Searching for Jenks Branch, a Freedom Colony on the San Gabriel River
Updated: Jun 2, 2020
I’ve been helping out with some research and exhibit narratives for a new park around Liberty Hill in Williamson County. As part of the research I came across some information about a Freedom Colony known as the Miller Community, or Jenks Branch. I admit, I’ve become a little obsessed in learning the details of its history, perhaps because there are barely any physical traces left of this once thriving enclave where at one time, black families owned more than 1100 acres. There was an A.M.E. church, a school, and a lodge where dances, socials, box suppers, and bible schools were held. The Miller Community had its own Negro baseball team, which played other teams around central Texas. It had two cemeteries, which are today the community's only remaining traces.
The Miller Community is located near the South San Gabriel River between Liberty Hill and Bagdad (now Leander). Some sources indicate that three brothers, Milas, Nelson, and Richard Miller, helped found the community when they came to Texas after the Civil War. A deep dive into census records, deed records, and other sources suggest the picture may be slightly more nuanced.
The community’s landholding roots go back to 1870 when Milas Miller purchased 400 acres of land near Jenks Branch Creek on the south side of the South San Gabriel River. Milas Miller, a freedman, was born in South Carolina, probably around York County sometime between 1824 and 1827. He never knew his exact age. Although Miller was born into slavery, census records indicate that his parents were born in Africa. Miller probably came to Texas while enslaved to one of the numerous white South Carolina families who immigrated to the area in the 1850s. Census records from 1870 indicate he was living near Florence with his wife, Easter, who was also from South Carolina. Their four children at the time were all born in Texas. Their oldest, Nelson, was 14, which means that Milas and Easter Miller were already in Texas in 1856. The census described them all as “mulatto.” Worth noting is that Miller registered to vote in 1867, just a few short years after emancipation.
It is not entirely clear which of the early Liberty Hill families brought Miller to Texas. There were white slave-owning Miller families who lived in Liberty Hill in the 1850s. However, they came from Illinois and Kentucky by way of Arkansas, not South Carolina. The names of the Liberty Hill-Bagdad area white families that transplanted from the Carolinas include Bryson, Mason, Barton, Russell, Poole, Schooley, Chapman, Leatherwood, and Caruthers. This last name, Caruthers, was Easter Miller’s maiden name.
Milas Miller legally married Easter in Liberty Hill in 1878. However, they had a common law marriage long before that time. By 1880, they had eight children together. Census records indicate that neither Milas nor Easter were able to read or write, which makes the fact that Milas was able to register to vote and buy property within a few years of emancipation all the more remarkable. Miller’s farm apparently thrived. He is listed in the 1880 agricultural census, next to white Liberty Hill farmers who were, like him, also originally from South Carolina. He owned 4 oxen, 7 range cows, and 5 milk cows that produced 109 pounds of butter. He had 7 hogs and 13 chickens on a spread comparable in size and value to those of his white neighbors. Given his success, it is not inconceivable that Miller received some assistance, or at least acceptance, from these white families as he built his farm.
Milas Miller died in 1885, leaving Easter to manage the farm and their young children alone. Neither the 1870 nor the 1880 censuses show that he had any other family in Texas at that time. It is tempting here to speculate over how and when Milas or his wife contacted his brothers, J. Nelson and Richard Miller, back in South Carolina. Did they write letters and if so, who wrote them, given that neither Milas nor Easter were literate? Did they travel back to South Carolina in search of family? Or did they send word through someone else? What is clear is that neither of Milas’ brothers lived in the state until well after 1880. Richard (b. 1848) did not arrive in Texas until after 1885, as all of his children were born between 1875 and 1890 in South Carolina. Meanwhile, J. Nelson Miller, born in 1828, almost certainly did not arrive until around 1883, when he bought 25 acres adjoining Milas’ property from Rufus Schooley, another freedman originally from South Carolina. He then purchased 200 acres on Jenks Branch Creek. Nelson eventually owned more than 500 acres. Census records indicate that all his children were born in South Carolina, the last one in 1880. The same year Milas died was the year Richard Miller began acquiring his own property on Jenks Branch Creek, when he and his wife, Martha Jane bought 390 acres from Carl Applequist. Two and half acres were excluded from this purchase and it may be because that parcel was already part of a dedicated cemetery now known as the Cedar Brake Cemetery, where Milas Miller was buried.
