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October 8, 2013

Family of Texas freed slave donates branding iron


When Felicia Taylor and her family finally found the approximately 135-year-old branding iron registered by her great-great-grandfather, they struggled with what to do next.

The branding iron, in the shape of a U, belonged to Calvin Bell, the freed slave who helped found The Settlement, a community of freed slaves and now a Nationally Recognized Historic District in present-day Texas City.

The Galveston County Daily News ( ) reports the iron was registered in 1878 and it is believed that Bell is the first freed slave in Galveston County to register an iron, Taylor said. But for years, no one knew where the iron was or even that it existed.

Historian Alicia Galloway has worked with Taylor's mother, Erma Johnson, for years doing research on the history of The Settlement.

It was while going over records at the Galveston County Courthouse that they came across the information, Galloway said.

It was while in a containment camp during the Civil War that Bell began working cattle for George Washington Butler, a rancher in what is now the north part of Galveston County. After the war, Bell was freed and he and other African-American cowboys continued to work for Butler, leading major cattle drives to markets in Kansas.

Bell moved from Butler's ranch in about 1874, Galloway said. He registered his brand four years later. To do that, the law at the time required that he have more than 20 head of cattle, she said.

"If you just had a milk cow or two you didn't have to brand them," she said.

Galloway said she is not sure how Bell acquired his herd, but it could have come from the Butler ranch.

"A lot of times, Butler paid in cattle," she said.

The first brand was a U, likely chosen for his wife Unistine, also known as Katie, Galloway said. In the 1880s, he would register a second brand that was either a 7U or a U7, she said, likely for the seven children he and his wife had.

But for all the historical research they had done, Galloway said she had no idea that at least one of the branding irons still existed somewhere.

"We went on a search to find this branding iron," Taylor said.

It turned up in a box of remains from the estate of Francis Bell, Taylor's aunt from California.

Once the branding iron was found, the family had to decide what to do with it. Taylor said they considered keeping it but finally decided on donating it the Smithsonian's National Museum of African-American History and Culture, which is set to open in 2015.

Family members drove to Washington, D.C., to hand the iron over to museum curators there.

"Stories of the black presence in the American west is one of those overlooked parts of our history," said Paul Gardulo, curator of the museum.

The purpose of the museum is "to help the broadest population understand the central role that African-Americans have played in this country's history and culture," he said.

The story of Calvin Bell and the black cowboys in Galveston County is a story the museum can help shed a light on and share with more people, he said.

The branding iron will be a great way into a story that will intrigue a lot of people, Gardulo said.

"(The branding iron) connects us to those people who lived, who carved out a home for themselves," he said. "The branding iron is a tangible piece that connects us to those very human stories, and I think those are stories that resonate with all of us."


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