Saturday, April 21, 2012

This Week in Texas Methodist History April 22

Bell and Granville Families Donate Land for Church, April 26, 1839

Settlers in the Republic of Texas were cash poor but land rich.  Abel Stevens took advantage of that fact in his brief missionary visit to Texas and solicited donations of land for the Methodist Episcopal Church. 

On April 26, 1839, two couples, Thomas and Abigail Bell and Benjamin and Nancy Granville, responded to the solicitation and donated two tracts  of land on the banks of Piney Creek in central Austin County for the use of the Methodist Episcopal Church.  That donation led to the formation of a church that is now known as Bellville United Methodist Church

Thomas Bell and his brother James immigrated from Florida to Austin’s Colony in 1822.  Benjamin Granville, a native of England, came some years later.  Thomas Bell and Benjamin Granville married sisters in the fall of 1837 and established farmsteads near each other.  The young immigrants threw themselves into the religious activities available to them in the last years of Mexican rule and the early years of the Republic.  Thomas Bell attended the September, 1834, Camp Meeting on Caney Creek that led to the call for missionaries, and both Thomas and James Bell pledged to support a circuit rider at the second Caney Creek Camp Meeting in September, 1835.   A previous post (Feb. 5, 2012) relates the story of how Stevens and Hoes were guided through the night by Thomas Bell’s leading family devotions.

The deed of gift is particularly valuable as an historic document.  It tells us that the tract is on Piney Creek “down from the camp ground.”  We know from other deed records that William Medford bought 300 adjacent acres “where he now lives”  from Bell the previous October.  Medford had been admitted O.T. in the Missouri Conference and rode circuits in Indiana, Illinois, and Arkansas (all part of the Missouri Conference at one time) before locating and moving to Texas.  He was also a participant in the 1834 Caney Creek Camp Meeting. 

The trustees named in the deed are also of considerable interest.  Local preachers John Wesley Kenney and Henry Matthews both appear as trustees.  Kenney lived about five miles to the north and Matthews divided his time between San Felipe and Houston.  Several of the trustees (Josiah Crosby, Madison Davis, Edward Cabler) names also appear as trustees on the deed to the Methodist church at Washington, executed by Martin Ruter in Feb. 1838.   Another Piney Creek Trustee, Robert Chappell was a also a trustee of Rutersville College

William Medford and Abel Stevens witnessed the signatures on the deed. Although Medford was a local preacher, by this date  he was also an assistant county clerk of Austin County and, in that position was very helpful to other Methodists trying to prove valid land claims.

The tract on Piney was the not the last of Bell’s land donations.  In 1846 the state legislature responded to local petitions seeking the removal of the county seat of Austin County from San Felipe to a more convenient central location.  San Felipe, which had been Stephen F. Austin’s colonial headquarters, had been burned during the revolution and never really recovered.  New settlers preferred the sandy forested uplands and rolling Fayette Prairie of northern Austin County to the poorly drained, unhealthy coastal plains surrounding San Felipe. 

Thomas Bell offered a 108 acre tract for the new county seat.  His main rival was David Ayres who offered property at Centre Hill.  The Methodist property on Piney Creek was about half way between the two tracts. 

On December 23, 1846 the voters chose Bell’s offer over Centre Hill.  A surveyor surveyed the Bell tract into lots, and in 1848, Bellville was founded.  David Ayres moved to Galveston and remained a stalwart of Texas Methodism for the rest of his long life.

Methodists  realized they needed a location in town rather than on Piney Creek.  They sold the Bell donation tract and built a church in town.  Bellville UMC traces its origin to that church.


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