Fayette County, Texas Biographies
The following articles were taken from F. Lotto's Fayette County, Her History and Her People, published in 1902.
The Bench and Bar of Fayette County.
The first man called to preside in the District Court was Robert M. Williamson, one of the historical characters of the Republic of Texas. He resided at that time in the old town of Washington on the Brazos. He was, upon the organization of the judiciary of the Republic, selected Judge of the Third Judicial District, of which Fayette County was a part. He held this important position from October 1838 to October 1939 when he resigned and again took up his practice. He was born in Georgia in 1806, and came to Texas in about 1826. Early in life he was attacked by white swelling in one of his legs, which stiffened his knee and made it necessary for him to wear a wooden leg, and thus he acquired the sobriquet, "Three Legged Willie," by which name he was universally known in Texas. Judge Williamson was a great lawyer. He was famed for his eloquence and bright flashes of wit. Like all truly great lawyers and judges, he was always kind and courteous to the young men at the bar. He died at Independence, Washington county, in December 1858. — p. 202
The third man to occupy the bench in Fayette County was a Fayette County man. R. E. B. Baylor was born in Kentucky in 1813 and came to Fayette County, Texas, in 1839. He was a lawyer and a preacher. He was appointed District Judge in 1841 and for a while was a member of the Supreme Court of the Republic. His decisions would indicate that he followed the dictates of his own judgment as to what was justice, rather than precedents of the courts of older jurisdiction. However, he was a good judge and very popular with the people. He was a member of the Constitutional Convention of 1845, and, notwithstanding that he was a preacher, framed the clause excluding ministers of the gospel from holding civil office. Those old Texans were very jealous of the liberty they had achieved, and everything was done that man could do to prevent a possible union of Church and State. This man's character was good and pure; by his example he did much to elevate and purify the bar. Baylor University was named after him. He died at Independence in December, 1878.
He was the last judge to preside over the courts of Fayette County during the existence of the Republic of Texas. — p. 203
Judge John Hancock was born in Jackson County, Alabama, October 24th, 1824. In early life he worked upon a farm, but soon left it to take up the study of the law. In 1847 he came to Texas, locating at Austin. He made friends by his frugal and industrious habits and in 1851, when not quite 27 years of age, was elected Judge of the 2nd Judicial District of Texas, of which Fayette County was a part. He was undoubtedly the youngest man who had ever been called to the bench in Texas. If there were those in Fayette County, who doubted the wisdom of his selection because of his youth, their doubts were soon dispelled. He opened court one beautiful May morning in 1852 at La Grange, and announced that no lawyer, witness or juror would be called from the court house; they must be on hand or pay a fine. This was the first time this time-saving rule, now so commonly in vogue in District Courts, was announced. In those days the District Court had jurisdiction of misdemeanors, and the one most commonly violated and at that time generally prosecuted was the violation of gaming laws. Prior to the advent of Judge Hancock, it had been customary, when the boys were fined, for the sheriff to turn the boys loose and let them settle up when they got ready. The result was that very few fines were paid. Judge Hancock put a stop to this and the boys had to pay up or go to jail. He was a hard worker,conscientious in the discharge of his duties and proved to be an able judge.
In 1856 he retired from the bench and returned to his practice. The records of Texas courts show that few men, if any, appeared in more cases than Judge Hancock. He was said to be the ablest lawyer in the state. He was not an orator in the common acceptation of that term; he was not a brilliant man, but he worked constantly at whatever there was to do. his mind was a powerful one. It is said that he was never known to spend an idle moment upon the streets during his over forty years' residence in Austin. His rule was to be never away from his office, unless he was engaged in the court room, or elsewhere on business. He was never known to break an engagement of any kind.
He was a democrat, although a strong Union man. In 1870 the democrats of this Congressional District tendered him the nomination for Congress. He declined it because of professional duties that required his attention. But in 1872, the democrats practically compelled him to accept the nomination. He was elected until 1877, when he was defeated for the nomination, through the efforts of certain politicians. The people so resented this treatment of this popular man, that they defeated the nominee who succeeded him. In all Texas there were probably no more interesting and exciting campaigns than those between Judge Hancock and Col "Wash." Jones for Congress in Fayette County.
He died in Austin. His fame as a judge and lawyer will live and grow brighter as the years pass away. — pp. 203-204
Thomas H. Duval, one of the brightest minds that ever graced the bench of Texas, succeeded Judge Hancock. He served only for a short time, holding but one term of Court in Fayette County, he leaving the bench of the District Court to accept the position of Federal Judge for the Western District of Texs.
Judge Duval was born in Buckingham County, Virginia, removed to Kentucky and from there to Florida with his father's family, and in 1845 he came to Austin, Texas. He died October 10th, 1889 at the age of 67. — p. 205
James H. Bell, who succeeded Thomas H. Duval as Judge of the District Court in 1856, was the first and strange to say, is the only native Texan who has ever presided over the District Court of Fayette County. He was born in the town of Columbia, in Brazoria County on January 21, 1820. It is claimed that he was the first white child born in Austin's colony. Be this as it may, he was surely the first white child born in Texas who grew to manhood to become one of Texas' ablest jurists. Young Bell was sent to Braidstown, Kentucky, where he was educated. In 1843 he attended Cambridge University, Mass., where he finished his studies in the law, commenced prior to that time in the law office of William H. Jack. In 1852, at the age of 32, he was elected District Judge, and in 1856, by a redistricting of the State, Fayette County was placed in his District. In 1858 the people of the State called this gifted son of Texas from the District Court bench to a seat on the Supreme Court of Texas, where he remained until 1864 when he returned to his practice. In 1873 when the people of Texas by a decisive vote elected Coke Governor and thus undertook to oust the carpet bag regime of E. J. Davis, it will be remembered that the latter attempted to hold on to the office. it was then that James H. Bell went to Washington and interviewed President Grant and induced the president to decline to interfere. And Coke was installed as Governor.
Judge Bell was one of the most eminent Judges Texas has produced. Many old citizens of La Grange and Fayette County remember him and are his ardent admirers to this day. J. F. W. — p. 205