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Stephen F. Austin State University

Judge William Morton Chambers (June 2014)

Judge William Morton Chambers
By Kevin Ladd

There is an old saying that "time waits for no man." To that phrase might also be added the thought that time will eventually leave us all completely behind. The story of William Morton Chambers (1821-1892), the first county judge of Chambers County, is a strangely ironic case in point. He was a man of some great contradictions - a Confederate but also what was often called a scalawag.

He was born in Orange County, Virginia in 1821, the eldest of nine children born to Landon Gore and Mary Green (Allen) Chambers. Like several other nephews of General Thomas Jefferson Chambers, William came to Texas (in 1844) at the behest of his celebrated kinsman and eventually settled on a spacious tract of land overlooking the body of water formerly known as Turtle Bay. His third wife, Betty Keys Chambers, liked the place well enough to give it the name "Eminence," a name eventually assigned to the entire community around about. This property is today situated on the north banks of Turtle Bayou near and west of Farm Road 563.

William was admitted to the bar soon thereafter and in 1853 authored a campaign biography on the General, the publication of which was timed to coincide with an unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign by his uncle. William ventured forth into Democratic politics in 1856, when he won election as chief justice of Liberty County, which at that time embraced a vast area including modern-day Chambers county. We feel like Judge Chambers probably ran for county judge with the idea in mind of breaking the southern part of the old county away and starting the new county. It is difficult to know for certain, particularly since the courthouse in Liberty burned in 1874 and the Chambers County courthouse at Wallisville burned in 1875.

With the creation of Chambers County in 1858, Judge Chambers likewise became the first chief justice of the new political jurisdiction. The new county barely had time to adjust to its newfound status before the national political currents swept local residents along with the 1860 election

Both of the Chambers men were elected as delegates from Chambers County to the state's 1861 Secession Convention, after which time William enlisted in the Confederate Army. His uncle, General T. J. Chambers, served as an aide-de-camp to General John Bell Hood, and of course he came back to his home at Anahuac and was assassinated there in May 1865.

Chambers returned to the office of county judge in 1866 and then did something unusual by throwing himself into the big middle of the Republican Party, then composed largely of former slaves, carpetbaggers and so-called "scalawags." Scalawags were generally those who had changed their allegiance to the Republican Party. This change in parties and political beliefs did not endear him to the Democrats, and it was especially controversial with former Confederates who had once regarded him as a friend, and they usually lumped him in with the Scalawags. Watson Dugat Williams, the former captain of Company F of the Fifth Texas Infantry, returned to Liberty County after the war and got involved in the steamboat business. But Williams also started publishing a newspaper called the Star State at Liberty. Very few issues of this paper survive today, but one that does contains a pretty strongly-worded criticism of Judge Chambers.

The party rewarded him with an appointment as judge of the First Judicial District. Chambers was involved in the political turmoil of Reconstruction and was charged with several misdemeanors on the bench. He was eventually impeached by the Texas House.

The Fourteenth Legislature, however, refused to convict him. In a reorganization of judicial districts he was given jurisdiction of Orange County, even though he was not a resident of that area. The Republican party nominated Chambers, who had served as a delegate to its national convention in 1872, as its gubernatorial candidate in 1876. As a Republican, with a somewhat tarnished reputation as a jurist, he stood little chance against the rejuvenated Democrats, which had resumed its dominance in Texas in the 1873 election. Richard Coke, the Democrat, won by a better than three-to-one margin. In 1880 Chambers again served as a delegate to the Republican national convention. He also waged a pair of unsuccessful campaigns in the 1880s. In 1882 he lost his bid for a seat in the United States Congress, and in 1888 he failed in his attempt to become state attorney general on the Nonpartisan ticket.

The Republican Party nominated him for governor in 1876, although the Judge was summarily defeated by Democratic Governor Richard Coke in a landslide. He lost a race for Congress in 1882 and for attorney general in 1888.

Judge Chambers was married three times: first to Theodosia Gillard DeBlanc, secondly to Petronille LaCour and third to the aforementioned Betty Keyes. Judge Chambers passed away in 1892 and was buried in a small family cemetery on the banks of Turtle Bayou. Folks travelling across the Turtle Bayou ferry many years ago could look off to the west and see the graveyard and its stately stones. The location of the cemetery remains something of a mystery today. It is sad to say that William Morton Chambers, once our most influential public servant, rests in a grave that no one today can locate.