Jacob Carl DeGress, first Texas state superintendent of schools, was born to Carl Franz Wilhelm and Johanna Walburga (di Bramino) von Gress on April 23, 1842, in Cologne, Prussia. His father left Prussia because of political pressures, and by the time he died in 1856 he had moved his family to Cape Girardeau, Missouri. Jacob DeGress received eight years of formal education in Germany but did not continue school after his father died. He served as a cavalry commander in the Union Army during the Civil War. He fought at Vicksburg and in Louisiana and was wounded twice, promoted to major, and brevetted lieutenant colonel. He joined Gen. Joseph A. Mower's staff in 1864, as Mower moved with Gen. William T. Sherman's troops through Georgia.
DeGress entered Texas as General Mower's aide-de-camp in June 1865. He assumed the duties of assistant commissioner of the Freedmen's Bureau of the eastern division of the state. From 1865 to 1868, in positions at Galveston, Houston, and New Orleans (where he became secretary of civil affairs as well as inspector general of the Freedmen's Bureau), DeGress helped administer the bureau during the first years of radical Reconstruction. While working in Houston he married Bettie Buckner Young, the widow of a Confederate officer and daughter of a Castroville judge, on New Year's Day, 1867. The couple had seven children. In 1868 DeGress accepted a commission as captain in the regular army. He was assigned to the all-black Ninth United States Cavalry, located in West Texas, and on April 14, 1868, he reported to Fort Duncan at Eagle Pass. He commanded cavalry troops at the frontier post until December 1870, when he retired because of further trouble from his Civil War wounds.
After the passage of the 1871 public school law, Republican governor Edmund J. Davis appointed DeGress the state's first superintendent of public instruction. In this position DeGress attempted to institute a public school system with education for black children and compulsory attendance supported by a school tax. He traveled widely in order to promote and popularize public school reform, but he and public schools in general provoked strong opposition among Texans. Under constant attack, DeGress came to believe that Democrats "as a class" opposed tax-supported schools and only members of the Republican party should hold positions as school directors, a belief that cost him a Senate investigation. DeGress also protested the activities of the Ku Klux Klan, though he reassured the public that he too believed in segregation. In 1873 Democrats regained political power in Texas. Governor Richard Coke removed DeGress from his position in February 1874, and the idea of a public school system was made to wait.
DeGress was generally despised as a carpetbagger. Yet he remained in Texas after Reconstruction, made Austin his home, and continued to participate in political and community affairs. He was elected alderman from Austin's eighth ward in 1877 and became mayor that year. He was reelected in 1879, but a lawsuit challenging his eligibility was decided against him in August 1880, cutting short his second term. That summer DeGress's wife and two daughters died; he put his surviving daughter in St. Mary's Academy. On August 2, 1882, he married W. M. Johnston, a cousin of Gen. Joseph E. Johnston; they had three children.
DeGress was a delegate to state Republican conventions and served as treasurer and chairman of the state Republican executive committee. Republican presidents James A. Garfield and Benjamin Harrison appointed him postmaster of Austin, a position he filled from June 1881 to October 1885, and from October 1889 to December 1893. After another court ruling, he served again as alderman in 1887, and from 1885 to 1888 he was on various committees involved with the building and dedication of the Capitol. On March 19, 1894, DeGress died of complications from his war injuries; he was buried in Oakwood Cemetery, Austin. He was a Catholic.