Original work began November 2017
As memorials to Confederate figures and slavers continue to be removed from public and otherwise challenged, a common refrain is that by doing this, we’re forgetting our history or erasing it.
This is, of course, disingenuous, but it reminded me how little I know about the namesake of Ector County: Mathew Duncan Ector. So I went looking.
I found that my home county is named after a Confederate general and Texas judge most notable for re-affirming anti-interracial marriage laws post-Reconstruction.
As part of the Southern effort to kill hundreds of thousands of fellow Americans in order continue keeping millions of fellow Americans in chattel slavery, Mathew Ector rose to the rank of brigadier general in the Confederate army until he was wounded at the Battle of Chickamauga, resulting in the amputation of part of his left leg. [link] [link]
Perhaps unsurprisingly, most memorials and plaques to him are centered on his military actions, for example, the 1963 historical marker [link] placed in county seat Odessa, Texas:
Enlisted 1861. Lieutenant 3rd Texas Cavalry. Fought Arkansas, Missouri and Indian territory. As colonel led 14th Texas Cavalry Kentucky invasion. Made brigadier general 1862 to command famed Ector’s brigade in Tennessee and Mississippi battles. Wounded four times without leaving Chickamauga field. Under constant fire 70 days in Georgia. Lost leg in Atlanta 1864. Assigned to defense of Mobile, Alabama. A memorial to Texans who served the Confederacy erected by the state of Texas 1963,
A second marker [link], placed in 1964, refers to the creation of the county itself but includes the curious phrase “Outstanding Jurist”, which took some digging into.
Created February 26, 1887 from Tom Green County organized January 15, 1891, named in honor of Matthew Duncan Ector 1822-1879. Member of the Texas legislature a confederate officer and outstanding jurist Odessa, The County Seat.
(He spelled his name with only one “t”, after his mother’s father [link], but it shows up even on plaques with the more common spelling.)
The Texas State Historical Association has articles about Mathew Ector and about Ector’s Brigade [link][link], and those are about the most complete biographical information written about him, albeit highly simplified and often slipping into Confederate apologism.
Just after the Civil War, Ector won an election for district judge, but in 1867 the United States military government removed him from that position due to being a “Southern obstructionist”.
Ector had won his district judge election in 1866 before federal Republicans and an occupying military had successfully extended the franchise to Black men, so his first judgeship and removal occurred in the context of white resentment and violence toward formerly enslaved people [link]. Other than the 1866 election being illegitimate for that reason and, perhaps, lying about whether men sworn-in to serve on a jury actually had been Unionists during the war, I haven’t found a source to detail what he did during that year.
The specific phrase “Southern obstructionist” seems to come directly from a short chapter of flowery prose [link] from The Bench and Bar of Texas [link], written in 1885 by James Daniel Lynch [link], a Confederate private and later anti-Reconstruction writer [link].
Ector claimed not to be an obstructionist, of course. He wrote more than once to President Ulysses S. Grant, first to the then-general in 1866 for endorsement of a pardon regarding his part in the war, then Oct. 10, 1867, because the Union military generals in charge had removed him as an elected district judge on the basis of “Known Hostility to the General Government” [link].
But Ector claims:
I positively assert that since I have been upon the bench I have taken no part in politics and have had as little to say about such matters as possible.
Grant favored the pardon but had no opinion on restoring him as a district judge. Ector went back to private practice till 1874 when the state legislature removed his replacement, District Judge John B. Williamson. A known “impediment to reconstruction” Governor Richard Coke appointed Ector to fill it, so he was obviously considered by his peers to be a good, safe Southern legislator. As Southern revanchists reasserted their power in Texas, their new constitution in 1876 created the Texas Court of Appeals in an effort to get around the existing Texas Supreme Court and its anti-Confederate justices [link]. That structure remains to this day.
A challenge to pre-Civil War anti-miscegenation laws came to the Texas Court of Appeals in 1877, circumventing the Texas Supreme Court’s rulings that such laws violated the 14th and 15th amendments [link] [link].
Marriage is not a contract protected by the constitution of the United States or any of its amendments. It is a civil status under the control of the states, and the existence of the relation and the rights, obligations, and duties arising out of it are to be determined exclusively by state laws.The provision of the Texas code making marriage of a white person to a negro an indictable offense is not repugnant to or avoided by the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments to the constitution of the United States, or the legislation of Congress under them.The fact that by the code the penalty is imposed on the white person only, does not make it obnoxious to the Civil Rights Bill.
