Skip to main content

O'Brien Family Papers

Identifier: AC-108

Scope and Content Note

The O'Brien papers document the remarkably parallel lives of three generations of the O'Brien men. George, Chenault, and Chilton O'Brien were leaders who improved Southeast Texas by their service in the military, political, business, religious, and organizational life of Beaumont, Texas. This collection includes diaries, maps, agendas, photographs, newspapers, legal documents, abstracts, deeds, title opinions, jury lists, jury instructions, court transcripts, leases, company board of directors minutes, company bylaws, correspondence, artifacts, and scrapbooks.

The collection also contains papers documenting the O'Brien men's service in three wars. George Washington O'Brien's Civil War diary contains a balanced account of wartime experiences, including the grinding boredom of marching, the excitement of battle, the scarcity of food, deprivations of civilians, and anguish over the death of his comrade and brother-in-law Henry Rowley. Cooper K. Ragan, a Houston attorney who edited the diaries for publication in the Southwestern Historical Quarterly in 1963 and 1964, praised O'Brien for his legible handwriting and excellent spelling, punctuation, and grammar. The diaries are small in size, approximately 3 x 5 inches, and include information such as the serial number of his revolver, record of money loaned, and a recipe to alleviate diarrhea. Chilton O'Brien's papers include his application for a commission to the Intelligence branch of the United States Navy, information on navigational theory, and a naval glossary.

This collection documents agricultural life of Jefferson County in the 1860's, and from 1910 through the 1980's. George W. O'Brien's ledger book lists his financial transactions. He also listed the commodities that he provided such as tobacco, and the credits that farmers earned by producing agricultural commodities. His descendants, Chenault and Chilton O'Brien, kept records of the agricultural transactions in the land they owned in the Shelby Corzine Survey, southwest of Beaumont. These records include farm leases spelling out the rights and responsibilities of both tenant and landlord. Chilton O'Brien's papers from the Shelby Corzine Survey in Jefferson County include pedigree charts of the Santa Gertrudis cattle raised there.

This collection also includes the papers of Irma John Gordon Orr, and Alfred John, Jr., the grandchildren of George W. O'Brien. These papers document their extensive landholding, including land in Jefferson county, which was leased for rice, and Hardin County land, which was leased for its lumber. The papers document the type and diameter of timber harvested.

Chenault O'Brien's papers include documentation of the history of the Gladys City Oil, Gas and Manufacturing Company from 1901-1939, including barrels of petroleum produced, average price per barrel, and dividends paid from the financial bonanza which resulted from the deep sands oil discoveries of the 1920's. His correspondence to friends and family report on the development of the Second Spindletop, John Henry Kirby's control of the company in the 1930's, and O'Brien's attitude toward Kirby. His papers document the 1935 sale of John Henry Kirby stock in Chicago, the price the O'Brien family was prepared to pay, and the price actually paid for the stock.

Chilton O'Brien's papers document his personal and legal involvement in the petroleum industry. His papers include mineral leases, company bylaws, and correspondence from companies such as the Texas Oil Royalty Company. As a bank director for the First Security National Bank between the years 1962-1975, Chilton O'Brien collected papers which document the bank's stock splits, dividends, investment income, portfolio of investments, organizational structure, mergers, statements of condition, and lists of directors and officers.

Chilton's civic papers document not only his dynamic personality but also provide detailed information on many Beaumont groups, such as the Magnolia Cemetery Company's annual audits.

The personal papers of Chilton O'Brien provide many insights into his life and personality, including a keen sense of humor. His 1925 schoolboy diary details school expenses, football plays, cattle raising, and hunting trips. O'Brien's personal papers document the construction of his house and its furnishings, including rugs, draperies, and furniture.

The O'Brien family papers chronicle the rich heritage of the family, including the acquisition and changes in the O'Brien home. George W. O'Brien purchased five acres of land along the Neches River in 1883. The land had been previously owned by his father, George Bryan. Three of the five acres were used to create the Bryan Addition, the first residential addition in Beaumont, leaving two acres for the O'Brien home. Chilton O'Brien's papers document the relocation of part of the O'Brien home to land in the Shelby Corzine Survey where it was used by the family as a weekend home. This acreage gave the family room for not only a beautiful house, but all the necessary outbuildings such as servants' quarters, poultry house, and barn. On the grounds of the O'Brien family land was a large oak tree known as the "O'Brien Oak" which George W. O'Brien said was planted by Cave Johnson in 1849, the year of the California gold rush and O'Brien's move to Beaumont. The papers include newspaper clippings and correspondence discussing the age of the tree, activities which took place in the shade of the oak, and its eventual decline and destruction.


  • 1835-1987


Language of Materials

Materials are in English.

Access Restrictions

Restricted files, which measure approximately 2.5 cubic feet in size, include Gladys City company reports, Chilton O'Brien's legal case files, and O'Brien's files from service on the examining committee of the State Bar of Texas.


The Tyrrell Historical Library holds copyright for all materials except published items. Copyright for published items is retained by the publisher. The researcher must secure permission to publish. All requests for permission to publish or quote from manuscripts must be submitted to the Tyrrell Historical Library. The researcher assumes full responsibility for complying with copyright, literary property rights, and libel laws.

Biographical Note

George W. O'Brien, 1833-1909

While George W. O'Brien is best known for his role as a founder of the Gladys City Oil, Gas, and Manufacturing Company, the company which began Spindletop oil exploration, he had a full life which greatly impacted the history of Southeast Texas. Attaining the rank of captain in the Confederate Army, he was a leader in Democratic politics, the legal profession, and as a financier and organizer of businesses and organizations in Beaumont.

O'Brien recognized the potential for petroleum production in Southeast Texas long before 1901. While camped at Spindletop Springs as a Confederate soldier, in the 1860's, he noticed globules of petroleum on the water and heard the hiss of escaping gas. In 1865 he received a letter from A. B. Trowell, an attorney at Liberty, Texas, who had served in the Confederate Army with members of the O'Brien family. Trowell advised him to purchase land which had petroleum deposits. O'Brien put Trowell's advice in practice when he and his son-in-law and legal partner, Alfred S. John, represented the family of John Allen Veatch in a suit to recover a large tract of land from the State of Texas. Veatch, a scientific Renaissance man, had realized there was economic potential from the strange substances emitted at Sour Lake and Spindletop and carefully chose parcels from the Mexican and Texan governments which had mineral deposits. O'Brien and John were deeded a portion of the John Allen Veatch Survey which included land at Spindletop for their legal assistance.

When Pattillo Higgins, a visionary who dreamed of building an industrial city fueled by the mineral deposits at Spindletop, planned to drill for oil, and Higgins' former employer, George W. Carroll, a local businessman who owned the Beaumont Lumber Company, approached O'Brien about selling his land at Spindletop, O'Brien declined. Instead he proposed joining them as a partner in the venture. Higgins and Carroll accepted O'Brien's offer, and in 1892, the Gladys City Oil, Gas and Manufacturing Company was incorporated with the following charter subscribers and directors: George W. O'Brien, George W. Carroll, Pattillo Higgins, J. F. Lanier, and E. E. John. Each of the incorporators put in certain lands in the John A. Veatch Survey at a value of twenty dollars per acre. George W. O'Brien and his daughter Emma E. John conveyed 1,350 acres for 270 shares of stock, the other 270 shares of stock were issued to George W. Carroll and Pattillo Higgins who conveyed 1,077 acres and J. F. Lanier conveyed 273 acres of land. The Company made several futile attempts to obtain oil at Spindletop, financing its oil drilling attempts by selling off a part of their acreage.

At the turn of the century, the Gladys City Company took action which ushered in a new era. Pattillo Higgins contacted Anthony F. Lucas, an engineer and former captain in the Austrian navy, in 1899 for assistance. Lucas had experience in salt mining along the Gulf Coast. He recognized that many salt domes, such as Spindletop, contained not only salt but also sulphur and petroleum. He leased land from the Gladys City Company and drilled a well. While the well did strike oil, the pipe collapsed from the pressure of the gas before a large amount of oil could be collected. Lucas contacted oil prospectors James Guffey and John Galey for financial assistance, who turned to the Andrew Mellon family for backing. Guffey and Galey hired a team, the Hamill brothers, from Corsicana to conduct the drilling for petroleum. Historians disagree on the reasons for the Hamills' success, some believing that they possessed a heavier and more efficient rotary bit, while other scholars believe it was expertise, not equipment, that was essential.

