Bailey, James Briton (1779–1832)

By: Merle Weir

Type: Biography

Published: 1952

Updated: June 21, 2020

James Brit(t)on (Brit) Bailey, one of Stephen F. Austin's Old Three Hundred colonists, was born in North Carolina on August 1, 1779. He married Edith Smith, and the couple had six children; after her death around 1815, Bailey married her sister, Nancy, also known as Dorothy or Dot Smith, and they had five children. Bailey apparently lived in Kentucky for a number of years and reportedly served in the legislature of that state; however he acquired a controversial reputation and may have been prosecuted for the crime of forgery before he left the state. He also resided in Tennessee for a number of years and fought in the War of 1812. He, his family, and six adult slaves moved to Texas around 1818 and settled near the Brazos River, where Bailey allegedly bought land from the Spanish government. After Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821 he continued to claim title to his land, although the Mexican government did not recognize his title. Possibly due either to Bailey's reputation in Kentucky or his questionable land claim, Stephen F. Austin ordered him to leave the Austin colony. However, on July 7, 1824, Austin recognized Bailey's squatter's claim to a league and a labor of land on the east bank of the Brazos River near what is now Bailey's Prairie.

Although Bailey and Austin reportedly disliked one another, Austin convened settlers from the lower Brazos region to Bailey's home to take an oath of fidelity to the Constitution of 1824. At that meeting Bailey became lieutenant of a company of militia. In 1829 Governor José María Viesca granted him a commission as captain. Bailey fought in the battles of Jones Creek and Velasco, respectively in 1824 and 1832.

He became known for his eccentric behavior and frequently engaged in brawls. He died on December 6, 1832, probably from cholera. He was buried in the family graveyard on Bailey's Prairie. His will, still extant, required that he be buried standing up and facing the West" legend has added "with my rifle at my side and a jug of whiskey at my feet." His ghost is said to wander the area as a white round ball of light, known as Bailey's Light, searching for more whiskey. The Texas Historical Commission placed a marker near Bailey's Prairie in 1970 to commemorate his life.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: James Briton Bailey Papers, Barker Texas History Center, University of Texas at Austin. Eugene C. Barker, ed., The Austin Papers (3 vols., Washington: GPO, 1924–28). James A. Creighton, A Narrative History of Brazoria County (Angleton, Texas: Brazoria County Historical Commission, 1975). Edward M. Golson, "Baileys and Polleys among Earliest Texans," Frontier Times, February 1936. Josephine Polley Golson, Bailey's Light: Saga of Brit Bailey and Other Hardy Pioneers (San Antonio: Naylor, 1950). Noah Smithwick, The Evolution of a State, or Recollections of Old Texas Days (Austin: Gammel, 1900; rpt., Austin: University of Texas Press, 1983). Vertical Files, Barker Texas History Center, University of Texas at Austin.

Time Periods:
  • Mexican Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Merle Weir, “Bailey, James Briton,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 14, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

June 21, 2020

This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: