It’s odd how history can be so important but so deceiving. Stories are told over and over. Every time someone new passes the story on it is a little bit different. 

It’s just a story: Who cares if it is precisely accurate? By retelling these stories, they become accepted and the naming of Waxahachie is just such a story. A Harvard University history professor said, “So many things are lost and have disappeared. We think we know the past. We don’t know the past. We know pieces of the past.” 

Our story will seek to find who named Waxahachie and then study his life for clues to his reasons for selecting that name. A person is the result of his experiences and how he deals with them. They led him to the actions he took and the results he got. We’ll also look at more traditional explanations for the name.

When we moved here, we learned quickly how to pronounce the name and that it means “Cow Creek” or maybe “Buffalo Creek” in some Native American tongue. The Tonkawas had lived here before white people moved in, maybe they named it. Wichitas and Caddos were also in the area before Anglos moved in.

Let’s start by deciding who did name our town. Then we will try to determine why he picked that name and then where the name came from. Again, we will review several other options for the name.

On Nov. 12, 1849, the Texas state representative from Navarro County, Edward Hampton Tarrant, introduced two bills to the 3rd Session of the Texas House of Representatives of our new state. The first bill would create a new county named Ellis from part of Navarro County. The county seat of this county would be named Waxahachie, he said. Concurrently, he introduced another bill creating Tarrant County and naming its county seat Birdville.

The Ellis County bill passed the House Nov. 22 with only a minor change to its boundary. It was received in the Senate on Nov. 23 and passed the Senate on Dec. 15, 1849. On the 21st, a new governor, Peter Bell, was sworn in and he signed the bill into law Dec. 23, 1849. Since the bill was signed without change, except for a small alteration of the boundary, it means the name was in the bill from the start and Tarrant really did name our fair city and county. 

He named our county after Richard Ellis, president of the Republic of Texas Constitutional Convention and a neighbor of his when he lived in Red River County, but where did “Waxahachie” come from?

In 1796, Edward Hampton Tarrant was born near Bamberg, South Carolina, the son of Samuel and Nancy Anna Hampton Tarrant. Nancy was from Greenville County, South Carolina. Bamberg is on the Salkahachie River and near the Coosahachie River. Note the “hachie” in both names. The Coosaw and Salkaw were Native American tribes in that area and “hachie” is the Coosaw word for creek or river, according to the South Carolina Historic Commission. 

Many rivers in the Carolinas, Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee are named something hachie or hatchie. Tarrant grew up and lived in these areas until he was about 40 so he must have been familiar with the practice of naming a river by an Indian name such as Coosa or Salka with the word “hachie.” So, we have cleared up the hachie part.

We could stop right here with this definition of “hachie” and skip on to the rest of the name but since Tarrant’s life was so interesting and since he was so important to our county, let’s follow him for a while.

Soon after Edward’s birth, the family moved to Tennessee but, before Edward was 3 years old, his father had passed away. His mother returned to the Greenville, South Carolina area, and after remarrying moved back to Tennessee, where Edward grew up and matured. 

By 1812, Tarrant was living in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky. At this time, the United States and Great Britain were engaged in the War of 1812. In December 1815, Gen. Andrew Jackson was preparing to meet the British at the Battle of New Orleans and Tarrant enlisted as a corporal in Lt. Col. William Mitchuson’s Regiment of the 14th Kentucky Militia under Gen. Adair. They were armed with their Kentucky long rifles and fought at the Battle of New Orleans with Gen. Jackson. They were stationed right at the hottest spot of the battle and acquitted themselves well. Jackson said his Kentucky and Tennessee long rifles had saved the day.

Tarrant married Polly Young in Caldwell County, Kentucky, in 1816. He and Polly had a son. From there, he moved to Henry County, Tennessee, where he became sheriff. From that time, he was a prominent figure. He organized several Masonic lodges and was well-known to the people of Tennessee and Kentucky. 

From Henry County, he moved to Henderson County, Tennessee. There, he was circuit court clerk from 1828 to 1836. The 1830 U.S. Census listed his household in Lexington and Tarrant as age 30 to 39, his wife as age 30 to 39 and their son as age 15 to 19 while noting they had two female slaves, a young woman and a girl. Tarrant was named colonel in the militia of the New Frontier Environment to ensure safety and justice in western Tennessee, a preview of things to come.

By 1836, he had moved near Clarksville, Red River County, Republic of Texas. Red River County at that time included all or parts of nine present-day counties, including Fannin and Bowie. Richard Ellis lived near New Boston in Bowie County, just a few miles from Clarksville in Red River County. He and Sam Houston were probably neighbors of Tarrant. 

