Monday, April 22, 2013


While researching something entirely different, I came across a story about early Texas pioneer James "Brit" Briton Bailey, and it caught my attention. (So typical of me and my research tangents.) Bailey is a recurring name in my father's Johnson-Johnston-Johnstone family. Our ancestors migrated west from North Carolina, just as James Briton Bailey did. Hmm, so I checked my brother's extensive genealogical research (added to my earlier extensive research) of our family tree on and, sure enough, old Brit was a relative. And my brother and niece, who used to live in Brazoria County and—in a sort of reverse migration—now live in North Carolina, have seen the ghostly lights on Bailey's Prairie. How weird is that? Small world, right?

James Britton Bailey

James Britton Bailey was a descendant of Robert Bruce, once King of Scotland. A veteran of the war of 1812 and a native of North Carolina, Brit Bailey moved his family to Kentucky where he served in the legislature and got into a fracas, then moved to Tennessee. Apparently unable to get along harmoniously with his fellow man, he kept moving, stopped in Louisianna long enough to wed his second wife after the death of his first wife, and ended up on the east bank of the Brazos River in March 1818 (in what is now the school district of Angleton, Brazoria County, Texas), two years before Stephen F. Austin’s first visit to Texas. The locale in which he settled still bears his name—Bailey’s Prairie.

Bailey received his league and a labor of land (4,587 acres) in a land grant from the Spanish government—at least that was his claim. Apparently no records exist to back up his assertion. After Mexico freed herself from Spanish rule, Mexico refused to honor Bailey’s supposed grant. He stayed on the property anyway. Then Bailey’s realm was included in Stephen F. Austin’s colonization grant from the Mexican government.

           Those who are not Texans may not recognize the significance of Stephen F. Austin’s Old Three Hundred settlers. Stephen F. Austin was known as the Father of Texas, as witnessed by naming the state capitol Austin, Stephen F. Austin University, an elementary school bearing his name in most Texas towns, a street by that name in most Texas cities, and so on. He led the second, but first legal and ultimately successful, colonization of the region by bringing 300 families from the United States.

Bailey was apparently a thorn in Austin's side, but they finally settled the question of ownership in Bailey’s favor in 1824, when he became one of Austin’s Old Three Hundred. Austin’s respect for—or maybe his desperation to get along with—Bailey resulted in Bailey's appointment as a lieutenant and then captain in the 3rd Battalion of the Militia.

Bailey's Oak no longer stands

In the fall of 1832, the Baileys were building their new house when Bailey became ill. Contrary to rumors that he died of "pure meanness," cholera took Brit Bailey in December of 1832. When he sensed that the end was near he issued directions that he be buried standing up so no one could say, "There lies ol' Brit Bailey." He said he'd never bowed down to any man and refused to do so after his death. He also asked to be buried facing west, as he had been migrating in that direction all his life; and he wanted his favorite rifles and pistols and enough ammunition to last him an eternity.

Asked why he needed such weaponry he replied, "I am a rude man, and know not whom I may meet in another world. I wish to be prepared, as usual, for all enemies."

As he had requested, Bailey was buried in the grove near the big red house beside his children who had preceded him in death, and in the manner described in his will. That is, standing upright, facing west, with his rifle by his side. But no jug of whisky. According to some, Mrs. Bailey had the jug removed and tossed it into the field. She said he had carried a jug of whisky most of his life, and he wasn’t going to meet his maker with one.

Almost as soon as Brit died, people started claiming to have seen his ghost. The couple that bought the old homestead swore they saw his apparition quite often. To this day, a strange light is said to haunt Bailey's Prairie and it's believed to be old Brit Bailey, looking for his jug of whiskey. Supposedly, the ball of fire rises from his grave and floats through the grove.

Whiskey Jug

Uncle Bubba, Bailey’s manservant who lived well past the century mark, claimed that the apparitions in the house and the periodic appearances of a fireball that seemed to rise from Bailey’s grave and moved across the prairie at night were his old master, carrying a lantern in search of the jug of whiskey Uncle Bubba had promised to place in his coffin.

The Texas State Historical Commission placed a state marker in Bailey's Prairie in 1970. The legend of Bailey’s light persists, and in addition to my brother and niece, there are others living in the area who have reportedly seen it on one or more occasions. All evidence of Bailey’s homesite have long since disappeared including this giant oak by the flag pond, toward which Bailey faces, flintlock at his side. There are still oak trees in the area, and it was in a grove of them that my brother and niece saw the light on several occasions. Was it old Brit looking for his jug of whiskey? Who knows?

Clay Coppedge, of the Country World staff, said, “The light sometimes follows people along the highway, and there is at least one reported shootout with the light, though there is no evidence that the light shot back. Maybe the light doesn't belong to Brit Bailey, after all. If Brit Bailey had anything to do with the light, I think it would have returned fire.”

Do you believe in ghosts, spirits, and haunting? 

Caroline Clemmons is the Amazon best selling author of western romance. Her latest is the poignant BLUEBONNET BRIDE, available at Amazon and other online stores. 

Texas State History Association, Handbook of History Online


Ginger Simpson said...

Great post, Caroline, and I love the stunning colors of your latest cover.

Ellen O'Connell said...

Interesting post. Do you think they really went to the trouble to dig deep enough to bury him standing up, or did they fudge? I'd fudge, but then no, I don't believe in ghosts.

Also interesting to see his middle name. My plan is for the hero in my next book (not the one I'm working on now, but the next) to be Bret from Breton. Of course you can't count on me not to change things until the Publish button is clicked.

Ciara Gold said...

Great post. I found it most interesting and yes, I believe in ghosts. Thanks for posting.

Paty Jager said...

Great post! Love the idea of a ball of fire coming from his grave and him hunting for his whiskey jug. I"m assuming nothing concrete has ever been established to say what the ball of fire is? Great piece of history.

Meg said...

I'm on the fence - several friends swear they've seen them. I guess I'll know if I ever come across an uneasy spirit. But what an interesting story about finding a relative! Small world indeed.