John Slater Besser, explorer, prison administrator, and public servant, the son of Jacob and Susannah (Tinsley) Besser, was born on August 13, 1802, in Northumberland County, Pennsylvania. His father was a native of Heidelberg, Germany, and his mother a native of London, England. When Besser was two, his family moved to Philadelphia, where he attended the public school. In 1818 he left Philadelphia for the West. In St. Charles, Missouri, he spent three years learning the trade of a tailor. He accompanied William H. Ashley and his partner, Andrew Henry, in 1822 on a trapping and trading expedition up the Missouri River to the Yellowstone.
Subsequently, until November 1840, Besser was a resident of Missouri, where he served in the state militia and rose through the ranks to general. He was elected a justice of the county court of Lincoln County in 1830 and served in that capacity for four years. In 1834 he was elected as a Democrat to the Missouri legislature. After his terms he set out for the Republic of Texas. He settled near Huntsville in February 1841. In 1849 he moved into Huntsville, where he lived the remainder of his life. He served as a member of the commissioners' court of Montgomery County for two years, until the county was divided in 1846 into Montgomery, Grimes, and Walker counties.
Besser built the first jail in Walker County and was appointed purchasing agent, later known as financial agent, for the Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville, a position he held from 1852 to 1863. For twenty months during Sam Houston's administration he was out of office; in retaliation for Besser's failure to support his gubernatorial candidacy, Houston relieved Besser of his duties, an act that Houston later claimed was the only mistake of his administration. Besser is credited with having drafted rules for the regulation of the penitentiary, and during his administration a revenue-producing factory was instigated there. During Governor Francis R. Lubbock's administration Besser was investigated by the Texas legislature for mismanagement, possibly an event motivated by his Union sympathies. He was not accused of wrongdoing, but neither was doubt thoroughly erased. In 1863, after Confederate soldiers took cloth from the prison factory at gunpoint and fired shots into his office, Besser resigned.
He was a Mason, a Presbyterian elder, and a lifelong Democrat. He was one of two persons in Lincoln County, Missouri, who voted in 1824 for Andrew Jackson for president. In Texas he opposed annexation to the United States. Although he was an anti-Houston "Southern Rights" Democrat in 1859, he considered secession from the Union unwise and in 1861 voted against it. In 1878 he was county judge of Walker County, although he was not a lawyer. His administration of county affairs and his economical management of the public money won him praise from his peers.
Besser was married four times, but had children only with his first wife, Julia Hampton, daughter of Thomas Hampton, an American Revolutionary War soldier and relative of Gen. Wade Hampton. The couple married in Lincoln County, Missouri, in June 1825 and had nine children, of whom six grew to majority. Besser died on May 19, 1893, in Huntsville and is buried in Oakwood Cemetery there.