Father’s Day is upon us this weekend, a time when patriarchs across the country are celebrated.
The history of the holiday in the United States dates back more than 100 years. Historical record indicates that the first “Father’s Day” was celebrated statewide across the state of Washington on June 19, 1910, the first time that a holiday explicitly celebrated fathers, following in the footsteps of Mother’s Day, which had been recognized and already became somewhat of a commercial behemoth at that time.
It wasn’t until 1972 that Father’s Day was recognized as a national holiday by presidential proclamation. This year, the National Retail Federation predicted that spending for Father’s Day is expected to reach an all-time high of $16 billion.
But what about the “fathers” of Hunt County and its cities? The people that helped build the area from the ground up? Like a father would give a child its name, plenty of founding fathers either inspired or directly gave the names to plenty of communities in the county. We look into some of those stories here.
What’s in a name?
While Hunt County has been steadily on the rise for years now, many new residents and even long-time locals may not know how our fair county got its name, and who the man was who it was named for.
The story of Hunt County begins, as it often does in this country, with the native peoples of the area. According to “Historic Hunt County: An Illustrated History” by local author Milton Babb, those traveling with legendary Spanish explorer and conquistador Hernando de Soto across the Sabine River near where Greenville stands today made note of the local Caddo Indians living in the area.
As far as white settlement of the area goes, that didn’t occur en masse until the 1830s, after the fledgling Republic of Texas won its independence from Mexico. The Texas State Historical Association notes that while land grants in the area were given by the Mexican government in 1835, heavier settlement did not begin until about 1839.
The county was officially formed by the newly-annexed state of Texas in 1846. But where did it get its name?
Hunt County is named after Memucan Hunt. Hunt was a North Carolina native, born in 1807. In 1834, he moved to Mississippi to run a plantation given to him by his father, Col. William Hunt. Not too long after being in Mississippi, Thomas Jefferson Green — who is coincidentally also claimed as the namesake for the city of Greenville, but more on him later — traveled to Mississippi to raise volunteers to fight in the ongoing Texas Revolution.
Hunt and several hundred others agreed to go fight, and arrived in Velasco in June 1836. From there, he enlisted, organized and equipped troops to fight for Texas from Tennessee, North Carolina and Mississippi, all at his own expense, according to a biography written by the Texas State Archives.
While he got to Texas too late to fight in the revolution, his efforts to raise troops were due to the lingering spectre of another invasion by Mexico. Thankfully that invasion never came.
After war was over, Hunt was persuaded to stay in Texas by President Sam Houston, and served as the new republic’s Minister to the United States. He also served as the Secretary of the Navy. After Texas became a state, he served a single term in the Texas Legislature beginning in 1852. He passed away in 1856 due to illness.
Hunt is, along with William H. Wharton, listed as a key player in attaining recognition from the United States as an independent republic following the revolution.
Hunt’s grandfather, also named Memucan, was involved in politics as well, having served as the first-ever State Treasurer for North Carolina in 1784.
The story of Greenville proper begins along with the county, with the city being established the same year as the formation of Hunt County. The current site of Greenville began as a 640-acre plot of land donated by McQuinney Wright and James Bourland. Auctions for town lots were held on Jan. 15, 1847, and all but one of the lots facing the proposed town square were said to be sold that day, and Greenville was born.
Official incorporation came in 1852. By then, a county courthouse, one-room school and post office had been established.
But who did “Green’s Ville” actually get its name from?
There is some debate as to the true namesake of Greenville. Many historical records, including those with the TSHA, mention that Thomas Green was the namesake of the city. However, local historian Carol Taylor argues that another man, John Greenville McNeel was the true inspiration.
Taylor said in a phone call that shortly after the state of Texas was annexed into the union, the state’s legislature rushed to create counties and settle land claims, as that led to the collection of taxes. About 11 counties were formed in a three week period by the legislature, Taylor says, with the names of both the county and county seat all being chosen by said legislature.
Taylor said that McNeel, not Green, was the namesake of the county as chosen by the legislature, saying that the notion that Green inspired the name came from a history of the county written more than 70 years after the fact.
While we won’t make any historical judgement on who the true namesake is, we will feature both men’s stories.
Green, like Hunt, also hailed from North Carolina, being born in 1802. He attended the United States Military Academy at West Point, and held a great distinction afterwards, being elected to the North Carolina General Assembly in 1823 at the age of just 21. He later moved to Florida in the early days of statehood and served in that state’s legislature as well.
With the promise of land, riches and prosperity, Green formed the Texas Land Company in 1835 with Achille Murat to make his fortune out west. However, the revolution derailed their plans not long after his arrival.
Green joined the Texas Army in 1836 and was given the rank of Brigadier General after his efforts to raise volunteers and money across the southern United States.
After the war, Green was a representative for Bexar County in the new republic’s House of Representatives. He later left politics for a time and participated in numerous raids against Mexico. He participated in the Somervell Expedition as well as the Mier Expedition, the last raiding expedition into Mexico. Green and more than 100 others were captured by Mexican General Pedro de Ampudia, but he later escaped.
Green would move out west to California and served in the senate, where he sponsored the bill that created the University of California. Following that, he moved back to his native North Carolina, where he died in 1863.
As for McNeel, he was also born in 1802 in Kentucky. He is said to have moved to Texas from Arkansas in about 1822 as one of Stephen F. Austin’s “Old Three Hundred,” the name given to the first settlers to take up land grants in Austin’s first colony. McNeel was a successful plantation owner who, as the 1830s progressed, became involved with the budding revolution movement, participating in the Battle of Velasco in 1832.
When Texas became a state, he became a senator in the state’s first legislature from 1846 to 1847 in the 12th district.
