A Guide to the Abel Head Shanghai Pierce Papers, 1870-1905
Abel Head "Shanghai" Pierce, a Texas rancher and cattleman, was born on June 29, 1834 in Little Compton, Rhode Island to Jonathan and Hannah Head Pierce. The nickname "Shanghai" referred to Pierce's tall thin stance resembling a Shanghai rooster. In 1854, "Shanghai" Pierce settled in Port Lavaca, Texas. Working as a ranch hand splitting rails, Pierce began to acquire cattle, but following his service on the Confederate side of the Civil War he returned to find his holdings gone.
He married Frances (Fannie) Lacey on September 27, 1865, who was the daughter of William Demetris Lacey, and sister to Nancy Deborah (Nannie) Lacey, wife of Jonathan Edwards Pierce, Abel’s brother. They had two children, Mamie and Abel H. Pierce Jr. After the death of his wife and infant son in 1870, Pierce sold his cattle and went to Kansas for eighteen months. When he returned, he partnered with his brother Jonathan Pierce and established the Rancho Grande on the Tres Palacios River in 1871. Pierce began to purchase land until he owned two hundred and fifty thousand acres. He then formed the Pierce-Sullivan Pasture Company, which sent thousands of cattle up the northern trail and by rail.
In 1875, Pierce married Hattie Jones and continued his ranching and land expansion. He researched varieties of beef, and after a trip through Europe, felt that the breed of Brahman cattle, from India, was likely to be resistant to disease and pestilence. In 1900, he lost 1.25 million dollars following the 1900 Galveston hurricane, a bank failure, and the failure of the Gulf Island Railroad. He died on December 26, 1900 of a cerebral hemorrhage and is buried in Hawley Cemetery near Blessing, Texas. Before his death he commissioned a life-like marble statue, which now marks his grave.
Following his death, the Pierce estate purchased and imported Brahman cattle and established a stock base, which most ranchers rely upon today. His nephew Abel Pierce Borden, daughter Mamie Withers and wife Hattie Jones Pierce managed his land and cattle enterprise after his death.
The papers of Abel Head "Shanghai" Pierce consist of the legal, business, and personal transactions regarding his land and cattle empire based in Matagorda County, in southeast Texas. Pierce had numerous business activities handling the purchase of land and cattle, and quite often collaborated only with his brother Jonathan Edwards Pierce, other close relatives and friends. The correspondence reflects Pierce’s activities, covering the years 1870-1900. In this material, Pierce, his brother, and close friends negotiate and document the purchase of land and cattle. Other correspondence details dealings with the railroad companies, banks, and mercantiles.
Many of Pierce's relatives and associates managed locations outside Matagorda County, and helped Pierce to stay in close contact with his vast holdings. Pierce frequently corresponded with Ira H. Evans, who in 1876 was secretary of the National and Great Northern Railroad Company. Evans later moved up to Land Commissioner of the International Great and Northern Railroad Company, and then to President of the New York and Texas Land Company Limited, which had bought out the two previous companies. Pierce's correspondence with Evans relates to the land used and rented from the railroad.
In the late 1880s Pierce traveled extensively and the majority of his correspondence was with his ranch managers George Hamilton and John McCrosky, or with his lawyers L.C.Slavens and I.N. Dennis. In the late 1890s Pierce's nephew, Abel Pierce Borden, managed the ranch, and the correspondence between Pierce and his nephew is extensive. Often the correspondence includes either a hand drawn or surveyed map of land to be purchased or sold, or in the case of the railroad land leases, maps show the location of adjacent land and the path of the train. Two significant letters, dated 1879 and 1886, come from prominent rancher and cattleman George W. Littlefield.
The financial and legal series consist mostly of receipts and requests for supplies, or copies of land or cattle purchases. Unique to the financial series are the receipts of A. Levi and Company, which served as both grocery supplier and banking institution. There is also a receipt for the commission of a marble statue in Pierce's likeness. Within the legal series are the documents showing Pierce's purchase of the land along the Tres Palacios River in Wharton County, and various tax documents. Several of the letters have the post office stamp, Pierce Station, Texas, which reflects its establishment following the Tres Palacios land purchase, and the Pierce brothers' influence.
The ledgers, stock records, letterpress books, and a daybook show detailed relationships between Abel Head "Shanghai" Pierce and his associates, friends, and fellow ranchers. The books contain a list of brands used, number of cattle sold, and detailed information on land purchased and leased.
Rounding out Pierce's papers is a portrait of Pierce, which hung in the Island City Savings Bank of Galveston. A unique part of these papers is the detailed and beautifully designed letterhead. The majority of the correspondence is written on business or personal letterhead, some of which display elaborate designs. The thirty-year span of these papers clearly shows design progression from the simple to the densely detailed, with a variety of styles using vignettes, scrollwork, and wing dings. Pierce's own letterhead shows an evolution from a simple style to an elaborate design featuring a bull's head.
Some materials restricted for preservation purposes.
Abel Head "Shanghai" Pierce Papers, 1870-1905, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin
Detailed Description of the Papers