The Free State of Van Zandt…what does it mean? (Updated)

Over the last several days, well couple of weeks, I have had the opportunity to learn perhaps more about the Civil War and the very broad definition of what it means to be Southern or which Southerners one might be talking about than I have in several years of study. I had taken the process pretty slow, looking at the evidence, weighing it against what I know to be fact and sorting through a large body of opinion. Now, I am not only looking at history in general in a new way, but my own family roots and the place that I live have become lively topics of interest.

Unionism in Texas has been, up to this point, an anomaly for me. I have read about the “Great Hanging” in Gainesville and the murder of over 30 German immigrants near the Nueces River, but that was about the sum total of my knowledge of the matter. 

I currently live in Van Zandt County, Texas, once known as the “Free State of Van Zandt.” I have wondered about this monicker for the nearly nine years I have lived here. According to the Handbook of Texas Online, three stories exist as to why it has this title:

1) Van Zandt County, like most other Texas counties, was carved out of the larger Kaufman County (as was Henderson County). When this happened, the amount of debt owed by the old, larger county stayed with the new, smaller county. (Kaufman County, in this case, kept all the debt.) The new counties separated from the old one were debt-free; they were created and existed in a “free state” with regard to debt. (Van Zandt and Henderson Counties, in this case, were debt-free, though I have found information that a period of time lapsed between the creation of Henderson County out of Kaufman County and the creation of Van Zandt County out of Henderson County and that the subsequent debt may have been left with Henderson County.)

2) When the war began, people in the area were Unionist, though not abolitionist, and basically claimed the area, in spite of secession being passed in the state, was still part of the Union. Locals attempted to establish local government apart from the Texas and Confederate governments until military action was threatened.

3) After the war, the residents didn’t like the idea of being under Yankee military rule, so they voted to try and create a separate state. Phillip Sheridan, as military commander of the New Orleans District, sent cavalry to the county seat of Canton to quell this situation. Locals routed the cavalry, but the victory celebration got wound pretty tight. As a result, no guards were posted and the cavlary entered town while everyone was passed out and arrested over 300 persons. Somehow, most of the 300 managed to escape and no one was tried for any crime in relation to the incident.

Based on my preliminary research, here is what I can say about these three ideas:

1) While this was done throughout the state when new counties were formed, this theory is the one I have researched the least as it relates to Van Zandt.

2) I have not found any additional sources, outside local, anecdotal sources to support this idea. The closest I’ve come is that over 50 percent of the county voted against secession, but I haven’t yet located the election returns for an exact percentage.

3) The only thing I have seen other than the Handbook of Texas Online information related to this event is an entry in Thomas Ayers’ That’s Not in My American History Book titled “America’s Shortest War.” (pp. 40-42; the major portion of the event, as it is written about in this source, lasted just under 24 hours.) Accrording to Ayers, the event happened in 1867.

I now have an interesting puzzle on my hands. Thankfully, the Van Zandt County Genealogical Society maintains a library of local history. That’s where I plan to be next Saturday!

Update (12/31/2009): It’s been nearly a year since I posted this entry, but I happened to find this “official” explanation for the name on my way back from my parents’ house in Center where I grew up. I apologize for the fuzziness of the photograph, but I took it with my new cell phone, the only camera I had with me. No mention is made of the name’s possible connection to Texas secession in 1861 or to the 1867 episode mentioned in the Handbook of Texas Online or Thomas Ayers’ account in That’s Not in My American History Book.

Free State of Van Zandt Historical Marker

This historical marker, describing the name "Free State of Van Zandt" is located at the Interstate 20 westbound rest stop (southside of the interstate) on the eastern edge of the county.

2 Responses to The Free State of Van Zandt…what does it mean? (Updated)

  1. cenantua says:

    Good stuff here Greg.

    • But I’m not quite sure the locals here want me airing their laundry, especially if it turns out it’s dirty. I suppose I’ll have to tread lightly when I go to the local history library next week.


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