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Disappearing Black Denton

Slavery in Denton County

While the St. John’s community was not established until migrants arrived from Alabama, the first African American residents on the land that would one day be St. John’s were enslaved. Many attempts have been made to negate the significance of slavery in Denton County, but the numbers don’t lie. In 1864 there were 588 persons enslaved in a county with a total population of 5000. Moreover, the value placed on the slaves themselves was $360,050 -- more than the value of any other item save for real estate. Even more poignantly, the value of slavery in bodies alone was equal to 50% of the value of all of the real estate in the county.

This had not always been the case in Denton County. In 1850 there were only ten enslaved persons, ranging in age between six months and twenty-five. This small number mirrored the smaller population as a whole; there were only 683 free residents in the same year. The population of Denton County swelled during the ten years that followed as transportation improved which made the trek from the Upper South to North Texas less burdensome. Much of the migratory activity arrived by way of the Butterfield Overland Mail Route which connected St. Louis, Missouri, with Gainesville, Texas. In the heart of Missouri are seventeen slaveholding counties, often referred to as “Little Dixie” for their Upper Southern origin. Little Dixie was settled by Virginians by way of Tennessee and Kentucky, the earliest American frontiersmen on a westward track for land. The "rich and fertile timbered river-valleys and rolling upper prairies of central Missouri" met large navigable rivers and railroad development in Central Missouri. The result of this blending of Old Dominion exploration and black soil was a slave-based economy created by families who had not previously owned slaves.

Travel to North Texas was initially long and dangerous, taking up to six months from Tennessee to Texas. Colbert’s Ferry opened in 1853 which allowed settlers to cross the Red River at Bryan County, Oklahoma and enter Texas in Grayson County on the other side. But this improvement only cut a couple of weeks off the journey and it still remained a path less traveled until 1857 when the Butterfield Overland Mail Route opened and travelers arrived in Denton County by stagecoach from Missouri in ten days. 

The results were immediate. In 1850, only 185 people in Denton County had been born in Missouri; by 1860, “the Missouri-born population had exploded to 880.” This population boom had a tangible impact on slavery in the county. In 1850, four out of five slave owners in Denton County were born in Missouri. This simply served as foreshadowing for the wartime refugees who gathered up men and women enslaved and, to avoid emancipation, forcibly migrated entire plantations westward. Denton County was one such westward place. In 1860 there were 251 African Americans in the county; in four years the number of enslaved more than doubled to 588.

Between the limitations of communication enslaved and the rapid population growth, come Emancipation there was nothing cohesive about the group of freedmen and women who resided in Denton County. Prior to 1870, six people of color lived on the land that would become St. John’s - five of which were from Missouri. Harriet and Gilbert Davis, Serena Phillips and her daughter Loney and son John and Alsie Music.

The Civil War was particularly hard on railroad lines across the south. Much of the established railways in Alabama were either destroyed by the Union or taken apart for repurposing by the Confederacy. In 1871, The Texas and Pacific Railroad began construction into North Texas while the Georgia Pacific repaired and expanded a connected line into the Deep South. On August 11, 1876, the Texas Pacific Railroad opened service from Chambers County, Alabama, to Sherman, Texas. This connection would prove pivotal in the establishment of the St. John’s Community.