A fter Texas gained its independence, Joel Bryan served as overseer at Peach Point, operating the plantation during absences of his stepfather, James F. Perry. He acquired valuable experience not only in farming and handling the slaves, but in ranching as well.
Years later, a contemporary wrote Joel was well-respected for his knowledge of both scientific and practical farming, as well as his industry.
The original acreage at Joel’s Durazno Plantation was planned to be deeded to Mary Austin Holley following her planned marriage to Joel’s uncle, Stephen F. Austin.
Austin’s early death occurred before either the marriage or the property transfer took place, however. Emily Perry, who inherited the property, deeded it instead to Joel, her eldest son.
When Mary Austin Holley visited the area a few years after Austin’s death, she wrote in her diary on Jan. 24, 1838, of having passed the place where she and Stephen “were to have our paradise,” describing it as “beautiful indeed … diversified with copse & lawn; but how changed to me!”
“This lovely tract now belongs to Joel Bryan, an excellent young man,” she added.
Joel married his stepfather’s niece, Lavinia K. Perry, on April 7, 1840, in a ceremony conducted by Francis Rutherford, and they settled in a small cabin at Durazno.
By the time of the 1850 census, the family included five children: James P., 9; Guy M., 7; Samuel J., 6; Moses A., 5; and Mary A., 3. Another daughter, Erin, came three years later.
As most families do, Joel and Lavinia added to the house as needed for the comfort of t heir growing family. Along with the Bryans, the census of 1850 also lists Augustus Tennis, 25, a native of Germany, who apparently was an employee.
Like many other early Brazoria County residents, Joel utilized a variety of ways to add to the income derived from his plantation. Among these was the sale of wood for steamship fuel, as well as a variety of produce, ranging from game to seafood.
Oysters were of particular interest to those buying food for the passengers aboard steamships, and Joel’s slaves were able to find a plentiful supply in rich oyster beds nearby.
Mrs. Lois Adriance, one of the Bryans’ descendants, noted in an interview more than 20 years ago that they, along with other early families along the coast, “had so many goodies right at their doorstep” that they were able to enjoy a variety of dishes that was “absolutely unbelievable.”
She remembered childhood visits to Durazno when, in cold weather, “they used to send the help down, and they would bring home a wagon load of oysters and … pile them up under … enormous live oak trees … and put sacks on them to keep them wet….”
Then, whenever the family wanted oysters, “they would just go out and open them, and they were always … still alive,” Adriance said.
Joel had considerable property by that time, with Brazoria County’s tax rolls showing he owned 5,600 acres of land, 4,500 cattle and 30 horses.
The Agricultural Census for that year, however, states only 80 acres were under cultivation, and he had $200 worth of farm machinery. Total value of the plantation is listed in that document as $2,000.
According to this source, he had 80 horses, seven mules, 50 milk cows, a dozen oxen, 6,000 head of cattle and 100 hogs. Produce raised in 1849 was listed at 2,500 bushels of corn, 50 bushels of Irish potatoes, 600 bushels of sweet potatoes, 312 pounds of butter and two tons of hay.
Other information noted a one-story wood structure that faced south with a long front porch. A pair of tall pillars flanked the entrance gate to his plantation.
When she was looking through a new issue of Smithsonian magazine, Adriance noticed a reference to an article printed in the Houston Post in 1900.
In it, Bryan told of having once opened an enormous oyster to find a ’possum’s foot encased in mother of pearl. According to that story, Bryan invited an inquiry from “any ’possum that had lost its forefoot.”
This paw amputation must have occurred after the animal’s foot was caught as it tried to open an oyster, Adriance said. She explained animals have been known to chew off a limb in order to free themselves from such a trap.
If the severed paw remained inside the oyster long enough, she added, it would become encased in the pearlized material.
Along with most of the prosperous plantation owners along the Texas coast, Joel expanded his operation to include sugar production. It was processed in a sugar mill built at Durazno in the 1850s.
Information on the crop in 1858 shows he produced 150 hogsheads that season, an amount then considered about average for the state’s sugar mills.
The wide expanse of land available in Texas during his lifetime made cattle raising an important part of any big plantation’s economy, and it appears this was particularly true of his operation.
He and his half brother, Stephen S. Perry, sold cattle jointly. One problem to this, however, was the location of Stephen’s herd on the west side of the Brazos River.
This meant Stephen’s cattle had to be moved across the river in order to reach the Galveston market. In 1851, Bryan reportedly made an unsuccessful attempt to “swim” some steers across the river.
He eventually needed to enlist the aid of cowhands on the plantation of a neighbor, Sterling McNeill, in order to load the animals on a ferry to get them safely across the river.
Next week: Letters show close attachment to family’s slaves.