Ball, Thomas III (1836–1917)

By: Carson Nicola

Type: Biography

Published: May 30, 2022

Updated: May 30, 2022

Thomas Ball III, Texas state senator, assistant Texas attorney general, and special U. S. attorney, son of Thomas Ball and Mary Louisa (Hurst) Ball, was born in Northumberland County, Virginia, a coastal region on the state’s Northern Neck, on December 10, 1836. Ball was the eldest of six children and had two brothers, James and Warner Thomas, and three sisters, Xantippe, Jessie, and Maria Louisa.

Growing up in Virginia, Ball was educated in private schools before enrolling at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. On February 22, 1858, he was admitted to the Virginia bar, and he soon began a general practice in Northumberland and neighboring counties. Ball strongly opposed what he viewed as Northern aggression in the years preceding the Civil War. During a public meeting between residents of Northumberland and Lancaster counties, Ball nominated the counties’ representative to the state’s secession convention. Soon after Virginia’s secession in 1861, Ball joined the Confederate Army and enlisted in Virginia’s Forty-seventh Infantry, which elected him second lieutenant. The following year, having failed to be reelected, he left the Confederate service. But in September 1863 Ball joined Virginia’s Ninth Calvary, this time as a private. After ten months of service, on July 3, 1864, he was captured and taken as a prisoner of war. Ball was subsequently imprisoned at Point Lookout in Maryland until his release in a prisoner exchange on January 17, 1865.

After the war, Ball resumed his legal practice in Virginia, but in 1869 he moved to Weatherford, Texas, where he practiced law for two years. He then relocated to Jacksboro, Texas, where he was engaged in private practice until his election to the Texas Senate in 1876. Ball gained widespread recognition in 1871 when he and Joseph Woolfolk defended Kiowa war chiefs Satanta and Big Tree in the first case in U. S. history in which American Indians would be tried for murder under civil law. American Indian raids on U. S. settlers in North Texas had followed the 1867 signing of the Medicine Lodge Treaty, which, though never ratified by the affected tribes, forced the Kiowa, Kiowa-Apache, and Comanche tribes to relocate to a reservation in southwestern Indian Territory that was significantly smaller than the territories formally recognized by the United States. Satanta and Big Tree were tried for their role in a May 18, 1871, raid on freighting contractor Henry Warren’s mule train, an attack that killed seven people in Warren’s convoy (see WARREN WAGONTRAIN RAID). Ball’s relative unfamiliarity with the Texas frontier and its Indian wars likely raised questions among the public as to how he would navigate the defense of American Indians. His actions soon answered those questions: Accounts reflect that Ball and Woolfolk “made every effort to convince the jury of the innocence of their clients.” Ball urged the jurors to have compassion for the Kiowas on account of the injustices directed against them since the time of Spanish exploration. The case, and Ball’s eloquent defense, gained international attention. Despite Ball and Woolfolk’s efforts, however, Satanta and Big Tree were convicted of their crimes. Although Satanta and Big Tree were paroled as part of peace agreement in 1873, continued infidelity to the Medicine Lodge Treaty on the part of they U. S. government led to the Red River War and the continued subjugation of the Kiowa nation. The successful prosecuting attorney, Samuel W. T. Lanham, went on to become governor of Texas after the turn of the century.

In 1876, having earned a reputation as a skilled lawyer and being “imbued with strong party feelings,” Ball ran as a Democrat for a seat in the Texas State Senate. In an election against Isaac Duke Parker of Tarrant County and Joel W. Booth of Wise County, Ball won the seat with a 235-vote majority. Representing District 23, encompassing Clay, Jack, Montague, Parker, Tarrant, Wise, and Young counties, Ball was sworn in on April 18, 1876, to serve in the Fifteenth Texas Legislature. He served on more than a dozen committees during his lone term as a legislator, most notably the General Land Office Committee, for which he was the chair. On February 27, 1878, nearing the end of his term, Thomas Ball married Lalla Roohk Gresham in Galveston, Texas. Gresham was also a native of Virginia and was the sister of railroad executive and state legislator Walter Gresham. The marriage produced nine children, five of whom survived past the age of two.

