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Reconstruction of an E. Texas Past

Orange and white cat with collar wearing an Indiana Jones Fedora
Historian Hat Cat by AristocatHats

We have talked before about Genealogists wearing many hats, including that of historian. Last week my Historian Hat came out for a search for treasure in Reconstruction Era Texas, and what treasures I did find!

A family contacted me about their over 100 year old mystery involving their oldest known ancestor born in 1799 in North Carolina who came to Texas before the end of the Civil War. The story handed down was that as an African American, he would not have been allowed to purchase any land in his own name even though he had the gold necessary to do a transaction.

60's era yellow and white VW Bus van with luggage on top for a Road Trip

So as his light skinned daughter was able to "pass" as white, she married a white man, who purchased the land, and promised to leave the land to the old man's family when he passed himself. The family was sure that the land was taken away from the family under less than legal circumstances in 1917.

They requested that I research the transfers of the ownership, and find the location of the land so that they could visit the old family homestead for Mothers' Day.

The old man and his son did register to vote in Danville, Rusk County, TX in 1867 (one of the first settlements in the area, now a ghost town), and said they had been in the county and state for 16 years, which would mean 1851. While under Mexican law slavery was made illegal in 1821, but to encourage settlers, Anglos were allowed to bring in their slaves and state records show the slave population was 182,566 in 1860. We have no idea if they came as slaves or free men.

No Freedmen's Bureau records could be found. It seemed that no birth, marriage, or death records existed for these family members in a four county area of East Texas until I found one 1875 marriage license issued to the daughter and a Charles Frasher.

The family provided me with a FamilySearch screenshot of a hand-written Will that was purportedly relevant, but they were unable to read it. When I clicked the link there was an AI generated transcription of the Will! It needed to be corrected by a human being, but it was a great find!

It was the Will of the family friend that family lore maintained had married the daughter! He did hold true to his promise, as he left his entire estate to the daughter in her married name of "Bell" and her daughter, the widowed "Emily Thompson" for their "kindness and attention," especially during his latest illness. There was no mention of any family relationship between the three of them in the Will.

1874 Tax Roll for Rusk entered in 1875 for new County of Gregg naming Lettuce Bell.

The Tax Rolls for the 1870's found on Family Search did yield land ownership records for Rusk in 1874, and then in the newly established Gregg County in 1875. The daughter with the name used in the Will was listed as the owner of 320 acres of land in 1874. Her new husband Charles Frasher, was the owner of the land in 1875, but he disappeared from the Rolls in 1876.

Laws against interracial marriage were passed in 1858 in Texas, making it a felony with a prison sentence. During Reconstruction, several more laws were passed to counteract the effects of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 14th Amendment. By 1868 the Ku Klux Klan was especially active in East Texas, so I was not surprised there was no mention of a legal marriage in the Will.

Now I had a new mystery or two, what happened to her husbands was the first I tackled. No records of a marriage or death of her husband named Bell were found. No marriage records at all for the family friend (who left the land in his Will) to anyone were found. I was ready to throw in the towel, but did one last Google search for "Charles Frasher" to see if I could determine his fate after 1875, and there it was!

Photo from Jim Crow "Separate But Equal" Era in US

In 1876, Charles H. Frasher was put on trial for knowingly marrying a black woman as a white man in 1875. He was found guilty! He appealed the ruling, as under the new Federal laws, he and his wife should be allowed to marry whomever they pleased. The case, Frasher v. Texas 1877, in the Third Court of Appeals, is now a historical case that is often cited when examining racial inequities, especially in the South.

In its ruling the Court said that "the states had powers over their citizens that could not be lawfully contravened by Federal mandate," according to

Dangerous Liaisons: Sex and Love in the Segregated South by Charles Frank Robinson II, University of Arkansas Press, 2003.

