The historical narrative of Pecan Spring Ranch traces its beginnings to the arrival of John and Nicholas Sims’ families in 1851. The Sims families were some of the earliest settlers to arrive in Ellis County, and they helped to pioneer its development. They came with considerable resources and immediately began acquiring acreage, including the Merlin and De Spain land that would later become Pecan Springs Ranch. Two primary creeks supply water to Ellis County: Waxahachie Creek and Chambers Creek. Since water was of the utmost importance to survival and farming, the Sims turned their attention to the fertile land located on the waters of Chamber Creek.
John Dabney Sims, the oldest of eight children, was born in 1802 in Virginia. His younger brother, Nicholas P. Sims, was born in 1806. The two brothers displayed close familial ties because they made several significant geographic moves together. The Sims family moved to Maury County, Tennessee, where they each were married. John married Elizabeth Elliott, and they had a total of eight children. Nicholas married Amanda Zollicoffer, but they remained childless. Around 1837, both Sims families moved to Lafayette, Mississippi, where they farmed for some eighteen years.
The Sims Before Texas
There is no clear record of why the Sims families pulled up stakes in Mississippi and came to Texas, but the move was clearly a family endeavor. The group that came included John with his wife Elizabeth and their eight children, his brother Nicholas with his wife Amanda, and their sister Lucy with her husband, Ezekiel Brack. Nicholas’s brother-in-law, J.C. Zollicoffer also came with his family and mother. The Sims families were cotton and corn farmers. It was not unusual for farmers to move farther west in search of fertile soil and more acreage. Therefore, the availability of land with its rich, black, prairie soil provided the Sims families an excellent environment in which to raise crops in Ellis County. They did not come as speculators hoping to turn a quick profit. Their actions demonstrated that they relocated to Texas to begin a new life.
The Sims families were not strangers to the pioneer lifestyle. John D. and N.P. Sims were among the earliest purchasers of the Chickasaw Cession land in what became Lafayette County, Mississippi when the Chickasaw Indians were removed.i They understood the crude way of life and the privations, as well as the feeling of accomplishment of taming a new land. Both John and Nicholas were involved in the settling of the county seat, Oxford, Mississippi, and turning it into a municipality. As the new county courthouse was being built, it became apparent that settlers needed roads to be constructed in order to travel to the county seat. John and Nicholas were both appointed to the Jurors of Review to mark new roads running from Oxford to various other points.ii As some of the first pioneers, the brothers purchased some of the best land available.iii This fertile land contributed to their success as farmers, and according to a list of persons owning land in 1850, the Sims brothers were quite successful. In addition to the fourteen slaves that John owned, he also owned three-hundred sixty acres of land valued at $4,000. His farm equipment was worth $880, and he produced one thousand bushels of corn in 1850. Nicholas owned three-hundred twenty acres of land valued as $2,300. His farm equipment was worth $600. He produced one thousand bushels of corn and thirty-three bales of cotton.iv
After coming to Texas in 1851, Nicholas made his first land purchase on Chambers Creek on May 24, 1851 when he bought 640 acres of land from A.L. Hulm. It is likely that the whole family unit settled here together because three years later a deed records that Nicholas purchased 118 acres of the Hulm’s headright from his brother-in-law Ezekiel Brack. Since the Hulm’s headright was already in Nicholas’s name, it seems reasonable that the whole family went in together to buy the land, and then in 1854 Nicholas bought out Brack’s share.
John D. Sims’s first official land purchase occurred on December 24, 1853 when he bought 320 acres from Andrew Davis. He bought another tract of 447 acres in 1856, and then on December 17, 1857 he purchased the L.B. De Spain headright for $1850 at an auction held by the De Spain estate.v The De Spain headright is part of the property on the northern edge of Pecan Springs Ranch. These purchases were the beginning of the Sims brothers’ acquisitions.
The Sims family’s farming endeavors in Mississippi were quite successful as evidence by their slave acquisitions. John Sims only owned two slaves while they lived in Tennesseevi, but in Mississippi that number grew to five slaves by 1840vii and then to fourteen by 1850viii. Nicholas held nine slaves of his own in 1850. While owning this many slaves did not elevate their status to the title of a Planter, it did indicate their comparative wealth. Only about one-third of the white population in the South in 1830 owned slaves. This statistic decreased to one-fourth of the white population by 1860.ix Of that number, most whites owned only a slave to two to help with household tasks or in the fields. Owning fourteen slaves would have put John Sims in the top fifteen percent of slaveholders. In 1840, he owned two adults and three children, indicating that they were most likely a family. In 1850, just before moving to Ellis County, he possessed three adults, four teenagers, and seven children. By 1860 John Sims owned twenty-four slaves and five slave houses; he could now be categorized as a Planter and his slave demographic looked more like an authentic plantation.x Of his slaves, nine were between the ages of twenty-one and fifty-eight. Fourteen were children under the age of thirteen. Fifteen were male, while nine were female. Again, the high number of children indicates that John Sims’s slaves were probably family units.
