Scope and Contents
Judge Masterson’s papers relate almost exclusively to his legal practice and real estate dealings after he moved from Brazoria County, Texas, to Houston, dating from 1860-1942, bulk 1880-1920. He dealt primarily with land litigation and investments in Harris and surrounding counties, including Brazoria, Fort Bend, Galveston, Hardin, and Jefferson Counties. Other investments for which there are records in these papers include coal mines in West Texas, local railroads, sugar crops, cattle and ranching. Business cycles and the style of land and oil deals of the day are presented very well in the correspondence. Family correspondence also reveals Masterson’s willingness to employ his own numerous nephews and generally to help people in his employ. The papers dating from Judge Masterson’s death in July 1900 were created or maintained by Masterson’s son Neill.
Biographical / Historical
Judge Harris Masterson, the youngest son of Thomas Gilbert and Christina Masterson, was born in Brazoria County on June 30, 1856. His father, a lawyer, judge, and large landowner in Brazoria County, migrated to Texas from Nashville, Tennessee. His mother also studied law and came from Tennessee where her grandfather had been a prominent judge and governor.Harris and all five of his brothers received their legal education from her. Of the six, four entered into active legal practice, and all of the them served as judges at one time during their careers.
Harris Masterson began his legal career in Brazoria County. Although not much is known about Masterson’s early career in Brazoria or his terms as judge, it seems from papers and correspondence in the collection that he became involved in land litigation early in his career. This emphasis began with his interests in his father’s large holdings in Brazoria County. In June 1880, Harris Masterson married Sallie Stewart Turner, by whom he had five children, of whom only three lived beyond infancy. A short time after his wife’s death in January of 1894, the Judge moved his legal practice to Houston.
From the extensive correspondence and numerous deeds in these papers, it seems Masterson dealt largely with land litigation and investments in Harris and surrounding counties, including Brazoria, Firt Bend, Galveston, Hardin, and Jefferson Counties. His land interests extended into several East Texas and Louisiana lumber companies. Since he owned so much coastal land, Spindletop and the discovery of oil opened a new field of business for Masterson. He joined with other prominent landowners in the coastal area to form small oil companies for drilling. He also made a great deal of money by leasing out his land for drilling. He became a member of the Hogg-Swayne syndicate participating in and contributing to their numerous drilling operations, as well as independently drilling with Frank Andrews and Joseph S. Cullinan. Most of the oil drilled on Masterson’s land was sold to the Gulf Oil & Pipeline Company, the Sun Pipeline Company, and other large oil companies.
Masterson set up several land corporations with his brother A.R. Masterson and son Neill. Two of these were the Texas Town Lot & Improvement Company and the Houston Town Lot & Improvement Company. Although these companies on occasion contracted to build houses on the land they sold, their primary function was to buy large tracts of land and break them into smaller lots. Much of this land was sold to what would today be called the middle and lower class people of Houston. These sales then were usually financed by Harris Masterson so that in case of default, the land reverted back to the Mastersons. Through one of these companies Masterson apparently acquired some land which the owners had been unwilling to sell to the newly founded Rice Institute.
Masterson also speculated in land in Cameron County and other parts of the Rio Grande Valley which only needed irrigation to become agriculturally productive. Not coincidentally, he also bought stock in various irrigation companies. Among these were the Harlingen Land & Water Company and the La Feria Land & Water Company. Although these companies were badly mismanaged by the local operators and eventually went bankrupt, they seemed to have opened up the speculation and search for water to make this area productive. Other investments for which there are records in these papers include coal mines in West Texas, local railroads, sugar crops, cattle and ranching.
Judge Harris Masterson was a shrewd businessman who kept his wealth spread across his various investments. His employed the services of a secretary as well as his son Neill and son-in-law Elliott Cage to help him look after and protect his investments. Neill Masterson continued to care for the investments after the death of Judge Masterson in July 1900.
Source: “The Masterson Family Papers”, The Flyleaf , Vol. 24, No. 3, October 1974. Friends of Fondren Library, Rice University, Houston TX. By Beth Wray, Manuscript Curator, Woodson Research Center.