James S. Mayfield (1808-1852) of Texas
James S. Mayfield of Fayette County Texas is one of my favorite Mayfield characters from history. He was a controversial man in both his public and private life. Some thought him a brave man and a strong leader; others thought him a scoundrel and a coward! One of James's descendants, Albert Hunter Mayfield, has produced a well-written and well-documented article that was published in Stirpes, the quarterly publication of the Texas State Genealogical Society, Volume 40, Number 3, September 2000, at pages 16-22. The author, has graciously provided a copy of the article to me for posting on the Internet.
GENERAL JAMES SHANNON MAYFIELD
By Albert Hunter
I began collecting facts about the life of James because he was my great granduncle. For the past two years I have done extensive research in Tennessee and Texas. I have visited his home site and gravesite in La Grange, Texas. Although I am sure there is much more to learn about him, I decided to present some of what I have at this time. I want to tell his story for two reasons. First, because he is involved in many of the events that helped shape the Republic of Texas and later the State of Texas. Second, after reading everything I could find by several historians and writers, I felt some of the things written about James and his wife were unfair in light of the facts. I want to challenge some of their suppositions and conclusions. James was very ambitious and apparently had a quick temper. Once a person gets a “reputation” it is easy for writers to add to it with assumptions and innuendoes. This is what I feel has happened in the case of James Mayfield.
Sutherlin Mayfield -
Grandfather of James S. Mayfield
James was probably destined to be adventuresome. History books list his grandfather, Capt. Sutherlin Mayfield, as having fought under George Rogers Clark in the Revolutionary War. Sutherlin left the civilization of Amherst County, Virginia for the wilds of Montgomery County in Western Virginia. It was possibly there that he married Margaret. No record has been found of her maiden name. After several years, Sutherlin moved to the unsettled lands of Williamson County, Tennessee (Davidson County, North Carolina at that time). He is considered to have built the first permanent structure in Williamson County. In his few short years in Tennessee, Sutherlin bought and sold hundreds of acres of land and built two forts (the Indians burned the first one). Sutherlin was killed by the Indians on March 10, 1789 near his fort called Mayfield Station. Sutherlin's son William and a guard, Andrew Martin, were also killed. Another son, George, was captured by the Indians and did not return for eleven years. (Notes 1, 2, 3)
John Mayfield - Father
of James S. Mayfield
James's father, John, was born May 2, 1786 in Tennessee, possibly at the location of the fort. He was surely at the fort when his father and brother were killed. During the War of 1812, John enlisted in Captain Gordon's Company of mounted spies with his brother George. They fought under General Andrew Jackson and knew him well (George even more than John). John bought and sold many parcels of land in Williamson County. He married Polly Martin September 8, 1805. She was born on April 30, 1785 and died on October 1, 1820 leaving seven children ages one through 14. Their names were Maria Meeky, James Shannon, Thomas Stuart, Margaret Ann, Mary Jane, Martha Boon and Caroline Nancy. One year later John married Nancy Carl and eventually had five more children. At about age 48 John moved his “second family” to new land in Jackson County, Illinois and died there on March 14, 1845. (Note 4)
James S. Mayfield in
James Shannon Mayfield was born November 1,
1808 in Williamson County. It is my belief that his middle name was his
grandmother Margaret's maiden name. I have found the Shannon family living very
near Sutherlin Mayfield in Montgomery County, Virginia. Most convincing, though,
is the fact that Margaret's sons, John and George, each used Shannon as the
middle name for his first born son. (Note
James S. Mayfield in Texas
By 1837 James and Sophia were in Texas. It
appears they may have traveled there with Sofia's bothers Thomas and John.
Although James may have arrived too late to be involved in the battle for Texas
independence in 1836, he was very active in Indian fighting and later in battles
with Mexico. (Note
The first Texas home for the Mayfield family
was in Nacogdoches County where James established a law practice. He soon became
involved in wars with the Indians. By October 1838 he was receiving dispatches
addressed to Capt. Mayfield at the Nacogdoches Command Post. One dispatch
discussed an impending battle between 200 Texans and 1000 Indians. However,
during that fall and winter the Indians suffered defeats, which weakened them.
