Herman: Hancock Drive isn’t named for whom you might think it is

Recently, in an error rectified by officialdom, I noted that an overpass on MoPac Boulevard erroneously referred to “HANCOCK RD” instead of “HANCOCK DR” All of us longer-term Austinites know Hancock is a Drive not a Road, as well as golf course, neighborhood and shopping center.

And we know that all of the above are named for Lewis Hancock, Austin’s mayor from 1895 to 1897 who founded the beloved golf course later named in his memory.

At least we thought we knew that Hancock Drive was named for the long-ago mayor. Those of us who thought that were wrong.

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The story behind for whom Hancock Drive is named is pretty interesting. Timely, too, as we revisit what various folks were up to back during the Civil War. Hancock Drive is named for John Hancock. Yes, John Hancock. But no, not the John Hancock who so flamboyantly put his John Hancock on the Declaration of Independence, though this John Hancock did have input on the Texas Constitution.

This John Hancock was born in Alabama in 1824. He moved to Austin in 1847, hung out a shingle and practiced law. Four years later, he was elected as a state district judge. He resigned four years into a six-year term (no scandal, as far as I know) and returned to law practice and did some farming.

“He earned a high reputation for soundness of legal opinion and promptness in dispatch of business,” we’re told by the Texas State Historical Association’s “Handbook of Texas.”

So respected was Hancock — and who doesn’t like a guy who’s prompt in the dispatch of business? — that he was elected to the Texas Legislature in 1860. In March 1861, when the union dissolved, Hancock, a unionist, refused to swear allegiance to the newly hatched Confederate States of America. (Good for him.) He was forthwith promptly dispatched from the Legislature and went back to lawyering.

“He practiced in the state courts but refused to conduct any legal business in the Confederate courts or in any way to recognize their validity or constitutionality,” says the “Handbook of Texas.”

He spent some time in Mexico in 1864 and later returned to Texas after the gray team white-flagged the Civil War to an end. Hancock served in the 1866 Texas constitutional convention and”the “Handbook of Texas” reports “was conspicuous in that body for his efforts in favor of reconciliation and the restoration of the Southern states to the Union.”

He served non-consecutive tenures in the U.S. House from 1871 to 1877 and 1883 to 1885.

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Sounds like a guy worthy of a street (or a drive), though I’m sure an eyebrow or two could be raised by the fact that he supported President U.S. Grant’s policy that called for placing Native Americans on reservations and restricted their hunting rights.

Hancock died in 1893 and is buried in Austin’s Oakwood Cemetery.

Austin City Council minutes for a June 30, 1938, meeting show that Council Member Dr. Ralph E. Cloud (for whom we named that place where all your vacation photos now are stored) won unanimous approval of a motion to rename Baltimore Avenue for Hancock to honor his “unselfish public service … in behalf of his city, his state and his country.”

Thanks to reference archivist Rusty Heckaman at the Austin History Center for digging out this info. He also dug up an 1893 newspaper obituary detailing Hancock’s life and death. Obits were a bit different back then than they are now:

“The community of Austin heard with sorrow last afternoon of the death of the Hon. John Hancock at his country residence yesterday afternoon about noon. The judge has been in ill health for several years, resultant from a nervous disease that unbalanced his mind about two years ago, and his death yesterday comes as a relief to the weary, storm-tossed mind that has been a blank for many a weary month.”

Yikes. Kind of poetic and descriptive, but yikes.

“In the death of Judge Hancock, one of the brightest lights of Texas history has vanished,” the obit said. “Like the candle burning to its end, with the light growing feebler hour by hour, so has Judge Hancock passed from us. A once-brilliant mind, clouded in gloom for the past two years, now seeks needed rest in the oblivion of the grave.”

And, because the City Council didn’t see fit to put his first name on the street, John Hancock now also suffers from oblivion on the roadway named in his honor. Kind of sad. Ed Bluestein, Cesar Chavez, Ben White and Martin Luther King Jr. got a better deal on their streets.

So how about if you give John Hancock (our John Hancock) a thought next time you’re driving on his drive.

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