Sunday, March 21, 2010

I'm a Big Texas Oil Man

The return address caused a warm smile to cross my face: "Superior Crude Gathering." The smile broadened to a grin as I slipped the check from the envelope. Like many Texans, I look forward to this annual largess in the form a royalty payment for oil extracted from Barber lands. I hurriedly filled out a deposit slip to speed my share,$19.07, to my checking account.

In my case, it's not the sum, but the rich history of the payment that appeals. This land was acquired by Barbers five generations ago with the royalty interests divided so many times since that my own share amounts to only a .000044644 fraction of the barrels sucked from the ground. The accountants send me a check only when they've accumulated enough value to justify the time and postage.

In 1868 John and his wife, Elizabeth Kokernot Barber, moved their family from St. Marys to the Aransas coast onto unclaimed land open for homesteading. Unfortunately, John died the following year, before the three year homesteading process could be completed. His widow neglected the process and simply farmed the land with the help of her many sons. Three decades earlier one John H. Phillips had fought in the Texas Revolution and the Republic rewarded him with a bounty certificate, allowing him to survey and patent any 1920 acres of unclaimed land for himself. Phillips died before he could use it but his descendants sold the certificate to someone who did use it, in 1871, to patent 1920 acres surrounding and including Elizabeth's farm.

Elizabeth probably didn't even know her land was not hers until fifteen years later when the new owners, in Missouri, sued to eject her. It was five more years before the suit reached trial and a jury was seated. The next day the plaintiff abruptly withdrew and conceded Elizabeth's 160 acres to her. The case file is not complete enough to explain why he withdrew, but the reason is easily guessed: The plaintiff's lawyer looked at the sixty year old widow seated at the defendant's table, then at the jury box filled with neighbors of the widow, and rightly concluded that he would lose, regardless of the strength of his arguments.