Stephen F. Austin State University

Jewel of the Forest (November 2011)

"Jewel of the Forest" Jasper, Texas

By Melvin C. Johnson

Jasper nestles in the great piney woods about sixty miles north of Beaumont, Texas. Various Native American clans hunted animals and gathered nuts, berries, and other plants along the streams and rivers for untold generations. Before Americans settlers came permanently in the early 1820s, Spanish and French merchants and explorers crisscrossed the area coming east from New Orleans and west from San Antonio.

John Bevil settled in the area then known as Snow River about 1824. The few rude log structures that first comprised the community were known collectively as Bevil's Settlement. Bevil requested the community name to be changed to Jasper after a hero from his fellow home, William Jasper, in 1835. John Newton, along with fellow Georgian hero of the American War of Independence, William Jasper, respectively became the place names of the two Texas cities and counties named after them.-Sergeant Jasper had died at the Battle of Savannah in 1779 carrying the American flag. Captain James Chessner and Captain M. B. Lewis led fighters from Jasper during the Texas War of Independence. Signers of the Texas Declaration of Independence included Dr. Stephen H. Everett and George Washington Smyth.

Jasper County, its boundaries organized on December 14, 1837, was one of the first twenty-three counties of Texas. The area covered hundreds of square miles from the Neches River east to the Sabine River. The two main communities, Jasper and Newton, squabbled about which village would become the county seat. Much to the disgust of those living in the east of the county, Jasper was named in January 1844 as the county seat. Two years later the legislature created Newton County from eastern Jasper County.

The small village rested along what is now Sandy Creek, which divides the town into north and south. Small wooden foot bridges traversed the creek, while easy fords for wagon and animal traffic were used where Marvin Hancock (about a half mile west from Main), Main, and Ben Wheeler (about a quarter mile east of Main) cross the Creek. The first mayor, A. L. Black, was elected in 1837. Main and Houston met at the southwest corner of what became and is still the Jasper Court Square. The first small courthouse and all of the county records went up in fire and smoke. The next courthouse was wooden also, and it was built in 1853 and was replaced by a large brick edifice in 1889. The county courthouse still stands along with additions to the east and south on the square.

The Civil War came to Jasper in 1861 as it did to the rest of the Confederate States. The voters among the town's 400 inhabitants voted to secede on February 23, 1861. The white inhabitants willingly contributed their fair share and more to the war effort. Three military companies were raised, and a number of the soldiers perished, never to come home. The community grew to more than 1,000 because of its role as its role as the administrative and logical center for a nine-county region. As General George Armstrong Custer led United States Army troops over the creek crossings and up to courthouse square, the war ended, white rebels wept, and black Africans, free and slave, quietly celebrated. The Jasper Newsboy, founded by I. E. Kellie, in 1866, the longest lived and still operating Texas newspaper, had much to say about all of that until Radical Reconstruction ended in East Texas.

To be continued: further reading may be found at Traci Zavalla, "History of Jasper," possession of author; Handbook of Texas Online at online/articles/JJ/hFi2.html; W. T. Block, "Jasper Figures in Early Texas History," Beaumont Enterprise, August 18, 2004, A12, at