Henry R. Green
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HENRY R. GREEN:
FAKE OBITUARY IDENTIFIED BEAUMONT'S EARLY SCHOOL TEACHER-HISTORIAN

By W. T. Block

Reprinted from Beaumont ENTERPRISE, May 27, 1977.
Sources: "Letters of Hal," Galveston WEEKLY NEWS, Sept. 30, 1856 to Nov. 9, 1859, most of which are reprinted in "Beaumont in the 1850s: The Writings of H. R. Green," TEXAS GULF HISTORICAL AND BIOGRAPHICAL RECORD, XI (Nov., 1975), 49-78, as researched, compiled, and edited by W. T. Block.

Buried deep in the old files of the Galveston "Weekly News" are about fifty delightful letters bearing dates between 1856 anfd 1859 and signed only with the pseudonym of "Hal." Almost every letter is datelined Beaumont, and collectively, they depict antebellum social life in the Neches River sawmill town and some neighboring villages in a manner not previously revealed.

Except for a prank, the world probably would never have known who the author was, for H. R. Green never revealed his identity in any of his letters. In 1857, the "News" reported the sudden death of its Beaumont correspondent, Henry R. Green, whose identity as "Hal" was known only to a few intimate friends. Two weeks later, the "News" printed a retraction, stating that the 'obituary' was a thoughtless prank of a fellow correspondent, and that Green was still alive and reporting from his post in Beaumont.

Nothing is known of Green's life except during his stay in Jefferson County. Where he came from and where he went to when he left Beaumont about January 1, 1860, are still mysteries. His editor had commissioned the young writer to visit and report from various towns throughout East Texas, and he had already been in most of the river ports along the Trinity River valley before arriving in Beaumont on Sept. 11, 1856.

At first, the young correspondent considered the town on the Neches as only another stop along his East Texas jaunt. But soon finding the frontier freshness of the sawmill hamlet very much to his liking, Green decided to settle down and wager his future there. And without a doubt, it was an offer to him to take over as schoolmaster at the Pine Street school that surely must have affected his decision.

From the date of his first letter, Green revealed a superb ability to communicate in a witty, folksy, and humorous vein, and his characterization of people was often without peer. Shortly after crossing Pine Island Bayou en route to Beaumont from Sour Lake, he met an elderly couple of the present-day Voth neighborhood, not identified by name, whom he described as follows:

"He was a good old man and had a good old wife. They have lived there (Voth or Rosedale?) for 37 years. The old gentleman has acquired a fortune merely by the assistance of nature, as hundreds of cattle and much land and cotton testify. I could but smile at the simple-hearted, good man when he spoke of the accomplishments of his two daughters, whom he loved much, and who had just returned from some fashionable boarding or finishing school at one of our fashionable, inland towns."

"'Here's my two gals,' said our friend, 'that's jest come home from school, and I'm afeered they've larned more divilment than I kin physic out of 'em in a year. When they left here, they was just plain, honest country gals, and now they've come back with a ring on every finger, and so much jewelry, figameries (?), . . . flaps and hoops that it is impossible for 'em to get in at the door'"

"Well, I seed inter the thing arter a while, and as they was gettin' tollable costive (?) and it took a sight of money to keep 'em a guine, so I concluded to fetch 'em home until all sich high-collared, fashionable watering places die out . . ." The young correspondent agreed that at some frontier Texas schools, jewelry was 'certainly worshiped more' than school books.

Henry R. Green was a 26-year-old, urbane bachelor when he arrived in Beaumont. Unfortunately, his writings disclose very little about the author's personal life, but they do reveal a young man who was educated far beyond the average for that period of frontier Texas. Quite obviously an outgoing and extroverted personality, he blended in well in all aspects of Beaumont's early social, religious, and political life.

Green soon became headmaster of Beaumont's only school of 75 pupils, which was located in the mill area on the Woodville Road, now Pine Street. Nearby were the new Phillips sawmill and the Ross and Alexander mill, the latter erected only two months after Green's arrival. Shortly after Green began teaching, a second school was located in the "Corn Street neighborhood," with Henry G. Willis as its headmaster. In December, 1857, Green reported that Beaumont's schools numbered "two in full blast, with a goodly number of pupils, and if all should attend, there would be enough (students) for three."

