The inscription on a memorial to George Washington Littlefield in the West Texas town that bears his surname describes him as a “pioneer plainsman, soldier and state benefactor.” In fact, he was a great deal more. Cattle baron, banking magnate, builder, and philanthropist, Littlefield (1842-1920) was the consummate Texan. In the 1943 biography George W. Littlefield, Texan, author J. Evetts Haley described him as “an intent, practical man, of driving and determined purpose … but most of all he was an unreconstructed rebel who never forgot that his deepest love was for the South.”
Littlefield was born in Mississippi in 1842—just six years after the fall of the Alamo and the Battle of San Jacinto, and three years before Texas’ annexation into the United States. His family moved to Texas when he was eight, and established a plantation in Gonzales County. After his father’s death three years later, Littlefield helped his mother manage the plantation, eventually obtaining an education at Gonzales College and Baylor University.
The former cattleman purchased, improved, and preserved several urban landmarks, including Austin’s elegant Driskill Hotel.
When the Civil War broke out, Littlefield, then 19, joined the 8th Texas Cavalry, better known as Terry’s Texas Rangers. Organized under the leadership of plantation owner Benjamin Franklin Terry, the band was comprised of nearly 1,200 Texans, who brought to the battlefield both their skills with weapons and horses, and an indomitable willingness to charge into the fray. They fought in an impressive list of battles, and by war’s end, fewer than 150 Rangers remained. Littlefield numbered among the wounded.
He had fought at Shiloh, Perryville, and Chickamauga, but an exploding cannon shell at Mossy Creek severely damaged his hip in late 1863. After he was hit, he was promoted to major—the youngest in the regiment—but the injury ended his military career, and he walked on crutches for nearly four years. An 1863 photograph of him in the Austin History Center shows a slim, intense-looking, goateed Confederate soldier, standing with the help of crutches and looking considerably older than his 21 years.
See related: Remembering Littlefield
After his discharge, Littlefield returned to Gonzales County to work on the family plantation. The farm failed, due to years of floods and insect infestation. Finally, in 1871, he saw potential in buying cattle and driving them to the railheads in Kansas. He proved a savvy businessman, often settling on a sale price for his cattle before pointing them north. In 1877, Littlefield drove a herd to Dodge City, but found the price of cattle low due to the number of herds that had already come in and glutted the market. He chose not to sell, instead seeking out a temperate, open range in Texas on which to winter his stock. He found suitable protected grazing land along a 25-mile stretch of the Canadian River in Oldham County, and established what would become the 240,000-acre LIT Ranch.
Littlefield prospered beyond his wildest expectations.
According to J. Evetts Haley, Littlefield prospered beyond his wildest expectations. In 1881, he sold the LIT to a British corporation for $250,000—a sum equivalent to more than $5 million today. He continued to buy farms and ranches across Texas and New Mexico. While still a young man, he controlled the water rights to millions of acres.
Although described by Haley as a man of strong passions—he was often rigid and slow to forgive a slight—Littlefield was extremely generous when it came to his family, assigning the management of his ranches—and eventually, his bank—to his nephews. They proved highly capable, and Littlefield’s enterprises prospered.
At 41, a very wealthy George Littlefield moved to Austin, where—after serving on the board of the State National Bank for seven years—he established and presided over the American National Bank. To house his bank, he built the nine-story Littlefield Building, which towered over the city. Littlefield hired artist E. Martin Hennings to paint murals of ranching scenes and commissioned Tiffany & Company to cast bronze doors featuring cowboy themes. However, he apparently never lost the common touch, as illustrated by a passage from J. Marvin Hunter’s 1924 Trail Drivers of Texas, in which Jeff Connolly, one of Littlefield’s former trail hands, reminisced:
“Last time I was in Austin ... I went into the American National Bank with a friend of mine and I asked the teller where the Major was. He told me he was back in his private office. This friend of mine wanted to know why I was asking about Major Littlefield and asked me if I knew he was a millionaire. I told him I knew that, but that I used to drive on the old trail for him and was anxious to see him. I went back and told the Major who I was and he treated me as fine as any man was ever treated. If I had been a millionaire myself he could not have treated me any better ... .”
Littlefield thrived as a banker, as he had as a cattleman and landowner, and gained influence with the major political figures of his day. He also acquired interests in a number of local businesses, and purchased, improved, and preserved several urban landmarks, including the Driskill Hotel, one of the most famous of Austin’s 19th-Century buildings. In 1893-1894, he built a stately Victorian mansion on land that is now part of the University of Texas campus for his wife, Alice, and himself.
Perhaps George Littlefield’s most lasting contribution to the history and culture of the state was his patronage of the University of Texas. By the time of his death, he had ordered the construction of an ornate fountain in front of the Main Building and a dormitory specifically for women freshmen students, and had given or bequeathed more than $3 million to the school. He also bequeathed his three-story, red-brick mansion (his wife, Alice Littlefield, had a life interest) to the university, where it stands today.
Littlefield died in 1920, at age 78. His body lies in Austin’s Oakwood Cemetery beside that of his wife, who died 15 years later. A stone in front of his sarcophagus bears the simple inscription: “A Great Man Has Fallen.”