Members Only Area
Bookmark and Share
sidebar menu icon


TERRELL, JOHN JAMES (1857–1920). John James Terrell, state land commissioner, was born in northeastern Wise County on January 28, 1857, the second son of ten children of Samuel Lafayette and Emily (Kellam) Terrell. Samuel Terrell had settled in Wise County in 1854 and established a store near the Denton County line. After the Civil War conflicts with the Indians in the area intensified, and the family moved to Decatur in 1867 for protection. Terrell attended county schools and enrolled at Southwestern University but was forced to withdraw when his father died. He returned to Decatur and was elected county surveyor and, later, district clerk. In 1887 he moved to Austin and began his career with the General Land Office. He served in the School Land Department as a land classifier, rose to head clerk in the Lease Department, and in 1902 was elected to the first of three terms as land commissioner. Having served in five administrations, he had had the most prior experience in Land Office history. Terrell's first official act was to adopt rules and regulations governing the sale and lease of land; these were arranged, printed in a pamphlet that included a digest of land laws, and distributed to the public. The publication generated interest in the General Land Office. The commissioner also printed lists and descriptions of land coming on the market and land that was available due to previous cancellation or expiration of grants or deeds. He also initiated the practice of selling these lots to the highest bidder and requiring sealed competitive bids. These new practices were incorporated into the School Land Act of 1905, which encouraged buyers from all parts of the country and abroad to move to Texas. This migration benefited the Permanent School Fund in particular and the Texas economy in general.

Terrell made a tour of school lands to appraise and classify them. He fixed fair-market values, and after passage of the 1905 act, the Permanent School Fund increased $314 million in just twenty months. Terrell also studied other state lands, including the timberlands, and raised the appraised values. He criticized the legislature's ruling that permitted the mining of public lands containing gold, silver, tin, and copper without compensation to the state. He consistently strove to provide the average citizen access to public lands for homes and other purposes. Against powerful opposition by ranchers, the commissioner persuaded the legislature to enforce residence laws on purchased land; this ensured that the lands were improved and homes were built. Another problem at the Land Office crying for attention was space-not the wide open spaces of Texas, but the mundane yet vital problem of too little storage room for Land Office documents. Terrell, the first to address the matter, lamented that the "space in the Land Office is filled to overflowing." He stated that the archives, the repository of nearly all land titles in the state, "are so congested in space and wooden racks that their proper protection from wear is impossible and the danger of fire is great." The legislature, however, did not respond for another ten years.

Terrell had developed a life-long interest in Indian affairs. After his retirement this avocation and his experience in land matters won him an appointment in 1912 from President Woodrow Wilson as inspector of Indian lands at the San Carlos Apache Agency in Arizona. Terrell married Jennie Sanders on May 13, 1887; they had three children. He died on June 17, 1920, while on business in Sacramento, California, from injuries received in an automobile accident. His body was returned to Austin and buried at Oakwood Cemetery.


Austin American-Statesman, June 21, 23, 1920. Cliff D. Cates, Pioneer History of Wise County (Decatur, Texas: Old Settlers Association, 1907). Decatur News, June 25, 1920. Garry Mauro, Land Commissioners of Texas (Austin: Texas General Land Office, 1986). Charles Vernon Terrell, The Terrells: Eighty-Five Years from Indians to Atomic Bomb (Austin, 1948).

William N. Todd IV and Gerald Knape


The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

William N. Todd IV and Gerald Knape, "TERRELL, JOHN JAMES," Handbook of Texas Online (, accessed November 28, 2015. Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.