Richard Sparks, militia leader, surveyor, and alcalde for Nacogdoches, was born in 1793 to William Sparks and Mary “Polly” (Fielder) Sparks in Georgia. Both his father and paternal grandfather (Matthew Sparks) provided military and patriotic service during the Revolutionary War. In 1811 William Sparks received a passport from Georgia’s governor to travel through the Creek Nations with his family (consisting of his wife, five children, and two enslaved persons) and others to the Mississippi Territory, where they settled in an area that was at the time in Marion County. On July 7, 1812, Richard Sparks married Elizabeth May Cooper near the village of Silver Creek in Marion County, Mississippi. The couple had eight children, all born in Mississippi: William Fielder, James Hawkins, Stephen Franklin, Elizabeth Cooper, Mary Ann, Andrew Jackson, Thomas Benton, and John Marion.
Sparks was appointed the constable of Lawrence County, Mississippi, in 1814. On January 8, 1815, he enlisted in the Mississippi Territorial Militia as an ensign in Capt. Harmon M. Runnel's Company of the Thirteenth Regiment just as the War of 1812 came to an end. He held several public offices in successive Mississippi counties, including first sheriff of Simpson County in 1824 and justice of the peace for Yazoo County in 1825. Sparks was elected to the Mississippi State House of Representatives in 1827 and again in 1828, 1829, and 1831.
In late 1833 Sparks and his family left Mississippi and arrived in Texas in January 1834. They rented land in what is now in San Augustine and Sabine counties. According to his application for admittance to Texas, he was a stock raiser, trading post operator, farmer, and later a land surveyor. As a surveyor he became a very large land owner in Texas. At the time of his death, his estate encompassed approximately 50,000 acres. Sparks’s wife and all of his children are listed in the 1835 census of Nacogdoches. His father William, according to his American Revolutionary War pension application, also immigrated to Texas from Mississippi and arrived by March 1836 and settled in Nacogdoches. Richard’s mother had died around 1830 in Mississippi.
Soon after his arrival in Nacogdoches, Richard Sparks was involved with the current political events. In July 1835 he joined and financially supported the Nacogdoches Committee of Vigilance and Safety, which eventually directed the local war effort. On August 15, 1835, at a public meeting held at Teal's tavern in Nacogdoches, Sparks, Sam Houston, Thomas Rusk, and James Bradshaw were appointed "to council and treat with the different Indian tribes within the limits of Texas, and whatever else they may deem proper, to do the Indians justice, and preserve peace with them."
In September 1835 Sparks, George Pollitt, and Andrew Hendrie were elected regidors of the ayuntamiento for Nacogdoches. Sparks chaired a public meeting of citizens on December 15, 1835 in Nacogdoches. Broadsides printed on December 17 reported that the citizens publicly advocated Texan independence. In January 1836 Sparks was appointed to organize the militia in Nacogdoches. He stood for election as a delegate, representing Nacogdoches, to the Texas Constitutional Convention in February 1836. While he lost, he garnered 112 votes (out of a total 610 votes cast amongst 17 candidates) and gained more votes than Sam Houston, who surprisingly only received 55 votes.
When Houston marched the Revolutionary Army out of Gonzales on March 13, 1836, he ordered all inhabitants of the town to accompany him. This retreat marked the beginning of what was called the Runaway Scrape, as settlers east of the Colorado River, including residents of Nacogdoches and surrounding areas, fled their homes toward the Sabine River. Sparks had built a two-story log fort five miles north of Nacogdoches (where the community of Redfield is located today). Surrounding the fort was a large stockade, which encompassed a spring. When news came of the Runaway Scrape, settlers who lived in the area arrived at the fort, and he directed these settlers to form their wagons into a circle around the stockade. Boys and old men served as guards for the families inside the stockade. The families stayed in Sparks’s fort until news reached them of Houston’s victory at the battle of San Jacinto. Sparks was given the military title of colonel, perhaps earned as a result of his militia leadership in Nacogdoches at the time, but no formal commission has yet to be found.