The efforts to produce petroleum reached fruition on January 10, 1901, when the Lucas gusher erupted, spewing a column of oil 200 feet high for nine days. Although the Lucas gusher was located on land owned by McFaddin-Wiess-Kyle, another group of prominent Beaumont businessmen, and not on Gladys City land, it initiated an unprecedented boom of prospecting for and processing petroleum.

The Gladys City Oil, Gas, and Manufacturing Company never again tried operating wells, choosing instead to lease the land to others and collect mineral royalties from them. The land at Spindletop produced not only petroleum, but also vast quantities of sulphur and salt. George W. O'Brien and his descendants retained stock in the company, and continued to provide leadership in the company for many decades.

O'Brien was born in Vermillion Parish, Louisiana, in 1833, to George Bryan and Elizabeth Ann Bryan. O'Brien and his family migrated to Galveston, Texas, in 1849. He moved to Beaumont, Texas, in 1852. As a teenager he carried mail on horseback between Morgan City, Louisiana, and Galveston, Texas, along the Bolivar Peninsula.

O'Brien was active as a Jefferson County official and attorney. He was elected District and County Clerk in 1854, and Justice of the Peace for Precinct One in 1858. O'Brien was admitted to practice law in 1861.

Although O'Brien had opposed slavery, had never owned a slave, and had opposed secession as a member of the Jefferson County Secession Convention, he defended his native South by serving in the Confederacy during the Civil War. He initially fought under the leadership of his kinsman, Captain King Bryan in Company F of the Fifth Texas Infantry Regiment in battles east of the Mississippi, but following an outbreak of measles, was discharged for disability, and returned on foot to Beaumont. While returning home, he regained his health, and in Beaumont in 1862, he recruited an additional company and was elected Captain of Company E, Likens Battalion, Texas Volunteers, later known as Speights Texas Regiment.

His company, during its preparation and march toward the Mississippi River, participated in several important military events. They established a fort at Port Neches to control the Neches River against Federal gun boats which had been dispatched to take beef cattle and other supplies to the Union Army. The company later took part in the Battle of Fordoche in Louisiana, and a battle at Mansfield, Louisiana. During 1863, he maintained a meticulous diary of his wartime experiences. His diary was edited by Houston attorney Cooper K. Ragan, who published them in the Southwestern Historical Quarterly in 1963 and 1964.

After the war, O'Brien became one of the most influential men in Southeast Texas. An ardent Democrat, he expressed his opposition to Radical Republicanism by purchasing the press of the Liberty Gazette in 1869 and serving as editor and publisher of the Neches Valley News and its successor, the Beaumont News Beacon, from 1869 to 1874. The newspaper served as a voice for the Democratic party. O'Brien acted as a delegate from Texas at the 1872 Democratic National Convention.

O'Brien was active in business ventures. He was a subscriber of the Beaumont, Sour Lake, and Western Railroad, later the Gulf Coast and Missouri Pacific System. O'Brien helped finance the Central Asphalt and Refining Company at Port Neches, and the Beaumont Ice, Light, and Refrigerating Company.

O'Brien was prominently identified with the community welfare of Beaumont. He founded and financed many organizations, including the Beaumont Temperance Hall Company in 1880, the Beaumont Academy, and the Methodist Church. He belonged to the Albert Sydney Johnson Camp of the United Confederate Veterans. A thirty-second degree Mason, he also served as master of the local lodge from 1877-1878, and 1880-1882.

He died in 1909, and was buried in Magnolia Cemetery, which he had founded in 1887. A Beaumont newspaper wrote in his obituary that he had "One of the most notable, most beautiful and calmly peaceful careers of any man who [had] ever lived in southeast Texas."

