Most of the area that is now the southern part of the United States, as well as Mexico and the modern countries in Central and South America – with the notable exception of Brazil – was originally explored and claimed by Spain, beginning with Christopher Columbus in 1492. But by the late 1700s wars with France and England had drained her treasury, thus making the administration and protection of her colonies difficult. She was beginning to lose control over large portions of her once vast colonial empire. It was in this setting, in 1803, that Spain sold the Louisiana Territory to the United States for fifteen million dollars, but the Province of Texas, to the west, was retained.
In 1821 Mexico, after a bloody revolution, claimed independence as well. The southern border of Mexico is today about where it was in 1821, but the northern border included all of Texas, California, New Mexico and Arizona, plus parts of Nevada, Utah and Colorado. Texas was a vast area with few native inhabitants, and fewer still of Mexicans, probably no more than four thousand. Spain, in approximately three hundred years, had established only three small communities in Texas: San Antonio, Goliad, and Nacogdoches.
The 1820s was a time when pioneers from the United States were looking ever westward, and the Mexican government welcomed them, as well as other foreign settlers. Every married man was offered a league of land (4428 acres), and anyone who brought in one hundred families was given a bonus of twenty-three thousand acres. A basic requirement, however, was that they swear allegiance to Mexico. Americans, as well as Europeans, began to pour into Texas. The central government in Mexico City soon became alarmed as the Northern-European-based population grew. By 1835 there were over thirty thousand Americans alone in Texas.
A number of minor confrontations with Mexican Army administrators, as well as several repressive edicts and decrees by the central Mexican government – not the least of which was the law of April 6, 1830 which forbade the settlement of any more Americans – served to antagonize the new Texans, as well as many of the Mexicans living in Texas. The final result was the Battle of Gonzales on October 2, 1835; the first hostile action in the Texas Revolution. The Battle of San Jacinto on April 21, 1836, when Santa Anna’s Army was defeated by the forces of General Sam Houston, is generally recognized as the date of Texas independence from Mexico. On February 16, 1846 Texas became part of the United States, the only state – other than Hawaii – to be able to claim that they were once an independent kingdom or country.
Smith County is located in the eastern part of Texas, between the Neches and Sabine rivers in an area of rolling hills, fertile soil, and tall trees. The earliest inhabitants were the Caddo Indians, whose roots extend to prehistoric times. The East Texas region, including the land which would become Smith County, was settled during the winter of 1819-1820 by a tribe of Cherokees led by Chief Bowles, and by associated tribes of Choctaw, Delaware, Shawnee, Kickapoo, Biloxi, and Quapaw Indians. For the next sixteen years Chief Bowles attempted to establish a legal Indian claim to all of the land west of the Angelina and Sabine rivers, east of the Neches, and north of the San Antonio Road. Finally, in February of 1836, the political leaders of Texas authorized the Treaty of Thirteen Articles to insure Indian alliance to the Texans during the Texas Revolution. After the war was won, however, the Texas Senate revoked the treaty as being in conflict with the land grant given David G. Burnet, president of the Republic, but the Indians continued to live in the East Texas area.
A year after the treaty was revoked eighteen members of the Killough, Williams, and Woods families were murdered by renegades in the extreme northern part of present Cherokee County. Later, dispatches outlining a plan to have the Cherokees join an uprising against the Texas Anglos were captured from some of the followers of Vincente Cordova, a Mexican rebel. These developments, added to the aggressive anti-Indian policy of Mirabeau B. Lamar, the Burnet land claim, and the white desire for the Indian held land, made a confrontation certain. After the failure of negotiations for a peaceful removal, Texas forces under Generals Thomas J. Rusk, Kelsey Douglass, and Edward Burleson pushed the Cherokees and associated tribes north of the Red River during the short Cherokee War of 1839, thus opening up the central part of East Texas to white settlement. The earliest pioneers began arriving in what would be Smith County area in 1843, but it was not until April 11, 1846 that the county was officially formed by a legislative act. It was named for James Smith, a colonel in the Texas Revolutionary Army.