In March 1839 James wrote a letter to Mirabeau B. Lamar, President of the
Republic of Texas, suggesting that the time was right to negotiate with the
Indians in order to prevent further bloodshed. Subsequently, he was named along
with General Albert Sidney Johnston, David Burner, I.W. Burton and General
Thomas J. Rusk as a commission to confer with the Indians. As a result, the
commission offered payment to the Indians for improvements they had made on the
land in exchange for them leaving the Republic of Texas. It was a
“take-it-or-leave-it” proposal. When the Cherokees did not accept the offer on
July 16, 1839, the army was ordered to attack and drive them out. James
Mayfield as aide-de-camp for Brig. General K. H. Douglas was deeply involved in
the ensuing battles and wrote the field reports to Albert Sidney Johnston,
Secretary of War. Upon reviewing what happened to the Cherokees, the Shawnees
accepted the same terms on August 2, 1839. (Notes
On April 25, 1840 James wrote a letter to
President Lamar stating that he was being urged to run for congress. In part he
"To the main measures of your administration I have given humble,
but decided and honest, support and would be glad to know that your ulterior
views, upon all main points, coincided with those of one so humble as myself. I
do, and have legislation so far as relates to my finances, founded in error,
which if carried out must eventuate in the complete bankruptcy of the country.
We have attempted to liquidate the public debt too soon. Time must be obtained
and the country only required to pay the ordinary expenses of Government and
those necessary to the termination of the war. The present population cannot do
more than defray these expenses. Those who may come after us must pay the former
liabilities. The war with Mexico must be terminated, by truce, treaty or
“Upon these subjects please communicate to me your ulterior
views. If they meet with those of your humble servant, it will go far to
determine, as to the course I shall adopt as to running for a seat in the next
Congress. I will not become one who shall enter congress with the view of
thwarting or embarrassing the administration. At the same time I would act upon
the dictates of my best judgment
To date, I have not been able to find any private correspondence received by James. Therefore, we do not know what the President's answers were. However, James did run for the Congress and was elected to the Fifth & Sixth Congresses from Nacogdoches County. From Feb. 8, to Sep. 7, 1841 James was Secretary of State for the Republic of Texas. On Oct. 28, 1841 James moved his family from Nacogdoches to La Grange in Fayette County where he continued to practice law. (Notes 8, 9)
Shooting of David S.
Perhaps the first of James Mayfield's “headline episodes” took place in the Texas House of Representatives on Jan. 4, 1842. According to one account, “James, while speaking on a bill, spoke about fellow congressman David S. Kaufman in a very severe manner.” Later, after adjournment, Mr. Kaufman waited for James and a heated argument ensued. Shots were exchanged and Mr. Kaufman was wounded in the abdomen. The wound never healed completely and ultimately led to his death on Jan 31, 1851. The encounter must have been considered as a fair fight for apparently no charges were filed against either man.
The next “episode” started in September
1842. The following is taken from An Early History of Fayette County, by
Leonie Weyand and Houston Wade. Most of it comes from a chapter entitled “The
Truth About Dawson” by Houston Wade. On the 11th of September, General Adrian
Woll of Mexico with an army of 1450 men made a surprise attack on San Antonio
and captured it. A total of 52 of the town's prominent citizens were taken
prisoner. In a few days Col. Matthew Caldwell assembled a force of 202
volunteers and challenged Gen. Woll with good success. At the same time, word
of San Antonio's fall had reached Fayette County. By Sep. 16th Capt. Nicholas
Dawson had organized a company of 53 men to ride to San Antonio. He was advised
to wait “an hour or so” for the arrival of two more companies being formed by
Captains Billingsley and Wallace. Dawson declined, saying he might “miss the
fun.” Dawson's men rode day and night and approached Caldwell's position early
on the 18th. However, a force of 400 Mexican cavalry armed with cannons cut
them off. In the battle that followed Dawson's men did not have a chance. All
were killed except for three who escaped and 15 taken prisoner. (Note
The companies of Billingsley and Wallace
(about 100 men) under the overall command of Major James S. Mayfield had been
riding hard on the trail of Dawson. When they heard the cannon and gunshots
ahead, scouts were sent to observe. They returned to tell of the hopeless
situation. James decided nothing could be done to help Dawson and camped his
men in the woods until nightfall, then joined Caldwell. (Note
According to John H. Jenkins and Kenneth
Kesselus in their book, Edward Burleson, Frontier Leader, James S.