Tarrant moved to Texas after the battle for freedom against Santa Anna. He was elected to serve as representative to the Republic of Texas from Red River County but declined so he could take up a new career as an Indian fighter. In those days, all of north and west Texas was inhabited by Native Americans as well as recent immigrants like the Tarrants and Houstons. On Nov. 18, 1839, he was elected brigadier general of the 4th Brigade of the Republic of Texas Militia. This unit consisted of four companies with 100 mounted men in each company. He was to direct activities against the Indians, whose depredations kept the unit busy almost constantly. Red River and Fannin counties were the western edge of “civilization” at that time.

His Indian fighting reached its peak in 1841 at the Battle of Village Creek, which is the border between Arlington and Fort Worth, Texas. There were several tribes living in that area, including Caddos, Wichitas and Cherokees that were stealing animals and causing mischief. In fact, this line of Indian villages was keeping whites from moving west and Comanches from moving east. Gen. Tarrant led a troop that permanently removed them from the area and opened it up to white settlement. The Dallas Morning News reviewed the battle in a May 24, 1931, article. His battles still drew admiration 73 years after his death. The final Dallas Herald newspaper articles about him call him “Our Beloved General.”

Meanwhile, in Navarro County, William R. Howe and the Billingsley brothers had moved into the area. Another early resident was Emory W. Rogers of hotel and Civil War fame, who later donated land for the city of Waxahachie. 

About 1844, Tarrant settled in Navarro County near the other, earlier pioneers at a place now called Fort Farm. At that time, Navarro County was much larger. He was elected representative from Navarro County in 1849 after statehood. When the county seat was moved from Forreston to Corsicana over his objection, he introduced bills into the 3rd session of the Texas State House of Representatives creating Ellis and Tarrant counties from parts of Navarro County. As part of the bills, the county seat of Ellis County was to be Waxahachie and the seat of Tarrant County was to be Birdville. Tarrant included those names in the legislation as we have seen. 

Tarrant was apparently known for naming places. 

When he had moved to Navarro County, he had renamed Chambers Creek after the deputy surveyor of the area, Capt. Barzillai Jefferson “BJ” Chambers. The area had originally been named after earlier settlers, the Howe Family. Ellis County he named for Richard Ellis, president of the Republic of Texas Constitutional Convention who was also his neighbor in Red River County; Tarrant County after himself; and Birdville, county seat of Tarrant County, after an officer in his militia.

Tarrant set up his farm on Lumpkin Road south of Forreston. He was said to have involved family members and slaves in the operation, which included a steam mill and a number of buildings. The mill ground most of the breadstuff for Ellis County in the 1840s.

In 1850, Tarrant’s first wife, Polly, died and, on April 6, 1851, he married Mary Danforth from Arkansas. She was 19 and he was 55. They continued to live at his farm on Chambers Creek near Forreston, Ellis County, and participated in the social life of Waxahachie. As he had in earlier locations, Tarrant helped set up the Dallas Masonic Lodge. He often visited the Waxahachie Lodge and he and his family often visited Waxahachie for entertainment. He became an officer in the Texas Masonic Lodge. Because of his favorable reputation and list of achievements, he was held in high esteem by the white population. 

The 1850 U.S. Census listed Tarrant as a farmer born in South Carolina. The value of his property was listed as $6,000, making him very well to do. The 1850 slave census listed 12 slaves owned by him ranging in age from 2 to 50 years old. None were named.

In addition to farming, Tarrant also practiced law in Waxahachie. He took in 19-year-old James Emerson “J. Em” Hawkins, one of the Hawkins Street Hawkinses, to teach him law. Later, they became partners and advertised in the Dallas Herald as practicing in several counties so they were probably successful. 

In 1847, Tarrant ran for lieutenant governor but he was defeated by John Alexander Greer. He served in the House of Representatives in the 3rd and 4th Texas legislatures from 1849 to 1853. In 1856, Tarrant was named president of the first Railroad Commission in his District 16. They went about the business of setting up railroads. Imagine, the Railroad Commission setting up railroads!

In 1857, Indian depredations became ever more frequent in north Texas. The Dallas Herald had daily stories about thefts and robberies and the lack of government interest in protecting Texans from the marauding Comanches and other tribes. By the middle of 1858, the Comanches’ raiding and stealing in northern Texas became too much for the settlers to handle. Gen. Tarrant moved part of his household to Fort Belknap in Young County near Graham in preparation for a military action. Fort Belknap was the most northern of a line of forts from the Rio Grande to the Red River.

On his way from Chambers Creek to Fort Belknap, Tarrant became ill. He held on for several weeks, and his family rallied around him, but he died Aug. 2, 1858, at the home of William Fondren, about 10 miles from Weatherford in Parker County, where he was buried. He was reinterred on his farm on Chambers Creek on Jan. 28, 1859, with a procession organized by the Masons. The procession rode from Waxahachie to his home on Chambers Creek. He was buried a third time March 3, 1928, in Pioneer Rest Cemetery, Fort Worth, in the county that was named for him.

