Records Task Force Tracks Down Texas's History, Some of Which Could Be Lost Forever

If you have a moment, take the time to read this just-released report from the Texas Court Records Preservation Task Force, formed in November 2009 by the Supreme Court of Texas to see just how at-risk the state's historical docs are. Because most of the most important docs in Texas history are scattered hither and yon -- in small county clerks' offices, for starters, many of which don't have the money or facilities to properly archive paperwork that, in some instances, dates back to 1837. Says the report, "Many Records are decaying or being destroyed due to a confluence of events and conditions."

The 93-page report, issued in advance of a hearing set for next month, then goes on to catalog who has what; it serves as a road map for historians. Such as: Mason County's got an arrest warrant for Johnny Ringo; Comanche and Navarro County have docs pertaining to John Wesley Hardin; countless others are keeping files on Bonnie and Clyde. And then there are the docs involving legendary musicians and athletes from Texas, the businesses that sprang from the soil, and the historical events that shaped the state. Here's just some of what the task force found over the last two years:

The Galveston County District Clerk has the only surviving Records from the arrests of the prize fighters Jack Johnson and Joseph Choynski for illegal prize fighting in 1901. This was Jack Johnson's first professional fight. The Bowie County District Clerk has Records concerning the criminal conviction of Huddie Ledbetter, who supposedly sang for his freedom and later became the famous blues singer Leadbelly. McLennan County has the lawsuit that future Governor Wilbert Lee "Pappy" O'Daniel filed against Bob Wills and Tommy Duncan seeking to enjoin them from performing on the radio after they left O'Daniel's Light Crust Doughboys to form their own band, the Texas Playboys.
The list goes on, as do the problems concerning their preservation. And then there is the story of John Wesley Hardin, recounted after the jump -- with mention made of Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan.

In his classic song, "Hardin Wouldn't Run, "Johnny Cash sang that outlaw John Wesley Hardin was a steadfast man. Truth is, Hardin was not so firmly fixed. After shooting Deputy Sheriff Charles Webb in Comanche County in 1874, Hardin fled Texas and headed east. Texas Ranger John B. Armstrong pursued Hardin and found him on a train outside Pensacola, Florida several years later. Armstrong overtook Hardin after Hardin got his pistols tangled up in his suspenders when he tried to draw. He was brought back to Comanche County, Texas, and put on trial before a jury of twelve citizens of the county. Bob Dylan, in his Hardin song, sang that "no crime held against him could they prove." That is also incorrect. Unlike Jesse James and Billy the Kid, who were both gunned down, John Wesley Hardin, who killed many people in multiple states, was convicted of murder in 1878 and sentenced to prison in Huntsville, Texas.

The historical documents that record the true story about the trial and sentencing of Hardin are at risk of being stolen, destroyed, or lost. The District Clerk of Comanche County is so worried about these records that she keeps the case file in a secret place in her office. This case file is fragile and could easily break into pieces the next time it is handled. The minute books that contain information on the trial and sentencing are stacked unpreserved on shelves in a side room; old water damage is visible in the ceiling above. The Task Force offered assistance to protect these records; the District Clerk readily agreed - she understood the importance of these documents. The Task Force has now preserved these records through donations by the State Bar of Texas and the law firm of Baker Botts L.L.P.

The Hardin records are not unique. Thousands of other Records are stored in hundreds of Texas district and county clerk archives. Some of these facilities are excellent; some of these Records are preserved, or in the process of being preserved. But many of the oldest Records - especially those that date back to the Republic of Texas, early statehood, or the Civil War - are at risk of being lost forever, unless measures are soon taken to help district and county clerks protect them.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky