Bexar County Chief Justice Joseph Baker - Journal of San Antonio

Bexar County Chief Justice Joseph Baker, 1804-1846

By Melinda Parshall and Char Miller

Why Joseph Baker (1804-1846) migrated to Texas in early December 1831 is unknown. He was a schoolteacher in Maine and possibly hoped to find work in Texas, where the growing number of settlers required the establishment of an increasing number of schools. Baker first settled in San Felipe de Austin where he lived until 1835, possibly working as a school teacher although there are no records of schools in the area during this time. In any event, in his application for land, Baker listed his profession as “instructor to the young” and in the letters and journals of other revolutionaries who worked with Baker he is described as a teacher as well. What Baker probably never expected, however, was that upon moving to Texas he would do much more than teach, but become a revolutionary, and serving as an editor, soldier, judge, and congressman in the new Republic of Texas, and later in the Lone Star State.

Although little is known about Baker’s activities between 1831 and 1834, after that date the move towards revolution began to intensify and he immersed himself in the struggle for independence. From June to November of 1835, Baker served as a secretary of the ayuntamiento (governing body) of San Felipe de Austin, which indicates that Baker already had sufficient knowledge of Spanish (later, in 1844, he was a Spanish translator for the Texas General Land Office). Because he handled many of the records and information coming from Mexico and signed many of the letters dictated by the a yuntamiento of San Felipe to various government officials, he was well informed of the growing tension between Texas and Mexico, and began to develop his own revolutionary position. A letter from General Moseley Baker to General Sam Houston, dated October 1844, comments on Baker’s revolutionary allegiances:

"Meeting upon meeting was held, speech upon speech was made and so long as hope cast its shadow before did the war party contend for mastery at San Felipe. Had you been a participant in the struggle then going on you would have witnessed the untiring exertions of the Whartons, Archer, Travis, Williamson, Williams, Johnson, McKinney, Jno. K. Allen, Bowie, Pettus, Money, Joseph Baker, and a host of others, all clinging with patriotic ardor to a cause over which for a while lengthened shadows of despair were cast . . . . "

As with his revolutionary peers, Baker believed the Mexican government was infringing upon the rights of the Texians, an infringement they felt had to be challenged.

On October 10, 1835, nine days after the uprising’s opening shots were fired, the first issue of the Telegraph and Texas Register appeared in San Felipe, listing Baker as a co-editor. Baker’s association with the newspaper began the previous February when he formed a partnership with brothers John and Gail Borden. Neither Baker nor the Bordens had any experience in printing, yet together they published the second permanent newspaper in Texas. The paper printed in October of 1835 was drastically different from what was proposed in its prospectus printed five months earlier. Then, under the name the Telegraph and Texas Planter, the editors declared it would serve as a resource “for the diffusion of political and useful knowledge.” In the succeeding months, however, the editors’ growing involvement in the revolutionary movement altered their paper’s name and ideological outlook. As Baker and his colleagues announced:

Our readers will see that, in the title of this paper we substituted the word “Register,” in place of “Planter,” changing its name from what was originally proposed. At the time our prospectus was published, the engrossing object was the accumulating of wealth, and consequent aggrandizement of the country. Since that time affairs have assumed an entirely different aspect, and the all-absorbing question is how to protect ourselves, and what we already possess. We shall therefore endeavor to make our paper what its title indicates, the organ by which the most important news is communicated to the people, and a faithful register of passing events.

As a “register of passing events,” the American-born editors promoted a nationalistic ideology and revolutionary spirit consistent with their political backgrounds. To spark public support for the Texas Revolution, the editors printed the “Declaration of the Congress of the United Colonies, showing the causes which impelled them to take up arms against Great Britain,” arguing that a new generation of revolutionaries must protect what was rightfully theirs.

Although Baker made significant contributions to the newspaper as its only translator, he was eager to join the fight for Texas Independence. In two letters to Col. Austin, Gail Borden speaks of Baker’s desire to join the Texas army. But before he joined the fight, the provisional government tapped him to serve as the second judge of the municipality of Austin; his duties included overseeing the militia, a position closely related to his war-time interests. On February 29, 1836 Baker finally enlisted in the army, approximately three days after learning the appeal from Colonel Travis at the embattled Alamo. The letter had been delivered to the citizen’s committee of San Felipe on February 27, at which Baker was present. After the letter was read aloud, the committee “unanimously called Baker to the chair,” and he guided the committee as it drafted resolutions to rally public support for Travis. The Travis letter and the subsequent resolutions were then circulated in a broadsheet that Baker and the Bordens published, entitled “Meeting of the Citizens of San Felipe.” The documents were republished in the March 5 edition of the Telegraph and Texas Register.

