Peter Martin: The First African American Cowboy


Peter Martin’s house, which stood at the corner of Calhoun and 7th Streets. It was tragically torn down about seven or eight years ago. Photo from Shereen Sampson.

Fort Bend County has prolific stories of people who made a historical impact on society despite race, color or nationality. Settlers who had purpose and drive to be successful even when the community worked against them. Since he was a boy, Peter Martin, born a slave in the early nineteenth century, worked for Wyly Martin, a prominent rancher in Richmond. He lived a successful life and was an asset to the continued growth of Fort Bend.

After Wyly left the military in Georgia, he immigrated to Texas with Peter, who assisted him in bringing cattle from Louisiana to Austin’s Colony. In 1830, Wyly established a stock farm in Fort Bend County with 75 head of cattle. Peter developed cattle-working skills and managed the property and stock raising operations. Wyly trusted management of the property to Peter, who was so ambitious he also launched a freight-hauling business and was allowed to run it on his own.

During the Texas Revolution, Peter was an aide to Wyly and independently hauled supplies for the Texian Army. Because of his wealth of knowledge of managing Martin’s stock farm in the 1820s to 1830s, Peter established himself as one of the region’s first African American Cowboys. During the Republic period, and with help from Wyly, he received his start in the stock business by owning cattle and horses.

Henry Jones and Wyly became friends and neighbors, and after a few years, Peter was allowed to marry one of Jones’ slaves. Peter and Judith had fourteen children and remained husband and wife for over twenty years until his death in 1863. Wyly had allowed Peter a degree of freedom for several years, and by 1839, he held property and amassed a fortune of $16,000. He devoted considerable service to Texas during the Revolution.

In gratitude for his faithful assistance, Wyly wanted to give Peter his freedom and to ensure that he would not be treated poorly by a future owner. Soon after the Revolution, he took steps for his manumission. Wyly introduced a bill in the Senate of the Republic to give Peter his freedom. There were some in the Senate who didn’t want him freed at all and others who agreed to freeing him but only outside of Texas, which was the law at that time without the consent of Congress. Peter was freed by one vote, which was cast by Anson Jones. This act of Congress made Peter the first emancipated slave legally permitted to remain in Texas. He later hired Judith from her master so they could be together, worked as a cook and peddler and had a small boarding house.

When Peter died, Judith was sold to a new owner, and the Richmond home and property were sold for Confederate money, which was worthless. Judith resented the sale of her home, so when the Civil War ended and the slaves were emancipated, she filed suit to reclaim it. It took a great effort, and help from Polly Ryan, Henry Jones daughter, to help pay for legal assistance.

In 1873, after eight years, and an appeal to the Texas Supreme Court, Judith’s rights were upheld to the property. She lived in her home until her death in 1890. Her children remained in the area working on the ranch lands originally granted to Henry Jones.

The African American Cowboy provided the labor to expand the ranching operations in the postbellum years of Fort Bend County. Peter Martin represented a man of sincere devotion, talent and undeniable fervor to overcome all obstacles and to set an example for all generations to come.