Journal Of The Life And Culture Of San Antonio

John James, English Entrepreneur

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The father-in-law of Architect Alfred Giles, John James, was among the most influential persons in shaping San Antonio, which, almost literally, he did, when he surveyed and established the city’s boundaries in 1846. The original records of the royal grant showing the city’s boundaries had disappeared during Mexican Gen. Adrian Woll’s capture of the city and his troops’ invasion of the court house on September 11, 1842. John James provided the survey for legal action by T. J. Devine to restore the records. [Corner, 36; Vinton James, Frontier and Pioneer, 20) John James began to acquire land soon after he came to Texas from Nova Scotia in 1837, and eventually accumulated large holdings. He became Chief Surveyor of Bexar County at a time when Texans saw the western border of Bexar County extending to the Rio Grande. James sometimes accepted a part of his surveying fees in land bordering many fine streams in West Texas.

When Henri Castro established a colony of Alsatians on the Medina River in 1844, he engaged John James to survey and lay out the townsite that became Castroville. James first explored the area with Castro and escorted by five well-armed Rangers from the Company of Capt. Jack Hays. He later accompanied Castro and his followers to the land and remained with them until they were established. In his book Frontiers and Pioneers, Vinton James says that his father also plotted and surveyed the towns of D’Hanis, Boerne, Quihi and Bandera. [Cornelia Crook, 65].

After James surveyed Bandera, he set up a saw mill there, powered by horses, and hired men to run it. He was associated with Charles de Montel in the project and the venture became known as the Bandera Mills of James, Montel and Company. This was the beginning of the town of Bandera. The saw mill provided cypress lumber, shingles and laths, transported by ox-cart to nearby U. S. Army forts, as well as to the James lumber yard on West Commerce Street—the first in San Antonio.

James played a role in San Antonio cultural life too. He built one of the town’s first two-story houses on Commerce at a site where North Presa Street now goes to the river. Many visitors to the James home became high ranking military celebrities. John L. Bullis was a longtime friend, famous for leading the part-Negro part-Indian Seminole scouts in the 1870s. (These extraordinary soldiers fought Indians who would retreat into Mexico, where they followed and defeated them. Bullis was appointed a brigadier general in 1905. He died in San Antonio in 1911. Camp Bullis is named for him.) A number of friends of James became high ranking officers during the Civil War—Robert E. Lee, Albert Sidney Johnston, D. H. Vinton, John B. Hood, John S. Mason, Braxton Bragg, and William Jenkins Worth. Maj. Gen. William Worth, commander of the U. S. Army Eighth Military District in San Antonio in 1849, is remembered as the man for whom the military post, Fort Worth, was named in November 1849. His name also has been given to springs near the source of the San Antonio River. Because there were no other facilities for troops at that time, General Worth had placed his soldiers in camps at Mission Concepcion and near the Head of the River. He died of cholera at the James home on May 7, 1849—when a cholera epidemic hit San Antonio, killing hundreds, with sometimes 35 deaths in twenty—four hours [Nixon, Century of Medicine, 97].

One the most lasting contributions of John James to Texas and San Antonio history was his sponsoring, together with Charles Montel and John H. Herndon, sixteen Polish families to come to Bandera. According to The First Polish Americans. by T. Lindsay Baker, “the Polish population of the town during the next three years grew to about twenty families, primarily through the arrival of people who left Panna Maria [in Karnes County] because they felt that Bandera was situated in a more healthful location.” Some of Bandera’s settlers later joined San Antonio’s Polish colony.

It was said of John James in his later years that he knew the location of every waterhole in West Texas. And everyone familiar with the ever-present threat of Indian attacks in much of West Texas at that time, respected him for his daring and enterprise. More than once he had deadly encounters with bands of Indians. As the owner in 1856 of land on Limpia Creek where Fort Davis was to be located, and of Comanche Springs in 1868, he was paid rent for 20 years by the United States government. James plunged into many enterprises, including both cattle and sheep ranching. One of the early leaders in the sheep industry, he brought in from Virginia five hundred Merino sheep, including a number of fine rams. They were transported down the Ohio and Mississippi River, then across the Gulf of Mexico to Galveston. From Galveston, they were driven to the James ranch in Bandera County. This versatile man wrote a number of newspaper articles on sheep husbandry and the sheep industry. He also was a stockholder in the first woolen mill established in New Braunfels, the Comal Sheep Woolen Factory. And he was one of the three bondsmen who underwrote for the City of San Antonio the payment of $300,000 to the Galveston, Harrisburg, and San Antonio Railway Company on completion of the first railroad into San Antonio February 19, 1877.

--Frank W. Jennings, 1992