Written by: Diane Adams
Photos Courtesy of:
In the summer of 1854, a destitute stowaway on a Texas-bound schooner was discovered and forced to work for his passage. After handling freight to pay for his travel, nineteen-year-old Abel Head Pierce, a native of Little Compton, Rhode Island, landed at the Texas port of Indianola five months after leaving home. The meeting between Pierce and the rich soil of the coastal plains of Texas might have been destiny. The young man would go on to amass a fortune in land and cattle, not far from where he first disembarked.
Sporadically educated in a one-room schoolhouse in Little Compton, the rebellious Pierce was apprenticed by a frustrated father to his uncle and namesake, Abel Head, in order to learn general merchandising. Nicknamed “Shanghai” because of his tall, awkward frame’s apparent resemblance to a spindly-legged rooster, Pierce decided at an early age he would become a wealthy man. It was during this time with his uncle that Pierce heard stories of a new land called Texas, where the road to riches was as simple as branding the wild cattle that abounded on the open plains. Asked why he left Rhode Island, Pierce is reputed to have responded, “When I laid down, my head would be in someone’s lap in Massachusetts and my feet would be bothering someone in Connecticut.” Pierce found the space he craved along the Gulf Coast of Texas.
Arriving in Texas with no job and 75 cents in his pocket, strapping 6 foot 4 inch Pierce went to work splitting rails for local rancher, Richard Grimes, earning room and board plus 50 cents a day. A hard worker with a passion for ranching, the young adventurer was soaking up knowledge, and quickly began acquiring cattle of his own. Pierce’s brother, Jonathan, soon arrived in Texas and also went to work for the Grimes Ranch as their business manager, while Shanghai worked as trail boss.
After serving in the Confederate cavalry during the Civil War, Pierce returned to collect his back pay in cattle from Grimes. In order to teach the newcomer a lesson, Grimes repaid him with unfit animals, many of which died in a short time. Shanghai was furious but undaunted. He continued branding wild cattle and went into the cattle business with Jonathan. In 1871, he began acquiring large tracts of land in Matagorda and Wharton counties. They eventually invested in the Pierce-Sullivan Pasture Company, which exported thousands of head of cattle up the Texas trails.
To combat ticks killing the cattle, Shanghai traveled to Europe in search of a breed that might be resistant to the ticks, and able to withstand the heat and mosquitoes along the Texas coast. He settled on Brahman cattle as those most likely to be unaffected. The breed was eventually imported, and the Pierce Ranch stock is the foundation of the Brahman breed in Texas.
Eventually, the Pierce brothers’ land holdings consisted of more than a half-million acres of prime coastal grassland stretching from Matagorda Bay to Port Lavaca, and north nearly to Richmond in Fort Bend County. It is said that Pierce, often boastful and flamboyant, once claimed that the Gulf of Mexico was his “drift fence”. The town of Pierce was named for these wealthy cattle barons. Shanghai donated the land, plotted the streets, and built a church, a hotel, and a railroad station for the town. The town of Blessing was named by Jonathan. Originally, Pierce requested that the town be called “Thank God,” an expression of his relief at finally being able to coax the railroad into allowing his cattle to be shipped from that point. The name request was refused by post office officials as being potentially blasphemous, and Blessing was settled on as a compromise.
Shanghai Pierce built his ranch headquarters in 1886 on a site along the Colorado River near Wharton. A lavish, two-story, ranch-style home was constructed including a downstairs office from which Pierce oversaw his vast cattle kingdom. The property housed multiple barns, silos, several tenant houses, and a blacksmith shop.
For 26 years, Shanghai and Jonathan partnered in the cattle business. Shanghai, as the negotiator and trader, was known across the country for his vast wealth, hard-driving bargaining, and notoriously foul language. Jonathan, a quiet, perhaps steadying, influence on his brother, looked after the ranch and did not garner the same outrageous reputation as his brother. The brothers are reported to have never quarreled. By the end of their partnership, they had amassed a good portion of Southeast Texas to divide between them.
In an 1898 interview for the Galveston Daily News, Jonathan Pierce reflected on what he and his brother built. He said, “I have lived to see all the dreams of my youth fulfilled. I am now beyond the need of money. You wouldn’t think I was 58 years old, would you? I work today with the same heartiness and relish I did when I was a young man. I love to work.”
Shanghai Pierce reigned as a king of Texas cattle barons until his death in 1900. Long-time residents of Blessing still tell stories of his antics. With a voice likened to the bellow of a bull, a taste for outrageous clothing and bragging, he was not a man easily forgotten. In the early 1890s, Shanghai commissioned a larger-than-life statue of himself. This he ordered years before his death, he claimed so that he might appreciate it for a time beforehand. The 6’5” marble statue, mounted on a granite pilaster ten feet tall, towers over his grave in Hawley Cemetery, near Blessing.
The Pierce Ranch today is a working ranch, owned and operated by the descendants of Shanghai and Jonathan Pierce. Although not the empire it once was, the ranch still boasts 32,000 acres with interests in rice, hunting, irrigation, and of course Brahman cattle.