Bird Holland was a contradiction in antebellum Texas.
He fathered seven children by a slave named Matilda, who belonged to his half brother Spearman. And from the record, we can infer that Bird loved his slave-born children.
In 1852, he moved three of his sons — William, James and Milton — to Ohio, set them free and paid abolitionists to raise them. A fourth son was too young, but Bird kept him at his side in Austin after he turned 12, the age at which Spearman was likely to sell him as a field hand.
But as a politician, Bird Holland supported continuing the institution of slavery in Texas and signed onto a resolution that described African-Americans as inferior. As Texas secretary of state, it was Bird Holland’s signature that official bound Texas to the Confederate States of America. He died leading the 22nd Texas Volunteer Infantry into the Battle of Pleasant Hill, Louisiana, on April 9, 1864.
A secret covenant of Bird Holland’s will gave the cash in his estate and debts he was owed to his son John and a slave-born daughter named Eliza. Bird’s best friend, Texas Supreme Court chief clerk James F. Johnson, helped John and Eliza collect the money they were owed. While the money did not make them rich, it was enough for them to buy a home and bring their mother to Austin from Spearman’s collapsed plantation near Carthage.
The free woman Matilda never again worked for anyone other than herself and her family. But she always listed herself as a widow.