Category Archives: Bird Holland

The Death of Bird Holland

Bird Holland is the most enigmatic member of the Holland family.

As an executive in state government, his signature is plentiful on state documents. But very little personal correspondence still exists. And while the letters and memoirs of other early Texas figures tell us Bird Holland was well liked personally, there is little to tell us about his personality. If there was an official portrait of Bird Holland as either a former state House member or as secretary of state, it was lost when the Texas Capitol burned to the ground in 1881.

Perhaps most striking is how little there is within his own family. Letters and diaries make mention of him; not a whole lot more. Late in life, he became a member of William Rust’s family by marriage to one of Rust’s daughters. He remained close to William Rust, although Bird’s wife died just 10 months after their wedding. When Bird Holland was killed at the Battle of Pleasant Hill, Rust received his diaries and had correspondence from him. The Rust family preserved none of it.

Maybe it is because Bird Holland had a family by a slave, and his seven mixed-race children were a family secret. Whatever was his relationship with the slave Matilda, he demonstrated affection for his children. Three boys — William, James and Milton — were sent to live free in Ohio, and Bird paid an abolitionist school to rear and educate them for trades. For a daughter and his youngest son — Eliza and John — Bird included them in his will with verbal instructions to his friend James F. Johnson that they were to receive all the cash money of his estate and all debts he was owed. After Bird’s death, Johnson helped Eliza and John sue a corrupt Texas Ranger to collect several thousand dollars that he owed them.

As Texas Secretary of State in 1861, Bird Holland signed the new state constitution that officially made Texas a part of the Confederate States of America. When he left office nine months later he joined voluntary infantry forces that were being put together to repel an expected federal invasion on the Texas coast. Ultimately, the fight occurred in Louisiana in 1864 at the battles of Mansfield and Pleasant Hill.

At a later date, I’ll blog about those two battles and Bird’s specific role in them as the adjutant of the 22nd Texas Volunteer Infantry. (A note on the re-enactment video, the Texas flag is for the 12th Texas Cavalry, but there were no re-enactors for the 22nd TVI, so it had to do.)

On April 9, 1864, at the Battle of Pleasant Hill, Louisiana, Bird Holland was killed in action, fighting to save Texas from an invading Union army. He also was fighting to preserve slavery, a contradiction for a man with slave-born children, some of whom he had freed.

Bird Holland was about 49 years old when he died in battle.

Launching the story of Bird Holland’s family

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.