Tarleton, John (ca. 1808–1895)

By: J. Thomas Davis

Type: Biography

Published: 1952

Updated: August 16, 2019

John Tarleton, businessman and endower of Tarleton State University, was born in White Mountain, Vermont, near the New Hampshire line in November 1808 (although one account gives 1811 as the date). He was orphaned at the age of seven and lived with a widowed aunt in Vermont until he was thirteen, when he left home carrying only a scant supply of clothing in a bag slung across his shoulder. He went from place to place before stopping eventually at Knoxville, Tennessee, where he taught school for a time and later secured employment in the Cowan-Dickerson mercantile firm; he worked there for about forty years. During this time he came into possession of many bounty warrants that had been issued to veterans of the War of 1812. In 1860 or 1861 he "went west" and redeemed thousands of acres of land in Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, and Kansas with his warrants. Having purchased some 10,000 acres of land in unsettled West Texas at 12½ cents an acre, Tarleton decided to move there. He stopped in Waco, where he established his own mercantile. There in September 1876 he married Mrs. Mary Louisa Johnson, the wealthy widow of Telephus Johnson, with whom he lived only a year before disagreements over property division resulted in their divorce. Soon afterward a store clerk, who knew where Tarleton kept large sums of cash, reportedly tried to poison him; after recovering, Tarleton confronted the perpetrator and fired him without pressing charges. That episode influenced Tarleton's decision to move to his pasture lands in Erath and Palo Pinto counties, and in 1880 he walked the distance, carrying an umbrella and a suitcase, with his money concealed in his clothes and shoes. He settled at Santo and established a cattle ranch. After buying out the squatters who had settled there and having the land surveyed, he fenced in his 10,000 acres. Due to falling cattle prices and instances of fence-cutting by irate neighbors, Tarleton was only moderately successful as a rancher and gradually reduced his holdings, often at a loss, to 1,400 acres. Nevertheless, he remained an influential citizen and freely contributed to various church denominations. At Santo he boarded for several years at the home of Thomas White and later with George S. Williams, his ranch foreman.

In 1895 talks with J. C. George, a prominent lawyer of Stephenville, resulted in Tarleton's will, which included the endowment of a college to be located in Stephenville. In 1896 the property formerly owned by Stephenville College, which had operated from 1893 to 1895, was transferred to The John Tarleton College. In 1917 an act of the Texas legislature accepted the college as a state school, and renamed it John Tarleton Agricultural College. In 1949 the name was changed to Tarleton State College, and to Tarleton State University in 1973. The John Tarleton Institute for homeless and neglected children was also established at his bequest on his property in Knoxville, Tennessee. Tarleton was plagued with poor health during his last years. He died of typhoid fever at his home on September 11, 1895, and was buried in the cemetery at Patilo. In 1926 his remains were moved to Stephenville, where they now rest in a plot adjacent to the campus marked by a suitable monument erected by the college.

Erath County Historical Commission, History of Erath County...1878–1980 (Dublin, Texas, 1980). John Tarleton: A Memorial to the Founder of Tarleton College (Stephenville, Texas: John Tarleton Agricultural College, 1933). C. Richard King, "John Tarleton," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 55 (October 1951). Eric M. Larson, Early History of The John Tarleton College, 1896-1898 (Takoma Park, Maryland: Eric M. Larson, 2019).

  • Education
  • Patrons, Collectors, and Philanthropists

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

J. Thomas Davis, “Tarleton, John,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 17, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/tarleton-john.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

August 16, 2019