Banner Photo Credit: Texas General Land Office, 1867 Chas. Pressler Map
When Texas was still a Republic, Chatfield was on the edge of an unsettled frontier. Originating in the 1840’s as the trading post of Indian trader Norman Chatfield, it lay at a flowing spring along a trail starting in the Piney Woods and passing through the rolling prairie.
The trail connected Louisiana with roads established by the Republic of Texas leading to settlements further south. It followed roughly the roadbed of FM 1603 today through Chatfield.
This landscape once dominated 12.6 million acres of Texas. Now less than one-tenth of 1% of “native prairie” remains, and here can be seen “remnants” of this tall grass prairie --- land that has never been plowed and characterized by 200 – 300 different varieties of grasses.
Chatfield boasts some of this native prairie thriving in the dark colored alkaline clay and sandy loam soils blanketed each spring with bluebonnets and Indian paintbrushes. Blessed with landowners who believe in good stewardship, the community also has beautiful wetlands that increase wildlife habitat and restore the native vegetation and natural topography.
Committed to building up the area, the Captain laid out a town site, sold lots, and encouraged immigration to the area. Described by the county newspaper in 1860 as “a flourishing town that bids fair to be a rival to our own county seat,” Captain Hodge saw his dream of a thriving community become a reality. Among the businesses was Crawford & Porter, one of the three largest furniture manufacturing firms in antebellum Texas. Crafted from the fine hardwoods of the nearby Trinity River bottomlands, Bailey Crawford’s work can still be seen around Chatfield.
Others followed Captain Hodge to the area. Francis Marion Martin, married to the Captain’s niece, got his start at Chatfield after moving his family here in 1853. He went on to become Lieutenant Governor of Texas and a Populist Party leader in the state.
Chatfield's settlers were patriots and pioneers who knew no fear. They were men such as Henry Griggs who as a youth served in the War of 1812 and Joseph Alvey Clayton, who fought the forces of Santa Anna in two wars ---at the Battle of San Jacinto in the Texas Revolution and the Battle of Chapultepec in the Mexican War of 1846-1848. Clayton, one of Chatfield's most illustrious citizens, was a delegate to the Texas Secession Convention taking the state out of the Union in 1861. Both lie in the historic Old Chatfield Cemetery, noted for its sheltering oaks and weathered tombstones (see the website: www.chatfieldcemeteryassociation.org)
The Last Review of the Confederacy
In June, 1865, Chatfield witnessed the final drama of the American Civil War. The last Confederate unit in any state of the Confederacy found itself camped south of town two months after Lee had surrendered at Appomattox. It was commanded by Maj. Gen. J. O. (Jo) Shelby of Missouri who visited with Captain Hodge at his Hodge Oaks Plantation. With no hope of carrying on the war alone, the unit disbanded rather than surrender. In a dramatic scene, Shelby reviewed his men for the final time, known as “The Last Review of the Confederacy,” and asked for volunteers to go to Mexico; the 1967 John Wayne epic, The Undefeated, is loosely based on their story. A mile south on FM 1603, a Texas Historical Marker describes the event, and Civil War re-enactors periodically gather to reenact it.
Community Spirit, Then and Now
From the 19th century onward, community spirit has long characterized Chatfield's citizens. Refusing to die when bypassed by the railroads, Chatfield became home to private college prep school The Elizabeth Institute, named after Hodge’s widow for her endowment. Its upper-level students wore military style uniforms and studied elocution, literature, music, and art under a code of honor. With cotton gins, stores, several churches, and a Masonic Lodge, along with its public and private schools, its citizens considered Chatfield a progressive community.
Chatfield's strong community bond continues to manifest itself in myriad ways. Whether fielding a baseball team to compete with larger towns or collectively creating a rural water system to meet growing needs for fresh water left unsatisfied by private wells in the early 20th century, and even now maintaining one of the best trained and equipped all-volunteer fire departments in the nation in the 21st century, this spirit is continually made evident.
Many return to Chatfield for the Volunteer Fire Department Barbecue every Mothers' Day weekend, the annual Homecoming Picnic on the Saturday closest to July 4 benefitting the historic cemeteries, and the Ice Cream Supper, known for its delicious home-churned recipes held every August.