Friday, November 26, 2010

The Free State of Van Zandt

We meet the greatest and interesting people here at Roseland!  The other day a group of long-time college friends – I must use the word “old” with great caution at my age - decided to join us for their periodic retreat.  Though they have scattered, they continue to get together once or twice each year and enjoy each others’ company.  They rotate the location, first in one person’s home town, then the next, and so on.  That way the burdens of hosting and travel are shared equally among the participants. 

One of the guests, Mike, is a history buff.  He asked me, “Do you know about the Free State of Van Zandt?”
History was never my favorite subject in school.  I can’t remember where I put the car keys five minutes ago, let alone the names and dates associated with people long gone.
“The Free State of Van Zandt?  No, I’ve never heard of it.”
“Yes.  Roseland is located in what was once called The Free State of Van Zandt. You should look into it.”  With that we changed the topic of conversation, but clearly the gauntlet had been laid down.

That was obviously a challenge no self-respecting man could reject, and I decided to check out the Free State of Van Zandt.  I figured it had something to do with the Civil War (here in Texas it’s also called the un-Civil War, War between the States, Second War of Independence, War of Northern Aggression, or War of States Rights).  I started researching. 

Information is not hard to come by, but the truth is.  Tall tales and colorful local history competed for my attention.  Early history is preserved through oral tradition and tales of questionable authenticity learned from personal friends.  Newspapers and such were non-existent in those days, but even if they were, can we ever be truly sure that they are accurate? 

Names familiar from the names of local towns come to life as influential families, courageous settlers, and perhaps scoundrels.  Stories resound with undertones of pride and success mixed with pragmatism and individual determination.  This is a brief summary of what I’ve learned about the Free State of Van Zandt:

Van Zandt County was originally carved out of Henderson County by the Texas State legislature in 1848; its boundaries were re-drawn in 1850 leaving its present boundaries.  The county had acquired the moniker “free territory” shortly after its formation.  The term however had nothing to do with the matter of slavery, but resulted from a fortuitous situation that allowed Van Zandt County and its residents to inherit none of the excessive debt burden carried by its parent Henderson County.  Hence the term “free territory” originally meant “free of debt”, not necessarily “free of slaves.”  In fact, the institution of slavery plays a significant and interesting role in Roseland Plantation’s pre Civil War history.  Furthermore Texas, as well as the owner of the plantation at the time, had joined the Confederate side.

President Lincoln abolished slavery through the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, but the order did not reach Texas until June 19, 1865.  This date is commonly celebrated as “Juneteenth,” the day of Texan emancipation by descendants of the slaves.  But back to Van Zandt County… 

In 1867 Texans decided to formally re-join the Union, but this did not sit well with many local residents in Van Zandt County.  The citizens of the county held a convention and declared themselves free and independent of the State of Texas, of the Southern Confederacy, and of the United States of America.  Subsequently they formed an army to fight for their liberty. 

In response General Sheridan, the Union officer in charge of reconstruction in the territory, sent a troop of cavalry to put an end to the rebellion.  The county, being heavily wooded, made it possible for the army of the Free State of Van Zandt to apparently repulse the invasion in short order with no casualties simply by sniper fire alone – using tactics similar to those the American militiamen had used to defeat the British during the Revolutionary War. 

Victory appeared quick, painless, and sweet to the residents of the Free State of Van Zandt.  The army proceeded to celebrate their victory in Canton.  It was a hearty celebration and most were overcome by the effects of excessive liquor consumption during the celebration.

However, Sheridan’s troops had not been defeated; they had merely regrouped.  At the height of the celebration by the army of the Free State of Van Zandt, Sheridan’s troops surrounded Canton and captured the entire army.  The Federal soldiers built a several acre stockade prison walled by logs rammed vertically into the ground.  This prison held the entire rebellious army. 

The prisoners were model captives and showed no inclination of causing trouble for Union.  Therefore as time passed the number of Federal guards on duty was reduced until there was just one guard to patrol the entire perimeter. 

When the rainy season came, the ground became soft, and the prisoners took advantage of the situation.  They loosened some of the surrounding posts, created a hole in the fence, and escaped to neighboring territories. 

Thus ended the saga of the Free State of Van Zandt, but the spirit of the community lives on.   Though the county may be subject to external authority, citizens still cherish their independence and resent external intervention.  County citizens still proudly remember their heritage of freedom from authority, and proudly resist any encroachment on their liberty – especially from Washington. 

More detailed histories are available at  (for Van Zandt County) and (for Texas).

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