The close personal attachments among the three Miller families, even after so long a separation, is exemplified by the fact that in 1900, Richard, Nelson, Milas’ widow Easter, and their various offspring lived very near each other, sometimes in adjacent households. I keep wondering whether their familial connection was through actual biological kinship or the bonds of slavery. In the end it probably matters little. The fact that Richard and J. Nelson brought their own families to Texas, perhaps 30 years after Milas had been brought there in bondage means that they all felt themselves to be kin. Once reunited, they, bought, sold and rented smaller tracts to other black families, forming a tight-knit, cohesive community-- one whose ties lay in the institutions of bondage that extended all the way back to South Carolina. Other family names associated with the Miller Community include McLain, Johnson, Mason, Barton, Faubion, Schooly, Huddleston, Hollingsworth, Pickett, Gant, and Inman. Many of those names are the same as the interrelated white families who immigrated to Texas from South Carolina with their enslaved.
The Miller Community produced some notable professional people. Nelson’s youngest son, Robert Miller became a successful doctor. Several men became ministers, professors, and lawyers. Other young men of the Miller Community were hired on cattle drives up the Chisholm Trail and on local ranches. One of those was Bill Pickett, who learned to rope and ride from his cousins, who rode the trail with the Snyder Brothers of Liberty Hill. Pickett began showcasing his tricks, first among area ranchers, then later at county fairs and rodeos. His signature Bulldogging method of subduing cattle earned so much attention that he was invited to join the 101 Ranch Wild West Show, where he performed with the likes of Will Rogers and Buffalo Bill. He also appeared in several early Hollywood films. Pickett was inducted into the Rodeo Hall of Fame in 1971.
I can’t help speculating about the Miller Community’s relationship to white Liberty Hill-Bagdad residents, as it was surely complex on various levels. Accounts from white Liberty Hill residents make it clear that the black enclave on Jenks Branch was acknowledged, but never truly integrated into white Liberty Hill society. Recording memories of his childhood in Liberty Hill at the turn of the last century, J. Gordon Bryson mentioned the black community on Jenks Branch several times, even as he claimed that Liberty Hill was composed 100 percent of Anglo-Saxons. Nearly 60 years later, speaking for the white community in Liberty Hill, Kerry Russell stated, “Nobody cared [about race] as long as nobody made a big issue of it. But then when you had some black rabble rousers come in, you know, making a big issue of it, then some of the white folks got their hackles up. They weren’t really racist because they’d always gotten along well, but blacks were not equal.” Put simply, whites seem to have accepted the Miller Community, as long as they remained invisible.
The descendants of the Miller Community would probably tell a very different story about racism. However, for emancipated blacks in the age of Jim Crow, simple acceptance among the white community may have been seemed like progress. Milas Miller was, after all, a freedman who, rather than return to his home in South Carolina, not only stayed in Texas after the Civil War, but purchased land among his former enslavers, becoming a successful farmer and rancher. He and his wife then encouraged their relatives to join them. Those relatives also found a certain acceptance in Liberty Hill, along with the resources and space make better lives for their children. It is a story of family resilience, perseverance, and pride in the aftermath of slavery.
I have yet to hear from any descendants of the black community about this. I reached out via email to the pastor of what’s left of the Liberty Chapel Church, with no response. I’ve also tried tracking down descendants through Facebook. Admittedly, these passive attempts are probably not enough. My former neighbor, Skeeter Miller, was a descendant of this community, which may be why I have taken such an interest. He passed away in 2006, however, and I have lost touch with his partner, Joanne. I will keep trying, and in the meantime, if anyone reading this had any information about the descendants of the Miller Community who might be willing to share photos, family stories and memories, please reach out!
Sources: Ancestry.com, Online at www.ancestry.com. Williamson County Real Property Records, Online at https://eagle.wilco.org/williamsonweb/. J. Gordon Bryson, The Culture of Shin Oak Ridge (Bastrop: Firm Foundation Publishing House, 1964). Austin American-Statesman, July 1, 1989. Clara Stearns Scarbrough, Land of Good Water: A Williamson County History (Georgetown, Texas: Williamson County Sun Publishers, 1973); Bailey C. Haines, Bill Pickett, Bulldogger: A Biography of a Black Cowboy (Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1977). Ken Roberts, “Transcript of Oral History Interview with Kerry Russell, August 11, 2011,” Online at https://www.thecedarchoppers.com/kerry-russell.