Map of the Mercer Colony in Texas
New Orleans, 1845
A contract between President Sam Houston and former U.S. Congressman Charles Fenton Mercer established Mercer Colony in North Texas on January 29, 1844. This was part of a government program introduced in 1841 at a time where the window for applying for a headright grant as a new settler in the Republic of Texas was closing (the legislature had declined to extend fourth class headright certificates for new settlers beyond 1842). To boost immigration, officials modeled the republic-era colonization effort after the Mexican government’s successful empresario system of the previous two decades.
This 1845 map provides a glimpse of Mercer’s vision for North Texas. He created the map as a promotional tool for recruiting new settlers and ordered one thousand copies to be printed alongside his contract, which he distributed while touring the midwestern United States. A dashed line forming a rough “J” shape marks the colony’s boundaries to the southeast of Peters Colony. The Brazos River is situated to the west, the Trinity River and its named tributaries run through the heart of the colony, and the Sabine River appears on the eastern edge of the chart. The map identifies three grants to the Texas Emigration and Land Company (Peters Colony), as well as a fifth grant issued to Mercer. Within the colony’s borders, several notations indicate the number of families to be settled in the area. Roads connect settlements including Lexington, Bonham, Fenton, Fort Houston (located outside the colony‘s boundaries), and Dallas. This reference to Dallas is significant because it is believed to be the first time the city is named on a map.
Mercer Colony was controversial from its inception, as a movement to end the colony contract system had been building since the implementation of the program. Speculators and land certificate holders opposed the reservation of large swaths of the public domain for colonies and pressured their representatives in Congress to repeal the act. They had an advocate in Land Commissioner Thomas William Ward, who, in his 1843 report to Congress declared the law authorizing colony contracts to be “illegal, impolitic and objectionable on several grounds,” and called on Congress to repeal the program. This resistance persuaded the Texas Congress to pass a law — over President Sam Houston’s veto — banning the colonization practice the day after the Mercer contract was signed. Congress maintained pressure by passing another law on February 3, 1845, that ordered Mercer and his associates to have the boundary lines of their colony marked and surveyed by April 1, or risk forfeiture of the entire contract.
Mercer successfully established his colony’s boundaries; however, his struggles continued. Facing legislative hurdles and other external forces, he abandoned the enterprise on February 27, 1852, by assigning his interest to another party. Subsequently, colony leaders contended with squatters and holders of legitimate certificates making claims within the settlement, as well as surveyors from neighboring Robertson County encroaching into the territory. At the same time, colonists fought with civil and military forces attempting to enter various portions of the colony. After the land commissioner authorized the sale of all vacant public lands covered by the Mercer grant, the colony’s administrative association became ensnared in further legal action. This escalated to the United States Supreme Court, which in 1883 ruled that the association was not entitled to any further compensation from the state, effectively ending its administration of the territory covered by the original contract.
- Joe E. Ericson, “Mercer Colony,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 31, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/mercer-colony. Published by the Texas State Historical Association; Seymour V. Connor, “Land Speculation in Texas,” Southwest Review 39, no. 2 (1954): 140–141.
- Nancy Ethie Eagleton, “The Mercer Colony in Texas, 1844–1883, II,” The Southwestern Historical Quarterly 40, no. 1 (1936): 54.
- Thomas W. Streeter, Bibliography of Texas, 1795–1845. Part III: United States and European Imprints Relations to Texas, Vol. I (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1960), 548.
- Eagleton, “The Mercer Colony in Texas, 1844–1883, IV,” 116.
- Thomas Ward, Commissioner’s Report 000006, 11 November 1843, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.
- Hans Peter Mareus Neilsen Gammel, The Laws of Texas, 1822–1897 Volume 2 (Austin, TX, 1898), 958. Accessed May 31, 2022, University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, https://texashistory.unt.edu.
- Ibid., 1154.
- Ericson, “Mercer Colony.”