GEORGE CRETIEN Tells About Early Dallas

“My parents, Athanaso and Augustine Cretien, came to Texas with the French colonists, who settled Reunion, near Cement City, arriving here May 10, 1856, seventy years ago this year (1926),” said George Cretien, 647 North Tyler street. “The colonists left France in January or February of that year, were sixty days on the ocean and thirty days making the trip in ox wagons from Houston to Dallas. Three months after their arrival, that is, on Aug. 11, I was born. My mother, who had been reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the object of which, being in line with the sentiment that had moved the colonists to seek a home in the wilderness of Texas, made such a profound impression on her, that she named me for Old George, the kindly negro character in that book. The French people at that time were without any of the prejudice that prevailed in this country against the negroes as a race. They viewed them as enslaved human beings, with freedom justly coming to them.

George Cretien of La Reunion

George Cretien of La Reunion

End of Reunion.
According to Cretien, “It is unnecessary to go into the history of the colony, since The News has already given a circumstantial account of its rise and fall. The horizon of my childhood must have enclosed a very beautiful country. I can still see the hills and prairies covered with greenery, gemmed with bright flowers and animated with cattle, horses, deer, turkeys and prairie chickens, and can see the people leaving the settlement, family after family. Some of them, upon realizing that they could not make a living in the colony, returned to France, but the majority of them secured employment in Dallas or Texas.

Father, who was a carpenter, found plenty of work in Dallas after the great fire, which destroyed the town in 1860. I have no recollection of the fire, further than that it was supposed to have been started by negro slaves, and I suspect that that theory of it reached me long after the event. While still retaining his home at Reunion, father moved temporarily to Dallas in the fall of 1861, renting a room from Maxime Guillot on the northwest corner of Elm and Houston streets. We lived there during the winter of 1861-1862, and moved back to Reunion in the spring of 1862. I recall only a few trifling incidents of our first winter in Dallas, such as the flight of a redbird across the river at the foot of Elm street and a dead calf, which seemed to me to be repose itself. We occupied our old home at Reunion until 1863, when we were the only remaining family, and the colony may be said to have ended when we moved to Dallas that year and took part of the dwelling of A. J. Gouffe, a Frenchman, on the northwest corner of Main and Lamar streets, the site of which, is now included in the Sanger Building.

Original Village of Dallas.
“We lived with Mr. Gouffe until father could build him a dwelling on the south side of Main street, between Market and Austin, which we occupied six or seven years. In 1868, the village of Dallas was confined to the courthouse square, with a number of dwellings irregularly scattered through the post oaks on the three sides of it. There were four streets, one on each side of the courthouse, each just one block in length. Footpaths and roads wound away in all directions from the town through the woods. The ground was a fine sand, light enough in dry weather to be tossed aloft by the slightest breeze, and sticky enough in wet weather to bog man, beast or wagon.

It must have been infected with the qualities of the famous black waxy soil, a little farther out. There were ponds here and there through the woods, which were full of ducks and geese in winter. I played on the margin of the pond at Main and Austin streets, and, since it was just across the road from our house, it has a conspicuous place in my memory. The movement of great herds of cattle began about 1870. On their passage from the south, they were converged at Dallas, as being the best place to cross the river, which they waded or swam, according to the requirements of the stage of the stream. Herds of 2,000 or 3,000 wild longhorns were driven right through the village, without protest, so far as I know, from the people. Sometimes, they would stampede, tearing down fences and overrunning yards and gardens, to say nothing of endangering the lives of the inhabitants.

Prisoner Burns Way Out.
“I do not remember a great deal about the early merchants. Judge J. M. Patterson and Jack Smith were partners in a general store on the northwest corner of Main and Houston streets. William Murphy was among the early merchants, but at this distance, I am unable to locate his store. Wallace Peak, elder brother of June, Victor and Worth Peak, conducted a queensware store on the north side of Main street, between Jefferson and Market, and it was the only store in town that did not face the courthouse. I remember I was puzzled to know exactly what was meant by queensware, being too timid to ask anyone. The hotels were the Crutchfield House on Main street, and the City Hotel, a two-story, on the southeast corner of Commerce and Jefferson streets, afterward called the St. Charles.

