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Early Incidents

(Submitted by Dorman Holub)

Dallas News, of July, 1892

     Judge Nat. M. Burford was among the first officials to serve Dallas county in a judicial capacity after it was organized. He possesses a ready memory and is an interesting conversationalist. Judge Burford came from Smith county, Tennessee, to Jefferson, Texas, in February 1846. He lived in Jefferson until October 1848, when he came to Dallas, where he has since continuously resided. His official career began when he was elected district attorney of the fourteenth judicial district in 1850. He was re-elected in 1852, and in February, 1856, he was elected Judge for the new Sixteenth Judicial District, which had just been created of the counties of Dallas, Collin, Grayson, Cooke, Wise, Denton, Parker, Montague, Jack, Young, Johnson and Ellis.
     While he was serving as district judge in 1862 he entered the Confederate army, a member of Good's battery, and in the fall of that year he was discharged by the secretary of war and authorized to raise a regiment of infantry or cavalry as to him seemed best. He came home and soon had formed the Nineteenth Texas Cavalry. He was elected Colonel and he reported in person to the secretary of war at Richmond, Virginia. He commanded the regiment in Arkansas, Louisiana and Missouri, but owing to failing health he resigned and returned home in 1864. In 1862, at the outbreak of the war, it is said that the Congressional Democratic convention which met in Dallas, would have nominated him for Congress, but war had been declared and the convention declined to nominate.
     In 1866, he was Speaker of the House of Representatives of the Eleventh Texas Legislature. In 1872 or 1874, he was elected County Judge of Dallas county; in 1878, he was elected Judge for the new district composed of the counties of Dallas and Ellis. He served two years and resigned on account of failing health, terminating his long career as a public office,' he said in a short speech at the reunion. "There is not an office in the world that I would have. All that I desire is to have the love and respect of my neighbors and friends and to be permitted to spend my remaining days in peace. I have nearly reached three-score and ten and I want to be ready to answer my Maker's call."
     "When I was elected District Judge in 1856," said Judge Burford, "the district was composed of 12 counties, and now with the county of Dallas divided into two districts, there are, I believe, five times as many cases tried in either court at one term as I tried in my district in a whole year. I believe this is true of civil suits filed. Even taking into consideration the increase of population, I think the increase of crime has exceeded the growth in number of the people. Crime has increased in its enormity, but I don't know that there has been any increase in misdemeanors. When I was District Attorney my income arose largely from gaming cases prosecuted in the older counties of the district. During my first term as District Judge I tried only three murder cases; the other felony cases tried were for horse stealing. The high crime of murder increased with the advent of railroads. They brought a floating population, adventurers and people of unsettled habits, and robbery and murder began to increase. The people who came before the railroads came with the intention of facing the dangers of a new country and settling homes for their children. They were plain, honest people who were not roving about over the country, and the old pioneers knew each other, they shared with each other, they welcomed the honest toiling stranger and in social ties they became cemented with a bond of brotherhood. In the trial of cases these days there are more continuances and postponements than we had.
     "I remember a remarkable case which I had to prosecute when I was District Attorney," Judge Burford continued as he drew together the threads of the past. "There was a promising young man by the name of Steelman, a grandson of Judge Underwood of Georgia. He came to this country at the age of 19 early in the 1850s and he soon got to drinking and dissipating. One day at Palestine he entered a saloon drunk, and another young man was in there playing a fiddle. Steelman passed close to the fiddler, whose elbow struck him, whereupon Steelman turned upon him and fired in his face with a small pistol loaded with bird shot, putting his eyes out. The young man testified that the flash of the pistol was the last light he ever saw. Steelman as soon as he had fired turned and ran out of the saloon and jumped on a horse, which was standing at the rack near the saloon. The horse ran with him about two miles and drew up at a house, where Steelman dismounted and going into the house got on the bed. It turned out that he had mounted the horse of the young man whose eyes he had shot out, and the horse carried him to the home of the widowed mother of the young man, where he was found by the officers! The shooting aroused considerable prejudice against him, and General Thomas J. Rusk, the United States Senator, who had known Steelman's father back in Georgia, came from Nacogdoches to defend him when the case came up for trial. He succeeded in getting a change of venue to Athens, in Henderson county. The case was called for trial there, and when court met Steelman received a letter from Rusk to the effect that his wife was sick and could not come. He told Steelman to try and get the case continued, and if he could not get a continuance to get Judge John H. Reagan, now chairman of the Texas Railroad Commission, to defend him. As soon as Steelman read the letter he said he knew that the reason why General Rusk did not come was because he could not bear to see a grandson of Judge Underwood sent to the penitentiary. Steelman never denied the shooting. He said that the might have done it, but if he did he had recollection of it. He was forced to go to trial and Judge Reagan defended him.
     "The jury returned a verdict of guilty and assessed his punishment at seven years' confinement in the penitentiary. Judge Bennet H. Martin was on the bench, and I never shall forget the scene when he sentenced Steelman. He said to him: 'Now, you are hardly grown and you have a short sentence. It should be a lesson to you, and you will be discharged in time to yet make a sober, upright citizen.' Steelman, in receiving the sentence, replied: 'Judge, you know there is no respectable society that will receive an ex-convict. I can never dismiss the thought from my mind, no matter where I go, that I am an ex-convict. I have disgraced my family and I am not worthy of the position of an honest and upright citizen. I have severed all the sacred family ties that bound me to my mother and my kindred, and by my own act I will be disgraced with the stripes of a convict. If I should get out and try to lead a sober life and be a respectable citizen some man would some day say 'That man has been in the penitentiary,' and then, Judge, I would try to kill him. There is a society along the Rio Grande that receives ex-convicts, but I cannot go there. No, sir; I will remain in the penitentiary.' Steelman cried while he talked to the judge and his candor, earnestness and his despair at the thought of his being a convict caused a number in the courtroom to weep. This trail and sentence occurred in 1853. In November, 1855, General Rusk, who was supporting the Texas and Pacific railway bill in congress, came to Texas to look over the line for the proposed road from Marshall to the Colorado river. He camped near Dallas and he came in to see me. He told me that he wanted to go to Austin to secure a pardon for Mr. Steelman. He said that he had been laboring industriously for six months past to get Steelman to accept a pardon. He say, 'He is the most remarkable man I ever seen. The superintendent of the penitentiary writes to me that he has not locked Steelman up the last year. He says he works hard, carries the key to his own cell, has nothing to do with anybody, and declares that he would not leave the penitentiary, and they have agreed to keep him employed there his life-time. But at last,' said General Rusk, 'I got him to consent to accept a pardon upon the condition that I would take him direct from the penitentiary to New York and secure him a place in the United States navy. He would not agree to serve unless he was sent to foreign shores. I have secured a commission for him and he is to ship from New York to Africa.' About that time Governor Bell was elected to congress and "Smoky Jim" Henderson, a personal friend of General Rusk, became governor upon the resignation of Governor Bell. Henderson granted the pardon and General Rusk and took Steelman to New York. He refused to even pass through his native State, and he said that he did not want his mother and his old Georgia acquaintances to know what had become of him. I was told that he remained two days in New York and then shipped to Africa, as General Rusk said he would do. I have never since heard of Steelman. In all my dealing with men charged with crime he was the most remarkable man that I ever met."

(Transcribed by Dorman Holub from John Henry Brown's History of Dallas County, 1892, p. 170.  Permission to reproduce this transcription must be obtained from Dorman Holub)