According to the 1860 Ellis County Slave Schedule, Nicholas Sims owned nine slaves and four slave houses. It is interesting to note that the 1860 Federal Census shows a J.C. Zollicoffer, with his wife, children, and mother, Abigail Zollicoffer. This data indicates that besides his brother’s and sister’s families, Nicholas’s brother-in-law’s family and his widowed mother-in-law also came to Ellis County and settled in the same area. The move to Texas truly was an extended family venture. The Zollicoffers also came with considerable resources. The 1860 Slave Schedule shows that J.C. Zollicoffer owned twenty-one slaves. The 1870 Ellis County census recorded eighteen black individuals with the Zollicoffer surname which also lived in proximity to Nicholas.xi It was a common practice for slaves to take the surname of their former masters when they were freed; therefore, the presence of so many black Zollicoffers indicates that they were the freed slaves of J.C. Zollicoffer. All these facts demonstrate that Nicholas may have had access to those slaves as well, which may explain why he only owned nine slaves even though he had large land holdings. Masters often loaned or rented their slaves to neighbors or family when they had need. In 1870, these black Zollicoffers also may have been share-croppers for Nicholas. The borrowing back and forth of servants is reinforced in the 1870 census which shows that Abigail Zollicoffer had a black teenaged houseboy whose last name was Sims.
As a slaveholder, Nicholas was reputed to be a kind, generous master. In a memorial to him, the Waxahachie Daily Light reported, “It was said that no closer tie ever existed between master and slave than existed between N.P. Sims and his slaves.”xii After freeing his slaves, Nicholas assisted the older ones with procuring a comfortable place to live, and he was known to aid them with monetary gifts. His favorite servant, Old Uncle Bob, came to visit Nicholas the day before his master died. He had been his slave and companion since birth and he apparently deeply mourned his ailing master saying, “This is de las’ time I’ll ebber see old marster ‘live.”xiii
Nicholas P. Sims
Nicholas P. Sims was an influential and highly respected character in Ellis County history. Since he was the owner of the Merlin headright for nine years before selling it to W. Dabney Sims, his name is associated with Pecan Springs Ranch. Therefore, no history of Pecan Springs can be complete without an examination of his contributions to Ellis County. His obituary in the Ellis County Mirror on May 29, 1902 stated that “Uncle Nich” was the oldest landmark and most remarkable man in Ellis County. In Nashville, he served as a member of the military company that greeted General La Fayette when he toured America. He was among the earliest settlers in Ellis County where he engaged in wheat farming and stock-raising. Though he had limited formal education, Nicholas managed to educate himself enough to become a teacher for three years before he turned his hand to farming. His successful agricultural endeavors enabled him to buy large tracts of land in Ellis County. However, by the time of his death he had disposed of all but three hundred acres of land. He spent his final days living with his stepson, Judge O.E. Dunlap, whose mother was Nicholas’s second wife, Eliza Dunlap.xiv He died on May 24, 1902 after a few days’ illness.
Nicholas’s most noteworthy contribution to the city of Waxahachie was the Nicholas P. Sims Library. His will stated,
“I am without descendents, and have passed the best years of my life in Ellis County, Texas, where I have accumulated the bulk of my fortune, and am desirous of promoting the mental, moral, and physical advancement of the people of said county, and of the City of Waxahachie, its county seat, and especially of the youth of said county and city, and think this can best be done by the disposition of the residue of my estate which I make by this Will.” xv
The county used Nicholas’s bequeathed funds to build the library on land donated by Captain W. H. Getzendaner. In 1905, the library was dedicated in a grand civic event combined with the thirty-sixth anniversary of Trinity University and the inauguration of their new President. The Nicholas P. Sims Library was among the first ten libraries built in the state of Texas, and certainly one of the few that were privately funded. The total cost of the library and Lyceum was $34,255.76.xvi It is interesting to note that Nicholas’s step-son, Samuel Dunlap, also left a large part of his estate to the city of Italy for the establishment of a public library.xvii
i1 John Cooper Hathorn, Early Settlers of Lafayette Co., Mississippi. A Period Study of Lafayette County from 1836-1860 (Columbia, TN: P-Vine Press – Skipworth Historical and Genealogical Society, Inc., 1980). 4-5.
ii2 Ibid., 19.
iii3 Ibid., 10.
iv4 Ibid., Appendix A.
v5 Ellis County Clerk, Land Grant Records, Vol. C, page 86.
vi6Ancestry.com. 1830 United States Federal Census: Maury, Tennessee; Series: M19; Roll: 177; Page 393: Family History Library Film: 0024535 [database on-line], Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2010.
vii7Ancestry.com. 1840 United States Federal Census: Lafayette, Mississippi; Roll: 215; Page: 172; Image: 348; Family History Library Film: 0014841 [database on-line], Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2010.
viii8Ancestry.com. 1850 United States Federal Census: Lafayette, Mississippi; Roll: M432_375; Page: 254A; Image: 64 [database on-line], Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2009.
ix9John B. Boles, The South Through Time: A History of an American Region, Vol. 1. (Upper Saddle
River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2004), 197.
x10 Ancestry.com. 1860 U.S. Federal Census – Slave Schedules [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA. Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2010.
xi11 Ancestry.com 1870 United States Federal Census [database on-line], Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2009.
xii12 “Dedication of N.P. Sims Library,” Waxahachie Daily Light, April 26, 1905.
xiv14Memorial and Biographical History of Ellis County, Texas (Chicago: Lewis Publishing Company, 1892), 501-502.
xv15 Nicholas P. Sims Obituary, Ellis County Mirror, May 19, 1902.
xvi16Nicholas P. Sims Library, Informational Pamphlet, Waxahachie: Nicholas P. Sims Library, 2014.
xvii17 Daughters of the American Revolution. Rebecca Boyce Chapter (Waxahachie, Tex.). Genealogical Records Committee.Texas Genealogical Records, Ellis County, Volume 21, 1680-1968, Book, 1968; (http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth105046/ : accessed March 20, 2015), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, http://texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Nicholas P. Sims Library and Lyceum, Waxahachie, Texas.