David Towns’s signature barely changed in the quarter century between his 1811 marriage (top) and 1835 petition (bottom)
So what did all this mean for the Towns family? On the one hand, they were among the American newcomers, but as a multiracial family, they represented something many of their Anglo neighbors would have frowned upon. Where did they fit in?
Stephen Austin, now known as the father or founder of Texas, was also an empresario like Haden Edwards, but unlike some of the others, was loyal to the Mexican government. When revolution seemed all but inevitable, he stepped in to mediate, but was instead arrested. This incident was the final straw that prompted the Americans to declare war on November 7, 1835.
Just a few months later in the spring of 1836, the Republic of Texas was born, so the Towns family had lived in Edwards’s Fredonia, Mexico’s state of Coahuila y Tejas, and now the Republic of Texas, all within the space of a decade and without moving.
Once again, they stayed put indicating that David Towns had sided with his fellow Americans. He and his family members began to appear regularly in Nacogdoches, Texas tax rolls starting in 1837, and in 1838, they sought and received compensation from the new republic.
So the transition had been a smooth one for the Townses. In spite of the fact that an estimated 13,000 slaves were already in Texas at the time of its formation, they – as a mixed race and free family – were accepted, right?
Not So Fast
In 1836, almost immediately after independence, Texas stripped free people of color of their citizenship and the rights associated with it. Furthermore, they could not stay in the republic without the consent of Congress.
Put yourself in David’s shoes. For the sake of Sophie and their children, he had moved from Virginia to Louisiana to Mexico where he had already weathered three changes of flag. He was no longer a young man. In fact, his oldest children were starting to have children of their own. Now what?
Presumably in a near constant state of anxiety, the Towns family endured yet another round of uncertainty until the following year when Sam Houston approved a joint resolution for the “relief of Free Persons of Color” stating that, “all free Africans or descendants of Africans, who were residing within the republic of Texas at the date of the declaration of Independence, and their natural issue, are hereby granted and allowed the privilege of remaining in any part of the republic as long as they choose.”
Well, not quite. Memories were short and many soon forgot the contributions of African Americans to the republic’s independence. The situation deteriorated as Texas introduced a series of laws that prohibited interracial marriage, and in general, began to impose hardships previously restricted to slaves on free persons of color.
The pressure must have been too much for Sophie who passed away in 1838. Maybe it was for the best that she didn’t live until February 1840 when the 1836 legislation was resurrected, and this time, the clock was ticking. All free persons of color were given until January 1, 1842 to leave Texas unless they were able to get Congress to exempt them. If they failed to do this and did not leave, they would be sold “at public sale, to the highest bidder.”
So barring an act of Congress specific to the Towns family, Miranda’s 4th great-grandfather, John Towns – who had been born free and lived his entire life in Nacogdoches – was now subject to slavery, as were all his siblings, nieces and nephews.
Exile or Slavery?
Confronted with this dire scenario, David did the only thing he could. His family had too much vested in this place, so he petitioned for an act of Congress. The names and ages of all his children were spelled out, and on behalf of all of them, the document stated:
“… it is with extreme sorrow that they find by an act of the last Congress, they are allowed but a short time longer to remain within the limits of this Republick, unless your honourable bodies will, as is allowable by said act, relieve your petitioners from its operation, and by a measure of kindness and generosity permit them to remain in a land endeared to them by almost every tie that can bind the affections to any country.”
Though it may well have been standard legal verbiage, it turns the stomach today to read the kowtowing language of this request. Phrases such as “most humbly beseech” and “will continue to behave in a proper and becoming manner, and cheerfully comply with and fulfill such duties and obligations as may by law be imposed upon them” can’t help but make the reader wince. After all, all they wanted to do was stay in their home.
For what it’s worth, David’s family was not the only one placed into this no-win situation and he was able to find help. It is somewhat heartening that some white neighbors were appalled that long-time residents were being forced to choose between exile or slavery, and a number stepped up to add their names. In fact, the signatories on David’s paperwork read like a “Who’s Who” of early Texas history. Thomas Jefferson Rusk and Charles S. Taylor fashioned the plea, and others who signed on included Haden Edwards (yes, back again), Adolphus Sterne (whose home can still be visited), and James H. Durst. Such support strongly reinforces the notion that David had been on the American side during the Texas Revolution.