Find more interesting bits of Texas history and stories of brave and strong Texans on my “Texas Brave and Strong” podcast.
If you’ve already read the book, this is for you. If you haven’t read the book yet, beware. This contains spoilers!
Early readers asked, “What events in the book really happened?” I’m guessing you might be curious also. So, here is the list of actual happenings.
Real events in Gone to Dallas
- In 1852, John Neely Bryan sold the rights to Dallas land and the Trinity River Ferry to Alexander Cockrell for $7,000. Cockrell began to offer land grants in 1853.
- Bryan left his family several times. Once, for a year, to join the 1849 California Gold Rush. In 1855, he shot a man and fled Dallas, spending a year in Indian Territory and five additional years in California. He returned in the Spring of 1861. He left the same year to join the Confederate army. He was released in 1862 for medical reasons. Bryan was again active in Dallas civic affairs until 1874. He died in 1877 at the Texas State Mental Hospital in Austin.
- The story of “The King Solomon” Church is true. The congregation did split the building in half, with each half going to a different location. This ended the squabble about where to relocate the church. It reminded me of Biblical King Solomon’s suggestion to split a baby to deal with two mothers, each arguing that the child was hers. Don’t know how the congregation referred to the church, but King Solomon’s church is how I like to think of it.
- The Dolly Varden fashion craze really did occur across the country. I have taken the liberty of moving it more than a decade in time to coincide with the opening of Sara’s store.
- La Reunion had Sunday afternoon celebrations and Dallas settlers were often invited.
- Straight-away horse racing on the prairie (with betting) was a common activity for settlers.
- The Trinity froze solidly enough for skating in 1857. This was followed in the same year by both a drought and a plague of locusts. It was a difficult year for farmers!
- Edrid’s Great Circus and Menageries visited Dallas in 1857. The acts, animals, and egress signs were as described. Daniel’s description of it as a “mud and muck” circus is appropriate.
- Buffalo roamed the West in the tens of millions in the 1850s. While they were no longer seen east of the Trinity in the late 1850s, they did still occasionally graze just west of the river in the summer. Buffalo killing was going on at the time of this story and Dallas was a supply stop for hunters. Hides and buffalo tongue were in high demand; however, the mass killing of buffalos intensified in the 1870s, as a deliberate attack on the Indian way of life.
- Alexander Cockrell was killed in a duel with Marshal Moore in 1858. The comment Moore made to the widow Cockrell, after the killing, has been documented. She did sue and collect the debt owed by Moore.
- Alexander Cockrell’s bridge collapsed when the Trinity River flooded in 1858. Following the bridge collapse, Sarah Cockrell re-instituted the ferry boat crossing and pledged to build a new iron bridge across the river. A promise ultimately kept after the Civil War.
- There was neither a national paper currency, nor a Texas state currency during the period of the book. The Panic of 1837 had led to bank failures and a general distrust of bank-issued currency. The 1845 Constitution of the State of Texas prohibited the chartering of banks. This prohibition carried forward through the Civil War.
- Sarah Cockrell held a formal ball upon the opening of her St. Nickolas Hotel in 1859. The description of the ball was reported in the “History of Early Dallas,” written by Frank Cockrell, one of Sarah’s sons. A related fact: Women settlers who had them, often brought a ballgown with them to Texas. (Dallas women still love to dress up, perhaps it’s in our pioneer genes!)
- The first county fair, a precursor to the State Fair, took place as described, although without the wooden merry-go-round. Today’s State Fair midway—with its numerous rides—more than compensates for the first fair’s missing merry-go-round.
- The Comanche attack on Ellie Duffield’s family is based on first hand accounts from the time. Ellie’s assumption that the Comanches took her brother is reasonable. There are numerous books about life with the Indians written by men who were captured as boys, adopted, and who became Indian braves. Nine Years Among The Indians, 1870-1879, by Herman Lehmann, is a true tale of the captivity of an eleven-year-old boy and his life among the Apaches and Comanches. The fascinating story of Cynthia Ann Parker—a young girl taken by the Comanches—and her son, Chief Quanah Parker—is a true tale which most every Texan can tell you.
- The story of Josiah Wilbarger, “the man who would not die,” is true.
- By law, all local men from ages eighteen to forty-five had to devote five days a year to working on Dallas’ town roads. Perhaps that would be a solution to today’s potholed city roads?
- The Singer’s sewing machine ad in the book actually ran in the December 7, 1859 issue of The Dallas Herald. At the time, the company was named Singer’s.
- The Great Conflagration really occurred, burning all the buildings around the square to the ground. The only surviving structures were Bryan’s original cabin and most of the exterior walls of the brick courthouse. Modern historians are divided as to the cause of the fire; however, three slaves were blamed and hung.
- Diebold and Bahmann of Cincinnati did indeed make a fireproof safe, as described in this story; however, there is no evidence one existed in Dallas at the time of the fire.
- Dallas was designated as a Confederate Commissary or supply center for the area west of the Mississippi River. It was managed by Doc Pryor.
- Yes, as discussed above, there were camels in Texas!
A bit more history: The founding of Dallas.
As legend has it, John Neely Bryan; his Indian pony, Walking Wolf; along with Ned, his Cherokee Indian companion; and Bryan’s dog, Tubby, first came to the Three Forks area in 1839. Bryan staked a spot on the limestone bluff above the Trinity River with a buckskin flag marked with his name. He returned in the Fall of 1841, with the plan of gaining a grant for the land and establishing a ferry crossing and trading post.
Bryan did not immediately realize that he was, in fact, a squatter. The previous January, the Republic of Texas had granted a large tract of land, which included the site of Dallas, to an investment group, led by W. S. Peters. Initially known as the Cross Timbers Colony, the grant was soon simply referred to as The Peters’ Colony. It included the land on which Bryan subsequently settled. Bryan had chosen his location well. The spot was one of the best places to cross the Trinity River. This Trinity crossing on the Preston Road connected to the Coffee Crossing and Colbert’s Crossing on the Red River to the north.
In 1844, despite the land ownership issue, Bryan had the village of Dallas surveyed. It was laid out in blocks two hundred feet by two hundred feet and extended eight blocks west to east and ten blocks north to south. Bryan sold his first lot in 1845, but most likely did not patent (register) the Dallas survey until 1854. By then, the Peters’ Company had largely abandoned the Colony, following an armed confrontation with unhappy Dallas County settlers, who drove the company representative, Henry O. Hedgcoxe, from the county and seized the company’s records placing them “where they would never be found.” Bowing to such strong public sentiment, the legislature ultimately agreed to grant clear titles to the settlers and the Peters’ Group was granted new land in West Texas.
To complicate matters further, an even earlier Republic of Texas grant to John Grigsby, a soldier of the Battle of San Jacinto, was discovered in the 1870s. This grant covered much of downtown Dallas and created ownership complications for decades.