Taylor described McNeel as a “Texas war hero and Indian fighter” who gained the respect of his peers enough to have the new county seat of Hunt County named in his honor. He passed in 1876.
The small community of McNeel, which also derived its name from John Greenville, existed in Brazoria County but steadily declined in the 20th century, disappearing from maps altogether after the 1960s.
As an aside, Greenville could have been named something else entirely. The original plan was to name the seat of Hunt County “Pinckneyville,” in honor of Texas’ first Governor, James Pinckney Henderson. Wouldn’t that have been a mouthful to say? Who knows how the future could have been different with G-Town instead becoming P-Town.
Pinckneyville also showed up again as the chosen name of the seat for Denton County, but that too was short-lived when the city of Alton was established by the legislature in 1848 as the new county seat.
A hub of Commerce
The city of Commerce, the county’s second-largest, has many people to thank for its history. While the city itself has grown considerably from its early days, so too has the local university, which has shaped the course of history of Hunt County with its presence.
Commerce began its history following in the footsteps of the small community of Cow Hill, which reportedly received that name as the place where cattle could escape the flooding of the Sulphur River by climbing the hill. William Jernigan, a local merchant, joined with Josiah Jackson and moved just further southwest a few miles from Cow Hill and opened a store in 1872 in the area in that is on the present-day northwest corner of Downtown Commerce.
The name “Commerce” apparently comes from labels that were applied to Jernigan’s merchandise while on a business trip to Jefferson to get supplies for his store. Jernigan reportedly had the supplies sent to “commerce” since the community had no name. The community then took on the name of Commerce, and was later incorporated with that name in 1885. Cow Hill steadily declined in the years following, and Commerce took over as the business hub in the area.
Jernigan was born in 1819 in Tennessee, and later served a term in the Arkansas state legislature before moving his family to Texas.
Another man who can be considered a founding father to what Commerce is today is William Leonidas Mayo, the founder of what is today Texas A&M University-Commerce.
“Leo” Mayo was born in 1861 in Prestonburg, Ken. He completed schooling in Kentucky, Virginia and Indiana. He moved out to Colorado before settling in Texas in the Pecan Gap area in Delta County, where he had relatives living. He later became Superintendent of Schools in Cooper, but had dreams of creating his own teacher’s college, or “normal” school.
He opened East Texas Normal College in 1889. Just five years into the school’s existence, disaster struck in 1894 when the college was destroyed by a devastating fire. Mayo wanted to rebuild though, and he did reopen the college, but this time more than a dozen miles down the road in Commerce.
By his passing in 1917, the school had grown to an enrollment of nearly 2,000 students.
Famously on March 14, 1917, he suffered a heart attack while walking back from the telegraph office where he just received word that the state House of Representatives had passed a bill to purchase the school. He died shortly after.
Mayo is currently buried on campus. According to a campus legend, Mayo looked out of the window of his office and once pointed to a black locust thicket near the former Old Main building and remarked that he wanted to be buried there when his time came. His wish was honored, and his gravesite still sits near the intersection of Lee and Mayo Streets on campus.
Right side of the tracks
The history of Quinlan, like many towns and cities in Texas, begins with the railroad, and the politics and wheeling-dealing that occurred in the industry in the 1880s that both raised and destroyed towns with the smallest of decisions.
Before there was Quinlan, there was the community of Roberts. Roberts was named and founded when Texas Governor O. M. Roberts sold 100 acres of land to the Texas Central Railroad. In 1892, however, Edward Green, President of the Texas Midland Railroad, decided to create a new depot town just a half-mile north of Roberts. The new town of Quinlan got its name from George Austin Quinlan, who at the time was the vice president and general manager of the Houston and Texas Central Railway. The railroad was extended northward through Greenville and later reached Paris by 1894.
Of course, the community of Roberts was very short lived after this, while Quinlan began to grow.
Oran Milo Roberts, the namesake of the first town, was born in 1815 in South Carolina, and moved to Texas during the days of the republic. He was a career politician, holding office in both Alabama and then Texas, where he was a district attorney, state Supreme Court Justice and even President of the Secession Convention that decided to remove the state from the union.
He served as the Colonel of the 11th Texas Infantry during the Civil War.
After the war during reconstruction, he was elected to the United States Senate and was Chief Justice of the Texas Supreme Court. This all led to him being elected to two terms as Governor beginning in 1878. The current capitol building in Austin was constructed during Roberts’ tenure, and the University of Texas was opened just before the end of his final term.
Quinlan was born in 1837 in Connecticut. He became involved in the railroad industry and started with the H&TC in 1866. He advanced his way up the ladder until becoming Vice President in the 1890s. He died in 1901 and has a monument at his grave site in Houston. Quinlan’s only daughter is also the namesake of Anna, Texas
Edward “Ned” Howland Robinson Green, the man who made the decision that led to Quinlan’s rise and Roberts’ demise, was born in 1868 in London. He was the son of Hetty Howland Green, who had been called “The Wicked Witch of Wall Street” for her status as one of the “robber barons” of the railroad industry, according to local historian Carol Taylor. Hetty purchased the Texas Central Railroad for $75,000 cash and $750,000 in bonds in the 1890s. She then named her son Edward as President of the company, which was now called the Texas Midland Railroad.
Green, who many thought would ruin the railroad with his inexperience in the business, actually made great strides. He helped revolutionize the company with new locomotives, passenger cars and railways. Another unique distinction is that Green is also credited with bringing the first automobile to Texas, an 1899 “St. Louis” runabout.
Green passed away in 1936 in Lake Placid, N.Y.
Plenty of famous fathers
There are plenty of other fascinating stories as to how the towns and cities in Hunt County came to be, too many to list in just one story. But it goes to show that if one looks back at our history, they could find endless stories to tell about the “Fathers” that made Hunt County what it is today. Happy Father’s Day.