The opinion later quotes that exact Texas law, article 2016 of the Criminal Code passed in 1858 [link], stating that a white person couldn’t marry someone with a great-grandparent identified as Black, except on fear on imprisonment:
“If any white person shall, within this state, knowingly marry a negro, or a person of mixed blood, descended from negro ancestry to the third generation inclusive, though one ancestor of each shall have been a white person, or having so married, in or out of the state, shall continue to within this state to cohabit with such negro, or such descendant of a negro, he or she shall be punished by confinement in the penitentary not less than two nor more than five years.”
In 1879, the Texas legislature explicitly extended the punishment to Black spouses as well now that the law had to regard them as people.
This new legal conservatism coincided with political changes at the end of Reconstruction. In 1873, Texas Governor Coke, who opposed extending equal rights to Blacks, began replacing liberal state supreme court justices with conservatives (Richardson and Wallace, 1970: 224). Furthermore, conservatives took control of the legislature and in 1876 revised the state constitution to condone the segregation of Blacks. In 1877, the Texas Supreme Court heard Frasher v. The State and upheld the legislature’s right to preserve the division of the races. The decision was felt nationwide as it set a legal precedent protecting the states’ right to pass antimiscegenation laws immune from the jurisdiction of the 14th Amendment. The Court opined that the 14th Amendment did not apply to marriage because US Congress conferred on state legislatures the right to regulate marriage contracts in order to follow majority views. According to the court, if Christians in Texas by tradition have opposed the intermixture of the White and Black races, the legislature had the obligation to uphold this belief. Judge P. J. Ector offered the opinion of the Court:
In this state marriage is treated as a civil contract; but it is more than a civil contract. It is a public institution established by God himself, is recognized in all Christian and civilized nations, and is essential to the peace of happiness, and well-being of society . . . Civilized society has the power of self-preservation, and, marriage being the foundation of such society, most of the states in which the negro forms an element of any note have enacted laws inhibiting intermarriage between the white and black races. And the courts, as a general rule, have sustained the constitutionality of such statutes . . . It has always been the policy of this state to maintain separate marital relations between whites and the blacks. . . . If the people of other states desire to have an intermixture of the white and black races, they have the right to adopt such a policy. When the Legislature of this state shall declare such a policy by positive enactment, we will enforce it; until this is done, we will not give such a policy sanction.
Following the ruling, Frasher became the national precedent upholding the states’ right to regulate marriage and determine which races could intermarry (American Digest, 1902, 1949). State rights were to be upheld at all cost even if policies prevented people from marrying within their own ethnic group, or if the policies resulted in absurd practices such as prohibiting people from marrying anyone.
Otherwise, as presiding judge, I couldn’t find any especially laudable or even notable rulings up to his death in 1879 [link]. Then, there’s nothing until the county is named after him.
I’m not a scholar, so I’m limited to what work others have done or has been digitized. Ector’s first name is just as often given as “Matthew” instead of “Mathew”, plus almost all references that appear are for his part in the Civil War in a military capacity.
To a layperson like myself, other than, I suppose, some personal bravery for volunteering, fighting in multiple battles, and eventually losing a leg, he doesn’t seem especially notable in his military career considering there were literally hundreds of other Confederate brigadier generals and dozens of Texans [link].
Tom Green, Benjamin McCulloch, and H.B. Granberry had counties or cities named after them, too, but not Prince de Polignac, Sul Ross, or Richard Waterhouse.
Without access to the debate on HB 113 from Texas’ 20th Regular session [link], I can’t know what their stated criteria was. Someone could still do that in the future.
Looking at places where Ector pops up otherwise, there’s a reference to how he treated some enslaved people while administrator of his father’s estate prior to the Civil War [link].
Matthew D. Ector, as an administrator of the estate of Hugh W. Ector in Rusk County, placed three of his eight slaves ‘with the best carpenters the county could afford and this materially enhanced their value as skilled workmen.’
Ector’s father Hugh [link] seems to have died in 1835 [link], so Ector would have been 13 at the time. Rusk County is also in Texas, and if Ector was living there then, he had to get back to living in Georgia for passing the bar and his early adult career. It’s also possible the estate was in someone else’s hands till he came of age [link].
That the adminis on the estate of HUGH W ECTOR dec’d be premitted & authorized to keep the estate of said dec’d togather without division in joint common stock for the benefit of the family & heirs until the legal age or marriage of either or otherwise legally required—— and to continue to work the plantation, saw mill, balcksmith sop and carpenter at their discretion as they may think necessary.