After the culmination of Ball’s two-year term, Governor-elect Oran M. Roberts appointed Ball to serve as assistant attorney general for the state of Texas. He was confirmed on January 23, 1879. Labeled as a “present able and efficient” assistant attorney general, Ball represented the state of Texas from 1879 to 1881. In 1880 he was cited as an aspirant for the attorney generalship after Attorney General George McCormick declined to seek another term. Local presses spoke highly of Ball and cited his skills as an orator and his “unbounded energy” as an advocate for the state. Nonetheless Ball declined to have his name brought before the nomination convention.

In 1882 Ball returned to Northumberland County, Virginia, and continued his law practice. Though now removed from Texas politics, he wrote letters in support of conservative Democratic gubernatorial candidate George Clark against progressive Democrat James S. Hogg in the 1892 election. Clark was staunchly opposed to the Railroad Commission created by Hogg. In May 1892 Ball was appointed as a special U. S. attorney by President Benjamin Harrison. He was charged with investigating claims made under the Indian Depredation Act, which allowed citizens to seek compensation from the federal government over loss of property to American Indian attacks. Initially assigned to cases in Texas, in 1894 Ball traveled from Eureka, California, to Los Angeles in the attempt to settle the large number of claims against the government. By 1896 he had returned to Virginia.

Ball’s political leanings began to shift in his later years. In 1896 he was considered for nomination to the U. S. House of Representatives by the Republican Congressional Convention of Virginia’s First District. Despite residing in an area considered to be a Democratic stronghold, Ball spoke publicly in opposition to the free silver movement, suggesting his position as a “sound-money” advocate. Although Ball and his fellow Republicans were ridiculed in local editorials for small turnouts and for generating minimal enthusiasm, President William McKinley lost Ball’s Northumberland County by only two votes in the 1900 election. In 1904 Ball was an elector for Northumberland County Republicans at district and state-level conventions alongside his son, Thomas Ball IV.

Around 1907 Ball moved to southern California, where he spent the remainder of his life. After being admitted to the California bar in 1908, he continued to work as an attorney and remained committed to civic activity. Ball served as president and secretary-treasurer of the Virginia State Association of Los Angeles and took part in public debates. Thomas Ball III died at his home in Los Angeles on May 11, 1917, at the age of eighty. He was buried in Hollywood Cemetery, later renamed Hollywood Forever Cemetery.

Thomas Ball, “Trial of Satanta and Big Tree, July 5 & 6, 1871; Pageant trial, July 4 & 5, 1940,” Satanta & Big Tree Scrapbook, William and Mary Law School Scholarship Repository. Biographical Encyclopedia of Texas (New York: Southern Publishing Company, 1880). Johnny D. Boggs, “Judgment at Jacksboro: The State of Texas vs. Satanta and Big Tree,” True West, October 1, 2003 (, accessed May 17, 2022. Compiled Service Records of Confederate Soldiers Who Served in Organizations from the State of Virginia, National Archives and Records Service, Washington. Galveston Daily News, April 16, 1880; June 24, 1880. Legislative Reference Library of Texas: Thomas Ball (, accessed May 17, 2022. La Grange Journal, March 3, 1880. “Lieut Thomas Ball III,” Find A Grave Memorial (, accessed May 17, 2022. Los Angeles Herald, May 12, 1917. Norfolk Virginian, April 3, 1895. Richmond Dispatch, September 18, 23, 1896. Richmond Enquirer, January 29, 1861. Weatherford Enquirer, April 14, 1892. Willoughby Rodman, History of the Bench and Bar of Southern California (Los Angeles: William J. Porter, 1909).

  • Law, Law Enforcement, and Outlaws
  • Lawyers
  • Military
  • Confederate Military
  • Soldiers
  • Politics and Government
  • Government Officials
  • Senate
  • State Legislators
  • Fifteenth Legislature (1876)
Time Periods:
  • Reconstruction
  • Late Nineteenth-Century Texas
  • North Texas

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

Carson Nicola, “Ball, Thomas III,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 28, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

May 30, 2022
May 30, 2022