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The First Millionaire

by Bob Bowman
Bob Bowman
Texasí first likely millionaire wasnít from Dallas or Houston. He came from East Texas--and he didnít make his money from oil.

Frost Thorn, an early storekeeper from Nacogdoches, had a worth of more than a million dollars after Texas won its independence from Mexico in 1836.

While the records of Thornís birthplace are sketchy, he lived most of his life in Nacogdoches and died there in 1851. Nacogdoches was only a frontier outpost and Thorn operated a general store in the downtown area, but his fortune was composed largely of real estate spread over Texas from the Sabine River to the Rio Grande.

A biographer wrote in 1934, ďThorn had property in every present-day Texas county and his property was not in small pieces...anything less than a league in those days was almost too small to speak of.Ē

Today, Thorn might have been called a land shark, but looking back at his career, he was a remarkable visionary who knew that Texas would someday be peopled by men and women with a passion for owning land.

Because Nacogdoches was on the El Camino Real--the major travel artery between Texas and the U.S.--Thornís store became a place where he traded for horses, whiskey, saddles, guns and anything else needed by the restless adventurers. Realizing the opportunities, Thorn helped them fill out the necessary papers allowing him to trade for their land.

His old store ledger, which recorded most of his transactions during the early l830s, indicated he had customers in a radius of probably 100 miles around Nacogdoches.

Since Nacogdoches was on the frontier, itís easy to understand why Thornís biggest selling items were whiskey, gunpowder and lead--with whiskey the most demanded commodity. It sold by the bit--12.5 cents a drink or two bits (25 cents) for a pint. Customers who bought a pint were required to make a 25-cent deposit until the bottle was refunded.

Thorn also did a good business with local Indians. He bought deer skins for 16 cents a pound and beef hides for a dime a pound. He then turned the hides over to his tannery to produce leather goods, paying his tannery workers $4.50 a week.

Thorn was not only Texasí first likely millionaire, but was probably the stateís first banker, too. He advanced money to his customers and charged them interest. And it wasnít uncommon for some customers to issue a written order to an Indian or laborer, who would get their money from Thorn.

The date that Sam Houston arrived in Texas is also recorded in Thornís ledger. The first thing Sam bought was a drink of whiskey at Thornís store. Thorn and his wife had two children, a daughter Mary and a son, Thorn, Jr. Mary married New York financier W.T. Garner.

Both children of Texasí first millionaire died tragically. The two families--Mr. and Mrs. Garner and Mr. and Mrs. Frost, Jr.--were lost when their yacht was shipwrecked in an Atlantic Ocean storm.


Bob Bowman's East Texas June 13, 2010 Column
A weekly column syndicated in 109 East Texas newspapers
Copyright Bob Bowman


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