O'Brien was married twice, and was the father of nine children. Sarah E. Rowley married O'Brien in 1854. They were the parents of Emma E. John Smith, Minnie G. Starke, Lillie E. Townsend, George Cave O'Brien, the latter who served as District Judge and District Attorney in Jefferson County, Kaleta B. James, Sarah Alice O'Brien, and Olive O'Brien, who died as an infant. After Sarah Rowley O'Brien's death in 1873, O'Brien married Ellen Peebles Chenault in 1874. This marriage produced two children, Chenault O'Brien and Robert Peebles O'Brien.

O'Brien changed the spelling of his last name from O'Bryan to O'Brien between 1868 and 1871.

Chenault O'Brien, 1874-1940

Chenault O'Brien was born on October 16, 1874, at Beaumont. A brilliant attorney, his legal research during his tenure as secretary/treasurer of the Gladys City Oil, Gas and Manufacturing Company established many principles for oil and gas law in Texas.

As a young man, O'Brien served as Chief Deputy County and District Clerk for four years. In 1898, with the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, he was a member of a local military company known as the Beaumont Light Guards. When he volunteered to serve his country in the war against Spain, he was made First Lieutenant of Company D, Third Texas United States Volunteers. After undergoing intensive military training at Fort Clark, Texas, he and his command were ordered to Cuba for active service, but to his disappointment, these plans were changed, and through the summer of 1898, his company saw service at Key West, Florida, and Montauk Point, New York, after which they were mustered out of the service, the war having ended. A Spanish-American War veterans camp was named in his honor.

After the war, he was educated for the legal profession, graduating from the University of Texas in 1900. O'Brien entered into law practice with I. R. Bordages and his father, George W. O'Brien, in a firm entitled O'Brien, Bordages, and O'Brien. After the death of Captain O'Brien, George Cave O'Brien and Robert A. John entered the firm. He later formed a practice with his brother-in-law George Chilton.

He was noted by the Jefferson County Bar Association as a "forceful, brilliant and successful lawyer." Not only did he develop petroleum law but also irrigation law, involving riparian and other water-rights, due to the rice growing industry which began in Jefferson County at about the same time that O'Brien was admitted to the bar.

O'Brien was active in legal organizations, including the Jefferson County Bar Association, and Texas State Bar Association. He practiced law for over forty years. He also was a leader in the civic, religious, and business life of Beaumont. He was a member of Beaumont Masonic Lodge No. 286, St. Mark's Episcopal Church, Ex-Students Association of the University of Texas, and a president of the Neches Club.

O'Brien was a family man. He married Christine Chilton, the daughter of Horace Chilton, United States Senator from Texas, in 1904. They were the parents of two children, Eleanor Patricia "Pat" O'Brien Moor, and Chilton O'Brien.

Chenault O'Brien died in Beaumont in August 1940.

Chilton O'Brien, 1911-1983

Chilton O'Brien followed in his father's and grandfather's footsteps. He provided leadership to the Gladys City Company, a Texas corporation owning lands at Spindletop, as a director, secretary-treasurer, and vice-president and chief executive officer.

O'Brien was born in 1911, and reared in Beaumont at the ancestral home on the bank of the Neches River. He graduated from Beaumont High School in 1929, where he lettered in football for three years, and edited the school yearbook.

O'Brien was educated at the University of Texas, where he was a member of Kappa Alpha fraternity, and played football as a college freshman. He edited the 1934 Cactus, the university's yearbook. He earned a law degree from the University of Texas in 1936, and was a member of the University of Texas Ex-Students.

During World War II, he served in the Navy, first as an intelligence oficer, and second as officer in command of a torpedo boat in the South Pacific. He was commended for outstanding performance of duty in action, and was discharged with the rank of lieutenant commander.

One of the outstanding land title authorities in his profession, O'Brien used his expertise on cases with subjects as varied as personal injury, oil and gas, trusts, probate, real estate, and corporate law. From 1936-1941, he was associated with the firm of Smith, Smith, and Boyd. He was made a partner in the firm in 1939. In 1941, he opened his own law office, and in October of that year, he was joined by Rupert R. Harkrider. Their partnership, which was interrupted by the Second World War, ended in 1949 when Harkrider left Beaumont. From 1969-1980, he was associated with Howard N. Richards.

