In the years just before the outbreak of the Civil War, letters written by Emily Perry’s sons — Joel, Austin and Guy Bryan and Stephen and Henry Perry — show a much different relationship with the family’s slaves than indicated by articles written in northern U.S. newspapers during that era.
Henry Perry wrote to his father from school in 1850, asking about various family servants, explaining he loved those he had known since his childhood.
He particularly requested James “say howdy” for him to “mammy, Aunt Mary, Milly, Clearsy, Simon and all the house servants, for I know they all love me well.”
A couple of years later, Stephen Perry wrote to his family from New Orleans, having accompanied a slave named Milley there for breast surgery.
Although the doctor had given little hope of her recovery, he said, the physician had “promised me to do all that he could for her.”
Slavery was considered by Texas planters to be essential to their livelihoods, and the numbers in their “quarters” increased steadily.
In an article on Durazno Plantation, James L. Smith wrote that Brazoria County’s tax rolls showed a figure that had more than doubled — from 21 to 45 — during the five years beginning in 1853.
Those slaves were as apt to suffer from illness as were the white residents of the area, however.
A few years later, Stephen Perry wrote to a creditor, whose bill he could not pay in full at that time, mentioning this. After noting several deaths among his slaves, he added this was not only a serious financial loss but also one he considered personal.
Some of them “I feel very much attached to having been raised together and played together in childhood,” he wrote.
In 1859, Guy Bryan wrote to Stephen about the death of Simon, a slave: “You speak … of the grief you feel at the loss of Simon. I too felt deeply his loss for a thousand associations clustered around his name.
“He was the favorite body servant of Uncle and then of mother & afterward of your father and lastly of yourself,” Guy noted. “he bore himself well, he was a good member of society and you and I need not think it weakness to weep over his grave…. Peace be to his ashes. He has followed Clorissa, his master, & his mistress.”
Of course, a number of family members also died throughout these years, including a number of children.
After the deaths of Emily Perry in 1851 and her husband, James F. Perry, two years later, their remaining property was divided among their four sons, Joel, Austin and Guy Bryan, and Stephen Perry.
Among other adult members considered among the immediate family, those whose deaths occurred during the years through the Civil War included Stephen F. Austin in December 1836; Joel’s youngest half brother, Henry Austin Perry, during a cholera epidemic in 1853; and Guy’s half sister, Eliza Margaret Perry, in 1862.
Other family deaths during that era included what seems today to be an inordinate number of young children. They died from a variety of illnesses in those days before the advent of widespread vaccinations, modern sanitation and the availability of sulfa drugs, penicillin and other modern medicines.
Their gravestones stand in the family cemetery behind the Gulf Prairie Presbyterian Church in present-day Jones Creek, along with those of many descendants.
Among them are far too many much-smaller markers. Placed at the graves of the family’s very young children, these gravestones bear silent witness to the fragility of life during Texas’s early settlement.
Like other families who lived near the Gulf Coast following the outbreak of the Civil War, those in Brazoria County were made constantly aware of their vulnerability to Yankee invasion from the Gulf.
Indication of Joel Bryan’s success at Durazno is shown by the agricultural census taken June 1, 1860, which lists the value of Durazno Plantation at $160,000.
An article by James L. Smith notes this included 300 acres of “improved” land, as well as $26,000 in farm machinery, which consisted mainly of the sugar mill Guy recently had built there.
During the preceding year, the plantation produced 4,000 bushels of corn, 30 bushels of peas, 60 bushels of Irish potatoes, 3,000 bushels of sweet potatoes, 85 hogsheads of sugar and 23,000 gallons of molasses, according to this source.
Livestock listed in this census showed 75 horses, 50 mules, 40 milk cows, 14 oxen, 300 head of cattle and 100 hogs.
The slave census for 1860 shows Durazno had 37 slaves and 10 slave quarters that year, but in 1861, Guy Bryan bought nine slaves in Baltimore, sending eight of them to his brother, Joel, at Durazno.
The Civil War brought drastic changes to life at Durazno and elsewhere in Brazoria County, affecting all branches of the Bryan and Perry families.
Many members of the family joined the Confederate troops, and virtually all of them worked in one way or another to help the Southern cause.
By November 1860, Stephen Perry was a major in the 4th Regiment, Texas Volunteers, stationed at Velasco. Soon after, he was assigned to secure more men from Texas’s “up-country.”
He quickly learned mostly unfounded rumors were causing unneeded concerns, and it was necessary for families to keep each other informed to counter this problem.
From Durazno, all three of Joel Bryan’s sons enlisted in the Confederate cause, as well. Two of them, James P. and Samuel I. Bryan, were members of Company B, Terry’s Texas Rangers, which was also the division in which two of Austin Bryan’s sons served.
Next week: Brazoria County subjected to Yankee barrages.