Joseph Warren Speight, civic leader and lawyer, son of Jesse and Mary May Speight, was born on May 31, 1825, in Green County, North Carolina. He was educated in North Carolina, where his father was a United States congressman, and in Mississippi, where his father was a United States senator. Speight was admitted to the bar in 1847 at Aberdeen, Mississippi, practiced law there, and became a Freemason; he served as grand master of all Mississippi lodges. When his health declined he moved to Waco, Texas, in January 1854. There he engaged in farming and surveying, joined a Masonic lodge, and entered vigorously into the civic leadership of the new community. He was a leading Baptist and was influential in bringing Rufus C. Burleson to Waco from Independence in 1861 to establish Waco University, which was consolidated with Baylor University in 1886. Speight served on the board of trustees of Waco University, and his home grounds eventually became part of the Baylor campus. During the early years of the Civil War he organized the Fifteenth Texas Infantry Regiment and was commissioned a colonel. He saw much hard service in the Trans-Mississippi theater, especially in Louisiana, and he often led the brigade, to which his regiment was attached, before he resigned because of ill health in the spring of 1864 (see POLIGNAC'S BRIGADE). At the war's end Speight withdrew from the practice of law and resumed his agricultural pursuits. He was described by contemporaries as being stern and austere in demeanor and had no interest in a political career. Speight was one of the six men who in 1866 obtained from the legislature a charter authorizing the construction of a toll bridge across the Brazos River at Waco (see WACO SUSPENSION BRIDGE). Opened on January 7, 1870, it was at the time the only bridge across that important river and was a great financial success. Speight, twice married, had a family of five children. He died at Waco on April 26, 1888, and was buried in Oakwood Cemetery.
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Roger N. Conger, ed., A Century of Fraternity: Waco Lodge No. 92, A.F. and A.M (Waco: Centennial History Committee, Lodge No. 92, 1952). Roger N. Conger, "The Waco Suspension Bridge," Texana 1 (Summer 1963). William M. Sleeper and Allan D. Sanford, Waco Bar and Incidents of Waco History (Waco, 1941). J. L. Walker and C. P. Lumpkin, History of the Waco Baptist Association of Texas (Waco: Byrne-Hill Printing House, 1897).
Founders and Pioneers
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.
Roger N. Conger,
“Speight, Joseph Warren,”
Handbook of Texas Online,
accessed June 27, 2022,
Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
Original Publication Date:
Most Recent Revision Date:
July 1, 1995
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