Tyler, incorporated in 1850 as the county seat, was named in honor of President James Tyler, the tenth President of the United States. At the time of incorporation it had a total population of two hundred seventy-nine living within a mile of the courthouse, and Smith County had a population of just over four thousand, including seven hundred seventeen Negro slaves.
It was in this general setting, late in 1850, that Thomas Barkley Erwin moved from Chambers County, Alabama to Texas with his family and Negro slaves. He settled near Tyler in Smith County. An early biography, written by Sid S. Johnson, states: “...He and Col. L. B. Snoddy (his son-in-law) blazed the first road to Garden Valley.” It was near there that Thomas eventually built up a large plantation along Rabbit Creek near Mt. Sylvan, about fifteen miles northwest of Tyler.
Thomas B. Erwin was born September 16, 1792 in Rowan County, North Carolina. He was the first-born child of Joseph Erwin, Sr. and Catherine Nancy Cowan, and the next older brother of Joseph Erwin, Jr., who was my ancestor. His middle given name came by way of his grandmother, Mary Barkley, who was an ancestor of Alben William Barkley, a member of Congress and vice president under Harry S. Truman (1949-1953).
At the age of twenty Thomas B. Erwin served in the War of 1812. After he was released from military service he returned to North Carolina for a time, but eventually settled in Lafayette, Chambers County, Alabama. He is reputed to have built the first log house in Lafayette, and it is said that he constructed it out of hickory logs in honor of Andrew Jackson, known by many as “Old Hickory.”
He married (1) Agnes McLarty March 2, 1822 in Cabarrus County, North Carolina. She was born August 11, 1799, probably in North Carolina, and died about 1827. Thomas and Agnes had four children. Thomas married (2) Elizabeth S. (Betsy) Owens September 4, 1827 in Jasper County, Georgia. She was born July 15, 1810 in Georgia. Thomas and Betsy had ten children. The first two were born in Georgia and the next four in Alabama. The seventh, eighth and ninth of their children were born in Georgia, and the last in 1853 in Smith County, Texas.
Thomas served in the Alabama militia, eventually being promoted to the rank of Colonel. He served in that capacity until he moved to Smith County, Texas. For the rest of his life, however, he was referred to as “Colonel Tom Erwin.”
Following is a transcript of a five-page letter written by Thomas Barkley Erwin to his brother John Johnson Erwin in Henry County, Tennessee:
Smith County, Texas July 3, 1852
Dear Brother Jno. J.
Your very kind and agreeable letter bearing date 3rd last month was recd on yesterday and as the vulgar saying is least you should become Pot Gutted about it I will answer it fourthwith, You and Joe are always rather too tenderfooted about your correspondence. The reason I have delayed writting to you so long which I think is a good one. I did not know where to address a letter to you until I reed yours. I thought you resided in Ky. Where I last herd of you. I was under that impression.
Since we saw each other I have had a great Many ups and downs. Always trying to do for the best but Mankind is of such a nature when they are a doing well they dont Know it. So it has been with me in More than one instance. Although I have had a goodeal of bad luck Since I got to this Country I cant say that I regret My move unless Misfortune should still follow me. I have lost several negroes Mules and Horses between [illegible] & [illegible] worth. I take it all easy. What ever is the will of providence We are commanded not to complain m [illegible] trusting that it will all be for the best in the end.