Green received $2 for each month's tuition for each student. Each semester he also was reimbursed from county school funds for those students from indigent families. In 1857, he reported that a "spirit of rivalry, jealousy, and opposition" existed between the patrons of his school and those of the Corn Street school. Green considered the animosity between them as a threat to education in the frontier village, but he did not elaborate concerning the exact causes or effects.

The early correspondent-teacher was also a proponent of law enforcement, church attendance, political activity, and the social arts and graces, and he engaged himself wholeheartedly in every community activity. A good social mixer, it's quite obvious that he was a capable dancer and a social drinker, but he always cautioned his readers against intemperance or extremism of any kind. He was also president of the Beaumont Debating Society.

His personal exception was politics. A secessionist long before his time, Green was an uncompromising Southern Democrat and states' rights advocate, always in conflict with the Unionist philosophies of then-Sen. Sam Houston. Green's most vicious political diatribes were directed against Gen. Houston during the latter's gubernatorial campaigns of 1857 and 1859. Eventually it would be his same political persuasions that would result in his fall from grace and quick retreat from the local scene.

It is also apparent that the young teacher was a man quite ready to exchange his unwanted bachelorhood for wedded life, but fate was not to smile upon him in that respect either. Perhaps he fell in love in Beaumont and was rejected, or otherwise experienced an unhappy love affair. Wherever he went, he always commented on the pulchritude of the local belles, regretting only that all were either married or betrothed. During the 1850s, there was a considerable number of young, unmarried men arriving in Jefferson County from the eastern seaboard states, creating an excess of eligible males by about a three to one margin.

In 1858, Green wrote that one shouldn't come to Jefferson County "to hunt up a wife -- the race is nearly extinct; but in about three years an abundant crop will be gathered. We have about a dozen young ladies in the county, some of them quite beautiful, while the others are -- quite handsome."

In many East Texas counties, Green had encountered much local church opposition to ballroom dancing, but not so at Beaumont. Between 1858 and 1860, two dancing schools were taught there at different intervals by James C. Clelland and William Harris. Green noted that Clelland's school was in session three nights weekly, dedicated to the "total eradication of double-shuffle, go-along, thump-ta-bump movements of ancient times." Green noted that the dancing students were attending school "tri-weekly." In 1860, after Green's departure, William Harris was charging a total of $10 for a series of dancing lessons for "Beaumont gentlemen."

During the summer of 1859, Green was appointed district clerk of Jefferson County, and the court records for the remainder of that year contain many entries in his handwriting.

It was during the quarterly sessions of the district and county courts that early Beaumont came alive, its hotel filled to capacity, and overflowing into the private homes with visiting jurors, lawyers, litigants, and others, and the town's social life really blossomed. The rural families especially always combined the rare opportunity for church attendance, dancing, and social gatherings.

In December, 1858, the correspondent devoted an entire column to a quarterly court session and the weekend preceding it when "there was dancing on hand everywhere." Apparently tiring of the drinking that accompanied such occasions, Green added that he was "sicker of eggnog than the whale was of Jonah."

Thanks to Green, early history has a complete record of Beaumont's early Ross and Alexander sawmill and its subsequent destruction by fire; the trial and execution of Jack Bunch (which was antebellum Beaumont's most celebrated criminal case and the county's first legal execution); some of the early steamboats, education, statistics, and even cattle and agricultural history. Green also wrote three long letters about antebellum Orange and two about Sabine Pass, which remain as the best accounts of those cities written in pre-Civil War days.

