Jacob Harmon Garner
A Texas veteran and torchbearer of the East Texas wilderness
By W. T. Block
Members of Jacob Garner's descendents, members of Jefferson County Historical Commission, ladies and gentlemen:
Twenty-three years ago last month, a large gathering of 200 people assembled in this cemetery to dedicate a Texas marker for Benjamin Johnson, a brother-in-law of Jacob Garner, and the only veteran of the Battle of San Jacinto, whose exact grave site in Jefferson County is known. After 1970, while I was writing my Master of Arts thesis, I became acutely aware that, not only were there several Confederate soldiers buried in this cemetery, but there were also at least three veterans of the Texas Revolution and even one of the War of 1812. J. H. Garner, whom we honor here today, was one of those Texas veterans.
Jacob H. Gartner was not only a pioneer settler of Jefferson County; in 1825 he also held the torchlight in the wilderness for those who were to come here after him. Jacob came here when he was only eleven years old, apparently with his oldest four brothers and sisters, and obviously he lived in the household of one of them until his parents and a younger brother and sister migrated from Big Woods, Calcasieu Parish, La., to Old Jefferson, now Bridge City, in 1828. Some of Jacob's siblings included David and Isaac Garner, who also fought in the Texas Revolution; Mrs. Annie West, whose husband, Claiborne West, was a signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence; Sarah (Mrs. John) McGaffey, who became the "mother of Sabine Pass," when she was the first person to move here in 1832; and Rachel Garner, wife of Benjamin Johnson, who fought at the Battle of San Jacinto. Hence, the genealogy of the Bradley Garner, Sr. children reads more like a page from the pioneer history of Texas rather than a family genealogy.
Needless to say, whenever Jacob Harmon Garner was holding that torch in the wilderness of 1825 to light a pathway for others, there was no Kroger or K-Mart store on the corner, ready to supply tomorrow's dinner. Instead, Jacob's Sunday dinner was a big goose swimming in the marsh, or a mess of cat fish out of Cow Bayou, or the squirrels springing through the branches. Jacob's wardrobe for the next year was the hides still bounding through the forest on the backs of the buck deers.
Sadly, one of the unknowns of Jacob's life was the extent of his childhood education. There were no schools in the Big Woods settlement, where he was born, nor in Old Jefferson, Texas, in 1825. One must assume that his father, Bradley Garner, received a rudimentary education in Virginia, and that he was able to transmit that knowledge to his children. When Jacob H. Garner ran far and was elected district clerk of Jefferson County in 1846, he must have felt that he had sufficient education to perform his duties adequately. And fortunately today, you can still read page after page of Jake Garner's district court minutes or criminal and civil docket, each of which is sealed in plastic to withstand the ravages of time in the future.
Again sadly, when the Texas General Land Office burned at Austin in 1855, all original muster rolls of the Texas Revolution also burned. What exists there today as muster rolls were written down from the memories of Texas veterans who were still alive. Sadly as well was the fact that the muster rolls of some companies of Southeast Texas were not reconstructed at all, and Jacob H. Garner served 90-day enlistments in two such companies.
After the call for volunteers reached here in October, 1835, David Garner raised a company of 18 men (which included two of his brothers) and he was soon elected its captain. After their arrival in San Antonio about Nov. 15th, it was fortunate for posterity that all the names were enrolled in Stephen F. Austin's Order Book, and were eventually published in the Texas Historical Association Quarterly of July, 1907. While the company was in San Antonio, the men took an active part in the "Grass Fight," fought on Nov. 28, 1835, and during the Battle of San Antonio, fought Dec. 7-10, 1835.
When Jacob Garner applied for a 1,280-acre land grant, available to all surviving Texas veterans in 1871, his land application was witnessed by Payton Bland and Charles Cronea as well, since all three men had served two enlistments together in two separate companies. After relating the details of the San Antonio campaign, Garner wrote that he and nine other men had been detailed to guard two military prisoners, John and William Smith, each of whom had just been convicted of murder at Liberty in February, 1836. If you should obtain Miriam Partlow's History of Liberty and Liberty County, you will find between pages 117 and 122, a detailed record of the conviction ot the two Smith men and their surrender to ten members of a military company at Harrisburg, who were guarding them while the Battle of San Jacinto was being fought.
I also believe that Jacob Garner may have served a third enlistment in the Texas Army during the summer and fall of 1836, that history has lost any record of, but I consider that theory as impossible either to prove or disprove. After arriving back at his father's cabin on Cow Bayou, later to become a part of Orange County in 1852, Garner's name appeared once more as a "freeholder," subject to jury duty, in the archives of Jefferson County. On November 29, 1838, Jacob Garner married Matilda Hayes at Beaumont, theirs being the 25th marriage license issued in Jefferson County.
Between 1838 and 1871, Garner was awarded land grants by the Republic or State of Texas, the first being 3,129 acres of land by the Board of Land Commissioners of Jefferson County. In 1871, he was awarded his last grant for 1,280 acres. Records of the General Land Office reveal that during Garner's lifetime, he was awarded eleven different surveys of land in San Augustine, Jasper, Liberty, Fannin, Jefferson, and Milam counties.
A person can't fail to recognize the harshness of life in this county in 1840, when there was no inland stage coach or steamboat transportation, only a few ferries over the major streams, and no resident school teachers, preachers or priests in Jefferson County, which at that time included all of Orange and half of Hardin counties. In March, 1840, 36 men had to appear in Beaumont as a venire for jury empanelment for the quarterly district court, when only 80 adult males lived in the entire county. Hence, at the very moment a farmer needed to be plowing, he had a one in two chance for jury selection, and the fine for failing to appear was $15, equal to a month's pay for a farm laborer.