Jno. I never was more gratified to here of great change that has taken place in your general Habbit and the great pleasure that it afford your family and the good feeling that you enjoy yourseft (over)
I am like old Bob Miner. Still in the big Church and ready When I look & see the acts of Some [illegible] it would make me Blush to do as they do. and I am bound to beleive that I am better in the sight of My Maker than they are. but a true and devoted Christian I do reverance as Much as any Man. and believe in the Bible. I think it the greatest Book that was ever printed: and I am happy to here that you and your family all belong to the Church. You did not say what denomination, but I guessed the Methodist as they are the Most numerous in your State. Most Any Church will do if the Heart is right. And will prove there faith by there Works. You Stated you would as soon live in the Palmetto Swamps of Georgia as to live in Eastern Texas, from what you had lernt of the Country. I am under the impression that Your inforrnent must of got into the Sabine Bottom and saw one or two large lakes or the Markes of the overtlow on the trees of Spring./49. and [illegible] back and reported that the whole of the Country was about the Same thing. this is a Mistake. this Country is like all others on the Rivers and large creeks. it is sickly. Mostly Chills and fever. I had light cases last year. So far this year [illegiblel enjoys as good health as they ever did in Ala. I am living on one Section of land 140 acres on the head waters of Rabbit Creek. acres Cleared 100 in Cotton & 100 in corn. I own between 26 & 2700 acres some 25 miles West and have made a Settlement there. this year got 150 acres cleared there. 100 acres in corn there and Fifty in Cotton. all new ground this year. new ground dont do so well in Cotton. last year it [illegible] finely, the Spring rains and cold weather did not suit cotton. My crops where I now live is fine. My Cotton generally about waist high and corn very good.
on next Monday I will start up to my other place to build me some Houses to live in and will move up there this fall.
I have two as fine pure facestone Springs as you ever saw in Georgia or any other Country. though for all that we may not enjoy health. If we dont, Then I cant say what I shall do. I have got as far West as I want to go. What I dislike as much as any thing els is that I am too [illegible] from navigation, the Sabine River is near enough some 18 miles but it is too Small and runs down too quick. We had two or three Boats up this Winter but it was so long between Trips that it don but little good. I am of the opinion when they get a class of Boats to suite the size of the river that it can be navigated successfully some 4 or Months of the year. the most of our Cotton goes to Shreveport on Red River and Port Caddo and Jefferson. those two last Mentioned places are on Caddo Lake that makes out West from Red River And are some 27 miles nearer. from where I live to Shreveport is some miles. I have been there twice this Spring. sold part of my cotton there at 8 1/8. Some I sent down the Sabine to N. Orleans. at 3.00 per Bale freight. You named about Tobacco this is a great country to Sell Tobacco. a tolerable good a stick sells from 20 to 5Ocd a plug hardly any sold in the country by the pound so much a plug. from N. Orleans up to Shreveport. I suppose it would not cost more than 3Ocd per Box. and from there to my neighbourhood from $1 to 1.25 per hundred I dont Know any thing about the quality of your Ten. Tobacco. it has not the reputation of the Virginia Tobacco. if I was in business I would try some of it but I am out of it and exspect to keep out of it unless I start some of my younger Boys. I give Guss a good Stock of goods. he got tired and afraid to go in debt. sold out and quit and is farming. Says he would rather do that than any thing els and lose money. I tell you he is one of them make every edge [illegible] has one son. lost his wife since he come to this Country. She took stricken me through mistake in place of Morphine and died in 3 or 4 hours. Well from what you wrote me you seem to be doing well and my advice is to stay where you are and still try and do better. We have 9 Children. Catherine is married and doing well I give them 320 acres land. She married a fine good fellow by the name of Snoddy. he has 8 likely negroes and will live within 40 miles of us West of Tyler.
(Written across 1st Page)
My plantation west will be seven miles N.W. of Tyler. Splendid lands lies well, over half well timbered and the balance not so good. Will be fine Summer Range for years to come. can cut as much grass as I want out of the low grounds of Panaeu Creek. Just as good as you would want. So long as I can get my plantation open, I can go my one hundred and fifty bags of cotton. I have good water. if I can have the health I will write you again and then I can give you a better idea how I am. Plan to write me here. direct you letters to Tyler.
