Adversity, it is said, is the truest test of character. When times are flush and problems scarce, few will have to find a way to rise to the occasion when the occasion has risen for them. Gov. Joseph Sayers was a man who faced many crises in his life and faced even greater crises as governor as the state weathered a number of natural disasters. Even in the face of disaster, Sayers found ways to pave a path forward for Texas.
Joseph Draper Sayers was born in Granada, in northern Mississippi, in 1841. It was a family of farmers, as most families were at that time. Tragedy befell the family while he was still young. His mother died in 1851; and as a result, his distraught father moved him and his younger brother to Texas to start over. Eventually, the family settled in the Bastrop area, and the two brothers both attended the Bastrop Military Institute.
When the Civil War erupted, he and his brother both enlisted in the Confederate army. As it turned out, Sayers would become one of the last Civil War veterans to serve as Texas governor. He served in the 5th Texas Cavalry and was noted for his bravery in actions in New Mexico and Louisiana. The war put his life in danger often, but he pressed on in the face of steadily advancing Union armies. He was twice wounded in combat and rose to the rank of major before the Confederate surrender in 1865.
After returning to Bastrop, Sayers decided not to live a life of bitterness and regret but instead chose to give back to the community and build a future. Though Sayers never attended college himself, he nevertheless continued his own education and worked to bring opportunities to others. He opened a school in Bastrop and began studying law at night. Within a year, he gained admission to the state bar and began practicing law.
In 1872, Sayers was elected to the state senate and steadily moved up the political ladder. He would go on to serve as chairman of the State Democratic Committee; and in 1878, he was elected lieutenant governor. He was elected to the first of seven terms in Congress in 1884, eventually rising to chair the House Appropriations Committee for the 1893-1894 term, one of the most coveted and respected positions in Congress. In 1898, he was elected as the state’s 22nd governor.
In the spring of 1899, Texas faced major flooding as spring rains relentlessly soaked the state. The Brazos River overflowed its banks, causing many people to flee for their lives. Sayers stepped forward immediately to make sure state authorities helped those in danger and later helped those rebuild. In 1900, Galveston was devastated by the deadliest hurricane in American History when more than 6,000 people died. Sayers immediately dispatched food, medicine, and state personnel to the devastated city to help survivors in the face of impending starvation, disease, and riots. Impressed with his response to these disasters and management of the state, voters re-elected Sayers in 1900.
He advocated a number of reforms as governor, most concentrating on anti-trust laws. He worked to ban railroad rebates to preferred customers, insisting customers be treated equally. Labor unions were exempted from anti-trust laws as they had become targets of many early anti-trust lawsuits. He also worked to expand education funding.
The famed Spindletop well was completed near Beaumont in 1901. The gusher well produced upward of a million barrels of oil in its first two weeks. This was the first successful oil well in the state, and the oil boom it ushered in quickly transformed the economy of the state, making Texas a major center for energy.
In 1903, with his second term at an end, Sayers quietly stepped down and resumed his law practice in Bastrop. He remained committed to serving the public in his later years. He served on the board of regents for the University of Texas as well as a number of other state boards. He met the many challenges of his times, helping the state overcome deadly disasters and brining the state into a new age. Sayers died quietly in 1929.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org