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Texas Trails: James Briton Bailey

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Aug. 2, 2012 - A man named James Briton Bailey was already here when Stephen F. Austin started his colony in Texas. Austin, with all the authority vested in him as an empresario, told Bailey he had to leave. Bailey told Austin that wasn't going to happen. History proved him right.

We know that Brit, as he was usually called, was born in 1779, and was a veteran of the War of 1812. Brit liked to drink and he liked to fight, and he reportedly did a lot of both. He bragged that he whipped every adult male in Stephen F. Austin's colony at least once. He was not a man of who was said: "He left behind many friends with warm memories of the time spent in his company." Eulogies were more likely along the lines of, "He bust my mouf."

We don't know a lot about Bailey's early life in North Carolina, Kentucky and Tennessee. To that we can add what we don't know about his later life in Texas. And we don't necessarily believe everything we think we do know. But, here's the thing: If his legend has survived this long, what we don't know is probably more interesting than what we do.

Most accounts list Brit Bailey as marrying twice and fathering 11 children, six with his first wife, who died, and five more with her sister, his second wife. We don't know what became of all of his children. One, Smith Bailey, is said to have died at the Alamo. Brit had already been in Texas for 18 years when the battle took place. For the previous four years, since 1832, he had been standing in his grave; he didn't even take death lying down. More about that later.

Brit and his family landed in Galveston in 1818, and traveled to a spot on the Brazos River and stayed there. Brit always said he bought the land fair and square from the Spanish government but there is -- and probably never was -- any record of that. Still, Bailey didn't respond kindly to an eviction notice from Austin. Actually, he didn't respond to it at all.

Austin eventually went to meet with Brit personally and found a rugged old man wielding a rifle. The two talked things over. Austin asked Brit if it was true he was an ex-convict. "T'aint that I'm ashamed of," he replied. "It's the term I served in the Kentucky legislature which sits heavy on my conscience."

His crime, he said, was forgery but he saw it more as an act of revenge than law breaking. Kentucky officials interpreted the act differently. So, there he was in Austin, explaining it to Stephen F. Austin about it.

Austin and Bailey formed an uneasy alliance. Austin recognized Bailey's claim and even appointed him a lieutenant in the militia; he was later promoted to captain. Brit Bailey was present at what is considered the first battle of the Texas Revolution, the Battle of Velasco, just months before he died in 1832.

Contrary to rumors that he died of "pure meanness," cholera took old Brit Bailey in December of 1832. When he sensed that the end was near he issued directions that he be buried standing up so no one could say, "There lies ol' Brit Bailey." He also asked to be buried facing west, as he had been migrating in that direction all his life; and he wanted his favorite rifles and pistols and enough ammunition to last him, well, an eternity. Asked why he needed such weaponry he replied, "I am a rude man, and know not whom I may meet in another world. I wish to be prepared, as usual, for all enemies."

Brit wanted one other thing - a jug of whiskey. It's widely believed that he got everything in his grave that he wanted, except for the whiskey. Maybe the preacher talked his wife out of it, or the slaves who dug his grave might have, uh, forgotten to put the moonshine in the grave with him. For whatever reason, it's widely believed the jug of whiskey never made it to the grave.

Almost as soon as ol Brit wasn't around anymore, people started claiming that he was. The couple that bought the old homestead swore they saw his apparition quite often. To this day, a strange light is said to haunt Bailey's Prairie and it's believed to be old Brit Bailey, looking for his jug of whiskey.

The light sometimes follows people along the highway, and there is at least one reported shootout with the light, though there is no evidence that the light shot back. Maybe the light doesn't belong to Brit Bailey, after all. If Brit Bailey had anything to do with the light, I think it would have returned fire.

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