Mayfield sent the following battlefield report to Burleson on September 20:
“We got to this place (Caldwell's camp) a little before day this
morning. You will have learned that on yesterday Gen. Woll attacked Col.
Caldwell at this place at 11 o'clock. The action continued during the day when
the enemy withdrew, leaving a loss as estimated of killed 100 and over 200
wounded. Woll is still in San Antonio awaiting the arrival of General Ampudia
with fifteen hundred men. The Texan force consists of 325 men in camp and 150
expected with Col. Moore from La Grange. Ammunition is scarce. Let all who come
bring powder and lead with them.” (Note
Col. Caldwell remained in camp awaiting more
reinforcements. In the meantime Gen. Woll began a march back to Mexico with his
civilian and military prisoners. Later in the day of the 20th, Caldwell began
to follow Woll's trail. He continued on the 21st, when the reinforcements
arrived bringing his command total to 489. Caldwell then divided his men into
two battalions, put Mayfield in command of one and John H. Moore in charge of
the other. By the evening of the 22nd, a unit under Jack Hayes had caught up
with Woll and exchanged shots with his rear guard before nightfall. Scouts were
kept near Woll's campsite all night. However, the General moved his troops out
during the night leaving his campfires burning as a cover. He was more than
eight miles on his way before the ruse was discovered the next morning. (Note
A decision had to be made in regard to
further pursuit. James Mayfield spoke against it, pointing out that they were
already in enemy territory, were outnumbered by more than 2 to 1 and General
Woll was hourly expecting a large reinforcement. This argument was accepted by
some and rejected by others. One of the men most opposed was Rev. Z. N. Morrell,
the minister of Plum Grove Baptist Church in Fayette County. His son, Allen,
was among the 15 men taken prisoner at the Dawson massacre. He felt an
immediate attempt should be made to rescue his son. However, the decision was
made to discontinue the pursuit. Morrell was so distraught at the thought of
his son being held in a Mexican jail that he railed against the decision and
especially against James Mayfield. He apparently expressed his feelings to
everyone he could. He later wrote a book entitled Flowers & Fruits, which
contained his negative feeling about Mayfield. (Note
As the Texas volunteers were returning home
on the 24th, they met Colonel Edward Burleson with about 300 men. They all went
back to San Antonio where Burleson made a speech denouncing the Mexican invasion
and asking the volunteers to go home, procure supplies, arms and ammunition and
rendezvous at San Antonio a month later. James Mayfield made a speech agreeing
with Burleson. This plan resulted in the Somervell expedition, which Mayfield
was a part of, and later the battle of Mier. (Note
Mr. Wade concluded that Mayfield was a
coward and his actions resulted in “the most disgraceful affair that ever
occurred to the arms of Texas.” He also said Prof. Samuel E. Asbury of A&M
College wrote to him and:
"suggests that Burleson, after Mayfield made his second
speech, took him to task for the cowardly talk he had made on the 23rd and
accused Mayfield of causing the pursuit of the enemy to be abandoned. Burleson
must have said several other things not very complimentary to Mayfield.
A break between them was the result. One thing led to another until Mayfield
finally challenged Burleson to a duel, which Burleson at once accepted."
(emphasis by the author) (Note
I believe that James Mayfield's decisions were correct based on the facts presented. He may have helped prevent a disaster. I feel the condemnation put forth by Mr. Wade was not warranted. I also take exception to the suppositions and unsupported conjecture made by Prof. Asbury. The “Woll Invasion” may not have had anything to do with the "duel challenge," which was made a full three years later in September 1845. In fact James Mayfield supported Burleson in his bid for President of Texas in 1844.
