Many great cities have risen or fallen in the United States. Some have prospered and grown to become huge metropolises while others never came into focus or just faded away. In many cases, the future success of these cities was the result of the work of one individual leading a community. In the case of John Neely Bryan, he was responsible for the success of two remarkable cities: Van Buren, Arkansas, and Dallas, Texas.
Bryan was born in Fayetteville, Tennessee, on Christmas Eve, 1810. His parents sent him to a local military academy for his education, and he became a lawyer by 1833. Not content with the life of a lawyer, he left to explore the growing west.
He arrived at the nascent community of Philip’s Landing on the Arkansas River in 1833 where Bryan made a respectable living trading with the Cherokees on the border of what is now Oklahoma, then known as the Indian Territory. The position of the community on an important river near the army camp at Ft. Smith and the neighboring tribes put the town in a good position. Bryan led the effort to organize the disparate community into a thriving port city. He redesigned the community, carefully laying out street paths, neighborhoods, and ports and renamed it Van Buren after Vice-President Martin Van Buren. The plan greatly aided the community’s stability and economy and provided it a sound path forward.
Though Van Buren was growing thanks to Bryan’s plans, he was not content to stay in Arkansas. After a brief trip to Texas, Bryan had decided to resettle there. In 1841, he left Arkansas and bought a plot of land just on the north end of the Trinity River in North Texas. He convinced other settlers into the area to come together to create a new community, one that was eventually called Dallas, after Vice-President George M. Dallas.
Bryan was energetic in promoting the community and providing the services the city needed. He operated a ferry across the Trinity River, ran a dry goods store, and even served as the postmaster for the city. After Texas became a state, he lobbied the state legislature for the creation of Dallas County in 1846.
When news of gold in California reached Dallas in 1849, Bryan was one of thousands of people electrified by the news and joined the throngs heading west. And like many, his dreams in California did not work out as well as he had hoped. In 1850, he returned to Texas.
After his return, he continued to be active in local politics and the business community. Dallas County voters were deciding which community would become the county seat. Bryan went across the county to campaign for his city. Dallas narrowly won over the neighboring communities of Cedar Springs just to the north and Oak Cliff on the south side of the Trinity River. Both communities were later absorbed by Dallas. Bryan donated a portion of his land for the site of a new county courthouse.
In 1855, Bryan got into an argument with another man over his wife. He shot the man. Fearing he would be arrested, he fled Texas into the Indian Territory and lived with the Creek tribe for a time. The man he shot recovered, but Bryan was in no hurry to return to Texas. He spent the next few years traveling back to California and the Colorado Territory in hopes of striking it rich in the mine fields. In 1860, he returned to Dallas.
When the Civil War erupted, Bryan, now past 50, joined a Confederate cavalry unit. He became ill and was discharged in late 1862. He came back to Dallas and served on the board of directors for a small private school in the city and raised funds for victims of a deadly flood that swept the area in 1866. In 1872, he helped complete the first iron bridge across the Trinity River and successfully lobbied corporate officials to bring a railroad to Dallas. The bridge effectively put his ferry out of business, but the bridge and the railroad made the city an important center of commerce.
While Dallas was beginning to prosper, its founder found the opposite fortune. Though he was in his mid-60s, Bryan’s health was deteriorating rapidly by the mid-1870s. His mental state was collapsing in the process. Whether it was a form of dementia or trauma or some other malady that had been progressing for an extended period, no one could say; and there were no doctors in Dallas who could treat it. His son had to undertake the difficult process of having him declared insane by the courts. The courts agreed in 1877, and his son had him shipped to the state mental hospital in Austin. John Neely Bryan died at the hospital six months later.
The two cities he helped give birth grew in the decades after his death. Van Buren, though it never gained near the stature of Dallas, continued to serve as an important trade city on the Arkansas River and has grown to 23,000 residents and is an important hub for western Arkansas. Dallas itself boasts a population of more than one million residents and is one of the largest cities in the nation. Bryan’s cabin has been reconstructed in downtown Dallas as a historical marker, and an elementary school is named for him.
Dr. Ken Bridges is a Professor of History at South Arkansas Community College in El Dorado. He is the proud father of six children. He has written seven books and his columns appear in more than 85 papers in two states. Dr. Bridges can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.