Van Zandt County Courthouse on the Square at Christmas Time

Welcome to Van Zandt County

and The World Famous First Monday Trade Days in Canton, the County Seat

Thank you for dropping by, we hope you will take a little time to browse around and learn a little bit about our County and the World Famous First Monday Trade Days which has played a prominent roll in our county's economy. We wish to thank everyone who furnished information especially the Van Zandt County Historical Commission. We wish to further thank all of the wonderful people who gave of their time so that this information could be made available to those who are interested in our history. If you have further photos or information that you are willing to share, please contact us and we will gladly add to the page.

Building a County

One Hundred Fifty Years of Van Zandt County

by Elvis Allen; transcribed by Betty Miller

How the County Was Formed

Van Zandt and Kaufman counties might be called twin counties for they had the same parent, Henderson County, and they came into being in early 1848; Kaufman on February 26 and Van Zandt on March 20.

When Van Zandt County was organized, the boundary was also vastly different from it's present shape. It looked somewhat like an inverted "L" and took in all [of] Wood and most of Rains counties. In fact, the bulk of Van Zandt between 1848 and its reorganization two years later, lay north instead of south of the Sabine River, which became the key factor in its being reorganized in 1850.

Jordan's Saline, a village of a few scattered residences and businesses on the Dallas-Shreveport Road, bordered on the south side by the Grand Saline, was designated by the Texas legislature as the temporary seat for the new county. This may not have been the best choice for the county seat. Although it is true the main road through northeast Texas, the Dallas-Shreveport Road, went through Jordan's Saline, and it was the only "town" south of the Sabine River, the fact is, most of the population and the bulk of the county proper lay north of the Sabine.

Simpkins Prairie, now Alba and Springville, which in 1870, became Emory, were both Van Zandt county towns before 1850, as was the town of Quitman. The people north of the river felt they should have the county seat. A petition was circulated in 1849 by those who lived north of the Sabine, and after signatures of eighty eligible voters were gathered, it was sent to Austin for review and approval.

The purpose of the petition was to reorganize Van Zandt county and to relocate the county seat to the north side of the river. The reason for their desire to have it relocated were threefold: First, because the majority of the population and territory was north of the Sabine; Second (sic), during winter months it was very inconvenient if not impossible, as well as dangerous to try to tend to court business south of the swollen river; and, Third (sic), it will be taken directly from their petition, "As the seat of justice is not only temporarily located, there is not inducement to merchants or men of capital to locate there (at Jordan's Saline). Consequently, we are deprived of many of the necessaries (sic) of life which would be furnished us in our county, and the advantages of a marker at home for our produce, and thus, the settlement of the county retarded."

The petition went on to ask the legislature to redefine Van Zandt County in a way so that it only included that portion north of the river. In other word (sic), they wanted to remove the county seat from Jordan's Saline to the north side of the river and relinquish all property to the south.

What happened as a result of this petition, however, was that the legislature reorganized Van Zandt county south of the river. By keeping the southern portion of the old county and taking more territory south of that from Henderson County, and from Kaufman County to the west, creating a more compact square as opposed to the first "L" shaped one.

The northern portion of old Van Zandt was then named Wood County with Quitman as the seat of justice. This worked out well for people on both sides of the Sabine River.

County Seat of Van Zandt County
by Linda Brown
transcribed by Betty Miller, 1999 from Pictorial History 1888-1994
with permission of the Van Zandt County Historical Commission.

Canton, the county seat of Van Zandt County, was mapped out in 1850, two years after Van Zandt County was created from Henderson County.

The county was named for Isaac Van Zandt of Marshall, Texas, who died of yellow fever on October 11, 1847. At the time of his death, Van Zandt was before the people of Texas as a candidate for the office of governor.

The first district court was held in the newly-built log courthouse on September 7, 1850.

There are two popular theories on how Canton got its name. One story is that the town was named after a racehorse called "Canter." The horse won a big race in the area around the time Canton was established. Another idea is that the name of the town came from the term "Canton," which means a division or subdivision of land. In Switzerland, the different subdivisions are called Cantons.

Canton is the home of the "World Famous" First Monday Trade Days, one of the largest outdoor flea markets in the world. The event began more than a century ago when the first Monday of each month was set aside by the district judge as the day his court convened in Canton. It was a state law at that time that all stray horses in the district be brought to Canton and auctioned off. People came from all over the state for the auction, some bring (sic) their own stock to trade or swap. Soon the streets of Canton were overflowing with animals, supplies & crops sold by individuals.

The event grew with each passing year. In 1965, the City of Canton purchased six-and-one-half acres of land and designated it as a trading area. By 1994, First Monday Trade Days had grown to include more than 150 acres of land.

Today, First Monday is the backbone of the Canton economy. Many local residents make a living from the monthly trade days. Also, income from the event to the city has allowed Canton to do away with its city property taxes.

How Canton was Named

So it was, that on January 29, 1850, the state legislature established the permanent boundaries of Van Zandt County. It also appointed the following men to be commissioners: William Allen, Benjamin Bruton, James N. Harrison, Joseph Asbury, Sr., John W. Chrestman, Wiley Austin and McInturff. These commissioners were ordered by the state legislature to "select, not exceeding three places to be put in nomination as the seat of said county." The law also states that one place shall be at the center of the county, and the other two places shall be within three miles of the center of said county. Three 320 acres was to be surveyed out for a town and lots sold by the county, and, "the county seat of said Van Zandt County thus established, shall be known by the name and style of Canton."