Thwarted Duel with Edward
Mr. Wade found the following document in the Fayette County courthouse, which he published verbatim.
Republic of Texas
County of Fayette
To the Hon. R. E. B. Baylor, Judge of the Third Judicial
District of the Republic of Texas:
Thomas Johnson, District Attorney Third Judicial District of
the Republic of Texas, states on oath that he has just and probable grounds to
suspect and verily does suspect and believe that James S. Mayfield of the County
of Fayette and Edward Burleson of the County of Bastrop, are about to engage in
a duel, which duel he is informed and believes is to be fought in the County of
Fayette within a few days.
Therefore he prays Your Honor to issue the necessary warrants
to take the bodies of the said James S. Mayfield and Edward Burleson so as to
have them before you forthwith to answer the above charge and to be dealed with
according to law.
/S/ Thomas Johnson, Dist. Att'y
Sworn to and subscribed before me this the 25th day of
September, A. D. 1845.
/S/ R. E. B. Baylor, Judge D.
Houston Wade adds:
“It seems that after mature consideration, Mayfield reached the
conclusion that he had made a mistake and sought means of avoiding the conflict.
He went to the authorities in Fayette County and had the warrant sworn out that
would cause the arrest of them both before the day set for the fight. And that
was the end to it. The duel never took place. So Mr. Mayfield was not so brave
as we first thought he was.” (Note
Mr. Wade gives no proof as to whom, if
anyone, approached the District Attorney. He may have acted on his own upon
hearing of an impending duel. If someone did go to him, it could have been
anyone concerned for the safety of Burleson or Mayfield. Mr. Wade appears to
have great athletic ability for jumping to conclusions.
Nevertheless, I want to state here that I am
grateful for the history that Mr. Wade has written. If it were not for men like
him, we would not have the knowledge of our past that we need. I can find no
fault with the historical facts he presents. I only have a problem with his
presumptions and conclusions.
Of the 15 men from Dawson's company who were taken prisoner, three died trying to escape, two died of disease, three escaped and the remaining seven were eventually released. Allen Morrell rejoined his father in 1844, seventeen months after his capture. (Note 10) A letter was written that spring to Gen. Andrew Jackson asking him to influence Mexican President Santa Anna to release the prisoners. It was signed by James S. Mayfield, John G. Chalmers, John W. Dancy, S. R. Maverick, and S. S. B. Fields. (Note 12) Perhaps this letter aided in obtaining the prisoners’ freedom. Maybe it helped that Gen. Jackson knew both James's father, John, and his uncle George. Also, Dr. Sutherland S. Mayfield, James's first cousin, was Andrew Jackson's personal physician.
James S. Mayfield - A
Jenkins and Kesselus brought up another
controversial chapter in James Mayfield's life. They stated,
"The notorious Texas cabinet member and congressman Robert Potter
left a third of his estate to Mayfield's wife and left Mayfield his favorite
horse in a bizarre will in which he all but confessed to having cuckolded
Mayfield. Potter's murder in 1842 brought this will to the limelight and became
the basis of an extraordinary lawsuit between Potter's common-law wife Harriet
Ames and the Mayfield heirs. James S. Mayfield was not one to cross." (Note
In rebuttal I offer The Ames Case Revisited, by James R. Norvell that was published in the Southwest Historical Quarterly in the July 1959-Apr 1960 issue. It is an in-depth twenty-page study of the case, which was actually between Mrs. Ames and the people who purchased Mrs. Mayfield's land after her death. The Mayfield heirs were not involved. It paints a picture of Robert Potter as being a very strange man, who was murdered in March 1842. His will left a third of his estate to his common-law wife, Harriet Page (later Ames), a third to Mrs. Sophia Mayfield and a third to Mrs. Mary Chalmers. In the will Potter said the reason he was leaving land to Mrs. Mayfield was “my deep sense of the personal worth of Mrs. Sophia Ann Mayfield, my gratitude for her friendship and the happiness I have derived from her converse.” He used almost identical language in regard to Mrs. Chalmers. There was no claim of an affair with either woman. Also, he was obviously on good terms with the ladies' husbands. He willed his favorite horse “Shakespeare” to Col. James S. Mayfield and named Dr. John G. Chalmers as residuary legatee and deviser of the estate. (Note 13) James and Sophia lived another ten years and had three more children. There appeared to be no rift between them. As to the accusation that James had something to do with Potter's death, Mr. Norvell gave a detailed description of the murder. Potter was killed by William Pinckney Rose and his son-in-law, Scott. James Mayfield was not connected in any way. This appears to be a case of writers “rushing to judgment” and not checking the facts.
