The Free State Of Van Zandt

In 1867, the county of Van Zandt attempted to secede not only from Texas, but from the Union. They didn’t much trust the concept of big government, but more importantly, they didn’t want to pay taxes.

What’s even crazier is, the 1867 attempt wasn’t the first time Van Zandt tried to go all independent nation.

In the 2016 movie, The Free State Of Jones, Hollywood popularized the mini-revolution in Jones County, Mississippi, where Newton Knight led an armed resistance to the Confederate Army.

The people of that free state opposed the Confederate Army co-opting all their crops and animals for the war, and they were against slavery. Not to spoil the movie, but since the Union won the war, the need for the Free State of Jones dissipated.

That’s not this story, but they shared a common intellectual battlefield.

One could argue that no county in Texas better captures the thirst for independence bred in the United States than Van Zandt County. To his day, folks in Van Zandt still refer to it as the Free State, even though they pay their U.S. taxes like anyone else.

1861 Uprising

When Texas succeeded from the Union, the people of Van Zandt reasoned that they could leave Texas all the same.

Van Zandt county was sparsely settled at the time, and the few that lived there had no use for slaves. The dearth of slave owners was so known, it kept existing slave-owners from setting up shop in Van Zandt.

Apparently, nobody wanted to bare the title of the lone slave-driver in the county, hard to imagine.

Because of this, the small population of Van Zandt preferred to stay with the Union. Barring that option, because they were inside of Texas and that would’ve been weird, they had to find a different solution.

In 1861, some 350 citizens of Van Zandt gathered to protest the secession. They organized a government, proceeding with their plans until Texas threatened to send in the troops.

Even back then you didn’t mess with Texas. Van Zandt dropped the issue.

1867 Uprising

Van Zandt Courthouse |

When the Union claimed the victory over the Confederates, Texas was en route to rejoin the United States. The people of Van Zandt saw their chance to succeed again.

This time, it was more about taxes than slavery, since Texas would have to let go of its slavery practices after the war anyway.

What Texas would not have to do, is manage the maverick county of Van Zandt. That fell on the Union Army, General Sheridan in New Orleans.

Word made it to Louisiana that a group of Texans in the northeastern part of the state intended to go their own way. Sheridan sent in a unit of troops to quell the rebellion. What his men didn’t count on was the jungle warfare skills of the Van Zandt Army.

The Union soldiers came in on horses, making a terrible racket stomping through the forest at the edge of Van Zandt.

The VZ Army beat back the soldiers by hitting them from hiding spots before the Union soldiers could see them. The tactic worked. The soldiers fled, at least far enough to make the VZ Army think they won.

The VZ soldiers were so fired up, they started drinking. In Texas fashion, where nothing is half-assed, they drank a lot, so much the Union soldiers had no trouble waltzing back into Van Zandt to capture them.

Sobering Up

The jail in Canton |

The VZ army woke up in Canton, the capital of the Free State, with shackles on their feet.

To put the cap on the situation, the Union Army built a fort right in Canton, imprisoning the soldiers of VZ. They stationed guards to keep an eye on the rabble-rousers and treated them as fairly as possible.

The VZ Army may have been humble and friendly as prisoners, but they weren’t naive. Two of the men had served in the Confederate Army, the brothers W.A. Allen and Hardy Allen.

One of the brothers, W.A., kept a knife in his boot, something the Yankee soldiers missed. Over time W.A. used the knife to free himself and few others from their shackles.

Lulled by the southern charm of their prisoners, the Yanks relaxed their guard until they stationed only one soldier to watch the prisoners. Meanwhile, the VZ boys had all broken free of their shackles and had worked the posts of the fort loose.

It was the rainy season. The ground was already loose.

Then one night, when the single guard was preoccupied, they escaped, fleeing in two different directions before anyone knew what happened.

Despite warrants, the Yankees never caught up with the escaped prisoners. W.A., the one who had the knife, fled to Oklahoma where he studied medicine and became a doctor.

He later returned to the Free State, long after the county was under federal control and all had been a memory. Unless you ask the people of Van Zandt. They’ll tell you. It’s still free.