Josiah Wright Kemble, merchant, farmer, and state legislator, was born to Abraham Kemble, a farmer who migrated from Virginia to Warren County, Kentucky, around 1810, and Mary “Polly” Foster (New) Kemble on August 22, 1820, in Warren County. Josiah who also went by Joe, was the oldest of eleven children. His siblings were Elizabeth, Sarah, Mary Elizabeth, Abraham Allen, Charles, John New, Charlotta, Fanny, M.T. Cicero, and Ann Cora. Kemble’s brother Abraham Allen was a lawyer in Waxahachie, Texas, and county attorney for Ellis County who attended the Secession Convention in Texas in 1861 and ran unsuccessfully for the legislature in 1869.
After the Kemble family moved to Graves County, Kentucky, Kemble married Catherine Eliza Stephens, and they had two children—James Hervey and Mary Charlotte. Catherine’s brother, Isaac Newton Stephens, and Kemble were business partners who co-owned general stores in Hickory Grove and Water Valley, both located in Graves County. Alongside his mercantile interests, Kemble owned land and slaves and listed his occupation as farmer on the 1850 and 1860 federal censuses. In 1860 Kemble owned 1,200 acres of land (200 of it improved) valued at $18,000, on which he reported growing 5,000 bushels of corn, 100 of wheat, and 90 of potatoes. He owned livestock—primarily swine—valued at $1,000 and seven slaves, five of whom were children under the age of ten.
Around 1861 both Kemble and Stephens moved their families to Ellis County, Texas, to flee the anticipated violence of the Civil War. Kemble’s brother Abraham had already relocated to the county, and Kemble settled in Red Oak. While still living in Kentucky, Kemble wrote a letter to Stephens recommending that they move to Texas and ship as many of their goods as they could from Memphis, Tennessee, to Texas by way of Shreveport, Louisiana. Kemble also instructed his partner that whichever one of them that left for Texas first “must take what Negroes that belong to us” (the pair owned ten slaves in 1860) “or nearly 20.” The purchase of additional slaves was to be financed by the disposal of their property in Kentucky. In one sale, Kemble and Stephens directly exchanged 120 acres of land for an adult male slave. After moving to Texas, Kemble grew cotton and traded in livestock and land. On September 28, 1864, Kemble was exempted from service in the Confederate Army under the provisions of the so-called “Twenty-Negro” law, which was enacted on October 11, 1862, and exempted from service any man who oversaw twenty or more slaves. Kemble’s military exemption certificate described him as five feet, eight-and-a-half inches tall, with hazel eyes, dark hair, and a dark complexion.
According to 1866 tax rolls for Ellis County, Kemble and Stephens co-owned 173½ acres of land, valued at $1,000. Kemble also co-owned nearly 700 additional acres, on which were kept fifty horses and thirty head of cattle, with a total valuation of $7,070. He also joined a local chapter of the Grange, where he held the office of secretary. In September 1872 a convention of the Democratic party of the Twentieth Legislative District nominated Kemble by acclamation as one of its three candidates for the state House, alongside Clinton M. Winkler and Levi Gillette. District 20, composed of Ellis, Hill, Kaufman, and Navarro counties, was represented by three representatives who ran in an at-large race. The three nominees defeated Hill County Democrats James J. Gathings and R. R. Booth and a token Republican opposition and took their seats in the Thirteenth Texas Legislature on January 14, 1973.
Kemble served on the Agriculture and Stock Raising Committee and on the Roads, Bridges and Ferries Committee; on a joint committee investigating the accounts of J. C. DeGress, former state superintendent of public schools; and on a committee established to examine the records of and railroad certificates issued by the General Land Office. As a legislator during Congressional Reconstruction, Kemble was a reliable vote for the Democrats’ agenda of rolling back the legislative gains of Republican governor Edmund J. Davis and Davis’s Black and White allies. The Democratic Clarksville Standard praised Kemble for his work as the House chair on the conference committee for Senate Bill No. 218, which, when passed over Governor Davis’s veto, effectively abolished the state system of public schools created by Republicans in 1871 (seeEDUCATION).
Kemble’s Democratic constituents approved of his course in the legislature and supported his reelection. Reporting on a Kemble speech in November 1873, the Dallas Weekly Herald described him as “a plain old farmer, sharp as a briar, honest as honesty itself . . . a man well fitted for Representative—observing, searching, laborious, intelligent, honest and independent.” The Austin Weekly Democratic Statesman likewise opined that “Mr. Kemble made a good member” and “should be [re]elected triumphantly,” which the district’s voters promptly did. Kemble’s reelection success came in spite of the fact that his district had been reconfigured and was now composed of Ellis, Tarrant, and Dallas counties. During the Fourteenth legislature, Democrats were in charge of both houses of the legislature and the governor’s office. Kemble served on the House committees on Agriculture and Stock Raising, Asylum and Public Building Repairs, Counties and County Boundaries, and Education, and he chaired the House Committee on Comptroller’s and Treasurer’s Office. The latter committee, along with the Senate Committee on Comptroller’s and Treasurer’s Accounts, was consolidated with a joint committee, co-chaired by Kemble, charged with investigating the financial dealings of the comptroller’s and treasurer’s offices under the two preceding Republican administrations. During both the Thirteenth and Fourteenth legislatures, Kemble supported Democrats’ efforts to call a constitutional convention to overturn the hated Republican Constitution of 1869. They succeeded in early 1875, and the convention adopted the Constitution of 1876.
In March 1875, near the end of the second session of the Fourteenth legislature, the House Journal noted that Kemble had been “indefinitely excused on account of sickness.” In June the Dallas Weekly Herald reported that he was “in very bad health from bronchitis, and has almost lost the power of speech.” Josiah Wright Kemble died at the age of fifty-five on August 29, 1875, in Ellis County. He was buried in the Kemble Cemetery, a family graveyard in Red Oak that Kemble’s widow and son donated to the Liberty Baptist Church in 1892 and which later became a public graveyard, the Red Oak Cemetery.
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Dallas Herald, May 20, 1871. Legislative Reference Library of Texas: Josiah Kemble (https://lrl.texas.gov/legeLeaders/members/memberDisplay.cfm?memberID=4781), accessed May 12, 2022. Carl H. Moneyhon, “Public Education and Texas Reconstruction Politics, 1871–1874,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly 92 (January 1989). Clarksville Standard, July 12, 1873. Kemble Stout, comp., Genealogy of the Kemble (Kimble) Family in America (Pullman, Washington: K. Stout, 1992). Austin Weekly Democratic Statesman, November 6, 1873. Dallas Weekly Herald, November 15, 1873; June 5, 1875.
Politics and Government
Fourteenth Legislature (1874-1875)
Thirteenth Legislature (1873)
Dallas/Fort Worth Region
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.
Michael Lee Griffin,
“Kemble, Josiah Wright,”
Handbook of Texas Online,
accessed June 28, 2022,
Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
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