December 2010  


Historic Court Papers Presented to Commissioners Court
Help Draw Picture of Early Harris County

(From left: Commissioner Steve Radack, County Judge Ed Emmett, Commissioner
Sylvia R. Garcia, Judge Tom Sullivan, County Archivist Sarah Jackson,
Commissioner El Franco Lee, and Commissioner Jerry Eversole)
When County Court at Law Judge Tom Sullivan took office in 1980 he found a small set of about 500 very old court documents in a box in his courtroom. No one knew why they were there or seemed to care about them, so he took personal custody and retained them until October 2010 when he formally presented them to Judge Emmett and Commissioners Court.
Judge Emmett asked the County Archives to preserve and make them available to the citizens of Harris County—the actual owners. The county archivists were pleased and surprised by what they found. Initially believing all to be from County Court, they were gratified to find a fair sampling of cases from the Justice and District Courts and even one petition addressed to Republic of Texas Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Thomas J. Rusk.
While most case documents are from the Republic of Texas (especially 1838), there are several from the 1850s and a small sampling from Reconstruction. With cataloguing now at the half-way point, none have been found that originated in the Confederate era, although there is one 1867 case stemming from a debt before the Civil War (including a note recording a partial payment made in 1864 as a result of the debtor’s making a pair of pants and a coat).
The files are like a jig-saw puzzle missing most of its pieces. An incomplete picture of early Harris County is presented, although some images are clear and dramatic. Lawsuits over the loss and spoilage of goods shipped from New Orleans illustrate that in 1837 the escalating population of Houston could not feed itself or even purchase sufficient produce from other Texas communities and had to import corn and other provisions from the United States.
Some findings are especially gratifying. Someone threw out the 19th Century District Court criminal files so long ago that everyone has long since forgotten when or why that happened. But the archivists have discovered the sole known surviving District Court Criminal Case: a Grand Jury True Bill charging Josiah Pilout with assaulting Eliza Terry in 1842.
The documents also show old examples of modern problems. Speculators and settlers eagerly purchased land that they could not pay for, so the creditors and subsequent holders of the debt hauled them into court to force payment or seize the property. Thus there are several promissory notes representing the first sales of lots and blocks in the oldest sections of Houston—some of the property that is now owned by Harris County, including the land between Quebedeaux Park and the old District Attorney building at Fannin and Franklin.
Similarly, purchasers, especially failed merchants, were also frequently unable to pay for goods obtained on credit. As a result there are a few mercantile accounts listing items purchased (Click here.) or seized by the sheriff. From those inventories it can be learned what consumer goods were available to early Texans and at what cost. This includes an amazing quantity and variety of liquor—a not especially earth-shaking revelation—but one that provides contemporary evidence to reminisces of our earliest citizens. (Click here.)
Economists and historians will find examples of the resourcefulness of citizens during Reconstruction when dealing with money they had learned not to trust. In 1867 Adolph Klein promised to pay a debt to George Morgan in Mexican silver dollars or “its equivalent” in United States paper dollars. And, in the same year, Alfred Margoratti promised to pay a debt to Cark Körtge in U. S. gold coins. The pleadings showed that a gold dollar was worth $1.35 in paper currency.
Perhaps the largest series of documents reflects a conflict between District Clerk Dewitt Clinton Harris and Sheriff John W. Moore. Harris filed and won a series of suits in County Court against Moore and Moore’s securities. (There were so many, in fact, that the printer ran off a special set of customized legal forms for the occasion.) It is not yet known exactly what was going on, but this was an era in which fee officers did not draw a salary but were paid for each official service performed. And when a judgment was issued the sheriff seized and sold property to satisfy the judgments and the costs of the case. It seems likely that for some reason Moore withheld payments due Harris who had to resort to a series of law suits to collect his due. The judgment, the records show, was collected by Moore’s successor in office.
As noted above, however, this gives an incomplete picture of society of the era. The principals in these legal dramas are overwhelmingly men—and white men of property at that. Other sources reveal that society included many women, numerous blacks, a few Mexicans, and Native Americans. Yet the women who have appeared in the documents inspected so far are secondary players except for Eliza Terry—a victim. (Click here.) The only Hispanic citizen has been Lorenzo De Zavala (son of the more famous Lorenzo De Zavala, first vice president of the Republic of Texas), who translated during a deposition for Francis Arnau, who spoke English “imperfectly.” The black Houstonians have all been slaves, either the subject of a suit or property seized to satisfy a judgment. And Native Americans have not appeared at all. Still, accounts of the era seldom mentioned minorities, so these bits of information, although unsatisfying, add to the little that we do know.
Over the years much of the original order had been lost. Indeed, the documents resembled a deck of new cards shuffled by a novice card player. Papers related to a single case may be all together or scattered throughout the collection. Even the documents in an envelope may or may not be related. A major challenge for the archivists will be to arrange the files in a usable fashion as closely as possible resembling the manner in which they were initially filed.