Sparks lost his election to the Republic of Texas’s first Congress to represent Nacogdoches in August 1836. In October 1836, with the resignation of the alcalde and first regidor, he assumed the office of alcalde for Nacogdoches. With the end of the war, he turned his attention to surveying. As many of the Texan soldiers were granted land bounties as payment for their service, they needed their new property surveyed. In many cases, the grantee did not have money to pay for his services, so Sparks received a portion of the land from the grant as payment. This allowed him to accumulate many thousands of acres. He donated land in 1836 for the Old North Cemetery, the oldest Protestant cemetery in Nacogdoches County. He also donated land to the Union Church, which was organized in 1838. At the time, the congregation was ecumenical but later identified with the Baptist denomination and changed its name to the Old North Baptist Church. It is considered to be the oldest active missionary Baptist church in Texas. Richard Sparks’s father, William, served the church as a deacon.
In 1837 Richard Sparks and Robert W. Smith assumed the operation of the Neches Saline trading post from Indian agent Martin Lacy. The salt deposits in the area around the trading post had for many years attracted American Indians; thus the location was a logical site for a mercantile establishment. Smith and Sparks operated their post on the eastern bank of the Neches River on land that had been claimed by the Cherokees. The Neches Saline post was near the midway point between Nacogdoches and the "threeforks of the Trinity River" area. In February 1837 Sparks and Smith provided Chief Bowl, chief of the Texas Cherokees, with various goods “for the Cherokee on their trip to the prairies.” In August 1837 Sparks served on a committee to discuss peace with “the Ironies and Anadoia Indians.” The hearing was moderated by his father, William.
In early April 1838 Richard Sparks, “accompanied by eight or ten others,” left Nacogdoches to survey land on the Trinity River. They arrived at Parker’s Fort and later moved to the fields near the Three Forks of the Trinity River. Sparks was reportedly killed by Kickapoo Indians there. The May 2, 1838, issue of the Telegraph and Texas Register reported the event and cast doubt regarding the involvement of the Kickapoos because “intelligent gentlemen now in this city [Nacogdoches] had declared the Kickapoos to be “remarkably friendly.” The newspaper commented, “It is much more probable that the Indians who committed these depredations are Keachies or Wacos.”
In correspondence to Thomas Rusk, James Reilly stated in a letter dated April 22, 1838: “You [Rusk] have doubtless heard of Col. Sparks death. Such an event might have been anticipated going to the country he did.” In another letter, a few weeks later, Reilly informed Rusk that, “About 20 Kickapoos were here yesterday morning. They came to disavow any participation in the murder of Sparks and promised to find [who] the perpetrators were.”
Richard Sparks’s body was never recovered. Purported equipment from the surveying team was found downstream years later, as well as a firearm supposedly belonging to him. While initial reports tended to place the blame on American Indians, that conclusion was not universally accepted. His past involvement with negotiations and trade with various tribes through the years, very possibly discounted that he was targeted, at least by those Indian groups.
A year before his death, Sparks had fourteen horses stolen by a band of Caddos reputedly led by a Tejano named Telesforo Córdova. The Córdova family had been in East Texas for more than 100 years, and while they supported the goal of the Texas Revolution to a return of the 1824 Constitution, they objected to Texas independence. After Sparks’s death, some Nacogdoches citizens discovered a rebellious plot against the Republic of Texas. This plot was led by Telesforo’s brother Vicente, and it became known as the Córdova Rebellion. There is some conjecture that Sparks’s attackers were associated with Córdova.
Another story recited from family members relates that Richard Sparks was killed by a man named Black. When he was a county sheriff in Mississippi, Sparks was required to administer thirty lashes to Black, who had been convicted of horse theft. Black reportedly threatened to kill Sparks, but several years later, when Sparks had settled in Texas, Black asked him for a job and became part of his survey team. According to this version, Sparks, Black, and an American Indian interpreter were returning to camp when Black killed both men. Black robbed the men, took Sparks’s field notes, and returned to camp and claimed that they were attacked by Indians. While the land was in dispute with the Cherokees, it was not until the following year that open warfare commenced, however, enough incidents had occurred between the two communities, which would make such a claim plausible.