By Feb. 9, 1859, Tarrant’s law partner, J. Em. Hawkins, had listed 640 acres near the home of the late Gen. E.H. Tarrant for sale in the Dallas Herald. He also married Tarrant’s widow, Mary Danforth Tarrant, in November 1859. He was named executor of Tarrant’s estate and looked after the affairs of his late friend and partner. 

“Our Beloved General” was mainly known in Texas as an Indian fighter and had many battles to his credit. Why would an Indian fighter name a town after Indians and which Indians were they? Now let’s explore that question.

In 1700, an English gentleman named John Lawson was preparing for a grand tour of Europe. This tradition would involve a yearlong trip visiting all of the cultural centers of Europe such as Vienna, Berlin, Paris and many other places. A friend told him if he wanted a really grand tour he should visit South Carolina in the British colony. He did just that, arriving in Charlestown (now Charleston) in the rainy season. 

Not to be deterred by common sense, he rented a rowboat and, as he wrote, “On December the 28th, 1700 I began my voyage – being six Englishmen in company, with three Indian men and one woman.” They endured many hardships with the high water and cold in South Carolina’s Low Country and met new Indian tribes about every 20 miles. He had very low opinions of these. In fact, by 1700, the native tribes had become so dependent on the English for tools and weapons that they had lost most of their self-respect and, with that, their tribal pride, with one notable exception. 

After considerable unpleasantness, Lawson’s party came across yet another tribe, the Waxhaw Indians. He described their pathways as cleared ground and their “very large and lightsome cabin the like I have not met withal.” The Waxhaws brought deer skins to put over cane benches and served them delicious foods. This was the only tribe that impressed him. The Waxhaws rated several pages in his book, the only tribe so treated. In the Carolinas, the Waxhaw name is preserved in Waxhaw Creek and several small towns in their area. The Waxhaws lived in the area around Greenville and Lancaster, South Carolina, the area where Tarrant’s mother and ancestors had lived.

The Waxhaws were very prominent and had a style that the white people appreciated more than other tribes. Did he name our city after an Indian tribe from his past? Did Waxhaw plus hachie become Waxahachie? After Tarrant’s father died, his mother moved back to this area before remarrying.

After Lawson’s trip, he wrote a book in 1709, really a travelog, in which he told the story of the Waxhaws, saving it for our information today. 

Many rivers in the states mentioned above use an Indian name plus hachie or hatchie. There is even a Waxahachie Creek in southeast Alabama.

It seems clear that Tarrant was very familiar with the word “hachie” and the Waxhaw Indians and could have put them together for us. But why would a man renowned for fighting Indians name a town after some of them? The evidence is all there but we don’t have the motive. Remember, “We only know part of history.” 

Are there other options? 

It has been long thought that the name is from a nearby Indian tribe. The Tonkawas, who were in this area, and the Wichita, who centered around Waco, are the closest so let’s look at their stories.

We can quickly dispose of any Tonkawa connection. A call to the Tonkawa Tribal Office led to a conversation with their president, Don L. Patterson. He explained that a word like “Waxahachie” is not the form of any Tonkawa words. In fact, in Tonkawa we would be Awas-atak ahx. 

The Caddo language is related somewhat to the Wichita language. Michael Sheyahshe has compiled a Socrata or Caddo to English dictionary in an attempt to preserve that language. In his work, the Caddo word for buffalo is tah’-na-ha. The word for creek is mash-kuh’-kih. This does not look like Waxahachie. The word for cow is waa’kas, which is a little better, but we would be Waakas mash-kuh’-kih in Caddo.

The Wichita language seems a little more logical on the surface. Dr. David S. Boon has been working with the Wichita tribe on its language “for years.” He is mentioned on the tribe’s web page and has written a book about the language so it will not be lost. He is a recognized authority on the Wichita language. Dr. Boon says the Wichitas claim the name, Waxahachie, comes from their words waks’ahe:ts’i. You can see the similarity. This translates into English as Fat Wildcat. Could the Waxahachie football team be The Fighting Fat Wildcats? Remember, there is a Waxahachie in Alabama and the Wichitas did not live there.

Throughout this inquiry, there was no proof as to where the “Buffalo Creek” name came from. It is not Wichita, Tonkawa or Caddo. If any of their words are similar they translate into something else. It was just one of those stories.

The trouble with local Indian traditions is that these tribes had been driven from this area well before Tarrant moved in and were considered thieves and worse. Tarrant would not have had any knowledge of the tribes except for hearsay or finding arrowheads in the fields. Remember, Tarrant is the one who put the name in the bill. Tarrant’s version, on the other hand, was based on the tribal name, which would have been familiar to his grandparents and probably his parents. The hachie name for creek was commonly found everywhere he lived before he moved to Texas in 1836 at the age of 40.


John Hamilton is a resident of Waxahachie. He serves on the Ellis County Museum board of directors and is a member of the Waxahachie Rotary Club.

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