Board of Public Labor

The board was created by a November 12, 1866, law, “Act for the Employment of Convict Labor on Works of Public Utility,” to oversee contracts for convict leases. It convened for the first time on December 19, 1866, with the following members:

  • James W. Throckmorton, Governor
  • William M. Walton, Attorney General
  • John A. Green, Secretary of State
  • W. L. Robards, Comptroller of Public Accounts
  • M. H. Royston, Treasurer

First Meeting, December 1866

The Board’s first act was to issue a notice that “bids will be received at this Office until the 1st Day of February 1867 for the surplus convicts now in the Penitentiary and such as may be hereafter delivered there.”1 The following terms governing contracts were set:

  1. Convicts would be hired for twelve months.
  2. Convicts would be hired in increments of 100 laborers at a time, if possible.
  3. Contractors would receive the convicts at Huntsville and then convey them to the work site on their own account.
  4. “Contractors, will provide comfortable quarters for the convicts and will also provide a sufficiency of wholesome rations for the party of convicts, and for the guard employed by the State to guard said convicts.”
  5. If the whole number of convicts promised to the contractor was not available, then they would be hired in tens “as they may arrive at the Penitentiary.”
  6. Payment to be made on the day the convicts were delivered.
  7. If convicts were dispersed to more than one site, contractor would have to pay for additional guard(s), to be approved by state agent.
  8. Convicts who had to be returned to the Penitentiary for “bad conduct” would be turned over the the State agent.
  9. Contractor responsible for the expense of returning convicts to Huntsville.
  10. Convicts whose terms expired during the contract would be replaced by other convicts.2
  11. Contract payments due monthly to the state treasurer.
  12. Guards, clothes, and medical treatment provided by the state. (Later bylaws suggest that there would be 18 guards for every 100 laborers, and that each guard “is required to furnish himself with a good double barrelled shot gun, and a good Navy or army sized six shooting pistol.”3)
  13. Board would appoint an agent to constantly be present with the agents and give orders to the guard, “see that the convicts are humanely treated, properly sheltered, sufficiently rationed, securely guarded, and to punish refractory convicts as provided by law.”4
  14. Any dispute between agent and contractor to be reported to the Board.
  15. Written contract would bond the contractor to payment or pay double the agreed price.
  16. A guard employed by the state would be at Huntsville to accompany each gang of convicts.

The notice for bids was to be published in the Marshall Texas Republican, the San Antonio Herald, the Houston Journal, and the Galveston Civilian, and the Board also planned to keep a roll of all the convicts leased out, partly for identification and partly so that the guards could call roll three times a day to account for all men.

The Board’s bylaws also stipulated that “the convicts will be required to labor from sunrise until such time in the evening as will enable the agent to get them safely into their quarters before drak. They shall be allowed one hour at noon for their meals, from 15th September to the 15th May, and one and half hours at noon from 15th May to 15th September in each year.”5

Second Meeting, February 1867

The Board met and awarded 100 convicts to the Air Line Railroad Company and 150 convicts to the Brazos Branch Rail Road Company. As part of the contract, the state allowed the contractors to pay monthly bills to B. A. Shepherd of Houston to the credit of the State Treasurer.6

Third Meeting, April 5, 1867

At its third meeting, the Board agreed to adjust its earlier requirement that a convict roll call be read three times a day, and instead allowed the convicts to be counted instead. A report was also received from John W. Brown, agent of the Air Line, which charged $828.85 to the state for “pay to the Agent, Physician and Guards, and bill of expenses for escape of convicts &c.”

Fourth Meeting, December 4, 1867

The Board met to terminate the contract with the Air Line due to its “failure … to make their monthly payments.”7

Miscellaneous Correspondence

Records contain a letter dated February 5, 1867, awarding a contract to Col. J. M. Camp of Navasota: “Your bid is the same of the Air Line Road. They have taken 100, and we think, that between 140 & 150 is left for you.” This could be the contract for the Brazos Branch?8

A letter to Col. James Gillespie, superintendent of the penitentiary, and dated February 15, 1867, informing him that “Mr. Sledge of the Air Line Rail Road” had received the first contract. Sledge later described as “Col. Wm. M. Sledge”

In some correspondence with Sledge, the convict laborers are referred to as “your hands.”