So much for the romantic stories of a horse race being won by an equine named "Canton" or "Cantor," and the town being named for that fast horse. The town was named in a cigar smoke filled room in Austin by men of the third legislature who had never been to Van Zandt County.

Locating the Town

Of the three 320 acre parcels of land surveyed, the one in the center of the county was the one chosen by the commissioners to be the town site of Canton. The state issued a certificate transferring title for the land to the county.

The site was laid and lots were auctioned at a public sale in February, 1850. Beginning at the northeast corner of the square at Block 1, Lot 1, and continuing counterclockwise, that is west, south, east and then north to the place of beginning, each fourth lot was sold. J. L. Austin acted as auctioneer and Adam Sullivan bought the first lot for $21.25. Once around the square, the auctioneer sold the back side of the blocks in the same manner, except that every third lot was sold instead of every fourth.

The courthouse (a temporary building) had been built two months earlier by James Bundy and his son, David. It was a crude log structure, eight feet high by eighteen feet square and was located on the west side of the square. In January, 1851, Jesse A. Asbury moved the archives from Jordan's Saline to the town of Canton. For this, he was paid five dollars.

The new town got off to a great start. The lots sold well and people began to move into the area, and for over a year everything seemed fine.

The Surveyor's Mistake

A devastating discovery was made by someone studying a survey map and noticed that the field notes for the town site had not been located on vacant land as the state legislature had directed. The surveyor, using the wrong survey corner had located the town on the Jesse Stockwell survey, two and one half miles southeast from where it should have been.

This discovery started a flurry of activity throughout the county and caused many questions about the town's future to be posed. People who bought into the new town were in favor of legitimizing their investments through legal means to keep the town at its original location. But, the majority of people outside of Canton, wanted to relocate it to the legal site. These choices, of course, were the only ones open to the citizens of the county. As it stood, they were bound by law, which stated that the site for Canton was to be located on vacant land at the center of the county.

Aside from removing the town to the legal site, the only other option was to petition the legislature for a modified law allowing the town to remain as it was and for the county to compensate the land owner for the site.

On January 12, 1853, a petition was drawn outlining the error and how it had occurred and asked the legislature to amend the law. It brought out the fact that the site was laid out, sold, occupied, and the "town is in a growing and prosperous condition."

After 29 signatures were gathered on the petition is was sent to Austin for legislative approval. Approval was obtained.

The next task was to commission Judge Andrew Hunter to journey to San Augustine, Texas, to explain to the landowner, John George Woldert, of the site now called "Canton," and, just how he had become the owner of a town.

Woldert being a surveyor himself, understood immediately how such a mistake could happen. And, being a land owner in 26 other counties besides Van Zandt, he could afford to be a generous man. He promptly deeded to the county 160 acres of land situated at and around the town of Canton. Another reason he could be so generous was the fact that he still owned the land around the 160 acre town!

By 1857, the county's needs had outgrown the 18 by 18 foot temporary courthouse. The commissioners' court ordered a brick courthouse to be build (sic) on the square. This new courthouse was the third in a series of six occupied by the county, but the first in the square at Canton.


Some History of Van Zandt, 1919, p, 104. Laws of Texas, Fammel. Papers of Van Zandt County, Texas State Library. Van Zandt Commissioners' Court Minutes. Petition dated Jan. 12, 1853, Texas State Library.

Letter Written by Edward J. Davis, Gov. of Texas

submitted by: Milda Mason, transcribed by B. Miller 8 April 2001.

Letter written by Edward J. Davis, Gov. of Texas,


D. Riley, Esq., Sheriff of Van Zandt Co., Canton, Tx. dated March 25, 1871:

"Sir, reliable information has been received by me of the existence (sic) of combinations of lawless men in Van Zandt County, who have for many months past been engaged in organized, defiance of law and the civil authorities: a band of armed men curiously estimated at from thirty to fifty in number on or about March 7, 1871, violently broke open the jail in Canton and liberated two criminals (James Ashton and Jack Florence) charged with murder.

On receipt of this letter you will call the citizens of the county together or as many of them as you can, notify, without delay, and call upon them publicly to assist in the arrest of these violators of law, who have so far evaded punishment, either by the sympathy of the citizens or because they are intimidated. I think that the good citizens of Van Zandt County will at once turn out in good faith to aid the authorities in this matter and I intend to give them a fair opportunity to do so; but, if I find myself mistaken in this respect, I desire the people of the county to understand that my duty will compel me to send the military into the county and to place it under martial law, the expense of which will be assessed upon the people of the county at large or such of them as may appear most to blame for these disturbances.

The police report the citizens in the vicinity of Canton as having made themselves most conspicuous in this lawlessness, and I desire you to especially notify the people of that neighborhood of the penalty they incur.

I am sir,

Respectfully Your Obedient Servant

Edward J. Davis

Governor of Texas

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This site last updated April 22, 2009

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