Charles Frasher went to prison for 4 years. In 1878, Texas reaffirmed its 1858 law against interracial marriages, and made it a felony enforceable against both parties. Bear in mind that every Census population for Gregg County between 1880 and 1930 except 1920 was overwhelmingly black and you can see who held the powers and who did not.

vblack and white holding hands in a heart outline

When you think about how dangerous, even life threatening these acts of love and defiance were in the days of lynching, I felt that I could tell her family that she was a heroine of whom they could be very proud.

So, what happened to the land? Why was it no longer in the family? Was it stolen somehow?

While researching the land's disposition, I discovered a new fee based source for copies of County documents on line at I was able to search by Survey name and by Grantor and Grantee for records of the 1800's thru 1925 for the specific counties I was researching in. Your results may vary.

There were several documents on file for this acreage and many various lawsuits over its ownership. There is still a lawsuit pending that was filed in 2017. Our heroine reportedly passed away in 1917, and the land was held by one of her granddaughters. There was a later deed transaction where the ownership was changed via a "fee simple quitclaim" to a man who just happened to be the Sheriff of the County by her as the "sole surviving heir."

Photo of sharecroppers ca. 1938 by Dorothea Lange

Like many families (black and white) in these days, our subjects were sharecroppers. This was the way of life for many for decades still to come. The family was in the habit of borrowing money from this Sheriff to be paid back when the crops came in. It does not seem too far-fetched that he may have wanted collateral for a loan she might not be able to pay back? In 1921 he won the land in a judgement against the granddaughter, so this seems likely.

All remained quiet in Gregg County and for this piece of land until a huge oil field was discovered nearby in 1930. The Sheriff filed documents that he had taken "adverse possession" of the property. This is also usually known as "squatters rights," but it can also just mean that the filer has been in possession of the property for years and wants to have a clear title.

From Texas Highways Magazine, Creator Michael Amador, overcrowded derricks in oil field
The East Texas Oil Field at Kilgore, TX from Texas Highways Magazine

Our heroine's heirs filed lawsuits in the 1920's and again in 1931 saying that their cousin who had signed away the land to the Sheriff, was NOT the sole surviving heir. People who could not read or write signed away half of the rights they were claiming to attorneys to fight for them. A settlement was reached wherein the family received $15,000 (around $325,000 in today's money) in return for deeding the land to the Sheriff. We may never know for certain if the family was indeed swindled, and by whom, lawyers, Sheriff or oil companies?

The current lawsuit filing heir is now facing the daunting task of contacting ALL of the owners and heirs of any mineral rights bought and sold over the last 100 years and notifying them of the lawsuit to see if they want to participate in the suit.

Overhead Google map shot of land in Gregg County on the Sabine River
The Lost Family Land

The big Gregg County oil boom stagnated in the 1940's. The field is still producing but the landscape is no longer covered in pump jacks and oil derricks, and the family's property on the Sabine River near Kilgore appears to be overgrown and heavily wooded.

The Reconstruction Era after the Civil War was a time of hardship and poverty in Texas. And for the poorest who didn't own land, there are not a lot of records or marked cemeteries.

Together with the family we had our own reconstruction of their history which began Texas began during Reconstruction, and learned more about the brave family pioneers that began that new family history and the location of the land they proudly owned. We also learned about the heroic acts they undertook to exercise their newly found rights. They have a new family tree with all the records I could find for them attached, and I hope they choose to continue the research on their own.

Two big pluses for me, I found a source for records in Texas (although fee-based), and discovered the new FamilySearch "Labs" projects. Look for that tab at their site and go exploring! The future keeps evolving!

How can I help you? Are you looking for your family's beginnings? Let's work together! Always a free peek and quote at what you have, just send me an email.

Leslie Ryan

“World peace must develop from inner peace. Peace is not just mere absence of violence. Peace is, I think, the manifestation of human compassion.” ― Dalai Lama XIV

No compensation is received for any referrals or links herein. No copyright infringement is intended.

Further reading:

Gregg County Texas History

Gregg County Oil Boom

Texas Highways Magazine


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