In 1846, the year Garner was elected district clerk, he was living near present-day Bridge City, but he soon moved his family to Sabine Pass at a time when his new job required that he spend most of his time in Beaumont. Leroy McCall left the best record of the Garner family's move to Sabine Pass in his book Mr. Mac, as follows:
Garner's raft had to be poled around the shallow edges of Sabine Lake when the winds were calm until the raft reached Sabine Pass. Like his brother-in-law, John McGaffey, Garner had cut and notched hundreds of pine saplings at Old Jefferson that he floated to Sabine Pass for the building of his first log cabine there. He acquired a farm on the Front Ridge from his sister, Sarah McGaffey, that he would farm for the remainder of his life.
The decade of the 1850's was kind to Jacob Garner, increasing his personal estate from $1,364 in 1850 to $7,000 in 1860. Jacob even acquired two slaves, which were probably inherited from his parents. Garner's two oldest daughters, Annie and Martha, married James and John McCall, who were sailors on the river cotton steamers. Garner's son Leonard soon grew to adulthood and would be inducted into the Confederate Army.
As the storm clouds of war hovered over Sabine Pass in April, 1861, the citizens there organized two militia companies. In August, 1861, at age 47, Jacob Garner enlisted as a cavalryman in the Ben McCulloch Coast Guard, but he was never inducted into the Confederate Army as many others of that unit were. Three more children had been added to the Garner household during the 1850's, and Jacob remained at home so he could farm and raise cattle to feed his family, and even the Confederate soldiers as well.
In July, 1862, a most virulent epidemic of yellow fever struck the Sabine Pass citizens and soldiers alike, and much of the middle area of this cemetery was to occupy the graves of the 150 people who died then, but not a one of them ever had a tombstone mounted on his grave. Luckily, Jacob was able to evacuate his family quickly to Old Jefferson, where a quarantine was strictly maintained. All of the Garner family escaped death during the epidemic, but it was about 7 or 8 months before they could return to their home.
The Civil War epoch soon took a large toll on the Garner family otherwise, reducing Jacob's net worth from $7,000 in 1860 to only $2,200 in 1870. Nevertheless, all of the family survived the war. The nine Garner children included Annie and Martha McCall, the sons Leonard, Milton, and Bradley Garner, and the youngest daughters, Mary Ann Johnson, Alice Garrett, and Sarah Ann Garner.
Other than his career as Jefferson County district clerk, Jacob H. Garner served his fellow man in other ways. He was elected justice of the peace at Cow Bayou in 1843. He was also appointed as "reviewer of roads" and "overseer of roads," which was voluntary, unpaid service. In 1857, Jacob was elected as an alderman on the the first city council ever elected in Sabine Pass.
Between 1865 and 1885, at least eight hurricanes of moderate intensity struck Sabine Pass, but like a barnacle on a boat's bottom, Jacob Garner clung to Sabine Pass as all the nestors did, and never once considered moving away. However, neither he nor anyone else was prepared for one night of terror which befell them and was unleashed on the city with total destruction on October 12, 1886. During the morning hours, the cotton pickers remained in the fields and the children remained in school, when suddenly about 3:00 PM the water rose three feet in an hour's time. By 6:00 PM a monstrous tidal wave engulfed everything, and the winds, estimated at 130 miles an hour, slammed into Sabine Pass. Houses and furniture began floating off, and what couldn't float away was ripped to shreds by the howling winds. By midnight, Sabine Pass had died.
By daylight, 86 people, or one-third of the town's population, had drowned, and 110 more had died at Johnson's Bayou across Sabine Lake. Some parents lost all of their children, and some orphaned children lost both parents. Those who survived had generally tied themselves to branches high up in the live oak trees, but they were left dazed and insensible as the storm passed. Jacob Garner's granddaughter, a pregnant bride of only seven months named Annie McReynolds, sat on her husband's shoulder until a large wave washed her away, and she drowned. That night of terror was the beginning of the end for brave old Jacob Harmon Garner. For a long time, I believed that Garner died of pneumonia due to much exposure to the winds and rain, but Bill Quick has determined that Garner lived on for about four months months after the storm, and that his actual death date was February 27, 1887.
Jacob and Matilda Garner did not walk in the footsteps of the wealthy and mighty, for there was scarcely any one of that calibar living during that wilderness age. Except for his Texas Revolutionary service, Jacob might not have attracted any attention at all, since he was a law-abiding man of a non-violent persuasion. His life story, however, is a perfect example of the frontier militiaman, who kept his powder dry; of the dedicated public servant, who earned the respect of his peers and neighbors; of the relentless pioneer, who carried the torch light of freedom and civilization into the wilderness; and of the devoted and God-fearing husband and father, who strove to care for his family, and as a result, provided his children and friends with a role model to emulate.
Jacob Garner, the old frontiersman, blazed a trail with footsteps so large that his successors could follow them with ease. And in so doing, he lit up that trail like the lighthouse east of here once did, thus earning for himself the right to have his name and biography emblazoned on this Texas State historical marker, that we are uncovering for the first time today. Hence, the story of Jacob Harmon Garner, pioneer soldier, citizen, and public servant, deserves this permanent niche in the annals of the Lone Star State, that he loved so much and that he sought to preserve and defend with his musket and even with his life if needed. I thank each of you for taking the time to attend this marker dedication today, and especially for your kind attention during this ceremony. May God bless you and keep you safely as you return to your homes this afternoon.