The Texas slave panic of 1860-often called "the Texas Troubles" by the press-was the most serious happening of its kind in the South since the Nat Turner insurrection of 1831. Though generally less emphasized by historians than the more celebrated earlier event, the Texas panic of 1860 may have been at least as important, for it helped prepare Texans and other Southerners to leave the Union. The Texas Troubles broke out in the aftermath of a series of fires in North Texas on July 8, 1860. The most serious of these destroyed most of the downtown section of the small town of Dallas. In addition, about half of the town square in Denton burned, and fire razed a store in Pilot Point. At first, the leaders of the affected communities attributed the fires to a combination of the exceedingly hot summer (it was reportedly as hot as 110 degrees in Dallas on the afternoon of the fire) and the introduction into the stores of the new and volatile phosphorous matches. Indeed, subsequent experience with "prairie matches" in Denton satisfied the citizens of that town that spontaneous combustion was the probable cause of the fire there. In Dallas, where there had been excitement the previous year over the whipping and expulsion of two allegedly abolitionist (see ABOLITION) Methodist ministers, certain white leaders detected a more sinister origin to the area's fires. Four days after the fire, Charles R. Pryor, the young editor of the Dallas Herald, wrote a sensational letter to John F. Marshall, editor of the Austin State Gazette and chairman of the state Democratic party, stating that "certain negroes" had been interrogated and had revealed a widespread abolitionist plot "to devastate, with fire and assassination, the whole of Northern Texas...." The "Abolition preachers" whom Dallas had expelled the previous year allegedly had sought their revenge by recruiting Blacks and abolitionist whites to wreak fiery and bloody vengeance upon the whites of the region. Pryor wrote similar letters to L. C. DeLisle, editor of the Bonham Era, and Edward Hopkins Cushing, editor of the Houston Telegraph (see TELEGRAPH AND TEXAS REGISTER), warning that the conspiracy, far from being confined to the Dallas area, extended over the whole state. Calling the conspiracy "a regular invasion, and a real war," Pryor admonished DeLisle: "You...are in as much danger as we are. Be on your guard, and make these facts known by issuing extras to be sent in every direction. All business has ceased, and the country is terribly excited."
Pryor's letters were widely reprinted, and by the end of July, communities and counties throughout North and East Texas had established vigilance committees to root out and punish the alleged conspirators. Regularly constituted law-enforcement agencies stepped aside to allow the vigilantes to do their work. Although no hard evidence was ever adduced to prove the guilt of a single alleged Black arsonist or white abolitionist, many unfortunates of both classes were nevertheless hanged for their alleged crimes. It can be established from eyewitness reports that at least thirty Blacks and Whites died by the hands of the secretive vigilantes, but other reports indicated that the actual number of deaths may have been closer to 100. By mid-September the panic had run its course, and stories about the upcoming presidential election soon replaced sensational rumors about the cruel depredations that abolitionists supposedly had planned for Texas. But the damage had been done. Southern-rights extremists in Texas and throughout the South made skillful use of the Texas Troubles in fire-breathing speeches and editorials to whip up secessionist sentiments. They depicted Abraham Lincoln, the Republican candidate for president, as an abolitionist whose party was really behind the Texas Troubles. Many Texans who formerly had been moderate on the issue of the Union now embraced secession in the event of Lincoln's election as the only way to protect their firesides from the horrors of insurrection. As much as any other single issue, the Texas Troubles explain why a state that elected Sam Houston as governor on a unionist platform in 1859 voted three-to-one for secession in March 1861.