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Monday, October 6, 2014

Prison Farm News From the Late 1890s

I've come across three articles about the prison farm west of Sugar Land while researching old newspapers.  The first one comes from The Sunday Gazetteer published in Denison, Texas on Sunday, March 18, 1894.  

At this point in Texas history, the state employed a convict leasing system, in which convicts were leased to private businesses at a fixed daily rate to perform various types of labor. Some worked for railroads; others worked for manufacturers, but most worked as unskilled farm laborers.  The state operated conventional prisons in Huntsville and Rusk, but a large number of convicts were scattered across the state in private labor camps.

The heirs of Ambrose Littleberry Ellis and Edward H. Cunningham owned most of the land that now constitutes Sugar Land.  Both used convict labor in their operations.  This article gives you a snapshot of their involvement in convict leasing.  I recognize additional Fort Bend County landholders in the list: T. W. House and C. W. Riddick. Some of the others may have been Fort Bend County plantation owners, but I'm not sure.  You'll notice there were just under 4,000 prisoners in the state penal system.  Over half (2,158) were located in the prisons at Huntsville and Rusk.

The next article is rather long, a little odd, and only mildly interesting, except for the final 3 paragraphs which give a quick sketch of Sugar Land in 1896.  Like the other two articles I found, this one comes from The Portal To Texas History.  Click here to view the whole article which was published in the Fort Worth Gazette on Thursday, January 9, 1896.  It begins at the top of the third column, but since it's long, I'll summarize it for you.  

The State of Texas sued L. A. Whatley, Prison Superintendent, and Reddin Andrews, a prison sergeant, for $75.  The State claimed both men conspired to pay Andrews a month's wages for work time he didn't perform.  The article is unclear on how this came about, but the State claimed fraud and wanted it's money.

The newspaper explains that the trial was held in the depot at Sartartia (the old Walker Railroad Depot), which sat by the tracks roughly where the entrance to Central Unit 1 is now sited.  This makes sense because that's approximately where the alleged crime was committed.  The accused brought many friends and jammed them into that little building.  The State was represented by the County District Attorney, who wanted the trial delayed and moved to Richmond.  The defense team said no, but it sounds like they were overruled and the trial was moved.  (I haven't yet found a follow-up article, so I don't know how it all turned out.)

The proceedings were concluded pretty quickly, but it was close to lunch time, and there was no place for the famished crowd to find some nourishment.  I've clipped the final paragraphs that explain what they did.  W. O. Ellis was old Colonel Ellis's son, who would eventually die in a shoot out with a prison guard.  However, on that day he fed some peckish visitors.  Colonel Ed Cunningham was renowned for his hospitality, so the crowd that walked to Sugar Land was, no doubt, amply rewarded.  The Riddicks seem to have been equally generous hosts.  Sounds like none of the visitors left Sartartia that day with an empty stomach.

This final article comes from The Houston Daily Post, published on Monday, January 4, 1897.  Click here to view the complete version at The Portal To Texas History.  I've clipped just a couple of excerpts.  The first shows that Cunningham was by then the largest lessor of convict labor in the state.  The Ellis family doesn't appear in the list.  

If you look at the complete article, you'll see there are 'Contract' and 'Shared' Farms - Cunningham is listed under Contract Farms.  I'm not sure what the distinction is.

This excerpt gives a brief description of the Harlem Prison Farm and its financial performance.