James Britton Bailey
Father of Mary Augusta (Polly) Bailey
James Britton (Brit) Bailey was born on August 1, 1779 in North Carolina (an area that now lies in east Tennessee, which did not gain statehood until 1796). He is believed to have lived in North Carolina, Kentucky, and Tennessee before moving to Texas. James Britton Bailey is a tough figure to write about because he is half man and half legend (some of the more popular tales are recounted below). Finding which half a given story belongs to can be a tricky task.
We know that Brit Bailey married Edith Smith of Hawkins Co. Tennessee and the couple had 6 children (listed below). Edith died, likely in childbirth, in 1815. Brit Bailey then married Edith’s sister, Dorothy (known as Dot). Brit Bailey and Dot had three children together (also listed below).
Brit served in the War of 1812, and was rumored to have spent some time in the Kentucky legislature. In 1818, Bailey decided that his family would try their luck on the frontier and move to Texas (then under the Spanish crown). He took his wife, children, 6 adult slaves, along with their children, and his brother in-law as they made their way to Texas (leaving daughter Betsy behind, as she would make the trip later with more of his in-laws). One of Brit’s oldest friends in life was Bubba, a slave who was given to Brit as a child. The two were constant companions and Bubba always rode ahead with Brit to scout land, and find provisions along their journey.
In Texas, Bailey arrived at Galveston Island, then under the control of the pirate Jean Lafitte, and known as Little Campeche. He settled the family between the Brazos River and Oyster Creek in what is now Brazoria County. He claimed to have bought the land from a local agent of the Spanish government, though the Mexican government would deny his claim after the Mexican Revolution in 1821. This led to conflict with Stephen F. Austin when Austin ordered Bailey to leave the land that was now part of Austin’s larger Mexican land grant. Bailey refused to leave, and the two men were at a stalemate for a couple of years.
Brit Bailey was known to have a positive relationship with the local Indian tribes (Lipans & Tonkawas) and encouraged cooperation between the new settlers and the tribes. As more settlers came to the area, leaving less open land for the tribes, this peace became difficult to maintain. On June 24, 1824, the area settlers and Indians fought the Battle of Jones Creek. This short battle began when the Karankawa Indians demanded ammunition from the store owned by Brit Bailey.
Brit Bailey and his son, Phelps (at age 17), were part of a retaliating party against the Indians and Phelps was one of the three Anglo men who lost their lives in the skirmish. Though there is not a recorded connection to the successful Battle of Jones Creek, 13 days later, Stephen F. Austin recognized Bailey’s land claim and James Britton Bailey was thereafter included in the ranks of Austin’s Old 300 (the famed original settlers brought to Texas and granted land by Stephen F. Austin).
In late 1824, Brit Bailey hosted a gathering of Anglo settlers led by Stephen F. Austin in swearing an oath to the Mexican Constitution of 1824. At the same meeting, Austin commissioned Brit Bailey as a Lieutenant in the militia. Five years later, in 1829, Bailey was commissioned Captain of the militia by Governor José María Viesca. He would go on to fight in the Battle of Velasco on June 26, 1832.
Toward the end of his life, Brit Bailey’s three youngest daughters (by his wife, Dot) were still at home, and longing for the comforts and sociability of town life in Brazoria, so Brit Bailey had contracted to have a home built within the town limits. This project was never completed, however, because James Britton Bailey died on December 6, 1832, likely of cholera. His wife and daughters remained at the house on Bailey’s Prairie. Brit’s son, Gaines Bailey, died in May of 1832, so Smith Bailey was the executor of his father’s will (Smith would die in 1833 himself, a year of floods and a brutal cholera epidemic).
Brit Bailey’s will, itself, has reached a legendary status, as it contains the unusual request, “to have my remains interred erect, with my face fronting the West.” Rumors that he also requested his gun at his side, a hunting dog buried with him, along with a jug of whiskey are legend, as his actual will does not mention any of those items. It is claimed that he said, “I have never stooped to any man, and when I am in my grave I don’t want it said, ‘There lies old Brit Bailey.’ Bury me so that the world must say, ‘There stands Bailey.’ And bury me with my face to the setting sun. I have been all my life travelling westward and I want to face that way when I die.”
Six children of James Britton Bailey and Edith Smith:
Gaines born in 1805 in Tennessee, died in 1832 in Texas
Elizabeth (Betsy) born in 1807 in Tennessee, died in 1847 in Texas
Mary Augusta (Pollie) born in 1809 in Tennessee, died in 1888 in Texas
Smith birth year unknown, died in 1833 in Texas.
