Past Treasure of the Month – November 2011

Miniature Portrait of the First Mayor of Galveston
John Melville Allen

The Rosenberg Library Museum displayed a miniature portrait of the first Mayor of Galveston John Melville Allen as the November 2011 Treasure of the Month. The three quarter color bust of Allen in his uniform is two and a half inches tall by two inches wide. It is mounted in a beautiful oval gold frame. This wonderful piece of Galveston’s history was donated by John Allen’s granddaughter Mrs. Mary Allen Simmins of Morristown, New Jersey in 1936.

Miniature portrait of the first Mayor of Galveston, John Melville Allen.

Galveston’s first mayor was born in Kentucky around 1798. Much of his early life remains a mystery, but as a young man he enlisted in the United States Navy. He eventually left the service to take part in the Greek War of Independence against the Ottoman Empire (1821 – 1832). According to many accounts, Allen was with the famous British poet Lord Byron when he died at Missalonghi on April 19, 1824. By the autumn of 1835, Allen was back in the United States. In New Orleans, he met the exiled Mexican General Jose Antonio Mexia. Mexia, a bitter opponent of Santa Anna, hatched a scheme to invade Mexico with the help of “efficient emigrants” to reestablish the Mexican Constitution of 1824.

The ever adventurous Allen agreed to help Mexia and captained the American schooner Mary Jane to transport the would-be revolutionaries to Tampico. The Tampico Expedition was disastrous for Mexia and his men. Poor planning and communications between Mexia and local collaborators, coupled with the arrival of additional Centralist troops to Tampico, resulted in three immediate deaths and the capture (and eventual execution) of thirty-one of the “emigrants.” Mexia, Allen, and some of their coconspirators escaped capture and fled to Quintana at the mouth of the Brazos River arriving on December 1, 1836.

Upon entering Texas, Allen and much of his band became cavalrymen in the Texas Revolution against Mexico. They joined the Texas Army as it retreated from Gonzales, and Allen served as acting major of the cavalry regulars under Lt. Col. Henry Millard. At the deceive Battle of San Jacinto Allen distinguished himself, not just as a ‘first-class fighting man,’ but also as a warrior of conscience by stopping the massacre of defeated Mexican soldiers.

Digitally visit the grave of John Melville Allen.Digitally visit the grave of John Melville Allen.

Allen soon left the service and moved to Galveston. On March 14, 1839 he was elected as the first mayor of the city. On March 25, President of the Republic of Texas Mirabeau B. Lamar appointed Allen as the Justice of the Peace for Galveston. After the mayoral election in 1840 the city changed its charter to limit enfranchisement to white males over the age of twenty-one who owned at least $500 in real estate, cutting the pool of eligible voters in half, and sparking a period of unrest in the city called the ‘Charter War.’

The new rules spelled political defeat for Allen and his supporters called “old charterers.” They argued that Allen should be able to serve out his term, but the city council disagreed and held another election. Allen lost to John Walton, but refused to recognize the results and he along with other “old charterers” continued to try to run the city, resulting in two competing municipal governments.

To bolster his position, and prevent the new government from functioning, Allen took the city archives to his home at Ave. K under the protection of two cannons. The “new charterers” brought charges of larceny against the ex-mayor for his refusal to relinquish the papers and a judge ruled in their favor. However, it took an armed posse to actually retrieve the papers from Allen.

Digitally visit the grave of John Melville Allen.Digitally visit the grave of John Melville Allen.

The ‘Charter War’ endured Allen to many Galvestonians. He soon regained the position of Mayor in the 1841 election, lost the following year, and then served three consecutive terms from 1843 – 1845. After the bitter fighting between Allen and Walton, there was no love lost between the two. The mayoral election of 1843 saw them face off against each other again, and Allen had a laugh at his adversary’s expense. He approached Walton and told him that it would be funny if they voted for each other in the election. Walton agreed, went into the polling station and voted for his opponent. John Allen then went to the voting booth, and when a local judge asked if he had the $500 minimum real estate holdings required to vote Allen admitted he did not and was not able to vote for Walton. While this incident shows Allen’s sense of humor, it also highlighted the unfairness of the city charter which was changed soon thereafter.

As Mayor, Allen was best remembered for his ceaseless efforts to help residents during yellow fever epidemics. He advocated for the creation of a hospital and a jail, and sought cemetery reform as well. Allen also oversaw the creation of the first bucket company, Hook and Ladder Co. #1, to ensure public safety in case of fires.

After Texas was annexed in 1846, President Polk appointed Allen as the U.S. Marshall for the Eastern District of Texas. He held the post until he died on February 19, 1847. As a veteran of the Texas Revolution, a Mason, and an active member of his community, John Allen had many well wishers and friends. When he passed, the city had one of the biggest funerals in its history to honor him. He is buried in the Episcopal Cemetery.