Jerry Brown was one of the early Sheriffs, but I can not recall the years he was in office, or who preceded or succeeded him. Judge Nat M. Burford and Judge Hardin Hart were Judges of the District Court, I think. Many anecdotes, in regard to the humor and eccentricities of Judge Hart, went the rounds. Judge Z. E. Coombes was on the bench, County Judge, I suspect. Col. John C. McCoy was a prominent lawyer and greatly beloved citizen. The county jail was a 20×20-foot log structure, with a heavy door, studded with nails, on the east side of Houston street, between Jackson and Wood. It was destroyed by fire in 1868 or 1869. There was but one prisoner in it at the time, who, oppressed by solitary confinement, undertook to burn his way to liberty. But, the flames grew so hot around him, that he was the first to give the alarm by bawling for help. He was rescued, but failed to get away. I think his offense amounted to no more than a misdemeanor. In those days, the people were apprised of a fire by the ringing of all the bells in town, and by the discharge of firearms. My parents did not permit me to go to the fire, and I had to content myself with looking at the red sky above the burning building.

Prof. Hanna’s School.
“Prof. John Hanna was one of the pioneer school teachers. I was one of his pupils for two years, in the Christian Church, the site of which was, in more recent years, occupied by the old Katy freight depot on Pacific avenue. Prof. Hanna was a noted educator, and I am satisfied he deserved all the fame he acquired, though, I did not appreciate him at the time. Many of the boys and girls who were my schoolmates at this school are still living, among them: Tom Scott, Victor Peak, H. H. Smith, Mrs. H. H. Smith, Juliet Harwood (now Mrs. J. J. Collins), J. W. Burton, Judge W. N. Coombes, Fayette Smith, Will Ferguson of Dallas, and Mrs. Kanaday of Denton. The late Ripley Harwood, of Dallas, and the late Dr. Bacon Sanders, a surgeon of Fort Worth, also attended Prof. Hanna’s school. I have no distinct recollection of the churches in Dallas in the ’60s. I remember when the Episcopal Church, on the northwest corner of Elm and Lamar streets, was built, and when the Rev. Mr. Davenport became rector of it. My impression is that the Methodist Church, at Commerce and Lamar streets, was erected after we came to Dallas, but am not sure.

Two Old-Time Tragedies.
“As a small boy, I was horrified by two tragedies. In the summer of 1869, a man charged with horse theft, broke and ran as Deputy Sheriff Ben Long was taking him from the jail to the courthouse for trial. The officer fired, and the fugitive fell face down in the tall Bermuda grass that made the courthouse yard green. I saw the relatives or friends of the man haul his body away in a spring wagon. I never heard his name, if indeed anybody knew it. I was working as apprentice in a barber shop on the east side of the courthouse square when Charles Webb killed Charles Johnson, a merchant, in front of the Crutchfield House in 1871. I heard two shots, almost together, and that was all. Johnson fell, shot through the groin, and died a few hours later. Johnson’s bullet had taken away part of Webb’s chin. Johnson was the partner of Dr. Keaton in a general store on the east side of the courthouse. Webb’s lawyers managed to keep him from coming to trial for some time, and finally got a change of venue, and on the way to the other county seat, his friends rescued him from the officers, and he never more was heard of in this part of the country.

Village Gets Wild and Woolly.
“Dallas was as quiet, law-abiding a community, as could be desired, until outsiders began to pour in in anticipation of the railroads, which were heading this way. Then, it began to fill up with saloons, gamblers and dance halls, wild men and wilder women. But even then, it was no worse, and no better than any other boom frontier settlement. It seems that it takes all that sort of extravagance and waste of exuberance, properly, to launch a metropolis,” according to George Cretien.

September 12, 1926 article from The Dallas Morning News, transcribed by Jim Wheat for his Dallas County Archives collection. Photo of George Cretien courtesy Eloise Santerre.