Within weeks, Baker’s partnership with the Telegraph and Texas Register ended, a conclusion which his partners noted in a subsequent issue: “though deprived of Mr. Joseph Baker…whose pen until now had supplied our columns with every information which could profit or benefit the community; or aid the cause which he now had shouldered his guns he joined to defend,” the newspaper would soldier on. So would Baker, who joined a company under the command of Captain Moseley Baker (a resident of San Felipe since 1833), marched to San Jacinto; military rosters show that Joseph Baker served as first sergeant in Captain Baker’s company in the battle of San Jacinto, this despite the fact that the newspaper editor had no prior military service. On June 1, 1836, Baker was honorably discharged from the army.

In the following months, he continued to participate in the some of the new republic’s opening scenes. As judge of the county of Austin, Baker administered the oath of office to the speaker of the House at the first session of the First Congress of the Republic of Texas, October 3, 1836. He was named translator to the Senate on October 23 and on December 16, 1836, was elected as first chief justice of Bexar County.

This latter appointment is no surprise, considering Baker’s influence during the Texas Revolution, but he only served as chief justice for a short period of time. Still, he continued to promote nationalistic sentiment about recent Texas history and its iconographic expression. According to Col. George W. Fulton, to whom Chief Justice Baker gave a guided tour of the Alamo in August 1837, Baker was able to pinpoint where Bowie and Crockett died at the hands of “Santa Anna’s minions…Judge Baker, whose opportunity for correct information at that time, cannot be disputed.” Proud of the struggle and sacrifices Texans made to gain independence, Baker wanted to insure that these heroic efforts would not be forgotten.

On September 20, 1837, Baker was elected as a Representative from the district of Bexar to the House of the Second Congress, concluding his tenure as chief justice. In December of that year, Baker also took part in the founding of the Philosophical Society of Texas. The society’s Memorial, adopted at its first meeting, an account of which was published in the Telegraph and Texas Register, is saturated with nationalistic sentiment and describes the need to define the Texas identity for future generations: 

[Texas] calls on her intelligent and patriotic citizens to furnish to the rising generation the means of instruction within our own borders, where our children to whose charge after all the vestal flame of Texian Liberty must be committed may be indoctrinated in sound principles and imbibe with their education respect for their country's laws, love of her soil, and veneration for her institutions- We have endeavored to respond to this call by the formation of this Society, with the hope that if not to us, to our sons and successors it may be given to make the star, the single star of the West, as resplendent for all the acts that adorn civilized life as it is now glorious in military renown.

By the early 1840s, Baker had moved once again, surfacing in Houston where he worked as editor of The Houstonian, a tri-weekly newspaper published in Harris County.

On July 11, 1846, Baker died suddenly. Despite the brevity of his life—he was but 42 years old--his contributions to the Republic of Texas had been significant, especially his development of the public rhetoric in support of Texian patriotism. By giving voice to some of the insurgency’s formative expressions, this son of New England proved to be “a man of the revolution.”

Ethel Mary Franklin, “Joseph Baker,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly, October 1932, p. 133.

Franklin, “Joseph Baker,”, 132.

It continued to be published until February 11, 1877, though not under its original editors. 

Texas Republican, March 14, 1835

Franklin, “Joseph Baker,” p. 135.

Franklin, “Joseph Baker,” p. 136.

Franklin, “Joseph Baker,” p. 137

Texas Treasures,

Douglas C. McMurtrie, “Pioneer Printing in Texas,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly, January 1932, p. 184.

Baker was appointed primary judge of Austin municipality in February, 1836.

Franklin, “Joseph Baker,” p.138.

Herbert P. Gambrell. “Philosophical Society of Texas.” Texas State Historical Association.

Franklin, “Joseph Baker,” 141.

Franklin, “Joseph Baker,” 142.