Parr, Archer (1859–1942)

By: Evan Anders

Type: Biography

Published: 1976

Updated: April 25, 2019

Archer (Archie) Parr, longtime political boss of Duval County, son of George Berham and Sarah Pamela (Givens) Parr, was born on Matagorda Island in Calhoun County on December 25, 1859. His father had fought in the Mexican War and later held a series of modest county offices in Texas, including the post of county clerk of Live Oak County. George Parr died when Archer was a child, and the young Parr dropped out of school in the third grade and became a wage earner to help support his mother and sister. The family was also supported by his uncle John S. Givens. By the time he arrived in Duval County in 1882, at the age of twenty-two, he had worked as a horse wrangler, a schoolteacher at Rockport, a ranchhand for the Coleman-Fulton Pasture Company in San Patricio County, and a trail boss for a cattle drive along the Chisholm Trail. After a brief stint as the manager of the Sweden Ranch, which was owned by the Lott and Nielson Pasture Company, Parr purchased his own tract of land near Benavides in the southern part of Duval County. In 1891 he married Elizabeth Allen. They eventually had five children, including Givens Parr, who graduated from Yale University, served twice as a Duval County judge, but focused most of his effort on ranching and irrigated farming; and George Berham Parr, who became the heir to the political empire that Archie Parr forged after 1900. In 1927 the Parrs adopted one of their grandchildren.

Although Mexican Americans formed the great majority of the Duval County population at the turn of the century, an Anglo-American and European-born elite had gained economic dominance with the acquisition of vast stretches of land and the establishment of successful businesses at the county seat, San Diego. In conformity to the South Texas tradition, these prominent ranchers and businessmen managed the voting of their Hispanic workers, but ethnic antagonism still plagued local politics. Many of the American and European settlers refused to adapt to Hispanic culture and exploited their workers without assuming any of the paternalistic responsibilities characteristic of Mexican patrones. The lynching of suspected rustlers, resentment over the loss of land, and the limitation of Mexican Americans to token representation in county government heightened tensions. To Parr these racial divisions offered political opportunity. As a rancher, he learned Spanish and acted as the patrĂ³n who looked after the special needs of his workers. When he decided to enter politics, the Mexican-American constituency at Benavides rallied to his cause. In 1898 and 1900, he won election to the county commissioners' court, and he retained Benavides as his power base after he stepped down from the court in 1903. After the assassination in 1907 of John Cleary, the county tax assessor who had engineered a Democratic sweep of the county elections of 1906, Parr took command of the Democratic machinery and established himself as the boss of Duval County. The key to his success was the Hispanic vote, which he controlled through a combination of paternalism, corruption, and coercion. In 1908 he reclaimed his seat on the commissioners' court and converted the county treasury into a political slush fund for the benefit of himself, his associates, and his impoverished constituents, who received informal and modest welfare payments. Illegal poll-tax payments also contributed to the broadening of Parr's base of support. The Duval boss even maneuvered to limit the participation of his rivals and their followers in the political process. The tax collector sometimes refused to accept poll-tax payments from Republican or Democratic spokesmen who agitated against Parr's system. The elimination of open-precinct conventions, the stationing of armed guards at the polling places to intimidate citizens, the distribution of marked ballots to illiterate voters, and the occasional tampering with the returns completed the corruption of the election process.

Despite the thoroughness of his tactics, Parr still faced serious challenges to his authority through the second decade of the twentieth century. In 1912 the Democratic chairman for Duval County, C. M. Robinson, tried to wrest control of the party machinery from Parr, and the ensuing struggle came to a climax with a gunfight, in which three Hispanic county officials were killed. That same year, the state Democratic convention voted to recognize the Robinson delegates as the legitimate representatives of Duval County, but a state judge closely aligned with Parr intervened to restore Parr's full control over the county Democratic organization. After the collapse of the Robinson rebellion, Parr's opponents abandoned election campaigning and turned to the courts for relief. One series of lawsuits blocked Parr's legislative efforts to divide Duval County into two counties and thus increase the patronage and tax revenue at his disposal (see PAT DUNN COUNTY). Another line of legal attack was designed to expose the corruption that pervaded county government and to force the removal of county officials. After a preliminary audit of the county financial records revealed fourteen types of illegal activity, a mysterious fire destroyed the courthouse and most of the remaining evidence on August 11, 1914. Undeterred, a local grand jury still indicted ten Duval County officials on various charges of corruption in January 1915. The jurors also indicted Archer Parr, who had won election to the Texas Senate in 1914. The cases, however, collapsed for lack of evidence.

By 1917 the political insurgents recognized the futility of trying to break Parr's control over Duval County, but they were determined to prevent his reelection to the state senate. In his 1918 campaign against D. W. Glasscock, Parr had to resort to every form of election fraud and manipulation that he had ever practiced to reverse an apparent defeat in the Democratic primary and to survive a vigorous write-in challenge in the general election. After a month-long investigation and debate, the state Senate voted sixteen to fourteen to uphold Parr's election victory. He remained in the Senate until 1934. In 1933, however, a successful federal civil suit for the recovery of unpaid back taxes cast Parr as a tax evader and revealed his involvement in bribery. The public reaction resulted in his election defeat. By the time of his death on October 18, 1942, Archer Parr had used his control of Duval County to build a vast personal fortune, and his son George, who had pleaded guilty to income tax evasion in 1934 and had served a brief term in prison, was already in control of the political machine that continued to dominate Duval County until 1975. See also BOSS RULE.

Evan Anders, Boss Rule in South Texas: The Progressive Era (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982). Dudley Lynch, The Duke of Duval: The Life and Times of George B. Parr (Waco: Texian Press, 1976). Kaye Northcott, "A Death in Duval," Texas Observer, April 25, 1975. Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.

  • Education
  • Educators
  • General Education
  • Ranching and Cowboys
  • Politics and Government
  • Government Officials
Time Periods:
  • Progressive Era
  • Texas in the 1920s

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Evan Anders, “Parr, Archer,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 14, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

April 25, 2019