John William Stayton, lawyer and chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court, was born in Washington County, Kentucky, on December 24, 1830, the son of Robert G. and Harriet (Pirtle) Stayton. He was orphaned at fourteen and worked on his grandfather's farm. Unlike his mother, however, his guardian did not encourage his education. At seventeen he left the farm and apprenticed himself to a blacksmith, who paid him enough that he could pursue an education by hiring a night tutor. In 1852 he became an assistant in a county school, and at twenty-four he studied law with written instructions from his uncle, Judge Henry Pirtle, of Louisville. These efforts gained him entrance into the University of Louisville, where he graduated with a law degree in March 1856. Eliza Jane (Jeannie) Weldon and he were married in April, and the following November the couple moved to Texas and settled in La Grange, Fayette County, where Stayton was admitted to the bar. Ill health and poor finances forced him to move to Pleasanton, Atascosca County, then a wilderness, where he practiced law and operated a smithy in 1857. From 1858 to 1862 he served as attorney for the Eighteenth Judicial District, then moved to Sutherland Springs and joined the Confederate army as a private in Lewis Maverick's company. Later he organized a cavalry company and served as a captain until the war's end. After the Civil War Stayton resumed teaching in Clinton, then the DeWitt county seat, until he formed a law partnership with Samual C. Lackey in 1866. He moved to Victoria in 1870 and entered partnership with Alexander H. Phillips, who retired in 1878. Two years later Stayton's son Robert and R. J. Kleberg joined the firm, renamed Stayton, Lackey, and Kleberg. Stayton served in the Constitutional Convention of 1875, which restored Democratic control in Texas, thus ending Reconstruction. He was an avid scholar, said to read forty pages of law each day except Sunday, and his private library in Victoria contained one of the largest collections of Roman and Spanish law texts in the state.
On November 2, 1881, Governor Oran M. Roberts appointed Stayton associate justice of the Texas Supreme Court to fill a resigned seat, a surprise for the relatively unknown small-town lawyer, who accepted the unsolicited appointment. The following year Stayton was elected to the court for a six-year term. He was nominated in 1884 to represent the Seventh District in the United States Congress but declined, influenced to some degree by a petition offered in June from the Texas Bar Association, which pleaded that he not resign the bench. With the resignation of Asa H. Willie on March 3, 1888, Stayton was promoted to chief justice by Governor Lawrence Sullivan Ross and was elected to a six-year term in November. Chief Justice Stayton died in office while visiting his daughter in Tyler, on July 5, 1894. On October 20, 1894, the Texas Supreme Court convened in special session to mourn his death, as did the Texas Bar Association. He was described as calm, forceful, highly capable, and able to stand "four square to every wind that blew." His opinions, few of which were overturned, chronicled such developments as the definition of community property in Texas, the rights of the survivor regarding homestead, the rights of landowners regarding condemnation of land for railroads, the liability of master to servant and employer to employee, and the liability of municipal corporations and railway companies regarding damages from neglect. Stayton was a Presbyterian. He had three children. His son, Robert W. Stayton, a lawyer and Victoria's first elected fire chief, was a presidential elector in 1892 and Democratic candidate for land commissioner in 1896. A grandson, Robert Weldon Stayton, a distinguished law professor at the University of Texas for thirty-eight years, served on the commission of appeals and on the rules committee of the Texas Supreme Court.
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Lewis E. Daniell, Personnel of the Texas State Government, with Sketches of Representative Men of Texas (Austin: City Printing, 1887; 3d ed., San Antonio: Maverick, 1892). Harbert Davenport, History of the Supreme Court of the State of Texas (Austin: Southern Law Book Publishers, 1917). Dictionary of American Biography. Memorial and Genealogical Record of Southwest Texas (Chicago: Goodspeed, 1894; rpt., Easley, South Carolina: Southern Historical Press, 1978). Proceedings of the Texas Bar Association, 1910.
Law, Law Enforcement, and Outlaws
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.
Craig H. Roell,
“Stayton, John William,”
Handbook of Texas Online,
accessed June 28, 2022,
Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
Original Publication Date:
Most Recent Revision Date:
July 1, 1995