(Written across 2nd Page)
My childrens names are the two oldest you know. Tho Gawes, Jas. Robert, Charles H. Clay. our geals named Mary Elizabeth and Emaline.
(Written across 3rd Page)
Betsy joins with me in our kindest respect to Sarah, yourself and all of your children and if any of your friends should come to Texas, tell them where to find me and give my best and kindest regards to Joe and family and say to him that I suppose Arkansas will do as well as Texas but a great many living in this neighborhood who had lived near Mindon and says Texas is much the best country. no more at present. fare well and may god bless you all.
T. B. Erwin
Thomas mentions nine children, but a tenth, Larrissa (Rissa) Erwin, was born in 1853. Col. Tom Erwin was a financial supporter of Larissa College, and Sallie McKee Erwin, a daughter-in-law, was an early teacher at the college. It is thought that his fourteenth child (his tenth by his second wife) was named for the school.
The comment in the above paragraph about “Joe and family” refers to Joseph and Rebecca Erwin moving to Carroll County, Arkansas.
Thomas mentions daughter Catherine “married and doing well,” but the following month her husband, Lewis B. Snoddy, died on August 4, 1852, and Catherine died about six weeks later on September 18, 1852. One can only assume it was the result of sickness, most likely typhoid fever, also known as “swamp fever.”
Thomas mentions having “lost several negroes.” Although he does not mention the cause, it is probable that they succumbed from typhoid as well. The 1860 census shows him owning thirteen Negro slaves, aged one month to 32, two of which were mulattos.
Colonel Tom Erwin is mentioned often in the historical accounts of Tyler and Smith County.
Smith County History, mentions slave owners:
In the 1850s slavery became entrenched in Smith County. Among the white population 541 families – representing 35 percent of the families – owned slaves by 1860. Most (50.8 percent) owned less than five. A total of 71.4 percent held less than ten, while 88.5 percent owned less than twenty. However, 144 owners held ten or more, and 127 of those people were recent arrivals. Only seventeen of them had been mentioned in the census of 1850...
...By strict definition only fifty-four families became part of the planter class, for such a distinction required ownership of from twenty to forty-nine slaves. The more elite class that could that could claim to be part of the Southern aristocracy numbered only six families because that distinction required ownership of fifty or more bondsmen. Among those who could claim such a lofty status were L. P. Butler, who in 1860 had eighty-three slaves working on two plantations, and Oliver Loftin, who held seventy-nine chattels. Another wealthy planter was Thomas B. Erwin, whose land was near Mt. Sylvan, about fifteen miles northwest of Tyler. The Erwin family moved to Tyler in the late 1850s (from the plantation) and built the finest residence in the growing county seat.
Smith County History goes into great detail about individual economic endeavors in Smith County in the 1850s and 1860s, and there were many. Colonel Tom Erwin is mentioned under distilleries:
…Tyler also had two distilleries and the Canton (Omen) area had one. By 1860 the three plants – one owned by George Eaton, whose works were several miles from Omen; one by T.B. Erwin; and one by Terrell Copeland – produced 2,400 gallons of corn whiskey, along with 400 gallons of rye whiskey, both prodigious amounts.
Sid S. Johnson wrote, in his Some Biographies of Old Settlers, published in 1900:
Col. Thos. B. Erwin was born in 1782 and died in Tyler, Texas, in 1868, living to a good old age, beloved and honored for his good qualities of head and heart. He emigrated from the State of Alabama to Texas. He built the first (log) house in Lafayette, Alabama, out of hickory logs, in honor of Andrew Jackson, distinctly declaring his politics by following the fortunes of the hero of New Orleans. He landed in Smith county in 1850, and settled on Rabbit Creek, and opened up a large plantation and commenced the cultivation of the virgin soil of Smith county, and made farming a complete success. Col. Erwin, at the age of twenty, was a soldier in the war of 1812, and after his return home was made a colonel of militia, which position he held up to the time of his moving to Texas. He and Col. L.B. Snoddy (his son-in-law) blazed the first road to Garden Valley that is now a public thoroughfare for travel. Col. Erwin soon settled in Tyler with his intelligent family, and built a handsome residence, now standing on West Erwin street, which was known by all the old settlers and the most superb residence at the time of its completion in the small village of Tyler. In keeping up with the spirit of improvement, he erected two brick buildings on the South side of the square (Willis's drug store), besides other improvements in the town.
