James Henry Dance and his brothers, David and George, had a pretty good thing going.
In 1853, the entire family had pulled up stakes in Alabama to settle in the bustling Brazos riverport of East Columbia in Brazoria County.
They had a profitable plantation of 400 acres, but the Dance boys didn’t limit their ambitions to agricultural pursuits. They set up a steam manufacturing concern, J. H. Dance and Company, to produce grist mills and cotton gins. Demand was solid and the profit margins high.
Then came the Civil War.
The Confederate government of Texas was quick to take advantage of the Dance facility. The Dance boys were fixing wagons, mounting cannons and even grinding corn, but James Henry thought they could do more for the rebel cause.
He had a plan to produce fifty revolvers per week and wrote to Governor Lubbock asking for the funds to get started. Things moved more slowly than John Henry hoped, but by October of 1862 they had shipped a dozen of them to the arsenal at San Antonio.
The slow production can be attributed as much to the boy’s perfectionism as to their inexperience. They revolvers they produced were cap and ball models of .36 and .44 caliber, based on the Colt Navy and Dragoon respectively. Each one was hand built, and while the materials and facilities may not have been on par with the big Union makers, their craftsmanship was.
By 1864, Matagorda Island was in the hands of the Federals and that was too close for comfort. The boys packed up and headed for a new factory built by the Confederate government in Grimes County. There they worked for the remainder of the war.
Their last batch of twenty-five was sent to the depot in Houston on April 18, 1865, nine days after Lee had surrendered at Appomattox.
After the war they went back to making grist mills and cotton gins in East Columbia. The firm and the families prospered and those three years of gun making became just a short, but romantic chapter in their personal histories. The factory carried on until it was destroyed in the Great Storm of 1900.
Nobody knows exactly how many guns they made, but most experts put it at around 400. One of them, a .44 with serial number 4, wound up in the hands of the famous badman Bloody Bill Longley, who claimed to have killed thirty-two men with it.
It’s estimated that fewer than one hundred are still around. When they come to auction, collectors stare each other down until somebody blinks, usually between $70,000 and $80,000.
Kinda makes you wish you could find that last shipment of twenty-five stashed away somewhere.