Letter to Agent, Major John W. Brown, at Brenham, dated April 3, 1867, thanks him for his report: “The effort to work successfully convict labor, on works of Public Utility is demonstrated, and the statement you make (confirming as it does our previous views that this was the best class of labor in the state for work on Railroads, makes it certain that in future, we will be able to get a good price for it.”9

Some letters from the Board to Smith (the agent at the Brazos Branch camp) suggest that there was some disagreement between him and Camp about how much work the guards hired by the state should be required to do and whether convicts could be required to do additional extraordinary labor such as tending mules on Sunday, as well as about rations:

Col. Camp also mentions the question of Rations. We have answered him that we hope there will be no difficulty about this. We did not adopt a “Ration,” nor did we adopt the “Penitentiary Ration” for many good reasons which will suggest themselves to you.

A fixed ration could not always be procured in the country, besides it would not have sufficient change or variety. Again, you cannot always get rations of best quality. Where this is the case you must try and make up in quantity. Thus 1 3/4 lbs. coarse corn meal is not more than equal to 1 1/4 lb. which is ground fine. 2 1/2 lbs. poor beef is not more than equal to 1 1/2 lbs. that is good. These things must be remembered, and that good feeding gets labor, and that men employed in the character of work these hands are employed in will need more food than one who works in doors. We only contended for subsistence that is sound, of good quality, sufficient in quantity, and of sufficient variety to prevent disease.10

Letter from the Board to Brown (the Air Line agent), dated May 7, 1867, concludes by stating that the Board

cannot for a moment entertain the idea of purchasing the hounds. It is better that the convicts all escape than resort to such means of keeping them, unless you should have the special permission of the military. Nor can we recognize any other punishment upon the convicts for refractory conduct than that recognized by the by-laws. To that extent you should have no hesitation in going in case of necessity, but no further.

In a letter to J. W. Brown, dated May 6, 1867, discussing some sick convicts, several convicts’ names are listed:

Number Name
11 Jack Dudd
16 Frank
36 Jordan
38 John Gordon
74 John Terrell
76 Andy Vining

Two other named convicts are George Trenton (who escaped) and George Tucker.

Towards the end of May it appears that a number of convicts on the Air Line had escaped because the Board gave instructions about posting handbills for their recapture, with rewards of $20 each. But in a May 24 letter to Smith, the Board again stated that it would

refuse to have anything to do with the dog question. It may be proper, but they do no feel warranted in giving the direction. I am satisfied that if you think it necessary, and so report, they will be willing to [make] a reasonable expenditure providing the express permission of the military could be attained. They will not authorize the matter nor will they ask the permission of the military or authorize any person to do so. My opinion is that if Col. Camp will make the representation on his own account and get express written authority for the purpose suggested the Board will act favorably, not without.

  1. Records of the Board of Public Labor, TSLAC. These records are loose-leaf pages from a once bound ledger volume, and fill only one folder.

  2. Late contract formed with Air Line and Brazos Branch stipulated that “if during the continuance of the contract, the terms of any of the convicts shall expire, or they shall be pardoned, or shall die, other convicts will be delivered to fill the number, and the time lost will be deducted” from the payments owed by the contractor. Contract with Air Line and Brazos Branch Rail Road, February 1, 1867, Records of the Board, TSLAC.

  3. Records of the Board, TSLAC.

  4. Records of the Board, TSLAC. Later bylaws stipulate that punishments could include ball or chain, placing in stocks, or in extreme cases return to the Penitentiary. First agent at Navasota appears to have been Capt. Wm. L. Smith

  5. Records of the Board, TSLAC.

  6. Contract with Air Line and Brazos Branch Rail Road, February 1, 1867, Records of the Board, TSLAC.

  7. Records of the Board of Public Labor, TSLAC.

  8. Records of the Board, TSLAC.

  9. Records of the Board, TSLAC.

  10. Board to Capt. W. L. Smith, State Agent, Navasota, April 29, 1867, Records of the Board, TSLAC. These disagreements apparently continued, since on May 10 the Board wrote again reiterating “that we do not recognize the authority of the Company to fix a ration for the guard and convicts, nor their right to distribute the labor or guards in and about the work on the Road without your concurrence and consent. … Much as we dislike making a breach with the company, we will have no hesitation in doing so upon a showing that they will not comply with their contract, and should the company be tired of their contract, we can easily dispose of the convicts elsewhere.”