Joseph Henry Polley was born in Whitehall, New York, on December 28, 1795 to Jonathan Polley and Rachel Hubbard. He was the second of eight children and the eldest son. His father ran a line of passenger or ferry boats across the Champlain Canal. Joseph Henry fought in the war of 1812 as a teamster in Captain Samuel Brown’s Company of New York militia.
After the war, he wound up in Missouri, where he met Moses Austin. Polley traveled with Austin to Texas in 1820 to secure a land grant from the Spanish government for a large settlement of families from t he United States. Polley returned to Texas the following year, after Moses’ death with his son Stephen F. Austin, as he sought to guarantee the same claim from the newly formed Mexican government. From that trip, Polley was left behind in Texas at the age of 25, along with four other men to begin a crop and construct a fort at the bend in the Brazos River (this spot later became the town of Richmond, the county seat of Fort Bend County) for the newly arriving settlers to gather.
Joseph Polley, being a single man was not eligible for a full league and labor under the rules of the land grant, so he split his original parcel with Samuel Chance, another unmarried man of the colony. In giving Austin rights to settle the land, the Mexican government did not offer any assistance for governance of the new settlements, to Austin was left to organize a system to keep the peace in his colony, and he made Joseph H. Polley the first sheriff of the colony.
Joseph H. Polley married Mary Augusta (Pollie) Bailey in a civil ceremony (a joint wedding, along with her sister, Betsy, and David Milburn), at the bride’s family home, the Brit Bailey plantation in Brazoria County. A protestant union followed on October 24, 1826, and in order to secure a headright for their children under the Mexican law, they were united for a third time in a Catholic convalidation on July 21, 1831. Together, Joseph H. Polley and Mary Augusta would have eleven children (listed below).
After their first wedding, the couple moved to San Felipe, an up and coming town, fit for a young couple. The first of the Polley children were born there. As the family grew, Joseph and Mary decided to move back to the Brazoria district and purchased land from Brit Bailey (Mary’s father), near Bell’s Landing (now East Columbia) which allowed them to be much closer to Mary’s family. The Polleys opened their home as a public house. Travelers were common as Bell’s Landing was a steamboat stop on the Brazos River and many new settlers came through that point. Hospitality was taken very seriously among the early settlers. As Joseph began to acquire more lands he focused more on cattle ranching.
Amid their increasing fortunes, the Polleys were struck with tragedy when in 1832, Mary’s lost her brother Gaines and her father Brit Bailey. 1833 brought flooding and a cholera epidemic to the Lower Brazos Valley and Mary lost her brother Smith in that year. In 1834, more Brazos River flooding took the life of James Bailey Polley, Joseph and Mary’s second child and first son, at the tender age of five. The three Polley girls alive at the time, Mary Augusta, Emeline Elizabeth, and Susan Rebecca were stricken with illness (likely post-flood mosquito-born diseases), but they eventually recovered.
The Texas Revolution brought on turbulent times for all the pioneer families in Texas. The Polley family fared the Texas Revolution fairly well, as the children were too young to fight, and Joseph Polley himself was charged with guarding families in the Runaway Scrape. As General Santa Anna and his forces were streaming west after their victory at the Alamo, the families ahead of their path rushed to secure or hide as many of their belongings as possible before the Mexican army arrived. The families left their homes with only what they could carry, and in many cases, in such a hurry as to only have the clothes on their backs. Joseph H. Polley, along with some of his male slaves, was charged with protecting these families as they fled. The Polley homestead fared well, as the bulk of the Mexican army passed north of where the Polleys lived. Several revolutionary councils were held at the Polley home, including some meetings led by Henry Smith, a temporary governor before the Convention of 1836.
The Polleys would live at their home near the Brazos until 1847, when Joseph sought to take advantage of the growing prosperity and westward expansion in Texas after the Republic joined the United States. He bought land from his son-in-law, John James, in Guadalupe County (now Wilson County), situated on the Cibolo Creek. Joseph moved his family to the new home site where they lived in a stake house as the family and their slaves built the permanent home that still stands in that location today. Joseph’s brother, Jonathan Polley, came to visit, and helped to design the home based on the structure of the family home back in New York. Joseph named the Polley Mansion ‘Whitehall,’ after his hometown in New York (his home in the Brazoria District also bore the name). The large stone home was outfitted with the finest furnishings shipped from New York, coming by ship to Indianola, and then by ox-cart to the homesite.
Joseph Henry Polley found great success at his new home on t he Cibolo. His land holdings and cattle herds increased to a level rumored to be nearly the largest in the state, second only to the King Ranch. He held land as far south as Corpus Christi, up north through Llano County, and from Fort Bend County in the east, through to Medina County in the west. In 1860 he owned 150,000 head of cattle, and branded 10,000 calves in one season alone. His livestock brand was ‘JHP.’
Indians were a constant source of worry in the early days at Whitehall. Fear of attack often kept the children home from the school that had been built nearby. Indians, along with Mexican thieves, also stole a great number of the Polley’s cattle, at one point taking 16,000 head. One of the Polley slaves, Jim, was lost to Indians while the family lived in the stake house before the Mansion was completed.
The Polley home was a social seat in the community and the family hosted many gatherings. Many cowboys passed through the home, and nearby San Antonio was a military town and so the Polleys entertained officers. With the local springs in the area, there were always visitors. The family also hosted dances and sometimes had so many visitors that guests lined the main hallway of the home to sleep for the night.
When the Civil War began, Polley was a reluctant supporter of the Confederacy. In 1860, Polley held 20 slaves, but he thought that the war would destroy the nation. Two of his sons, Joseph Benjamin and Abner Hubbard fought for the Confederacy. He lost one son-in-law to the fighting, Connally Findlay Henderson, husband of Susan Rebecca. Joseph kept his family and holdings afloat with trade to Mexico during the war. After the Civil War, Joseph Polley was granted a federal pardon by President Johnson in 1867, after having to swear a second loyalty oath. The family struggled to regain its former prominence and Polley began to break off his holdings, some going to his son-in-law, Walker Baylor.
Joseph H. Polley died on March 28, 1869 in Sutherland Springs, Texas. He was 73 years old. His wife, Mary, continued to live at Whitehall for a number of years after his death. Joseph Henry is buried next to Mary Augusta in the Polley Family Cemetery on Hwy 539, just across from where the Polley Mansion that they built together stands.
His descendants are great in number and securing the memory and legacy of Joseph Henry Polley’s family is the work of this association.
Eleven Children of Joseph Henry Polley and Mary Augusta Bailey:
Mary Augusta born 1827, died 1915 in Texas
James Bailey born 1829, died 1834 in Texas.
Emeline Elizabeth born 1831, died 1848 in Texas.
Susan Rebecca born 1835, died 1906 in Texas.
Sarah Adel born 1837, died 1869 in Texas.
Catherine Sayre born 1839, died 1919 in Texas.
Joseph Benjamin born 1840, died 1918 in Texas.
Harriet Roxanna born 1842, died 1925 in Texas.
Abner Hubbard born 1845, died 1932 in Texas.
Jonathan James born 1848, died 1925 in Texas.
Walter Webster born 1851, died 1928 in Texas.
Handbook of Texas Online, Richard B. McCaslin, "Polley, Joseph Henry," accessed January 17, 2017, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fpo11.
Golson, Josephine Polley, Bailey’s Light: Saga of Brit Bailey and Other Hardy Pioneers (San Antonio, Texas: The Naylor Company, 1950).
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