Thomas Henry Mathis, tobacco merchant, founder of Rockport, and rancher, was born in Stewart County, Tennessee, on July 14, 1834, the son of James and Isabella (Boyd) Mathis. During his boyhood and adolescence he worked on a farm. At the age of twenty he left home to attend a school conducted by his cousin, Joshua Thompson Mathis, in southern Arkansas, where he subsequently stayed for fifteen months as a teacher. In 1856 he organized a school of his own at Warren, Arkansas. The following year he attended Bethel College, and in 1858 he taught school in Murray, Kentucky. In January 1859 he moved to Southwest Texas. In the following months he and his cousin J. M. Mathis and two other men made a successful trading trip into Mexico. In 1861 Mathis moved from Gonzales to Victoria and enlarged his business. As a result of the blockade of Gulf ports by the Union Army at the beginning of the Civil War, he was forced to close his business, but began to run tobacco and managed to elude the blockade successfully. Also, in the spring and summer of 1862, he had great success in forwarding supplies from Texas to the soldiers of the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department. Mathis joined the Confederate Army in the fall of 1862. He was a member of Company E, Duff's Regiment. After the war he resumed his tobacco trade between Tennessee and Texas.
In February 1867 Thomas and J. M. Mathis built the first wharf in Rockport. The firm of J. M. and T. H. Mathis chartered the Prince Albert, the first steamboat ever to enter Aransas Bay for commercial purposes. After the loss of the Prince Albert at sea, the firm persuaded the Morgan Lines to run its ships into Rockport and became the agent for that company. In 1869 J. M. and T. H. Mathis gave $5,500 for the improvement of the pass into Aransas Bay between St. Joseph and Mustang islands to provide access to the deep water of the Gulf of Mexico. They built the Orleans Hotel and a number of other prominent buildings, constructed bridges, made county roads, and were active in securing other public improvements. The Mathis cousins joined with three other ranchers in 1871 to form the Coleman, Mathis, Fulton Cattle Company (see COLEMAN-FULTON PASTURE COMPANY). It was one of the first cattle firms in the state to fence a large pasture. In 1879 the cattle company was dissolved, but J. M. and T. H. Mathis continued in business together for another year.
Thomas Mathis contributed to bringing the Western Union telegraph, the first telephone line, and the first meat-refrigerating plant in Texas to Rockport. He was also one of the leaders in introducing blooded cattle and horses into Southwest Texas. His own ranching operations were extensive. In later years he owned 24,000 acres of fine land on the Nueces River in San Patricio County, all well fenced and well stocked with thoroughbred and graded cattle and horses. His total investment in real estate and personal property at this time was about $240,000.
Mathis was married first to Mrs. Cora Linda Lampkin Caldwell, who died of typhoid shortly after the marriage. On August 26, 1875, he married Mary Jane Nold in Murray, Kentucky. They made their home in Rockport and had eight children. Mathis was a Democrat. He died in Rockport on March 19, 1899, and is buried there.