Phelps birth year unknown, died in 1824 in Texas.
James birth year unknown, and death year unknown.
Three children of James Britton Bailey and Dorothy (Dot) Smith
Nancy birth year unknown, and death year unknown.
Sarah birth year unknown, and death year unknown.
Margaret birth year unknown, and death year unknown.
Some legends attributed to James Britton Bailey:
Brit Bailey was rumored to have served in the Kentucky legislature, and the rumor holds that he may have left that state, ending his legislative tenure under less than reputable circumstances (potential forgery). We have not found evidence to substantiate either part of this claim.
In Bailey’s Light, a biography written by Josephine Polley Golson, Brit Bailey’s great granddaughter, it is recounted that Bailey was very friendly with some of the local Indian tribes. The Tonkawas called Bailey “Big Chief” because of his hunting prowess with his rifle. They were also rumored to hold pow-wows on the front lawn of the Bailey home, and smoke a peace pipe with Bailey himself. While there is nothing to say that this legend isn’t true, it does sound a bit like a caricature of native culture by someone who lived long after the Indians were confined to reservations in the state. We do know that Brit Bailey was known by many as a good negotiator with the native tribes and that he lived in cooperation with them until the arrival of more Anglo settlers.
Brit Bailey’s relationship with Stephen F. Austin was a contentious one. Bailey had lived on and improved his land, which he claimed to purchase from the Spanish government, for three years prior to Austin bringing in his 300 families. In those three years, Mexico won its independence from Spain and did not recognize Bailey’s claim. This meant Austin did not recognize it either, and Austin demanded that Bailey leave the disputed land. Bailey refused, as legend has it, by escorting Austin off his property at the point of his rifle. Their relationship was further complicated by claims that Austin attempted to court Bailey’s daughter Mary Augusta (known as Polly), against her father’s wishes, of course. Whether this ever happened or not is up to the story teller. The legend comes to an end with the two men meeting incidentally in the middle of the road, Bailey demanding Austin get down from his horse and fight with his fists to settle their differences. Bailey won the fight, despite being older, and the two supposedly cooled their animosity after that. Bailey was eventually granted his tract of land and recognition as being part of the ‘Old 300’ in 1824. Side note: The letter from Stephen F. Austin to James Britton Bailey demanding that Bailey vacate his land can be found on display in the Bryan Museum in Galveston, Texas.
Brit Bailey’s land in Brazoria County is now known as Bailey’s Prairie, and long-time residents of the area know that you need to be mindful when travelling through Bailey’s Prairie at night, because Brit Bailey’s ghost is said to haunt the area. He appears as a ball of light, and has reportedly chased cars and trucks all the way down the road. The Munson family has lived in the area since the mid 1800’s and they have generations of recorded sightings and happenings that the family attributes to Brit Bailey. The common wisdom on Bailey’s restless spirit it that he was not buried with his jug of whiskey as he requested, so he wanders the prairie looking for his jug. (The state historical markers for James Britton Bailey shown above are located outside the walls of the Munson Family Cemetery just outside Angleton, Texas on State Highway 35.)
Once when the family was out visiting friends, and Brit was home alone with Uncle Bubba, a Methodist minister was looking for lodging for the night. Apparently after imbibing quite a bit, Bailey asked Bubba to play a song and then ordered the preacher to dance, sans clothing, on top of the table. With Bailey holding on to his rifle, the preacher was not left with much choice but to oblige. After finishing his dance, he was allowed to dress and resume their conversation as before. Then, when the preacher saw his opportunity, he grabbed Bailey’s rifle and turned it on Brit with the demand that it was now his turn to dance. Bailey was so surprised at the gumption of the parson that he willingly and gladly danced. The two men were thereafter very good friends as both families record the tale.
Handbook of Texas Online, Merle Weir, "Bailey, James Briton," accessed January 16, 2017, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fba08.
Handbook of Texas Online, Merle Weir, "Jones Creek, Battle Of," accessed January 12, 2017, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/btj01.
Handbook of Texas Online, "Velasco, Battle Of," accessed January 12, 2017, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/qfv01.
Golson, Josephine Polley, Bailey’s Light: Saga of Brit Bailey and Other Hardy Pioneers (San Antonio, Texas: The Naylor Company, 1950).
Smithwick, Noah, The Evolution of a State :Recollections of Old Texas Days (Austin, Texas: Gammel Book Company, 1900), 54.
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