Here’s the forgotten story of Dallas’ first real estate scheme

Written by Desmond

November 27, 2021

When you think about it, it’s somewhat of a miracle that the city of Dallas exists where it does — and that it even exists at all.

One man is responsible for this, but he gets little credit for all that he did. That’s probably because the story of John Neely Bryan, our city creator, gets lost in the decades-long historical debate over whether the old log cabin on display downtown was really his. It wasn’t.

And then there’s the unresolved conflict about why he picked the name Dallas anyway. Was it in honor of a future U.S. vice president or the name of a friend?

But there’s another story about Bryan that gets lost in the historical shadows. Brought to my attention by Grapevine historian John Boyd, it’s the tale of Dallas’ first real estate scheme.

Every year, I look at the life of a famous American who either got scammed or scammed someone else. I’ve shared with you how my hero, Ben Franklin, scammed his older brother when he fled his printing apprenticeship. But Franklin got scammed in return by the British governor of Pennsylvania, who falsely promised to set him up in business.

Last year, I put circus master P.T. Barnum in The Watchdog’s center ring when I reported that he never actually said anything about a sucker being born every minute. That line sticks to him even though it was a competitor who uttered the words about Barnum.

That sucker quote stamps out how often Barnum was victimized. As a young child, he was pranked by his family with promises of rich and fertile land he would receive when older. It turned out to be a swamp.

And in an investment scheme, Barnum lost his grand mansion and all his money to his fiendish partners.

To be fair, this is the same circus master who offered the world a supposed 161-year-old woman, a mermaid and a 2-foot-tall boy he proclaimed a general. What goes around comes around.

In Neely’s case, in 1841, two years after his first visit, he returned and camped near what is now the Sixth Floor Museum. His first lean-to was near today’s “grassy knoll.” According to legend, he spent several months there on a bluff overlooking the Trinity, mostly alone.

By 1842, the area had a name: Dallas. Bryan pencil-sketched today’s downtown-area streets and gave them names that, in some cases, exist to this day, including Main, Commerce and Houston.

He was the first lawyer, the first postmaster, a justice of the peace, a store owner, sheriff, cattleman, horse trader, ferry operator and real estate mogul.

He was Dallas’ first land promoter — a shark of his time — with the ability to promote his tiny town in a way that would make cotemporary Dallas developers proud.

He greeted all visitors and offered free whiskey, bear meat and honey, historian Boyd writes, to anyone who would stop and listen to his real estate sales pitch. He offered free town lots to anyone who would stay.

Land records show that early on, he sold lots for $20 to $25. They weren’t his to sell, but no matter.

Word got out. People started hearing about a new town called Dallas.

When John Billingsley arrived in 1842 to see what he was told would be “the great city of Dallas,” he was a bit stunned.

“We had heard a great deal about the Three Forks of the Trinity River and the town of Dallas,” he wrote. “It sounded big in the far-off states. We had heard of it often, yes, the place. But the town — where was it? Two small log cabins. … This was the town of Dallas, and two families, 10 or 12 souls, was its population.”

Five years later, with promotions still going strong, Addie McDermott wrote, “We found Dallas a sort of doll village. The houses were small log cabins. … There were no streets. A network of only winding paths, more or less weed and grass grown.”

She was, of course, greeted by Bryan, who “for ornament had a strip of untanned deerskin running up and down the legs.”

An Englishman who visited Bryan called him “a hardy backwoodsman, and a sensible, industrious, ingenious and hospitable man.”

By 1848, Dallas only had 39 residents, six cabins, a saloon and an outdoor bowling alley. Bryan left for a while, to flee from the law over a disturbance and to pan for gold, but he eventually returned to his little D.

The last published mention of Bryan in his lifetime came in 1877 in the Dallas Daily World: “It is reported that the venerable John Neely Bryan, the founder of Dallas, has lost his mind. The people of Dallas should see the old pioneer may be carefully looked to and cared for.”

That same year, he died in an Austin mental hospital. Where is he buried? No one knows the exact location of his grave.

I couldn’t find a statue of Bryan, only a historical plaque and a memorial headstone. Unless I missed something, there’s only John Neely Bryan Elementary School in Oak Cliff.

Maybe a glorified remembrance of Bryan is not needed. In his book about Bryan, Dallas historian Steven R. Butler quotes a Latin phrase — “Si monumentum requires, circumspice” — which means “If you seek his monument, look around you.”

In the Know

Special thanks to Grapevine historian John Boyd for assistance with this story.

These books were used for The Watchdog’s research:

John Neely Bryan: The Father of Dallas by Steven R. Butler

The Unauthorized History of Dallas Texas by Rose-Mary Rumbley

Dallas’ First Hundred Years by George H. Santerre

Dallas USA by A.C. Greene

Dallas Yesterday by Lee Milazzo

The WPA Dallas Guide and History

Dallas: The Deciding Years by A.C. Greene

The Lusty Texans of Dallas by John William Rogers

Texas Sketches by A.C. Greene

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