James Thomas Robison, legislator and land commissioner, the son of Robert C. and Ann (Curry) Robison, was born in Cass County, Texas, on September 30, 1861, and orphaned at the age of thirteen. He supported himself and managed to obtain a creditable education. At nineteen, he traveled as a cowboy with a herd of cattle to Johnson County, where he remained long enough to obtain a first-grade teacher's certificate and teach one term at Liberty Schoolhouse, two miles west of Cleburne. He subsequently moved to Daingerfield to work in a store. Robison graduated from Sam Houston Normal Institute in 1888 and was a teacher and publisher of a weekly newspaper, the Morris County News, when he was elected to the Texas legislature in 1890. While representing Bowie, Marion, Morris, and Cass counties in Austin, he studied law at the University of Texas and graduated in 1892. In the legislature Robison was surprisingly active for a one-term representative. He was the author of a usury law and a law making railroads liable for acts causing personal injury or death. He was generally a supporter of James Stephen Hogg, although he vigorously campaigned for an elective Railroad Commission as opposed to the appointed commission the governor sought and got. After his term in the legislature, Robison returned to Daingerfield to practice law.
In January 1895 he moved to Austin and took a position in the General Land Office as a clerk in the school-lands division. For the next thirty-four years he worked in the Land Office-four years in the school-lands division, four years in the legal department, six years as chief clerk, and from 1909 to 1929 as commissioner. Robison's years at the Land Office were critical years in the history of the Texas public domain, particularly after oil was discovered on lands on which the state owned mineral rights. Beginning with the 1905 "highest bidder" law, which he wrote, Robison either recommended or wrote most of the legislation dealing with the public domain passed during this period. He was instrumental in 1913 in placing school land on a royalty basis to generate revenue for the Permanent School Fund. He was also responsible for passage of the Relinquishment Act in 1919, which appointed those who bought school land to serve as agents for the state when negotiating mineral leases; these agents would then share with the state the revenues they received. Robison actively sought to recover excess land alienated as a result of inaccurate surveys. Excess land would once again become part of the public domain. Robison was an advocate of the exploration and development of the state's mineral resources and was instrumental in securing legislation that made the drilling of the Santa Rita oil well possible. While he was chief clerk he wrote the rules and regulations of the Land Office, a digest of the school-land law, and interpretations of it. From that time on, he was regarded as one of the most knowledgeable men in the state on such matters. In 1929 he was the oldest man in state government, and he had the longest record of continuous service.
In November 1928 Governor Daniel J. Moody, members of the board of regents of the University of Texas, and the state attorney general, Claude Pollard, met with Robison and asked him to halt the sale of mineral leases on land belonging to the permanent university fund until the legislature could meet and instigate a system that would yield more money. Robison proceeded with the sale of leases that had already been publicly advertised, arguing that the law gave him no choice in the matter. When the legislature met in January, the governor's supporters empowered a special committee to investigate not only Robison's actions in this case, but "each and every act of the commissioner of the General Land Office and all matters pertaining thereto." The committee heard from almost forty witnesses and collected 1,009 pages of written testimony. Its report, submitted to the legislature in May 1929, was not only highly critical of Robison's actions in regard to the controversy with the governor and the regents, but charged that he accepted gifts and gratuities from people his policy had helped and mismanaged a special-expenses fund used in 1925. The committee termed its results "serious" but refrained from suggesting what course of action the legislature should take.
In early June the House as a committee of the whole took up the matter, called its own witnesses, and collected more than 400 pages of testimony. During the time the House was deliberating, the Supreme Court, in a case arising from an injunction the attorney general had obtained to halt Robison's sale of the leases, ruled that Robison had been correct. He had no choice but to sell the leases already publicly advertised. The court's ruling robbed the commissioner's opponents of a major part of their case against him. Shortly after the House concluded the investigation, Robison left Texas to visit his son in New London, Connecticut. His health was poor, and the hearings had left him physically exhausted. In Connecticut he suffered what doctors termed a nervous breakdown, and in late August he contracted pneumonia. He died in a New London hospital on September 7, 1929. He was buried in Austin. Robison married Dessie Mathews in 1894, and the couple had four children. Having been an orphan himself, Robison was sympathetic to the plight of children in similar situations. Over the years he and his wife took in and raised fifteen orphans. Robison was a Methodist and a Mason.
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Josiah Martin Daniel III, Business Progressivism in Texas: Governor Dan Moody and the Fortieth and Forty-first Legislatures, 1927–1931 (M.A. thesis, University of Texas at Austin, 1986). Ellis A. Davis and Edwin H. Grobe, comps., The New Encyclopedia of Texas, 4-vol. ed. Thomas L. Miller, The Public Lands of Texas, 1519–1970 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1972).
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.
Cecil Harper, Jr.,
“Robison, James Thomas,”
Handbook of Texas Online,
accessed May 25, 2022,
Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
Original Publication Date:
Most Recent Revision Date:
June 1, 1995