Captain John Hart, Part 2

John Hart and Holland Coffee entered into a dispute over land that became complicated and lengthy. This dispute included Coffee’s one-time partner, Silas Colville. Historical accounts do not portray any of these men as particularly law abiding. Texas was a three-year-old country in 1839. The land dispute between Coffee and Hart appears to have been a case of Coffee taking over Hart’s land after Hart’s tenant was killed without Hart’s permission and possibly Hart’s knowledge until it was too late.

Coffee and Colville hailed from Tennessee and established a trading company in Ft. Smith, Arkansas, in 1829. The company sponsored a fur trapping expedition in 1833 into the Red River territory in Texas and Oklahoma and eventually opened several trading posts in Oklahoma and on the Red River. By September 1837, Coffee and Colville had established a trading post in today’s Preston Bend on Lake Texoma.

Coffee was reputed to be respected by Indians of several tribes. The Texas Congress conducted an investigation in Coffee’s Indian trading operations for trading the Indians whiskey and guns for stolen cattle in 1837. Having known Sam Houston since his Ft. Smith days, Coffee smoothed over his relations with Texas, and Houston appointed Coffee as an Indian Agent. Coffee and Colville also ransomed an American woman, a child, and two boys taken by Indians from the Colorado River in Texas in 1837.

The description of the disputed tract of land between Hart and Coffee reads:

Texas Red River, Sept. 28, 1837

"Know all men by these presents that I, George Ivey, of Red River District has bargained and sold and delivered unto Holland Coffee all my right title interest and claim to an improvement lying on the south side of Red River near the junction of the Fauc Washata on the Place. George Ivey now lives embracing the privileges of holding one league of land the right whereof I warrant and defend from the claim or claims of any person or persons in consideration of the sum of three hundred and fifty dollars.

Hart and the Baker brothers also claimed and proved up land in the same area. Hart said that Coffee took possession of his land after his tenant was killed, and that he had the land surveyed. However, the county surveyor, Daniel Montague, did not or would not enter the survey as official. During the lawsuit that Hart filed against Coffee, the court visited the site of the dispute with the litigants. Hart lost his case, and Coffee retained the rights to the land. Evidently, this loss created bad blood between Hart and Coffee and Colville."

Coffee and Colville dissolved their partnership in 1839 around the time Coffee married Sophia Suttenfield Aughinbaugh. Two years later Hart ran into Colville in Warren, Oklahoma, in the spring of 1841 where Colville ended Hart’s life. (1,2) The following is from a letter Colville wrote to his brother, Dr. John Young, who was the Secretary of State of Tennessee at the time.

July 10, 1842

The affair between Capt. John Hart and myself took place about the first of May 14, in which I acted on the defensive and Hart fell, a victim a misguided and overbearing disposition. The relatives of Hart in this country are numerous and partake a good deal of the disposition of the unfortunate deed. They are a lawless set and have always carried their points by violence. Since the affair between their leader and myself they have watched my path for an opportunity to assassinate me up to the time of my trial, since which time their anger has greatly subsided. Public opinion was much in my favor that it seems to have cowed them.

My trial took place on the 1st Monday of May last. Judge Terrell, formerly a lawyer of Tennessee but a native of S. Carolina, presided. The trial was short but created a great deal of excitement. The friends of both parties were on the court yard armed and equipt (not according to law but according to custom). The verdict of the jury and the judge of the court and the warm congratulations of the spectators who were anxiously awaiting the issue proclaimed me justifiable. (3)

Silas Colville’s death turned into an unsolved mystery. Coffee and Colville remained friends after the dissolution of their business partnership. In Nacogdoches, Texas, on January 10, 1843, Colville declared Coffee his attorney before a chief justice. An unknown assailant stabbed Colville to death in 1844. We don’t know where he was killed or buried. His will was probated in old Fannin County. Some sources believe Colville was killed by factions of the Hart clan, and others think maybe Indians killed him.

So that was the end of Captain John Hart’s story, but his two sons, Hardin and Martin Hart carried on with just as exciting of a history.

John Hart's Orphan Boys

When Colville killed Hart in 1841, the only two children, Martin and Hardin, John brought with him from up north were minors. Hart’s estate sued Daniel Montague for improperly recording field notes to the disputed property between Coffee and Hart. The court ruled in Montague’s favor, but it was seen as an unjust ruling. Coffee was attached at the hip to the government of the country of Texas, land rich, and owned many slaves. It appeared that the two orphaned boys had not a chance to win. However, both Hart boys became lawyers and practiced law in Hunt County, Texas.