O'Brien's service to the legal profession included tenure on the Examining Committee of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Texas. He was active in local and state legal organizations. He was a member of the Jefferson County Bar Association, serving as its president from 1952-1953. O'Brien was a long time member of the State Bar of Texas, and was selected as a charter fellow of the Texas Bar Foundation in 1966. O'Brien was a member of the American Bar Association.

O'Brien inherited land in the Shelby Corzine Survey southwest of Beaumont. His interests here included a joint venture, with F. L. Yeates, of raising a herd of registered Santa Gertrudis cattle, a breed of cattle developed by the King Ranch. The name Santa Gertrudis is from Rincon de Santa Gertrudis, the name of the original land grant purchased by Captain Richard King from the heirs of Juan Mendiola. Santa Gertrudis cattle, which are a deep cherry red in color, are approximately five-eighths shorthorn and three-eighths Brahman. The cattle's strengths include a high degree of heat and tick resistance, ease of calving, and good mothering ability. O'Brien was a member of the Santa Gertrudis Breeders International. The land in this survey was also used for raising rice, hay, and grass seed crops.

O'Brien was a director of the First Security National Bank of Beaumont from 1962-1975. The bank merged with the First Security National Corporation, a Texas bank holding company headquartered in Beaumont in the early 1970's. In 1973, while he was a director of the First Security National Corporation, its wholly owned subsidiaries included the First Security National Bank of Beaumont, Security First Mortgage Company which had offices in Beaumont and Houston, and First National Bank of Colleyville in Tarrant County. Other subsidiaries were the Village State Bank and Gateway National Bank of Beaumont, People's State Bank of Kountze, and the Sour Lake State Bank. The bank was praised by the bank publication, Sheshunoff, in 1972 as a well-managed bank with fast growing deposits.

O'Brien was also involved in civic affairs. As chairman of the Beaumont City Charter Commission from 1947-1948, O'Brien wished to make the governing body more directly responsible to the will of the people. O'Brien believed that a slate of five men should be elected for a two year term. This slate, including a mayor and four councilmen from the four wards of Beaumont, would pledge to carry out a specific program. Administrative work was to be in the hands of a city manager who would have executive control over city services.

O'Brien was active in other civic activities, including serving on the Beaumont Planning and Zoning Commission from 1962-1965. He was a leader in organizations, serving as president of the Beaumont Community Council and Family Service, and as a director on the boards of the Salvation Army and Central YMCA. O'Brien served on the Regents Development Council of Lamar University. He received the Distinguished Service Award of the U.S. Junior Chamber of Commerce. He was also active in St. Mark's Episcopal Church, where he served on the vestry, and as senior warden. He served on the first board of trustees of All Saints Episcopal School in Beaumont, and on the board of trustees of St. Stephen's School of Austin.

O'Brien worked for the Democratic party. He was a member of the Jefferson County Young Democratic Club, and served as the chairman of the State Executive Committee of the Young Democratic Club. He was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1940. Lyndon Johnson and O'Brien were allies from the 1940's. During Johnson's first campaign for the United States Senate, O'Brien assisted him in Beaumont's Congressional district. He worked to help get Johnson the Democratic nomination in 1952, when O'Brien served as an alternate delegate from Texas at the Democratic National Convention. After 1960, because of being a trustee for the Texas Portland Cement Company, and the semi-public nature of the trusteeship, he believed he could not take an active role in politics. He continued to serve as a political liaison for Johnson in the Beaumont area.

O'Brien was an acknowledged authority on Texas history, who provided leadership to prominent historical organizations. He served on the board of the Texas Library and Historical Commission, later known as the Texas Library and Archives Commission, from 1978-1983. He was appointed chairman of the commission in 1982. O'Brien was a regional director of the Atascosito Historical Society, which is the friends group of the Sam Houston Regional Library and Research Center. The Sam Houston Regional Library, located in Liberty, Texas, is a division of the Texas State Library. He was a founding member of the Texas Gulf Historical Society, serving as its president in 1968-1969. He was a director of the Texas Historical Foundation, and he was a member of the Sons of the Republic of Texas, Sons of the American Revolution, and the Philosophical Society of Texas.

O'Brien researched and wrote articles on Texas history topics including the O'Brien family; John Allen Veatch, who acquired parcels of land from the Mexican government which included Spindletop and Sour Lake; the Ashworth family, a pioneer family in Jefferson County; and the Jefferson County Bar Association.