By 1845, he’d been elected to the Georgia General Assembly as a House representative for Meriwether County [link], and other sources indicate he only served one biennial term through 1847. Although I was able to find several references to his father, I couldn’t find anything for Ector himself during this time as a Georgia House member [link].
After his first wife died in 1848, he moved to California then to Texas where he was a lawyer again but also a newspaper editor for the Henderson Democrat. He shows up in this period before the Civil War in regards to an 1860 a slave insurrection panic [link] that a fire had been intentionally set, perhaps as part of an abolitionist conspiracy [link].
Ector initially claimed he thought “negroes had but little to do with it”, but the “committee of vigilance” he was on ultimately recommended hanging at least three Black people and fretful Texans lynched at least one white person in direct relation to the panic [link].
Henderson, Aug. 7, 1860.
You have before this learned the fate of our town. All from McDonough’s Hotel to Smither’s office, taking that entire block, and from Redwine’s store to Likens’s corner, running back to the Presbyterian Church, (which was saved,) is a scene of ruin and devastation; 10 stores, 2 drug stores, 8 or 10 law offices, 2 family groceries, &c., were consumed. There was a stiff South wind blowing at the time, and in two hours at most, every house which had caught burned down. The sparks reached out fully a half mile. Judge, it is a sad picture to visit the scene, where all but yesterday was life and energy, fine buildings and every evidence of thrift and prosperity, now burnt and crumbling walls, lonely chimneys, chared [sic] shade trees, and the rubbish, as is generally to be seen after such a calamity. Owing to the failure of crops, such a misfortune never could have found us so illy prepared to meet it in a pecuniary point of view. And when we consider it has not been the result of accident, but that it was fired beyond any sort of question by some fiend in human shape, who had only acted the part allotted him in all probability, in a common purpose, to set on fire our towns and perhaps to murder or poison our citizens, it has driven us to a state of desperation which can scarcely be conceived by one who has not witnessed it. All is alarm and excitement with our women and children. Our men are in arms. The most vigilant investigation is being had. The plot was so well conceived, the time of the night, a little excitement between two gentlemen had just occurred which attracted the crowd just as our citizens were assembling at Church, and before the guard started out, the fire was put in some shape into an old shop where there had been none for months. It was burning in every part of the house at once, and in less than five minutes it was on fire all over. As yet we have not been able to find out who it was that did it, whether white or black. No traces have been discovered. My own opinion is, that the negroes had but little to do with it. I have given you these particulars in haste. I will write again soon. I see no chance for us to have a Court. We can scarcely provide for those of our people left. I would like to hear from you and advise with you. Be on your guard, for you cannot tell how soon you will share the same fate with us.
M. D. Ector.
With the tail-end of that panic coinciding with the 1860 election and slipping quickly into the American Civil War, we’re back up to his military service.
If I gloss over that, it’s only because, again, I don’t care much about the particulars what the moral equivalent of child rapists did in their war to defend systemic child rape.
Timeline in Confederate Gazette [link]
- 1822: Born in Georgia
- 1844: Passes Georgia Bar
- 1846-47: Served one term in Georgia General Assembly as representative from Meriwether County
- 1850: Settled in Texas by way of California after wife’s death in 1848 (married 1842)
- 1851: Passes Texas bar
- 1855: Elected to Texas House
- 1859: Second wife dies
- 1860: He is listed in the 1860 U.S. census as having $29,000 in property and enslaving 20 people; only 1860 Census I’ve found (for Rusk County) says 4,000 real value and 2,500 personal value [link]
- 1861-1865: American Civil War
- 1867: Wrote to President Grant, claimed to be apolitical and loyal to government [link]
- 1874: Becomes district judge again. Rules in favor or railroad companies’ fraudulent election where they paid fees for special bond [link]
- 1876: Elected to Texas Court of Appeals.
- 1879: Dies
- 1887: House bill 113 of 20th Regular Session Texas legislature passes, dividing western Tom Green county into six new counties. [link]
‘Reagan described “the four million negroes in bondage in this country … better fed better clothed, better protected from violence and wrong. better informed. more intelligent. ” than their counterparts elsewhere in the world. To free the Negro would be to destroy that ideal state. Besides, Reagan added, he found Negroes so incapable of self-government and survival that if emancipated “they would fall into such habits of idleness and vice and licentiousness as would render it necessary, for the security of society, to exterminate the greater portion of the race. ” ‘