John Neely Bryan, the founder of Dallas, was a squatter! Bryan was born in Lincoln County, Tennessee to a prosperous farm family in December of 1810. He studied law in Nashville, received a license to practice law, and then moved to Memphis where he soon came down with cholera. As treatment, he was advised to go to Arkansas and live an outdoor life with the Cherokee. After four years with the Cherokee, he left his Indian friends. Stirred by stories of generous land grants in the new Republic of Texas, he crossed into Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) and traveled to Coffee’s Trading Post on the north bank of the Red River where Coffee also operated a ferry between Indian Territory and Texas.
As legend then has it, John Neely Bryan; his Indian pony, Walking Wolf; along with Ned, his Cherokee Indian companion; and Bryan’s dog, Tubby, crossed the river in 1839 and came to the Three Forks area of northeast Texas. There, Bryan staked a spot on the limestone bluff above the Trinity River with a buckskin ﬂag marked with his name. He returned two years later—in the Fall of 1841—with the plan of gaining a grant for the land from the Republic of Texas and establishing a ferry crossing and trading post on the Trinity.
The location was an excellent choice. The settlement of Austin had been chosen as the Republic’s capital and the military had already been dispatched to open a road from Austin to the Red River to facilitate immigration. The settlement which grew up on the Texas side of the Coffee river crossing was named Preston and the road into Texas became the Preston Road, connecting both the Coffee Crossing and the nearby Colbert’s Crossing to Bryan’s door.
Most likely, 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 to a 19-member investment group, led by W. S. Peters of Louisville, Kentucky. Initially known as the Cross Timbers Colony, the grant was soon simply referred to as The Peters’ Colony. It included the land which Bryan claimed and subsequently settled.
In 1844, the Republic authorized the building of another road. This one from the Northeastern tip of Texas to connect with the Preston Road about a mile above Bryan’s cabin. Bryan’s land claim became an important crossroads from the Red River south to Austin.
Also in 1844, despite a festering 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 their colony, following an armed confrontation with unhappy Dallas County settlers who drove the Peters Company representative, Henry O. Hedgcoxe, from the county and seized the company’s records placing them “where they would never be found.” The event, known as the Hedgcoxe War, demonstrated such strong public sentiment against the Peters Colony that the Texas legislature ultimately agreed to allow settlers to register claims and agreed to grant clear titles to them. The Peters’ Group was given new land in 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 what had become downtown Dallas and created ownership complications and lawsuits for decades.
Bryan went on to lead a tragic life. Initially he was active in affairs of the community he had founded and in the creation of Dallas County and making Dallas its county seat. In 1849 he caught gold fever and left his wife Margaret Beeman Bryan, the daughter of one of Dallas’ ﬁrst settlers, and joined the California gold rush. He returned after a year with empty pockets. He was morose and began drinking heavily, losing interest in what he called “his town.” In 1852 after squandering much of the money earned from lot sales, he sold the remaining townsite and the ferry concession to Alexander Cockrell.
In 1855, believing a man had insulted his wife Margaret, he shot the man. Thinking he had killed him, Bryan ﬂed on horseback. His lawyer followed getting Bryan to sign papers necessary to take care of his business and family while absent. The wounded man recovered and agreed to not press charges. It is believed Bryan knew this, but nonetheless ﬂed to the Creek Nation in Indian Territory and then returned to California to again mine unsuccessfully for gold. It was six years before he started home to Dallas and his family, arriving in the Spring of 1861. His children did not recognize him.
When the Civil War began shortly after his arrival home, he left again to ﬁght in the war. He was discharged the following year due to his age and poor health. Upon returning he was active again in Dallas’civic affairs for more than a decade. However, by 1874, Bryan was apparently suffering as a long-term alcoholic and his mental health had deteriorated. In 1877, his son Edward Bryan had him admitted to the Texas State Lunatic Asylum in Austin (subsequently renamed The Austin State Hospital) where he died and was buried later that year.
Decades later, Dallas honored its founder with construction of the Bryan Pergola—located on the Grassy Knoll in Dealey Plaza in downtown Dallas. A replica of Bryan’s original one-room log cabin sits nearby on the grounds of the former Dallas County Court House building—constructed in 1892 and known as Old Red.
John Neely Bryan, early Texas pioneer and successful squatter had a dream to help open Texas to settlement and build a city. Today, Dallas stands on the banks of the Trinity River as testimony of his dream come true.
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