Clay History – Washington County, Texas

By Lydia Hill Jul 23, 2019

Reprinted with permission from Banner-Press, Brenham, Texas 

Finney Clay, Clay Family Society, Texas Clay

The state of Texas and Washington County itself have changed tremendously since the early-1800s. But one thing that hasn’t changed is the presence of the Clay family.

From the first United States settlers arriving in Texas to the tensions with Mexico that culminated in the Texas Revolution to the Civil War and beyond, the Clays have been there to experience and often help shape these historical events.

For Finney Clay, his family story has led to a research project that has been a major part of his life for the past 20 years as he has sought to uncover everything he can about the Clays’ past.

Molding Clay family history

The roots of the Clay family tree stretch deep into the soil of Texas and Washington County and have exerted a strong influence on the area.

“We’ve got a lot of history from the beginning of Texas. We got here really early,” says Clay.

The first Clay to arrive in Texas was Nestor Clay, who was born in 1799 and became a member of the Kentucky Legislature by the time he was 20. In 1822, he and his brother Tacitus Matthew Clay were invited by Nestor’s friend Stephen F. Austin to move to Texas. Although the Clay brothers were not part of the original 300 colonists in Texas – the Old Three Hundred – they helped to influence early settlement through surveying and exploring the land.

“My parents have always told me that (the Clays) came to Texas to survey land for Stephen F. Austin.” says Clay. “I have yet to find a document really saying that they were surveyors. All I can call them is land speculators. At that time Washington County was much bigger than it is today. We took in Burleson County, we took in Brazos County, and we took in Grimes County.”

Along with Stephen F. Austin and a man named Luke Lesassier, the Clays owned all the land around the town of Independence, which was then called Cole’s Settlement. The Clays began farming, and Nestor built a three-story, 74,000-square-foot house called Clay Castle on his property. 

Clay Castle

“Now if you had come through Texas in 1835 and all of a sudden come over the hill and saw a building that big, you would have said, ‘Wow! How did they do that?’ That’s where they set up headquarters, and that was his farming plantation operation,” Clay explains.

Clays and industrial development in Texas

The Clays were also instrumental in furthering industrial development of the area.

When citizens of Independence and Old Washington told a railroad company they didn’t want tracks coming through their towns, the Clays gave the company land for the railroad and built the train stop called Clay Station.

The family also bought two cotton gins to set up at Clay Station in Independence.

“The story is they baled the first bale of cotton in Washington County on one of those gins,” adds Clay.

Nestor was also influential in the conventions of 1832 and 1833, which addressed the settlers’ crumbling relationships with Mexico.

“He and Stephen F. Austin were big buddies,” says Clay. “Almost every documentation I have, either Stephen F. Austin was there at the meeting or Nestor was at the meeting and Stephen F. Austin was in Mexico City trying to deal with the Mexican government.”

However, the Clays did not fight in the Texas Revolution because before fighting broke out, Nestor was killed by an arrow in a Native American raid. His children and brother returned to Kentucky for a few years. 

The Clays also have deep ties with the Civil War.

After returning to Texas, Nestor’s son Tacitus Thomas Clay became mayor of Independence, and when Texas voted to secede in 1861, he cut down the flagpole bearing the United States flag.

Tacitus Thomas served as a captain in the Civil War, losing a leg in the process, and his cousin Thomas C. Clay–Finney Clay’s great-great grandfather–was a captain in the calvary [sic] regiment called Terry’s Texas Rangers.

Captain Thomas Clay

“Terry’s Rangers carried four pistols and two double- barrel shotguns,” said Clay. “When they ran at the Yan- kees, they shot them with the shotguns first, went through the pistols, and when they ran out of ammo they turned around and ran like hell.”

Although much of the influence of the Clay family was exerted by the men, the women also had their opportunities to shine.

After the Civil War, Thomas took over Clay Castle and the family’s plantation, but when he died in 1892, his wife Bettie became the head of the plantation for almost 40 years before her death in 1931.

“In those days, a lady didn’t write a check. A lady couldn’t go to a lawyer’s office and say, ‘I need a contract to do this,'” Clay said of the challenges his great-great grandmother had to overcome. “In 1931, she was still holding almost 10,000 acres of land over in the Brazos bottom.”

While the land has since been divided, several Clays still live on some of the original property, including the site of Clay Castle, which was destroyed in a storm in 1900.

Present-day Clays and discovering family history

While Finney Clay said his life is not as exciting as that of his ancestors, it has been far from uneventful. Born in 1950, Clay graduated from Brenham High School before joining the Marines in 1969.

“I fell into unique spots in the Marine Corps,” says Clay. “For a Marine Corps career, it was kind of unusual.”

After attending boot camp in San Diego, rather than being sent to Vietnam like most troops, Clay was first sent to Paris Island before spending a year and a half in Japan. He was then assigned to Camp Pendleton, which controlled all the Marine Corps reserves.

In 1975, after his time with the Marines, Clay began driving an 18-wheeler for BrenTex Mills, delivering bales of pockets to blue jean-manufacturing plants throughout the southeast.

“In those days, every little town had some kind of little plant that made blue jeans, coveralls,” he says. “They sent me all over. I got to go out to Missouri, Minnesota, all the way to Washington state one time. So I got to see most of the country through the windshield.”

Clay then began working for a communications company in Houston in 1979, which turned into a career in the radio industry. After marrying his wife Donna in 1979, Clay returned to Brenham and formed his own company called Professional Communications.

“We started out just being a little hometown deal, (but) I have radio customers all over now,” he says. 

These customers include several school districts, Bucees gas stations, a project for NASA, and several oil field companies such as Baker Hughes. Clay says his interest in communications began while still in the Marines.

“I spent a little time in communications while I was in the Marine Corps.

And when I got out the CB radio craze ramped up about 1975. I started installing CB radios and went to a CB radio school in Minnesota with the EF Johnson Company. They convinced me that the two-way radio industry was a really good way to go.”

Clay also spends time teaching shooting classes. He has served as the secretary of the shooting club since 1989 and has taught shooting programs for the 4-H club and for the Marine Corps Junior ROTC at Brenham High School.

“I’ve always kind of liked history,” he continues. “I should have listened to my parents’ stories better when I was a kid, but when you’re a kid, you don’t care about that.”

Growing up, he and his three younger brothers would often hear stories about their family through elderly relative Tacitus Clay when he babysat them.

“His wife would make us cookies, and we would go back to his library in the back room and tell us stories of the Civil War because his father had been in Terry’s Rangers. And if we were really good kids and didn’t run him all over the house, he would break out a little box and inside of it would be a matching pair of pistols, an 1851 Navy colt, predominantly the weapon of choice for the Civil War.”

Clay’s project researching his family began in 1991, when he joined the Sons of the Confederacy and began to explore his past.

“My father was alive at the time and started telling me stories about all this stuff that I had never heard,” he says. “I got as much information out of him as I could and I started looking in Austin and different places.”

Clay said he plans to present a program on his family history for the Daughters of the Texas Revolution next year, where he will continue to share the story of Texas, Washington County, and the Clays.

Ready for more Clay family history and details about Capt. Thomas Clay’s migration to Texas? 

The Pieces of Clay newsletter has the latest research and an update from Finney Clay. 

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