (Sulphur Fork) where that river divides Red River County from Franklin County (once part of Titus County). Although the exact location has not been mapped, it became known as Becknell’s Crossing and was near where State Highway 37 crosses the river five miles south of the present-day town of Bogata.
Records of the Board of Land Commissioners also provide emigration dates for the two Becknell sons-in-law at that time. F.J.C. Smiley arrived December 22, 1835, and as a head of household was granted a certificate for a league and a labor of land. (Note 8.) William Becknell’s other son-in-law at the time, John K. Rogers, arrived in Texas on October 17, 1837. (Note 9.) Under the Texas constitution, a head of household arriving at that time could receive a grant of 640 acres, and Rogers was awarded a certificate for that amount.
It also appears that the Becknell family sought a grant based on the earlier emigration to Texas of Mary Becknell’s father, William Chribbs. In May 1838, Red River County’s land office department filed a list of certificates issued the prior month. Certificate 594 for one league and one labor was issued to the “Heirs of Wm. Cribbs” who was identified as deceased and having emigrated in 1813. (Note 10.)
William Becknell again organized militia companies in Red River County for brief periods of service between 1838 and 1842, but they apparently did not travel far from home. (Note 11.) No encounters between these companies and hostile Indian forces were recorded. Beachum suggests that a motivating factor for the militia members may have been to serve long enough to earn bounty land certificates. Each of the three Becknell men received a certificate for 320 acres. (Note 12.)
On March 24, 1840, a jury in the District Court of Red River County found William Becknell liable to Charles E. Spence for a debt of $125. (Note 13.)
During this same time, John and William Becknell were charged with assault and battery by the Republic of Texas. The records don’t establish whether it was the elder or younger William who was involved, but it seems less likely that the father (who was now past 50) would have gotten into trouble. In any event, on March 27, 1840, the prosecuting attorney dropped the charges. (Note 14.)
For some reason, William Becknell, Sr., and his son John decided about this time to record a transaction they claimed had taken place in Missouri prior to their emigration—the sale of the father’s three slaves to his son. (Note 15.) This included Phillis and her son Harvey (whom the elder Becknell had bought in Lexington, Missouri, in February 1834) along with a man named Martin who was about 45 years old. This has all of the appearances of a paper transaction, as these three slaves would later be part of the elder Becknell’s probate estate. (Note 16.) But, in any event, the property transactions that have been described in this Part X generally correlate with Texas property tax lists in 1840. (Note 17.)
Dr. Sappington’s Anti-Fever Pills
William Becknell would quickly lose 1000 acres of his 3500-acre Red River homestead.
By 1838, Dr. John Sappington and his business partner and son-in-law, Meredith M. Marmaduke, were doing thousands of dollars of business selling quinine “Anti-Fever Pills” far beyond Missouri’s borders. They sold wholesale to numerous individuals in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas and commonly took notes promising payment instead of cash. (Note 18.)
In 1838, Becknell purchased $2000 worth of pills from an agent of Sappington and Marmaduke and in return gave a note in that amount. This was at least the second time Becknell had purchased Sappington’s pills for resale in Texas. By early 1840, Becknell found himself unable to resell the pills in the Red River region and therefore unable to pay off his note. (Note 19.) As Becknell explained in a second letter to Sappington in September 1840, the agent had
promised to make no other deposit near me. But I soon found the country stocked with them which disapointed me in making sale of what I had the last time.
Becknell further explained that he had shipped his stock of pills to the interior of Texas where they had been sold for “Texas money.” Becknell’s note, however, apparently required payment either in gold or silver or U.S. currency, and Republic of Texas currency was not readily convertible. He offered to pay Sappington in Texas money or “in good land at a reasonable price.”
Sappington decided to accept payment in land at a price of two dollars per acre, and a 1000-acre parcel out of Becknell’s property was identified to pay off the $2000 note. (See the map of William Becknell’s land above.) But the Texas constitution forbade the ownership of property in Texas by non-residents like Sappington and Marmaduke, who both lived in Missouri. The way around this hurdle was to have Becknell deed the property to a Red River County resident named Thomas J. Shannon, as trustee. This tactic may not have been an ironclad solution to the legal problem, which is possibly reflected in the way the initial documents were drawn up to memorialize the transaction.