Col. Erwin was highly esteemed for his sterling worth and financial abilities, as he was successful in all enterprises he undertook, thereby accumulating a large fortune for this country, at the time of his death. He was a large, tall, robust man, well built, and the estimate placed on him from appearance, indicates the character of the man. He was full of energy and made the main business of his life farming, and in his favorite pursuit of agriculture, everything prospered around him. But he made other large investments with equal good results. Col. Erwin was a large slave owner, but it was a notable fact that he was humane and kind to his slaves and they were well cared for in the way of good food and clothing. Even his manner and voice indicated the fact of his being a thorough business man, but he always had the faculty of being a gentleman and made every one his friend. The writer well remembers the hospitality of Col. Erwin and his excellent wife at their pleasant home. Every guest was made to feel at home under its roof. His domestic relations were of the most pleasant nature, and the old settler remembers well the many happy occasions of the gathering of the young people at the Erwin home. He was the friend of the struggling young man and always had an encouraging word for the young boy or girl. Tyler's prosperity was advanced by his money being put in improvements and the town grew wonderfully, assuming a business center. One of the principal streets of the city bears his honored name that he helped so much to beautify.
Col. Erwin bore an honorable name through life, and at his death many regrets and pangs were felt among the people, sympathizing deeply with his bereaved family. It was his constant aim to educate his children and start them out in life.
I have spent many hours at the Erwin homestead. It was the old Southern style of hospitality, and gay throngs of happy young people were made to enjoy life. It was a handsome family; a noble family; a Southern family.
James Smallwood, in his History of Smith County, Texas (two volumes), mentions Col. Erwin and his family members several times:
Page 8: Five men, H.H. Curl, Hamlin Hardin, Robert Lyons, John McKinley, and T.B. Erwin, entered their occupations as “traders on notes,” indicating that they bought promissory notes at a discount hoping to sell or redeem them later at a higher price.
Page 29: On the sixth, a fire was discovered under the home of Mrs. Erwin two miles west of Tyler. A barking dog and an alert slave saved the home from serious damage (This Mrs. Erwin is thought to be Sallie McDaniel Erwin, wife of Clay Erwin, the third son of Col. Erwin by his first wife).
Page 86: In 1860 Thomas B. Erwin built two two-story brick store buildings corresponding to 116 and 118 West Erwin Street. He also owned the corner frame structure which had the gable end fronting north and stairs leading on the outside to the second floor. The identity of the occupants of these buildings during 1860 is uncertain, although Smith and Fleishel moved into one of the brick buildings in 1861.
From abstracts of Smith County, Texas probate records:
LEWIS B. SNODDY, Dec’d.
Augustus O. Erwin pet. as adm. 9/27/ 1857. Snoddy d. 8/4/1857 leaving widow and two minor children under 14. Appr.: H. Yarborough, W.E. Garrett: sep. 11 slaves $5700, com. 320 acres Horatio Nelson Sur. $1600, 5 mules $575, 36 cattle $288, 94 hogs $ 416.
CATHERINE C. SNODDY, dec’d.
