Shepherd, Benjamin Armistead (1814–1891)

By: Ron Bass

Type: Biography

Published: August 26, 2020

Updated: August 26, 2020


Benjamin Armistead Shepherd, merchant, banker, and business leader in Houston, was born in Fluvanna County, Virginia, on May 14, 1814, to David Shepherd and Mary Garland (Baskett) Shepherd. He first worked as a clerk in a general store. In 1833 when he was nineteen years old, he moved to Nashville and found employment in an established mercantile business. There he met Sam Houston, who was moving to Texas, and they became life-long friends.

In 1837 Shepherd moved to New Orleans and worked as a credit advisor and main bookkeeper in a major wholesale commission house. Attracted by opportunities in Texas, in 1839 he relocated to Galveston, where he helped organize Crawford and Shepherd, a mercantile firm. Shepherd married Mary K. Hobson in Galveston on October 29, 1840. He soon moved to Houston to manage the firm’s Houston branch and was settled in that city by 1844. Shepherd formed a partnership with Andrew J. Burke, who in 1844 bought Crawford’s portion of the Crawford and Shepherd firm.

In 1847 Shepherd opened a private bank in Houston—the Commercial and Agricultural Bank. Like other private bankers such as William Marsh Rice and Thomas William House, Shepherd sold farmers equipment and supplies on credit at the beginning of the growing season, took liens on the planters’ lands and crops, and charged interest or a fee for his services. However, he focused his attention on the mercantile business and other ventures. In 1850 Shepherd purchased Nathaniel K. Kellum’s house, thirteen acres of land on Buffalo Bayou, and a brick kiln. In 1851 Shepherd subsequently sold the house to Abram Noble; in 2020 the house was known as the Kellum-Noble House and located in Sam Houston Park. Married with five children and well-established in Houston by 1850, Shepherd recorded $30,000 in real property on the 1850 census.

By the mid-1850s Shepherd sold his interest in the mercantile business to his partner Burke. Though he was still listed as a merchant in the 1860 census, Shepherd devoted himself exclusively to private banking, which was involved in a considerable range of businesses in Houston. The 1860 census recorded him with his wife and eight children living in the Fourth Ward, and his real estate value was listed at $125,000 and personal estate at $150,000.  Shepherd, one of the wealthiest men in town, held interests in the industries driving Houston's economy, among others the Houston Direct Navigation Company and the Houston and Texas Central Railway. He also created a venture to build and grade a plank road on Washington Road. With the onset of the Civil War, he withdrew from banking but continued his involvement in Houston businesses. His City Cotton Mills, located near present-day Jensen Drive, manufactured a rough-goods material known as Osnabergs. This material was used for cotton-picking sacks, slaves' clothing, tarpaulins, and wagon covers for the Confederate Army. The City Cotton Mills were destroyed in a fire; with insurance unavailable during the war, Shepherd suffered a total loss.

After the Civil War, stability returned to business activity. Eureka Manufacturing Company, of which Shepherd was a director, operated a sawmill, a gristmill, and a woolen mill adjacent to the Houston and Texas Central railroad tracks on the south bank of White Oak Bayou. Shepherd reopened his private bank. In 1867 he acquired control of Thomas M. Bagby’s chartered First National Bank, which was established in 1866. The banks merged, and Shepherd became president for more than two decades until his death. In 1882 the bank purchased the property and improvements on the southeast corner of Main at Franklin and operated there until 1956. In 1905 the bank constructed a building that still stood on that corner in the 2020s. Shepherd also partnered with Bagby to bring gas street lamps to Houston and to introduce the city’s first mule-drawn trolleys. In 1874 Shepherd became vice president of the Houston Board of Trade and Cotton Exchange.

Seeking to retire from active business life, in 1875 Shepherd moved from his Fourth Ward home in Houston to San Jacinto County, where he founded the town of Shepherd. Nonetheless, in 1883 he built the Victorian Shepherd Building at 219 Main Street in Houston.

Despite his wealth, Shepherd had no interest in public acclaim or public office. In 1889 he established a trust fund to help Houston's needy. Benjamin Armistead Shepherd died on December 24, 1891, and was buried in Glenwood Cemetery. In 1950 his granddaughter, Sallie Shepherd Perkins, whom Shepherd inspired with his love of music, established the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University in Shepherd’s memory. Shepherd Street (subsequently renamed Delano), on the east side of downtown Houston, was named in his honor. In 2020 the original curb tiles marking Shepherd Street still remained.

Louis F. Aulbach, Buffalo Bayou: An Echo of Houston's Wilderness Beginnings (Houston: CreateSpace, 2011). “B. A. Shepherd—Investing in Houston,” The Heritage Society at Sam Houston Park (https://www.heritagesociety.org/ba-shepherd), accessed July 22, 2020. “Benjamin A Shepherd,” Find A Grave Memorial (https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/19648866/benjamin-a-shepherd), accessed July 21, 2020.

Categories:

  • Agriculture
  • Merchants
  • Business

Time Periods:

  • Republic of Texas
  • Antebellum Texas
  • Civil War
  • Reconstruction
  • Late Nineteenth-Century Texas

Places:

  • Houston
  • Upper Gulf Coast
  • East Texas

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

Ron Bass, “Shepherd, Benjamin Armistead,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed October 26, 2021, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/shepherd-benjamin-armistead.

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August 26, 2020
August 26, 2020

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