Killing of Absalom Bostick
A violent episode in the life of James
Shannon Mayfield occurred in 1849. James killed a man named Absalom Bostick in a
political argument. Many writers have mentioned it, but no one seems to have any
additional information. Walter P. Freytag, a local historian in Fayette County,
adds “Bostick, it appears, was a tough customer and his probate record indicates
that he was one of our first professional burglars.” (Note
14) This still doesn't tell us anything about the actual confrontation.
Apparently no legal action was taken.
Even though he never held political office after 1842, James continued to be a political force. As mentioned before, he backed Edward Burleson in his 1844 bid for President of Texas. In 1845 he was a delegate to the First State Constitutional Convention. In 1846 he helped organize the Democratic Party. And in 1850 he was appointed to a committee to consider the insurrectionary movement in Santa Fe County. In 1846 he was one of the incorporators for the La Grange Female Institute, a non-denominational school. (Note 9)
Children of James and
James and Sophia Mayfield had seven
children: Elizabeth Jane, born ca. 1834, m. Nicholas Franklin on May 31, 1853,
d. 1860/1870; Martha Lucas born ca. 1835, m. Robert M. Tevis on May 1, 1856, d.
1870/1879; James Shannon, Jr. born ca. 1838; Sophia Fannie born ca. 1840, m.
Robert D. Wilkinson on Oct. 1, 1863, d. May 25, 1887; Lucy Love born ca. 1844;
an unknown child born Oct. 4, 1848, d. before 1850 and John Crutcher born Sep.
1850, m. Cornelia Herndon ca. 1871, d. Dec. 19, 1901. (Note
Sophia Ann Mayfield died on March 2, 1852 in
La Grange. James Shannon Mayfield died there on December 3, 1852. Nothing is
known concerning the cause of death for either. Both were originally buried in
the front yard of their home at 345 East Travis St. in La Grange. Their
Instead of leaving Sophia and James in their
“all but forgotten” graves, I would like to bring them back for an encore.
First Curtain Call:
In his publication Indian Wars and Pioneers of Texas, John Henry Brown
wrote the following about Judge Bennett Blake:
“Judge Blake served under Gen. Rusk, in 1839, in his expedition against the noted Cherokee Chief Bowles who had organized a formidable Indian insurrection. On one occasion during the campaign Gen. Rusk offered a furlough of ten days to any of his soldiers who would carry a dispatch from where his was stationed, north of the Sabine, to Nacogdoches, seventy-five miles distant and deliver it upon the day of starting. The purport of the message was a warning to volunteers not to leave Nacogdoches for his camp except in parties of fifteen or twenty strong, as there were many Indians upon the road. It was a perilous mission to undertake, but Judge Blake volunteered to perform the service. He was mounted on a fine horse and made the trip in the time appointed. He saw but one Indian on the road. On arriving at Nacogdoches he found Mrs. James S. Mayfield standing guard, with a belt of six-shooters around her waist and a shotgun on her shoulder. The young men had all taken the field against the Indians and left the old men and women to protect the settlement. Many of the women of those days were good shots and of undoubted courage." (Note 16)
“October 28, 1841. Had a very fine party at Mayfields last night. A number of ladies from the County were present, enjoyed myself very much. Major Mayfield and family left here at about 11 A.M. Major and Mrs. Mayfield were on horseback, a large number of citizens accompanied them as far as the first little brook where Judge Hart, in the name of The People of Nacogdoches bid farewell to Mayfield & Lady, in such a feeling and solemn manner as drew tears from all present. Major Mayfield answered in the same manner, then they proceeded on their journey, and the Citizens returned to Town."