A. O. Erwin appt. adm. 10/26/1857. Appr.: H. Yarborough, W.E. Garrett. Inv.: sep. 2 slaves, $2500, horse $125, furniture $100
THOMAS B. ERWIN, father-in-law, and ELIZABETH S. ERWIN, mother-in-law, pet. as adms. Of Lewis B. Snoddy estate 9/16/1859 (Author’s note: Augustus O. Erwin died 8/28/1859)
THOMAS B. ERWIN, father-in-law, and ELIZABETH S. ERWIN, mother-in-law, appt. adms. 9/26/1859 of Catherine C. Snoddy estate. Inv.: sep.: 2 slaves, $2500, furniture $100, com, 320 acres $1600, 4 mules $425, yoke oxen $60, 35 cattle, $138, 87 hogs, $163.75.
THOMAS E. SNODDY, Minor
Thomas B. Erwin, grandfather, pet. as guardian 5/15/1863, only heir of L.B. Snoddy, dec’d.
T.B.ERWIN, DEC'D (Pg. 96)
Elizabeth S. Erwin, Thomas G. Erwin, John M. Jessup pet. as execs. 7/17/1868. Will signed Tyler 1/23/1868, wtn. Alf Davis, H.V. Hamilton, Tignal W. Jones, H.C. McFarland, names wf. Elizabeth S., children Thomas G. Erwin, Henry Clay Erwin, B.F. Erwin, Mary E. wf. John M. Jessup, Emma E. Erwin, Larissa Erwin, grandchildren Thomas Erwin Jr., Augustine (formerly George) Erwin, Phillip Erwin, Bryan Erwin, all children of A.O. Erwin, dec'd. execs. Elizabeth S. Erwin, Thomas G. Erwin, John M. Jessup. Appr.: B.K. Smith, J.M. Hockersmith, F.A. Godley. Inv.: 1476 acres $3690, 200 acres $400, 1529 acres $2675, 320 acres $480, 302.5 acres $756, 156.5 acres $156.50, 224 acres $224, 24 acres residence Tyler $4000, 3 lots & stores Tyler $5000, Lot 6,7,8 back of stores Tyler $500, 19 horses & mules, 130 cattle $520, 5 yoke oxen $125, 55 sheep $55, 109 hogs $218, etc $21,108.
Thomas B. Erwin is also mentioned in volume thirteen of William A. Woldert’s Chronicles of Smith County:
Walnut Street was named for the groves of walnut trees which stood near the ends of the street. Walnut was renamed Erwin Street about 1856, in honor of Thomas B. Erwin. Erwin built a two-story colonial home on the (copy illegible) block which, in 1932, was the site of Alex Woldert’s Pecan Shellery and Canning Plant.
By 1860 the population of Smith County had tripled, with 8408 white inhabitants, 4982 slaves, and two free blacks. Tyler, the county seat and largest town, was the center of activity. The downtown area had grown rapidly in the previous decade, and was organized around a typical square, in the center of which stood a two-story courthouse. The square was bounded by Hickory, Erwin, Spring and Ferguson Streets, and businesses and shops filled nearly every lot around the square and down several side streets. Many of the business establishments were housed in two-story brick buildings, made possible by a local brick plants. Two of these structures were owned by Col. Tom Erwin. The central area also contained three hotels, a drugstore, the El Rancho and the Carolina House saloons, as well as several gambling houses with “fancy ladies.”
Industry in Tyler was limited to small shops, usually employing five or fewer workers. The products of these shops were sufficient only for local needs. Goods that could not be produced locally were brought upriver from New Orleans and then freighted overland from Shreveport, Louisiana. One of the most important local industries, however, was the blacksmith shops. In 1860 there were seventeen in the county. Besides shoeing horses and mules, they made plows, iron rims for wagon wheels, and forge-welded other machinery. There were at least four brick plants, five cabinet shops in operation, and over sixty carpenters working in Tyler just before the Civil War.
Until the turn of the century the streets of Tyler, like most frontier towns, were unpaved. The horse-drawn carriages and wagons that traveled the dirt streets and roadways circling the courthouse square were mercilessly bogged down when it rained, and travelers were covered by blowing dust when it was dry.
