Henry Flavell Gillette came to Texas because of ill health in 1839 to become a lifelong, seemingly frustrated teacher. He may have come to Texas because his cousin was already an early well-known historical Texan, Dr. Ashbel Smith.
Gillette was born in 1816 in Grandby County, Connecticut and was educated at Trinity College at Hartford. He is possibly most well known as the first Baylor University teacher at Independence that would become today’s world largest Baptist University.
However, he first taught briefly in Houston. He then began teaching at the little- known Union Academy located three miles from Washington-on-the-Brazos that was founded on February 4, 1840.
According to the Handbook of Texas, Union Academy’s original trustees and incorporators were James G. Swisher, an Independence of Texas Declaration signer; Horatio Chriesman, and Ephraim Roddy. Also on the board were William Lockridge, Jesse B. Atkinson, Stephen R. Roberts, Samuel P. Brown, Isom G. Belcher and Adlophus Hope.
This Academy was the “fifth private educational facility institution chartered in the 10-year history of the Republic of Texas.” Like so many others it survived barely three years until the first of 1843. Frustrated, Gillette is said to become interested in farming and moved to the Trinity River.
Immediately after statehood in 1845-46, Baylor University was founded at Independence. Gillette left farming to become its first teacher. After two years, the difficulty of the University in collection of tuition and his receiving little pay, he moved to Fireman’s Hill, now known as Cold Springs, in Polk County. There he both taught school and continued farming.
In 1860 he relocated to his Galveston Bay estate at Bell Prairie. He supported the Civil War years but did not join the army.
Six years later, in 1866, a group of men met in Houston to lay plans for establishing an orphans’ home. On Jan. 15, 1867 the board of trustees organized and elected Gillette as superintendent of its Bayland Orphans’ Home. He served as manager for 15 years. In 1882, Gillette resigned to spend his declining years at Bell Prairie, where he died on April 25, 1896 just shy of his 80th birthdate.
The Bayland Orphans’ Home was founded for children of deceased Civil War soldiers and had a capacity for 250 children. Gillette’s cousin, CSA Col. Ashbel Smith, another historically known Texan, was the staff doctor. Donations from Harris and Galveston counties started the home. After the Confederate children grew up, home and school then opened to others. Bayland was the forerunner of the De Pelchin Faith Home in Houston. The Texas Historical Survey Committee, forerunner of Texas Historical Commission, issued a historical marker in 1964 placed at the site.
Gillette had early on met Lucinda Maxey while first teaching at Union Academy at Washington-on-the-Brazos and married there on March 3, 1842. They would have 10 children. Lucinda was the daughter of William and Rebecca (Haynes) Maxey. The Maxeys were prominent citizens of Washington on the Brazos. Lucinda had been born in 1826 in Alabama and survived her husband by five years dying in 1901 in Harris County.
Written by Betty Dunn, Two Rivers Historical Foundation. See www. tworiversheritagefoundation. org for more info and membership.