Texas’ first likely millionaire wasn’t from Dallas or Houston. He came from East Texas--and he didn’t make his money from oil.
Frost Thorn, an early storekeeper from Nacogdoches, had a worth of more than a million after Texas won its independence from Mexico in 1836.
While the records of Thorn’s birthplace are sketchy, he lived most of his life in Nacogdoches and died there in 1851. When Nacogdoches was only a frontier outpost, Thorn operated a general store within blocks of the Old Stone Fort during the time it stood in downtown Nacogdoches, but his fortune was composed largely of real estate spread over Texas from the Sabine River to the Rio Grande.
A biographer wrote in 1934, “Thorn had property in every present-day Texas county and his property was not in small pieces...anything less than a league in those days was almost too small to speak of.”
Today, Thorn might have been called a land shark, but looking back at his career, he was a remarkable visionary who knew that Texas would someday be peopled by men and women with a passion for owning land.
When Texas won its independence in 1836, laws were passed giving several leagues of land to each person who lived here at the time of the revolution from Mexico. Script was distributed for land ownership's and the holders could collect their lands, sell them or trade it for something else.
Some of those who received script came to Texas only to fight in the revolution and when the war was over, many of them returned to the United States.
Because Nacogdoches was on the El Camino Real--the major travel artery between Texas and the U.S.--Thorn’s store became a place where the script could be traded for horses, whiskey, saddles, guns and anything else needed by the restless adventurers. Realizing the opportunities, Thorn helped them fill out the necessary papers allowing him to trade for their land.
His old store ledger, which recorded most of his transactions during the early l830s, indicated he had customers in a radius of probably 100 miles around Nacogdoches.
Since Nacogdoches was on the frontier, it’s easy to understand why Thorn’s biggest selling items were whiskey, gunpowder and lead--with whiskey the most demanded commodity. It sold by the bit--12.5 cents a drink or two bits (25 cents) for a pint. Customers who bought a pint were required to make a 25-cent deposit until the bottle was refunded.
Gunpowder was sold in bulk with trappers and Indian traders buying it by the kegs. Lead was sold in heavy bars.
Thorn also did a good business with local Indians. He bought deer skins for 16 cents a pound and beef hides for a dime a pound. He then turned the hides over to his tannery to produce leather goods, paying his tannery workers $4.50 a week.
Thorn was not only Texas’ first likely millionaire, but was probably the state’s first banker, too. He advanced money to his customers and charged them interest. And it wasn’t uncommon for some customers to issue a written order to an Indian or laborer, who would get their money from Thorn.
The date that Sam Houston arrived in Texas is also recorded in Thorn’s ledger. The first thing Sam bought was a drink of whiskey at Thorn’s store, which seems to fit his hard-driving, hard-drinking reputation.
Thorn and his wife had two children, a daughter Mary and a son, Thorn, Jr. Mary married New York financier W.T. Garner.
Both children of Texas’ first millionaire died tragically. The two families--Mr. and Mrs. Garner and Mr. and Mrs. Frost, Jr.--were lost when their yacht was shipwrecked in an Atlantic Ocean storm.
(Bob Bowman of Lufkin is the author of more than 50 books about East Texas history and folklore. He can be reached at bob-bowman.com)