Martin Hart

Martin married Mary Ann Green in 1842 and they had five children. In 1849, Martin and Hardin moved to Hunt County. By 1860, the tax rolls showed Martin as the second richest man in the county with 5,000 acres worth $20,542. In 1857, Martin served a two-year term in the Texas House of Representatives. Martin became state senator in 1859. In 1860, the secessionist movement washed over Texas, a U.S. state for only 15 years. Martin Hart held a grudge against slave owners possibly because both he and his father had lost his land to Coffee who held many slaves. Martin used his political power to conduct some tricky maneuvers during the Civil War.

Martin publicly opposed the secession as a senator. When Texas seceded, he resigned as senator. Martin raised a company in Hunt County to fight for the South. He was elected captain of his company, the Greenville Guards, mounted volunteers, and vowed his services to Governor Clark “"in defense of Texas whenever she is invaded or threatened with invasion". In the summer of 1862, Martin’s company received a Confederate commission to operate in northwest Arkansas.

The Greenville Guards marched officially through Confederate lines straight to a Union stronghold to receive its commission to act as guerilla fighters for the Union Army. Martin received his company’s Union commission in Missouri and Kansas. The consensus is that Martin and his men wreaked murderous havok in Arkansas killing farmers and destroying farms.

John Taylor, commander of Troops on the Frontier of Texas received this report from his Brigadier General William Steele which in part reads:

“ I have no cavalry force, and nothing to subsist it with if I had one. This force of the enemy, I have no doubt, is being rapidly augmented from the Unionists...and the deserters from General Hindman’s army. The topography of the country where these parties operate is of such character as to render pursuit useless...The chief object of this, however is to inform you that this lawless band is under the command of Martin D. Hart, formerly a member of the Texas senate, from Hunt County, and who now represents himself as a captain in the First Texas Regiment (Federal). I am satisfied that communication is being kept up between Hart and Abolition sympathizer in Northern Texas…”

In a letter written the same day to General Cooper, Steele wrote a detailed account of Hart’s actions:

“Several of the most respectable citizens of the VAlley of the Arkansas have been murdered...These men seem to be well armed and mounted...Last night there was a party...killing and robbing, and on yesterday there was a party of some 50 the direction of Waldron...It is desirable that you should keep a close watch upon all channels of communication leading to Texas...You must have all trains passing well guarded, and keep up through the country south of this as active a system of scouting as possible...”

We do not really know how Martin Hart, his First Lieutenant J. W. Hays, and some followers were captured because of the broken communication lines during the Civil War. We do know that these men were captured by Confederate troops from Texas and taken to Ft. Smith, Arkansas, where Hart and Hays were court martialed and then hanged on January 18, 1863. They were buried in unmarked graves under the tree they were hanged from but later exhumed and moved to the National Cemetery in Ft. Smith in 1864 with headstones purchased by Unionists and federal soldiers. (4,5,6)

Hardin Hart

Hardin was not recorded as being actively involved in the Civil War or Union sympathizer activities, but he was a Union sympathizer. At the end of the war during reconstruction, Hardin was appointed District Judge of the Sixteenth Judicial District. The Dallas Herald reported on December 29, 1867, that Judge Hart ruled that the stay of execution law was unconstitutional in all cases, civil and criminal, and that executions may issue at once in all civil cases. This and his sympathies to federal reconstruction mandates made Hardin one of the most hated men in Texas.

When Hardin was going to Bonham from Greenville, Texas, in 1869 with military guards, his party was attacked, and one of Hardin’s arms had to be amputated aftwards. The Galveston Daily News reported that Judge Hardin Hart died on October 5, 1883, of a prolonged illness. (4, 7)


Martin D. Hart


2. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly
Vol. 69, No. 2 (Oct., 1965), pp. 145-162
Published by: Texas State Historical Association
Audrey J. and Glenna Middlebrooks authors
4. Landrum, Graham. Grayson County; an illustrated history of Grayson County, Texas. Page: 70-72
7. The Galveston Daily News. Galveston Texas. Hardin Hart Obituary. Oct. 6, 1883, page 2.

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