Jared Ellison Groce, planter, public official, and the wealthiest settler in Stephen F. Austin's colony, was born in Halifax County, Virginia, on October 12, 1782, the son of Jared Ellison and Sarah (Sheppard) Groce. In 1802 he moved to South Carolina, where he acquired valuable property and married Mary Ann Waller, daughter of Texas pioneer Leonard Waller, on August 29, 1804. Later that year he moved to Lincoln County, Georgia, where he purchased a large estate. There he became a delegate to the convention that drafted the Georgia constitution. After his wife's death in 1814, Groce moved to Alabama and established a settlement known as Fort Groce. He heard of Austin's colonization scheme in 1821 and decided to move to Texas.
With the aid of some fifty wagons and ninety slaves, Groce and his effects reached the Brazos River in January 1822. He began constructing a homestead, which soon became Bernardo Plantation, on the east bank four miles south of the site of present-day Hempstead. In recognition of the extensive property that he had brought with him, he was granted title to ten leagues of land by the Mexican government, on July 29, 1824. These original holdings were soon augmented by shrewd purchases. It is said, for example, that in 1828 Groce acquired the league on which Courtney was founded in exchange for a riding pony and a bolt of cloth. In 1822 he cultivated what may have been the first cotton crop in the Austin colony and in 1825 constructed one of the earliest gins in Texas, on the Brazos River, now in southwestern Grimes County. By the end of 1822 he had built a large house at Bernardo on a hill overlooking the Brazos near the mouth of Fish Pond Creek; here he resided until 1833, when the malarial environment of the Brazos bottoms compelled him to divide his estate among his children and move several miles northward to Wallace Prairie, now in Grimes County. Here, accompanied by twenty slaves, on an open hill in a three-league tract of land on the east bank of the Brazos, Groce constructed a new home known as Groce's Retreat. The establishment included a primitive sawmill for processing logs hewn from nearby junipers. During the 1830s, in order to defend his home against occasional Indian raids, Groce armed a company of his slaves.
He had been a participant in the affairs of the Austin colony since 1824, when he chaired a committee to petition the Mexican congress for the protection of slave property in Texas. He actively opposed the Fredonian Movement and placed his ferry, wagons, teams, and slaves at the disposal of Col. Mateo Ahumada as he marched to Nacogdoches to suppress the uprising in 1827 (see FREDONIAN REBELLION). Groce was selected as a delegate from the District of Viesca (later Milam County) to the Convention of 1832, where he opposed the resolution seeking independence for Texas and chaired a committee to draft petitions for tariff reduction. He was returned to the Convention of 1833, where he again participated actively.
But whatever the grounds of his earlier reluctance, by 1836 Groce had espoused revolution. Though he was crippled in both arms and unfit for military duty, he is reported to have personally outfitted five men for service in the Texas army. The draft of the Texas Declaration of Independence was completed before March 2 by George C. Childress at Groce's Retreat, whence it was returned to Washington-on-the-Brazos for ratification. Between March 18 and March 21, 1836, the Retreat served as the temporary capital of the Republic of Texas, while the interim government of David G. Burnet stopped there en route from Washington to Harrisburg. In April before the battle of San Jacinto, Gen. Sam Houston and his army camped on the west bank of the Brazos opposite Bernardo, which Groce's son, Leonard Waller Groce, had inherited. For two weeks Leonard Groce supplied the army with provisions, shelter, and medical attention. After San Jacinto, Groce's Retreat was among the venues considered to become the permanent capital of the republic.
Many regarded Groce as a man with a wide reputation for hospitality and generosity; his home was reported to be continually filled with weary travelers, whom he unfailingly received as his guests. He encouraged and assisted the immigration of many families and individuals to Texas, the most notable of whom was his friend Sam Houston. However, in his diary, José María Sánchez y Tapía, who served as draftsman for the boundary-commission expedition led by Gen. Manuel de Mier y Terán in 1828–29, offered a very different and critical description of Groce when Sánchez and a small party stayed at the Bernardo Plantation in May 1828. Camping outside under the trees, the party was “asked…into the house for the sole purpose of showing…the wealth of Mr. Groce….” Sánchez wrote, “We returned immediately to our camp and went to bed without supper because we could not get anything.” Sánchez asserted that Groce had stolen many of his slaves, treated them “with great cruelty,” and did not “enjoy his wealth” because he was “extremely stingy ….”
Groce and his first wife had three sons and a daughter. In 1814 Groce married Ann Waller, Mary's sister, and they had two additional children. Ann died in 1818. Austin County records contain a copy of Groce's will dated October 24, 1838; he died in 1839 and was buried at Bernardo. The present community of Retreat was established in 1851 two miles east of Groce's Retreat on the route of a stage line from Houston to Anderson.