Between 1908 and 1942 some twenty miles of the dusty streets were paved with red brick, much of the later work done under President Roosevelt’s WPA project in the 1930s. No major street projects were done during WW2, and post-war street projects utilized conventional macadam and concrete construction materials. When repairs to the original streets were necessary the bricks were replaced by asphalt or concrete as well. Today only about fifteen miles of the original brick paving remain.
The original plan of the City of Tyler reproduced above is adapted from the William A. Wolbert manuscript in the Archives of the Smith County Historical Society.
Texas effectively joined the Southern Confederacy in 1860 when Governor Sam Houston, who opposed secession, refused to swear allegiance to the Confederacy. He was deposed after a state convention declared the office of governor vacant. The Civil War had been going on for about a year and a half before it actually involved Texas territory. Fortunately for Texans there were only three or four attempts by Union forces to invade Texas, and all ultimately failed. The most significant occurred on October 4, 1862 when Galveston was occupied, but the forces of Confederate General Magruder retook the city on December 31, 1862, and captured most of the Union ships that were tied up there.
Four of Thomas Barkley Erwin’s sons were among the fifty thousand or so Texans who served in the Confederate forces during the Civil War. They are listed in Texans Who Wore The Gray by Sid S. Johnson.
Page 150: Charles Erwin, son of Col. Thos. B. Erwin, is a native of Chambers County, Alabama, born Feb. 11th 1842, and removed to Texas with his father's family in 1850, and settled in the county of Smith. When the stories of war rang through the land, he joined in 1861 the Douglas Texas battery and was killed in the first fight at Elk Horn Tavern. He was a fine soldier. He sacrificed his life on the battlefield in the cause of his people and in defense of the local self-government. He was among the young men that composed the flower of Southern chivalry that made the Confederate name reach the very ends of the world for devotion to a sacrd cause. His fame is the heritage of the generations, now and to come.
Page 150: James Robert Erwin was born at Lafayette, Chambers county, Ala., 1st of March, 1839, and removed with his father, Col. Thos. B. Erwin, who settled in Smith county, in 1850. Young Ewrin enlisted in June 1861, in the Douglas Texas Battery, and died near Fayetteville, Ark., February 19th 1862. He made a good Confederate soldier, but died of pneumonia after the short but meritorious servce. He was a young man of great promise and had he lived longer would have made his mark in the business world. He was an educated man, bouyant and full of vim, and personally very popular with his associates
Page 154: Frank B. Erwin was born November 25, 1845, in Chambers county, Ala., and removed to Texas with his father's (Col. Thomas B. Erwin) family and settled in Smith county in 1850. At the early age of sixteen he joined Douglas' Texas Battery in Tyler, participating in the battles of Elk Horn Tavern and Farmington. Being under the conscript age, after serving one year with the battery, he was honorably discharged and, returning to the Trans-Mississippi department, enlisted in one of the regiments that composed Walker's division, making as gallant a soldier there as he did in the artillery service.
Page 159: Henry Clay Erwin, son of Col. Thomas B. Erwin, a prominent planter, was born in La Fayette, Chambers county Ala., December 20, 1843, removing to Texas with his father's family in 1850, and locating in Smith county. He early entered the Confederate service and served throughout the war in one of the regiments that composed Walker's division of the Trans-Mississippi department. He proved himself.
