Decatur, Texas (33°14′N 97°35′W) is the county seat of Wise County in North Texas. Its namesake is Stephen Decatur, Jr., a famous naval officer. Decatur was the son of naval officer Stephen Decatur, Sr. who served in the navy during the American Revolution. Stephen Decatur, Jr. was reared in Philadelphia and upon graduation from Episcopal Academy there, at 17 years old, he worked in the maritime industry before securing a midshipman’s warrant in 1798 and began serving on the USS United States. This was in the interim period between the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, but there was still quite a lot of naval activity that occurred. Decatur was then assigned to a frigate USS Essex as a first lieutenant protecting maritime shipping. In succession, he was transferred to the USS New York and USS Argus. This was followed by a transfer to the USS Enterprise, a schooner. He served in action against French ships and others. In one event, he was commanding a captured enemy ship in the harbor at Tripoli on a mission to destroy the captured USS Philadelphia. Decatur was able to board the ship with 60 men, set it afire, escape to his vessel and reach open sea. For this, he was commended by Vice Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson.
He married Susan Wheeler, from a wealthy Virginia family, in 1806 and remained in the Navy. In recognition for his previous service, he was named commander of the southeastern naval forces. He also served on a court-martial board that resulted in the suspension of Captain James Barron.
Decatur was promoted to Captain at the age of 25, serving on the frigates Congress and Constitution in a brief respite until the outbreak of the War of 1812. He was very active against the British on several ships but was taken prisoner and imprisoned in Bermuda at the end of the war.
He returned home to Maryland in 1816 and continued to serve in the navy. In 1820, Decatur was killed in a duel with Commodore James Barron, who blamed him for his failure to be reinstated following the court-martial ruling. Though Decatur was an expert shot, he only wounded Barron in the hip while Decatur suffered a fatal wound to the abdomen. It is thought that Decatur may have intentionally avoided aiming a killing shot at Barron, a decision that may have cost him his life. Decatur was first buried near Washington, D. C. before being reinterred in his family plot in Philadelphia. Five U. S. Navy vessels have been named in his honor, from the first, a sailing ship, to the most recent, a missile-equipped destroyer. At least 46 communities in the U.S. have been named for him, including the county seat of Wise County, Texas.
Wise County was founded in the 1850s and its county seat was originally named Taylorsville in honor of President Zachary Taylor, who had died in office in 1850. A post office was opened in 1857 and the following year, the name of the town was changed to Decatur. The North Texas area was the scene of several conflicts relating to the civil war, in which vigilantes killed suspected unionist sympathizers. Following the war and the reconstruction era, the area became more civilized as settlers continued to arrive. Numerous businesses were established and Decatur became a hub for local commerce. Its beautiful courthouse, designed by J. Riely Gordon, was completed in 1896 and Decatur Baptist College (now Dallas Baptist University) was founded in 1898.
Notable individuals from Decatur include numerous rodeo stars such as Cliff, Roy, Clint and Tuf Cooper, Will Gasperson, Jake Halverson, K. C. Jones and Trevor Brazile, former CIA director William Raborn, professional athletes James Manness and Tommy Tatum and sheriff and former Texas Ranger Phil Ryan, well known for the arrest of serial killer Henry Lee Lucas. The town may also have been the inspiration for the Bob Wills instrumental tune “Eight’r From Decatur” which you can enjoy by going to this YouTube link.
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