A greater challenge will be conservation. Many of the papers are in amazingly good condition, having been manufactured of high quality material, mostly rags and hemp. But some of them have been subjected to water and insect damage and contaminated by acid migrating from inferior paper, especially envelopes that someone placed them in, probably near the turn of the previous century. There is also evidence of vandalism in the form of torn corners where stamp collectors probably took post-Civil War revenue stamps. Fortunately, paper conservators can stabilize the damage and reinforce and/or encapsulate even the most damaged documents so that they can be handled.
As cataloguing the second half of the documents continues, county archivists hope and expect to find more unexpected treasurers. But what they (and Judge Sullivan) really hope for is that other former employees and officials and their descendants come forth with additional troves of documents that they have stored and protected when they feared that they would be lost forever.
The Future of Health Care in Harris County
As written by County Judge Ed Emmett for a local online publication.
The national debate over health care is good political theater and will no doubt continue in the foreseeable future. Whatever the outcome of that debate, though, local officials will have a daunting task providing health care to those who have no insurance, are underinsured or have special needs.
The Harris County Hospital District was created by the Texas Legislature largely in response to problems exposed at the old Jeff Davis charity hospital. Since that time, HCHD has developed a solid reputation at its flagship hospitals – Ben Taub and LBJ – and at its clinics around the county.
As Harris County’s indigent population has grown, the HCHD facilities have been stretched. And as more and more people have lost access to adequate insurance, the district’s emergency rooms have become inundated by patients with no other medical home. We must take steps to provide more neighborhood clinics so that these patients can have a real medical home and can access preventive care rather than waiting until a medical crisis forces them to visit an emergency room.
Recently, the hospital district signed innovative agreements with two private, federally qualified health clinics (FQHCs) in Denver Harbor and Spring Branch. By supporting existing neighborhood clinics, the hospital district does not have to spend capital dollars itself. Such an approach also retains flexibility. The indigent population is transient, moving from area to area within the county. Investing in bricks and mortar in a static location makes little sense.
Another issue facing the HCHD is its inability to control its emergency room patient load. There have been many observations and discussions of undocumented foreigners using the district’s emergency rooms and maternity wards. Beyond that situation is the reality that residents of surrounding counties also come to HCHD facilities. When the district was created, neither of these dynamics existed or was contemplated. I believe it is time for the Legislature to consider a regional approach, since indigent health care needs pay no attention to county lines.
In addition to moves toward neighborhood clinics and regionalization, there is a growing recognition of the need to focus much more on mental health issues, substance abuse and addiction. Many of those whose health care needs are met solely by HCHD and private neighborhood clinics suffer from these afflictions. This is particularly true among the homeless population.
Those suffering from mental health issues and/or addiction are most likely to spend time in the Harris County Jail. A sad note is that the jail is now the largest mental health facility in the state of Texas. It deals with more mental patients than any other facility. Unfortunately, those with mental health issues tend to get caught in the “revolving door” of the criminal justice system. While in jail and under the care of the jail’s medical staff, those with mental issues are stabilized. Upon their release from jail, however, they far too frequently fail to continue receiving adequate care, either through neglect or by choice. As a result, the behavior or activity that caused their arrest in the first place is too often resumed, leading to yet another arrest. Thus, the “revolving door.” The same situation is frequently descriptive of inmates who have substance abuse or addiction issues.
One of the best investments we can make is to construct a facility that would transition the appropriate inmates from the criminal justice system into the health care system and ultimately back into normal lives. Harris County, as the third-most populous county in the United States, is blessed with numerous public and private agencies structured to help those with mental health, substance abuse or addiction issues. All of those agencies could be better coordinated to maximize their effectiveness, but the biggest improvement that could be made would be to create a mechanism through which those in the criminal justice system are reintegrated into society through the appropriate agency or service provider.
There is no question that the direct cost of incarcerating someone in the criminal justice system is far more expensive than maintaining them in the proper health-care environment. Of course, the benefits grow exponentially if that person remains connected to family and is a productive resident, rather than being a drain on resources and a potential danger to society.
Regardless of the outcome of the health care debate in Washington, we need to take steps now to create a local, public health-care system that will best serve the target population – the uninsured and underinsured. We need to do this for the long term future of the Houston region.
Our focus should be on establishing medical homes through neighborhood clinics, providing preventive care, thereby reducing the load on emergency rooms.
The provision of indigent health care should be regionalized to meet the real needs of this rapidly growing urban area.
Many of those suffering from mental health issues, substance abuse or addictions need to be served by the health-care system instead of the criminal justice system.
If those steps are taken, the public will be better served and the taxpayer will save money.