John Neely Bryan, Indian trader, farmer, lawyer, and founder of Dallas, son of James and Elizabeth (Neely) Bryan, was born on December 24, 1810, in Fayetteville, Tennessee. He attended Fayetteville Military Academy and after reading law was admitted to the Tennessee bar. Around 1833 he moved to Arkansas, where he became an Indian trader. According to some sources, he and a partner laid out the town of Van Buren, Arkansas. Bryan made his first trip to the future site of Dallas, Texas, in 1839. He returned to Van Buren temporarily to settle his affairs, and in November 1841 he was back in Texas. He settled on the east bank of the Trinity River, not far from the present location of downtown Dallas. In the spring of 1842 he persuaded several families who had settled at Bird's Fort to join him. On February 26, 1843, Bryan married Margaret Beeman, a daughter of one of these families. The couple had five children. Bryan served as postmaster in the Republic of Texas and operated a ferry across the Trinity where Commerce Street crosses the river today. In 1844 he persuaded J. P. Dumas to survey and plat the site of Dallas and possibly helped him with the work. Bryan was instrumental in the organizing of Dallas County in 1846 and in the choosing of Dallas as its county seat in August 1850. When Dallas became the county seat, Bryan donated the land for the courthouse.
He joined the California gold rush in 1849 but returned to Dallas within a year. In January 1853 he was a delegate to the state Democratic convention. In 1855, after shooting a man who had insulted his wife, Bryan fled to the Creek Nation. The man recovered, but although Bryan was surely informed of that fact within months of his flight, he did not return to his family in Dallas for about six years. He traveled to Colorado and California, apparently looking for gold, and returned to Dallas in 1860 or early 1861. He joined Col. Nicholas H. Darnell's Eighteenth Texas Cavalry regiment in the winter of 1861 and served with that unit until late 1862, when he was discharged because of his age and poor health. When he returned to Dallas in 1862, he became active once more in community affairs. In 1863 he was a trustee for Dallas Male and Female Academy. In 1866 he was prominent in efforts to aid victims of the flood that occurred that year. He also chaired a citizens' meeting that pressed for the completion of the Houston and Texas Central Railway and presided at a rally seeking full political rights for all ex-Confederates. In 1871–72 he was one of the directors of the Dallas Bridge Company, the company that built the first iron bridge across the Trinity. He was also on the platform at the welcoming ceremonies for the Houston and Texas Central train when it pulled into town in mid-July 1872.
By 1874 Bryan's mind was clearly impaired. He was admitted to the State Lunatic Asylum (later the Austin State Hospital) in February 1877, and he died there on September 8 of that year. He was a Presbyterian.