First Lieutenant James P. Douglas of the First Texas Artillery Battery, in a letter to his sweetheart from Bentonville, Arkansas, dated September 4, 1861, commented:
“…I fear that the enemy have got possession of my Arkansas sweetheart as our troops have fallen back this side her home. Won’t that be awful? I regret to inform you that Robert Erwin of our company died on the 19th inst.” (Author’s note: Robert Erwin died from pneumonia due to exposure February 19, 1862)
In a subsequent letter from Van Buren, Arkansas dated March 15, 1862 he wrote:
“Since writing you last much has transpired of interest. We have made one of the most fatiguing marches on record and fought a very hard battle. We whipped the Federals and had them surrounded so that they must give up and be prisoners or fight through, so they concentrated all of their forces on one point on the 2nd day of the fight and cut their way through. I did three hours hand fighting during the engagement and had not less than one hundred cannon balls and shells to pass within 20 feet of me, but was not hurt in the least, not even bad scared. Charley Erwin was killed, fighting bravely. No one else of your acquaintance is badly hurt...” (Author’s note: Charles Erwin was killed March 7, 1862 in the Battle of Elkhorn Tavern)
Hostilities between Union and Confederate forces ended when General Robert E. Lee surrendered his army at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865, but the hardships caused by the war did not immediately end. Reconstruction came next, and it brought its own hardships, as well as pain and humiliation to the Southern white population.
President Andrew Jackson decreed that the people of the defeated South must do three things, after which the Southern states would be restored to the Union:
-They must hold a convention and declare that the secession from the Union was illegal
-They must recognize that all Negroes were free
-They must declare that all debts contracted by the individual states for the purpose of carrying on the were illegal, and were therefore null and void.
The Texas convention met February 7, 1866, and the President’s plan was put before the delegates. For many it went very much against the grain to carry out his wishes, but after much bitter discussion the secession of Texas was declared illegal; all black slaves were declared free with the same rights as whites; and all state debts having to do with the war were cancelled.
General Granger, after establishing the first Federal garrison in Texas at Galveston after the Confederate surrender, issued his now-famous proclamation from Galveston on June 19, 1865, declaring slavery to be at an end. Most African-Americans now recognize June 19 as their true day of emancipation.
Most slave-owners gathered their slaves and told them that they were free. Some, especially the older ones, preferred to stay with their former masters as employees, but most – in order to show that they were really free – left the plantations and other places where they lived and worked.
Colonel Tom Erwin, like virtually all large plantation owners in the South, owned slaves. There is written evidence that suggests that he brought a dozen or so with him when he moved his family from Alabama in 1850, and that he acquired more when he established his plantations in Smith County, Texas. In an 1852 letter to his brother John J. Erwin (transcribed above), he mentions that he “lost several negroes,” most likely to “swamp fever;” or typhoid fever as it is more accurately known. His daughter Catherine Erwin Snoddy, as well as son-in-law Lewis B. Snoddy, also died from this disease in 1857. The 1860 census indicates that he owned only thirteen slaves, but by this time he had turned over the operation of his plantations to his sons, and it is probable that these worked in his household and in the several businesses that he operated in Tyler.
While it would certainly have been a good business practice for slave owners to care for the health and spiritual needs of the black slaves in their possession, it was not always so. Unfortunately there were many instances where they were beaten and otherwise abused. The perpetrator may have been the slave owner himself, but more often the abuse was by an absentee owner’s white overseer who used a whip from a horse’s back to ensure instant obedience from his charges. He may also have pocketed some of the money intended for the rations for the plantation’s blacks.
Several recorded comments of the period, on the other hand, indicate that Colonel Tom Erwin had the reputation as a wise and benevolent slave owner. Apparently he fed and housed his black slaves well, and provided for their spiritual needs. William S. Arthur was his chief overseer prior to the end of the Civil War, and there is no indication that he was abusive while supervising the daily operation of the Erwin and Snoddy plantations. As a result many of the former slaves chose to remain as paid employees when the war ended.
Thomas Barkley Erwin died in 1868, and his wife Elizabeth passed on in 1871. Both are buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Tyler, just a couple of blocks north of the street that still carries the family name. Their once-vertical grave markers are broken and lying askew on the ground, a truly sad situation in view of Colonel Tom’s impact on the early history of Tyler and Smith County. An attempt has been made to locate direct descendants of the family, but none have been found at this point. So…to prevent their being forgotten entirely…a project is being formulated to properly mark the final resting places of Tom and Elizabeth Erwin.