Thomas William “Peg Leg” Ward, second commissioner of the General Land Office, three-time mayor of Austin, and United States consul to Panama, was born in Dublin, Ireland, on June 20, 1807, to Anglo-Irish parents, Henry and Frances Ward. Ward’s father was a builder who insisted that his son follow in his footsteps, but in 1828, after his father’s business foundered, Ward immigrated to North America and made his way to New Orleans, where he found work as a carpenter.
Responding to the call for volunteers to fight in the Texas independence movement, in October 1835 he joined the New Orleans Greys, left straightaway with them for San Antonio de Béxar, and, on December 5 participated as an artillery officer in the attack that climaxed the siege of Bexar. That morning a cannon ball smashed his right leg, necessitating its immediate amputation. Legend has it that Ward’s leg was buried in the same grave as the body of Benjamin R. Milam, Ward’s commanding officer, who was killed two days later, but the story is dubious at best. Though suicidal at first, Ward traveled to New Orleans in early 1836, was fitted with a rudimentary peg leg, and resumed his military duties, serving as a recruiter in New Orleans for Gen. Thomas Jefferson Green’s new brigade. In late May he returned to Texas as second-in-command of Green’s brigade, but by then hostilities had ended. He remained in the Texas army until year’s end and earned a promotion to lieutenant-colonel. Primarily as a result of his military service, Ward acquired rights to almost 8,000 acres of Texas land, including 4,428 acres in recognition of the disability he sustained in battle.
Resuming the career for which he had been trained, Ward in 1837 constructed a spacious two-story capitol for Texas in its new capital city, Houston, but it was public office that became his focus. During 1838 and 1839 he served on the Harrisburg County Board of Land Commissioners and as Houston postmaster and three times sought election to the Texas Congress without success. Undeterred, he resettled in the new capital city of Austin in late 1839, won election in the Texas House of Representatives as chief clerk, and in August 1840 was elected Austin’s second mayor, the latter just five months after suffering another devastating injury. At Austin’s March 2 celebration of Texas independence, a cannon he was loading fired prematurely and shattered his right arm. It was amputated near his shoulder. In the years ahead Ward would benefit from significantly improved prostheses for his right leg, but there were no workable prostheses for an above-elbow amputation.
In January 1841 acting Texas President David G. Burnet appointed Ward second commissioner of the General Land Office, a critical position in a country where land hunger was the driving force of settlement and where white males who immigrated prior to 1842 and those who fought in the Texas Revolution were promised free land. His efforts to reform the land system were impeded by defective land laws, an uncooperative Congress, inept surveyors, rampant land fraud, and the disruptions accompanying the Archives War, which crippled General Land Office operations for almost two years. Nevertheless he succeeded in systematizing the process for transferring land from public to private ownership and initiated important reforms, such as permanent land districts and centralization of land mapping in the General Land Office. During his seven years in office almost 11,000 patents (legal titles to land) were issued to those Texans promised free land, whereas when Ward took office not a single such patent had been issued. Yet Ward also had many critics, especially in Congress, partly due to impatience, in an era of land mania, with his insistence on following the letter of every law. Otherwise, he believed, Texas would be swamped with future litigation. In early 1848 members of the Legislature voted him out of office, and he then lost statewide elections for land commissioner in 1849 and 1851. In 1850, however, Governor Peter Bell appointed him temporary special land commissioner to the Peters Colony, where he was charged with reviewing colonists’ disputed land claims. Grateful colonists in Johnson County honored him by naming their first county seat Wardville.
In December 1852 Austin voters again elected Ward mayor, but he resigned in August 1853 after President Franklin Pierce appointed him United States consul to Panama. Based in Panama City, he served from October 1853 to August 1856 in an era when many thousands of Americans (more than 80,000 during his tenure alone) crossed the Isthmus on their way to and from California. Their myriad problems and those of U.S. ships transporting them to and from the Isthmus became his problems, from assaults on American travelers to Panamanian taxes levied on U.S. steamships. His clashes with Panamanian officials and especially with shipping magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt eventually cost him his job.
Ward then joined his wife, Susan L. Ward, in New York City, where she had lived while he was in Panama. They had married on June 20, 1844, and had four children, but their relationship was a troubled one. In 1858 she left him and the next year filed suit in a New York court charging him with cruelty and asking for a legal separation with alimony. She won, but by then he had returned to Austin, so she sued him in Travis County District Court, this time for divorce and a property settlement. The bitterly-fought case dragged on during the Civil War and was never fully resolved.
In November 1864 Ward was elected Austin’s mayor for the third time. Although shunted aside when federal troops arrived in July 1865, he was reinstated in September by provisional governor Andrew J. Hamilton and served until February 1866. Ward handled a series of challenges as mayor, including an outbreak of lawlessness precipitated by returning Confederate soldiers and serious racial tensions following the emancipation of slaves. In his final public role, Ward served sixteen months in the late 1860s as a federal customs official, based in the port of Corpus Christi, with responsibility for the District of Corpus Christi, which encompassed much of South Texas and its border with Mexico. Appointed by President Andrew Johnson, he was replaced when President Ulysses S. Grant took office in March 1869. Ward returned to Austin and, on November 25, 1872, died at home of typhoid fever. He was buried in the State Cemetery the next day; state offices closed to honor his memory. His grave is marked by a granite headstone, erected by the state of Texas in 1932, that pays tribute to his public service. In 1887 newly-created Ward County was named for him.