O'Brien married Barbara Ann Miller of Springfield, Illinois, in 1937. They were the parents of two children, Ann and Ellen, and the grandparents of five.

Horace Chilton, 1853-1932

Horace Chilton was an attorney and a U.S. senator from 1891-1892, and 1895-1901. He was born in Smith County, Texas, on December 29, 1853. At the age of eighteen, he published a newspaper in Tyler. Chilton married Mary W. Grinnan on February 20, 1877, and their union produced five children. He studied law, and was admitted to the bar in 1872, beginning his practice in Tyler. He was appointed assistant attorney general during Governor Oran Roberts' administration. When his close friend, James Stephen Hogg, became governor of Texas, and John H. Reagan resigned from the Senate, Hogg appointed Horace Chilton to fill the position on a temporary basis. Governor Hogg's political opponents accused him of showing favoritism to his friend Horace Chilton, who was relieved of his duties as U.S. Senator. Chilton was elected to the Senate in his own right in 1894. As a senator, he opposed the free coinage of silver and supported territorial expansion of the United States. He returned to Texas, where he practiced law in Tyler and Beaumont, and retired to Dallas, where he died on January 12, 1932. He was buried in Oakwood Cemetery, Tyler.

Judge Daniel B. Walker, 1876-1944

Daniel B. Walker was born in Cherokee County, Texas, near Rusk, in 1876. He taught school to finance his college education, and succeeded in earning a bachelor's degree from what was later known as Lon Morris College, in 1896. He also took another year of schooling at Southwestern University. He served as associate justice of the Ninth Court of Appeals from 1918 to 1932, when he was promoted to Chief Justice of this court. Walker was well respected in Beaumont, not only as a judge, but also a civic and community leader. The Exchange Club presented him the 1941 Golden Deeds Award as the citizen who had rendered the greatest civic service to Beaumont. He was noted for an interest in youth, demonstrated by his work with the Boy Scouts, inclduing serving as president of the Beaumont area council. Walker was president of the Beaumont Youth Council and on the board of trustees of Lamar University.

Judge Walker was a member of many fraternal organizations, including the Woodmen of the World, Masons, and Knights of Pythias.

Walker married Mary Barnett in 1904. They were the parents of five children, including Charles Barnett Walker and Lindsey Walker.


68.5 Cubic Feet (77 boxes and 38 maps in map case.)


The O'Brien Family Papers document the remarkably parallel lives of three generations of the O'Brien men. George, Chenault, and Chilton O'Brien were leaders who improved Southeast Texas with their service in the military, political, business, religious, and organizational life in Beaumont, Texas.


This collection includes diaries, maps, agendas, photographs, newspapers, legal documents (including abstracts, deeds, title opinions, jury lists, jury instructions, court transcripts, leases, company board of directors minutes, company bylaws), correspondence, artifacts, and scrapbooks.

Organization of Collection

This collection is organized into 9 record groups and 32 series.

  1. George Washington O'Brien Papers
  2. Chenault O'Brien Papers
  3. Chilton O'Brien Papers
  4. Intergenerational O'Brien Papers
  5. Chilton Papers
  6. Judge Daniel Walker Papers
  7. Photographs
  8. Oversize Papers
  9. Artifacts

Acquisition Information

The O'Brien Papers belonged to Chilton O'Brien, who had papers created and received by his father, Chenault O'Brien, and by his grandfather, George W. O'Brien. Mr. O'Brien inherited and compiled papers on his maternal family, the Chiltons, and collected Judge Daniel B. Walker's papers after his death. O'Brien's daughters, Ellen and Ann, donated his papers to the Tyrrell Historical Library in 1991.


Further accruals are possible.

Related Material

The Chenault O'Brien Family Papers, 1865-1931, AC-091.

Processing Information

Processed by Tyrrell Historical Library staff, 1991.

Finding aid revised and encoded by Tyrrell Historical Library staff, 2012 October.

Finding Aid for the O'Brien Family Papers, 1835-1987
Language of description
Script of description
Code for undetermined script

Repository Details

Part of the Tyrrell Historical Library Archives Repository