On 19th August 1941 John T. Browne died in Houston, Texas, having led a most remarkable life. He had been born in Co. Limerick 96 years before and had become one of Ireland’s many Famine emigrants. In his youth he had seen Sam Houston speak, served in the Confederate Army, and eventually embarked on a political career that saw him become Mayor of Houston- a city he watched grow from a small town into one of the largest cities in the South.
John was born in Ballylanders in east Co. Limerick on 23rd March 1845 to Michael and Winnifred Browne. They emigrated from a ravaged Ireland to the United States in 1851, along with their five children. Upon their arrival the family were almost immediately plunged into crisis, as Michael died shortly after they landed in New Orleans. In 1852 Winnifred decided to move with her children to Texas, where they eventually settled in the town of Houston. The 1860 Census finds the Browne’s living in Ward 4 of the town, with 46-year-old Winnifred as head of the household. By this time there were only three children recorded- 17-year-old Johanna who worked a seamstress, 14-year-old Mary and 15-year-old John, who was working as a clerk. John’s other sister Margaret had left home, while his only brother, Thomas, had died at the age of twelve. Winnifred also appears to have been caring for 6-year-old John Turny and his 3-year-old sister Lissy at this time, both of whom had been born in Ohio. (1)
During the 1850s a priest called Father Gunnard played an integral role in changing John Browne’s life. The priest took the Limerick boy and four others from Houston to the Spann family plantation in Washington County, where they spent a number of years being educated. At the age of fourteen John left the plantation and got his first job, in Madison County, where he worked as an off-bearer in a brickyard. He soon decided to return to Houston where he first became a driver of a baggage wagon, then a messenger at the Commercial and Southwestern Express Company and finally a messenger at the Houston & Texas Central Railroad. He was still in this job when the American Civil War broke out in 1861. (2)
During the war John served in Company B of the 2nd Texas Infantry, but rather than accompany it to the front he was kept in the state on detached duty, apparently because he was the main breadwinner in a fatherless family. Among his main duties during the war were acting as a fireman on the Houston & Texas Central Railroad, the company for which he had been a messenger before hostilities began. Towards the end of the conflict he was moved to join the Confederate forces at Galveston, but was back in Houston by the time he gave his parole on 27th June 1865. In later years John was said to have known Dick Dowling, a fellow Irishman and the hero of the 1863 Battle of Sabine Pass. The Limerick man was proud of his Confederate service, and as the ranks of veterans thinned he received significant attention. In 1939 he was appointed commander for life of the Dick Dowling Camp of United Confederate Veterans, while in 1941 he was made an honourary member of the Robert E. Lee Chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy. By the time of his death, the Ballylanders native was one of the oldest surviving veterans of the American Civil War in Texas. (3)
At some point during the 1850s John had taken the opportunity to attend a speech at the Old Kelly House, Houston given by the Father of Texas himself, Sam Houston. It is not clear if this had an influence on his later decision to enter politics, but initially at least he returned to what he knew. After the war John became a messenger once more, this time with the Adams Express Company in Houston. After a stint with the Southern Express Company he moved to the grocery business; his education at the Spann Plantation once again proved invaluable as he acted as a bookkeeper and salesman for H.P. Levy, John Collins and Theodore Keller, entering into a brief partnership with the latter in 1870. At the age of 26 John married Mary Bergin of New Orleans, the daughter of Irish emigrant Michael Bergin. They would go on to have eleven surviving children, but John would outlive all but six of them. (4)
The rise in fortunes that would eventually lead John Browne to political office began in 1872. It was in that year that he went into business with Charles Bollfrass, opening the ‘Browne & Bollfrass’ wholesale and retail grocery store. What started with a fund of $500 in 1872 had risen to an enterprise worth $70,000 by 1895. His first foray into the political arena was in 1887, when he represented Houston’s Fifth Ward on the City Council and chaired the Finance Committee. He had also previously acted as Chairman of the School Board. He impressed in these positions, and was asked to consider himself for candidacy as Mayor. He decided to run, and was elected to office in 1892, defeating his opponent by 3,900 votes to 600. John was re-elected in 1894 and ultimately served as Mayor of Houston between 1892 and 1896; among his achievements were establishing the Houston Fire Department as a paid force. He went on to serve in the Texas House of Representatives for three terms, from 1897-99 and again in 1907. One person who didn’t witness his political success was his mother Winnifred; although she had seen him on the road to success, her death in the mid-1880s deprived her of finding out just how far her son would rise. (5)
John T. Browne finally retired from public life in 1909. Throughout his life he seemed to retain a strong affinity for his Irish roots. He was variously known as ‘The Fighting Irishman’ and ‘Honest John’, and was reportedly a member of the Ancient Order of Hibernians and the Knights of Columbus. In his later years he was reported to be the ‘delight of Texas historians’ due to his exceptional memory and his stories that often began with ‘I remember the way Houston looked when…’ He was Houston’s oldest living mayor when he contracted pneumonia and died in 1941. John had seen the town grow from a small settlment into a city that was well on its way to becoming the fourth-largest in the United States. On his death the Limerick man left behind six children, thirty-eight grandchildren and twenty-six great-grandchildren. He is buried in Glenwood Cemetery in Houston with his wife of 65 years, Mary. (6)
(1) Lewis Publishing 1895:384, 1860 US Federal Census; (2) Lewis Publishing 1895:384; (3) Dallas Morning News 20th August 1941, John T. Brown Civil War Service Record, Lewis Publishing 1895:384; (4) Lewis Publishing 1895:384-5; (5) Lewis Publishing 1895:385, Dallas Morning News 20th August 1941, Political Graveyard; (6) Dallas Morning News 20th August 1941, John T. Browne Find A Grave Memorial;
Dallas Morning News 20th August 1941. J.T. Browne of Houston is Dead at 96.
US Federal Census 1860.
Confederate Service Record John T. Brown.
The Lewis Publishing Company, Chicago 1895. History of Texas Together with a Biographical Sketch of the Cities of Houston and Galveston.