The school teacher loved to travel by steamboat or other water conveyance, and it was on such occasions that he wrote his glowing accounts of the neighboring cities. In fact, one such letter of Orange could almost be labeled 'poetic prose,' and one cannot read Green's description of his first sight of Orange and ever forget it. He also described the presidential election of 1856 when Beaumonters celebrated President James Buchanan's victory with "the firing of guns, hilarity, good cheer, and good-humored free drinking, a franchise apparently indispensable to liberty." From one of his Orange letters, he described frontier religion in action, when "shrieks, sobs, groans, shouts, and loud amens rent the air," and about "the talent of squalling infants, terrible enough to carry away the shrouds and sails and even the human soul itself . . ."

In December, 1858, Green left what is probably the only description of an early-day Christmas in Jefferson County. As the holiday guest of the prominent McGuire Chaison family, he shared in all of the family activities, one of which was that "inseparable concomitant of jubilation -- great chit-chat and glorious gab." (Note: the Christmas tree had been introduced in Ohio only a few years earlier and did not reach Southeast Texas until about 1875.)

The holiday may have been devoid of frills by modern-day standards, but thanks to a chicken dinner, popcorn, fiddling, dancing, conversation and eggnog, it was still a gala occasion of merrymaking and a scene of gentle family tranquility.

The headmaster also noted that there were very few criminal cases in Jefferson County, a social phenomenon that existed as early as 1847 (criminality ran rampant under the old Texas Republic). He recorded cattle movements along the old, unsung Opelousas Trail, which crossed the Neches River at Beaumont. Shortly before his arrival in 1856, over 3,000 New Orleans-bound steers swam the Neches at Beaumont, and during the succeeding two months another 15,000 heads arrived from the Brazos, Colorado, and Guadalupe River regions.

Apparently Green's greatest mistake was to desert his school house for the court house, and politics turned out to be Green's 'Achilles heel.' The schoolmaster who was so easy-going, extroverted, and humorous in every field except politics was probably short-tempered and hostile to any political opinion which differed with his. In November, 1859, the county's criminal docket book bore a new indictment that was not in Green's distinctive handwriting, the State of Texas versus Henry R. Green, for assault and battery.

Since no conviction exists, one is left to surmise that the "News" correspondent's political activism finally resulted in personal conflict with some prominent Jefferson County figure, probably an elected official at the court house, and in a moment of temper, a fist fight. Certainly, not everyone shared Green's low opinion of Gen. Sam Houston, for men such as William McFaddin, Benjamin Johnson, and Jacob Garner had fought in Houston's army at, or near, San Jacinto. The district attorney's Galveston "News" articles ceased very abruptly, and it appears the former headmaster considered it expedient to migrate to greener pastures.

Nothing about Green's subsequent life is known, and he was not enumerated in the county's 1860 census. He was an ardent secessionist, however, and probably welcomed the advent of the American Civil War. In fact, he probably enlisted with the first call for volunteers to the Confederate ranks. The only clue to his fate indicates that Green was dead by 1865, and most probably died in action or of disease while in the Confederate service. On Jan. 26, 1867, the commissioners court minutes carried the following notation: "It is ordered by the court that the account of H. R. Green, deceased, against the County of Jefferson be rejected."

Even Green explodes for all time the myth that frontier Beaumont was only a two-gun, one saloon cowtown of no redeeming worth, possessing nothing of cultural value or the fine arts prior to Spindletop. In 1858, Beaumont did have one saloon and a lot of cowpokes passing through town, but it also had two religious denominations, the Beaumont Debating Society, dancing schools, law enforcement and judicial departments, as well as many schools, to combat the encroachment of the frontier. And of course, the records of the 1880s and 1890s shoot that myth into the bread basket with one round of the musket.

How sad that readers are left with no knowledge of the eventual fate of Beaumont's early headmaster and its first historian, who may well have died in battle in defense of the Southland that he loved! In later years, there were many early Beaumonters who fondly recalled that it was Henry R. Green who had drummed the first rudiments of knowledge into their heads as well as the seats of their trousers. This was indeed a tribute to the young school teacher, "News" correspondent, and district attorney who remained only 3 1/2 years, but loving Beaumont the way that he did, has left posterity a great legacy of Southeast Texas in his writings.

Copyright 1998-2018 by W. T. Block. All rights reserved.
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