Albert Sidney Johnston’s China Grove Plantation in the center of Brazoria County offered land suitable for planting both of the Texas Gulf Coast’s two most important crops — cotton and sugar cane — during the mid-1800s, with plenty of pasture land available for cattle.
Its total cost of about $16,000, plus 10 percent interest, was considered above market price for that time, however, and payment in full was due within five years.
In a biography of Johnston, his son, William Preston Johnston, wrote that the property was “every way more suitable for the production of sugar cane than richer bottom lands.”
It was also “very convenient to the marke t, being about thirty-five miles from Galveston by land, and twelve miles from the navigable waters of the bay,” according to this source.
It would be a big step toward the kind of prosperity Johnston needed to marry Eliza Griffin, a beautiful young Kentucky belle.
Johnston was inexperienced in the purchase of large tracts of Texas land, and was already well into the deal by the time a friend cautioned him that the China Grove property would not sell at auction for more than $5,000.
If the property had to be sold, the friend warned, Johnston and his partner, Albert T. Burnley, would be responsible for paying the difference between their debt and the sale price.
Alarmed at this advice, Johnston attempted to cancel the deal but was unable to do so. He and Burnley signed the necessary papers, and Johnston prepared to meet his share of the agreement.
To cover this, he had sold some real estate at what his son would later describe as “a considerable sacrifice.”
Under their gentlemen’s agreement, Johnston would buy the land, and Burnley, who was engaged in both planting and merchandising, was to purchase the slaves and machinery they would require in order to open a sugar plantation on the property.
Burnley’s affairs were in such poor shape, however, that he found himself on the brink of bankruptcy. He asked Johnston to relieve him of his burden regarding the China Grove property.
“Under these circumstances,” Burnley wrote in a letter dated Nov. 26, 1843, “we must compromise the infernal contract or I shall be broke up.”
Burnley pointed out that he had entered the deal with an eye to Johnston’s benefit rather than his own, and Johnston’s sense of obligation required that he assume the entire responsibility.
Despite the financial issues facing him, however, Johnston was still a man with a personal life. He was deeply in love with Eliza, who was a cousin of his late wife.
He returned to Kentucky, renewed his courtship, and they were married in October 1843, with the ceremony held near Shelbyville.
But while he and Eliza were still basking in congratulations on their marriage, Johnston received the unwelcome news of further problems at China Grove.
It was during what we now refer to as “hurricane season” in Texas, and storms had seriously damaged the plantation’s cotton crop. In addition, probably as a result of the storm, he was told that there were questions as to the ability of one of his renters to pay the sum owed.
Hastening back to Texas with his new bride, who had never visited the area before, Johnston found that Burnley was right about the inability to shed his commitment to purchase the huge plantation.
Instead, Johnston rented out as much of the acreage as possible, making it possible for him to save Burnley by assuming his debt, but leaving Johnston with neither the cash nor credit to stock the property.
He and Eliza began their marriage dividing their time between Texas and Kentucky. It was not until after the birth of a son, who was named for him, that Johnston borrowed the money he needed to build a home at China Grove.
This loan also covered the cost of the bare bones of equipment he would need to settle there and farm the property himself — which was a daunting task, given the size of the property.
During this time, Texas had been annexed by the United States, exacerbating fast-deteriorating relations with Mexico.
In a move designed to prevent the threat of an invasion, U.S. Gen. Zachary Taylor was directed to move troops to the Mexican border. By the time Johnston and his family arrived in Texas, war between the two neighboring countries had actually begun.
Although Johnston was a soldier by profession, he had no position at that time with either the U.S. Army or the now largely disbanded forces of the defunct Republic of Texas.
Nothing could have been more to his liking than to have marched against Mexico, but without a post, and with his wife begging that he remain with her and their baby, his hopes appeared destined to failure.
Then Gen. Taylor recommended in late 1845 that Johnston be appointed colonel of a new regiment that would serve in Texas, and Johnston’s friends exerted their efforts to urge that this be approved.
All of their influence was nothing in comparison to that of Johnston’s long-time enemy, however.
Still politically powerful – in Washington, as well as in Texas – Sam Houston had apparently never forgotten his bias against Johnston. Although he never admitted it, Sam Houston worked against the concerted efforts of Johnston’s friends to obtain this appointment.
Next week: Johnston’s return to the military.