On February 6, 1843, Becknell signed a bond to deed the agreed-upon 1000 acres to Shannon in consideration for $2000. (Note 20.) The document was necessarily only a bond (not a deed) because Becknell had yet to obtain title for the land from Texas. The document fails to mention Sappington or Marmaduke or even that Shannon was acting as a trustee on someone’s behalf.
Another transaction, which became public during later legal proceedings, also took place on that February 6 between Shannon and Marmaduke. Marmaduke was also, at the time, the lieutenant governor of Missouri, having been elected in 1840. (Just a year later, when Missouri Governor Thomas Reynolds committed suicide on February 9, 1844, Marmaduke would become governor and serve less than a year before failing to win re-election.)
The companion agreement between Shannon and Marmaduke provided that Shannon would hold the property until he could sell it for at least three dollars per acre, at which time he would sell it and pay 90% of the proceeds to Marmaduke. What Shannon did instead, in 1847, was to sell the property to his brother (James P. Shannon) for only 50 cents an acre. He enhanced the appearance of propriety by conducting a public sale in Clarksville, advertising the sale in advance, and using the Red River County sheriff to cry the sale. Then, in 1849, Shannon repurchased the land back from his brother. (Note 21.)
Becknell was present at the 1847 sale and told people there that the sale was fraudulent. Although many people were at the sale, the low price probably reflected uncertainty about what was being purchased, if only because Becknell had not yet received his original homestead title. It was later generally agreed that the land had always been worth at least two dollars an acre.
Undoubtedly, Sappington and Marmaduke quickly learned what Shannon had done, but it was not until November 1, 1852, that Marmaduke filed suit in Red River County over the matter. Texas had been admitted as a state on December 29, 1845, and the newly adopted state constitution no longer prohibited land ownership by non-residents. In addition to suing Shannon, Marmaduke named Becknell as a defendant—not for the purpose of seeking payment but so that Becknell could be ordered to convey the land to its rightful owner.
On November 22, 1853, Becknell gave a brief deposition in the case. (Note 22.) He testified that it was Thomas C. Wright who had acted as Sappington’s agent and had directed that the 1843 bond be made to Shannon. (Wright signed the bond as a witness.) At the time of the deposition, Becknell had just received title from the state several months before. It appears that he had begun actively pursuing documentation of his property only after the lawsuit was filed.
On December 4, 1854, the district court in Clarksville granted the following judgment in favor of Marmaduke. (Note 23.)
We the jury find that the sale made by T.J. Shannon was fraudulent and that J.P. Shannon acted as the agent of T.J. Shannon in the sale of the land. . . . The defendant Thomas J. Shannon held the land set forth and described in plaintiff’s petition as trustee of plaintiff . . . it is therefore ordered and decreed that the said bond made by defendant William Becknell to defendant Thomas J. Shannon . . . be set aside and cancelled . . . and that the defendant William Becknell convey to plaintiff Meredith M. Marmaduke the land . . . .
Shannon appealed the judgment to the Texas Supreme Court, which issued its opinion the following year. The court affirmed the district court judgment in favor of Marmaduke, explaining that Shannon could not benefit from a sale of the property that he was obliged hold as trustee. (Note 24.) Dr. Sappington died a year later, on September 6, 1856.
Although Becknell’s 1838 purchase of the Anti-Fever Pills was not necessarily a bad business venture, the deal earned him ridicule in Red River County. In fact, the story would survive as a local legend for a hundred years and even long after Becknell’s name was no longer associated with it.
In the early 1950s, Floyd C. Shoemaker, secretary of the State Historical Society of Missouri, was conducting research on Becknell and contacted E.W. Bowers, Red River County District Clerk. On Dec. 12, 1955, Bowers responded to Shoemaker with various documents and information, including the following comment: “Among the best known items of folklore of this region is the story of where a man traded 1000 acres of black land for 1000 boxes of pills.” Bowers went on to say, “All trace of the name of the man who traded the land had been lost until I found this old deposition of Captain Becknell describing and explaining the transaction which was not exactly like the old story had but remarkably accurate for folklore.” (Note 25.)
Copyright 2012-2014 Gregory Hancks
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