September 16, 2020 558 PM
Editor’s note: This year is not the first time Confederate namesakes have entered the public conversation. As the community dialogue has reignited, we looked to our archives to see what the late historian Lonn Taylor had to say on the matter. This column originally ran in The Big Bend Sentinelon August 24, 2017.
For the past two years this nation has been racked by controversy about Confederate monuments and buildings named after Confederates.
As a historian, I have always been opposed to removing statues and changing names, thinking that it was futile to try to erase the past. But last May, when three Confederate monuments were taken down in New Orleans, Mayor Mitch Landrieu made a speech that changed my thinking. Landrieu said that the statues of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and P.G.T. Beauregard were not “innocent remembrances of a benign history,” but instead were erected in the early 20th century to reinforce the doctrine of white supremacy, “to send a strong message to all who walked in their shadow about who still is in charge in this city.” He said the statues celebrated “a fictional, sanitized Confederacy, ignoring the death, the enslavement, the terror, that it actually stood for.” Landrieu was right. Americans are still having a hard time coming to grips with the consequences of our country having been a republic of slave-owners.
Because the Big Bend was hardly settled during the Civil War, we have few Confederate monuments here. But we do have some potentially embarrassing names. Fort Davis, of course, was named after Jefferson Davis, but it was named for him long before he was the president of the Confederacy. When the post on Limpia Creek was established in October, 1854, Davis was President Franklin Pierce’s secretary of war, and General Persifor Smith essentially named the new fort after his boss, which you can hardly blame a man for doing. It remained Fort Davis even after the Civil War when Davis was in disgrace. The army abandoned the fort in 1891, but by then the name had been transferred to the town that grew up around it. If anyone wants to change it, I will offer up the fact that before General Smith officially named the post for Davis, it was known to the army as Painted Comanche Camp.
The origin of Jeff Davis County’s name is a little harder to pinpoint. The county was originally part of Presidio County, whose perfectly innocuous name comes from the old Spanish Presidio (fort) del Norte at what is now Ojinaga, Chihuahua. In 1887 the state legislature created four new counties out of part of Presidio County, and named one of them Jeff Davis County. There is some indication that the legislature intended the name as a slap in the face of the Republicans and Union army veterans who made up the bulk of the population around Fort Davis. Ira Bush, who practiced medicine in Fort Davis in the early 1890s, wrote in his memoir, Gringo Doctor, that when the bill to create the county came up in the legislature, “One bright young solon rose and said, ‘Gentlemen, that new county is composed mostly of Republicans and I propose that we name the county Jeff Davis County so that those blankety blank Republicans will have to write his name every time they write a letter.’” What is certain is that in 1889 the Jeff Davis Chapter of the Grand Army of the Republic, the Union army veteran’s association, passed a resolution saying that their chapter was named in honor of Union General Jefferson Columbus Davis and not the former president of the Confederacy. Jefferson C. Davis was famous in the army for fatally shooting his commanding officer in a fit of temper and completely escaping punishment, although he ended his career as commander of the Department of Alaska. It may be that the name Jeff Davis County was imposed on its citizens against their will. Should we change it, and if so, to what?
There is definitely a precedent for changing county names in Texas. Walker County, of which Huntsville is the county seat, was originally named for Mississippi Senator Robert J. Walker, who introduced the resolution recognizing the independence of Texas from Mexico into the United States Senate in 1837 and was a strong champion of annexation over the next nine years. But Robert Walker remained loyal to the Union during the Civil War and served as a financial agent for the Lincoln administration in Europe. In 1863, the Texas legislature passed a resolution denouncing Walker as “ungrateful to the people who had honored him” and declaring that Walker County would henceforth be considered to be named for Texas Ranger Samuel H. Walker, who was killed in Mexico in 1847.
There are 254 counties in Texas and 38 of them are named after men who served the Confederacy, including Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, John Bell Hood and Jefferson Davis’ vice president, Alexander Stephens. An additional county, Val Verde, is named after a Confederate victory in New Mexico. Rather than change the names of all 39 of them, perhaps we should just reconsider the whole matter of naming counties after people and number them instead. The legislature could then argue about whether to number them in the order in which they were created, or from east to west, or west to east, or by size (in which case Jeff Davis could be County Number Ten). This would give the legislature something to do instead of arguing about what bathrooms people could use.
An even better idea might be to rename all of Texas’ counties after the plants and trees that are found in them. We already have a Live Oak County, a Pecan (Nueces) County and a Cypress (Sabine) County, why not add 251 more botanical names? Jeff Davis County could become Wild Rose County, after the bushes that gave Wild Rose Pass its name back in the 1840s. Or, better yet, Agave County, after the half dozen species of agave that grow here. That would be far superior to Number Ten and would put us at the head of the alphabetical list of counties in the Texas Almanac.
Jeff Davis was not a pleasant man. Sam Houston, who served in the U.S. Senate with him, once described him as being “proud as Satan and so cold that a drop of his blood would freeze a frog.” Think about it, folks. Had you rather live in a county named for a man like that or in one named after a noble plant like the agave?
Lonn Taylor (1940-2019) was a historian, writer and longtime columnist who lived in Fort Davis.